Hundreds of posts now hang off Steven Wells’s intensely moving farewell article at the Philadelphia Weekly, which ends with an atypically cryptic Swellsy in prophet mode, quoting Michael Jackson, before the thread-flood of sad affection and bafflement from readers and colleages, bafflement that such a chaotically vivid force of self-willed nature is stilled; bafflement perhaps too that such deep fondness can well up out of the fury he loved to work to spark in one and all. I’ve read it declared a dozen times now that Steven alone is the reason such-and-such took up writing as a trade — all the little fires he started in all these hot little hearts, what’s that come to? The consensus (correct) that he was just a big bald huggable pussycat at heart, a friendly and a kind man behind the shoutiness; the gnarly and rather unacceptable sense that his lifelong war on the useless has somehow left us with more of it not less (which may be our fault not his); and huge great gobs of the feeling — utterly conventional and surely utterly bogus — that times and possibilities aren’t what they were.
He was less than a month older than me — we were both born in 1960 — and arrived at NME first. He absolutely wasn’t the reason I started writing: I’m pretty sure some of my inspirations were exactly what he was most contemptuously against (in fact as well as pose). By the time we were mutually bemused colleagues in the mid-80s, the IPC-owned paper was a mess — a publication without clear idea of what it was for or where it was going, a staff riven by bitter faction, too many experienced editorial sensibilities vanished elsewhere. Hostile corporate management was putting a weak mag leadership under tremendous weekly pressure; the contributor list (with hindsight the unlikeliest collective of would-be voices) was stifling itself in an atmosphere of moralising confusion and conflicted timidity. Whoever’s fault all this was, none of us — and I include Swellsy in this — were at our best then: this was of course the era of the debilitating Hip Hop Wars (soulboys versus indie kids FITE!), but if that’s the debate that’s entered public legend, it certainly wasn’t the source of the tensions.
Also at IPC in the early 70s, another great unacknowledged comic legislator had been artfully and hilariously depicting a far older, deeper, more intractable war, between eternally opposed poles within Brit culture: Leo Baxendale — creator of Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids — had distilled his long-time obsessions into a lubriciously anarchic draftman’s line, and the bluntly decisive cleavage of a title: The Swots and the Blots. And somehow, between 1975-85 (roughly), the NME had established a cultural field which (by deciding to take pop seriously and inventing a tone and an argot to explore this) not only brought together but for a season (amazingly) fused both poles, Blots and Swots alike: this impossible, unsustainable chemistry had been its energy.
And Swells — who all his adult life resembled nothing so much as a Leo Baxendale character — was passionately, vocally, unendingly anti-Swot. Thinking too much was bad for for you; thinking about music, music made to be thought about, the Swells line was that such behaviour was crime and blunder and joke, all in one. And by the end of the 80s, rescuing itself from its flaws as well as its best potential, NME was become Blot Central — with Swellsy its strongest (which doesn’t always just mean loudest) voice, yet — paradoxically — somehow beleaguered, even diminished. As the paper’s intellectual ambition dwindled, his scope for challenge, for challenging the world, for challenging himself, became increasingly circumscribed.
Or so I saw it at the time, from the outside. I’d left NME by then, flouncing out on some semi-confected point of principle. My perspective was deeply soured; my project was not his: in the end I was (I am) a Swot, after all. I think reflectiveness and delicacy are values, I don’t think brash one-note max-volume blaaap is the be-all and end-all, I think knowledge matters, I’d seen and loved the 70s rock papers as a labyrinth of gorgeous arcana, and very much felt that — to open doors to non-parochial or otherwise obscure or intangibly half-formed wisdom — you have to move somewhat crabwise, to tread sensitively and thoughtfully, to not always carry with you all of the irrepressible self-involved noise of your cultural preconceptions and convictions. I moved on to The Wire, and tried to fashion the right space to work more at this — and it really wasn’t at all Swellsy’s kind of space, even after he discovered John Zorn.
The frustrations and limitations of my time at The Wire aren’t part of his story — except (I seem to be saying, in my perfect too-late-now ideal of our working together, as it should have been) I really wish they had been. Actually existing Swot-World blurs far too easily out of patient mastery of tricky and forbidding material — the element that’s genuinely to its credit — into wrinkled-nostril distaste for the spontaneous, the cheeky, the intellectually unsanctioned, the creatively not-yet-articulate. The Tiny Necklaced Ponds of the Ending of All So-Called Rules are surprisingly many of them infested by prissily controlling superegos, long on the manipulation of undeclared etiquettes and very short indeed on generosity towards everyone they feel superior to. Steven in full halfbaked know-nothing flow, in mind’s hindsight eye I see him as the avant-garde’s radically explosive id, utterly unapologetic about (a) not being “in the know”; (b) being bored; and (c) wanting more. This refusal an attribute beyond price in a milieu where too few dare admit to such…
That’s if the hook-up had lasted, which I doubt — he rather distrusted patience.
So was SW a cap-G cap-W gR-R-REAT wR-R-R-RITER, as those who miss him are inevitably insisting? Well now. He was a self-taught self-wrought stylist who grasped — recklessly at first, and as time passed with more and more dexterity — that care and precision REALLY aren’t always writing’s friends, not 100 percent. And yes, now and then his comic timing was way off; and for sure so were his facts sometimes. Which resolutely slapdash approach — besides sometimes being very very funny indeed, and sometimes imaginatively liberating beyond all expectation — gave a LOT of readers permission to trust their own intuition. Perilous punk-rock lesson: find your authority in yourself. Throw yourself right into the fray; find your own way home. Because how this last comes to you (if it does, and it won’t every time) is also called thinking, thinking about music (and thinking about anything else). Intellectual activity isn’t JUST the stuff that fussily walls itself off as such: this last the lesson that self-appointed
sinkers thinkers are easily the worst at learning…
The circumstances — all set about with the pitfalls of socially acceptable sentimentality — make it fun and even fitting to amp up our differences. Obviously we argued — he argued with everyone; he loved to pick a fight if he thought he could get you riled up and wrong-footed. A while after I left NME, he phoned me up and suggested a TV project together. The project went nowhere — I can’t now even remember what it was to be about — but I was touched and flattered by the approach. The fact is we weren’t foes at all: except that the shape of the world as things fell out pushed us off into different niches. I think (from the narrow complacency of mine) that he allowed his stage to be set too small for him — even adding journalism to comedy writing to video-directing to [whichever] to [that other thing] — but only because we all did; one way and another every one of us collaborated in the dismantling of our own reach.
What I mean by this — and what I hate to have to recognise as demented, in respect of the current multiply-segmented media settlement — is that in the early 80s it was possible to believe that Leo Baxendale, and, oh, the Metaphysical Poets and highlife and Fassbinder and Bridget Riley and, yes, Michael Jackson, all existed somewhere on the same cultural plane, distinct but in mutual reach of one another; and that we — by which I mean the entire barmy Swots’n'Blots army — had between them the knowledge, the will and the skills to bring them into meaningfully combative contact, outside the patronising and greyly reductive zones of the grown-up papers or academia. The rockwrite language we’d invented was a way to celebrate the tiny and the overlooked, and to cut the mighty down to humansize; but it democratised without demolishing; it seemed to have imagined a discussion space that everyone, cat and king, pop princeling and spotty schoolkid newbie, could participate in; could confront one another in and meaningfully communicate; fruitfully disagree; argue things out — tactics, strategies, ethos, better futures for all. There was a strong hard-to-name politics to the fact of this potential encounter — or dream of it, if it was just a dream — which is certainly now dispersed (and foolishly disdained): an encounter in which post-trial Jacko in his vast unhappy pomp, at full late spectacular stretch, would nevertheless have had to (and wanted to) respond and react to Swellsy’s lewd street-level hilarity and post-cancer derision — and (because we’re obviously deep in my own consoling fantasy now, where you get nervously to wonder about responding and reacting to me) each would learn from it and rescue himself and in this impossible contortedly tolerant clash of styles and technologies, and out of it and beyond same, would deliver himself of his pain and terror and torqued intelligence, elucidate his strangeness and his crimes and his gifts, share tales of roots and comforts and bright ridiculous maybe-mutual utopias…
Or in other words, as Emma Goldman surely actually meant to say: “Revolution, yes — but I don’t want yours if I can’t do knob gags.” Of course he was a great writer.