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When he walked onstage at the 20th anniversary of the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio's Rosedale Park in May, Estéban "Steve" Jordan was resplendent in a purple jumpsuit with gold buccaneer sleeves. But what stood out most was how frail the 62-year-old accordion legend looked. Like a skeleton clinging to its last layer of skin, Jordan appeared so gaunt that his right eye patch seemed to cover half his face. A loose strand of his jet-black mane stuck to his lips, giving the cholo pirate an even more eerie look as he strapped on the red diatonic button accordion bearing his name.
Then came the smile, that ear-to-ear endorsement of the moment. To other entertainers, a grin is a given. But on the mouth of a pioneer prone to bitterness, one who's rarely played in public the past 10 years, the upturned corners meant something. It's not often that an enigma comes to life before your eyes, so when "Estay-bon Hor-don," as he was introduced, took off on a jazzy tangent to start his set, the audience of about 2,000 erupted. Conjunto purists have not always been fans of Jordan's attempts to modernize a style of music that peaked in popularity in the '50s and '60s, and he's not exactly big with the Tejano crowd, which prefers its front men to wear cowboy get-ups and dance around. But on this night the factions of fans banded together to welcome home a notorious and troubled genius. When he punctuated the perfect night with his trademark girlie-yelp grito, the men in 10-gallon hats hoisted their cans of light beer and the women brushed against the up beat.
"Voy a cantáerles un corrído muy al albla" ("I'm going to sing you a great corrido")he vocalized on a traditional Mexican folk song that he would "Jordanize" with cat-quick button runs and a skronking solo closer to bebop than Tex-Mex. "Está es la historía de un pachuco muy rocote," he sang in an unharnessed voice.
This is the story of one bad-ass pachuco.
The way you interview Steve Jordan is to drive to San Antonio and just show up at his door. It's a carriage house in the back yard of another house on the city's far west side. Appointments don't mean much to the man who's never owned a watch. He's been known to take off on impromptu deep-sea fishing and casino gambling vacations at the drop of a Hohner. But on this day you're lucky. It's 4 in the afternoon and Jordan's home, but he's still sleeping.
"He was up all night recording," his 19-year-old son, Steve, says. "Give him another hour or two."
A polite and soft-spoken kid, Steve III (he has an older half-brother also named Steve Jordan) gives a tour of the studio that dominates the living room. The only TV is tuned to a surveillance camera outside. The only stereo is a big wooden console number on top of which several Ampex reel-to-reel tapes are stacked. The famous red "Steve Jordan Tex-Mex Rockordeon" is on the floor next to a chair. There are musical instruments everywhere -- guitars, drums, saxophones, timbales and two or three other button accordions. Jordan can play them all with the virtuoso skill another man named Jordan once displayed on the basketball court.
"How do you like my little set-up here?" asks the man himself, emerging from a bedroom less than half an hour since the knock on his front door. "You meet my 280 musicians? Right here, man, in my synthesizer. Best musicians I ever jammed with, bro, 'cause they all play like me." There's that exaggerated snicker and the slap on the back. Jordan's wearing sunglasses instead of the patch that earned him the nickname "El Parche."
You don't need to ask a question to get him to take off on any given subject in his hipster growl.
"I hate digital, man," he says pointing to his ancient reel-to-reel decks. "Music is not this," he says chopping the air like the vertical coding on CDs. "It's like this," he says, rolling his hand in circles.
Steve Jordan doesn't do interviews, he holds court. He tells stories, recounts old gigs and goes off on riffs, jumping from an explanation of why he used to own a hearse ("I didn't want my first ride in one to be in the back") to his assessment of other accordion players ("That dumb cowboy's pretty good, but he can't play with me," he says of one).
The mention of a recent article in a San Antonio paper which, while acknowledging Jordan's genius, also included allegations of current drug use, brings out a trace of the notorious temper.
"I'll take a dude outside and whip his ass if he disrespects me," he says. "Society can't touch me, man. Never has. I never went to school, never been trained how to act. I'm an animal, bro.
"I'm not afraid to die," he says, lifting his shirt to show a scar that runs from his navel to just below his breast plate. "I've already been dead, bro."