As mentioned in Vol. 1 of this series of excerpts from the novel I had been writing prior to my ALS diagnosis, the story was based on my having been adopted at birth (true!), and it documented two parallel realities: one a fictionalized version of my actual life story, the other a purely fictional imagining of how my life might have turned out had I not been given up for adoption.
The following excerpt concerns the latter, the alternate reality I created for myself, the core of which tells the story of my alter-ego, a musician who, on the cusp of stardom, surrenders to his disillusionment.
The Austin Chronicle
News – Arts – Entertainment
And Then There Was One
June 21, 1990
by Carol Miller
By now, the news is out, transmitted all over the grapevine: Then, Austin’s own, beloved band, with a devoted nationwide college radio following, a conventional 4-piece rock band bucking conventional wisdom that rock bands are a dying breed, and yet a band on the verge of the big time, their moment just waiting for ink on paper…
As of last night, sadly, Then is no more.
What’s so extraordinary about how this all went down is that I had just conducted an interview with Then frontman, singer-songwriter Steven Goldstein, the day before what was to be Then’s triumphant homecoming show at Emo’s, hot off their rigorous and critically-heralded nationwide spring tour, on the heels of the release of their most recent E.P., Batten Down The Hatches, and accompanied by rumors that the band would soon be signed to their first major label contract.
I had planned to publish the interview in our issue due to come out before the show. But, through a series of misadventures, including a few hours of panic when I couldn’t locate the tape, and then upon getting the last-minute assignment handed to me to cover the show, I hereby present, instead, my concert review and then the interview all in one go.
Then @ Emo’s, June 20, 1990
The crowd at Emo’s was in high spirits. Then hadn’t played in town since New Year’s Eve, UT’s spring semester had just ended this week, and opening act, Martha Shepherd, warmed everyone up with a joyous set of her signature thought-provoking, high-energy tunes.
Show time came, and show time went, but Austin’s a patient town, more drinks were had, smoke breaks out on Riverside were enjoyed, and we waited, and waited.
According to a source whom we are sworn to keep anonymous, someone who was there and saw and heard all, for several hours prior to the planned show, in the Green Room at Emo’s, the band imploded when frontman, Steven Goldstein, announced that he refused to sign a contract with Sony Records, a deal that had been in the works for six months. The Sony rep, band manager Tony Dutton, and the band were, for a moment, shocked and dumbfounded.
Sadly, as is too often the case, bonds of friendship, even long-held bonds, can wear under the pressure of the business side of music: so many Lennons & McCartneys torn asunder, a list a mile long to which we can now add Then’s Steven Goldstein and Marty Green. Friends and bandmates, in one project or another, since high school in Brooklyn, New York, they moved to Austin to attend UT, formed Then with fellow Longhorns Paul Thomas and Butch Simpson, released several E.P.s and one full-length L.P., the epic …And Now, built a robust college radio following, and an unlikely but passionate audience in, of all places, Iceland.
But, Steven refused to sign, stating that he preferred to remain on independent Austin label Pau Wau Records. Bandmate, lead guitarist, and best friend, Marty Green went berserk, bassist Butch Simpson and drummer Paul Thomas, while not quite as apoplectic, sided firmly with Green. The trio declared not only their comfort with stepping into The Big Time, but also their opinion that this was the just payoff for all their years of hard work battling near impossible odds. They were all planning to enjoy the hell out of no longer having to struggle financially, and with Steven’s refusal to sign, they felt betrayed, angry, convinced he was robbing them of their reward.
Eventually, the three of them stormed out the back door, slamming it shut loudly behind them.
Fast forward about 30 minutes, after relentless, intense pleading from Emo’s stage manager Billy Schmidt, the house music went silent, and Steven alone took the stage, a bar stool in one hand, and the most unlikely thing imaginable in the other: a pink plastic Minnie Mouse guitar. Even more unimaginable, after adjusting a mic stand to accommodate a seated position, Goldstein removed the cable that was plugged into his road-worn Telecaster, and plugged it into the now obviously modified toy guitar, the crowd in full-on silent bewilderment.
With his back to the audience, Goldstein adjusted the settings on his amplifier and flicked the standby switch, releasing that subtle, warm, low-frequency tube amp hum out into the air. Settling on the stool, Steven was obviously shaken, it was clear that something had happened, something deeply emotional, his eyes red with something like heartbreak.
“Hey there everyone,” he began. “I’m really sorry, but there’s not going to be a Then show tonight, and maybe not ever again.” Some in the crowd reacted audibly, but most remained in silent shock. “It’s a long story, you’ll find out all about it eventually, but in a nutshell it’s all my fault. So, the least I can do is try to pull myself together and play some music for you if you’ll indulge me. This guitar here, well it started out as a joke, but it’s quickly become so much more than that. A guitar like this, for some wide-eyed kid, can be the beginning of a great adventure. And while I’m not quite that hopeful at the moment, who knows? Even though something I loved sadly ended tonight, maybe this could be a new beginning. Let’s see, shall we?”
And with the first strum of the Minnie Mouse guitar, thanks to the miracle of electronics, a sound emerged that was clearly a guitar, a very odd-sounding and yet surprisingly interesting-sounding guitar, but a guitar with undertones roughly approximating exasperated protestations emanating from the grave of Leo Fender.
Once the novelty of the plastic guitar wore off, the next thing to emerge from that lonely scene onstage was a welcome reminder that Seven Goldstein was the creative heart and soul of the band, its sole songwriter and its lead vocalist. And while Then, as a band, had a collective voice, a glorious, raucous, and occasionally melancholy, pining voice, the songs, stripped down in this manner, withstood the ultimate test. They remained the product of a probing mind, an empathic heart, an artist to the core.
The set was a welcome sampling from every Then release, starting with the closest thing they had to a megahit, the title track of …And Now, then back in time to several songs from their debut EP, Then There Were Four, and ending with Go Ahead, Mess With Us, my favorite track from their most recent EP, Batten Down The Hatches.
It’s difficult to imagine going ahead and putting on a show under these circumstances, much less a show this raw and vulnerable, but Steven seemed propelled by his songs. And after 2-3 were in the bag, it was clear that he was still as comfortable as he’d always been in his own musician skin, even though these were the first solo performances he’d likely done since before he moved to Austin.
Interestingly, the only time he clearly struggled to contain the emotions of the band’s breakup was not during one of his own songs, but rather as he sang the lone cover of the evening: George Harrison’s classic meditation on impermanence, All Things Must Pass. Symbolic on several levels — Then had now passed, and All Things Must Pass was Harrison’s post-Beatles solo debut — as Steven sang, “Now the darkness only stays at night time / In the morning it will fade away,” his voice broke, tears gently streamed down his face, and he just barely came in with the remainder of the verse in time, “Daylight is good at arriving at the right time / But it’s not always going to be this grey.”
It’s too soon to know if this show was Steven as phoenix, rising from the ashes of Then. By all accounts, he just doesn’t want to be a famous rock star. Will he retreat from music altogether now, or will he be able to find some middle ground?
Either way, that was Then, and this is now. We’ll see.
Interview: Then’s Steven Goldstein
NOTE: As you read this interview, you won’t be able to miss the hints that something was awry, that Steven was growing more and more uncomfortable with the prospect of fame, and that his concerns run deep.
So, without further ado…
Carol Miller: Steven, thanks so much for taking the time out today, always a pleasure having a chance to talk shop with you, and thanks especially for making it in today, after what seemed to be, at least on paper, a grueling tour, and with one last show to play at Emo’s tomorrow night before a well-earned break.
Steven Goldstein: Thanks so much to you, Carol. Believe me, if it was anyone but you, someone I consider a friend, someone I actually met before Then was even fully formed, I guarantee this would not be happening. To be honest, the many radio spots and other interviews I had to do on the tour we just finished were one of the primary things that made the tour grueling, as you rightly called it. I could make music every single night — I don’t mind the late nights and being on the road, going from town to town — but man, tell me I have to go on the air day after day to answer largely the same questions over and over again, tell me it’s because we need to fill the bar or club or theater we’re playing that night, ‘cause if we don’t we’ll lose money … money, money, money … good Lord it gets old fast.
Well geez, all the more reason to thank you for today, then! Say, I get the hardship you just described, but most of the radio appearances you do are with the rest of the band, right? Doesn’t that make it easier?
Unfortunately, not really, Carol. It’s a kind of tragic irony that Marty is the showman in the band, loves to ham it up, loves the attention, but because I write all of the songs, and sing lead on them all, the DJs and music journalists mostly want to talk to me, to ask about the songs, where they came from, what they are “really about” as if that mattered all that much, and all the while our manager says I gotta make peace with these facts, gotta get folks out to our shows!
Believe me, I try every trick I know to deflect questions, to answer them with, “I don’t know. What do you think, Marty? Paul? Butch?” [laughs] But I always get outsmarted.
So, it’s really different for you when you’re at the mic, in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, singing your songs?
Oh yeah. It’s really strange in some ways. When I was growing up, I found it excruciating to have to talk in front of people. In school I only talked in class when directly asked a question, and I dreaded oral presentations. When I was 13, I had my Bar Mitzvah and was so nervous, when I read from the Torah, beads of sweat dripped onto the sacred parchment scroll, and when I read the Haftorah portion, I got lost, a total brain fart, I looked out at the congregation, on all the faces wondering what the hell had happened. [laughs] I felt so uncomfortable that I dropped my head onto my crossed arms on the bima and froze up even further. Eventually, the Rabbi rescued me, escorted me to a chair on the stage, finished the reading, and then brought me back up to finish the service with the few simple prayers remaining.
But music, it’s totally different! From the very first open mic I ever did, after having worked on my three songs for weeks, I felt no fear whatsoever. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get started, and I’ve never had stage fright. I’m not particularly into in-between-song banter when I’m onstage, so I keep that to a minimum, which is best, I think, for everyone involved. Stick to the music, right?!
It’s the age-old conflict, isn’t it? Trying to make a living as an artist.
Yep. Exactly. You know, I ran into Brett Lawson right before we left on tour, remember Brett? Great songwriter, ubiquitous around town, playing solo shows in the smallest venues. Anyway, I didn’t know this, but he quit the last job he’d had about 5 years ago, determined to focus solely on music and to try and make a living doing it. So, where do you think I saw him? Working at the Austin Public Library! He said that for a relatively very short time, the first year and a half of his attempt, he had some hope, was inspired to write a whole album’s worth of new songs, loved playing them for people, you know? But then his landlord jacked up his rent, and that one catalyst set in motion what he called the slow erosion of his dream. Suddenly he couldn’t make ends meet, he tried asking for more money from venues for the shows he was playing but they wouldn’t budge. He found a slightly cheaper apartment, and that helped him prolong the experiment for a few more years, but gradually all of the joy of being a musician drained out of him, and worse, he started hating playing gigs.
Now, Then has had much more success and we’ve all been spared the stress of being totally poor for a couple of years now, but fuck, this whole tour I couldn’t stop thinking about Brett and how much he struggled, and I started to really hate the music industry for doing that to people, good people, talented artists, millions of them all over the world, and anytime I needed to be involved in the business side of things I was absolutely miserable.
Wow, Steven, I do remember Brett, and that’s a sad story!
Yeah, kinda depressing. Sorry, Carol. But you know, can I tell you one other piece of this story?
One of the reasons this stuff gets to me, well, it’s because of my dad. I never told you or any other journalist this, it’s a pretty crazy scoop, so get ready. You ready?
Go for it!
My dad was a musician too, but get this, he was an Elvis impersonator. I kid you not! I didn’t get to see him much growing up, he and my mom never got married, I was the product of a wild fling, maybe the shortest fling in history, and I didn’t even meet him until I was about 5 years old.
So, you know I have this WAY Jewish name, right? And I guess most people would say that I look Jewish, whatever the hell that really means. But, my dad was Paulie Roma, The Italian Elvis. Seriously!
He used to play small nightclubs all around New York and New Jersey, occasionally Philadelphia, he actually played guitar on stage, like Elvis did in his younger years. He was a good guitarist too, and a great singer, could totally nail the Elvis croon, you know?
Anyway, one summer, 1963, he’s playing this resort in the Catskills, my mom was there on vacation with her mom and dad and brother, my mom, out of her mind on hormones, threw herself on him, and the rest is history!
Go, Mrs. Goldstein!
But here’s the thing. My dad had dreams of moving on to something else, to write songs and play music like The Beatles, he really felt he had what it takes, and I believe he did too. I’ll never forget the weekends I used to spend with him, when I was around 12 or so, he was so dedicated to music, he’d be out each night, very late, but when I was there he’d always get up early with me, make breakfast, and then it was right to work on his music, songs he’d been writing, he had this tiny one bedroom apartment, and the living room doubled as a studio, full drum kit, piano, guitars and a bass, some crudely set up microphones and a basic 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder. Besides the guitar, he wasn’t great at the other instruments, but he could play everything well enough to make some damned good demos, and the songs were catchy, great hooks, playful lyrics, and when he wasn’t trying to sing like Elvis he had a really solid, expressive voice that could convey the full range of emotions.
But his manager and every single record label he approached had him pigeon-holed as an Elvis impersonator, he suffered rejection after brutal rejection. Doing shows as the Italian Elvis became more and more of a slog, and he started to resent it more and more, this symbol of his enforced failure. He started drinking too much when I was in high school, as I was just learning the guitar myself and becoming passionate about music. In painful drunken stupors he’d ask me to play for him and he’d shower me with way more praise than I’d earned. He’d give me some tips, but by this time he could barely play the guitar and fully demonstrate what he meant. Then he’d go into his spiel, imploring me to go for it, but to not get pinned down, whatever I did, don’t let anyone put you in a godamned box, he’d say, and the spiel would end with the most heartbreaking sobbing you can imagine.
He passed on a couple of years ago, way too young of course.
Oh Steven. That is tremendously sad.
Yeah, but I like to think that I’ve carried my dad along with me on the musical ride I’ve been on, that he’s happy for me, proud of me, and I take strength from him, as I fight off any efforts to box me in.
Any highlights from the tour, Steven?
Oh sure, lots, pretty much anything other than business stuff.
One of my favorite shows was back home in Brooklyn. Very different kind of homecoming than returning to Austin, you know? All these old friends coming out of the woodwork, which might sound like I’m complaining, but it was actually quite wonderful. You talk to these guys, and lots of them, you know, it’s like talking to characters from The Sopranos! [with thick New York accent] “Hey, Goldstein! How ya doin’?!”
And the weird part, they’d come up to me and ask if I remember them, and at first I definitely do not. But, a few moments of eye contact pass and something weird happens, it’s nearly hallucinogenic, the older face melts away and you see through to, and recognize, the younger face you knew.
Another great time was a show at this festival in Tuscon. I was not looking forward to it at all, to be honest. It’s a shitload of effort, to haul and set up all our gear, do a sound check, then break down and haul the gear out, all for a freaking 1-hour set. That’s considerably more time working than making music, not my thing at all, and while I had been successful in vetoing festival gigs in the past, this one got by me somehow.
Anyway, pleasant surprise, the day was a LOT of fun! They had a crew do all the setup and breakdown, they had this area cordoned off for the musicians and their guests, all the booze and food provided, and I had a blast, hanging out all day with folks, meeting some whose music was familiar to me and some not, got to see all the other bands play, just a really pleasant time with other musically creative people.
So, what are your plans for the break after tomorrow night’s show? Anything special?
No, blissfully I’ve got nothing planned! Woohoo! Seriously, bring on days on end simply getting up, reading the paper, going for walks, I’m planning on re-reading Salinger for the millionth time, gotta get out to see other people making music for a change. You know?
Any new songs in the works, she greedily inquires?
[laughs] Ha! Always, Carol. Always! I’ve got at least half a dozen pretty much fleshed out that were born during the tour, and lyrics in my notebook that could yield a bunch more. That said, I’m not in any hurry. The songs aren’t going anywhere. They’re safe. They’ll let me know when they’re really ready.
You will give me a scoop if you decide to tap into your Italian DNA, even if it’s just a Louis Prima cover, won’t you?
Oh man! That would be a hoot! You bet, though I can’t see Marty and the boys going for that, to be honest. In fact, I cant really say anything specific, for a variety of reasons, but the band is a bit fed up with me at the moment, for which I don’t blame them at all.
Let’s just hope they don’t ditch me!
We’ll see, Carol. We’ll see.
Hey, time to let you go, Steven. We need you rested up for tomorrow night! Thanks again so much! Great to see you. Loved our chat!
No, thank you! And thanks to Austin. Seeya!