The last time I saw a still-conscious Steven Wells, he told me I looked like John Candy and flipped me the bird. This was pretty normal behavior for Steven—good-natured, Rickles-style ballbusting—but these were certainly anything but normal times for him.
He’d been fighting enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma (EATL), a virulent strain of cancer in his small intestine, for months, and doctors had thrown everything at it. Time was running out.
And then it did. Steven was transferred from hospital to hospice, and died a day after he arrived, on Wed., June 24, around 7 p.m.
While the curtain was going down on Steven’s life here, news of his passing was greeting his native Britain with the rising sun.
He was England’s biggest-deal music writer at its biggest, most influential music mag—the New Musical Express ( NME )—at the height of its powers. Lest you think this hyperbole, check the thousands of comments on the countless tributes and Tweets honoring him across the web. (Or the NME ’s own tribute issue to Steven, also out this week.)
Or better yet, read it in the essay English musician Billy Bragg wrote for this issue. Or in the words of Everett True, Steven’s colleague and rival, who wrote about what Steven’s passing means to the state of the tastemaking critic.
And read about the Steven Wells his dear friends and colleagues knew. 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. He was witty, acerbic, fiery, astute, twisted, unforgiving, brutal, acid-tongued, blustery, energetic, funny, fearless, juvenile and never wrong. He could take two unrelated ideas and weave them together seamlessly to make a point about something else unrelated.
But there was more. He was a man with much heart. He was gracious. He was kind. He was as good a listener as he was a talker. (Well, almost.) He was passionate about his likes and dislikes. He was a beer snob who, eventually, because of his EATL/celiac, couldn’t drink beer.
In short, he was a giant of a man. Philadelphia was lucky to have him. It was a privilege for us to be a five-year chunk in his storied career.
And oh, what a career it was.
After taking the piss out of U2, Bono famously sent Steven an ax asking if the two could “bury the hatchet.”
Steven petitioned the famously rock-heavy Reading Festival to get the too-sugary-sweet-fueled pop of Daphne and Celeste onto its bill. When they were summarily booed offstage, running for their lives from flying bottles of piss, Steven used it as an opportunity to examine sexism in rock ’n’ roll for an NME story. Now though, there’s talk of a Daphne and Celeste reunion in his honor.
Steven famously destroyed the career of the Happy Mondays, who, while backstage, foolishly used racial slurs in front of him. Steven wrote about the incident with such conviction and righteousness, to remain a fan of the group was to endorse their beliefs. People jumped ship in droves.
Steven warred with many different bands and odd hobbyists over the years. Most recently he offered Los Campesinos! money to stay out of Philadelphia on their last tour, milking the feud that erupted in both our pages and across the pond for the Guardian and thequietus.com. One of the more touching tributes to Steven upon his untimely passing was from Los Campesinos’ singer/chief songwriter Gareth, who wrote that Steven’s criticisms of them were spot on.
“I did have shit hair and, in hindsight, my embracing of ‘twee’ was embarrassing, and something I dislike in others now,” he wrote. “He hated our band, and I respected him all the more for it. As a middling touring indie band, we do a lot of interviews. And though I am always very grateful that people care to speak to us, most of them are mind-numbingly boring and repetitive ... Whenever we’ve passed through Philadelphia, I’ve hoped he’d be in attendance. I’ve glanced around the venues looking for some snarling bald man in a corner.”
Knitters got into it with Steven, after he attacked the way it was being marketed as a punk rock pastime.
He once wrote Budweiser and Starbucks “taste like weasel piss” in one of his columns, and the former pulled a giant amount of advertising dollars from our pages. When it was mentioned in a staff meeting by our then-bosses in a feeble attempt to help temper his vitriol, Steven was incensed. “Why the fuck am I even being told this? Not my problem. Go find a beer advertiser that’s NOT SHIT!”
And then there were the stories Steven wrote for us about his illness. Touching stories, all. Gut-wrenching stories, unflinchingly honest. It’s only now, after his death, that we’ve seen what they’ve meant to the cancer community, who in tributes to Steven around the globe have written about them being refreshing accounts of the disease for what it is: a motherfucking asshole that robs you of your life without regard to anything, especially the people who love you so.
Our friend and colleague Steven Wells died two years ago today of the cancer he had documented so well in two cover stories for Philadelphia Weekly. On June 14, he submitted this column.
Swells could be hurtful in what he wrote, but his contrarian stance was never mere posturing. It was underpinned with an unswerving belief that things could be better—culturally, politically and globally.
Swells was funny and opinionated and smart enough to realize his limitations and work within them. He did it for himself. He was from the fanzine world. He was a tastemaker critic, for sure. People took notice of his opinions, and acted upon them. He challenged people’s opinions, led them, changed them—most of this by default, by sheer force of his personality and peerless ability to entertain. If something was wrong, it was wrong. Didn’t matter what anyone else thought. Of course, Swells might then change his mind the next day.
Seething (Steven) Wells died a day ago. Then tonight, starting to write this, I find out that Michael Jackson has died. One of these two men owned a ranch called Neverland and had three children called Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., Paris Michael Katherine Jackson and Prince Michael Jackson II. The other one was the King of Pop.
Before he got to us, and before he got to NME , Steven Wells (right) was a ranting punk poet known as Seething Wells. Seething engaged in many light-hearted battles with another poet of his ilk, Attila the Stockbroker
Search PW's archives for "Steven Wells" and you'll turn up nearly 400 articles, videos and other items bearing his name -- a few about him, most by him, for he was stunningly prolific. He taunted rightwingers and indie rockers -- sometimes in the same breath -- with his online column "In Extremis." But he was also a keen reporter and commenter -- often outrageously so -- on the odder corners of Philadelphia's many subcultures. A few selections, then, from his greatest hits.
In 2007, Steven Wells made a series of YouTube videos -- rants, of course -- about America, the War on Terror and politics.
He was a legendary writer, but PW's Steven Wells also jumped into new media with both feet. He bought his own video camera and made a series of typically provocative -- and often hilarious -- videos for Philadelphia Weekly.
Colleagues of Steven Wells share their memories of the man.
Starting in the early 80s a young, ranting punk poet known as Steven “Seething” Wells began writing for Britain’s biggest, most influential music magazine, New Musical Express, under the pseudonym Susan Williams. He did it to inject some estrogen in an arena that had much to little of it. Over 25 years he was NME’s frothing bulldog gnawing viciously at the leg of all the things he perceived lame, and championing music from the fringes of hardcore, punk and pop. Here, courtesy of NME—who, like us, put together their own tribute to Steven—are scanned images of some of his features for the mag.