Having actually included MAGNET as one of my favorite things (and I promise that’s not sucking up, I really love the publication), you can imagine how chuffed I was at the prospect of a guest editorship. Over the past, well, several years of the Sharp Things‘ existence, Eric Miller has been a friend and an advocate, even when no one else was, so I’m honored to be able to ramble on a bit about a bunch of shit that I dig, because I want everyone to know about it and, more significantly, because it makes me feel important. Over to you, me …
He was the Sharp Things’ drummer for most of its 17 years and perpetually, unfalteringly, my BFF since 1975.
Back then, I didn’t know what to think of this kid. He suffered from a genetic disease called cystic fibrosis, which at the time, I had never heard of. He was thin, almost frail, but with a mouth twice as big as the rest of him. His condition, in many ways, made him more daring, less tolerant of bullshit, less afraid. If he felt wronged, it didn’t matter if the culprit was the biggest, meanest doofus in the schoolyard, he would get right up in their face, insult their mother … and run like hell. I didn’t realize it then, but being forward and competitive as hell, Steven was the perfect counterweight to this wallflower of a boy. And on we went …
Steven started playing music before I did. He was a year older than me, and when we were kids that might as well have been an eternity. He was suddenly hanging out with doods a few years older than us who wore army parkas and played guitars and were into Zeppelin and the Doors. It felt incredibly rebellious and attractive, but I was an outlier. I was just dabbling with the old piano in my parents’ living room, but I could hardly play a chord yet. Steve was already messing around with the complicated patterns of Neil Peart. I hung out in his basement and watched six other guys and a bunch of girlfriends (girlfriends!) enlisted as “backing vocalists” while they bounced, sweat and warbled through a set of classic-rock standards meant to actually be played in front of a real audience. I was so jealous. I would have sat down at the piano, but I knew I was over my head.
But, Steven knocked my door one Saturday morning with the entirety of his drum kit in tow. “Let’s jam!” he said, and so we set up in the living room and we did our best to lock in. I think the song was Billy Joel’s “The Stranger.”
I sucked, and Steven could have just as easily continued on his path without me, but he wouldn’t let it go. And it was that little homespun jam session that would springboard a musical union that would span almost four decades, three bands and various incarnations of each, hundreds of songs, stages, recordings and a thousand wonderful memories.
Together, Steven and I shared countless inside jokes, experiences and dreams. He had beat the odds of life expectancy for cystic fibrosis patients twice. When we were younger, it was 21, so getting up into our teens, we worried more about him, as he did himself. But he sailed right past the mark, making friends, traveling, working with the mentally handicapped, and eventually getting married—all the while playing his drums. When we got into our mid-30s, advances in the treatment of CF pushed the life expectancy up to 37. He sailed right past that one, too—buying a home, adopting a fantastic son, Dougie, named after his brother who had died of the disease at the age of 12, when Steven was only 10 years old, and still finding the time to play in the Sharp Things. Of course, he’d made it that far. He had more will power than anyone I’d ever known.
In 2012, his son was diagnosed with brain cancer. Steven and his wife, Bridget, spent the better part of the next harrowing two years putting him through treatments: chemo, radiation, more chemo. Finally, on July 25, 2014, Dougie was given a clean bill of health. It was finally over. That evening, we played a stripped down set at Piano’s NYC and celebrated with a few beers afterward. Steven was ecstatic. It seemed like life would probably get on a normal track for him, but soon afterward, his own health started to falter. Over the next month or so he’d go in and out of Beth Israel Hospital in downtown Manhattan with various CF-related maladies. It was unsettling, but not altogether unusual.
Steven had been at Beth Israel for almost a week when the rest of the Sharp Things rolled up at the Mercury Lounge to soundcheck for our show. The date was Sept. 11, 2014. Just a few days prior, Steve and I had communicated about how much he wanted to play, but this just wasn’t going to be the show. One more stretch of convalescence and he’d be back to it. But then he’d fell silent. Text messages went unanswered and a cold, dull fear became pervasive in me. I stepped off the stage after soundcheck and found out then that Steven had passed away that morning. I had spoken to both Michelle Caputo and Steve London earlier in the day about how Steven was going to handle being in the band, whether he’d be up to the task, that it was something he very much wanted, etc. He was already gone.
We played our show anyway. I didn’t want to, but I knew it’s what he would have wanted being the sort of person he was. A fighter. I thought that I’m too old for rallying cries, and “the show must go on” bullshit—collective commiseration, et al. Ugh. You could have it. I just wanted to go home and cry. But I know I would have dishonored his memory by walking away, and so we played, with Billy Polo on drums. It was a special night, shrouded in sadness, but also reveling in the essence of the man. The band, friends, our family and we all traded sentiments. The wounds were fresh, but we all appreciated it, as he was a man who spent all of his life at the threshold of death, but was so much more focused on living—filling that life with things and the people that he loved. Creating and cultivating a beautiful world around him, that I’m honored to say, including me and my music, and of course, enriched it in ways that only he could.
Steven Gonzalez is my hero. No one will ever fill those shoes in quite the same way.