Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Steven Wells

29th June 2009

Ben Marshall remembers his friend, STEVEN WELLS (1960 – 2009), who passed away last week:

(note; Ben wrote this for The Quietus, where you will also find a lot more tributes to Swells).

No doubt I won’t be the only one to remember June 25 2009 as a strange and melancholy day. It began with the news that the most famous of Charlie’s Angels, Farrah Fawcett, had slipped away, killed by cancer, still looking strangely as she had done all those years ago when she donned a red bikini and became the best selling pin-up girl of all time. As a child, I had that naff, alluring, iconic poster hanging on my wall. So did everyone of my generation. As the day was ending, we learned of Michael Jackson’s death. A pretty girl from the MOBO awards said that everyone will remember where they were when they heard of Michael Jackson’s death. It was she added, no doubt accurately but nonetheless vapidly, a “Diana moment, a Kennedy moment.”

At some point between these two headline-grabbing events, I heard that my friend Steven Wells – Swells to everyone who knew him – had died. Late last night a hysterical and slightly profane thought about Swells’s impeccable sense of timing crossed my mind, and with it the vivid sense that Swells was never scared to take on the big guns, never afraid of a good fight. The King of Pop and The Blonde Bombshell? No problem. Swells was wonderfully confrontational. His journalism was furious and funny. His stage name, Seething Wells, made a witty, angry pun on his given one. The video production company he ran alongside Nick Small was named Gob TV. His publishing company, called simply Attack, printed books by the communist skinhead Stuart Home. Sample title: Whips & Furs: My Life as a bon-vivant, gambler & love rat by Jesus H. Christ

Perhaps inevitably, he has been described by some as a bully. Swells did undoubtedly show no mercy to the weak; but then he showed none to the strong, either. If he he picked on someone, he did it not because they were weak (the definition of a bully), but because they were, in his eyes, wrong. If Swells thought you were mistaken about something – say, the exact date when The Clash sold out, or the true meaning of French Revolution, or which was the best Daphne and Celeste single – he would let you know in no uncertain terms, and he didn’t give a toss about how big or small you were.

Yesterday I scribbled something on Facebook about Swells bracing cynicism and his infuriating ability to make me laugh out loud at my most cherished beliefs . Many people in their forties who express disgust at others or at the world wind up sounding jaded and Pooterish. Swells’s contempt came at you like the cleansing blast of an icy gale. It was exciting to read his tirades about Tories, Smiths fans or, lately, the Premiership; and even more exhilarating to hear these opinions expressed in person. But then Swells’s righteous anger was always underpinned by an unflagging, ebullient optimism about people and the the world in general. He was without question a practiced hater, but equally he fuelled himself and ignited others with his idealism.

I remember once arguing with him late into the night about how hopeless his socialism was. People I declared, simply weren’t up to it. Swells shook his head and began citing a myriad of different incidences when people behaved with natural altruism. Like so many of our arguments, I came away from it feeling that much happier. As almost anyone who met him will testify, it was impossible to be bored in his company. It was also hard not to feel good, even after an expertly crafted tongue lashing.

This idealism made him a part of an increasingly rare group, the professional writer who refuses to compromise either his style or his opinions. Almost all newspapers and magazines have some house style and if a writer wants to pay the bills he had better learn what that style is and cut his cloth accordingly. The problem with doing this is that you end up producing serviceably anodyne prose and in the process forgoing and forgetting whatever style you had in the first place. Swells never had that problem, the things he was writing toward the end of his life – be they the wonderfully witty meditations on the disease that would eventually kill him, or his brilliantly convincing argument that Gordon Brown should nationalise The Premier League – were as fresh, funny and angry as anything he wrote for the NME back in the 1980’s.

Swells final piece for The Philadelphia Weekly ended thus: “I blame it on sunshine. I blame it on the moonlight. I blame it on the boogie.” Words culled from a Michael Jackson song days before The King of Pop’s own heart attacked him. I will miss Swells painfully. And I not only have to admire his sense of timing, but wonder at what appears to be some kind of instinctive prescience. He chose no ordinary life to live, and happened upon no ordinary day to die.