Sunday, August 07, 2005

Remembering Steve Vincent 

As we are all still coming to terms with Steve Vincent's tragic death in Basra a few days ago, his friend Doug Balch sends in this reminiscence of the younger Steve. For most of us, Steve was just a great blogger and courageous journalist, fascinated with Islamic societies and committed to a better future for people of Iraq. Doug's stories fill some of the gaps on Steve the man.

I knew Steve well from 1974 until about 1985. I wanted to share some anecdotes about him from those years for those of you grieving at his loss. This is not a eulogy, just a disconnected set of stories and impressions that might help some of you to understand more about Steve. I have tried to put them in a semi-chronological order.

I met Steve in 1974 when he roomed next door to me during our freshman year at University of California in Santa Barbara. He came from Sunnyvale, Ca near San Jose, but identified broadly with San Francisco and the Bay Area. Looking at his high school background, it was hard to identify the nascent rebel in Steve. I bet a lot of his friends don't know that his teenage experience was right out of the movie "American Graffitti". He was editor of his high school newspaper and a starting member of his high school football team (he played center). He was best friends with the football players and cheerleaders and was an insider of the most popular social clique in his high school. He underwent quite a transformation in college.

Steve had pretty much total recall of any information his brain processed. He was by far the brightest person I have ever met. He was a popular culture junkie and spent a lot of time in high school watching old movies on television. His freshman year at Santa Barbara he took a class called "Popular Culture and the Atomic Age". For his term paper he turned in a 100 page paper comparing and contrasting 20 or so science fiction movies from the Cold War era. I still laugh imagining the look on his professor's face as he first thumbed through the essay. There were no VCR's around back then. Steve had no access to the movies to research them for the paper. The whole essay just poured out of his mind fully formed.

Along with 5 other friends from our freshman dormitory, we once attended a Doobie Brothers concert on campus. Steve had an aisle row seat and we were all next to him. A guy walked up and told Steve he was sitting in his seat. We checked our tickets and found we had sat in the wrong seat numbers. We all got up and politely moved over one seat to let the guy have the aisle seat. About fifteen seconds after the guy sat down next to Steve, a drunk stumbled over and threw up all over the guy who had just taken Steve's seat. We teased him for a long time about that.

In our sophomore year, Steve's apartment off campus was a real gathering place. Every Sunday night at least 10 guys showed up to howl over that latest Monty Python episode. I went over to his place many weeknights at 11PM to watch the Twilight Zone with him and his roommate Randy. He created a little game where we would try to guess which still picture they had chosen to run the credits over at the end of each episode. Try it sometime, it's tricky. Steve's favorite re-run was Maverick, the old Western TV show that got James Garner's career started. Steve totally got me into Americana.

There is nothing Steve loved more that the United States of America, especially its popular culture. I think he was fundamentally apolitical, though. He was drawn to a pure vision of America's energy, naivete, optimism and individualism. He shied away from the popular liberalism of the day, because he was always wary of socialist fascism and group-think. As deeply as he delved into European philosophy and literature, Emerson and Whitman were his Yin and Yang, energizing him and driving him forward like a two cycle cylinder. This is classic Steve Vincent - going from the Twilight Zone to Emerson and Whitman in the same paragraph.

Steve once took in a political science class with Randy and another friend. Steve hated the class and stopped attending lectures after the first two weeks. The entire grade for the class was based on one term paper. The night before it was due at the end of the semester Steve sent Randy out to buy a case of beer. Then he sat down behind his rickety manual typewriter with a couple of packs of cigarettes and proceeded to write three term papers, one for each of them. He was done around sunrise. The results? Randy and his friend got A minuses and Steve got a B. Just like Steve to turn in the worst paper in his own name.

Steve and I both transferred to UC Berkeley at the same time. At Berkeley, Steve liked to poke fun at the left wing establishment ensconced there. Sproul Plaza is Berkeley's historic main campus square and in our day it was always packed with a dizzying array of booths promoting various liberal causes. Steve wanted to cart in an old covered wagon and dress up like a gypsy, complete with donkeys and unwashed children. He would claim he was from the oppressed country of Bosrovia, which he made up. He created a fake map and squeezed Bosrovia in there somewhere between Roumania and Bulgaria. He wanted to stand on a milk box and make impassioned liberation speeches all day long. He was never quite able to pull that off, but to this day I can't get that hilarious image out of my mind. He was a tremendous wit.

Steve hosted a morning music program for a while on the campus radio station. He
was a great DJ. It was 1976 and punk rock was just emerging from its underground beginnings. I remember he titled one of his shows "The Death of Punk Rock". He wanted to be the first to declare the trend over before it even started. He attended the Sex Pistols' first concert at the old Cow Palace in the City. It was a rainy night and Steve was deeply impressed by the image of Johnny Rotten standing his ground as hundreds of umbrellas were hurled at him from the crowd. 70's Punk culture had a big influence on Steve. I remember him dragging me to a midnight showing of David Lynch's Eraserhead and attending a free concert in Sproul Plaza by the Talking Heads, a then unknown band (to everyone but Steve). He knew back then that Manhattan was the only place he could live. I remember sitting in his apartment going through page after page of the entertainment advertisements in the back of the Village Voice. What other place was there to be?

Steve's senior year at Berkeley can go by only one title - the year of Thomas Pynchon. Steve became obsessed with "Gravity's Rainbow". If you haven't read it, do so some time and you will understand a lot more about Steve. He wrote a monstrously long and complex senior thesis on Pynchon. I'm sure they're still talking about it in the English Department there.

After college, Steve bummed around Europe on the Railpass junket for a few months. He went to Ireland. Many times I heard him tell a fascinating tale of a couple of weeks he spent living in Belfast with some dangerous IRA types. That experience probably whetted his appetite for adventure travel later in life.

When we met up in New York in 1980, my sister in law got us both jobs as security guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The job were extremely monotonous. I remember one day the museum had closed the main European painting section. Steve was given the assignment of standing at the entrance and telling the public that the section was closed. Everyone kept asking him all day long why it was closed. Steve started a game up to keep his mind active. He tried to tell each person a different reason why the section was closed. "It's the Plague, sir." he would deadpan. "The section has been quarantined. Please step back for your own safety." "It's Black
Thursday, Ma'am. On this date in 1888, three French impressionists plunged to their doom off the Loire bridge in Paris. The section has been closed in their honor." Needless to say, Steve had no problem coming up with as many different answers as he needed.

At the Met, we were constantly giving people directions to the bathroom or to another gallery. It could become very annoying over the course of an 8 hour shift. Once a guest asked him how to get to the Mona Lisa. He calmly put his hand on her shoulder, told her to go down the hall, make a left, turn right at the end of the hallway, go down the grand staircase, out the front door of the museum, take a taxicab to JFK, take a flight to Paris,get a cab there and ask the drive to take her to the Louvre Museum. His career as a security guard was mercifully (both for him and the museum) short-lived.

Steve had a sophisticated world view. This was evidenced in his musical tastes. He had a perceived background of (relative) political conservatism, yet his favorite music group was the Clash. The Clash on the surface had ultra-left politics, but a closer take on their lyrics reveals more rebellious libertarianism than socialism. He was an enormous fan of the Grateful Dead during those years also. No band is probably is more closely linked to the 60's cultural revolution, but Steve appreciated them more for their dedication to Americana and their obscure, difficult-to-access lyrics.

That's all I've got. Maybe somebody else has some stories about Steve to share. I would love to hear them.


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