Perhaps the best tribute I can pay to Steve Esmedina, my departed compadre and fellow music critic, is that his legacy truly lives on. Today, 25 years after first having read his work in the then-fledgling Reader, I still vividly remember the essence of many articles he wrote, specific lines from his eloquent critiques, and some of the phrases he coined, such as “tuneless Okie Bob jams” to describe a misbegotten country singer and “grotto mouth” to describe an overwrought young local jazz singer (who shall mercilessly remain nameless).
Blubbo, to invoke his favorite nickname for himself, was the first music critic whose writing I encountered after moving to San Diego as a teenager in late 1975. The Reader was a very young, slim, and modest publication in those days, but Steve’s writing carried immediate weight. I began writing freelance music reviews for the Reader in early 1976 and recall thinking at the time that it would be a good challenge to measure up to his qualitative standards. I was correct.
We first met in late spring of 1976, and he initially struck me as surprisingly shy and quiet for someone whose words spoke so loudly on the printed page. We gradually became friends of a kind. Since he didn’t have a car and I didn’t drive, our longest conversations usually took place by phone and often covered the latest albums by our favorite artists or our newest discoveries, good, bad, and wretched.
We shared a mutual passion, circa 1976, for blue-eyed Scottish soul singer Frankie Miller, Sun Ra, the Ramones, Little Feat, Nina Simone, pre-“Birdland” Weather Report, Procol Harum, Sarah Vaughan, Graham Parker, and the two Jameses (Brown and Taylor), among others.
As in his reviews, Blubbo rarely minced words in person. His catholic tastes impressed me as much as the depth of his knowledge and his ability to craft words in a manner as artful as it was unaffected. He had an almost unerring knack for discovering worthy new artists early on, from Patti Smith and the band Television to budding progressive jazz dynamos like Anthony Davis, Mark Dresser, and James Newton.
He was fearless in his writing, a trait that earned him devoted fans and outraged detractors, the latter of whom frequently wrote the Reader to express their disdain; question his intelligence, hearing, and parentage; and generally froth at the mouth at his alleged offenses (one of which included dismissing Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart as rock’s answer to the Virginia Slims ad models).
When the Southern California punk and New Wave scenes began, Blubbo was one of their staunchest supporters, almost single-handedly drumming up local interest in such fledgling bands as X, the Alleycats, the Penetrators, and others. And when Mark Dresser started his Music Forward series in Del Mar and Rob Hagey launched the La Jolla (later San Diego) Jazz Festival, both in the late ’70s, Blubbo used his Reader column to light a fire under this city’s jazz audience, which was even more minuscule at that time than it is now.
By the late ’70s Blubbo and I had also become contributing editors for Kicks, a local music monthly, for which we each wrote columns (his on R&B, mine on jazz). When I briefly became editor for Kicks in its final incarnation in 1981, I found myself editing his film reviews, which were good enough to run almost verbatim.
Sadly, this was not the case later in the decade, when — after becoming pop music critic for the San Diego Union — I successfully lobbied my editor at the time to have Blubbo do some freelance work for the paper. I had been unaware that his downward spiral had begun, but the increasingly erratic quality of his writing quickly became as apparent as his inability to meet deadlines. His brief tenure as a Union freelancer ended the same day we published his interview with jazz bass great Charlie Haden, who, not without just cause, immediately threatened to sue the paper for libel.
I’m sad to say I had less and less contact with Blubbo in the years that followed. But I still fondly remember how, at my request, he used his position at St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Shop to obtain a used bowling ball for me to give as a going-away present to a friend departing on a year-long ornithological expedition to the jungles of Costa Rica. As I recall, Blubbo appreciated the humor of this gesture considerably more than the gift’s recipient.
Along with many others, I deeply regret Blubbo’s passing. I continue to savor his impassioned, insightful writing. And I still fondly recall his ability to instantly cut to the heart of the matter, as he did most memorably at a downtown dinner we both attended in late 1980 at the Old Spaghetti Factory, following a nearby solo concert by James Newton.
Perhaps because one of the people in our party was a teacher, the dinner conversation eventually turned to the poor quality of school lunches. After silently enduring as much debate on the topic as he could stomach, including a spirited argument over the size of individual portions of food given to students, Blubbo finally spoke up. “The issue isn’t the size of the portions of food,” he said, rolling his eyes. “The issue is shitty food.”
When the raucous laughter that ensued finally subsided, another topic of conversation began. Blubbo’s first words on school food were the last that needed to be said, and he approached his writing about music in the same no-nonsense manner.
So adios, compadre. I’ll think of you when I’m enjoying good music, or enduring the aural equivalent of mediocre school food.