In memory: Steve Baratta (1953 – 2014)

July 9, 2014
By

Steve Baratta. (Photograph courtesy of Tara Villanueva)

Poet, radio host and activist Steve Baratta was honored this past Sunday, July 6, at a memorial where friends and family celebrated his life and mourned the silencing of what for many was a voice of inspiration. He was 61.

Held at the Blu Elephant Cafe in Los Angeles, roughly 40 to 50 people crammed into the small cafe, spilling out onto the sidewalk, to hear readings of Baratta’s poetry and to say publicly how this profoundly empathetic man had enriched their lives. Phrases, such as “the embodiment of love,” “proof that there is goodness” and “genuine kindness” were used to describe Baratta, as well as “revolutionary optimist” and “poet warrior.”

Baratta was born in Brooklyn in 1953 and raised on Long Island. When addressing crowds at political gatherings in Los Angeles he was known to jokingly say, “I’m from New York, so I’ll need an interpreter.” He was drafted into the Navy in the early ‘70s and served on a supply ship. After being discharged in San Diego, he made California his home.

Unable to recollect many of Baratta’s artistic influences, Robert Baratta figured that after his brother left the Navy, Bob Dylan inspired him to become a poet.

“He always loved Bob Dylan. He loved him from the get-go,” he said. “He was always walking around with a Bob Dylan album. [The song] ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ I think changed his life.”

 

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won’t come again

And don’t speak too soon

For the wheel’s still in spin

And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’

For the loser now will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin’

— Bob Dylan

 

As if answering Dylan’s call, Steve Baratta began to “prophesize with his pen,” and keep his “eyes wide.” Like a drifting troubadour, he kept his life free of entanglements and marched to his own iambic pentameter. He lived homeless, sleeping in a church’s courtyard in east Hollywood, determined to be true to himself. Some say it was by choice, others say it was his only choice.

And he wrote.

 

I write because poetry is inspiration,

the breath that keeps me alive.

 

— Steve Baratta, excerpt from “Why I Write”

 

“I wasn’t really happy about it,” said Baratta’s sister, Kathy Baratta-Brown, about her brother’s homelessness. “But I knew he was looking to make something out of himself. That was the path he thought was the right way to do it, for him. He just wanted to write poetry. He just put himself out there, started looking for people and making friends. He was not shy by any means. He was very friendly and always had a smile for everybody.”

Participating in an anti-police brutality demonstration on Oct. 22, 2010, Steve Baratta holds a photo of 19-month-old Suzie Pena, who was killed by LAPD SWAT in 2005. Baratta had told LA Activist that Pena’s death was very emotional for him and further galvanized him in fighting police brutality. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

In the 1990s, Steve Baratta began working with the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, two socialist-feminist organizations of the same coin. He took the side of the oppressed, railed against capitalism, racism, sexism, war and police brutality, to name a few. To the groups he supported, he offered his labor, his love and his poetry.

“He was such a positive and giving person,” said Christine Browning, a member of the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women. “We met Steve several years ago when he came to Radical Women’s Women’s Rights Day celebration and read a couple of his poems in support of women’s rights. After that, he would appear occasionally at meetings, study groups or events, always offering his opinions or throwing out a wry joke, and always willing to help us clean up at the end of the evening. He would do just about anything for us.”

Yuisa Gimeno, an organizer with Radical Women, said Baratta “was a fixture” at their meeting hall. She said Baratta often honored women in his poetry and she held him up as an example.

“It’s an inspiration to me, and it’s an inspiration to other men, that men too can be feminists,” she said. “He was a walking, breathing, talking example of that.”

 

Never underestimate the strength of a woman

She doesn’t need to call security

and she doesn’t need to call the cops

Remember,

she can grab you by the collar with the right hand

and throw your ass out on the pavement

while drinking a cup of coffee with her left

 

And she’ll take your order

and pay for it

Then give it to the starving poet

who is sitting at the other end of the counter

True democracy at work!

 

And in a situation like this

the only role for security

is to open the door for the waitress

 

— Steve Baratta, excerpt from “Woman”

 

Steve Baratta on stage. (Photograph courtesy of Tara Villanueva)

In 2010, Baratta took his passion for social justice and poetry, as well as his nasally New York accent, and applied it to the radio. For years he hosted a show called “Open Windows” on Kill Radio with the skill of a professional. He would often joke about his program’s hours, which were from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m., and say, “Today never ends, because it’s always tomorrow.”

It was at Kill Radio that Baratta would further inspire others – like Tim Morris, an associate of his at the station, who described Baratta as his mentor and friend.

“Even though he taught me a lot of things, I don’t think he considered himself a teacher,” said Morris. “I don’t think he was aware he was teaching me anything, other than him doing his thing. He was being himself, and that was what he was really showing me to do, was to be myself. The identity that he carried was much more than that; he was a real individual. … If it weren’t for him being who he was, and being in my life as he was, and the role he played, the series of serendipitous events that led me to him, and him being in my life by pure chance, then I wouldn’t believe in myself.”

Baratta had a similar effect on another Kill Radio cohort, James Gautier, who hosts his own show, “Jimmy’s Potpourri.”

“Every time I lost track of myself, trying to be who I am,” he said, “I would bump into Steve on the train or on the bus or at a cafe on Hollywood Boulevard or Sunset Boulevard, and Sexy Steve — Sexy-goddamn-Steve — would always fucking remind me that it’s OK for me to be as weird as I want to be. That was his thing for me. He’d say it’s OK to be a jackass, because that’s who you are. And I thought that was wonderful to hear that from someone who cared about you.”

But on Sunday, June 15, the poetry stopped. Steve Baratta died of an aortic aneurysm.

Baratta is survived by his parents, his brother and his sister. He never married, nor fathered any children. And while many of those who didn’t know Baratta well had suddenly wished they had, many of those who knew him better than anyone suddenly wished they knew more.

“Steve is not leaving this world unloved; that I know for sure,” said Robert Baratta, after hearing an evening’s worth of endless praise for his brother.

Tara Villanueva, Steve Baratta’s niece, emceed the event. She read one of her uncle’s poems, one that he wrote upon turning 60, called “Sixty, What Does It Mean?” It went something like this …

 

Death,

let it be not

a sad, dark, solemn occasion

So don’t mourn for me when I’m gone,

Or grieve over my clean white shirt,

Because it’s the only one I’ve got

 

 

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5 Responses to In memory: Steve Baratta (1953 – 2014)

  1. Jorge Lopez on July 11, 2014 at 1:01 am

    He definitly did not go unlove , how would you explain i got so sad to tears when i read about stevy’s past. i meet him at fred 62 a late nigth dinner restorant in los feliz where i used to work asa drink maker and where he used to go almost every nigth for a late cup of cafe or te and even some times a shake, bannana peanut batter was his favorite.i knew he was going to have a big wide smile as he was enyoying it. after that he would reed or write for a couple hours or if it was a slow day have long conversations whit me or some of my coworkers. we all loved steve i cant imagin someone that knew hem an dint loved him.
    Thanyou Steve for your poetry Thankyou for your suport. Thanyou four your smile. Thanyou for your life.

  2. Victor Balogh on July 12, 2014 at 4:49 am

    Steve’s smile will be sorely missed. Talking to him was like talking to an un bitter, non whining Woody Allen. A kind spirit like that does not come around often in this world . And if re enacarnation exists for us in the next life, I am sure Steve will be back again, whatever he was working on with his passion and fervor for it , he accomplished it one hundred ten percent. He lived for his art and that’s something we should all aspire to do . Long live the poet! Long live the poem!

  3. Jeremy Morelock on July 14, 2014 at 9:54 am

    I co-hosted the Open Windows radio show on Killradio.org for a year with Steve.
    We had some amazing times doing that show with great poets and musicians performing live on the show.
    The archive of the shows is here. Scroll all the way down and work your way up. This is the definitive Steve Baratta archive!!
    http://www.dungmummyradio.com/

  4. bcpetrakos on July 14, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    Steve was a kind, TRUE ARTIST, with a HEART of gold!
    a gentleman, and a scholar! He blessed us with his love!
    Thank you for this article..

  5. discarted on July 25, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    For years I would pass this man on streets multiple times a week in East Hollywood. I was always interested to find out his story, but never chatted him up. Sad to find out he’s gone.

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