Steve Esmedina had the biggest head I had ever seen on a human being. He also had the biggest heart — one that became more corroded over time, leaking pain and despair. The droll demeanor, the sniping wit, the cacophony of demolition that was Bighead grew weaker and nastier, his huge heart awash with some temperamental toxin. I think he was more afraid of not making it as a writer than he was afraid of dying.
That big head of his was filled with ideas. But it was also teeming with bitterness. He knew he had talent, but his anger prevented him from cultivating his abilities. He could write fascinating pieces, concisely analyzing the arcane dynamics of his favorite jazz artists or running wild with praise for the movie directors he worshipped. Yet his caustic nature left you wondering if Steve was really serious or simply spoofing. That bitterness was the seed of his own demise and laid waste to a beautiful, raw talent.
I remember visiting Steve at his Logan Heights home in the early ’80s. He was a mess. I hadn’t seen him for a year or so, having been away at college. We corresponded, but the letters were infrequent. I had no idea how ill Steve had become. No longer was he the rotund raconteur in the thrift-store blazer, his prematurely gray hair chopped into an anti-fashion style, his impish eyes glowing. Now, he was sickly and shrunken and pale. I hugged him and cried, frightened by his closeness to death. Those who had been around him then, who knew his habits, mocked me. Their sympathies had run dry long ago.
Our paths first crossed ten years earlier. When I enrolled in journalism classes at Mesa College in 1973, Steve was already ensconced as a music critic for the school paper. Hoping to get onto the staff myself, I submitted a stuffy review of the latest Jethro Tull album. Steve found my English-majorey prose stilted and silly, but I landed a spot on the staff nonetheless. Not versed in the terse, trendy style of Steve’s favorite music critics, I was denied a role writing album reviews. Instead, I was given the position no one wanted: city editor. On one slow news day, Steve suggested we create our own news. He convinced another gullible staff member to run across campus naked, from one restroom to another. We had an instant streaking story for the front page.
On another occasion, we received a review copy of a new Lou Reed LP, Rock and Roll Animal. In a listening booth in the Mesa College library, we rocked out, cranked it up, and spouted lines for a review of this, the greatest rock album of all time. All in the sterile academic confines of a community college research facility. Steve had chosen Mesa, partially, because of his love-hate relationship with “white dudes.” City College was closer to his home, but something about the suburban blankness of Kearny Mesa was much more appealing to him.
King Crimson was one of Steve’s favorites, and in between classes at Mesa he allowed me to borrow their latest LP. At home, I scratched the vinyl on the turntable of my ancient stereo, and I replaced the album with a new one. Those who knew Steve better than I laughed and shook their heads. No one abused his records more than Steve. Scratches and gouges were simply “alternate percussion,” he liked to say. When I first visited Steve’s house, which he shared with his mother and an ever-changing cast of relatives and hangers-on, I was treated to the sight of his record collection: stacks and stacks of naked vinyl and empty record jackets surrounded by empties and clothes and fast-food residue. At the forefront were his stalwarts: raunchy Redd Foxx, Blowfly, and Rudy Ray Moore. His passion appeared to be jazz, but much of his time was spent traveling back alleys and dark corners, avoiding groups who were popular and seeking out the new, the unknown, the future stars, always dipping in and out of the shadows, just out of reach. In those days, the first thing we did when visiting someone’s home for the first time was dig through the records. The tag line was: You can learn an awful lot about people from the kind of music they listen to. This really meant: How much of the music I like does this guy like? Anything outside the current sphere of cool was anathema at worst and material for derision at the very least. And you can also learn much more about someone by the way he treats his music collection.
Steve’s disregard for the condition of his LPs manifested itself in other areas of his life. In those days, we liked to drink, and we drank like idiots. Even though we didn’t need the money that badly, we still sold our blood downtown, had our fill of the free donuts and orange juice, and then went out drinking in dingy bars south of Broadway. We fancied ourselves junior Charles Bukowskis, depraved, dragging our sad brazenness from dive to dive, always ending where we started: alone.
Steve could write. Back then, his work was published regularly in both the Mesa paper and in the Reader. His imagination was fecund, and his ability to turn ornate phrases was amazing. Unfortunately, his disdain infected much of what he wrote, and it was an act of conscious restraint on his part to keep that negativity in check when cranking out music and movie reviews. He was not completely successful, and his reputation as a cranky critic grew. He took delight in the hate letters he received, written by music fans whose sacred cows were sliced at Steve’s hands.
Deadlines for Steve were always someone else’s problem. His ire colored his perceptions. He used that anger to cancel out his irresponsibility. He felt he was destined for something larger. Fame. Fortune. White girls.
We were certain that writing infamy was imminent, and, as dumb as we were, we still knew we had to write something big or go nowhere. After meeting a movie producer who spoke to a Mesa College film class, Steve and I decided to write a screenplay. Now that we had this Hollywood connection, we were going to go for the gold. The plan was for us to write constantly, together. I moved into Steve’s house in Shelltown for a few weeks, and the result was a slim sketch we named Blood Boredom. It was all about gangs before gangs were cool; it teemed with foul language and violence. Sam Peckinpah was a hero of Steve’s, and from him we borrowed the blood. Martin Scorcese’s film Mean Streets was another of Steve’s touchstones, and we drew blood from that source as well. The boredom was generated from our clumsy neophyte screenwriter prose and not from the angst our characters were supposed to embody. We even had the thing bound with a hard cover. The pages now are yellow, but the attitude remains. The characters speak with anger and vengeance and disdain. The dialog is common. The plot is thin. And the main character dies a senseless, violent death.
We received a rejection letter from the movie producer in September of 1974. By that time, I was going to school in San Francisco and Steve was studying at UCSD. Steve wrote to me frequently, keeping the screenplay dream alive. The rejection was typed on stationery from one of the producer’s biggest successes, The Last Detail. As rejection letters go, this one was kind and personal. Genuine advice was given, and receiving this letter was taken as a success in itself. A real producer was writing to us, two unknown, unproven, grandiose talents from America’s Finest City. He told us, “I have read Blood Boredom after holding your screenplay for an insultingly long time. My apologies. Real talent, such as yours, deserves better.” Amen. But would selling a screenplay have saved or changed Steve’s life?
The next month, Steve wrote to tell me he was still reworking Blood Boredom. With trademark attitude in place, he closed the letter saying, “Next week I’m going to send you the first completed draft of Sangria de Mi Barrio, the new title of BB. I figure if we make it sound really ethnic and provincial then some asshole humanitarianly inclined Hollywoodian will think he’s got a new genre on his hands.”
I took a souvenir from that collaboration episode. Steve was forever collecting items from thrift shops. Part of his treasure included a bound set of Catholic prayerbooks and a matching catechism. He sensed my curiosity and gave the books to me as a gift. I was not sure what it was all about, since way back then I was not yet a Catholic. Steve tried to enlighten me, and I realized that he was fighting the church, also. So many battles he waged; collectively these struggles destroyed him. He always placed himself on the periphery. The spite he held for those not like himself was tangible, and it kept him anchored outside. But beneath so much scathing attitude was that messy, yearning heart of his.
He fought other institutions as well. In literature courses at UCSD, he struggled with the assigned readings. His mind demanded something more immediate. He wrote to me in the fall of 1974, “The point I’m trying to make is that I really think 19th-century American writing, which is thrown in my face as God-like, is really pompous and overweight and BORING!!!! Modern writing, especially Latin-American, strikes notes in me that I never thought existed. When I read a line like: ‘One of my weaknesses is gossipology, although I’d add in my defense that only certain superior forms of gossip, such as history, hold any interest for me,’ I CREAM!!!! That was from Cortazar. These guys know what it means to feel superior/inferior with everyone you know. They know the ambivalence of the educated mind. They know that smugness is deadly. So they gnaw at their own erudition, their own sense of accomplishment, their own smugness in a way that might be taken as a wee bit ‘smug.’ They realize the contradictions, the obsessions, the repetitions, the futility of ponderance and yet they ponder, they repeat, they are obsessed, they contradict. They move on and stay in the same place LIKE US!!!! I don’t care what the ‘scholars’ think. They should build a time machine and go back to the periods they love so much and leave modern art to modern minds. End of lecture.”
Steve continued working on the screenplay, and his letters offered more thoughts on his desire to become a writer. I was studying journalism and creative writing at San Francisco State, and he was immersed in literature at UCSD. My letters to Steve were soaked in wine; his were driven by beer and adorned with despairing return addresses. From one marked “Ennui Associates,” Steve wrote, “Have you ever wondered about my propensity for pseudo-self-effacing self-pity? Don’t mind me. It’s my way of maintaining a semblance of rationality about the ridiculous, fucked-up entanglements of this life which doesn’t even belong to me yet. Do you remember the first time you thought, ‘Gosh, I wanna be a facile writer someday’? I do. It was cold, darkness, all black. Here is the crux of my dilemma: I can see things clearly but am afraid to apply them to my art. That’s why I waste time writing criticism. I can perceive but not conceive. Oh, the shame of it all!!!”
And as that big head churned, Steve craved love. He disguised that desire in his letters among raunchy bellowing and pretend misogyny. Later that fall, he sighed, “Perhaps it’s just me. How can I expect a ‘meaningful relationship’ with a woman in these days and nights of liberated libidos? I am not needed. But then again, I must learn to shelve my undue cynicism. Maybe that’s what’s keeping me from realizing my sundry dreams. If I’m so intelligent, then how come no woman loves me? Can a person control his life? Can he chart the course? Is there hope?” A few days later, he wrote again, avoiding the subject of women entirely. But he still reflected on his future. Critic, writer, and ultimately, he said, “Yes, I dream of being a film director day in and day out.”
So ironic, this whole sad business. Steve wanted to be loved, he wanted to be esteemed. He pursued those things that lead to notoriety or fame. And the hope was always there, for the name alone, to attract women — not necessarily the man behind the name. How we stumbled and shouted and chastised the world for being unfair, all the while drinking ourselves comatose to squelch the pain. Heads and hearts disjointed, unformed, askew.
Yet in the midst of this emotional chaos, it appeared that Steve also craved substance. And meaning. His letters are abundant with dismissals of the mundane and the hypocritical. As punctuation to his rambling eviscerations of music, movies, and relationships, Steve offered focused statements attached to clear examples that appeared to stand for things he truly believed in, things he felt were worthy and honorable. In December of 1974, he wrote me about a childhood friend who recently joined MeCHA. Steve always struggled with identity, forever self-deprecating, forever vacillating, forever unsure of politics. He used his mixed-blood Filipino/Mexican status to justify sitting on the fence or standing off to the side. The MeCHA group was going to confront the Mesa College cafeteria staff, and Steve’s friend asked him to cover the event for the school paper. Afterward, Steve unloaded. “I feel weird,” he wrote. “On one hand, I must admit that this farmworkers’ cause is a good, humane one, but on the other hand, I JUST DON’T GIVE A FUCK!!! We don’t exist in a climate that is especially conducive to political blood-brotherism. And the ethnic reification process truly annoys me. Why am I a ‘Tio Taco’ if I choose the kind of wine or beer or lettuce I want to? Why should I care? What if I decided to be like Jean Genet and give my life over to bigger causes…would my ‘peeeple’ not call me names, ridicule me…isn’t ‘La Raza’ just another equivalent to ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee’? What is this shit? Am I just a selfish bastard? Is my reactionism justified? As far as I’m concerned, the biggest joke about this country is that everyone gets to have it their way…don’t like waving a red, white, and blue flag?…then go wave a red, green, and white one and feel real, real good. Then go stop buying Gallo wine…buy Annie Green Springs, and feel real good.”
And the following week, he zeroed in on more essentials: “You must read Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow. The guy knew how to die, which is much more important than knowing how to live. You see, he created a body of art that was completely his; then, by adhering to some ridiculous Samurai Bushido code, he killed himself. Great! That way it sounds like he was MAKING A STATEMENT instead of just copping out. Brilliant strategy. Maybe a Mama Cass deliberately got to be a fat pork-chop boar to make a statement on how obesity causes heart attacks, even in the most famous fatsos.” Many times it was difficult to tell when Steve was serious and when he was fooling. Occasionally, he would send me terse concert reviews of bands he knew I liked, later to inform me that he had never actually attended the shows. It was a curious mix of not wanting to hurt my feelings along with stabs of envy. It all issued from his wounded heart.
That heart eventually got him the girl. By the spring of 1975, Steve was writing frequently about his love affair with Gail. She was white, from the alien realm of Mission Village, young, beautiful, and — gauging from Steve’s epistles — thoroughly taken by him. His brooding and bitterness were toned down. After a lengthy lament about a former girlfriend, he wrote, “But who cares? I have Gail. Sweet, lovely, moody-as-hell Gail. Everything I dreamed of and more…more hassles, more introspections, more complaints of ingratitude. She’s going to go on the pill for me, and I have been made to feel as if it is a magnanimous sacrifice unparalleled. To which I replied…I can always use Trojans…not good enough…only 80% effective. So what does she want me to do…cut my balls off? I appreciate everything she does for me, I love her dearly, I respect her perspicacity…but dues-paying went out with the Cub Scouts for me.” The new domesticity in his voice was tempered, though, by that letter’s concluding sentence: “I am becoming more skeptical, more mistrusting, more boring and boorish every day. Where will I be in five years? Hell, five months! Fuck! Five days…minutes…seconds….”
In late winter of 1974, Steve wrote me from UCSD. His typewriter at home was broken, and he was using a pay machine at the university that was fueled by dimes. When his money ran out, he finished the letter in longhand. “I read some of Gail’s poetry the other night,” he said. “Not bad. It was intelligible and there were a couple of good lines like, ‘Cab driver / drop me off at the asylum ’round the corner / I just went insane.’ I still think poetry is prose in search of punctuation and verbs, but Gail has more on the ball than I ever could have considered possible.” He still talked about the screenplay revision, and always he touched on literature, film, and music, dropping names and ripping his way through culture with rusty scissors. When all was shredded, there stood Steve, searching for something acceptable, something meaningful, something worth his while. And the object of that search was forever elusive.
A letter from the following spring contains sad ironies. He laments, “This morning I woke up with a throbbing in my gullet and the certain knowledge that I would die any year now: a semi-fever is basking my body, and I’m sure I’ll be sick by tonight.… I guess it’s my fault as I slept with the window open all night, and you know how cold cold cold it’s freezin’ in this hotel…accidental suicide someday? Maybe.” Later, in the same plaintive missive, Steve asks, “Can vitamin C help a wounded heart? I feel shitty in every sense of the word. I think I’m going to start taking care of myself from now on…methodicalize my roles as a human being while still leasing this lemon called life…(excuse me).” He followed with lyrics from his all-time favorite, Bryan Ferry, the former Roxy Music front man: “With every goddess a bed down / every idol a bring down / it gets you down / but the search for perfection / your own predilection / goes on and on and on.”
That summer, I was set to enter the service. Steve was the only friend who didn’t accuse me of making a grave error. He was still attending UCSD, but more out of habit than anything. In April of 1975, he wrote, “School is boring. The people at UCSD are despairing to habitate amongst. If success doesn’t arrive soon I have several options: 1) Join an institution that will provide ready steady work, like you; 2) Get a menial job and resign myself to mediocrity; 3) Become an alcoholic or drug addict thereby providing everyone with a reasonable excuse as to my downfall; 4) Invest in a bottle of Sleep-eze.”
The sad ironies continue in his next letter, two weeks later. After describing his aimless, irritating activities at a party, during which he drunkenly disparaged most everyone he encountered, Steve added, “Anyway, Gail got extreeeeeeeeeeeemely pissed off at me even to the point of telling me ‘GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME YOU INSANE BASTARD!’ Wow! I felt like committing myself. Of course, I guess I asked for it.” The rest of the letter was devoted to film: short reviews, paeans to Tobe Hooper and Dirk Bogarde, analyses of the directing styles of Schlessinger, Polanski, and Arthur Penn. But he slipped in strange digressions, reflecting on a year-old tarot-card prediction and declaring a new substance-abuse strategy. “I hate alcohol,” he said. “I think I’ll just go back to sniffing lacquer. I never fucked up when I sniffed paint. It just zonked you out.” He jumped back into cinema and deposited this haunting interlude: “San Diego’s dearth of a movie scene is killing me. Most of the new movies I’ve seen this year have been shit or ephemeral gloss. How can I wait two more months to see The Passenger or Day of the Locust? The arid climate for arts.… I mean, LIVING art, not canvassed cadavers…proves that San Diego is as worthless as Cincinnati or Butte or Providence or Taos.…think of dying in San Diego. What a legacy. I’d rather die anywhere else but here. That will be the ultimate test of success or failure for me.”
Soon his letters contain fewer references to music and movies and more and more commentaries on death and fate. At the end of April, he started off with the description of a horrid, fatal accident. “Life never seemed so negligible,” he began, “nor death so ineluctable as it did last night. I saw a poor asshole crash into a pole at 90 miles an hour. Gail and I were en route to downtown when about half a mile up Friars Road we saw a huge mass of metal explode. We stopped to investigate as all self-serving meteches would. There were several cop cars there already. Apparently, they had been chasing this guy for a while. The guy’s car was squashed into one huge scrap heap. Strewn across the road we saw the guy’s head smashed up as well as his bloody torso and severed limbs. After we had been there for about ten minutes many cars started to pile up, and the audience grew to sidewalk capacity. What surprises me is that I was hardly affected by the sight of death in my presence. I wonder — am I jaded beyond hope, or am I nearing total apathy about life? The pole, by the way, didn’t even have a dent in it. Oy vey…high-life ecstasy?” The ruminations wound on, and then he focused on his love life. “On this side of heartbreak,” he said, “I believe I am nearing the penultimate stretch with Gail. It’s just a feeling, mind you, but she appears to be rapidly tiring of me. Either that, or she is just merely used to me. I would pray that I am simply imagining things, but I don’t have the energy. I think I am a fair approximation of a washout-with-women. I am a nice change of pace…a surprise…an exotic dessert…good for a month or two and then easily disposable. Booooooooo-Hooooooooo. Please, God, whoever you are, don’t let her dump me…who else will pump me…???” He concluded with a series of gossipy one-liners before his quarter ran out and the typewriter clicked off. In his sprawling hand, Steve wrote a postscript: “In the next bulletin I’ll detail my tarot experiences. I’m doomed, according to my introductory reading.”
Ultimately, the head/heart dynamic spun out of orbit. Visceral breakdowns were on the horizon. Esophagus, liver, organic destruction. The letters never varied in their themes. Over and over…music, books, movies, women. Presented with dark highlights, exaggeration, bleak stretches, embroidered with anger and frustration, filigreed with sourness. A few months later, he wrote me overseas: “I, too, have been drinking a lot. At the beginning of this month I decided to put all my empties in a big box to see how many I could collect in a month. I’ve got three six packs of Olde English, four vodka bottles, two Thunderbird bottles, and a bottle of Plum Velvet. Here’s how it usually goes: start off depressed, go to store and buy booze and Pall Malls (my brand now), drink for a half-hour, feel great, start getting depressed again, feel sick, start over the next day. Oy vey.”
It all seems so inevitable. Steve was issuing fatal predictions in his letters for years. Occasionally, he spoke of turning it around, of changing his ways, of tending to his health. Mere words. Spoken many times to reassure a girlfriend. Part of the script. Buying a little time. Even the last scene of Blood Boredom etched out the confines of his vision, as eerily as a prediction from the thrift-shop copy of Nostradamus that lay near melted candles and urine-filled 40-ounce beer bottles lined up next to Steve’s bed. Kiki, the hero of the screenplay, is driven into a corner. In the barrio there are no options, and violence is a daily inevitability. The plot is as trite as Steve’s life was tragic. The last scene:
Three vatos pounce on Kiki while he is running. One of them pulls out a knife and stabs Kiki several times. Kiki falls to the ground. The vatos disappear into the crowd.
Medium-close shot of Kiki lying on the floor, eyes open. His mouth is twisted grotesquely.
Steve would have loved the story to end here, on a grim note. But he deserves better. He would deny this, opting instead for the grotesque, the violent, the absurd. But he deserves better. Yes. The ineluctableness of death. Always a fascination for Steve. In how many cinematic episodes, sitting in darkened theaters or protected by the cloying comfort of his living room, did he study scenes of violence with dispassionate approval? So many movies, so many slow-motion ballets of murder and vengeance and gratuitous destruction. It all started after seeing Ben Hur, “The greatest movie of all time!” he said time and again. The critic. Blubbo passing judgment again. He was wrong about the negligibility of life. His tortured heart, bound by attitude, would not allow him to speak otherwise. His letters were riddled with bravado and boast, and he spent years crafting a persona that defied penetration. Even when he typed on his new typewriter in red all-capital letters, “I WILL BE YOUR FRIEND FOREVER,” it was certain that his crafty head, shaded by some diabolical purpose, would compromise that sentiment eventually. But the heart was still there, struggling to flicker and shine, as Steve waited for the success that eluded him, waiting and fading. Goodbye, Bighead.