I met Steve Brown 28 years ago. It was on South Street. And the fact that we met, totally by chance, on the street and became close friends says something about our relationship. We met on a Sunday in spring, and there might have been some sort of South Street walk going on. This was the old South Street, before McDonald’s and chain stores, when artists were living in storefronts. I was playing my guitar on the street for change, and this guy came up as I was getting close to finishing and watched for a while. I did a song that I didn’t think anyone could’ve known, that my brother wrote and that Happy & Artie Traum had recorded. Hardly anyone knew about this record, but this guy knew the song, which completely blew my mind. So we talked and traded phone numbers and I went home thinking I had met someone special.
A few days later I called him, and he invited me to where he was living in Germantown on Wayne Avenue in what I quickly found out was called “The Wayne House.” Not long after I arrived we went for a walk and ended up at his cousin Mike’s apartment.
Within a couple of weeks, I moved into Mike’s apartment and my life changed. It was different times then. The war was on. Nixon was running for re-election and George McGovern was opposing him.
We were all the same age. Mike was 21, and Steve and I were about to become 21 that summer. We quickly discovered that not only did we like the same music, but shared the same views on politics, on life.
Steve would show up just about every day, and every time he came, it seemed he had another friend with him. He always seemed to have a bunch of things he was trying to do all at the same time and was full of life, energy, ambition. He was fun to be around. And he was funny. For one thing, he could do a great Harpo Marx. But Steve’s humor was sharp, offhand, observant, absurd and cutting. He could find humor in just about anything, and it would come out any time, at any place, at any occasion. And that humor turned into our own lexicon, our own absurd language with references that went back for years to some crazy second in time.
And those times were crazy, and music was our bond and our passion. I probably went to more concerts with Steve than anyone else, and we thought nothing of traveling hundreds of miles to see those shows. To Harrisburg to see Merle Haggard, to Virginal to see George Jones, to Hartford to see Bob Dylan & The Rolling Thunder Revue. Wild all night drives in some old car on the verge of breaking down, and being in a car with Steve at the wheel was an adventure to begin with.
The first ten years I knew him Steve had an ongoing series of cars and car dramas. The first car I remember him owning was a baby blue ‘61 Mercury Monterey that could fit seven people comfortably. If a car could have personality and humor, that Mercury had it and riding around with Steve in general back then always felt like being in some comedy. Steve was very generous about letting me use it, but each time there was some kind of drama like going to use the turning signal and have it come off in my hand.
One time, Robbie Saltzman, Steve and I drove to Massachusetts for a little vacation. The wipers had stopped working, and the part was on order for months. Of course, on the day of the trip it rained. So, we tied string to the wipers, and while Steve drove, Robbie sitting in the back would pull the wipers to the left, and sitting next to Steve, I would pull them to the right―for 300 miles, almost to Boston. We got a lot of stares that trip, especially waiting in line at the tollbooths.
Somewhere along the line he discovered the Slant 6 engine, and had a series of Plymouths, his favorite being a white Valiant station wagon he named Vernon. His last Slant 6 was a humongous gold Plymouth with a three-on-the-tree stick shift. By this time, Steve was playing music regularly and his sound system included two very large and cumbersome speakers that would only fit in the back seat. Just moving these speakers was an ordeal to begin with and getting them into the back seat was no small feat. And every time he put those speakers in or took them out of that car another piece of upholstery came with them.
But the thing about Steve was that very shortly after I met him, I felt as if I’d always known him. My family had moved out of Philly when I was a kid, and I felt that if I had lived in Philly my entire life, I would have met him years earlier. You meet Steve, and you meet his ever-widening circle of friends and you meet his family. Cousins and more cousins after that, and as it turned out, some of those cousins did know my family, which only completed the circle. And his family made me feel like family, and I will always be grateful to Hershel and Lorraine, and Adam and Susie and Mike and Teddy for that. If you lived with Steve, and his family was having a dinner or something, you went to the dinner. It was never, “Do you wanna come?” it was “You’re coming.”
But for me, more than the fun stories, more than memories of endless late-night hearts and pinochle games, more than the music, the tons of gigs and all-night rides, Steve was the friend I could really talk to, for the hard stuff, the heavy stuff. We had no secrets. And I knew that I could count on him, no matter what. And he never let me down.
I didn’t see as much of Steve as I would’ve liked in the past ten years. Steve’s family―as it should be―was his priority, and instead of music, the topic of conversation was Amanda and Paul. And whenever he spoke of them, it was always with pride and joy and love.
But this only made the times we did get together more special. We called each other Brown, which Steve told me cracked Heidi up and in turn she would always call me Brown. We’d play phone tag endlessly and nine times out of 10, the message we would leave each other was “Brown? Brown.” During one of the many sleepless nights I had after Steve got sick, I started trying to think of how many Brown/Brown phone messages there were floating around somewhere in space.
And so for the past few weeks, I just keep thinking that Steve’s out there somewhere with all those messages. The Texas songwriter and mystery novelist, Kinky Friedman says that when you go to heaven, every pet you ever owned comes running out to greet you. And so I think Steve is out there with his cat Puss, and his dog Doogie, and maybe he’s playing cards with Kenny Miller, or watching Babe Ruth, or Otis Redding or Hank Williams, or jamming with Rick Danko. And I know he’s singing, and coming up with great one-liners as he’s watching us right now.
Steve Brown was my friend on this earth for more than half my life, and my life changed, and changed for the better because we were friends. He may not be here right now, but he’ll be with me forever.