By J. Michael Kearsey
Division Street, born as The Section Line Road to divide lots and land grants, has become so lively that the lines for Thai food and ice cream cones curl around the block. Many faces are from the neighborhood, many from afar to enjoy an AirBnB weekend. Now that Eugenio’s has closed, however, a bit of that life is gone.
Most especially we miss Wednesday nights at this Bohemian nightspot with Steven “Pearly” Hettum acting as ringmaster of an open mic night for the ages. Hettum is gone as well, sadly missed in the Portland music community as a promoter, manager, singer, songwriter and most of all a friend to all the songwriters in the city.
Steve’s journey began in the east county neighborhoods where he grew up, graduating from Centennial High School in 1975. He played second base there and was offered a baseball scholarship to Eastern Oregon University, but chose to attend Oregon State.
After a year there he moved on to PSU as an English major. During this time he re-connected with a Madison High baseball-player-turned-musician named Billy Rancher and became his manager.
It was the golden age for Portland’s music scene with hits like “Harden My Heart” (Quarterflash) and “I Can’t Wait” (Nu Shooz) finding national appeal and recording contracts. Hettum took Rancher’s punky white reggae sound and his band, the Unreal Gods, from overly packed bar rooms to a record contract with Arista. Clive Davis even came to hear them at the Luis La Bamba club in Portland. The charismatic Rancher, however, was stricken with lymphoma and the recording contract was lost along with quite a bit of trust among the band.
A bit bruised by the music business, Hettum moved to England to study at the University of London, Russell Square. Always a very literate Anglophile, he studied Shakespeare and all the classic English writers and poets. In London he met many actors, writers and musicians including bandleader Mike Kahn, who accepted Steve’s offer to come to Portland to play music and tour the West Coast in the summer of 1985.
The following year Hettum and Kahn brought Portland rockabilly trio, the Rockin’ Razorbacks, to England for a month and then brought English blues musician, Mick Clarke, to Oregon in 1987. He escorted Margo Tufo’s RnB group to London the following year.
During this time Hettum’s songwriting career began to take precedence. When he accompanied Billy Kennedy to Nashville he acquired his nickname, “Pearly”. At a demo session, the engineer remarked that he loved Hettum’s voice though it was not a golden or silvery tone, but ‘pearly.’
His songs were about America and its foibles, highpoints and low and about love and love of family all with an acerbic wit and truthful lyricism. He began to release his own records in the late 1980’s with titles Simple Elegance, The Jangler, Middle Age Man and Fishermen’s Ball.
He toured the Northwest and opened for many of Portland’s favorite acoustic national acts: Greg Brown, John Gorka, and Steve Forbert among others. He married and moved his family to Gold Hill while working as a musician and bartender during his stay in Southern Oregon, returning to Portland in 2000. He recorded two more CD’s with his band, the Janglers, including this year’s CD, Folks Like Us. All his records are available at Music Millennium, CDbaby.com and Localsonly.org.
Along with playing solo gigs and fronting the band, Hettum established a weekly open mic at Eugenio’s on Division St. to support up-and-coming songwriters as well as traveling musicians. Those nights of great music ran weekly for over five years and were always packed with grateful music fans.
Each week before the show, he would meet his prospective talent to arrange 20 minute sets that ran from 7 until nearly midnight, with a song from Pearly always thrown in and his iconic closing number “Party By Myself”, which became a long and joyful sing along.
He was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue in 2013 and had a successful skin graft, though he was told he might not be able to speak again. Within a month, he was talking and singing better than ever, returning as Wednesday night host only a few weeks after his surgery.
When Steve was diagnosed last summer with an inoperable tumor behind his ribcage, he found stoicism amongst his sadness. He began assembling songs at a furious pace: finishing lyric sheets, expanding on brief ideas and fleshing out compositions with haste against a loss of vitality but not creativity.
As his energy waned in December, Steve and his band, the Janglers (Houston Bolles, Dennis Elmer and myself) booked time with his longtime engineer, Jon Lindahl, who was appraised of the situation, and a final project began. Gathering unreleased material recorded over the years at Lindahl’s Fresh Tracks, Fallout Shelter and Kung Fu Bakery, he began to assemble his final opus.
When he became too weak to work in the studio, fellow songwriter Steve Edgren set up a mobile studio at Pearly’s apartment and would stay late and come back early to record as much as he could. Old friends, keyboardist Dover Weinberg (Robert Cray Band) and sax man Danny Schauffler (Crazy 8’s) volunteered their time and skills.
On one of the last nights, a chorus of twenty-four Wednesday night musicians sang on a spiritual number Pearly had written the month before titled “Get On Board.” It is the final cut on the CD.
Steven Charles “Pearly” Hettum died peacefully and full of song on Feb 8, 2016. Ever the promoter, he chose to have “A Wake While I’m Awake” and the musical event brought together 300 of his friends and family on January 24 to honor him and say goodbye.
Recognizing the need for financial support of music in the schools and beyond, he asked that contributions in his name be made to the Oregon Music Hall of Fame Scholarship Fund at omhof.org to support graduating high school seniors to further their music studies.
Division Street and Portland will never be the same without him and we will just have to party by ourselves in his memory.