Thursday, June 25, 2009

Journobit: Steven Wells

Steven Wells, what are you, Steven Wells?

There is, of course, a story about Steven Wells, whose death was reported earlier today. The punk-turned-poet-turned-NME-journalist-turned-TV-turned-Phildelphia-Weekly-writer story is a great one, admittedly. With a rotten, stinking, too-soon ending.

But if you read his stuff, if it was during his period on the NME that the paper meant the most to you, you'll have memories. The first time my scrawny little name ever graced the inky inside of the NME it was a letter sent to Angst defending something Swells had written about Sellafield, in response to a harping letter from Cumbria the previous week. (Yes, it was that era of the NME.) Not that Wells needed the support from me - he could take care of himself; the weeks when he took the editor's chair for the letters page were always the best Wednesday night tea-time reads: all screeching sound-effects and all the letters complaining about Morrissey cut into one long, dribbling drool, neatly dispatched at the end with a sharp put-down.

There was the frankly bizarre time Mark E Smith started honking that everyone knew Swells and Quantick were doing it to each other, gleefully detailed in the paper. There were singles reviews which, if Feargal Sharkey really thinks Charles Arthur's description of albums is beautiful, would have made the head of UK Music sob bitter tears. There was little time for the Smiths, less for Chapterhouse, and none whatsoever for The Levellers.

Admittedly, many of these targets were still exercising him as recently as this year, and in much the same terms as he was writing about them back in the early 1990s, but presumably his life in the US made it hard for him to update his British music bile in quite the same way.

I think, more-or-less, I can still do a Seething Wells poem from memory:

I'd die for my country said a patriotic dickhead
Well, go ahead, die, you make me sick
Slice your wrists and slash the statistics
The number unemployed fell today
Fifteen thousand bled away
So we stripped them cold naked
And shaved their heads
Stopped the thrashing of severed nerve endings
By boiling the buggers in sterilized lead
Laid them out in cold, grey ranks
Introducing the human sandbag
A small donation to the nation's maintainence
A YOPS scheme to absorb radiation
This depression won't fade away
It'll trickle away down blood-clotted drains
One way or another

Well, he was never going to be writing Hallmark card verse, was he?

Wells was 49.

Amongst the tributes:
James McMahon in the NME:
I’ve been a fucking disgrace. I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself; the sheer weight of articulating what his words meant to me, let alone at least two generations of NME readers, has almost ruined me. I’ve made cups of tea, I’ve smoked cigarettes, I’ve been for an obscenely long lunch. I’ve done anything I could do to avoid writing something on page. Even in death, the unique talent, spirit and flair of Steven Wells has left me questioning everything I’ve ever believed. Articulating the life and times of a character as big as Steven Wells is a job for a big man and I can’t help questioning whether I’ve got the girth for the job.

Former NME colleague James Brown writing for the Guardian:
Swells had helped me start my fanzine and given me my first NME review to do. He also helped open the door for my staff job there as a 21-year-old. I repaid him by bringing in a generation of fanatical music obsessives and great writers like Steve Lamacq, Bob Stanley, Stuart Maconie and Barbara Ellen and giving them all the work. He welcomed the revolution but not the smaller pay cheques. As an NME writer, he was obsessed with class war, masturbation, dogs, cancer, Jello Biafra and the multiple use of the exclamation mark. His work was littered with it. Almost creating his own language. '(SUBS LEAVE THESE LAST THREE SENTENCES IN)' was a regular sentence in his copy.

Aside from the surreal comedy column he co-wrote with David Quantick, Swells was increasingly marginalised in a more-music, less–politics NME until he took up the offer of interviewing Phil Collins. Asking questions no one else would dare to, the end result was brilliantly funny and he realised that if he delivered a great interview it would piss the rest of the staff off, which seemed to be his main purpose in life.

I think he'd have been amused by the reaction of Wikipedians, recorded by Sarah Bee in The Register:
Say what you like about Wikipedia, you can't accuse it of lacking tact. Within 48 hours of the untimely death of music journalist Steven Wells, his entry has been summarily marked for deletion on the grounds that he isn't famous enough.

The Quietus, for which Wells was writing, had a nice headline:
Swells Dies. Caps Lock Buttons Sigh In Relief

He was also writing for The Guardian - both the sports section and for the music part online. Tim Jonze:

When I started editing guardian.co.uk/music a year ago, it was a privilege to have him writing for us. We were all agreed that he was the master of bashing out killer blogs: keep it simple, keep it funny, drive half the readers into a frenzy of rage. My personal favourite in recent months was this Guitar Hero blog, in which he argued that all guitars should be destroyed (they take ages to learn, they hurt your fingers etc) and replaced with simple, piece-of-piss "button guitars". When I told him that the piece was getting a lot of our readers worked up, his response was classic Swells: "Tim … never underestimate the stupidity of guitarists."

We'll really miss him.

His co-conspirator David Quantick, in a Twitter two parter:
One more Swells memory - after a news story about a small boy who'd had his arm ripped off by chimps after he'd climbed into their cage...
Steven loped round the office waving an imaginary arm over his head, shouting OO OO MISTER SHIFTER!!!

The last word goes, of course, to Swells. The sort-of final line from his final Philadelphia Weekly column:
This blog entry has no last paragraph. Scroll to the top and repeat.


2 comments:

Peter D said...

He was always the odd man out, and I liked that.

Mark said...

I first saw him on the way down Clarendon Road to Belle Vue House in Leeds in 1979 to see Jon Langford out of the Mekons. I had been in the Fav and it was about 7pm. I saw this ugly skinhead and I was wearing my drapes. "Come here you fucking skinhead, I'm not having skinheads on my patch round here" I shouted at him, and started running down the road. He scarpered. I later came across him in Belle Vue House, ligging round the Meeks and the Gang of Four and said "You're that fucking skinhead" and he said something like "And you're that fucking Ted". How we laughed when Pete (Guitarist, Pink Peg Slax) told us he didn't know what Muesli was and tried to eat it with water. He later used to put various flattering and unflattering things about Pink Peg Slax in NME. I think his nom-de-plume at the time was Susan Wells.

He used to think the Slax were death-obsessed and thought it funny that I'd carried out a "King Herod-style assault on the children of Grimethorpe", and that I'd tried to sell a story to The Sun in May 1982 about people in Leeds who lived on Argie Road.

He was such a class warrior and anti-racist, but it's all shit as I managed to knock about with him for years as a right-wing Ted.

I'm sorry he's died and I have prayed for his soul and his family, but ultimately he was a foul-mouthed gobby bastard.

Vince Berkeley, singer, Pink Peg Slax, Mekons

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