Roger Steffens: Reggae Encyclopedist and “Family Acid” Photographer
by Eric Trules
If you know anything about the world of reggae music, you know the name, Roger Steffens, the man who began the first radio broadcast of the “Reggae Beat” on KCRW (along with Hank Holmes) on Oct. 7, 1979. It was the only reggae show in Los Angeles at the time, and it went on to set annual fundraising records for the radio station, L.A.’s local NPR affiliate, which is still going strong.
Eventually “Reggae Beat” was syndicated to 130 stations worldwide. Steffens first guest on the show was Bob Marley, and Steffens spent two weeks on the road with Marley in 1979 on the original “Survival” tour. Since then, Steffens has written six books about Marley and the history of reggae, and he has lectured internationally for the past 31 years on “The Life of Bob Marley,” in a multi-media presentation that has been seen everywhere from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, to the Smithsonian to the outback of Australia. I saw the show twice, once at Steffens reggae exhibition installed on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, a second time, more recently, at USC’ s School of Cinematic Arts. Roger spoke while his wife, Mary, ran the slides and videos.
Steffens’ world-famous reggae archives are housed in a labyrinthine maze below the first floor of his home in Echo Park, filling the entire lower level of seven rooms from floor to ceiling. “We’ve had to move twice just to house the collection,” he told me. “And now we’re about to burst this one too. We need a permanent institutional home, just in case you know of one.”
His Marley collection has been called the most complete in the world, by the very Wailers themselves, Bob’s band members. It’s not just shelves of records, tapes, and CDs pushing out from every corner, but tens of thousands of reggae photographs, 30,000 reggae fliers from all over the world, 2,000 reggae posters (many of them signed by the original artists), 140 cubic feet of alphabetized clippings, and an array of invaluable books and magazines, including the full 48-year run of Rolling Stone. (He bought the first issue the day before he went to Vietnam.)
Yet Steffens is not only a reggae “encyclopedist” and collector. He has also hosted programs of African music, poetry, the Sixties, and a wide-open talk show, called “Offbeat.” He has interviewed countless colorful musicians, and he is the man who turned Paul Simon on the Ladysmith Black Mambazo for his landmark and Grammy-winning 1986 “Graceland” LP. Steffens was the first speaker at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and the most frequent, nine times. In 2013 he spent the first two months of the year on the road as the Wailers’ opening act on their international “Survival Revival” tour.
Where is the reggae guru from? What’s his story? Well, Steffens, who was born in Brooklyn in the early Forties, likes to begin his story of influence with serving for the last 26 months of the Sixties in the army in Vietnam. He was assigned to Psychological Operations in Saigon, but when the TET Offensive hit the capital, Roger found 52 families living in sewer pipes outside his barracks. He began a refugee campaign that raised over 100 tons of food and clothing, mainly from Racine, where he had read poetry in the school before being drafted. He built villages and brought medical and dental assistance to war victims from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta. For his actions, he was awarded a Bronze Star.
“I’ve always had a Hippie heart,” Steffens says proudly. And after a post-war ‘we gotta get out of this place’ year in Marrakech, Morocco in 1971, he moved to Berkeley, California. He photographed his activities hanging with early Rolling Stone writers, musicians, artists, poets, painters, and fellow actors, as avidly as he had taken photos during the Vietnam War. Since that time, all the slides (1967-1993) and prints (1993-2007) stayed hidden behind closed doors — 100,000 images that virtually no one outside the family had ever seen, except in living room slideshows. (He’s taken another 240,000 digital images since.)
Then, in 2013, Roger’s son, Devon Steffens, spent a year digitizing some 40,000 slides. Next, his daughter, Kate, asked, “Why don’t I start an Instagram site?” Right on cue, Steffens replied, “What’s an Instagram?” After his daughter explained and her dad agreed, she began posting two pictures a day under the rubric “The Family Acid,” so called, she said, because her childhood friends told her that her family was “like the Waltons on Acid.” The fact that Roger and his wife, Mary, met on an acid trip in a pygmy forest in Mendocino under a total eclipse of the moon on Memorial Day, 1975, may have also helped influence the title.