Revisiting the Music of El Sereno’s Steven J. Salazar | KCET
Revisiting the Music of El Sereno’s Steven J. Salazar
On April 6, 2017, the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse will host Steven J. Salazar’s “Ecology Suite,” billed as a “symphonic rock performance.” Salazar originally composed it back in 1975, fresh out of USC with a music degree, and its eclectic expression of environmental alarm via a rock opera format was undoubtedly influenced by Salazar’s musical hero, Frank Zappa. Fittingly, this first-ever performance of “Ecology Suite” was partially scored by longtime Zappa keyboardist, Tommy Mars, but alas, Salazar himself won’t be on hand to see his epic finally realized: he passed away from a congenital heart condition in 1979 at the age of 26.
I first became interested in Salazar after discovering the 1975 album he self-released under his band’s name, Shorty’s Portion. To call the LP “eccentric” would be an understatement; for all his professional training, Salazar exuded an outsider artist’s distaste for genre conventions. His Shorty’s Portion songs mixed funk with jazz with rock with pop sensibilities and on most of the album’s songs, he’d add his warbling, piercing voice that no one would describe as “good,” but it was certainly unmistakable. These days, such a personality might have their own YouTube or SoundCloud page where they could share as many recordings as they could muster. From that perspective, a private press album like the “Shorty’s Portion” LP may feel like a tiny sample drawn from a far more expansive catalog of songs that never got recorded but one can still view a vista through a pinhole. Less isn’t more but it can be enough.
An address on the back cover looked familiar and I quickly realized that it was literally down the block and around the corner from me, on the eastern edge. My curiosity eventually lead me to meet Steve’s surviving brother, Mark, and their mother, Lilian who still lives in the same house that Steve grew up in. Lilian was a violinist herself and all her children received musical training though none took to it as well as Steve. He was a wunderkind, learning to master both the piano and guitar on his own and by his teen years, he was filling notebooks with his own compositions. Barely five feet tall and thin as a rail, he called himself “Shorty,” thus was born Shorty’s Portion.
From early on, Steve was well aware of his mortality and this fueled his musical and creative energies in intense ways. “He could be funny as all hell and he could be angry as all hell,” Lilian explained. “He had cause for anger. He was cut short in life and he knew it.” It’s that kind of intensity that lead to a composition such as “Ecology Suite,” which Steve originally wrote and recorded as a 17-minute set of strung-together vignettes covering everything from the depletion of the earth’s natural resources to interpersonal struggles to the death of rock ‘n’ roll.
After his death, “Ecology Suite” sat within a sheaf of papers in Steve’s childhood home but a couple of years ago, Lilian decided to honor the memory of her son by having it properly produced and publicly performed. The Salazars approached producer Mark Ludmer and played him Steve’s original demo recording. As it unfolded, Ludmer felt it “blossomed with idea after idea and it became very apparent what a brilliant composer Steve was.” Thematically, it resonated with Ludmer too as he explained, “I was around in the ‘70s too as a teenager and the ecology movement was in full force. [The ‘Suite’] definitely had that type of feel. I got that right away.”
On Steve’s original recording, he had split the vocals in one channel and his piano in the other and this allowed Ludmer to both create his arrangement with Steve’s voice literally in his headphones while the original piano track could be transcribed and blended into the new production. Steve may not be here to hear this new version but his original vision indelibly saturates it.
That the “Suite” will be performed at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse is appropriately full circle. Back in September of 1973, Salazar staged a Shorty’s Portion concert there, back when it was called the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium. Steve and his family went all out, making fliers, notifying local press, having a program professionally printed, etc. Much like the rock icons he admired, Steve thought about the staging and how to introduce himself in dramatic fashion, using the auditorium’s built-in organ and its motorized lift. Lilian recalled Steve opened with Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” and Mark explained that while people could hear the music, “the audience sees nobody out there and then these doors open up and the organ is rising and that’s when the lights came on.”
Self-depreciation was a form of self-defense for Steve — he did, after all, nickname himself "Shorty" — but having his music heard was also a consuming desire. In the last years of his life, he joined up with the South Bay new wave/punk band, the Skabbs and likely would have pursued a music career as long as he could. Mark laughs when he says that if his brother knew that, 40 plus years later, people would still be talking about his music, Steve would call them “suckers!” but he also thinks Steve would have taken satisfaction in knowing that one of his compositions would find new life after all this time: “just knowing that so many people would be involved in the production, and how amazing it would sound on the same stage where he performed his first big concert, would make him happy,” Mark said.
Steve might still whisper “suckers!” behind their backs, but he’d do it with a smile.
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