Steven Wells: A Tribute
Steven Wells with Billy Bragg at CBGBs, 1985
Village Voice music editor Brian McManus asked me to write a little about legendary music writer Steven Wells, who passed away four years ago today. I'm not sure I can write just a little.
See also: Steven Wells: In Memoriam
One of the things Brian and I have in common is a shared worship of Steven Wells. I was never friends with the man, as Brian was lucky enough to be during their time together at Philadelphia Weekly, but I think of Wells often, and his genius will always loom over my work.
Most writers can point to their inspiration, but I doubt many can point this directly: Steven Wells is the only reason I started writing about music, and writing about music is the only reason I started writing about anything else. Every bit of credit or blame for my stupid little writing career lands squarely on Steven Wells.
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As a state-college student in the early 2000s, I was lazy, ambitionless and not very bright*. I had no interest in anything but jokes and music. They don't teach jokes in school, and the music stuff there is all about stuffing a clarinet in your mouth and staring at sheets of little black tadpole things--what the hell are those? I fell into the English major because it required the least math.
I lived at home, and paid tuition with grants. I spent most of my time bumming around on the Internet, reading about music. NME.com was my usual haunt-- it covered American and British music, whereas most American sites barely touched anything from the UK. I particularly loved NME's weekly reviews of new singles, many of which were hilarious, brutal, frothing with rage. All the good ones had the same byline: Steven Wells.
I didn't know who he was at the time, but his genius floored me on a regular basis. I'd never seen anyone write about music with so much wit and cussedness. He was chaotic, unobjective and needlessly cruel. He pissed me off a few times by saying totally unfair shit about musicians I liked (he particularly loathed Morrissey). I didn't even know it was possible to piss me off about music.
The clouds parted, and I saw my true calling: I had to make mean jokes about music. I had to make people laugh and piss people off, maybe at the same time. Steven Wells led me to my dumb little destiny.
I started dropping zingers about music on the forums of Something Awful, a humor site I liked a lot. Soon, SA's de facto editor, Zack Parsons, reached out and offered me a column on their main site. It would be called Your Band Sucks--not my choice, but it worked and it stuck. I made fun of Radiohead and Tool. Nerds were furious. Loads of hate mail and death threats started rolling in. One time, I put together a column entirely out of hate-mail accusations that I lived in my mother's basement.
Sometimes I had to fight the impulse to imitate Steven Wells, since I would have done it badly, but I never stopped drawing inspiration from his outrageousness. I used to have a huge text file of all my favorite Wells reviews, copied and pasted from NME's site. I'd contemplate it often when I was in a rut, to remind me how good it was possible to be at this stuff. I learned more about the guy, too: he was some kind of a punk poet, and he wrote for my favorite radio comedy show of all time, Chris Morris's On The Hour.
(I lost the sacred file in some crash or upgrade or hard drive swap, and for years I've been plugging in half-dead drives from the back of the closet, scouring every directory for the Holy Wells Text. Much of that great material is either no longer on NME.com or very difficult to find.)
Several more opportunities to be an asshole about music have fallen in my lap over the years, and I've tried to do right by them. Boston's Weekly Dig liked what I wrote on Something Awful, and they gave me a column. The Boston Phoenix liked that column and gave me another one. At the Phoenix, I paid my most direct homage to Steven Wells: I started doing capsule reviews of singles, just like the NME work that first introduced me to his peerless genius. Mine were a lot shittier and nobody read them, but they were my favorite things to write.
I started writing because of Steven Wells, and I nearly quit because of him. One day in 2008, I was thrilled to see his name in my inbox, with the subject "you me work the universe and everything." My god, was Steven Wells asking me to team up with him and take the fucking universe by storm?
Steven Wells and Flava Flav
Nope. He was looking for freelance work, seeing if I had any leads. Brian had sent him my way, knowing we had similar sensibilities.
The best ever, the Michael Jordan of the rock writing game, didn't live the life of leisure in the glorious golden castle he deserved. He was looking for work, appealing to a junior idiot like me for assistance. I pointed him toward some good people, including my editors at the Phoenix, although I don't think he ever pursued it (I joked that his superior writing would put me out of work, and maybe he was too kind to step on my toes--even though, in the grand scheme of things, any writing job I had instead of him was an incredible injustice).
Of course, he wasn't just some destitute hack scrounging for jobs. I'm guessing he was saddled with considerable expense due to his recent battle with cancer, trying to pick up extra cash on top of an already full workload. Even so, I was shaken. It wasn't how I expected to cross paths with my hero: If the greatest of all time had to ask a nobody like me for leads, where would I be in 10 years? I didn't quit writing about music, but I sure appreciated my copywriting day job.
I still stew at the injustice of it. He should have been swatting down work left and right, eating money sandwiches like in that Miley Cyrus video. He should have been lighting cigars with burning Pulitzers.
Wells and I corresponded a couple of times after that, and he gave me some wonderful advice and encouragement. Brian tells me that he sometimes showed Steven Wells my work, and he at least politely pretended to like it. That's the highest compliment I could ever expect, and it probably won't be topped. Wells died of cancer about a year after we first exchanged emails.
In my Phoenix column the week he died, I dedicated all of my work that year to him, and apologized for any embarrassment that might cause him. To tell the truth, it was an understatement: in some way, everything I've written or will ever write is in his honor.
I think about Steven Wells whenever I have doubts about myself as a writer, and his memory always soothes and confirms those doubts. I started writing to see if I could be one fifth as funny and good at writing about pop music as Wells. By now, I've accepted the fact that I can't. On my best days, I'm delighted to aim for one tenth.
* Update: I just checked. As of this moment, I am still lazy, ambitionless and not very bright.
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