Steve officially passed away at 7:15 a.m. Pacific Standard Time this morning.
From every dingy basement on every dingy street
every dragging handclap over every dragging beat
That's just the beat of time-the beat that must go on
If you’ve been trying for years we already heard your song
Death or glory becomes just another story
Steve officially passed away at 7:15 a.m. Pacific Standard Time this morning.
Steve's condition is mostly the same. He's off the respirator and the feeding tube, and there's no discernible brain activity. According to people near him on Facebook, they're keeping him comfortable. Some people have taken his relative stability as a cause for hope, but I'm afraid I understand what all that language means. Essentially, he's a clock winding down.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is hanging out here in the office with me, consulting her charts and watching me hawklike as I transition into acceptance. It's not a stage of grief I'm particularly good with. I can hold on to emotional baggage for years. Oddly, denial was very brief, and bargaining didn't really come into the picture at all. I'm much better with anger. Anger and I are old friends. I hold it at bay well, most of the time, but I always feel it settling at the back of my throat. Old anger, born of even older pain, as it always is. The kind of anger that threatened to consume me as a teenager, until I found my salvation in punk rock and poetry. As I've said before, Steve was a piece of that salvation. He was a compass.
I've learned a bit more about Steve's life in the years since I last saw him. It seems San Francisco was good for him, that he was surrounded with a lot of people who loved him. The words "sweet" and "gentle" are being used a lot to describe him, which might not have been diction I'd have ever chosen to use, but then, his and my relationship is suspended in another era entirely, far removed from the people we are now. And as I think about it, I think one of the reasons I was so drawn to him was that I could see a lot of the same pain and anger reflected in him, except that he had an outlet for it, and I didn't have one, yet.
Oh, don't get me wrong. He could be a powder keg, when he wanted to be, and was romantic in all the sometimes charming and sometimes horrendously stupid meanings of the word. But he was alive, and I didn't really feel very alive at 16. I felt life was a race to the finish line, something to be endured. The object lesson of Steve Skitz, for me, was that you could create yourself entirely from sheer will. That you could be someone entirely different -- the person that you want to be, the person that you respect. And you'll fuck it up along the way. You will. He did, certainly, and Lord knows so did I. But it seems, as I look at the torrent of love being expressed for him on Facebook, that he pulled off the trick. He became who he wanted to be, or at least, someone who was more-or-less at peace with himself. And really, so did I. That's a blessing. That's not been lost on me.
It's not been lost on me, either, that he's been going by the name "Stephan Wilson." A little bit of his birth name, a little bit of the person he created. That's significant.
And maybe that anger is lifting a bit. Writing it all down is helping, certainly. But I keep thinking back to that 16-year-old kid I used to be, and remembering that slow, piecemeal decision to make myself into the person I wanted to be, and realizing that what I'm feeling in that anger is the kid who was hurting a lot from a lifetime of early losses, who didn't know how to stand up for himself and didn't feel he had anything worth standing up for. And sometimes, when the world seems intent on putting you in what it feels is your place, intent on belittling your work and essentially eroding hard-won self-respect, it seems so easy to just lash out again, to start throwing punches. But that's a dead end. I knew it when I was 16, and I know it now. At 16, I found places to put that anger, to make it work for me. And maybe I need to find that again. "Anger," as John Lydon once sang, "is an energy."
Steve was an amazing man, and I'm blessed to have had him in my life. And maybe it's time for me to remember the first thing he taught me. Maybe it's time to be someone new. I don't know who that person is yet, exactly, but wherever it lands, I'm thinking it's time for me to start building.
I've referenced this particular quirk before, in the course of these blogs, but perhaps it demands some attention. Because it was a thing. He would walk up to you and ask you for your soul. It was the '80s, remember, and in a scene that hovered mostly between punk and goth. It was a sort of audaciousness that seemed completely natural. The sort of thing people would, rightly, laugh off entirely. People would sell him his soul for a dollar, or for a cigarette. Or for nothing at all. I'm pretty sure someone once bartered it away for a joke.
The reference, for the slow, was that Steve was making himself out to be the devil. And you know what? There were moments, as he towered over you, staring down with those intense eyes, that you could believe it a little bit. He was bigger than life, after all, and his personality had a force that was palpable. Maybe that's why I -- to the best of my recollection -- always said "no." Would it be insane to admit that some small part of my brain always wondered if maybe ... just maybe .. it wasn't entirely a joke? I was 16. It's amazing the thoughts that go through your head. In any case, saying "no" threw him, a bit, and that was kind of a victory. I wish I could say I had some cool, witty line to follow it up with, but I don't think I did. I think I just smiled and said "no."
I think that might have been the point we actually became friends. Because pretty much everyone indulged him on that one. Steve's metaphoric reign over our particular weird corner of hell -- hell being Orange County, as anyone who's watched the reality TV shows can attest -- was one of those illusions that the whole scene pretty much revolved around, and I think he was amused by anyone who didn't play along. And anyway, for all of his faults and all of his style -- and he had both in abundance -- Steve wasn't the devil. I never knew exactly what it was that drove him to become the near-mythic figure I first met in the lobby of the Balboa Theater, to nearly abandon the identity of Vern Edgar Wilson, whoever that was, to become the larger-than-life Steve Skitz, but there was a real person in that persona, and I've always imagined it took some sort of pain to cause him to recreate himself so completely.
One of the friends circling his hospital right now noted, much to her amusement, that she discovered that several of her friends in San Francisco know him under yet another name. Whoever Steve is now, he's quite literally someone else. That's amazing. And expected, I suppose. Reinventing his self was Steve's first and best trick. He was, as I've noted before, Coyote, and in addition to being a trickster, Coyote is a catalyst for change, both in himself and in others.
Certainly, he was for me. Steve, Rocky Horror, punk rock ... they're all welded together in my brain, a giant, fast-moving blur, faster than Steve's motorcycle, which I hated riding on the back of, but which I would, because, frankly, I didn't drive, and sometimes it was the only way I was getting anywhere fun. I don't want to insinuate I had bad teenage years. They weren't. But I was poor, yes, and that could be hard in Laguna Beach. It wasn't the sort of thing people around you took into account, which means you often had to make it clear that you couldn't afford things, that you couldn't go places. You had to draw attention to it, which is never fun. With Steve, and with other friends from that time, it was never an issue. Most of us had nothing. Some of us had what little they did have stripped away from them, by one tragedy or another. We were the weird kids, and I'll confess, I got both weirder and more confident and comfortable with all of that as time went on. And then there was the anger, the sparks of violence that hid behind my awkward teenage gawkiness, the rage that had been probably welling in my head since my father's death years before. The music gave me a place to put it, as poetry was also starting to do.
I think Steve always understood the anger, maybe even a little better than most of the people from that time did. Certainly, we talked about it, from time to time, sitting at Benny the Bums. Maybe not in sophisticated terms, as I was only starting to understand it myself, but it was there. And sometimes he talked about his -- again in unsophisticated terms -- but it was there. Mostly, we talked about music, that being the best place to put all that pain and outrage that you can't really yet explain fully, even when you're sitting across from someone who totally gets it. Music, poetry, punk rock, Rocky Horror, and the absolutely lunatic friends I shared them with. They were like rocks on the side of a mountain that I clung to as I crawled my way to some ... I don't know ... some fullness of life. Like the moments on the back of that damned motorcycle: scared out of my mind, but at least going somewhere.
I've been feeling that old anger a bit, lately, and working overtime to get it under control. I suppose the news about Steve was the catalyst for that, too, which is totally appropriate as I wring the Coyote metaphor for all it's worth. Something about his imminent passing, the way it's lingering and haunting me at all moments, has stripped part of me back to that 16-year-old geek. It seems a curious remnant of a past life, not entirely unfamiliar, but not anything that really has a place in my life right now.
Weirdly, I didn't have a good grasp on what was happening until my iPod, playing on shuffle, played back-to-back the songs "Under the Skin" by Pology and "Drift" by Coto Normal, both bands fronted by my and Steve's friend Erin Barton, a woman who was there in the lobby the first day I went to the Balboa, and whom I'd later become close friends with. It was good to hear her voice, even on my iPod, and the flood of good memories from those times and that group of people made the anger subside a bit. It was taking refuge in family -- a family that had been there for me when I really needed them, who helped make me the adult I am today.
I don't see those people often. Through the miracle of technology, I hear from them, from time to time, but I've only barely been out west in the past few years. I'm missing them immensely now, but slowly, I find I'm coming to grips with that feeling a bit better now that I understand it. And I'm definitely still missing Steve, whoever the hell he's been recently. I even miss the damn motorcycle. And I owe him, and all of those people, more than I can ever repay.
But I'm still glad I never sold him my soul.
As if wanting to punch him would bring him back. As if wanting to punch him would bring back any of that time since we'd lost touch.
In a lot of ways, I'm reminded of the end of the film SLC Punk, a film which my friend Kevin -- another one from that era -- and I argued over bitterly. Kevin hated the end, hated that the one lead died and the other cleaned up his act and became a lawyer. I thought it felt true, and I think I always knew there was a point down the punk-rock road -- or maybe any road, really -- where it leaves you dead and wasted far too young. I want to fly to Kevin's home in Vegas and sit down with him and watch the movie again -- him a family man now, me an almost respectable writer. Make no mistake, most of the people from that point in my life, that tight-knit crowd of outsiders bonded in punk rock, art and general freakishness? Most of them are leading pretty good lives, now. I hear from them on Facebook, see them when I travel. Once in a while, I get to meet their spouses or their beautiful children. And most of them? They're leading lives they want to lead. They're doing art, working hard, playing music. I see my old friends, and more often than not, they seem happy. And then I look at my own life, with my beautiful wife and my writing and my yo-yo bank account, and yeah. I'm happy, too.
I don't know if Steve was happy, in those years since I lost touch. I don't know anything, except the character of the man. A loyal friend, to be certain, but otherwise mercurial. In a lot of ways, he was Coyote: a masterful bullshit artist, carving tales of The Mountain, or of his inevitable rising again as a vampire, or of bargaining for people's souls in the Balboa's lobby. And don't ask me to explain any of this. It would take too long. Save to say that he would spin this wonderful nonsense with such skill that you could almost believe in all of it. You wanted to believe in it.
And like Coyote in the tales, his cockiness and confidence in his own cleverness would get him into trouble. Once in a while, that meant using his fists, but other times -- like the time he pretended to be a tree in a Huntington Beach park, convincing the police that he must indeed be a tree, because there were punks hiding behind him -- the results seemed too far-fetched to be believed. Even now, he's weaving a story. Perhaps one last one, from the look of it, but one all of us from that time are caught up in, an impossible drama that anyone on the sidelines can probably only barely understand. They understand the grief, yes, I'm certain. Loss is universal, after all. But how do I even begin to explain the man, what he represented?
I keep waiting for a punch line, which I suppose isn't entirely different than wanting to throw a punch. They're both, after all lightning bolt punctuations, of a sort. I'm waiting for the impossible twist that always seemed to surround the man. I'm waiting for Coyote's last, best trick.
I first encountered Steve on a day I've written about a ridiculous number of times: the first time I went to Rocky Horror. Years later, when I wrote about that day last for OC Weekly, Steve merited a cameo. "Inside, a tall, gangly punk held court amid a harem of Goth girls," I wrote, but really, as I reflect, I was underselling it. A lot of the details of that night are a blur. It was late, I was out of my element and adrenaline was coursing through my system. A lot of the details are fuzzy, and some I may well be misremembering. Elmo Martin, for example, has sworn to me that he's absolutely certain he wasn't juggling fire outside the Balboa Theater that night, when I could have sworn that it was him. Maybe I've conflated things. Maybe he was simply juggling, and my mind has filled in the fire. Maybe it was someone else juggling fire, and I've just edited Elmo into that scene. Why not? I only met him briefly for the first time that night. Memory is a funny thing. It's not always a reliable tool.
I'm not conflating my memory of Steve, though. Regulars of Rocky Horror at the Balboa called him "The Lobby Lord," because he quite literally was holding court, sitting in a chair in the lobby, surrounded by burly punks and gorgeous goth girls. When I stepped in the door, he was the absolute first thing I was able to focus on, he was so striking. Tall, yes, and wearing a steel-studded black leather jacket. Dyed black hair, and piercing, predatory eyes that seemed to focus on me immediately, if only for a second. Although really, I can't imagine why he would. I was a 16-year-old geek there for the first time, and aside from the fact I knew some of the regulars, I was of no interest to anyone, let alone him. I've often considered that it might all have been a sort of illusion, that there was something in his presence that made you think he was noticing you, when really, he was just watching the room. But there was a moment there, and I remember this clearly, I looked at him and felt like prey.
This man -- and really, he was only a few years older than me -- radiated presence, radiated punk rock and sex, danger with a flashing neon sign. He scared the hell out of me. And I idolized him on sight. Why wouldn't I? In one thunderclap second, I had a very clear picture of everything I wasn't, and the thought of being that made my mouth dry.
I never did become that person, though, and I'm OK with that. And the idolization didn't last long, either. Might of ended as soon as later that night, at Denny's, watching him construct a truly audacious tower out of coffee creamers and sugar packets, to the exasperation of the waitress. By that point, he had already begun to become a real person. Eventually, a friend. Real people are far better than idols, in my book, and I think I may have even thought so back then.
And like I said, I never became that person. Not exactly. But something changed in me at that moment, something that would push me out of my shell toward being the person I am today. And it wasn't just Steve, obviously. That would be romanticizing too far. It was a lot of things, all rolling from that moment I said yes to getting in the car that night.
Oh, but I remember that moment, though. The thought trickling down my spine from the back of me head: This could be you. Punk rock. Adoring girls. The sense of danger that comes in the presence of someone who could full-well hurt you at any moment.
Yes. God yes, I wanted that. Yes, yes, yes.
He went in complaining of stomach pains and was admitted about three days ago. Since then, he's had a heart attack and has been diagnosed with liver failure and pancreatic failure. He's been in a forced coma, on life support, but they're pulling him out on Friday, so we can say our goodbyes.
She says there is still a very slight chance that he may recover, for a minute, but the doctors are saying that he has less than a month or two, as the best prognosis.
I've not seen Steve in years, what with my moving back and forth from Southern California, and his moving to San Francisco and, generally, being the sort of guy who disappears and reappears with some regularity. I think of him often, though. He was a fairly central figure in my Rocky Horror and punk rock days, and we would frequently hang out at Benny the Bum's Diner in Laguna to drink coffee and talk. I enjoyed his company immensely.
It all seems like a long time gone, now. I've got a head full of Johnny Thunders songs right now, and they all seem horribly appropriate.