Colleagues of Steven Wells share their memories of the man.
The first thing I remember about Swells was his bus-conducting. He was a pal of Little Brother (another slightly more whimsical Bradford ranting poet) and they both worked on the buses, wandering upstairs and down taking fares and doling out the tickets. I'd see him on the number 56 going up the Otley Road to Headingley and he'd let me ride for nothing as long as I did the covers for his ranting fanzine Molotov Comics. By the time the Mekons got sacked by Virgin records and me and Tom had skulked back to Leeds unable to even claim social security, finances dictated that we try to become bus conductors too. Sadly that's when they stopped having them - it was much cheaper to have the driver take your money up front when you got on (Thatchi-ism in action!). The ranting poets were all laid off and me and Tom went back to art school to claim our cozy government grant checks. About that time one of the Gang Of Four's road crew moved out of our flat in Belle Vue House and Swells moved in. The last of the ranting bus conductors installed himself at my kitchen table and commenced an all-night argument that lasted for the next four or five years. (John Langford of the Mekons)
The first piece I ever submitted to PW, as a lowly intern predating my columnist days, was a throw-away event preview no longer than this paragraph. It should have taken, Steven laughed, no more than 15 minutes to spit out. I slaved over every word, anxious for approval from the master of engaging, affronting diction. “It’s good,” he said, when I finally turned in my copy. “But you know that already.” I didn’t. But Steven’s confidence in presuming my confidence persuaded me otherwise. Hey, if the curmudgeonly king of swagger could get behind me, I could certainly get behind myself. Still, when I feel low or doubt my abilities or ambitions, I remember the support of that zombie-loving, genderfucked punk rock ranter, and I feel okay... Throwing in one last “heteronormative” for you, Steven, and hoping it makes you smile, or at least spew jolly profanity in my general direction. (Caralyn Green)
Swells paid attention to the interns when few else did. He pored through the crap we threw him, found the stories worth pursuing, and when that didn't work, told us what to go after ourselves. He forced me to man up and write my first cover - I've never learned that much that fast. When he got sick again, I assumed his towering personality would carry him through, indomitable and unstoppable as ever.
I'll always remember his incredulous explosions when I told him I didn't know what band he was going on about or his cursing when I overstepped my bounds as the clueless intern. (St. John Bernard)
I had the pleasure and good fortune of sitting in a cubicle across from Steven during the first few years of my career. As a 23-year-old film editor, I was in awe of both the fearlessness of his writing and the volume of his voice. But what I found most incredible is that he was so often submitting that writing to me—usually accompanied by a series of sound effects—and, presumably, trusting me to improve upon it. (I rarely touched the words, just the exclamation points.) His film reviews, like everything else he wrote, inspired passionate, often vitriolic responses—emails he dutifully forwarded to me, adding comments like, “someone’s a bit upset” or, simply, “fuck’s sake.” Nothing fazed him. To a young writer with a paper-thin skin, Steven’s uncompromising attitude was a revelation, and his earphone-inducing rants only helped drive home the message. Steven showed me how to block out the noise when I most needed it. I’ll miss his voice in that office and in print. (Cassidy Hartmann)
I first met Swells properly back in 2004. I say ‘properly,’ as I’d seen him around the IPC building 11 years before, where I’d been a trembling intern at Melody Maker and he was stationed below at the NME, where he was the paper’s in-house attack dog. He looked pretty unnerving from a distance, a large, lairy, gap-toothed skinhead with serious attitude (or so I thought…). He was (and is) something of a journalistic hero of mine but I never had the balls to tell him to his face – too scared back then, and later, primarily because he would have (and rightly so) accused me of being a brown nosed little arse licker.
Sorry, where was I? Anyway, it was 2004 and I’d written some suitably cynical bollocks about the then gimp-in-Chief, GW, to which, to my considerable surprise, Swells responded, praising the piece and wondering if there was any work going atPW? I was curious and wondered if this was indeed the very same Swells who’d turned splenetic fury into such an art form and livened up the pages of NME on a weekly basis. One phone call later, identity confirmed, we met for a pint and a chat at Dirty Franks. I got there early and immediately got a severe case of the fear, convinced he would discover I was a not-so-in-the-closet Teenage Fanclub fan and Celtic supporter, for which he’d physically rip my guts out and proceed to strangle me with my own small intestine. Luckily, he didn’t (although if memory serves me correctly, he did, on learning I was from Glasgow, go off on a completely unrelated and unhinged rant about the inherent evil of both Belle and Sebastian and Bis, and how I was probably somehow personally responsible, which was a trifle disconcerting to say the least…)
Long story short – he was an absolute sweetheart, a total teddy bear (which, again, he’d take the piss out of me terribly for saying, but there you go…), he talked even more than I did, and we bonded over a mutual love for (amongst others), the Clash, Plastic Bertrand, and the transcendent pop genius of Daphne and Celeste’s “Ooh,Stick You.” The next day, I marched straight into PW and told the editor that it was absolutely essential that they bring Swells on board. There were, I admit, more than a few raised eyebrows, particularly when I pointed a couple of the editors in the direction of his Attack Books Manifesto, but the rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve started to ramble now, so I’ll try and wrap this up but it’s hard – near impossible – to sum up Swells briefly, or reduce his memory to a few random anecdotes; although I do recall one splendidly weird evening at the First Unitarian Church watching the Paul Green School of Rock perform a tribute to Devo. We found ourselves at the back of the hall watching a bunch of pre-pubescents rattling through “Are We Not Men?,” while their parents stared at us with barely disguised suspicion and contempt, wondering just who’d let the two suspiciously foreign sounding gents in, and why one, in particular, insisted in barking, “Now that was fucking punk rock!” after every second song.
I’ll miss a lot of things about Swells. I’ll miss his utter glee at driving certain sections of his readership to blind rage and spittle-drenched apoplexy (“If you don’t like it, then don’t keep reading it you stupid fucking twats!”) I’ll miss his lack of compromise, his righteous anger, his unwavering moral compass, his deep rooted suspicion of bewhiskered ‘authenticity.’ I’ll miss his mastery of the art of creative swearing and I’ll miss the looks on (American) faces when, as a long-standing, card-carrying feminist sympathizer, he’d mutter one of my personal favorite pithy phrases to whit:”What an utter fucking cuntmare.” Poetry, sheer bloody poetry…
Lastly, I’ll miss getting emails signed off as ‘The Lord God King of Rock Journalism,’ I’ll miss having a fellow ex-pat to talk footy with, to marvel at our American cousins’ general oddities, and to trade truly awful jokes with (the last time I’d been in touch with him, I’d promised him a few new ones as he was apparently having difficulty “training” his wife Katherine in the art of crap joke telling…)
Steven, I salute you, you old tosser. You kicked against the pricks and were a genuine inspiration. I shall miss you terribly. (Neil Ferguson)
He was a mentor, a storyteller, a fire-breather. He was more passionate than anyone we’ll likely come across again. Of course, you know this already. Because if you read his stuff, you know the man. Everything in his writing is everything he was in real flesh-and-blood life.