A lot of people think there’s no appreciation for unsung heroes until after they die. The truth is that there are people all around them, many of whom they’ve helped to elevate through their craft, who were in on the secret and awed by them long before they left this world. Some people are so rare and special you want to keep them to yourself or just simply let them be who they are.
For many in the punk community, bassist Chris Stein was that kind of secret–a rare breed, quiet, humble, artistic and pure. The kind of guy who stood in the back of the room, quiet but with the most to share. Whether it was his point of view, a past experience or a piece of music that would leave you floored, all you had to do was be bold enough to inquire, lean in close and listen.
Sadly, that voice was lost on December 1 when Stein, 44, succumbed to a two-year battle with cancer. The music he leaves behind as a member of legendary art-punk underdogs Saccharine Trust, Citizen Down and Jason Cruz and Howl, Carnage Asada and others continues to speak to his genius as a musician in a way he never would do himself.
“People are always trying so hard to create a persona in front of the camera but he was one of those guys who stood in the background and you kinda had to come to him to see all the greatness he was doing,” says Cruz, also the lead singer of Strung Out. A lifelong friend and bandmate of Stein’s when the two played together in his band Jason Cruz and Howl, the two Simi Valley natives found a bond in music based around the desire to move the needle of their creativity.
“It wasn’t anything other than ascension, speaking god language,” Cruz says. “When we jammed we were communicating on a higher level and it wasn’t about anything else but ascension.”
As an artist, musician, skateboarder, animal lover, illustrator, storyteller and friend, Stein touched the lives of many who poured out their grief on social media after the news came of his passing.
His death came as a shock to many, even those who knew of his long, hard-fought battle with cancer that spread throughout his body, which was beaten momentarily only to come back and enter his brain not once, but twice. Towards the end of his life after having an operation to remove a brain tumor, doctors found another one had grown in its place. Last month, doctors told him he only had two weeks to live.
“It was very disappointing because just before that he seemed to be coming out of it, but within two weeks it hit him really hard and that was it,” says Joe Baiza, the guitarist and co-founder of Saccharine Trust. “It’s still hard to believe he’s not here right now.”
The Hermosa Beach band, originally signed to SST Records in the early ‘80s, was among Stein’s favorite bands growing up prior to him joining the reformed version of the band in 1997. Their abrasive guitar, pummeling rhythms and poetic diatribes combined with the caustic chemistry of Baiza and singer Jack Brewer made Saccharine stand out amongst the many influential punk bands of the day. They also inspired an impressionable young punk by the name of Kurt Cobain who listed the band’s debut EP PaganIcons as his ninth favorite record of all time.
When Baiza and Brewer decided to reform the band after a decade-long hiatus, Stein auditioned to become the band’s new bassist and fit right in, adding his own unique flavor to some of the band’s more well-known songs during his tenure in the band.
“There’s a song called ‘I Am Right’ on the PaganIcons EP and the newer version of Saccharine would do it and there’s a little riff that Chris would throw in there,” says Rob Holzman, one of the band’s original drummers who knew Chris well. “When Earl Liberty (the band’s original bassist) started playing bass again, Earl would see that little riff and he would start playing it too. When we would play gigs and I’d hear that little riff I’d always think of Chris.”
Though ending up on the roster for one of his favorite bands was a full circle moment for Stein, it had also come as a result of many years of hard work, honing his craft in bands like Citizen Down, a band that come up alongside Jason Cruz’s band Strung Out. The friendship between the two musicians never wavered, and eventually, the two found themselves in the same band when Cruz’s side project Howl began to take shape around 2013. Both of them saw it as a chance to once again test their limits as songwriters.
“It was everything opposite about being in a band, it was about pissing people off and creating awkward moments,” Cruz says. “We wanted to catch the ghosts in the room, we recorded in a haunted mansion and did hallucinogenic and drugs and we were about capturing the vibe, fuck sponsors, fuck the industry, fuck the game, it was about finding ghosts, it was so rad.”
Always a faithful servant to the songs he would write with Cruz, Stein would utilize his jazz-informed funky style to dance around rhythms tastefully and creatively while giving songs like “High and Lonesome” and “When They Finally Get Me” the support they needed.
“He always used to tell me ‘The song is the boss’ Cruz says. “If it’s good for the song, that’s what it gets, we as musicians don’t matter.”
It’s a hard theory to argue with, though in Stein’s absence it’s clear that when it comes to rare artists who make an impact, Stein’s presence did matter to those affected by his time on Earth.
Now laid to rest in his native Simi Valley, those who knew him are dedicated to remembering him and seeing his presence in all things.
“As far as I’m concerned Chris Stein won,” says Cruz in reference to his battle with cancer. “What he left behind, his frequency is emanating hard and perpetuating hard and everyone who knew him feels the same way.”