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A Critic Looks at a Critic

Hunkered down at a typewriter next to me on Kettner Blvd.

It must have been hundreds of years ago, that time of simplicity and innocence. It was before the electronic revolution had shackled us all in front of our screens. In those days, the Reader’s writers composed on antediluvian mechanical contrivances called typewriters, and they physically brought their copy down to the office. Writers, editors, and production people actually saw each other face to face.

Of the paper’s various locations in those years, my favorite was an elegant little building on Kettner Boulevard, where the ambience was so attractive that on occasion I even wrote my reviews there. It gave a pleasant infusion of adrenaline to be typing away, against deadline, amid the noisy bustle of the whole newspaper shebang, as though I were a hard-bitten journalist out of The Front Page, with a broken cigarette hanging from my lips.

Often enough, while engaged in this playacting, I would encounter Steve down there. He would show up with his contribution to the “Music Scene” section, looking pretty much the worse for wear, as though he had been dragged out of bed at some unconscionable hour of the mid-afternoon. Hunkering down at a typewriter adjacent to the one I was using, he would make finicky last-minute changes in his text. We sat side by side in a companionable silence punctuated by the clacking of the keys.

When he left the desk to try to find the restroom (its obscure location was a peculiarity of the building), I would sometimes take a look at what he was writing. He was a meticulous writer, changing a word again and again to get the right nuance. His subject, which included virtually every kind of popular music as well as jazz, was opaque to me. I called it all rock and roll, and to me it all sounded the same. Not to Steve. He worked hard to define the special character of each musician, with a short, vivid formulation. “The Alleycats are impassioned, concise, and stylized, but not campy,” he would write, after trying out a half-dozen other possibilities. A core description of someone as “a very warm, amiable alto saxophonist,” which tells a lot in a little, came about only after a lot of tight-lipped paring.

A professional critic has to put up with a lot of bad stuff, and only the few saints among us can resist the delight of skewering with a phrase some artist who has made us suffer. There was no malice in Steve, but he knew how to convey his dissatisfaction. There was “the youngest of the almost criminally successful Gibb brothers,” about whom Steve opined “it’s impossible to think of him as anything other than a panhandler grasping tightly to his brother’s cuffs.” About a composer-performer of limited talent the reader would learn that “his music serves the same function as elevator music and office ‘white noise’: it provides just enough surface sound to heighten such pleasurable activities as ironing clothes, mopping floors, and whispering sweet nothings.”

Sometimes his contempt was so total that he couldn’t bring himself to waste words (“a simple yecchh will suffice”). Sometimes he thought the artist’s failings were substantial enough to deserve precise analysis: “The pasting together of redundant harmonies, sinister, monster-movie chords, and quick-burst piano glides is too arbitrary to be sustaining.” But when the performer had acquired an undeserved popularity, Steve’s compulsion to right the wrongs of bad taste drove him to the devastating metaphors he always had at the ready. “There is no soulfulness or invention to her singing. She delivers a chic blend of pop, Latin music, jazz, and soul wrapped up in thick, overdressed arrangements and smothered with sentimentality.… This pretty singer will sing her pretty (and pretty boring) songs at the Catamaran, Tuesday night.”

On the other side, if he liked a group he would praise it generously, finding a personal source of happiness in its virtues. And he didn’t require that every artist be a genius. He enjoyed being able to write a review that began “The most heartening achievement of this exquisite record is the return, after a nearly five-year absence from the studio and the limelight, of the master alto-saxist, Ornette Coleman.” But he also could happily say, about another sax player, “He is by no means great, but he entertains and soothes, and sometimes that is enough.”

In short, a critic with rigorous standards, but at the same time a sweet human being. Steve in fact was at his very best as a writer when his humanity — and his own personality — had greater scope for expression. Typical of the man was his Reader cover story about a San Diego rock group he accompanied on a tour to a few gigs around California at the end of the ’70s. He loved this band, and decried the injustice of the marketplace that kept them from a bigger reputation, but at the same time he knew how to bring out all the pathos and absurdity of what was ironically billed as “the Penetrators’ World Tour ’79.” Those who knew Steve got a wryly familiar picture of him as he shared “the travels of this impoverished caravan.… It is almost midnight and we are sitting outside a Sacramento Taco Bell, trying our best to savor one of the few semisolid meals we’ve had in three days.… The amorphous mash of beans, cheese, tortilla swims before my eyes, and combined with my inebriated frame of mind, inspires me to wonder, silently, ‘What in hell am I doing here?’ ”

The poignance of this week of disappointments is all the greater for the small scale of the events. Steve himself was no world traveler. “The farthest north I have been is Marin County, the farthest south is Ensenada, the farthest east is Yuma, and the farthest west is the South Mission Beach jetty.” He was very much a California writer, and a fine one. Do you know a livelier vignette of Los Angeles’ Chinatown than this one? “For walkers, Chinatown could easily be Tijuana North. We half expect a kid to approach us and ask if we want to buy chiclet. There is a surreal quality to the neighborhood. It’s both authentically foreign and strangely familiar. If every storefront had fresh paint, if the sidewalks were glistening, if the brooding statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen were polished, you might think you were entering a new addition to Disneyland.”

And how about this wonderful piece of California on-the-road landscape writing? “The tail end of summer is beautiful. Framed by the rear window of Sullivan’s car, the skies are clear, clean, aqua blue; the hills and cliffs are camel backs, perfectly sculpted; the highway to Santa Barbara is free of speed-freak crazies. Looking to my left, all I can think of is how gorgeous the ocean is, a flawless, curved piece of painted glass.…” And then, with a finely calculated rhythmic bump, he twicks us back from this upwelling of aesthetic joy to the flat commonplaces of our highway culture: “We pull into a Santa Barbara gas station to fill up.”

Do you think it’s easy to write like that? Believe me, it’s not. It’s also not easy to record and shape a fragment of dialogue so as to convey a whole character and a whole situation with what seems like unedited naturalness. Here is a bartender in a Chinatown nightclub rattling on at the band members as he pours a tequila shooter: “ ‘You guys punk rock? You really know how to play?’ He shakes his head. ‘This punk rock no music. I know music because I play organ for twenty years. But I like songs, melodies. This punk just sound like shit. And damn kids never buy drinks! One beer for ten people sometimes!’ ”

Then we have Steve’s zestfully satirical description of the opening band that precedes the Penetrators to the stage at this club: “The first song is about cheating girls. The second song is about cheating girls. The third song is about cheating girls. The fourth song is about…cheating boys! These three thin young men from Santa Barbara, who look like runners-up in a malnutrition contest, have a message, and it seems to be that girls are ‘creepy little creeps’ and ‘smelly little rats.’ We all agree that without their die-hard legion of friends and family, these chaps wouldn’t have made it out of a garage.”

The most touching moment in this story, and my final example of how exceptional a writer we’ve lost, has Steve and the Penetrators camping out on Pismo Beach to save money (they are on their way to Sacramento, where an evening’s work is going to earn the five-man band $48). After drinking and eating and drinking some more, until three in the morning, the band members and their girlfriends finally bed down in sleeping bags or in their freezing cars. As for Steve, “I have a soft, silken mattress. I place an issue of someone’s Los Angeles porno paper down on the fine, smooth sand as a bottom sheet, and use the latest Rolling Stone for a blanket. As I turn on my stomach and taste sand, McLain offers a good-night salute. ‘Hey, Steve, there’s a couple of copies of the Reader in one of the cars if you need a pillow.’ ”

I think of him like that, out with his admired musician buddies in the California night, warm from beer and tequila, wrapped up in literature, and happy. I’ll miss him.

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