A 91-year-old drummer meets John Densmore of the Doors, and the music soars
It was around midnight when Steve Hideg made a trip to his bathroom, got dizzy and fell.
“I hit my head over here,” Hideg told me, pointing to the edge of his sink. He lay on the floor next to the bathtub for about 20 minutes, hoping to regain strength and get back on his feet.
Hideg, 91, is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear after sustaining injuries when bombs rained down on Budapest during World War II. In recent years he has become unsteady on his feet and has suffered several falls in his one-bedroom apartment in East Hollywood.
But last August was a bad one.
Photographer Francine Orr heard about it and warned me. We were collaborating on a story about Hideg in 2017 when we learned the jazz drummer and bandleader’s rent was more than his monthly income. At the time, he called his situation a “beautiful fight.” He was broke but still did what he loved, playing in small bands here and there.
On my last visit, Hideg recreated his fall and retraced the path he had crawled – about 15 feet from the bathroom to the kitchen. He felt dehydrated and needed a drink. Near the kitchen, he managed to pull himself to his feet only to fall again.
California is being hit by an aging wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His new column will focus on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some people question the stigma attached to older adults.
Hideg landed flat on his back on the kitchen floor in considerable pain. He reached for a water jug nearby, but he had badly injured his right shoulder and was too weak to open it. He had stopped wearing a necklace locket used to call for help because it was too sensitive and made frequent, unnecessary calls.
So he lay on the floor all night hoping he would find the strength to get up again. He estimates he was there about 12 hours when the phone rang from its perch on a stack of filing boxes near the kitchen. Hideg’s cane was close enough that he could reach out and grab it and use it to hook onto the box.
I am a fighter. I’m a guy who works with what I have.”
— Steve Hedig, 91-year-old jazz drummer
He answered the phone. It was someone from Meals on Wheels who asked why he hadn’t banged the delivery man in at the front gate. Hideg told the caller what happened and then called 911.
In the hospital, the doctors found an irregular heartbeat as a possible explanation for Hideg’s dizziness. He had COVID-19. Hideg, who is diabetic and has survived bladder cancer, was hospitalized for several days. After his release, he consulted an orthopedist and received devastating news.
His shoulder tendons were torn so badly that they could not be repaired.
“I’m a fighter,” said the man whose love of jazz began as a child working in a Hungarian cinema and catching glimpses of Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. Hideg reminded me that he had survived the war, survived a daring escape from Europe during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, and arrived penniless in the United States with his wife.
“I’m a guy who works with what I have, and that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up music,” he said. “That’s why I came to America.”
I recently shared this update with drummer John Densmore, who made a donation to Hideg in 2017 after reading that he was in danger of losing his home. Incidentally, Densmore’s wife, the painter and photographer Ildiko von Somogyi, is the daughter of Hungarians who left the country around the same time as Hideg.
I told Densmore, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Doors, that Hideg is back teaching and hosting a weekly jam session at Stein on Vine, the Hollywood music store some of the Doors have frequented for decades biggest names in jazz. When Densmore heard that Hideg couldn’t move his upper right arm but was drumming with a wrist motion, he wanted to see for himself.
He recalled the 2017 story that Hideg is a perpetual optimist.
“He has this smile on his face, and it kind of came from the music,” said Densmore, 78, whose love of music spans jazz and classical (I recently wrote about his friendship with LA Phil conductor Gustavo Dudamel) . In his book The Seekers, Densmore pays tribute to jazz drummer Elvin Jones. He says the way Jones and great saxophonist John Coltrane mesh helped inspire his own work with the Doors’ Jim Morrison.
On a recent Saturday, Stein on Vine owner Gary Chen opened up the rear music studio, once home to Stan Getz, Ray Brown and a host of all-stars. Hideg set up his snare drum accompanied by pianist Cengiz Yaltkaya, alto saxophonist Jay Golden and guitarist Leo Vaz. This group, which Hideg calls the Harmony Club Jazz Study Group, was tuning in when Densmore walked in.
“John, nice to see you,” Hideg said. “I remember the letter you sent me that you had a Hungarian fiancé. Do you still have them?”
“We’re married now,” Densmore said. Hideg called him an honorary Hungarian with an appreciative smile.
Hideg told Densmore he could no longer play the drums, but that wasn’t true. About a month after his fall, Hideg was back playing at home. Because of his injury, he cannot use all the equipment. But he can hold a stick and flick the noose with his right wrist. He puts his left hand on the drumhead and taps rhythm on the edge of the snare.
“Let’s do this,” Hideg said, calling the first number, a Cole Porter beauty called “What Is This Thing Called Love.”
“One, two, one, two, three, four,” Hideg counted, setting the time on his drum while Yaltkaya, an accomplished pianist, played the intro.
The sax and guitar kicked in and the band fitted together beautifully, but Hideg hit the brakes and told the band to start over again, but this time faster and brighter.
“He has this smile on his face, and it kind of came from the music.”
Densmore, sitting next to Hideg, couldn’t help it. He reached into Hideg’s stash of percussion instruments and kept the rhythm on the cowbell and a set of stumps called claves. It was now a five-piece band cooking in sync, and nobody’s smile was bigger than Hideg’s.
When they were done, Hideg asked if “that other drummer” would do the snare for the next number.
“I’d like to play a ballad with brooms,” Densmore said. “Would that be okay?”
He traded places with Hideg, who needed help moving from one chair to the other.
Hideg watched the band; I watched him celebrate this moment.
This is a man whose monthly disability income is still less than his rent, which is just over $1,000 a month. Without what’s left of his GoFundMe account, set up in 2017 by readers who saw his story in The Times, he would lose his apartment.
He’s a man who has achieved everything he dreamed of and more after rebelling against Soviet control and escaping under cover of darkness with his now-deceased pianist. He was a janitor in New York before moving to Los Angeles, where he worked his way up in the music business, formed a band – Steve Hideg and the Continentals – and booked gigs when TV shows still had live bands.
He was never rich or particularly famous, but music always carried him.
Hideg sat perfectly content listening to the hottest new band in LA play “I Should Care,” a soulful standard. Densmore, who channels Elvin Jones, brushed like a painter working on canvas.
“How about a nice hand for John,” Hideg enthused as the last notes faded away.
But Hideg didn’t let Densmore off the stage just yet. He announced that guitarist Vaz was a rocker who could sing and asked him to play “Wild Thing” by the Troggs.
Hideg then looked at Densmore and said deadly, “Well, can you play rock ‘n’ roll?”
On one of my favorite Latin jazz songs, “Poinciana”, Hideg handed me a broom and we played his snare together, which lowered the level of the music but gave me a thrill.
“It feeds you and music feeds me,” Densmore said. “So let’s move on.”
On the way out, he leaned forward and said to Hideg, “Thank you for your inspiration.”
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-29/a-91-year-old-drummer-meets-john-densmore-of-the-doors-and-the-music-soars A 91-year-old drummer meets John Densmore of the Doors, and the music soars