In the Reader’s scuffling days, Steve Esmedina was the staff’s Doc Holliday — erudite, enigmatic, and bedeviled by self-consumptive tendencies that seemed rooted in debilitating, unspoken discomfiture. For as long as I knew him, he relied on friends, colleagues, and deadlines to keep him propped up and functioning.
Esmo was a glorious paradox, a riddle that I never tried to solve. As a writer, he disgorged caustic essays on music-as-art into the beaks of readers too hungry to turn away. Away from the typewriter, he assumed the guise of a phlegmatic troll given to vato street slang and scatological musings. Unable or unwilling to reconcile his Shavian intellect with his self-image of a bemused Sancho Panza, Esmo publicly exalted himself with often brilliant wordplay, privately pickled himself. Even in his 20s, Steve’s personal doomsday clock always seemed a tick away from midnight.
Like many people, I first met Esmo through his early-’70s work in the Reader. I was a year out of college, and Jupiter Records, my store in Clairemont, was a drop-off point for the weekly. I eagerly awaited each issue, delighted that a free paper had arts writers of the quality of Esmedina, Duncan Shepherd, and Jonathan Saville.
In 1975, I wrote a strongly worded letter to the editor in response to a disparaging remark Saville had made about rock and roll, after which I was asked to “audition” for occasional freelance work by reviewing Doug Kershaw’s concert at Straightahead Sound, on El Cajon Boulevard. Soon afterward, I joined the Reader’s loose-knit team of freelance music writers, which included Esmo, George Varga, Frances Thumm, Ted Burke, and others. I think we were paid $5 for a record review and $10 for a full-length concert review. Obviously, we weren’t doing it for the money.
Long before 1979, when I moved to L.A. to pursue a songwriting career, Esmo had assumed the popular-music critic’s chair at the paper. When he was “on,” as he so often was during the ’70s, his writing was exceptional. I believe that if he’d been healthier of mind and body, more ambitious, and worked in a major media center like L.A. or New York, Esmo would’ve been ranked with Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, and Lester Bangs. For my simoleons, he was better than any of them.
I was most impressed with the breadth of his musical knowledge and his use of language. Too many people don’t appreciate that one can gain something of value from reading a well-written critique, even if one disagrees with the thesis or finds the subject matter esoteric. Even when I differed with Esmedina, I laughed my way through his broadsides and nodded at his point-making because the writing was so damn good.
Still, he could be maddeningly inconsistent. At his best, Esmo combined a deep, historical understanding of the subject (which could be music, film, even sports), a droll wit, an elegant writing style, and a professorial vocabulary cut with an earthy sensibility. At his worst, he finger-tapped diffuse, disposable thoughts merely to accommodate a deadline and to appease a harried editor.
One was struck by the profound unhappiness underlying those tossed-off carpings, which served more to illuminate the writer’s inner disquiet than to edify the reader. From week to week, one never knew which Esmo would surface in print — the profound or the profane, the trenchant analyst or the glib pedant, the arch comedian or the solemn aesthete, the passionate advocate or the disconnected curmudgeon.
When Esmo was disposed to share his vast knowledge, the reader was the beneficiary. But he had no governor on his critical engine. He could be wincingly arbitrary, and when he disliked individuals or entire genres, he swatted them like flies and further pissed off his detractors by serving his bile in finely turned cruets that sent readers scurrying for their dictionaries.
The scornful Steve definitely had his favorite targets. He dismissed almost all country-music artists as “Okie Bobs,” called Jackson Browne and most of his ilk of singer-songwriters “whiners,” and was not above ad hominem attacks that some perceived as racist, sexist, or simply elitist. But he was so confident of the unassailability of his position that he practically dared the reader to counterpunch. Esmo’s was a strong voice, and after the Reader initially split into two sections, it made perfect sense to lead off the “events” section with his column.
In late 1980, as I was reaching the upchuck point with life in Hollyweird, I got a call from the Reader’s then-editor, Jim Mullin. He wondered if I’d be willing to return to the paper as music critic/editor. When I asked about Esmo, I was told that Steve had failed to heed several ultimata about deadlines and such and that he was being relieved of his duties. If I didn’t want the job, it would go to someone else. For a few years after returning to San Diego, I had only sporadic contact with Esmo, although I’d hear reports from reliable sources that described a man who, in disturbing ways, had cut anchor on life.
Viewed as a point on a timeline, Esmo’s involuntary abdication coincided with the ascendance of the Reagan De-evolution and the acceleration of America’s cultural dumbing-down, a process that hit warp-speed in our lowbrow military town. Years before Regis and Kathie Lee and “reality TV,” before the polite-cops-making-arrests-on-video shows and prime-time pro-wrestling, before America dumped buckets of human chum on daytime “talk” shows to prove that the Missing Link was not missing but had gone forth and multiplied, there was mounting evidence that people had little time or taste for erudition.
People didn’t want to see unfamiliar words, or to think, or to gain historical perspective about something as nonessential to daily survival as an art form. They resisted the challenge to question their own assumptions and took umbrage if a writer dared to contradict the directives of corporate media that sedated them with infotainment and gossipy sound-bites. What people wanted from their “critics” were point-and-click assessments in plain-yogurt language that any nfl nose tackle could understand. Most important, they wanted their critics’ thumbs to point in the same direction as their own — personal validation by perceived consent. The ’80s must have been an impossibly hostile environment for someone like Esmo, who was tilting at his own internal windmills.
Nevertheless, later in that decade I asked the Reader publisher if I could approach Esmo about doing some music writing. I wanted to start a special section devoted to local music (it finally happened but was short-lived), and I also thought it was time to get more voices into the music coverage. I thought that if Esmedina hadn’t completely short-circuited, we could give him a forum for his views and his talent. It wasn’t easy to locate Steve, but eventually I was able to shoehorn him into a small stable of freelancers that included Mike Keneally, Buddy Blue, and Alan Reder. As before, there were wide fluctuations in the quality of Steve’s submissions, but I was glad to see his byline on a regular basis.
More troubling was the perceivable advance of his psychological and physical dissolution. When I saw him at concerts, he seemed adrift in unfamiliar waters, a man with a wobbly gyroscope. Never a social animal, he now limited his conversation to sodden, unprintable exclamations and pungent, sometimes inscrutable murmurs.
Perhaps Steve was more lively and forthcoming with his close friends. I was more a colleague than a friend, and while I respected Esmo, I wasn’t interested in living on the edge of existence and couldn’t relate to someone who did. I also didn’t feel that it was my place to pry or probe into his personal matters. Mostly, we kept our exchanges cordial and nonspecific.
Although I hadn’t had any contact with Esmo since the early ’90s and sometimes wondered if his downward spiral were reaching the point of no return, I was surprised when I learned of his death and saddened by the reports of his grim final months. I silently reminisced about the “good old days” of working half a week on a review that paid a sawbuck, of savoring Esmo’s pithy comments, laughing out loud at his barbed asides, marveling at his talent. And I enjoyed the memory of one incident that in many ways captured the essence of this complex person and the often absurd way in which he dealt with life.
In 1983, the Reader held its Christmas dinner-party at the Glorietta Bay Inn in Coronado. Some of us who were involved in the planning and/or the evening’s entertainment spent that night at the hotel. To save money, a few of us shared a suite. At about 1:00 a.m., an inebriated woman who was not part of the sleepover group collapsed onto a chaise lounge on the suite’s small balcony to await sobriety.
It was a difficult wait for all. A less-than-sober Esmo spent the wee hours in a chair beside the woman, patiently, quietly, relentlessly hitting on her, either oblivious to or completely accepting of the fact that at regular intervals she was hurling omelette-size portions of vomitus onto the artificial-turf flooring on either side of him.
When Esmo finally tired of that futile pursuit, he came inside, sat in the dark at the foot of my bed, and sang Christmas carols for the benefit of everyone in the suite. At the conclusion of each performance, several sleepy/annoyed/sarcastic voices would mumble in unison, “Great, Steve.” This went on until Steve finally exhausted his holiday repertoire and left, at about 3:00 a.m.
In a more nostalgic frame of mind, as I think about Esmedina’s best work, of what he contributed to the Reader and to local music discourse, I can’t think of a simpler eulogy: “Great, Steve.”