The Reducers, eternally. From the 2010 Sailfest in New London. From left: Hugh Birdsall, Peter Detmold and Steve Kaika; Tom Trombley on drums. Photo from Wailingcity.com.
I started putting together this greatly extended Five Songs on Sunday (June 10), knowing what was coming.
I got a Facebook message that morning from my friend Jes Farnsworth, aka Jes Reckless, out here in Fresno. Jes is the frontman for an excellent trio called The Backstabbers, heavily influenced by early punk. Interspersed among their originals (they released their first CD in May) are a bunch of great covers: The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” 999’s “Homicide,” The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action,” Roky Erickson’s “Two-Headed Dog” …
and any of a number of songs by one of my favorite bands ever — one of the most underrated and overlooked bands America has had to offer, The Reducers. From back home, in Connecticut, in New London. Same four guys since 1978: Peter Detmold and Hugh Birdsall, the co-lead singers/co-lead guitarists/songwriters, Steve Kaika on bass, Tom Trombley on drums. Influenced equally by the ’70s English pub rock and the early punk Peter and Hughie love so much, they released three tremendous introductory albums in successive years (The Reducers, 1983; Let’s Go, 1984, Cruise to Nowhere, 1985), were labeled “America’s Best Unsigned Band” by CMJ in ’86 and included on an Epic Records Unsigned compilation LP. But they never signed with anyone and decided to just keep doing what they were doing, and to a man, they’ll tell you it’s why they stayed together all these years. (They explained it in Bill Dumas’ 2006 documentary, The Reducers: America’s Best Unsigned Band, in which I was happy to be one of the many talking heads.) And despite the imminent mortality we all face, there was something eternal about them, something that spoiled me — many of us — into thinking this would go on forever.
The Reducers canceled a show last December at New London’s Bank Street Cafe — their first cancellation in ages — owing to “a bug” Steve contracted. Then, in January, another cancellation. And the word slowly got out that Steve wasn’t doing well. In late winter, word got out that it was lung cancer.
Jes happens to be Steve’s nephew. I found that out by happy accident in 2005, a year after I moved to Fresno. I wore a Reducers Shinola T-shirt to a show at the Starline one night, and the kid at the ticket booth asked, “Are those The Reducers from Connecticut?” “Yessss,” I said with arched eyebrow. “My buddy’s uncle plays in The Reducers.” “Holy shit! Who?” A connection to home! A year later, I finally met Jes, who grew up in Waterford, Steve’s hometown, before moving west, and was heavily influenced by his uncle.and his band. And Jes (and his father, Robin) and I all happened to be back in Connecticut near summer’s end of 2008; the last time I saw The Reducers, that Labor Day Saturday at Ocean Beach Park in New London, Jes actually took Hugh’s place on guitar for one song. (It was kinda weird to be standing next to Hughie in the crowd while The Reducers played.)
With The Backstabbers, I’ve seen Jes play “Let’s Go,” “No Ambition,” “Bums I Used to Know” and, last Friday at Audie’s Olympic, on a bill with Peter Case, “Life in the Neighborhood.” It’s a song that they’ll be recording for a Reducers tribute album Jes is putting together to benefit Steve — who, as a self-employed contractor, had no health insurance. (As of now, there are at least 25 acts who have recorded, or are recording, songs for the disc. I’m supposed to be singing “Out of Step” with them.)
Anyway, he messaged me that he was flying back to Connecticut on Thursday because Steve might not make it through the week, and that he might even be too late by that point.
He got the call around 1 this morning Pacific Time.
Dammit. I was hoping, between Jes flying home and the benefit show that Steve’s friends are throwing Friday night at New London’s Hygienic Art Park, that he would’ve lasted the week.