Twelve years after the discreet "retirement" of the Kingston Trio, John Stewart - "aging rock 'n' roller," he says mockingly - is finally on the verge of that near impossibility: a comeback on his own terms.

"In the old days, clubs used to put up signs that said: Formerly of the Kinston Trio," he says, rolling a disposable lighter between his fingers like a worry stone. "People would drive in for miles and expect to hear "Tom Dooley'."

Twelve years is a whole generation in musical audiences, and after the Trio dissolved, Stewart found himself looking for listeners, grinding out nine albums on four labels and revolving through the club circuit that has supported so many aging cult favourites. "I was surviving, but not making it," he says simply.

Finally it came to the day when RSO, his label for the past two years, felt Stewart had to put up or shut up. "Al Coury [RSO president] basically said to me, 'Here's $60,000 - either get out a Top 10 record or get off the label'."

But against all odds, the new album - Stewart's 30th, all told - seems to be making it. The single, "Gold," has leapfrogged to No. 37 in its third week on the charts, propelling him into the rock radio mainstream.

"For the first time in 10 years," says Stewart with a rasp that is part I-told-you-so and part once-burned-twice-shy, "I have a chance at a Top 10 hit."

Already, Stewart says, the golden groveling has begun:

"All of a sudden it goes from, 'Whaddya want, Stewart?' to 'What can we do for you, Mr. Stewart' I mean, I'll play the game, but I gotta tell you, it's a little hard to take."

If the album does reach the Top 10, Stewart will become one of a bare handful of veterans of the early '60s to prosper, not merely survive, into the '80s. And unlike the rest - Mary Travers, John Denver, the Beach Boys etc. - Stewart is fighting a campaign of a wholly new tone.

He is out on the road for a fortnight, playing clubs like the Cellar Door (where he appeared Monday and Tuesday) to "break in" his band before moving out as an opening act for some bigger concerts over the summer.

Sitting in Clyde's, Stewart admits that the album, "Bombs Away Dream Babies" was a do-or-die creation. If it flopped, he was prepared figuratively to throw the guitar away and go into some behind-the-booth work like production. For the first time, he produced his own record, aided and abetted by Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac (listed as "producer" at large"). He consciously struck from the album a couple of songs written as formula singles: "Now there isn't anything on the album I don't really like."

In the Los Angeles order of things, $60,000 is about half the average cost of an album. Stewart went way over budget, finally bringing it in after 8 months at $110,000 and personally going "on the cuff" to the studio for $10,000. "Al was out of the country," Stewart grins, both sly and sheepish. But now that it looks to have been a good investment, RSO has agreed to pay off the studio debt.

"Bombs Away" is a spare, restrained rock 'n' roll album, weighty with bass and straightforward guitar leads and Stewart's own gruff, Johnny Cash vocals. There is a resemblance to Fleetwood Mac's multimillion selling "Rumours" not only in Buckingham's guitar work and Stevie Nicks' wailing background vocals, but in what Stewart calls the "focused" quality of the production.

(Buckingham, whom Stewart calls "the Paul McCartney of Fleetwood Mac," has said he learned to play guitar as a child from studying Kingston Trio albums. Stewart claims he learned to play electric guitar "like a banjo, lots of melody," by listening repeatedly to Buckingham's work on Feetwood Mac albums.)

Not only has Stewart thrown in his lot with the rock 'n' roll minimalists, he believes that is the wave of the '80s.

"I have heard the future of rock 'n' roll, and it's devastating," he says of the forthcoming Fleetwood Mac album. "What Lindsay has done is unbelieveable. There's this one song - the closest I could come to describing it is a Scottish-African song with overtones of punk . . . and country."

"Seventies music was kind of faceless," he says, shrugging. "It was a kind of reaction to the '60s and all the turmoil we went through. But in the '80s music is going to be very focused. I think Lindsay is just ahead of the '80s the way Dylan was just ahead of the '60s movement. It's those guys - Dire Straits, Elvis Costello - who are going to be the '80s.

"I predict," he says, mocking again. CAPTION: Picture, John Stewart, by Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post