I don’t quite remember the first time I met my near-lifelong pal, Steve Becker.
He was a childhood friend of my first roommate, a quiet, even taciturn element in the sometimes rowdy mix of mostly musicians who hung out in our strange — and supposedly haunted — garret/loft apartment, a sprawling, mostly empty, multi-level space that occupied the third-and-a-half floor of a rickety old wooden mansion that had been divided into 5 apartments.
I didn’t play music at the time, though I’d tried repeatedly to learn guitar as a kid. Steve had been playing guitar a couple years — he’d been something of a star at his high school as a singer and harmonica player — and he, my then-girlfriend, and my roomy all encouraged me to try again. With their help and encouragement, I strung up my barely playable guitar with new strings and gave it one more go…
The other musicians who hung around our place were all experienced, several of them in my roomie’s very accomplished, label-intriguing band. Their nuts-and-bolts music talk was way over my head, but Steve wasn’t so far beyond where I was that he couldn’t stoop to give a guy a hand, sharing what he’d gleaned from his own self-taught pathway.
After the landlords (an adjacent church) demolished the old house — which had been the home of ‘Old Man Carroll,’ the developer who subdivided the historic Carroll Park neighborhood in Long Beach, California — to make way for parking for the Church, Steve and I stayed friends, talking and, in time (after I’d assembled some rudimentary skills), playing music together for hour after hour.
We talked about pretty much everything from music to girls to everyday philosophies of living.
For a time we both found ourselves ‘back at home’ living with our respective folks. I got to know his mom and dad and his little brother, Craig, and Steve’s best friends, Evan Jacobson and David Black. I even hung out some at the family’s car lot and wrecking yard, eventually buying my second car from Steve’s dad, a two year old, SAAB 96 that the senior Mr Becker gave me a great deal on.
It was the 70s and life was all over the map.
Steve got to know my core friends, becoming longtime friends with many of them. We even went out, a little, with a couple of the same girls, though there was never any real rivalry. (It was the 70s… we were above all that proprietary stuff. Uh huh.)
And, in addition to entwining our musical lives, we had adventures, long, late-night drives, a camping trip or two, one long and wild trip marked, near the beginning, by driving in my SAAB along Sunset Boulevard toward the mountains in the east, no particular place to go, but heads full of adventure… Someplace near the fabled ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ on Sunset a big Lincoln Towncar pulled up along side of us and Steve said, “That guy scowling at us looks just like Lawrence Welk.”
I looked and, sure enough, it did look just like Welk, who I’d grown up watching with my family.
With one last frown, the fella in the Lincoln floored it and the big car dropped a gear and surged ahead so we could see the rear, personalized license plate: “A1ANA2.’ Our brush with fame.
Later on that same trip, Steve and I would find ourselves wandering on foot through the mountains, losing the trail we’d followed for several hours up from a roadside parking area… as the afternoon progressed, Steve said, “So, you do know where we are, don’t you?”
I wasn’t entirely sure but, given the givens, I thought it best to exude confidence, promising I could get us back to the trail and the car. But it was starting to get cold… and dark. I found myself running through various cold-night survival scenarios in my head. Steve had essentially put his safety in my hands.
Still, with the sun sinking to the horizon, at least we knew which way was which, and, knowing the trail head was in a valley below us, I directed us down the hill, finally, after what seemed hours of walking through low chaparral scrub, seeing a road below. We followed the road a bit more to the west and, finally, as it was starting to get pretty dark, we found the SAAB waiting for us some hundreds of yards down the road. I don’t know about Steve, but I shivered for about 15 minutes after we got in the car and cranked the heater up full. Adventure. Best to have when you’re young.
Both Steve and I were more than a bit cynical, particularly about pop culture — though Steve had a more open, accepting musical sense — and his earnest advocacy of more than a few popular songs I’d already rejected with the most withering pejorative I knew at the time, lame, eventually opened up my mind a little to the innocent joys of good, innocent fun music.
Meanwhile, we were both doing the musical auto-didact thing, individually teaching ourselves music, while occasionally sharing notes on what we had managed to figure out.
Steve was always a bit ahead of me but he had a somewhat idiosyncratic way of expressing his musical discoveries — and I would find myself pondering observations he’d made, sometimes for months — sometimes for years. Sometimes I still find myself slapping my forehead and saying to myself, Ah, so THAT’s what Steve was talking about!
Well before I had the chops or discipline, I found myself in a handful of bands, playing bass (so often the tyro guitarist’s path of entry into the band world).
After a few bands, including one scruffy little trio I agreed to fill the bass slot for that played a bunch of shows in a few short months, I started feeling like I was ready to be in a band where I could sing some of my own songs. I’d become good friends with Rick Black, the little brother of one Steve’s good friend, David, buying a guitar from him and jamming with him and Steve in loud, silly living room jams.
When I ran into a fellow I’d met in a surrealism class at Long Beach State at a local live music bar, James Norling, things began to click. Steve wasn’t part of it directly, but was often around. Rick, James, and I added the drummer ex-boyfriend of James’ sister to our lineup and started practicing, building loose, punk-inflected ‘arrangements’ of songs written mostly by James and myself, with Rick contributing a handful, as well.
But it was a hard-luck band. First the drummer got in a fight and broke his ankle. Precisely one month later, about the time that the drummer was able to start playing again, James fell asleep behind the wheel and wrapped his truck around a tree, rupturing his gall bladder and breaking his ankle. Not long after he came back on board, and precisely two months after the drummer’s accident and one month after James’ own, a careless driver t-boned me on my motorcycle as I was driving home from a local Mexican restaurant, breaking my femur, my hip and, of course, my ankle. Each incident precisely one calendar month apart. (I called Rick, the only untouched member of the band, and strongly urged him to lock himself in his apartment on the one month ‘anniversary’ of the accidents. He escaped harm, I’m happy to say.)
At that point, Steve stepped in to fill my place in the band, playing bass (which he was very solid at, though he had little experience) and also sitting in on lead guitar — which he was much better at than any of us regulars. Steve graciously stepped aside when it was time for me to come back, but, I had to admit that the rehearsal tapes I heard from my absence sounded much tighter and together… damn that guy!
I eventually dropped out of the band, which went on to play a few shows and then dissolved, but that left more time for Steve and me to jam and explore music together.
Playing in various pickup get-togethers with our pals Rick and James we recorded and edited together a number of improvised jams which we dubbed the Emergency Jam Force — or EmJamFo, as I, an early fan of camel case, dubbed it.
We were long on ferocity, weirdness, and lack of what you might call structure. It was huge fun. We also found ourselves jamming with a wide variety of the friends we’d made during the punk years.
After my motorcycle accident, stuck on crutches and then a cane, I eschewed getting in any permanent bands, but rededicated myself to the recording/production course I’d started just before the wreck. After a semester or two I was able to convince all three pals to get into the class, where we recorded the then-current version of the old band and managed to work with a variety of artists, including some of our local musical heroes, like Randy Stodola’s original Alley Cats. (NOT the neo-doo-wop band of the current era, not by about a million miles.)
In that recording program at Long Beach City College, I met the tough talking ex-tank commander, Joe Alba, who would become my engineering partner on a number of projects. Joe and his wife, Barbara, took to Steve almost immediately, becoming good friends.
I almost perfectly remember the day that Barb, Steve, and I drove up to the Valley to see then-breaking country chanteuse, K.D. Lang. Joe was otherwise engaged [he was still in the Army Reserves] but Barb, Steve, and I had a great time. Steve kept us laughing the the whole time with his off-the wall observations and often wicked humor. A wonderful day.
Time marches on and, eventually, beginning in 1990, I found myself doing an early, live, echo loop act I cheekily dubbed Frippenstein, an off-handed tribute to Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics echo loop explorations.
It was easy enough for me, improvising keyboards, to set up spacey, live-tracked echo loops and play over them… I’d decided to create an act ‘perfect’ for playing ambient music for otherwise occupied/and/or/distracted coffee house patrons. But an artist needs to be challenged…
At some point, I enlisted Steve, playing lap steel guitar, six string electric, and clarinet, my pal Kurt Schnyder on hand percussion, recorder, and flutes, and our friend, the eminently talented (and quite beautiful) Ann De Jarnett (once of Mnemonic Devices, later of Ann De Jarnett and the Falcons) on violin and keyboards.
We called the project band Drift, playing a number of small clubs including the old System M as well as at the first Long Beach Outside Music Festival (I may be mangling the name of the festival… apologies). We made sprawling, totally improvised, rather undisciplined music.
(And we took forever to set up, that all my fault, as I flitted back and forth across various stages trying to patch together all the primitive echo loop gear — a rig that required at one point over 80 separate signal and power cables. I understand there are still people grumbling about the set up for our c. 1994 show at the Long Beach Museum of Art.)
In the years following, Steve (and sometimes Kurt) and I found ourselves jamming with Steve’s younger brother Craig’s old friend and classmate, Bill Moulinos, a classically trained violist. Steve dubbed the grouping, The Mercy Fox, and arranged a weekly, free-coffee gig at the struggling coffee house of a friend, mostly playing from my ragtag songbook, with all the ‘arrangements’ totally improvised.
Steve was always a fine, intuitive, expressive harmonica player, and a fierce, fast, aggressive 6 string player, but he also became a sensitive and nuanced lap steel player. In the 1990s, he sat in on a number of occasions with local legend, the late country crooner, Chris Gaffney. Someplace along the line he took to using an old alias he’d kicked around since the 1970s, Caz Camberline. (That early automotive experience reemerging.)
By that time, Steve and I had something of a sixth-sense musical relationship — and Bill was right there with us, probably one of the most intuitive players I’ve worked with. Which was good, because I had pretty well zero interest in anything approaching musical discipline.
We’d show up Friday nights, grab some goopy, sweet coffee drinks, and just start in, whether there was anyone there or not. It was enormous, if chaotic, fun.
It wasn’t until near the end of that open-ended gig period that I became privy to the wicket pun at the heart of the name. (Mumble it out loud a bit and see what you come up with.) By that time, it was too late for dignity.
Steve and I kept jamming together with Bill, Rick, James, Kurt, Ann and other friends. The intuitive musical bond between Steve and I continued to develop. I had become fascinated by free improvisation approaches and, no matter how far from musical convention I drifted, it seemed like Steve could be there with me, echoing my lines, playing off them, exploring harmonic variations. (James passed away in 2005. Kurt passed in 2007.)
I always figured that Steve, who always seemed just a bit bigger, and tougher, and definitely healthier and more level-headed than me, would live a long, healthy life. He took care of himself. While I’d been a heavy drinker for several decades before quitting in 1994, Steve barely drank, never smoked cigarettes, wasn’t a druggy, probably only smoked pot a handful of times. Both his parents lived into their late 80s or 90s.
I never dreamed for an instant that Steve wouldn’t outlive me — probably for decades, I imagined.
But life is a funny damn thing.
Steve, healthy, robust, roustabout Steve — he’d worked as a roadie into his 60s — Steve, of all people — Steve, whose family all lived to ripe old ages — Steve who I would have counted on to tell the world about me after I was gone…
Steve somehow, through some crazy trick of fate, developed lung cancer that spread to his brain. He was diagnosed not long before the current coronavirus pandemic emerged, though even before the epidemic closed things up, he was reticent to meet with old friends as he battled cancer, not wanting to worry them, I suppose. We talked on the phone about getting together to jam, I was going to help him with some computer music things, but his treatments took time — and, of course, precious energy. When I talked to him, his sense of humor was there, but it wasn’t hard to hear the tiredness between the lines. It was reassuring that his brother, Craig, and his old friends Evan and David, were there for him to the end.
Steve ‘Caz Camberline’ Becker passed away at the beginning of June this year.
I still sometimes forget he’s gone. It seems like I’m often carrying on some kind of dialog in my head with him about music or life, then catching myself, and thinking, Damn.