“Standing Under the Shattah”

by MA Torres

“I want to be able to smoke a joint on stage and not get hassled,” says Punk Rock Steve, Village skeptic and local curmudgeon. He’s okay with that. As long as I don’t refer to him as an asshole.

“That’s why I’m moving to Denver,” he said. “Moved here ten years ago, bought a house. Took me that long to fix it. Now it’s on the market. But don’t quote me about all that. That’s not all I want to be known for. I drink less and less these days and I’ve lost some friends because of it.”

On any given day you can see Steve Shattah meandering around the Village, coming and going, often frequenting Joe’s East Atlanta, buying a large black coffee (“coffee is coffee, I’m not putting anything else in it that’s going to water it down”) and returning later for a refill. He often stands outside talking to the bums who’ve since been banned.

“Oh, who installed the backsplash?” he asks about new renovations at Joe’s. “Did you do it?”

I never know if he’s high, drunk or hung over. Then again some Villagers walk around in a similar daze, hungover workaholics in a transient fog. But if anything he is well composed. Cynicism aside he’s a nice guy and was glad I wanted to write about him.

“No. Contractors did it.” I said.

“I give it a D-. If it was you who did it, I’d give it a D+.”

Steve is a music fanatic who can recall the history of many local bands as well as the Athens music scene in its heyday. He remembers the great bands that were but never got the recognition.

“…I mean, that guy inspired Peter Buck and REM. But who’s famous now? And rich? Not him…”

We share a mutual love for older bands. Like King Crimson.

“That shirt’s cool,” is the way he usually starts conversations. “You like Faust?”

“They’re my favorite German band after Kraftwerk.”

“I saw them during the Table of the Elements tour many years ago. Their singer’s a crazy dude. Went on stage without pants…”

“Yeah, he’s a nude enthusiast I missed that tour. You a fan of San Agustin? They’re from Atlanta and were on Table of the Elements label too.”

“Never heard of them. You ever heard Vietnam?”

And it just goes that way. The fact that he was known as Punk Rock Steve was news to him. But then, everyone in The Village has a nickname.

When he finally called me and I was able to have a conversation with him he told me all about the bands he grew up seeing. Like a lot of people in Atlanta, a lot of artists, he doesn’t feel he’s made anything for himself here or will be able to at his age. At 51, he recognizes the need to move on. He loves the city, lives here but knows when he’s been licked.

“We need a change of scenery to start fresh. I have lived here all my life except for when I was in Athens for a few years or bumming around for a while, this, that and the other.

“The biggest change in Atlanta is the city used to be done for cheap rent so it attracted artists and attracted lots of creative types and now the cheap rent is gone. Has been for a while.

“The Village really has not been gentrified other than a place like Graveyard coming in and attracting an outside element and I don’t even know if they still do that. I’m coming out of the loop.”

Steve and I discussed all of this over the phone. His car had broken down and he was using MARTA to get around. He couldn’t make it out to Joe’s for the interview so we chitchatted for a while. He’s the type of raconteur who speaks slowly, often distracted by his surroundings or people. He has an opinion on all things. His memory for details is vivid. One could, literally, hear him speak for hours.

“I remember before Flatiron was a tattoo bar they really struggled for an identity with art on the walls and I think when the tattoo place [came in] it opened up everything for them and their business went way up.”

He’s worked as a contractor, real estate advisor and occasional, ahem, horticulturist. He’s retired from the latter. A man like Steve acts as an observer, a gatherer of history of the cities he’s lived in, a human videotape recording renovations and transformations. During my second interview I mention some friends I had who lived next to a grow house. I mentioned it mostly because of the internal damage that house had when the, uh, horticulturists abandoned the place. Since he spent time repairing his home and working in the real estate field, I figured he could relate. But he related on a different level.

“Yeah, I knew a couple that ran one. Funny story about that. The girl let me smoke with her once. Well, more than once. I learned a lot from her. She gave me tips; lighting, humidity, even where to position the plants. I’m hoping to invest in that kind of work when I move to Colorado. There are some particular techniques that most people don’t even understand.”

Telling more of that story may incriminate some good people. But Steve said,

“So I’m convinced it’s some good shit. So I’m like, okay, I should get some of that and I trusted her. Next night I go over to her place to make a purchase, only she’s not alone. Her boyfriend is there and there’s four other guys sitting around her place. Cops.”

“You were able to sniff out the narcs that quickly?”

“Sure, man. I mean, four clean-cut dudes with nice shirts, short hair. Never seen them around before. They’re sitting there, chomping at the bit when I show up. They see my long hair, beard and they think the trap is set. The joint gets passed around. Her boyfriend’s eyes are about to pop out of his head. They see me as some stoned out idiot thinking I’m going to get stupid. Well, I was stoned out of my mind of course. They kept passing the joint around. Her boyfriend still nervous as fuck. Like that scene from Boogie Nights but with cops and stoners. We’re joking and laughing, having a great time. Hours passed. I’m telling you, I’d never been that high in my life. But I could tell those boys were waiting for me to slip. To pull out my wad of cash and get it over with. Her boyfriend, standing at the other side of the room was pale, sweaty, rubbing his hands together. And then one of the cops looks at the others and then looks at me. He says, ‘so, you make a buy or not?’ So I look at them and smile…”

At times Steve’s smile is gently sinister. Like he knows something you don’t. He could easily fit into Dr. Teeth’s band on The Muppet Show.

“I reach into my pocket…her boyfriend’s mouth drops open. He must be seeing all this shit in slow motion. They’re reaching for handcuffs… but then they suddenly leave the room. All four of them, up and go.”

“They left?”

“They went outside the house. And then I take out my money… see, if they weren’t there to witness it they couldn’t hold it against me. So, I buy what would normally be a misdemeanor’s worth of it. Something they just wouldn’t care about. It wasn’t worth their time. It was considered criminal, but these boys wanted a real collar, not some stoner with a dime bag.

“So I make the purchase, her boyfriend’s asking me if I was crazy. I tell them, this will look bad on you guys. I’m not coming back here after this. I got what I came for, stoned out of my mind, and left. I’m walking through their front yard and the cops are standing around their cars. They already had it in their mind that this was not going to be a worthy bust. Suddenly, they’re all business. I mean, what was the most they were going to get out of me? So I told them, ‘goodnight officers’.”

He laughs.

“So,” I said. “the point of all this is that she showed you how to improve your growth technique?”

“Pretty much. I hope to get in on that market when I get to Denver. First I have to sell my house.”

“What did the cops say?”

“They didn’t even look frustrated. I’d be just another stoner in the back of a cop car but nothing else. I think the authorities have gotten past that. They looked at me as I got in my car, pocket full of weed. And you know what they said to me before I got in? They said, ‘drive safely, sir’.”

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Atlanta, Georgia, Interview

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