Every time I invited Steve Esmedina to hang out at my place in the Clairemont–Pacific Beach area in the early ’70s when I first met him, he’d stare at me through curiously squinted eyes, smirking. We were usually in the Mesa College cafeteria, trading albums between classes, the only sane occupation for two young men with an excess of spare time.
“What?” he’d ask. “And do what? What would we do?”
The smirk would become a full smile as he rolled the question off his tongue. His smile was a brace of white teeth, making his mustache linger sparsely along the rim of his upper lip. It looked like a starved eyebrow, or a frayed, black string.
There wasn’t much for guys in their early 20s without money to do besides the shared hobbies of playing records, walking around, seeing matinees, getting fucked up, and then running our mouths about anything we felt entitled to deliver a rant on. Movies and music were the two constant issues at hand, because in our world, there was nothing more important than good film-editing or a rip-snorting guitar solo after a lead singer’s stratospheric yelp about the dark night of his soul. We cracked each other up as well with the lugubrious language we brought to bear on the loudest and flashiest examples of a technologized popular culture.
“Listen to tunes at my place,” I said, “tool around the beach, maybe, get a bottle and some smoke…” I either reached for a Marlboro from a pack that was crushed being crammed pocket to pocket or lit a Virginia Slim I appropriated from one of my mom’s unattended packs or, being without cigarettes at all, stooped to bumming a menthol from Steve.
Steve smirked again, laid an arm over a stack of record albums he’d brought to school that day so we could trade discs — he was lending me Pharoah Sanders and King Crimson and I was offering him Mountain and the MC5 — and took a look around the Mesa College cafeteria where we sat in the middle of a muggy afternoon in late spring, which I remember vaguely being in 1973, month unknown.
The cafeteria was large, drab, and drafty as an airplane hangar, filled with folding tables, bent, ripped chairs, and chain-smoking commuter students who scrutinized their notes from class amid legal pads and bits of shredded Styrofoam cups that littered the scarred tabletop as homework deadlines neared. There was always a bus station quality of commotion going on, which suited us fine, seated at what we considered our “usual” table, laying waste to the false gods of the world while a blur of rushing humanity came and went, speaking of finals and bigger paychecks.
We, in turn, attended to our business of exchanging our albums, editorializing about particular artists and tracks.
I remember handing Steve a copy of Truth by the Jeff Beck Group and going off on a tirade.
“You tell me, give a listen,” I said. “This is the framework for what became Led Zeppelin. I mean, listen to the way Stewart’s voice hits those fucking high notes and the way Beck matches him before blasting the thing to bits with some scrambled guitar. Listen to ‘Let Me Love You’ on this and then slap on ‘Heartbreaker’ on Led Zeppelin II and tell me that Jimmy Page didn’t steal Beck’s idea.”
Steve, I think, scratched his mustache and slumped in the chair, scanning the cafeteria as dozens of students suddenly seemed to rise from their chairs and hurry out the door to an awaiting lecture or a job they had to get to.
“I ain’t disagreeing,” he said, lifting himself a little in his seat. “I mean, yeah, I see where Page might have copped some of Beck’s ideas and shit, but they were both in the Yardbirds, and I think it’s hard to say at that point who really came up with the basic blues-into-hard-rock thing first,” Steve would pause, tap the album, make a hand gesture, “but all I really care about is whether these white guys can do something with the blues they say they love to play, and all I care about is whether they get the heat to the meat…”
“Say what?” Another Esmedina-ism.
“All I care is whether they can play the shit outta their guitar. If they can’t do something like that, it’s all academic.”
I picked up a copy of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King and slipped the disc from the jacket. I groaned because the surface of the vinyl was scarred and scratched.
“Esmo, you are a slob.”
Steve spoke like a consoling priest.
“What troubles you?” he asked, barely suppressing his laughter. His shoulders shook with this compressed glee.
I held the album up, Exhibit A. “You should take better care of these things, man. This is gonna fuck up my needle.”
“You didn’t request that the record be pristine.”
“Ah c’mon,” I said, “you just oughta take care of your albums better, that’s all.”
“I don’t let my possessions possess me,” he said, another phrase that resounded in our conversations for the decades that followed.
We exchanged our records, traded insults, talked about what an asshole big-league critics Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau had been that week.
I’d met Steve at Mesa College when we’d both signed up for Andrew Makarushka’s journalism class, where we had our own little shock of recognition as we realized our shared obsession with music and music writing and our abject desire to fill the sublimely named School Paper with column inches of our clever rock-and-roll reviews, think pieces, and sundry other culture-vulturine. We discovered that we both liked the same rock writers, if not the same bands, and our mutual intention was to make the eight-page biweekly into a West Coast version of the Village Voice.
“I’ll let you be Christgau,” Steve once said over one of our skull sessions at the cafeteria table where we hammered story ideas with the usual cadre of Mesa College music intelligentsia and hard-rock elitists. He referred to the Voice critic whom his print pals called the Dean of American Rock Critics. I’d been printed in the Reader, with some wandering and finally gas-baggish reviews, a few months before Steve debuted in these pages, and he insisted that I be the Dean of San Diego Rock Critics, something he called me half-kiddingly as long as we knew each other.
I tried to return the favor and said he could be the Greil Marcus of So Cal, but I remember Steve shrugging, not looking at all interested in being the San Diego version of any writer he admired. Still not getting it, I asked whom he wanted to be. Steve, who was not tall and was a tad portly, patted his stomach.
“Blubbo,” he said. “I am Blubbo.”
Blubbo he remained.
When we weren’t in the journalism room banging away at typewriters or, by some fluke, actually laying out pages for an impending issue, we set up shop at our table in the cafeteria, talking about music, women, and then the rest of the world, a haze of cigarette smoke abutting a jagging caffeine buzz. And, nearly each time, I’d asked Steve if he wanted to hang out in my neck of the woods.
“Nah,” he’d say to my entreaties, “the beach area sterilizes my mind.”
I gave the same invitation for the first few years I knew him, and each time Steve gave the same response, with some juicier variations interspersed from time to time. I made the phrase my own and used it for years with other music fans and obsessed associates who hadn’t an inkling of the original context. The phrase, though, carried its intention, as there isn’t much likelihood of mistaking a sentence such as “Robert Musil sterilizes my mind” as a nuanced recommendation.
He hadn’t the time for imprecise prose that buttressed dubious art with an inoculating layer of vaporous abstraction: what Steve wanted to do was to find music where the musicians “got the heat to the meat,” cooked and thrived, in those rare instances where the usually exclusive strands of inspiration and technique, clarity and poetic verve conjoined in a sustained ecstasy of creation, and then to speak to these creators and their best work in a language that was equal to the genius he felt privileged to witness. Like the musicians he admired, he wanted to “get it right,” in his deft prose, in the knifelike sharpness of his sentences where he considered and conveyed the terms and power of the sounds, the throb and bristling vibration of slamming, visceral improvisations that stripped each moment to a raw nerve of sheer sensation and made you witness all the joy and aggravation of being alive with senses. Whatever he reviewed, he made what he liked seem as though it mattered in the gravest sense.
He and I were arguing at his house in East San Diego one night about the merits of King Crimson, and I had gone on the attack, dismissing them as British aesthetes who were hoodwinking their audience with the pretense of erudition and experimentation, a point Steve contested rather well.
“What I know is that I may not ‘understand’ what these guys are up to musically, any more than I understand Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler when they punish their instruments, but it’s something that I’ve never heard before out of the thousands of records I’ve heard, and I respect the hell out of it. It is what it is, and it does not pretend to be anything else, and does not pretend at all that listening to it will make you a better person. Fuck yeah, I’m going to talk about these guys every chance I get, I will always make a case for them…Lemmee hold a smoke, will ya, Burke?”
The compromise over where we’d hang out together was to meet at Mesa two or three times a week — depending on the number of classes either of us had signed up for in our shared effort to stay off the job market — an irony not lost on Steve since the campus had an architectural style that was ugly as a bad haircut. “This place sterilizes my mind,” he said more than once. A squirrel cage had better design value, and it’s not unfair to insist that the environment was soul-killing for anyone having to live long stretches of a day in its midst.
“Burke, let’s go to the library,” he’d say, gathering up his stack. “I wanna hear some of these jams.”
This was the cue for whoever was hanging around to head out to the campus library, where students could listen to audio-reserve albums intended for music appreciation courses inside small rooms that were about as big as the phone booths you see in black-and-white movies. There were two chairs and an institutional record player bolted to the table. The tone arm was heavy, and you would swear you heard the stylus carve a hole to the other side as it dragged along the spinning disc. I was leery of more damage to my already sullied albums and once mentioned this to Steve.
“It’ll save us time,” he said, signing his name to a form at the library’s audiovisual desk to secure an available listening room. “We can listen to both sides at the same time.”
We’d cram others in there, up to five longhaired guys into a room meant for no more than three, elbowing each other in the gut and groin trying to slip albums in and out of their sleeves as we readied the music to be sacrificed on the cruel, cold turntable.
Someone lit a cigarette, and the room filled with smoke, gray and grim in dull light. The tone arm was set on the record, and the hisses, pops, and scratching terror that preceded the first notes of the first track on side one was a reassuring sound. “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” came on, a teenage hit by Bob Seger from my life in Detroit.
“You still think Seger is better at this kind of singing than Steve Marriott?” Steve asked. “I mean, you think he kicks his ass…”
“No one better than this guy,” I said. “I mean, face it, Brit belters do a good facsimile of the blues and soul and all, but Seger is from Motown — Detroit — he’s closer to the source, he played the same clubs, and I think he’s better by default…”
“Well, yeah,” said Steve. “I like Seger too, but not better than Marriott. The shit he did with the Small Faces, especially Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, and still later with Humble Pie, the Rockin’ the Fillmore set, doesn’t sound anything like what Seger has been doing. Seger is more, more…”
“More corny,” said Richard, someone in our Mesa crowd who was a confirmed Anglophile. “I mean, Seger has nothing on what Marriott has already accomplished, I mean there’s a world of difference that how these guys sing…”
“How these guys sing is all black music anyway,” I said, “and Seger is better at that than these Brits who get it off of records they copy…”
Bob Seger was screaming his way through the next song, and the room filled with even more smoke when I lit one of my mom’s Virginia Slims, mashed and unrecognizable from my coat pocket. Steve lit a Kool. Richard took a drag from his Camel unfiltered and shook his head.
“You can’t say that,” he protested. “You hear a kind of music anyway you hear it, anywhere it happens, a musician has no control over that. It’s what they do with it that, counts, that, that —”
“Put on Jethro Tull,” someone else said. “I wanna play some Thick as a Brick.”
“Ah,” said Steve, “an old controversy that won’t go away, the album as work-of-High-Art.” Steve’s tone was perfectly effete and dilettantish. “Why don’t we do some debate in the School Paper, a point-counterpoint about whether art rock is a blessing or a curse for rock music?”
“Put on Tull, man, I want you guys to check something out…”
“Fuck, that album sucks dick,” I said, “though some parts are okay, but one album as a whole song? Dubious. Jethro Tull are a terrible band…”
“Martin Barre is a great guitarist,” Steve inserted, “and Clive Bunker is one of the best drummers in rock. The British own rock-and-roll drumming…”
The tone arm came up, a zipping sound filled the smoky air. Steve beat everyone to the turntable and slapped on an Anthony Braxton record. Saxophone mayhem filled the air, moaning baritone notes squalling against bass and drums that sounded at the moment like a clutch of kids let loose in a band room with big, heavy hammers.
“This motherfucker jams,” Steve said.
“Put Seger back on,” I said. Steve waved me off.
“Burke, I think you ought to write up the nay side of our art-rock debate. Talk about Seger all you want…”
“Maybe, shit, do it…”
“Okay, okay, but let’s play some Mountain. Take this shit off…”
“Put Tull on. I want to show you something in the lyric sheet when Anderson says what the point of it all is, just when the drums come down and the guitar goes Irish/Scottish…”
“Burke,” Steve said, “you got your harmonica on you?”
“Let me see it for a second. I feel a jam coming on…”
I pulled a crusty Marine Band harmonica from my coat and gave it to Steve, who put it to his lips and banged out a rotten version of “The Work Song” by the Butterfield Blues Band. It was a harmonica showpiece I’d been playing for a few years at that point, and Steve liked to blast away on one of my harps when he had experimental jazz tearing up the air around him. He handed it back to me.
“That was my ‘free’ improvisational interpretation on ‘The Work Song,’ ” he said. “Whereas T. Navin Burke, as a player, is an impressive formalist in his ability to interpret faithfully the intention of a composer’s notation, I much prefer to use the melody as only suggestions of where to venture on a sortie and view each tangent and ruinous texture as a creation coming from another kind of beauty.”
Braxton made growling sounds through his mouthpiece as Steve and I laughed and Richard and the fourth guy left the room for the classrooms and day jobs that awaited them. A noticeable stream of smoke rushed out the door with them.
“T. Navin Burke” was how I signed my articles in the School Paper for a while, in a young man’s effort to seem smarter and grayer, and this throat-clearing appellation amused Steve for years. He called me T. Navin Burke in referring to the staff box of the imaginary music journal we wanted to start and kept it alive as an in-joke. Still other times, it was out of the blue, unexpected, a tap on the shoulder.
After Steve had established his voice and his eminence as a San Diego music critic, he and I stopped talking to each other as much as we once had. Our lives diverged, with mine consisting of sobering up and learning how to do most things over again after the years it took me to foul up matters with a cruel, demanding thirst. I still read Steve’s column, and there was one I read with interest because the photograph was of blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, a particular favorite of mine who’d been a large influence on my own playing.
Steve, essaying forth on Musselwhite’s importance as a blues harmonica innovator, changed course in the last couple of lines in his piece and wrote, basically, that Musselwhite’s time had passed and that the job of brilliant harmonica work belonged to younger players such as T. Navin Burke.
“I figured it was a good way to get you to call my ass,” he said on the phone. “I mean, you’re busy and shit, but c’mon, gimmee a call, Burke.”
So I called him, picking up again on the habit of getting him on the phone in the late night and talking for hours, thousands of hours, for the better part of three decades, into the distance, it seemed, of the following morning, with the TV on, sound off on my end, Steve on the other end of the phone line playing blistering bebop or a solo disc by a P Funk bassist. The subject matter was the same as it had been when we first met in Makarushka’s class: music, music writers, women, current and past loves, movies, literature, literature, literature, always literature and the need for writers to get off their inflated sense of themselves and get the heat to the meat, the motion in the emotion.
“How’s the poetry?” he’d ask.
“Fine,” I’d say, “wanna hear a new piece?”
I’d hear crumbling paper on the other end. “Sure,” he’d say, “although I’d rather be reading you crucify a phony art-mongering poseur, because that’s where your best shit flies…”
“Well, yeah, but that was something I did, and now…”
“Well, okay, read me a poem. But you have to start writing prose again…”
Steve nagged me every chance he could about writing reviews again, even though I’d made a deluded decision at the time that I would commit my writing life to creating my own art, not assessing someone else’s. Steve had an answer for this: “Bullshit,” and after I’d railed at him about the importance of my being connected to my work as a means of processing my experience of the world and a host of other egocentric rationalizations I’d been seduced by, Steve would say “Bullshit, motherfucker,” and would bring up Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Carlos Fuentes, forging a conversational trail that passed through the city at night, two guys yakking up a giddy philosophy amid the static of stars and salt air.
I miss the talks.