James Chance remembers Steven Kramer

Steven Kramer by Marcia Resnick
I was stunned to learn that ex-Contortion Steven Kramer had died in his sleep of mysterious causes on January 19 at age 59. The last time I saw Steven was about 25 years ago, and I'd often wondered what had become of him since. Besides playing organ and percussion in the second incarnation of the Contortions in 1979-80, I knew Steven as the husband of blonde bombshell Patti Astor, the genius creator of bizarre art objects (strange machines & box-like contraptions often featuring mechanical rodents), and as an all-around mad man. Arguably the wildest of the whole sick No Wave crew (with the possible exception of his drinking buddy, and fellow Contortion, Bradley Field). Even a three story fall onto his face during a swinging downtown rooftop soiree didn't slow Steven down for long!

You can get an excellent idea of what Steven Kramer was like in those days from his appearance in Amos Poe's twisted takeoff on film noir from 1977, The Foreigner. Playing the most demented of a pack of punkish delinquents, Steven's performance stands out as the most crazed of a host of maniacs including Anya Philips, Patti Astor, and Eric Mitchell. You can even see one of his mouse machines in one scene.

When the original Contortions imploded in the summer of 1979, Anya and I had to put together an entire new band in a very short time. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that Steven was a trained keyboard player - he'd never mentioned it before. We found him a vintage Farfisa organ, and he proceeded to tear that thing up (musically speaking, of course). Steven also played bongos, and a miniature conga drum he had made himself and wore on a strap around his neck. And he created some gorgeous devil backdrops for the residency we did at the Squat Theatre on West 23rd Street. The band also included Bradley Field on bongos, Kristian Hoffman from the Mumps on slide guitar, Patrick Geoffrois from Paris on lead guitar, Mickey Sevilla from Kid Creole on drums, and James Webster, a bassist straight off the streets of the South Bronx who we all called Funkmaster. It was definitely the best dressed band I ever had, with everyone decked out in beautiful sharkskin suits, although it was extremely difficult to talk Funkmaster into wearing his - he favored a purple polyester creation and platform shoes. Later, I added a horn section led by trombonist Joe Bowie, later of Defunkt.

Unfortunately, Steven's version of the Contortions never cut any records, but you can see/hear him on two video clips on this site - "Contort Yourself" from Max's Kansas City (with the horns and Steven playing his conga), and the same tune plus a cover of Chic's "Good Times" from the most memorable gig we ever did, the M80 "New Wave" Festival at the University of Minneapolis in Steven's home town.

Steven had been playing with the Contortions only perhaps 4-5 months when one day he abruptly disappeared from New York without a word to me. Later I discovered that he had up and moved back to Minneapolis. His various habits were apparently overwhelming him. It was a wise move because at the speed he was living he would have consumed himself before too long. Steven took everything to a mad extreme in those days. But back in his home town, Steven straightened himself all the way up, and he seems to have stayed that way for the rest of his life - even becoming something of a poster boy for sobriety.

Perhaps with some inspiration from his stint with the Contortions, Steven now became the front man of his own band, the Wallets, who combined some funk with a slew of other influences even including polka(!) - he even took up the accordion. The Wallets were quite successful for most of the 80's, and did three albums before breaking up in 1989. From the clips, Steven was one hell of an entertainer with them. (See them on YouTube here and on the Twin/Tone Records site here.)

I ran into Steven once on the Bowery sometime in the late 80's, but after that I completely lost track of him. For whatever reason, he seemed to have  completely distanced himself from his New York days, and No Wave associates. I was flabbergasted to discover from his obituaries that for the last 20 years Steven had a very successful career writing background music & jingles for commercials with big time clients like Target and J.C. Penney's. Steven always was full of surprises!

He seems to have become quite a beloved character in Minneapolis. One person added a comment to one of his obits calling him an "angel". But when I knew him 30 years ago, Steven Kramer was more like an imp of the perverse. For all of his wildness, and wicked sense of humor, Steven didn't have a mean or cruel bone in his body. His violent flare-ups were always directed at himself. I'm glad he was able to escape his own personal mousetrap, and reinvent himself several times. But I'll always remember him pounding on that homemade conga, or banging his head against the wall in The Foreigner, or all of those crazy mechanical mice.

- James Chance, NYC, January 2013


Vance Anderson said...

Thank you for sharing your memories, James. Your sound obviously influenced The Wallets sound palette.

Kristian Hoffman said...

What a lovely and articulate remembrance. Thanks so much! And the M80 festival was definitely one of the most wonderful, memorable, and peculiar experiences of my life. The mud! The cow dung! Devo doing - what was it - "Serve Yourself?" A mash up of "Contort Yourself and Bob Dylan's "If You Gotta Serve "Sombeody"? Wandering the empty hotel hallways in satin smoking jackets with Bradly and Robin Crutchfield (I think!) at four A.M. with the de rigeur warm bottle of cheap vodka! I was so lucky I was invited on that adventure. Hope all is well! - XO Kristian

Tim Broun said...

Thank you both, Vance & Kristian...I'll make sure James sees your comments.

FiveTailFarm said...

Hi James -- I wrote the Angel comment that you refer to and you're right, it's not the best description of Steve. He was a creative dervish. But he was also such a good man. I knew him during his 30 years of sobriety and his kindness and empathy for all things human and canine were quietly and abundantly apparent. For such a zany guy on the outside, Steve had the mellowest dogs and I always believed they were either tapping into some secret core of calmness in him, or maybe they were the zig to his zag. His talent? Well that seemed to come somewhere other than this earth. Thus the angel comment. He could pull the most epic 30 second pieces of music out of thin air. It was pure genius. And pure mischief. I would like to go where Steve is and it's not a Heaven full of Angels. It's way better. Hell, I'll settle for being a plus 1 on the guest list.