He Ain’t Gonna Tell You by Amelia Woodside
For Karl Marx Cannon
The early evenings of late springtime in New York always feels balmy and sensual—when the air turns cool and voices and music seem more audible than taxicabs and traffic, as if people switch frequencies, or begin listening differently as the night approaches. On this particular spring evening, A Gathering of the Tribes, a multimedia literary arts magazine based in the Lower East Side, was hosting another art opening. Tribes is located at 285 East 3rd Street in a building that looks like a woman whose attempts to cover the dark under her eyes make her seem even more exhausted. The derelict property hides the beauty reverberating within its grimy exterior—only a small, inconsequential-looking sign hints of a secret: TRIBES is written in black block-letters on the wall, like a forgotten invitation accidentally dropped and then pinned up against the brick partition.
Critics and uptight gallerinas are likely to dismiss the narrow flight of dingy stairs that squeakily lead to the office-space and gallery of Tribes. If they do, they’ll also miss the tattered and blown-up article on “Professor Steve” and Tribes that hangs just inside the building’s entrance: a feature article in the Village Voice in 1995. You climb the stairs and push open the door, not knowing that you’re exiting the world that brought you here and entering one that defies prediction and temporality. Inside the walls of the Tribes salon, it always feels hotter than whatever temperature reigns outside. The magazine operates out of a small corner office protected by a foggy glass partition but shares the apartment with a miniscule kitchen and a third back room that leads to the fire escape and often acts as an impromptu exhibition space. On warm summer nights, people risk navigating the perilous fire escape to descend into a large back yard that often plays host to drum circles and poetry readings. If you look carefully, odd trinkets occasionally surface in the bushes. I once found six troll dolls resting under the garden table.
The cacophony of the soiree carries with it a festive and impromptu air. The apartment’s open-door policy means that anyone is apt to walk up: art lovers, lunatics, critics, old friends, students, neighbors, musicians, and writers and writers and writers. The size and make-up of the crowd that wanders into Tribes is unpredictable and always quirky. This evening, the opening is for the artist Chin Chi Yang, who has donned medical scrubs for the occasion and has a smile so sideways it looks close to sliding right off his face. Yang’s “art” consists of smashed cans and other discarded found materials glued together and hung throughout the small apartment, together creating an oddball labyrinthine gesture. The installation climbs up the walls of the apartment’s main room—a room with two large windows at one end, a poorly-tuned grand piano, and Tribes’ tiny little office. Yang meanders into the center room where more coke bottles hang from the walls and asks passersby about their love lives; in exchange, he offers them strange romantic prescriptions like, “Drink lots of milk this week” and “Stay away from ferns.”
The apartment is filled with smoke, wine, laughter, and one or two terribly earnest interjections that bounce against the small corners that makeup the magazine’s office and house its notorious director the soul of the whole scene and the embodiment of the establishment: Professor Steve Cannon. The professor sits sprawled out on his couch with a Winston cigarette between his fingertips— its smoke trailing percussive punctuation marks in the air. At seventy-five, Steve resembles a smooth-talking, grizzled hipster, so charismatic that many visitors forget he’s blind; they’re too busy nodding their heads to his stories and mirroring back that slow smile, which hooks to the right. Born in New Orleans in 1934, Steve moved to the lower east side of Manhattan in his early twenties. The neighborhood was never the same.
He has a profile that looks long and angular, and round eyes the shape of two lightly bruised semi-colons; a carved amulet hanging from a worn-looking leather string beats against his chest with each inhale and exhale. But the most extraordinary thing about Steve’s presence is not the way he looks but the way he listens. It takes people awhile to realize that Steve usually knows what you’re going to say before you say it. He’s not a prophet or a saint—he simply pays closer attention because he has to paint faces with sound. If Steve can hear a melody in your expression and train of thought, he utters a sound: “Mhm.” His lungs spit back all those cigarettes as he sighs and laughs simultaneously—a sound that means: “I hear you.”
Steve always has the most beautiful women in the room because nothing is sexier than a man who’s not distracted by what you look like from what you’re actually trying to say. Although no one can argue that he knowingly steals the attention of the pretty women from the men who can actually see, it often feels that way. That night at the opening, I watched him charm the hell out of a twenty-five-year old woman. At first I was tracking the expressions crossing her face, but then I tried Steve’s way, closing my eyes and listening to her voice to key me into the way she breathes, her accent, her call and response. Steve reads voices the way people with eyesight read faces.
Steve wrote the filthiest novel I’ve ever read: he’s been in love “a hundred-million times;” he spent hours cavorting around New York with Gil Scott-Heron and Amiri Baracka; he’s been married twice and widowed once; he gradually lost his eye-sight over a span of ten years; taught poetry with the Nuyorican Poetry Project; conversed with Ralph Ellison; studied world history at the London School of Economics; taught film, creative writing and literature at over five colleges and universities in New York; and he founded (with the fiscal support of Allen Ginsberg) and continues to run a literary arts magazine out of his apartment so writers and artists of all backgrounds can come together as a tribe and create landscapes with language and image. The professor has fought for decades to provide a space where expression is respected.
Tribes was conceived as a venue for underexposed artists, as well as a networking center and locus for the development of new talent. When and how each issue of the magazine is published depends on the influx of interns and volunteer readers and the amount of money Tribes is capable of allocating at one given time. Copies of the magazine can be found in alternative bookstores such as City Lights, in San Francisco, or Powells, in Portland, Oregon. The thirteenth issue is slated for publication this year. The magazine will publish anyone who can successfully create an image through words; unfortunately, the welcoming ethos of Tribes does not extend to the magazine’s printing costs or the building’s rent. Having always put Tribes out on a shoestring budget, Steve is well acquainted with fiscal difficulties. Still, the magnitude of the current crisis facing both him and the magazine threatens to be devastating. The building, which has housed them both for over twenty years, has been put up for sale by his landlord— “some crazy-ass woman named Lorraine,”—without his knowledge. The price tag is a staggering $2.9 million. Steve bought the building for $35,000 in 1970 and sold it to Lorraine Zhang in 2004. In an article authored by a friend of Tribes working at the New York Times, the agreement between Lorraine Zhang and Steve is detailed as stipulating that Steve could rent the second floor for $1,000 a month through August 2009, with the option to renew the agreement for five years at a monthly rent of $2,200, as long as he provided notice of his intent to renew six months in advance. Steve assumed that Zhang’s acceptance of his rent checks after August 2009 was tantamount to a renewal. Although she did continue to cash his checks, Zhang appears to have assumed otherwise. With the fate of Steve and his publication suspended in uncertainty, the Lower East Side is in risk of losing a community touchstone.
Steve has spent his life seeking and celebrating communities characterized by diversity. The atmosphere of Yang’s opening and the East Village’s multicultural composition represent the heterogeneity that was both paramount and antithetical to the way he was raised. Steve founded Tribes to create and preserve a space where intellectual curiosity and creativity could be explored without limits. His integrationist convictions are directly linked to a childhood marked by segregation. The belief that intellectual growth is profoundly social in nature is a worldview that Steve has dedicated his life to.
“You gotta put things in perspective,” he tells me, “back in those days there was segregation all over the South—you follow? That doesn’t mean your next-door neighbors aren’t going to be a different ethnic group. White folks or Mexican folks livin’ right next to you or whoever but in those days you didn’t go to the same schools, you follow?” Steve is quick to make clear this was not necessarily a violent state of affairs: “That doesn’t mean you hated each other, it means you lived in the same goddamn neighborhood, you’d see each other after school and play with each other all the time—you follow? The reason I left was why most people left the south. Limited opportunities.”
Raised by his grandmother, Steve grew up in a family that valued education. Every Sunday, no matter their geographical location, all members of the family were required to come together for dinner and engage in literary discussions: “The family was all over the place, meaning, my older sisters were in college and my younger sisters were at private high schools and lived on campus.” Steve has a habit of historically contextualizing his stories. He does it absentmindedly. For example: “I was born in 1935 so these dinners were happening before and during World War Two.” After dinner the radio was turned off and every member of the Cannon family was required to share a story; no T.V. to erode attention or text messaging to interrupt the pronouncement of a sentence because they still didn’t exist. Steve cackles at the thought and says, “I came from one of those families that likes to show off to each other how bright they were. We would have those Sunday dinners where we’d all be pontificating about some writer or other… when my siblings came home from school they would throw their books on the couch and go play and I would read their books so I could participate in the Sunday conversations and put my two cents in.”
An autodidact, Steve covered many miles in search of his own intellectual tribe, but his intellectual quest began at an early age in part because critical inquiry was a communal activity—familial in nature and central to the way he was raised. As a kid, his seven siblings would recite poetry and tease baby Steven, who now looks at me with a mischievous grin and says, “I’m not going to tell you what they said about me. They said I used to tell the same stories eighty times over.” Even when Steve was too little to formulate a proper tale, he couldn’t stand staying silent. A thirst for shared dialogue trumped all else. And when he didn’t know how to contribute to end a story, he confesses, he’d say something like “…and so he ran and ran until he got to the river and jumped in!” He was only four or five during this phase, he adds in self-defense. A few years later, Steve started writing poetry.
Today, Steve still repeats certain stories with relish but now he is entirely confident in audience: he frequently pauses for effect and then says whatever it is he wants to tell you. No one can rush him when he’s telling a story—he’ll tell you in his own time on his own terms. Intermittently the phone—his cord to the outside world—will ring like a screaming teapot and he’ll pick up the receiver, “Yyyellow.” Without skipping a beat, he’ll converse briefly with whomever has called, hang up, and continue his previous conversation, exactly where he left off. Any attempt to prompt him or veer the story in a different direction will result in an “I’m gettin’ there,” or “Who is tellin’ the damn story?” The man knows how to work a crowd and he knows how to hold their attention well, because when Steve says, “I ain’t gonna tell you,” it always means he can’t wait to tell you.
Steve’s story-loving grandmother, his father’s mother, grew up in Kentucky and moved to Louisiana during what Steve cites as the “the slavery years.” Half Native-American and half African-American, she met her husband, a Baptist preacher, at sixteen and moved to Louisiana with him in 1900. Steve has no memory of his mother, Lilianne; “My mother died two months after I was born and all I know about that side of the family is they were from a rice plantation outside the city and my father met my mother in New Orleans.” Lilianne worked as a schoolteacher and was of Haitian descent. In a conversation with Steve that took place two years later, I asked him again about his mother. Steve took longer to answer my question this time, ashing his cigarette in the receiver of his phone and saying softly, “You know, come to think about it Amelia; I never did ask my father about my mother.” Eugene Cannon was a proselytizing preacher born in 1900 and married Lilianne when he was twenty-two. After Lily’s death, and with his daughters living on their college and high school campuses, Eugene moved out of the family house “because it was too full of memories” and sent his boys to his mother’s, soon after re-marrying.
Steve loves New Orleans to this day but left because he wanted more than he was legally allowed in a segregated state: “So, I jumped ship and went to school at Nebraska-Lincoln University. I was seventeen years old and I got to see the Northern lights.” It was also the first time he saw snow. The rural surroundings were a strangely new yet lonely setting for a young man who’d grown up in an international city. The feeling of loneliness during this period prompted Steve to get serious about his education. He fell especially hard for the Irish. “I was crazy in love with Irish writers at the time, so I read everything I could get my hands on by George Bernard Shaw, all the way back to Yeats, James Joyce—everything I could find by an Irish writer.” When a chance to study at the London School of Economics presented itself, it meant he could pursue his love for Irish writers more intimately and travel abroad for the first time. Steve guesses he was around twenty-two when he left Nebraska for England, he lived in London for the next five years. It makes sense that this smart, young guy having grown up in the still-segregated south, found the melting pot of London something worth writing about.
As Steve weaves his stories for his listeners, the smoke from his Winston spirals upward, creating a feeling of suspended time, as if the speaker has disappeared behind its hazy veil and reappeared on another continent. When Steve arrived in London, Samuel Becket, The Angry Young Men and the Theatre-of-the-Absurd were all the rage. “I found the milieu fascinating,” he recalls. “I liked it because of the ambience. People from Africa, Russia, Iran, from this place and that place, all in the same goddamn room! The different nationalities became real human beings in my eyes, instead of abstractions.” Much time was spent sitting in apartments, talking about literature, flirting with women and playing the piano. Conversing about literature and paying ten shillings (in the 1950s this amounted to about a dollar) to see a play confirmed for Steve what had already known for years—he wanted to write, and to be part of a vibrant artistic community.
Even now, decades later, Steve seems happiest when engaged in conversation about art and literature. I look at Steve and asked, “Why New York?” He tells me I already know the answer. “I decided I wanted to be around people in the Arts. I decided the best place for me was New York.” The budding poet ended up leaving England with a degree in World History not economics. The choice in major, folds back into his love for storytelling, and creasing like a fan when traced even farther back, to those childhood Sunday dinners where oral tradition was practiced and respected: “I was askin,’ ‘How the hell did shit get this way?”
In the 60s Steve began exploring Manhattan but quickly started bouncing around the Lower East Side. Steve reminds me that Kennedy had just been elected and that everyone was trying to stay in school or border hopping to Canada in order to duck the draft. I run through the political moments of the era, thinking in dates and times, when Steve interrupts and says, “Wait a minute, you’re forgetting about the beginning of identity politics! You’re forgetting the revitalization of the arts in the Lower East Side!” As I stare at Steve, half irritated and half dumbstruck, it becomes very clear to me that by assigning dates and events to his life, I’m gluing and pasting and connecting the dots of a history that has shaped the Lower East Side since the early sixties. At eighteen, I somehow managed to stumble across a man who represents so many facets of East Village history that it’s difficult to know where he ends and everyone else begins.
For Steve, his start in the underground New York literary scene began with the poet David Henderson, Thomas Dent, and Ishmael Reed. The group started off as a writer’s workshop, which inspired the idea for a magazine. I’ve heard Steve tell the story many times but this afternoon the two other friends sitting in the room are first-time listeners. I watch as an older man who introduces himself as “Xavier” listens to Steve so hard his arm breaks out in goosebumps. The magazine these men produced in 1961 became known as Umbra, which means shade. Steve elaborates on the meaning for me as I pour him another glass of vodka that tastes like astringent. “If you look at an eclipse and only part of the moon is covered you get a shadow half-way across the moon—and that’s called an umbra.” He speaks meditatively about this natural phenomenon, which he couldn’t have witnessed in many years. “The reason we called it Umbra is because it was black and white at that point.”
Calvin Herton, another member of Umbra recalls:
We became famous on the Lower East Side for our readings […] At the readings, we would form a line across the front of an audience—in a bar, church, living room, auditorium, theatre, on a street corner or pier—and we would just read without having planned who would go first or what would be read, without any pre-arranged order whatsoever. We behaved in the tradition of the jazz jam session; spontaneity and improvisation were our guides.”
If their readings were read to the beat of a jazz session it’s no surprise to learn that Steve served as the official Master of Ceremonies at the Umbra gatherings. Reed and Henderson introduced Steve to Tom Dent because they were both native to New Orleans. Dent was working as an intern for the Legal Defense Fund where he met Ralph Ellison’s wife, Fanny, and somehow, Umbra managed to finagle an interview with the literary giant. Steve writes about this collective and individually pivotal moment in an essay published by Callalo in 1995:
It must have been the winter of 1963, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The air was filled with dirges, Te Deums, war requiems and voices mournin’ and groanin.’ A whole nation was in pain on the radio, and on television, with editorials up the wazoo about Violence in America, when a group of young writers I was involved with at the time made contact with Ralph Ellison to grant us an interview on the current state of American letters.
Years later, Steve, Reed, and Quincy Troupe did a follow-up interview entitled “The Essential Ellison” that appeared in the New York Times in parts and won a prize from Pushcart Press.
What Dent doesn’t mention is that after three issues the members of Umbra split right down the middle. If anything, Steve sought to insure its continuation more than most. He speaks impatiently when discussing the split: “One half went to join the revolution of the Black arts group up in Harlem and the other half stayed downtown with me and Ish.” The Black Arts movement began in the Lower East Side and moved to Harlem along with Steve’s friend Leroi Jones, now known as Amiri Baracka; Steve still calls him Leroi. Baracka began having meetings every Sunday to gather together and create an “Organization of Young Men.” Steve and company “would go over to LeRoi’s house and what we would do—all these guys sittin’ around, musicians and writers and all they would do is have a bitchin’ session. They would just fucking sit there and complain about segregation, about various barriers they couldn’t break through. We started the organization but it never really went anywhere—all we would do is meet up at his place on Sunday’s and complain about inequality.”
Steve loves the Lower East Side precisely because it’s a land of immigrants and differences. Poet Bob Holman’s description of the neighborhood conjure images that in this heyday feel abstracted: “From 14th street to Houston and from 3rd Avenue to Avenue D, the neighborhood was occupied with first, second, and even third generations of European immigrants, including Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Germans, and Jew from the Soviet Union and the East European Diaspora.” Steve bursts out laughing and says, “If you’re living on the Lower East Side you know damn well you can’t be talkin’ about ‘I’m black’ and have white folks as your pals, cause you hang out and go drinking together and shit like that.”
Why have you stayed? I don’t utter the question out loud, but Steve catches the thought before it falls from my lips. Leaning back into his couch and uncrossing his legs, the man speaks for a neighborhood when he says, “If you want to be a writer or an artist you’ve got to be around people who can discuss and represent many points of view. Don’t entertain a narrow vision by sticking with one ethnic group. They turned out to be black nationalists and Ishmael and me were more like integrationists—we wanted to hang out with everyone! So, we stayed downtown.” Although Steve’s word at the magazine is the last word, Tribes compiles magazine submissions through peer-to-peer editing, and Steve constantly reminds his interns that Tribes was created to reflect every discipline and every cultural, sexual, and racial background.
Steve realized he was going blind when he was visiting Managua, Nicaragua with his second wife. “When the Sandinistas took power, everyone in the art scene from Soho to the Village to the LES went down to support them.” Steve was walking outside of his motel with Zoe—he remembers it was early morning. Zoe told him to be more careful, that he was stepping all over the flowers. But the flowers breaking through the sidewalk were invisible to his peripheral vision. The couple returned to New York a week later, and Steve learned he had glaucoma. After undergoing treatment for as long as he could stand. Steve began preparing to retire from teaching; it took him ten years to go completely blind.
“Did you know Bill Cosby has glaucoma?” he asks me between bites of a croissant. On this visit I’ve come early, in hopes of catching him alone. I stand up and walk into the other room, pulling back the screen door and letting a little fresh air wash over his reclining figure. “Steve,” I ask clearly—knowing well he can’t stand mumbling—“what was the last thing you saw fully?” I notice his wrists look skinnier than usual. With New York sunlight streaming down us, he answers without hesitation: “Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Can you imagine? I was sitting there watching that damn movie and thinking why is everything so foggy?” We sat side by side in the weak sunshine, laughing at the absurdity of our lives, because neither of us has yet to find a better alternative.
The average man, after going blind and being forced to give up his livelihood, would not have started a magazine. Steve founded A Gathering of the Tribes so he could provide a space for talented young writers who weren’t being published by mainstream America. As he leans his face closer to mine, I can hear what I imagine to have been the same frustration in his voice in 1990—“When I was younger we didn’t depend on those mainstream publishing houses to look at our work. We started our own damn publishing house so we could publish our own stuff!”
To intern for Tribes means you’re working for Steve—you’re answering mail and maintaining his constant intake of cigarettes and occasional snacks; you’re expected to engage and introduce yourself to all guests, and you’re typically spending at least a half hour trying to decode the changes made to the office’s organizational structure since the last intern was working. Interns are also expected to sort through submissions and check the Tribes “Spacebook” as Steve has long called Facebook but news and events spread farthest through the community’s ever-evolving members—primarily through word of mouth.
Before I began interning for Tribes, I read to Steve. I woke up at 7 am after a long night of class readings and rode the MetroNorth from Bronxville straight into the belly of Grand Central. On sunny mornings I walked the distance from Union Square to Third Street between C and D—usually with the paper or a magazine on hand, or a bit of something I had read that I thought would make him smile or provoke a grunt of approval. He would request a section of the Times, which I would locate and begin immediately, even if I was mid-sentence or at the beginning of a paragraph. I concentrated carefully on enunciation and adopting the perfect speed.
One early morning, when our friendship was still as fresh as the smell of a newly printed book, Steve asked to hear the Arts Briefly section. I couldn’t locate it for some reason—maybe I was tired and not looking hard enough, or maybe it was nerves combined with the fact that I grew up reading the Oregonian, a paper with a much more elementary layout than the New York Times. I told him I couldn’t find it—“What do you mean you can’t find it?” Steve snapped at me, “Where could it have gone? Do you think it decided to just jump ship?” He was furious, and I was petrified. I sat frozen, trying to say something that didn’t sound stupid or wouldn’t inflame him further. When I came back the next week, I had memorized the complete layout of the Times, but it was some time later that I realized Steve hadn’t been angry with me that day; he had been angry that he couldn’t read the damn Arts Briefly himself.
Steve always asks everyone who walks through his front door about their lives, quickly identifying any students or potential employees for Tribes. When I moved to New York at eighteen, I entered my freshmen year knowing no one. I sought an internship in the city so that I would have an excuse to learn the subway grid by heart and distract myself from missing my mother, who had just died from brain cancer. A friend who later became a fellow intern introduced me to Steve and his multimedia literary arts magazine. Steve has a profound interest in younger generations and repeatedly strikes a chord with young men and women. The first time Steve yelled, “I’m proud of you!” I walked in the direction of the fire escape, out of hearing distance, and promptly burst into tears. Steve is fully aware that it is the youth of any society who carry the future of the arts on their shoulders, and he listens carefully while we talk—correcting a grammatical mistake in our language or a tone of ignorance in our voice. Steve also remains masterfully keyed into pop-culture and the media—when he’s not listening to jazz, he’s listening to NPR or to the voice of someone reading him the New Yorker or the latest issue of Tin House.
In China during the days of Confucius, the artist naturally assumed the role of public intellectual, and Steve assumes a similar position. Perhaps because of his years teaching in colleges and universities all over the state, he has a way of embodying and enlivening knowledge and infusing it with excitement. When Steve was working as a professor and teaching college-level literature, he would pair famous writers like Walt Whitman with a contemporary slam poet so his students could track the influences of the city’s burgeoning art scene: “I depended on them to keep me in the know about what was hot and what was not and they depended on me to historically contextualize why these contemporary artists were kickin’ ass.”
In New York, where artists can no longer afford to live in Manhattan and every aspiring writer needs an agent, alternative artistic spaces are codified and hierarchal. The exclusivity of this system is why Steve started Tribes in the 90s and is still fighting to keep it alive in 2011. For many young artists, stumbling into Steve’s world on 3rd Street, which encourages you to write, hang up your artwork, and read poetry for free, feels like a miracle. Free artistic spaces that value and view intellectualism as sacred are few and far between. Steve embodies and propagates an openness and responsiveness to new things and younger generations that is rare and deeply cherished.
Steve fell hard for New York City, but fell head-over-heels in love for the sustaining aspects of the city’s musical culture. His lifelong connection to music is stirring, and he can’t help but move around his couch, changing positions, when he talks about it. “I grew up with music, New Orleans is such a musical town and the Lower East Side is similar and different in certain kinds of ways. In Tompkins Square you can go over and hear those Puerto Ricans beating on those drums on a Sunday afternoon but in New Orleans you’re surrounded by music all the time, all over the damn place.” The tender relief provided by artists such as Miles Davis and James Brown helped him survive his wife leaving him in the early 70s; the couple’s parting forced Steve to send his only son down to New Orleans to live with his family. In an essay published by Callallo in the 90s, Steve writes about his passion for music:
I felt my whole world was crumbling right before my eyes. I felt, as they said it in those days, that I was headed for a ‘crack-up!’ My wife had disappeared to England, and I sent my son to live with my family in New Orleans. The only thing that held me together were those rides uptown via car or the A-Train, to the Apollo to hear Percy Sledge, and those Georgia minstrels sing, ‘When A Man Loves A Woman,’ see James Brown be crowned King of Soul, singin’ ‘Please, Please, Please’ and ‘It’s A Man’s World,’ the Jackson Five, into ‘One, Two, Three,’ and whatever, whenever, and the Temptin Tempts Intro ‘Poppa Was A Rollin’ Stone,’ and Sistah Aretha Franklin into ‘You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,’ and respect and on and on, over and over it goes, or so it went and so it goes. Downtown Beatlemania was in. Miles Davis was cookin’ that Bitches Brew.
Hearing Steve rap about music is similar to watching a musician give a lesson and yet Steve’s chosen medium is the word. Or so I thought. I did a little digging on Steve when I first met him in 2008. The essay is titled “Reminiscin’ in C” but it was a friend who discovered his voice on a track by Medeski, Martin, & Wood called, “Whatever Happened to Gus,” catalogued on their album “Combustication.” Steve never elected to mention any of this. The track was released in 1999 by Blue Note label; you can even buy it on iTunes for chrissake. In “Whatever Happened to Gus,” Steve doesn’t sing, he tells a story in his gravelly, low voice that soothes as it tightropes with the beat:
And then there were all these musicians/all these fantastic jazz musicians/hustling and running across the Brooklyn Bridge/descending into the city, the big apple/down there around city hall, bright and early one morning jus a runnin’/
and there was thing one cat that looked just like Lester Young/ then his image kept changin’/ he looked like Billy Exxon/then Back to Lester, then Billy/ and I said to him, I said to him, ‘Say man, whose got the key?’
The story behind the recording is thematically similar to how Steve meets everyone: through a friend of a friend. In this case, the friend brought drummer Billy Martin over. “We got in a long discussion about music and what was happenin’ in the music scene and blah blah blah. He told me who he studied with and how long.” The moment Martin was contacted by Blue Note Records he called up the blind professor and said: “Hey man, we got an idea—why don’t we put you on the record?” Soon after, a troop of sound and recording engineers arrived and recorded Steve sitting on his couch. Even when Steve’s a little tipsy his voice has a lilting rhythm that could theoretically be traced back to his childhood; as a child he used the twenty-five cents that he earned on his paper route to pay for private drum lessons from the New Orleans Symphony.
Steve is a product of his time with a twist: a man who believes passionately in fusing alternative lifestyle with artistic production. In 1995 he wrote in Callalo about seeing “Thelonius Monk on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 64th Street during morning rush hour, wearing one of his funny looking hats and dancing to the traffic,” and being “heavy into John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, that Avant Garde sound in Jazz, that Motown Sound.” On the rare occasion you find him alone, public radio or jazz will be playing in the background. His answers to my persistent questions are interrupted by his full-bodied cough, the tar accumulating in his worn lungs wrenching his chest forward as if he’s vibrating. “I developed a taste for music,” he mutters between bouts of coughing, “We use to sit around and listen to lots of records and analyze them—‘You see what he’s doin’ with that horn? You see what he’s doin’ on that base? Play that again!’”
Around this time, Steve wrote his first novel. The customer comments on Amazon.com describe Groove, Bang and Jive Around, as “perverse” with a “storyline that took a turn straight to weird,” but the Barnes and Noble synopsis is the most entertaining:
Steve Cannon's first novel Groove, Bang, and Jive Around is an underground classic of such legendary stature that New York's black cognoscenti have transmogrified the work into urban myth. Whenever the book comes up in conversation, eyes light with a glassy leer. "You can't keep that book in your house, man! It's like a ghost! It just disappears!"
The premise of the novel is better first-hand but it should be said that the primary protagonist is a sex-crazed fourteen year-old. Steve says the book took three months to plan and three months to write. The protagonist is inspired by his first love’s little sister, who went by the name of Annette. The underground hit has a reputation for “vanishing” from bookshelves. Steve doesn’t even have a copy, because the book always disappears. When I asked what piece of his own writing he is most proud of, a wicked grin spreads slowly across the right side of Steve’s face. “I’m going to tell you what Miles Davis once told a twenty-year old musician who asked him the same question. The next one.”
Mary Chen, a close friend, comments on Steve’s commitment to the neighborhood: “Steve ensures that Tribes gives back to the community by embracing an open-door policy. He takes pleasure in giving artists an opportunity to spread their wings so they can acquire the skills and experience to fly high.” In unison but in a different chord, a second friend, Janet Bruesselbach describes Steve as an “amazing catalyst and social motivator. A radical intellectual pimp, a panhandler with three rolodexes.” I would call him an artist.
Steve says, “All I know about good artists is they tend to be good observers of society. They can observe the most miniscule things, the smallest things that you and I wouldn’t even pay attention to, and it feeds their writing.” To witness Steve seeing without sight is exactly that. He continued: “Your best writers are the ones who can capture external and internal observation. To go inside, go outside, go inside, go outside, go inside, go outside.” Steve has spent his life working to fuse the outside with the inside, always encouraging and exploring the space that gesture generates in relation to why we make art.
What becomes of Steve—and by extension Tribes— remains to be seen. The East Village community managed to rally support fairly quickly when news of Steve’s housing crisis sunk in. The ecological network that nourishes Tribes—made up of countless individuals that have come and gone, volunteering their time and words, and tears and laughter—began to rally for their professor. And on April 25th of this year, Phil Hartman, the owner of Two Boots Pizza, donated all proceeds from their seven Manhattan locations to saving Steve and the magazine; over $7,000 dollars was raised. Hartman met Steve in 2003 at the HOWL! Festival, an annual celebration of the cultural legacy of the East Village; he describes Steve as a community hero, an icon, and a visionary. When asked why he donated such a colossal sum to Tribes, Hartman said, “Tribes represents the old school East Village arts community—and endangered species and Two Boots, born and bred in the East Village, is committed to providing sustenance to such an indefatigable organization.”
Tom Dent once wrote on how the Umbra members, “In that neighborhood of Eastern European immigrants, Puerto Ricans, Jews, and Blacks—each with their own groceries, bakeries, shops and hangouts—we struggled to forge our own identity […] each seeking to take the essentials of our LES experience with us.” Steve has kept this tradition alive, even with the death of Umbra and the loss of his eyesight, through his encouragement of younger generations and continual support of Tribes.
Steve is a guardian of the East Village’s cultural heritage. He is a man who, despite the odds, built an integrationist mini-utopia where artists of all types could and create without fear—a place where an open-door policy acts as a portal and artistic transformation is celebrated with abandon. But whether he stays or goes, he wants to be remembered not for his personal literary contributions but for the artists he helped. “All I’m trying to do is make sure this little place makes history—that it’s in the books. So, when people write about the cultural history of the Lower East Side they’ll mention Tribes.” As for his present situation, Steve is no complainer but he has no illusions. I was recently reminded of a conversation we once had about the writings of his long-time friend and contemporary Reed; Steve praised his journalistic writing, his essays, and his satirical twang but then he added, “Ish always makes sure all his books have a happy ending and life ain’t quite that way.”