Tuesday, 15 February 2011 The photograph above isn't very good. In fact it's awful (I apologise for that minor detail). But it's the only photograph that I can find in my files of my old friend Swells, who died in 2009 at the age of 49.
The photograph shows Swells in conversation with Public Enemy's Flavor Flav in the London nightclub Raw, in 1990. Flavor Flav is not a guy known to be reticent. Although it's impossible for me to remember anything of what was being said, Flavor Flav certainly would have met his match in Swells.
Steven Wells, better known by virtually everyone as Swells, was a British journalist, author, pop video director and a one time 'ranting' poet. During the '80s and '90s, we both worked at the British music magazine NME. Soon after I joined the paper, I quickly learnt, with Swells aid, why a photographer is best advised to keep his mouth shut when journalists are conducting their interviews. If not, one is liable to see one's rambling, unthought through comments in print. His interview with me, supported by the occasional interjection from members of Bananarama, appeared in the following weeks paper. I learnt that everybody was fair game for Swells.
He and I worked together quite a lot after that. I don't really know why this was. In twenty years, there were some journalists at NME that I never worked with at all. It may be that Swells asked to work with me or, I suppose, it may be that no other journalist could tolerate me to the degree that he was able to. Who knows? I do know that I got on with Swells perfectly well and I do know that some people didn't.
Swells had some very strong opinions and he could never quite see why others shouldn't have the benefit of hearing them. Even passers by. He was certainly no shrinking violet. But I guess that unless you're this way, you'll never make much of a ranting poet? The one and only time I saw Swells perform on stage, he was extremely good and I was rather surprised. But off stage, Swells wasn't always able to turn off the performance switch. And, although he wasn't really aggressive, his pugnacious manner and general approach might have made the casual observer think otherwise. Which most probably suited him just fine.
He has been described as being "famously vitriolic" and this didn't just extend to when he was working. Pretty much anyone was liable to become the subject of an explosive and sustained verbal attack and you certainly had to know how to to take him.
Yet he was always very nice to me and I considered him a good friend.
We often got paired on foreign trips and it was noticeable that when Swells was away from the UK and away from his natural environment, he was mostly fairly quiet. Almost charming. But certainly not always.
At his wake, all Swells friends were asked to come and give memories and recollections of him. I'm sorry to say that I flunked that requirement. I'm absolutely useless at such occasions and besides, I couldn't really think of anything.
In the intervening 20 months or so, I have managed to recall one odd event.
Swells and I had gone to Chicago.
I think the year was 1992 and I'm almost completely sure that the band we'd gone there to work with was the Boo Radleys.
On the first morning after we arrived, we'd arranged to meet a press man from the local office of the record company. He came to our hotel and he'd decided that we needed to be taken to breakfast at a specific branch of McDonalds, some distance away. God only knows why he picked a McDonalds. I think the guy wanted to show us something quintessentially American. And although there are plenty of McDonald's burger joints in London, we didn't argue.
The record company guy certainly did not look like a record company guy. He was dressed from head to toe in black. He had a long black leather coat and slicked back, black hair. He drove a big old American muscle car and, who knows, that might even have been black too. The guy looked exactly like he'd just stepped out of Bladerunner or The Matrix.
Soon after we got to the restaurant, Swells, who'd never been to Chicago before, started going on about it's colourful crime history. Al Capone, the Saint Valentine's Day massacre, gangsters and all that stuff. Pretty soon the conversation branched out to also include guns and weaponry, a subject that Swells was always at home with.
As I've said, Swells was not usually a particularly quiet man and he discussed almost everything with some degree of gusto. His stories often involved verbal, machine gun sound effects and the like. No one who knew Swells would have found his manner during our breakfast at all out of the ordinary. But, I suppose, a casual observer may have thought differently.
After we'd finished our meal, we got back into the record company guy's car and were just about to drive out of the car park exit when a couple of police cars arrived at some considerable speed. Lights flashing, sirens blaring, tyres squealing, the whole bit. Both me and Swells shouted to the guy who was driving to hang on for a moment, so that we could see what was going on. If there was going to be any Chicago style shoot out, both of us wanted to witness it. But the cops jumped out of their cars, big silver guns drawn and ran over to surround us. It seemed that we were the ones they were after.
We were pulled out of the car and made to "spread em" against it. We were fully and not all that gently patted down and then cross questioned as to our business in the area. They pulled the entire contents of the record companies guys trunk out, and spread it over the ground in the parking lot. They didn't find anything and they didn't seem very happy about that either. Swells and I were quite obviously simply loud-mouthed tourists. The cops holstered their guns, got back in their cars and sped off again.
Swells and I thought it was great fun. Not so the record company guy, who had gone as white as snow and was visibly shaking. He seemed a lot more upset than appeared wholly reasonable. Who knows, maybe he'd had something he didn't want them to find somewhere? Most record company guys certainly did. Or at least, they did back then. He told us that the Chicago Police Department were notoriously trigger happy and any encounter with them seldom turned out well for civilians.
As we finally drove off, the only thing we could think of was that someone had overheard our talk about guns and thought we were three hoodlums planning a heist. Maybe two foreign accents veiled just how benign our chatter had really been. Who knows? But it must have been something.
Life was certainly more interesting when one was with Swells. He had a way of getting a reaction out of people and, I guess, that's what a good journalist often wants to do.
You were a nice guy and a real one-off.
It was one of my abiding ambitions in life to find out what you'd be like when you grew old and you mellowed. Well sadly you never did grow old. And you certainly never, for a moment, mellowed.