When Steve Davis was told he had three months to live in September 2018, he came to view that diagnosis as a gift — a chance to reevaluate his life and live his final days in dignity and grace.
Two months later, about to start a tour with U.S. Bombs, the California punks whose ranks he’d joined on bass in mid-2017, Davis sat outside Copper Star Coffee and spoke about the impact of that stage 4 liver cancer diagnosis on his life.
By then, the MusiCares Foundation had stepped in to help with his expenses. And Slope Records, the Sunnyslope label that hooked him up with U.S. Bombs, had started a GoFundMe page and organized a benefit at Crescent Ballroom.
“That’s what I mean when I say it’s a gift,” Davis said with a smile. “All these people around me, to see all the goodness and healing and love and light? To be the beneficiary of all that? It’s pretty humbling really, just to witness the show of support.”
A longtime fixture of the Phoenix punk scene, Davis died on Wednesday, April 14.
He was 64.
Davis kept an upbeat attitude
A month before his death, the bassist changed his Facebook profile picture to a photo of him standing with his Converse sneakers planted firmly on his future gravesite at St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, still looking every bit the stylish 60-something punk he took great pride in being.
“Running around St. Francis today,” the caption read. “Have a sweetheart of a tombstone coming. Pearls. I’m so happy!”
A day after Davis’ death, there could be no mistaking the pain and emotion in Slope Records founder Tom Lopez’ voice as he talked about that photo.
“That just hit home, man, just literally pierced emotions inside of me. That’s such a heavy place to be, standing on top of your final resting place and to be at peace with that.”
The last time Lopez saw his friend was right before he entered hospice.
“It broke me down, ’cause he’s like, ‘I just want to get a hug from you ’cause this will probably be the last time I’ll see you,'” Lopez said.
“I’m like, ‘Aw man, don’t talk like that.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, it’s OK, brother. I’ve done my time. I’m ready to clock out.'”
Davis started playing in his living room
Davis had struggled to make it through that final U.S. Bombs tour.
“He wanted to do it, though,” Lopez recalled. “Get it under his belt. And it was really admirable to be able to just kind of buck up and be like ‘(expletive) it, man. I’m gonna go out there and do it.'”
That tour was a bit of a victory lap for Davis, who, in 1977, bought the beat-up Fender P bass he would play until his final days, inspired to get out there and do it by his hero, Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone.
As Lopez recalled a conversation on the tour bus, “He goes, ‘Man, my whole life, I’ve been playing music, and you always dream of the moment you’re gonna get to visit some cities and play in front of people. Here I am. I got this slick bus. I got a label behind me. I got my own bunk here. And I’m on the road.”
His first band never made it past the living room. Then he started the Veins, a band whose name they chose because as Davis told The Arizona Republic in 2018, “We were drug addicts.”
The Veins evolved into the Shivers, which led to a brief stint in Hellfire, whose farewell gig is where he met the man with whom he would go on to share a stage for 30 years, Keith Jackson.
As Jackson recalled that fateful night in 1991, “I asked him ‘Hey, man, you look cool. I just moved here from Detroit. Do you want to start a band?’ And with that amazing smile of his, he said, ‘Yeah, man, that sounds (expletive) cool.'”
So they started Glass Heroes together.
“It was like watching Paul Simonon from the Clash play bass,” Jackson said.
“He was that intense, that driven. And he was all over the place with his legs spread in that classic punk stance, down on the floor and jumping around. It was just Steve, you know? It was perfect.”
‘He was kind of like a peace punk’
To Lopez, he was the essence of ’70s punk-rock cool.
“He was the real deal,” Lopez said. “By the time he arrived in the Bombs, he had this history of being around the street-punk stuff and he’d be up there in his Cons. He just knew how to rock that bass. It was a whole vibe.”
Davis also brought a winning personality to the equation.
“He was that guy,” Jackson said.
“The kindest heart. Always had a smile. Always positive. Not a violent guy whatsoever. He was kind of like a peace punk, you know? He touched a lot of lives and definitely mine. This place is gonna be a little smaller without him. He was that iconic. And not even from a musician’s standpoint, just from the people he’s touched, you know?”
Glass Heroes squeezed in three last shows with Davis before the pandemic shut everything down, in February 2020.
“We weren’t planning on doing it,” Jackson said. “But we did it for him. And boy, I’m glad we did.”
‘Stevie and the Sleaze,’ a legacy project
By that point, Davis had already played his final gig with Stevie and the Sleaze, a project assembled by Jamie Paul Lamb in 2018 around the idea of giving Davis his own vehicle.
Jeremie Bacpac Franko, a local muralist whose punk-rock pedigree includes having played with U.K. punk legends the Raincoats, was thrilled to have a chance to play with Davis in the Sleaze.
“Jamie knew by that time Stevie had the cancer diagnosis, so he knew there was a time limit,” she said. “And I think he created the idea of Stevie and the Sleaze as a legacy project.”
Lamb said he and Davis tried to get a band together in the ’90s but it never worked out.
“So we figured it would be easy to get together and kind of finish what we tried to do so many years ago,” he said.
“We wrote, like, 16 tunes in less than the amount of time it takes to listen to them, probably practiced a fraction of that and played I think three or four shows.”
By the time the clubs shut down in early 2020, Franko said, Davis was having a hard time standing at rehearsal for more than a song.
“He would just sit on the edge of his amplifier. And we couldn’t play anywhere because of COVID. I don’t know that he would’ve said he was done at the time, but that was the end of him being able to play.”
Davis shifted his focus to painting and writing
At that point, Davis channeled his creative energies into painting and writing.
“In terms of his artistic expressions — painting, writing, and most importantly, the music — he approached those things from the punk ethos, which is you don’t have to learn how to do anything,” Lamb said. “You just kind of plug in and go.”
As a fellow artist, Franko bonded heavily with Davis over art and was a really big fan of his paintings.
“He would just take a canvas, stretch it all over the floor and pour things on it, throw dirt on it, walk on it with bottle caps on his shoes,” she said. “His paintings are awesome, kind of very Basquiat-looking, in that kind of mode.”
He published his first book, “The Unexpectedly Long Life of Stevie D,” last summer. All proceeds from the book will now go the bassist’s son, Aries Davis.
Maggie Rawling Smith, who edited what she refers to as the bassist’s “snippet memoir” with her husband, Brian Smith, described the book as “kind of fiction, because he changed the names, but essentially things that happened to him.”
It also features a selection of his poetry and paintings.
“So it has kind of a triptych quality,” Maggie said.
The Smiths edited Davis’ words from a Google document Brian said started as “thousands and thousands and thousands of words” into a more concise narrative he refers to as “junkie Bukowski.”
The story chronicles the bassist’s years of heavy drug use with what Brian said is no hyperbole or shame, just brutal honesty.
“Hyperbole,” he said, “was not part of his language.”
At the time of his death, he’d been sober for 23 years, having entered Narcotics Anonymous after being diagnosed in 1998 with Hepatitis C.
In 2018, Davis told the Republic, “I’m an old heroin addict. But I’m off everything – weed, booze. When I got diagnosed in ’98, they told me I had it since ’77. It probably was IV using. I don’t think it was the tattoos.”
How a health scare helped Davis get sober
Brian Smith met Davis in the early ‘when Smith’s Tucson band the Pills played their first show in Phoenix.
“We hit it off immediately and bonded over records,” Smith said.
“Really rare, obscure punk records that I couldn’t believe anybody else had. But we lost years because he got really strung out and saw some incredibly dark times.”
Being diagnosed with Hepatitis C changed everything for Davis.
“His whole temperament and outlook on life and his physical being shifted,” Smith said. “And he got a lot more out of life than anybody else in this condition. It’s shocking that he made it this long in some ways. And that’s all his heart.”
Everyone who knew him talks about how Davis dealt with learning he had stage 4 cancer.
“I knew he was terminally ill before I ever met him,” Maggie Smith recalled.
“And yet, standing in front of him, you realized he was the most alive person you’d ever met. He was so positive at every single turn to the people around him. Whatever your dream was, he wanted you to go for it.”
Brian Smith said he marveled at Davis’ “complete acceptance” of his fate.
“His going out was so unbelievably graceful,” he said.
Jackson said watching his bandmate come to terms with everything was “heartbreaking at times” but also deeply moving.
“He was like a saint, man,” Jackson said. “I mean, there’s just no other way to put it. Anyone else would be broken. And he was just as shining and smiling and happy as he’d ever been right up until the end. That’s just the way he handled things.”
Lopez found watching his friend come to terms with the fact that mortality is part of life inspiring.
“It’s not like most people,” he said, “where you’re not really sure when it’s coming. He could hear the knock on the door. So watching him go through that on social media, it’s not only an interesting way to handle it, it shaped a way for me to be able to look at my own inevitable mortality. He changed my life completely.”
Lopez and Davis shared quality time on the tour bus on that final Bombs tour.
“He was like ‘I’m happy. Truly happy. I’ve got my art. I’ve got my sobriety. I’ve got a good team of people around me I can go to anytime I get up in my head.’ The guy was really in tune with himself spirituality, knew how to navigate life on a really special set of principles. I’ve honestly never met anyone like him.”
It was like spending time with a shaman, Lopez said.
“His energy was literally piercing, almost like you got charged just by talking to him. He was full of love, you know? And even though he was a punk at heart, and all of us have a little bit of that anti-establishment in us, he had an open heart full of love and experience and wanted to share that with people.”
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