I fuckin’ hated high school. There, I’ve said it. I know, I know, you did, too. Maybe you even hated me in high school. Well, I guess we’re over it now.
My family moved back to our old neighborhood on Bloomington’s West Side after my dad finished law school at the U of I. I was just out of 5th grade. So much had changed for me and my brother in our three short years away. Instead of being welcomed back with open arms, we were fish out of water. We became latchkey kids, shut-ins. We never knew our neighbors.
In December 1980, I was alone in my bedroom, crying for John Lennon, who had just been shot and killed. How could I have possibly known that probably the only one who cared about it as much was across the street in his own room, trying to make sense of it all, just like me? I thought, no one knows what I know, no one knows what I feel, no one knows this is not the way life has to be. I didn’t know about Steve.
Steve was that weird guy with the flaming red hair and glasses who lived in the pink house across the street. He looked like trouble, in his leather jacket and his Rolling Stones t-shirt. I think he had one of those leather wallets on a chain hanging off of his jeans. Best to stay away from him, we figured. . .
I don’t remember how it happened, but Steve eventually penetrated our insular bubble. He was just that way - too friendly to be shut out. He may have been sent on a mission by the other kids in the neighborhood - to sniff us out, see what our deal was - because as soon as he got through our protective barriers, he started showing up with other curious friends. Bob and I remained suspicious, which probably reinforced our oddity.
None of this ever bothered Steve for a second. He was just curious about people, and he must have known that he could match weird for weird. No one was a stranger to him. He knew how everyone fit together in our neighborhood. He knew we used to play with Mark and Eddie King back in the day. Ed was his best friend, after all.
So Bob and I came out of lockdown, and we started hanging out on our front porch or his on lazy summer nights. Invariably, someone would come by to shoot the shit with us. And so we finally emerged from our shells.
There are some people that can be the life of the party, but they can’t spend five minutes alone in a room with you. That was not Steve. He could light up a room, no doubt, but he was also a solid, one-on-one friend. Can we be honest? Steve was also a stoner and a boozer. If you hung out with him, then probably you were, too. Life was a party, and Steve was the host. He got me high for the first time, and subsequent times. . . But anyone who thinks he was the Jeff Spicoli of Bloomington High -- you missed the true beauty and genius of the man. He was full of surprises, and could converse on any subject. He was part fool, part uncarved block, and part mischievous coyote spirit.
Steve understood people, and he could channel the worst of them if he wanted to. His impressions were so spot-on, though, you had to laugh. One night, he called this 24-hour Christian hotline and pretended to be a young girl who was pregnant and thinking about suicide. It was such an asshole thing to do, and they eventually figured it out and hung up on him. I hated him for it, but dammit if he wasn’t convincing as a 12-year old girl!
Despite those infuriating lapses of character, Steve was open arms, all around. Wanted to be there for everyone. I’m not the only one who knew him this way. He was for everybody, and he loved finding common ground. He united me with so many people -- and if I don’t remember, it’s because, frankly, I was so damned high.
What really bonded us, though, was music. Steve was the living spirit of rock n’ roll. He was more Rolling Stones, and I was more Beatles. He was more Doors, and I was more Duran Duran. But he was rock n’ roll. And I was rock n’ roll. And we could meet together at the crossroads of fuckin’ fandome. We didn’t agree on everything. He never won me over with Black Sabbath, but he could throw out Judas Priest, and I’d take it. We could form an alliance on the Ramones, and he would cross over with me to the Sex Pistols, and “God Save the Queen”. We went to the same church of rock gods. Steve prayed at the altar, he quoted the scriptures, and he believed, like me, that wiser men and women would lead us to the promised land through their music. They would help us rise up out of our fucked up lives, and know a better way.
When the Pentacostals held their big meet-up to teach how Satan was spreading his evil through rock music, Steve and I were there, laughing, thinking about how much time this guy must have spent trying to listen to records backwards until he heard what he wanted to hear. When Tipper Gore came out with her campaign to censor explicit rock music, Steve and I were up in arms together. Jello Biafra and Frank Zappa were our heroes for taking a stand against her.
The truth is, we were fucking alive because of rock music, and we knew it. It fed us. If I had a bad day at school, Steve would shrug it off, like, did Pete Townshend like high school? Did Jimi Hendrix like high school? Fuck no! That’s the whole point.
Yeah, it’s true, he kept to one circle and I kept to mine. I was a good girl - well, over time it became clear that I danced to the beat of my own drummer - but I tried to keep up my grades. Maybe I didn’t look that way, but I felt I was just like Steve. I was a stoner. I was living on the wrong side of the tracks, and thinking I was too different to have to suffer through the “slings and arrows” thrown by the straight-laced morons at school. I was music, all day, every day. When Steve and I were both voted Biggest Rebel of our high school class, I bet most people didn’t know we were honing those skills together, up in his bedroom every week.
One time, we went to see The Tubes and Utopia in concert, just me and Steve. We took acid that night. It was cartoonish and intense. Afterwards, we walked the three miles back from Braden Auditorium in Normal to our houses on Locust Street, stopping halfway at McDonald’s to fill my endless trenchcoat pockets with burgers. Even though I should have been exhausted, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so we promised to come back out after pretending to go to bed at home. Somehow, that bastard actually managed to sleep. I stayed up until dawn, writing for hours about how the world would be a better place if everyone just took acid (completely ridiculous and repetitive drivel, as it turned out later), and waiting for Steve to peek his head out the door. I went to school that way, wearing my shades, because I knew my dad wouldn’t let me beg out the morning after a big concert. When I finally caught up with Steve again, he was surprised to hear that I had actually been waiting up for him like we planned. What? Dammit.
Years later, I was in art school, and I came down from Chicago in the middle of winter to visit. Steve and I met up, and sometime in the middle of the night, we decided to drive over to the railroad yards. The old buildings where they used to build Pullman sleeping cars had once been the bread and butter of Bloomington’s West Side. Although the place was abandoned and crumbling, the gates remained open, and no one ever patrolled the place. We rolled up through the snow to one of the huge factory buildings, got high and sat in the freezing car, talking all night long. We had a little trouble getting my dad’s car out of there - the snow covered everything, and I couldn’t see to turn around. After we finally got out, we went to Steak N’ Shake for breakfast. I don’t know what we talked about. Aspirations, probably. Whether or not we would make it anywhere outside of where we already were. We were just having a chat, nothing special, but it was one of the best times I ever had with him. He was always supportive, even if he didn’t think he’d make it in the same way I would.
Steve always believed that he was a certain type of person. He was always his working class job, as a janitor at State Farm, or at Jewel. He was everyone he ever knew on the West Side. He was simple, hard-working, just needed to let off a little steam.
He was so West Side. I was so whatever. I had been in other places, and known other people. I had been with the punk rockers. He was so working class -- all his life, he believed he only fit in a certain kind of space. But to me, he was a rock star. He not only knew what kind of life would be presented to him, but he spoke fluently the fuck you response to that life.
He wouldn’t have let me tell him he was unique. He wouldn’t have taken himself out of context if his life depended on it. To me, he was a fucking genius. He was sensitive, charismatic, brilliant, and so fucking real. I would take him over most of my other classmates, any day. He was passion for life. He was human, and he loved his human friends. Steve was an open door that said, “Welcome, I’m glad to see you here. I am your humble DJ.”
I loved Steve, but I wasn’t his girlfriend. We hung around a lot, but we were killing time, just trying to find our place in the world, just trying to survive. He was honest about what his castle was built upon. Me, I don’t know. I feel like I’m still trying to find a place where I can speak the truth. I’m an artist, and I still live and breathe rock and roll, but I’m also trying to be a citizen, a mom, a good, upstanding member of society. He was as hard a worker as anyone, and he was always his own damn self. I wish I had the balls to be the same.
Is it surprising that he would die young? God, I’m sorry to his family and children. No one wanted him to go, I’m sure. But many of us knew he was living on borrowed time. I knew when we were 20 that we were all lucky to have survived those years. I can’t speak to the quality of his life since then. I wish I had known him when we were older, but I take comfort in the belief that Steve was Steve through and through, and that if I had seen him 2 months ago, we would have picked up right from where we left off. I know some of his friends broke ties, because it made them sad that he never changed. I’m sure he hurt some of the people he really loved because of his lifestyle. I wasn’t there, so who am I to say? I guess I never expected him to be anything other than the guy he was. And I loved and admired the guy he was.
God, I wish I had seen him one more time. I wish I had met his family, and really known him. But I’m so grateful to connect to others who loved him along the way. The sadness is not so empty, because there’s so much to celebrate. I know he was flawed, and so was I. I know he thought less of himself than he might have been. But he was still a great, beautiful, open-hearted person with a passion for the meaning of life. He helped me through my hardest years. Maybe not in the best way possible, but in the best way he knew how, he brought light to everyone around him.
God bless you, Steve. You are now free. Limitless and free. I hope you’re smoking a fat one with Morrison, Hendrix, Zappa and Lennon. Wherever you are, I will always love you.