Such is the cyclical nature of popular music that many of the mid-to-late-’60s pop and psychedelic influences that seeded Tony Steen’s passions are again reaching a stage of fertility.
Growing up in New York in the late ’60s, Tony Steen loved the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the early Who and the psychedelic bands. Later, he was exposed to the Velvet Underground and Big Star — bands that helped shape a classic-sounding psych-pop sensibility that has defined his own music over three and a half decades in New York, Los Angeles and North Carolina.
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1979, Steen joined a band of some renown called the Cheepskates that helped lead a garage-psych-rock revival in New York City in a cultural space carved out by the punk rebellion against overwrought arena rock. He went through some tough years in the ’90s playing hard rock and grunge that he didn’t really feel. In 1998, he decided to forge his own path as solo artist. Steen’s maternal grandmother, Rosa Low, was a renowned opera singer, and he adopted her last name to create the more approachable performance moniker Tony Low.
Around that time, Steen’s first marriage ended and he found himself struggling to hold down a job. He remembers sensing there was nothing left for him in New York and feeling like a ghost, so at the dawn of the new millennium he relocated to Los Angeles to pursue music. He found legions of artists there playing the kind of ’60s-flavored power pop that he admired, and who seemed destined to remain buried in obscurity. With that realization, he resolved to give up the illusion of fame and make music for his sanity.
Since 2003, Steen has taught piano to children at Peeler Open School for the Performing Arts in Greensboro, while continuing to write and record music. Rendezvousing, his most recent full-length album in a trifecta that began in 2002 with Sleight of Hand, distills all of the elements in his eventful career: smart pop hooks and wry lyrical observation, baroque flourishes of cello and accordion, piercing squibs of distorted electric guitar over acoustic chord progressions.
Steen admitted during a recent interview at Beans Boro Coffeehouse & Roastery in northwest Greensboro that he doesn’t listen to a lot of new music.
“I just like the original stuff,” he said. “It reminds me of a time in my life. It doesn’t mean I don’t like new stuff. I don’t download music or go out and buy CDs. I like stuff from my time, my era. I never get tired of it.”
North Carolina bands like Estrangers, Echo Courts and Zack Mexico represent a recent crop of artists who are in one way or another exploring the varied terrain between pop and psychedelic music.
Steen acknowledged he’s not familiar with Estrangers, the Winston-Salem band led by Philip Pledger, who is also a prime mover in the local music scene as a promoter and record label principal. At the mention of Thee Oh Sees, a West Coast psych-punk band that played at Phuzz Phest 2016 — the annual music festival Pledger curates in Winston-Salem — Steen laughed and said, “I played Fuzzfest with the Cheepskates in New York City in 1984!”
Beyond a classic sound that diverges from the more angsty and extreme sonic palette of younger artists, Steen’s recent output is also distinguished by an attention to songwriting. That’s partly a function of natural maturation. Gesturing towards a painting of a supernova hanging on the wall at Beans Boro, Steen said it’s a good visual representation of his earlier work, which he described as being “like gas spinning out of control.” His recent work, he said, more resembles another painting on display that depicts coffee cups arranged in odd configurations — more visual and usually with a story to tell.
Most of the songs on Rendezvousing are inspired in some way by stories passed down from members of Steen’s family or experiences of his early years in New York.
“Adonis Fell,” a song that surges from quiet contemplation to epic histrionics, concerns the tragic death of Sal Mineo, the Bronx-born actor who was stabbed to death in Hollywood at the age of 39.
“When he became rich and famous, he bought his family a house in Mamaroneck, which is where my family lived,” Steen recalled. “By the time he died, they’d fallen on hard times, and I think they lived in Harrison, but his mom opened a health food store on Mamaroneck Avenue. After he died, I walked in there, and I remember her eying me warily from her desk. That’s where the line, ‘Like a sad old bird too sad to leave her nest,’ comes from. Never did I have an inkling I would make a song out of this all these years later.”
Sad and tragic themes hold a particular sway over Steen’s imagination. Another song, “A Different Set of Wings,” is about his mother’s cousin who committed suicide. He said the lyrics are literally a true account of what happened: “She passed her mom in the kitchen one spring day, walked on by, didn’t say a word/ No one called when she walked down the hall, no one heard or saw her fall.”
“Pictures of Your Son” came from a story Steen’s grandmother told him about her maid. A North Carolina transplant and single mother who lived in Harlem, Beulah was beloved by the Low family. Steen learned from his grandmother years later that she was always pestering Beulah to show her photos of her son, and Beulah would always make excuses that she’d misplaced them or they were packed away. Eventually, Beulah ended the inquiries by saying, “Oh, Missus Low, he didn’t turn out so well.”
Steen is adamant that his music is not a hobby; it gives meaning to his life.
“I’m not pursuing it with any illusions that I’m going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone; not that I would want to now,” he said. “Any respect and recognition would be nice, and is appreciated. ’Cause I think my songs are pretty good.”