Friday, May 31, 2013

Chapter 22 - Stevo

            Stevo remains inexplicable to me.  

The best pictures of him are a couple of black and white photographs that my sister Maggie took and printed.  His eyes are deep and dark and sad.  His face, covered with long stubble, is scarred from car crashes and fights.  

His psyche was scarred by jail. He was locked up frequently for stuff that wouldn’t get you in trouble now—once for two tiny marijuana plants in his bathroom window, miniature seedlings with two pale leaves on a stem.  I saw them and can testify.  

He was the middle child in a family of seven children, and didn’t naturally fit with the older kids or the little ones.  His closest associates were the other middle children, Danny and Maggie—but Danny and Maggie were swingmen who could play two positions.  Danny would be with Stevo one day and the next he’d drop down to dominate Ann and me.  Maggie could hang with Stevo or with the older kids.  Stevo didn’t have that luxury.  He was stuck in the middle.

Stevo was a musician—a self taught drummer who played in a string of local Sacramento rock bands in the mid-to-late 1960s.  They battled other bands at local shopping centers and played teen dances at the Cottage Park youth center.  Although I never heard one of his bands, it occurs to me that they undoubtedly played Chuck Berry songs, and I would love now to hear Stevo play “Roll Over Beethoven” or ‘Bye Bye Johnny.”  He was good enough to play in the minors.  His group once opened for Sly and the Family Stone.  Stevo sat at Sly’s drummer’s set during sound check and got caught.   Sly’s drummer wasn’t pleased.  But Stevo could shrug off such stuff.  He was certifiably cool.  

He was also tough as nails.  He once walked home from a car crash on a badly broken foot.  Another crash left the circular gash in his cheek.  He fought when he had to, but we saw him cry when a new arrest meant he might graduate from county jail to state prison.  Hard time scared him.    

Like my father, he was locally famous.  He once borrowed a moped and led a pack of Hells Angels through town on their Harleys.  Once Danny came across a crowd of young people outside of a concert hall chanting “Stevo!  Stevo!  Stevo!”  He didn’t know why they, but watched as Stevo rose, said he wasn’t “in the mood” and then quieted the crowd by taking a quick bow.  

Stevo enjoyed my dad even during Daddy’s precipitous decline.  He’d sit and talk with him during those last years when there seemed no point in doing so.  As Stevo got older, he and my dad would sometimes drink themselves into insanity and run amok inside our house.  Stevo thought it was funny, which it sometimes was, but more often it was a sort of hell.  I remember Stevo laughing as my father chased him through the house with a plastic pitcher of urine.  That night Stevo hit my mother over the head with a plastic TV table. 

I told my mother we needed to move out, and the very next day we did.  

But Stevo could also honor my mom.  “You were a mother and a father to us,” he told her one day, a little drunk.  

He had, at times, a quick wit.  In a grocery store newly equipped with closed circuit cameras Danny, Stevo and our sister Rooney took turns mugging in front of the camera.  Danny and Rooney did quick bows.  Then, while the other two watched the monitor, Stevo stood in front of the camera, looked right, looked left, and stuffed something under his jacket.  His humor was goofily weird.  When the A’s moved to Oakland there was a joke going round.  “Are you a Giant fan or an Athletic supporter?”  The joke was the notion of a being a jock strap, but Stevo got as big a kick from the idea of a “giant fan.”   I don’t know if he envisioned a giant electric fan or a ladies fan, but he was ahead of the artist Claus Oldenburg, who designed a giant kid’s baseball mitt outside the A’s stadium.

In other ways he was a dummy.  On a trip to Europe with Paul, his wife Gina, and Danny, Stevo didn’t understand that people in other countries spoke other languages or used other money.  In London the others left Stevo in a hotel and returned to find him gone.  When they inquired at the desk the clerk responded: “Oh, you mean ‘Fuck your fucking hotel?  Fuck your warm beer?  Fuck your fucking accents?’  Oh, and ‘Fuck your fucking Queen?’  Yes— I remember him.  He’s no longer staying at our hotel.”

But Stevo was a gifted philosopher of pop culture, sports, and politics, which he understood in a deep and instinctual way, and which he liked to teach, lecturing us in the living room or from the front seat of a moving car.  Blazing south one night on Highway 99 in California, Stevo held forth on song after song on some 50,000 watt rock and roll radio show, discussing obscure hits and forgotten performers. Paul would test him in “Name that Tune,” twisting the volume knob as soon as a song began.  Stevo was unbeatable.  He recognized songs from a single beat or note, then could expound on the author, the band, the roots of the music, the time he saw it performed, or the time he drank wine with the performer.  

He was unconcerned with contemporary fashion or taste.  In the late 1960s it was unusual to hear a long haired tough guy defend Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, but Stevo did it with force and eloquence.  I remember him describing the serious chops of Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney.  He lauded Sammy Davis Junior.  “He’s a Nixon supporter!” we said.  “He’s an entertainer,” Stevo told us.  “He can dance, sing, act, tell jokes.  He does it all!”  

Because of the difference in our ages Stevo and I weren’t very close, at least early on.  I remember him trying to roughhouse with me when I was six or seven.  He was trying to have a good time.  I didn’t like it.  He was 13 or 14 and smelled different, and I was the prissy child who told my dad that the Blessed Virgin was more beautiful than my mom.  But little by little, as I grew closer to him in age, our relationship grew.  I remember that he gave me a red plastic gum machine with real gum.  He bought it right in front of me.  He told me it was for Danny.  I told him that it was an excellent gift, then opened it on Christmas morning.

A few years later I began copying Stevo on the drums, sneaking in to play his beautiful blue set any time he wasn’t at home.  His disreputable friend Dee caught me playing along to “Love Me Do” and taught me my first real beat.  

I remember once asking Stevo what he wanted for Christmas.  He told me to get him the original album by The Monkees.  I did so proudly.  The Monkees, in those days, were right up my alley, the most popular group among sixth graders at my elementary school.  But just before I presented it Stevo opened a package of new records by The Grateful Dead, Paul Butterfield and The Jefferson Airplane.  By the time he opened my slim little package his interest in The Monkees had been erased by these newer, hipper gifts.  I was ashamed, but Stevo was nice about it.

It was Stevo, of course, who gave me Chuck Berry.  And years later it was Stevo who filled in important blanks in my own knowledge.  

Chuck Berry’s first hit, “Maybellene,” was recorded a year before I was born.  I’d never been conscious of hearing one of my hero’s great hits at the time it was new.  I barely knew the songs the first time I heard him.  But Stevo told me that Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” was a hit back in 1964 when my mother packed six of us kids into her station wagon and drove us to Missouri to visit our eldest brother Paul. Stevo said that our mother didn’t like us to hear it, because of its suggestive lyrics, and would turn it down.  (She also refused to let us play a song called “Someone’s Pinched Me Winkles” on the jukebox in Willets, California.  We practically rioted.  We assumed it was a dirty song and wanted to hear it.  Decades later, thanks to the internet, I was disappointed to learn it’s a song about edible sea snails.)

I remember the Missouri trip well.  It amazed me to learn that I’d been there when one of Chuck Berry’s classic songs came out.  If I’d been listening (and I wasn’t) I might also have heard “Nadine,” “Promised Land” and “You Never Can Tell.”

As we got older there were more moments.  Once he came to my apartment and I played him a tape of a song I’d written.  It was a funny blues written from the perspective of an alcoholic.  Stevo listened and laughed.  “Who’s singing?” he asked.  “That’s me!” I told him.  “That ain’t you,” he said.  Later, as I drove him home (Stevo frequently lost his driver’s license) he told me we should start a band, and that he’d play drums.  We never did it, but I was surprised and honored.  

I remember a couple of incidents at Stevo’s apartments.  Once Stevo and I shared a six pack.  It was the first and last time we drank together.  I got a little drunk and fell asleep on his couch.  Later his roommate came home.  The roommate was a rough biker type, but he and Stevo spoke in gentle whispers.  “Who’s that?”  “My little brother.  He had a little too much to drink.”  

At another apartment—an old place downtown—a neighbor began to yell at us.  At some point I touched her shoulder.  She called it an “assault.”  Two police officers arrived.  They were nice but told me the woman was right.  Stevo intervened on my behalf and the officers left us with a warning.  “That was close,” he told me, and then explained that his pocket was full of heroin.

Stevo kept trying to get clean.  Unlike my dad, he found Alcoholics Anonymous and enjoyed the meetings.  He felt at home with the stories of drunken chaos.  When Stevo’s crazy friends would catch up with him he’d move, always switching apartments, always hoping that a new home would lead to a new life.  

I remember once when he was looking for a new place.  I was home that summer washing dishes at a restaurant.  Stevo had no license or car at the time and asked me to drive him this way and that across the sprawl of suburban Sacramento.  “Let’s check out Fair Oaks Boulevard,” he said.  Every time we’d get close to some destination he’d change his mind about the neighborhood and tell me to take him to some opposite and far off corner of town.  “Let’s try Del Paso Boulevard.  I like it out there.”  I dutifully turned.  It was a huge waste of time, and fun— a couple of wasted hours that I will always cherish. 

In the middle of that night my mom flung open the door to the guest room where I was sleeping switched on the light.  Her face was serious.  She ordered me to get up.   I never saw her so stressed or so forceful.  She was all business.  “Get dressed!  Stevo’s at the hospital!”  As we drove she told me that Stevo’s friend had called her.  He didn’t say if Stevo was okay—only that she had to go to the hospital quickly.  Then he hung up. 

“He was crying,” she told me.  

We rode grimly.  You can sense the worst.  We entered a dark waiting room with fish and shadows and sleepy, worried people.  A doctor came in.  He looked grim.  He mumbled what he could.  I watched my mother wither in grief.  I’ve never felt as helpless or as useless.

  In the next couple of days we’d learn only the sketchiest details of Stevo’s death.  He was dragged out of a bar by the bouncer and pushed into traffic.  

Within a few weeks I quit my job at the restaurant and moved to Seattle where my brother Paul lived.  Maybe it’s just a coincidence that when Stevo died, my interest in Chuck Berry faded, too.  Probably not.

(This is part of a book length piece on Chuck Berry and his effect on my life.  You can keep reading below, or start at the beginning over to the right in the section marked "Pages.")


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