I’ve just been watching Seasick Steve on a Sunday morning cookery programme on BBC Two television called Something For The Weekend. In it he sang a song, drank a cocktail and grated cheese into a bowl in order to make it look like he was making a key lime pie. The presenters oo-ed and aw-ed his every word, particularly astounded at his admission that he’d never had cocktails before – aside from harvey wallbangers and martinis, of course. These are the lengths it seems you have to go to in order to “make it big” in the modern age.
It could be said that Seasick Steve got off lightly compared to those fame-addicted minor celebs encouraged to eat whole chillis on Big Brother and live grubs and kangaroo penises for I’m An Idiot Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!. Once you’ve answered and re-answered spurious questions about being arrested for vagrancy and hopping freight cars on the Paul O’Grady Show and Richard & Judy, pretending to make a key lime pie must be small potatoes.
Let me say right here and now that Seasick Steve is a wonderful artist and, by all accounts, a very fine fellow. In no way do I want to take anything away from him. His rise from itinerant labourer and sometime musician to headlining at London’s Royal Albert Hall was fairly rapid (only 40 years), utterly deserved and the stuff of fairytales. In an interview in March 2006 for Blues In London he admitted that his main goals were cash and fame: “I’m motivated by money! I wanna be one of the stars! Man you know I aint got that much.” Can’t blame him for that… at least he has the talent to go with it.
If you don’t know Seasick Steve from Seasick Stephen Hawking, here’s his life in 156 words: At the age of 14, Steve Wold left the family home in Oakland, California, hopping freights across the USA, his only constant companion a battered, customised guitar. He’d been taught a few chords by Delta bluesman KC Douglas, who worked in his grandfather’s auto-shop. After spending part of the Flower Power era in San Francisco, Steve hopped a cheap flight to Paris and travelled through France and the UK, before being drawn back to the States. When he wasn’t picking fruit or digging potatoes, he’d busk and play the odd support slot. By the 1990s, he was married, settled down, raising five children, playing with bluesman RL Burnside and producing albums for the likes of US indie-rockers Modest Mouse. A decade ago, he and his Norwegian wife relocated to Norway, where he made a solo album in their kitchen. It landed on the desk of London DJ Joe Cushley, and the rest is history. Or very nearly.
Appearances on Hootenanny and Later With Jools Holland secured Steve’s status as the hobo we all could love. The nearest we’ll get to Woody Guthrie and with fewer rough edges. A new agent trounced on to the scene and Steve and was plucked out of the clubs and the independently-run music festivals that had fuelled his career thus far and propelled into the big-time, playing the Royal Albert Hall and similarly large concert venues. Exclusive contracts were signed with a big time music corporation for exclusive festival appearances at Latitude and Glastonbury 2008.
Many of us would rather see Seasick Steve in a sweaty club that a fully-seated municipal theatre smelling of faux-marigolds and popcorn, but that’s the way it goes. That’s his choice – or at least the choice of his manager, agent and their financial advisers. You lose the atmosphere in the bigger venues but the money’s better and the seats are clean.
I was giving out leaflets outside the Royal Albert Hall the night Steve played there. The people who were emerging from taxis weren’t the type I would regularly see at the 100 Club, where I promote most of my blues-tinged shows. In fact, most had never heard of the place. I’ll also bet that the majority of the City workers and Notting Hillbillies who seemed to make up Steve’s Albert Hall audience had never heard of Woody Guthrie. After all, Woody never got to appear on Later With Jools Holland and be accorded the attendant honour of the loveable tinkler jamming along to “This Land Is Your Land”. Pity. I can see the freshly-repainted slogan, “This Machine Kills Pub Pianists”.
If you’re wondering how the key lime pie turned out, sorry, I can’t help you. I was so embarrassed for Steve that I was forced to wipe the recording then and there. I hear they’ve got Chuck Berry on next week, preparing individual black forest gateaux.
Since I posted this, Seasick Steve has just been nominated for a Brit Award. He’s competing with Neil Diamond for the Meals On Wheels Award for Best International Artist or somefink.
I’ve also learned that the female presenter of Something For The Weekend was former Spice Girl Emma Bunting. And I just thought she was just an unknown incompetent who’d slept with the producer.