STEVEN SEETHING WELLS A TRIBUTE
Just about to leave for Glasto last Thursday morning, one final email
check...among the spam a message from my footie mate Alan. Title: Have
you seen this? Open it. Link to Philadelphia Weekly: In
extremis: Steven Wells says goodbye. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.
Swells, I always thought youd pull through. Id read The English Patient - your brilliant, witty, moving piece about your simultaneous battle with cancer and the US healthcare system - in the Weekly, swapped emails where you sounded as, well, Swellslike as ever and thought: youll make it. This is one roaring, iconoclastic, larger than life, indestructible, stupidly clever, logically illogical everything-demolishing mouth monster who wont be demolished himself by something as mundane as cancer. But no. Seething Wells is dead. Swells and dead in the same sentence. Were all going to die, sure and our biological health dictates when, not our brain, our spirit, our love of life or our capacity to write verse with the caustic power of concentrated sulphuric acid or prose which immolates crap rock bands, pompous sports stars or anyone else we feel like taking on but ..oh, fuck.
There have already been some fine tributes, mostly from his music journo friends. Here are my memories, and they start at a slightly earlier time. For me, despite his long career (he hated that word!) in music journalism, Swells was first and foremost a poet, and then some. I first heard from him in 1981: Id christened myself Attila the Stockbroker and had started getting up on stage performing energetic political poems between bands. He wrote to me, enclosing his fanzine Molotov Comics, saying he was doing the same up in Bradford, and so were some friends of his including Little Brother, Joolz and Slade the Leveller from a then unknown band called New Model Army. He called it ranting poetry .and from the moment I heard the phrase so did I.
Our first meeting was performing on the back of a lorry at a Right to Work demonstration in London in November 1981: coincidentally, Paul Weller was headlining a poetry event at the Young Vic theatre that night, and I persuaded Swells to come and crash it with me and try and blag a few minutes. Organiser Michael Horovitz, bless him, gave us ten between us and the audience loved it. So did Paul Weller two weeks later we were supporting the Jam at Hammersmith Odeon. NME editor Neil Spencer was there to review the gig and was impressed as well, sending budding writer and soon to be Redskins leader Chris Moore to do a big review of us at another gig a few weeks later. A music press ranting poetry fad was born. And so was a pugnacious punk poetry partnership
Swells and I did an EP together, Rough Raw & Ranting which hit the indie charts, then a book for Unwins The Rising Sons of Ranting Verse and for the next few years we saw a hell of a lot of each other. We gigged together, wrestled, drank, argued, and shouted together, watched bands together, went on demos together. But underneath the roaring exterior (and many people will be astonished by this) Swells never really enjoyed being on stage: many is the time I remember him throwing up before we tackled an audience. I guess it was this, plus his realisation that he could reach many more people writing for papers like the NME than as a ranting poet, that made him make the transition, first to Susan Williams, social surrealist feminist rock critic (many fell for it!) and then to the Steven Wells loved (by bands he liked) loathed (by bands he didnt) and feared (by bands who didnt know whether he was going to like or loathe them) everywhere.
I carried on being a poet, but we kept in touch as the years went by
and every time we met the same roaring, hyper-opinionated clash would
ensue. Id take the piss out of him for choosing nerdy trainspotteresque
behind-the-scenes music hackdom as the vehicle for his scattergun obliterations
of everything Middle England held dear rather than getting on stage
and doing it in front of a live audience like what a REAL stroppy bastard
would do. Hed take the piss out of me for stubbornly carrying
on being a ranting poet despite the fact that the entire collected ranks
of nerdy music hackdom he hung around with thought ranting poetry was
FINISHED and RUBBISH and that everything to do with Attila the Stockbroker
was complete and utter DOG FAECES.
In the 90s I tried to coax him out of retirement and instigate the Seething Wells Comeback and got as far as booking him for a gig at the performance poetry series I was running in my home village near Brighton but he phoned a couple of days before to cancel. So I gave up that idea and just enjoyed his demolitions of shit bands, shit football and shit politics in all the publications that would have him. (Plus the humanity, insight and above all the supreme intelligence which imbued all his writing but I never told him that bit ..)
The last time I saw him was by chance - he was was a loud Swellsian vision in a pink satin suit by the Thames as I walked through London with my wife- and stepchildren- to-be. John! John! John! Then he moved to the States to be with Katherine, the woman he loved, and and our occasional contacts and spats became more occasional and less memorable apart from anything else its impossible to wrestle via email. For a couple of years, silence. Then one day in 2006 I thought I wonder what Swells is doing now? and, because you can these days, Googled him. To my shock and sadness the first thing I found was the English Patient article, and I got back in touch and stayed so to the end. A month ago I was congratulating him on a great piece on the corporate hijacking of football and he was doing the same to me about the football poems on my website. (Maybe we were mellowing in our old age). Last Tuesday I emailed him a poem, Dad Rock Antidote Manifesto which I thought hed like. Same old Swells. He was up for the battle, thats for sure. I cant believe hes gone.
This morning I re-read that last piece he wrote, on the edge of death
but so full of life, so stark, so self aware, so unutterably Swells.
Then I went to visit my much loved old mum, battling bravely against
Alzheimers, deafness and blindness, saying with dignity and calmness
for the hundredth time Ive had enough, John. I want out.
THE NIGHT I SLEPT WITH SEETHING WELLS (1982)
A far off town and a late night bash
I didnt mind or so I said
When he got undressed I had to retreat
So I kept right close to the edge of the bed
And, turning, I came face to face
And I vowed right then that if need be