Epitaph for Steve Cannon

Strong as the base of a mountain | There’s no countin’ | How many MCs have sprung from my fountain
– Rza, from Biochemical Equation


Looking back at the date and time when Steve Cannon died, I was reading a hefty tome titled A Poet’s Glossary, a section with entries for Elegy, Encomium, Endecha, Epicedium, Epitaph, and Epode. Steve telling me through cosmic avenues that he was dying or had died? Maybe.

Steve would have loved this book, and his commentary in between sections (and cigarettes), if recorded, would have read like arcane, Borgesian footnotes even more dizzying and exciting than the actual text, especially with the jazz inflections and rhythms in his speech. Anyone who has read books to Steve knows what I’m talking about, and we all share something truly special.

A physiological wonder, Steve lived off of black coffee (two sugars), Winston cigarettes, buttered rolls, and some kind of shrimp-noodle soup from the Chinese joint on the corner of East 3rd and Avenue B. 

But his main nutrient was human contact and its electricity. He was an ocean where rivers of people and their lives and narratives and songs met and swirled in love and conflict. People of the Nile, Amazon, Ganges, Missouri, Danube, Yangtze, Mississippi, Zambezi, Tigris, Euphrates, Rhine, Congo, Volga, Indus, Colorado…

It was A Gathering of the Tribes.

Like water, the blind guy was a Force of Nature, lucid and calm and visible down to his multifarious depths, nourishing the burgeoning talent and creation around him, and at times mercilessly destructive in his fury. Steve could wreck some shit. Especially his own shit. 

The ebb and flow of creation and destruction in his life was intense, but he would always be up just before dawn smoking a cigarette and plotting his next move with NPR in the background.

Just as Steve’s death was portended by a book, so was my meeting him. Two years before I met him as a wide-eyed 18-year old thinking What the fuck is going on over here, I came across a book that had no business being in the library of an all-boys Jesuit high school, yet there it was: a hardcover first edition copy of Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, published in 1968. Inside were guys I would meet in Steve’s living room: David Henderson, Stanley Crouch, Lorenzo Thomas, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Amiri Baraka…It was also the first time I ever heard of Sun Ra. I can’t help but think this book was a strange map to the 285 East Third Street universe.

Steve was the intellectual heir of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan and the artistic heir of John Coltrane and Samuel Beckett. He believed that we all had the capability and responsibility to take part in piloting Spaceship Earth and that the Medium is the Massage. He knew that love is Supreme and though we can’t go on, we’ll go on.  All of this was expressed in his life and action and art.

The Yin and Yang of East 3rd Street…You can’t talk about the poet-playwright-publisher-gallerist Steve Cannon without talking about the loner-poet-sage John Farris. If John Farris was the Taoist madman whose soundtrack was the cacophonous, percussive, guttural melodies of Albert and Don Ayler, Steve Cannon was the Confucian scholar-statesman contemplating the chord changes of Thelonious Monk in his garden. The Chinese connection here is no small thing. John Farris had been a student of the Way since his youth and Steve had a deep admiration for Chinese poetry, particularly that of the Tang Dynasty. He understood and respected the dark and mysterious essence of the Tao and the cosmic implications of the I Ching (we read three different translations of that), but identified strongly with Confucianism’s idea of the scholar-poet-swordsman-statesman playing an active role in society as sage-advisor or subversive-disruptor…all in the drunken, inspired, mist-filled styles of Li Po and Miles Davis. (“Africa and Asia, Asia and Africa…Asia-Africa, Africa-Asia,” Steve used to say.)

His very best friends visited him early in the morning and late at night. His face would reflect those times of day and the mood. With the composer Butch Morris Steve’s face would light up and the dialogue would be invigorated, even raucous. He would smile the whole time and long after Butch left. They had a brotherly tenderness toward each other that radiated across time and space. Artist David Hammons always came late at night. Even in the summertime it would be cool and quiet in that living room, but it still crackled with energy. They spoke in low tones with Steve leaning forward, brow furrowed and cigarette burning down to the filter. I believe Steve and David had a telepathic connection or were actually the same guy in different forms.  Sitting in the same room with those two is the closest I’ll ever get to hanging out with Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp.

I have to be honest. I wasn’t very sad when I learned that Steve died. He wouldn’t want people sitting around crying and carrying on. 

He would want us to celebrate, “break out the wine and the reefa, blast some Bird, and then Ornette Coleman, and then Mingus, talking shit and telling lies the whole time until everyone goes home, passes out, or the cops come.

Steve Cannon was all things to all men. The ultimate subversive, he could hang with the most low-down, broke, ignorant, violent criminal scumbags in the darkest, sweltering downtown spots or hobnob with the cultural, financial, intellectual elite in cool, marbled halls overlooking all the chaos. Either way those meetings had a purpose: to keep Tribes going. His legacy is alive and well in all those he mentored throughout his lifetime. We are everywhere and up to all kinds of things. I have no doubt he’s up somewhere smoking an eternal cigarette waiting to see what we do next. 


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