That was Steve Esmedina almost six years ago. I suppose you could make a case for almost any random quote from almost anyone being prophetic after the fact of his or her death, but I did kind of choke on this opening line of “My Dinner With Blubbo,” an interview I did with Steve in 1995.
Steve called himself “Blubbo,” though I never could, while most of his friends — and I like to think I was one of them — called him Esmo. Why Blubbo? Well, you could say Esmo had low self-esteem, sure you could; and it wouldn’t make any difference to him back then and even less now. I think it had more to do with Esmo’s habit of calling things the way they were; a habit that endeared him to some and alienated him from those who preferred their bubbles — silly as they might be — intact. A case that springs to mind, though not the most egregious, was his dismissal (in 1989) of Jefferson Starship as “make-out music for sentimental hippies.” He then pointed out that “Miracles” by that band had replaced “We’ve Only Just Begun” as wedding music for “newlywed dingbats.” Or references to Bruce Springsteen as “Bossy Brucie” and lumping him in that category of “gas-station attendants posing as rock stars (i.e. the Blasters…John Cougie…).” The above dates from a 1989 “Of Note” about the Bacchanal appearance of local heroes the Beat Farmers, in which Esmo shrugged heretically, “I’m still waiting to hear something, anything, that can be construed as novel, trailblazing, important.”
Observations such as these were occasions for readers to write in describing the critic as “A genetic miscreant.” To which Esmo replied that night in December ’95:
“[Does it bother me?] No, because they cannot argue with the truth. All that knoweth the truth shall listen to me.” Pretty much serious, he went on to add, “Hey, the only thing George Bernard Shaw ever did was when he wrote ‘A Critical Credo,’ he said, ‘I hear they’re starting a critics club. What a joke! By the very nature of the beast he must want to slaughter, chop up, throw to the dogs those who offend him and follow slavishly those who exalt him.’ ” Esmo stuck the period on that one by lifting a bottle of Michelob to his lips as if he were only commenting on the obvious.
Esmedina didn’t soft-focus his lens when trained on himself either. So he invited everyone to call him Blubbo. “Cuz that’s what I am,” he shrugged. “I’m Blubbo.”
I think this was followed by a discussion of Village Voice critic Robert Christgau’s theory of the human race being broken down into two categories, the way people are divided by, say, cat people and dog people. Christgau’s model was one of creeps and assholes. Everyone is one or the other, and Esmo and I congratulated ourselves that we had pretty much avoided creepdom. I maintain to this day that Steve Esmedina was not a creep.
Leafing through the transcript of that interview, much of which never made it into print — and now, in the wake of his death, leafing through his old reviews — Blubbo seems to rise from the printed page to bestow an elegant full moon on pop culture’s faithful.
Steve came down on rap and hip-hop back in 1989, not as a frightened suburban white boy, but as a Filipino homey living in the goddamned ghetto, where he was also cremated recently. He called it “…that malingering genre/disease,” establishing his bona fides by adding:
“I used to enjoy hearing my ghetto brethren swap ‘the dozens’ (insults in rhyme) and was even gratified to hear the jive banter artfully manipulated into something approaching street poetry by the likes of the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Reverend Ike, and Rudy Ray Moore. I would never have imagined that there would come a time when such garbage would metamorphose into a multimillion-dollar half-industry. Since viruses are in vogue, the once-dreaded Barry White-BeeGees-Donna Summer disco has come to seem, in retrospect, positive, vital, even virtuous.”
The above was in his review of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. About Marky himself (dapper on the cover of last July’s GQ), he wrote, “This ingenuous thug cannot sing, can barely pronounce in comprehensible phonetic fashion…” This was at a time when millions of chicks were swooning, fully prepared to ruin their lives for an errant drop of this guy’s sweat or commit suicide in the attempt, all the while unconsciously preparing to forget about him to make room in their diaries of infantile erotica for the Backstreet Boys, and later, Ricky Martin.
But rock, hip-hop, and R&B were only a part of Esmedina’s world. He knew more about movies than I thought possible for anyone to know (other than his friends Duncan Shepherd and Bill Richardson — the latter sitting next to me, weeping at Esmo’s memorial service). But again, this body of knowledge may have been dwarfed when it came to what Blubbo (all right, Blubbo) knew about jazz.
Writing about Miles Davis, Esmedina said, “In life, Miles Davis was vilified as often as he was exalted; he simply refused to behave. He made light of his nickname, the ‘Prince of Darkness,’ but the epithet suited his needs and purposes.” Substitute Miles Davis for Steve Esmedina, “Prince of Darkness” for “Blubbo,” and I think it works. Reading further in that same piece, the conceit might continue. “Throughout his career, Davis was second-guessed, lampooned, and derided so much that he often twisted his taciturnity into sour, ugly braggadocio. And during the last decade of his life, the once-young punk seemed to have degenerated into a spoiled curmudgeon.” Who is Blubbo really writing about here?
Writing about music is a nearly impossible proposition in the first place; it is transmuting the ineffable into language. To call it a challenge is a gross understatement. Few serious writers attempt it (I don’t mean the happy blurb machines that make up the music press corps of Entertainment Weekly and their ilk); fewer writers succeed at producing first-rate work on the subject of pop/rock/folk/R&B/country, etc. It gets even narrower in the ink-stained alleyways of jazz. Esmedina was as good on the subject as Nat Hentoff was. I would often circle phrases in Esmedina’s columns and reviews that articulated, for me, some elusive reality in the primary material.
Case in point. I once tried explaining to a friend who thought I should be crazy about Stanley Jordan why I was both so impressed and so frustrated by that guitarist. I couldn’t make my case comprehensible. Weeks later, Esmedina did when Jordan came to town:
“Jordan’s mastery is undeniable,” he wrote, “but it is generally in the service of the mundane (oft-repeated jazz and pop standards) or the negligible (his banal compositions). The results are tantalizing but ephemeral. Perhaps if Jordan played with partners of equal caliber to provide ballast, his stuff would not seem so much like hollow glamour-mongering.” Yeah, I thought. That’s it exactly. I was learning from Esmedina long before I started writing in the same pages, and though I’d written an unpublished novel about my own experiences in rock and roll bands, I wouldn’t consider myself a “music writer” for some time.
It was in 1992 when I was asked to write a piece for the music section. I was in a local band, and the idea was to review the audience from the musician’s point of view. A funny enough concept, but since we had such a small audience at the Spirit club on that night, I basically reviewed the other band members and myself. It was funny, and I was asked to write more stuff. The paper at that time had talents like D’Agostino, Stampone, and of course, Esmedina. The invitation was attractive and daunting. But I figured if it was some kind of Italian rockwrite mafia at the Reader, with my last name, I had a shot.
My reviews of local and national bands were so informed by Esmedina’s style that I read them now and realize to a large extent I was doing Esmedina.
I had lines like “The percussion sounded like a 55-gallon drum full of broken glass and household appliances tumbling down a flight of stairs.” Or, “The guitarist was in the tertiary stages of Stevie Ray Vaughn syndrome.” I was trying to write like Blubbo. Mean-spiritedness had nothing to do with it. This band had begged me for publicity, and when I heard them, their mediocrity was an affront, a waste of my time and yours. Blubbo would probably have skewered them with more wit — and I’m not just saying that because he’s dead, I’m saying it because it’s probable.
During “My Dinner with Blubbo” I asked him, “Why aren’t you more famous?” And then I mentioned another rock critic writing in these pages at that time who also wrote for Entertainment Weekly and had a gushy hack/bio of a rock star on the bestseller list. Esmo said, “She works at it. I do not know how to do that. I don’t understand the energy involved in letting the rest of the world know what you think. In the pages I write for, I’ve been given freedom. I cannot talk about music as if it were always something that reflected my problems. I don’t care about what some pedestrian music writer did with her sister when she was a kid. Make it interesting. Make it fun. Make something up!”
No doubt much will be made in San Diego music circles about similarities between Stephen Esmedina and Lester Bangs, and I won’t deny them. I knew Esmo not Bangs, but yeah, on the page they were in the same class. Same class as Christgau and Marcus and Meltzer, better than Crowe, Marsh, and Hilburn, just in a different market.
The last time I saw Blubbo was in Paradise Valley Hospital. He thought he was dying. We all thought he was dying. He wanted to die. He asked Bill Richardson and me to kill him. Get some drugs that would just take him out, he was in so much pain. We couldn’t do it. I got mad. I said, “You can’t die. This town is full of morons waiting for you to tell them what to think. You’re too good. You can’t die. This is wrong.” I took it out on the nice Filipino nurses and got the name of the doctor on the floor and kept calling for two hours until I got him to put a morphine patch on Blubbo. I knew what kind of agony he was in because I suffer from the same disease. I lay in a hospital bed with a swollen liver, spleen, and pancreas trying to erupt out of my torso like a trio of toothy, bloated aliens.
A couple of days later, I spoke with him on the phone. He sounded great. He was feeling all right and was about to be discharged. He said, “I can’t wait to get out of here and relapse.”
“Ah…jeez, ah…that’s not what you shoot for, Esmo.”
“Don’t call me Esmo.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to you later.” That was our last conversation.
Stephen “Blubbo” Esmedina’s old friend Mike Thomas, working in television in Hollywood these days, came down and gave the eulogy. He cried, he got mad, he laughed too. What he had to say constituted the service, and I think Steve would have been moved and amused — touched that this guy and Bill in the back pew couldn’t keep from crying because something was now gone in their lives beyond retrieval. My grief was constituted by large amounts of fear, because, as I said, I’ve got what Steve had, went along that road, looked down, freaked, and turned back. Another big element to go with my loss and fear would have to be annoyance, because with Esmedina out of the way, the world is just that much safer for mediocrity.
On the way out of the Sally Lynn Chapel that day, to the strains of some horrible shit by Edith Piaf or someone none of us could figure out and Esmedina would have hated, Mike Thomas said, “I can just hear him saying, ‘lame jam.’ ” I laughed and thought, Yeah, I can hear him saying that. But it wasn’t the service that was lame; Thomas made it what it should have been. It was Esmo’s death that was a lame jam. And on the heels of that thought came another one: I’m still learning from the guy.