Last weekend, word spread across the Glastonbury site like a brush fire through the Hollywood Hills; an absurd, far-fetched conflagration of superstardom and tragedy. It passed from stranger to stranger in irreverent yells, not whispers: “Michael Jackson’s dead!”, often followed by a jubilant “Ee-heee!”
Every pissed pillhead became Glastonbury’s town crier for the night. And contrary to reports, no-one’s party was ruined. Glastonbury received the news of Michael Jackson’s death with the same mixture of incredulity and hilarity with which we’d always viewed his life. It gelled perfectly with the surreal unreality of the Glastonbury Experience.
I watched this mother of all Glasto rumours spread around me with a profound sense of dislocation. I couldn’t dredge forth any personal feelings of loss for a reclusive, money-hemorrhaging eccentric with questionable standards of child safety, who would rather spoon a diseased chimp than ever come within germ-sniffling distance of you or me.
And besides, I was too saddened by the news that, when Jacko got to Hell, there’d be a new imp – bald, gap-toothed and screaming – waiting to chew his plastic face off for stealing his thunder.
That very morning word had come through of the death from cancer of Steven Wells. To those of us concerned with more than the glitzy ephemera of pop culture, this was an event of John Peel-level import.
I spent much of Glastonbury regretting that, because of Jackson, there would probably never be a Swells Stage at the festival in his honour, even though it’d have had to be full of angry political poetry and only Attila The Stockbroker, System Of A Down and Daphne & Celeste would ever be allowed to play live.
And any vegetarians, hippies or Belle & Sebastian fans who tried to get in would be sent on their way with a hearty kick in the bollocks.
To any NME reader of the past 25 years, Swells was less a journalist, more the printed equivalent of an oxyacetylene torch to the face. When he wrote, the pages burned. His words were ranting, bilious, brutal, extreme, hilarious, provocative, often invented on the spot and impossible to not read.
He attacked political, cultural and musical issues with the honest savagery of a well-read rabid wererottweiler in heat. And without Swells’ influence sentences like that last one would have read like the back of a cereal packet – his vitriol, comedy nous and manner of ludicrously extending a metaphor like the tongue of Scratchy being knotted around the moon were elements of Swells’ prose I often imitated, never matched.
On arrival at NME I, like many before and after me, was struck by a combination of dread and reverence at Swells’ mythology.
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They said he’d been sent an axe by Bono and a turd in a box by The Levellers. That he was spat at, abused or assaulted at every gig he attended, often by members of Bis. That, on turbulent flights, he’d stand on his seat and ride the plane like a bucking bronco. That, via the tricksiest of interview techniques, he’d got Rick Witter to admit he was gay without even knowing he’d said it.
To me he epitomised rock’n’roll far more than any of the bands he interviewed or the more legendary hack/addicts of NME’s so-called ‘Golden Age’. He was five foot summat of solid, broiling punk rock. We literally trembled with awe.
Swells, for his part, nurtured the worthy. Many times, for years after I’d written it, he’d quote back to me – word for word and with no little relish – a line from a Levellers single review where I’d advocated locking the mouldy, box-shitting scrotes in a septic tank and beating on the walls with baseball bats until their brains squished out of their noses.
His impassioned tutelage to me was that music journalism was all about over-statement and bravado: “you don’t ‘open the door’,” he’d tell me whenever my copy dipped below Force Twelve, “you kick the door into a heap of smouldering splinters and leap through spewing AK razor fire, get it?”
He once asked me to write a novel for his Attack! publishing imprint, but I thought better of it once I was told the rules: it had to be an ultra-violent pulp novel written within 24 hours. Preferably on drugs.
It sounded like a concept that could only produce bilge, but watching him at the Attack! launch party not so much reading as projectile vomiting a magnificently constructed billion-miles-an-hour blare of words, all rhyming with ‘bog’, as a satire on Oasis (from his self-explanatory book ‘Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty’), the genius behind Swells’ hyper-intelligent splurge was never more apparent.
His passing marks the end of an era for music journalism; he was the last of the great gonzos. It’s no wonder the mainstream music media has shied away from me-me-me personality writing because Swells showed all the others up as self-important, ill-informed, arrogant and boring fanzine dickweeds.
Because Swells understood that ‘gonzo’ was about attitude, not narcissism. Until his final few features about his illness for Philadelphia Weekly Swells rarely wrote about himself, and yet he inhabited every word he struck. He was Gonzo: Exploded.
So off with the ‘Thriller’ for a minute and hats to your chests; last week we lost a hero of rock journalism… no, scratch that, we lost a 50ft mechagodzilla of rock journalism with the teeth of a million great white sharks and the balls of a gigantic priapic bull rhinoceros. On crack. FACT.