When Artest threw those blows in Detroit, he was fighting for us, too. He was expressing with his fists the feelings of many Americans, including myself, in those dark days after the rigged election. He is a hero in the sense Che Guevara is a hero, a leader of men and a strong voice for revolution in the face of oppression. That's it. Let's make Nov. 19 a national holiday, a day in which all of us can lash back at those who would attack or degrade us.
– Steve Hammer, "Artest must stay: Our survival depends upon it," NUVO, December 2005
I think there's been an essential truth to all of my columns, no matter how shitty they were.
– Steve Hammer, email, March 2013
Was he for real?
A meditation on Hammer, from a former colleagueBY SCOTT HALL
Devoted Pacers fan. Proud Southsider. Avowed Marxist. Soul music lover. Internet provocateur.
Was he for real, that Steve Hammer guy? It was always hard to tell. In print, he was "a cipher," he admits. In person, he could be as gray and affectless as the mugshots that accompanied his prose.
Now, we may never know.
Let's be clear: He's not dead in the conventional sense. As readers have learned, Hammer is ending his weekly NUVO column after a marathon 20-year run, seldom equaled in the annals of local punditry. That's about 1,000 columns, if you do the math, not to mention the estimated 3,000 stories he wrote for NUVO in various part- and full-time capacities that included managing editor, music editor, arts and culture editor, arts and media editor, and contributing editor.
In that period, he's been a consistent voice of truth to power, or at least an entertaining annoyance to a series of elected officials, sacred cows and fancy folk of all kinds. He has drawn lessons from his favorite topics – the Kennedys, Watergate, the Beatles – and established his everyman credentials with uncomfortably personal accounts of his struggles with authority, money, objective reality, various substances and various unstable women.
But after two decades of apparent self-revelation, Hammer remains an enigma, even to longtime associates and perhaps even to himself. In the case of this story you're reading right now, for example, he never quite could decide – over the course of 13 emails and a two-hour telephone conversation – whether to participate. Why waste more space examining a man who wasn't there? It's all in the columns, right?
"Take a halftone photo of me and enlarge it 400 percent," Hammer, 48, wrote in one message. "The space between the dots is me. All else is disinformation."
Irreverence wasn't fashionable then
Others offer a more generous assessment. Indianapolis Star columnist Dan Carpenter, a brother in this city's tiny fraternity of left-leaning commentators, responded kindly when asked about his longtime NUVO counterpart.
"He's given to excess, like myself and then some. Like myself channeling Hunter Thompson, maybe," Carpenter wrote of Hammer. "He has also given by excess, to a town that needs a full-throated defender of its underappreciated values and defier of our fashionable complacency and submission to elite rule. ... He's carried on in the nobly cantankerous spirit of his mentor, the late Harrison Ullmann, and I'll miss them both."
Ullmann, an old-school liberal and gadfly journalist-at-large for decades, was NUVO's editor and top columnist in early 1993, when Hammer joined full-time as managing editor. It was the young journalist's first solid job since volunteering in Little Rock for the Clinton campaign. His weekly column began that summer, when the prolific Ullmann – whom he calls "a monumental figure in my life" – took a vacation.
Hammer's journalism career had begun years earlier. The Southport High School grad studied at Indiana University and worked for its award-winning Indiana Daily Student newspaper before dropping out, short of his degree. He quickly found work, however, writing for the Indy Star and News and the Noblesville Ledger, and even serving a few years as managing editor of the Indianapolis Recorder, one of the nation's oldest African-American newspapers.
During that era, he became acquainted with Will Higgins, editor of a short-lived local alternative paper called the New Times. As a freelance writer, Hammer followed in 1990 when Higgins became the second editor of a new, struggling alt-weekly called NUVO.
"Hammer was a strange cat, and bright," recalls Higgins, now the Star's senior wiseacre feature writer. "I remember he had a funny way of standing – sort of on one foot, always shifting feet, as if he had to pee.
"Irreverence is fashionable now, but in the early '90s it was hard to find. Hammer oozed it, oozed irreverence. So I gave him work."
Later, as Hammer settled into NUVO full-time, he became a frumpy king of all Naptown media. He launched the first of his many websites and blogs in 1994, well ahead of many major news outlets. For a full year, he hosted The Steve Hammer Show on WAV-TV.
Not everyone was a fan, of course – that's the mark of a successful columnist. Hammer was a frequent target for disgruntled readers but also felt love from people who recognized him on the street.
"I got nothing but feedback, dude," he recalls.
Friction at work
But even among colleagues there was friction. Little warmth remains, for example, between Hammer and another longtime NUVO contributor, Jeff "Flounder" Napier. Napier was the music editor when Hammer became his supervisor, and Hammer became music editor after Napier's full-time employment ended.
Among other issues, Hammer says Napier actively lobbied against him in the local music community.
"For enemies, none is more despised than Napier," he says, not kidding. "Whatever he says will infuriate me endlessly."
Obligingly, Napier says Hammer "singlehandedly tried to kill" the city's original music scene.
"Steve Hammer was the worst music editor ever," Napier says. "That really made me hate him for a long time. It was so clear that he didn't really want to do that job."
Hammer agrees he hated that job, though it gave him great memories: meeting James Brown, interviewing Yoko Ono. He also lost control a bit during the early 2000s, he says, both personally and professionally. And he never was much of a team player.
"I was notorious for never showing up at NUVO events," he says. "I was and am generally inaccessible for all kinds of social niceties."
Eventually, Hammer's supervisors grew weary of the disappointments and terminated him as a full-time employee in 2006.
"It was really hard," says Jim Poyser, NUVO's managing editor then and now.
They allowed him to continue writing his weekly column, however, at a higher-than-usual pay rate. Hammer admits the extra cash was a key motivation to continue writing as he humbly started over on the career ladder, taking an IT gig with a major telecom provider.
"Sure, he wanted the money, but it must have been terrible for him, to keep on with us," Poyser says. "The fact that he stayed engaged as a columnist indicated his love for Indianapolis, his love for his readers, and their love for him."
In retrospect, the fresh start has proven positive for Hammer. Before leaving NUVO, he enjoys pointing out, he met a bright and attractive intern, Katie, whom he now calls his wife. He is currently in Texas, training for a lucrative new position with that telecom company. And his column, which concludes this week, has remained as weird, funny and insightful as ever. Even Napier gives props.
"Over the past six or seven years, first thing I do when I pick up the NUVO is look for Steve Hammer's column," Napier says. "When he started doing what he wanted to do, that's when he became a great writer."
As for Hammer, he's over it. A new life calls.
"Steve Hammer the columnist is dead, and I killed him," he says. "Steve Hammer the IT specialist is concerned with doing a good job, being a nice husband and doing the right thing. He won't be attending the funeral of the other Steve Hammer."
Scott Hall has been a NUVO contributor since 1990 and very, very briefly preceded Steve Hammer as managing editor.