Steven Wells: In Memoriam

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Steven Wells and Flava-Flav

Lastly: an addendum to the anecdote in the first graph. Steven had just seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles the night before. He was, he asserted, the Steve Martin to my John Candy. 

I didn’t argue. Not only because Steven was probably too weak, but also because I remembered an exchange from the movie, between a car rental agent and Steve Martin’s character, Neal Page.

Car rental agent : “How may I help you?”

Neal Page : “You can start by wiping that fucking dumbass smile off your rosy fucking cheeks! Then you can give me a fucking automobile: a fucking Datsun, a fucking Toyota, a fucking Mustang, a fucking Buick! Four fucking wheels and a seat!”

That’s Steven. We miss him terribly. (Brian McManus)


Steven, for all his opinions, hated division. I think his determined atheism was largely motivated by how religion separates us from each other. I would often argue with Steven that agnosticism is a more rational choice than atheism. And he reacted to me, every time, with joy. Because he loved the conversation—and loved the fact that our different opinions weren’t impeding our friendship. For me, that’s what Steven was about—blowing down the walls, carpet-bombing the planet with words, howling from the crazy center of himself, and drawing us all out to face the deficiencies of our thinking. Not exactly immortality, but a gift that will form an afterlife nonetheless. (Steve Volk)

We were an unlikely trio: the know-it-all black girl and former accountant from North Philly; the chubby chef/musician from Texas with the highway patrolman sunglasses; and the bald-headed, blue-eyed Brit, with the knocked-out tooth, who laced his rants with his fuckin’ this and fuckin’ that . Gregory, McManus, Wells. 

Yet we bonded over our love of writing and cheap drinks. During happy hours, therapy sessions and summits, the only word I can find to describe the thoughts, connections and parallels rapid-firing out of Steven Wells’ mouth is “alive.” No subject was off limits with Steven. To his delight, taboo topics were openly explored: racial stereotypes, organized religion, the Second Amendment, gay rights, midgets bowling and knitting clubs. Steven relished grabbing a conventional thought by the ears and holding it up for examination. He thrived on ideas, and his mind travelled far and wide. That made Steven Wells magnetic. And that made his writing beautiful, oftentimes brilliant.

But for all his bluster, and fuckin’ this and fuckin’ that , there were times when Steven Wells melted. There was the unstoppable-ness of a girls soccer team in North Philadelphia that captured his heart. There was gun violence in Philadelphia neighborhoods—places Steven had never seen—that turned his face red with outrage. And there were those happy hours when, as the hours passed, Steven would call his Katharine, his voice a sweet whisper, to let her know where he was and what time he’d be home.

“Damn, Steven,” I’d kid after he hung up, “You even told her what I was drinking?” Then I’d crack an imaginary whip, taking a shot at the caring husband who had emerged from the cursing, spitting, talented maniac who made my work days bearable, and expanded my view of the world. 

Steven would put his head down, grin, and just swallow his beer. (Kia Gregory)


(Listen to Steven and Jeffrey Barg on the Angry Grammarian Podcast.)

Steven never walked into my office. It was always more of an explosion.

“And we wish we were still pea-a-a-sants !” he sang mockingly as he galloped in one day when I was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s renditions of immigrant folk songs. We loved sparring over whether folk music was inherently racist: He said yes, I said no, but at least we agreed on the fundamental punk-rockish-ness of Pete Seeger. Even when the argument was ludicrous, the intellectual exercise it required was fun. It would always end in a close examination of the language we and others used—an activity that’s surprisingly rare among people who spend their days working with words.

Steven was a man who loved language. He was always thinking about its sound, its influence, its sociopolitical implications—and loved when words’ use or misuse could get people angry. Especially when they got angry. For Steven, the joy was in the fight. The humor was there too. It’s that indomitable combination I’ll miss the most.  (Jeffrey Barg)


Steven, in his very English aggressive-playful way, was a total sweetheart, who cared truly madly deeply about what he did. And though we never saw eye-to-eye on my beloved pansy-mopey art movies, we could always agree on one thing: zombies. (Matt Prigge)

In my first year or two out of college, I was so frustrated with repeatedly running full-speed into the brick wall that is journalism that I was ready to give up. Steven took me out to lunch and told me to stop being such a pussy, because it’s not fair but that means fuck-all. This remains the best career advice I’ve ever gotten. I’d put money on being able to find 20 other people my age who would say the same. 

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1. Buck said... on Jul 1, 2009 at 03:55AM

“I never knew or met Steven Wells. After reading Gregory's story, I wish I had. What a spirit! Thank you for letting me get to know him, albeit posthumously.”

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2. Tom Fynes said... on Jul 1, 2009 at 06:55AM

“RIP Steven Wells........Thank You Sir”

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3. Matthew Green said... on Jul 1, 2009 at 03:01PM

“I'm terribly saddened that we have lost such a gifted and fearless writer, someone who held nothing back and who pulled no punches. I discovered Steven's writing a few years ago in PW and was immediately hooked. His column, In Extremis had become the one thing I most looked forward to reading, more than any other writer on the web. He may be gone from this Earth, but his words and his thoughts and his spirit will live forever.”

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4. R. Martinez said... on Jul 1, 2009 at 09:14PM

“1st read one of Steven's pieces for the PW in 2005. It was one of his inaugural essays about soccer and how it should be called football and how Americans always got it wrong, etc, etc, etc. It was right on and it was hilarious. I couldn't believe a writer in Philadelphia was telling it the way it is, no hairs on his tongue, no punches pulled. He was a trully gifted man: he had the courage to talk the talk and walk the walk; something we have sorely missed in this country for many years. I never met the man but thought that I would have the chance, someday. Little did I know his stay with us was going to be so short-lived. I learned today he passed away and never knew he was sick. My deepest condolences to the family, PW and Philadelphia. A man who taught us life's hardest lessons with humour and definitely, one very funny twat himself. Cheers to you Steven! You can have all the beer you want now and save one for us.”

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5. Johnny Ostentatious said... on Jul 2, 2009 at 07:55AM

“Only met him once -- a really nice guy. I remember his British roots showing by him saying "mate" a lot. And he's one of the few atheists I've ever met who seemed genuinely happy.”

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6. tara said... on Jul 2, 2009 at 11:11AM

“Nothing against any of the other gifted writers at PW, but Steven Well's pieces were the first ones I read that made me stand up and pay attention (while laughing outloud) and rush to the bottom to see who, yes, who would have the balls to write such stuff! It's rare when a writer can put their own true and unique stamp on their material and really draw you in. I got that from him. It is a great loss.”

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7. A. Lowell said... on Jul 2, 2009 at 12:01PM

“I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Steven Wells. He interviewed me over the phone several years ago for an article about Thomas Paine (it was the best article yet) and we were scheduled to meet again in Philadelphia but he had injured his leg and couldn't do the interview. I planned to call him when I was in Philly this year but got too busy. I wish I had. What a loss.”

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8. Brian Barrish said... on Jul 2, 2009 at 10:39PM

“I had the pleasure of meeting Steven when he came to our atheist Meetup group to do a cover story about us (for the Christmas issue, nonetheless!). I was already a huge fan of his work, and I had corresponded with him via email a few times. He was a friendly, smart, and entertaining fellow. We were certainly lucky to have him in our happy little city, and he will be sorely missed. I would like his family to know that he meant a great deal to many of us, and our thoughts are with them.”

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9. Young Werewolves said... on Jul 3, 2009 at 09:27AM

“As an up-and-coming philly trio on the scratch, scoring an interview w/ Steven Wells for a cover feature in PW on Zombies was a huge notch. Steven's NME cred felt good too. But then he didn't use any of it for the story. But he wrote good. And then he did that story about how the Beatles destroyed rock made up for everything. RIP.

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10. Darren Finizio said... on Jul 8, 2009 at 01:03PM

“I hung out with Steve Wells once. I was playing a gig in West Philly for a bunch of anarcho hopster types and Johnophan Valania was taking notes, so he brought Steve along with him. So odd, I thought, that this soft-spoken man with a suit on would want to be at a music show. I could remember that many of the kids were threatened by him because he was writing these articles on drug trafficing at the time. Anyway, this article came as a shock to me because a) I had no idea he was English since I absolutely don't rememeber an accent b) had no idea he was a major music criticr and c) didn't know he was 'seething'. He just seemed like an extraordinarely happy fellow and I remember liking him alot. If I had known more about his background perhps I would've gotten to know him a little better. I guess that chance won't come again. R>I>P and my condolences to family/friends. He was a cool guy.”


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