Monday, 14 June 2010
May 16, 1960 to May 24, 2010
I got the text a couple of weeks ago, just as I was about to go into the theatre: ‘Pete, Steve New sadly passed away relatively peacefully surrounded by his friends and family @ 6.15 this evening but, as always with Steve, there were more birds than blokes there. I will keep you posted about funeral arrangements. Glen.’
It was Glen who introduced me to Steve. Glen had just left the Sex Pistols — after several years. Unlike Steve — who had managed just one week as the band’s second guitarist.
Glen had decided Steve was the guitarist he wanted for his new band, the Rich Kids. (The richness of the name was metaphorical in intent rather than finanancial. It was a kind of reference to Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. Both metaphor and reference were, perhaps understandably, lost on most people.)
I was, as some of you will know, a music journalist, for Sounds, at the time — and a friend of Glen’s. He invited me to write something about his new band. That was the way it worked then. Well, that was how it worked for me.
It was September 1977. The editor put it on the cover of the magazine. I just looked it up — I’m someone who keeps his old writings. Well, most of them. The story opens with Steve in a bus on the Harrow Road. He’s wearing carpet slippers and getting shouted out by children for the eccentricity of his footwear. ‘It was pouring and me boots have got holes in ’em and I didn’t want to get me feet wet.’
There’s a lot of Steve there in that line. His capacity for existing in the moment. His fashion sense. His west London accent. His sense of the ridiculous. His humour. His disdain for what others might think. And his lifelong habit of getting in trouble. Often amusing trouble — the kids’ shouts were quotes from the Pistols’ Pretty Vacant, a song Steve would that night on stage with the person who wrote it.
He was only eighteen or so at the time but he was like, well, clichés pop into my head — like a whirlwind, like a force of nature, like a tornado. He’d roar into a room, roar out, then reappear when you least expected him. He’d always be enthusiastic about something or other.
There was always something inspirational about Steve. Even though he was some eight years younger than me, I think he was the one who inspired me to grow my hair into a long, half-combed mess — the way it was in the photo on this page.
Maybe you think you don’t know Steve but you have almost certainly heard him. It’s his guitar on Generation X’s Dancing With Myself. He was booked to play on a whole load of other tracks but that was the only bit they got out of him. Reliable, he wasn’t.
I saw a lot of him at the time — in the Rich Kids and the other bands of Glen’s that followed. ‘Glen’s like my big brother,’ Steve said in a recent interview, recent enough to know he was dying, of cancer, and tell the interviewer he was.
Then I didn’t see Steve for a long time as our lives went different ways, for various reasons. In particular, I wasn’t a junkie. He’d had a taste for heroin since before I even knew him, I’m told. Mark Helfond met him a few months before me. ‘His first words to me were: have you got any gear?’ Mark told me at Steve’s wake. Well, one of the wakes. I’ll get to that soon enough.
I’d see Steve very occasionally, generally when I was having a chat or a coffee or a drink somewhere with Glen. His hair got thinner. His teeth got looser. But his smile barely changed. He barely changed, in some ways.
There were always things going on his life, though. I remember a flat in the Brunswick Centre that he had to give up for some reason. I remember him living at the very end of the Seven Sisters Rd, in some kind of council block and despair at the other residents. Bands came and went. He moved to America. He ran off with Bernie Rhodes’ girlfriend and got married in Memphis. He got stuck, penniless, in the middle of nowhere. He lived in Florida. He outstayed his tourist visa and couldn’t get back into the US to see his child. (Some of the previous may be wrong but it may also be true.)
His grin never left him, though. Something serious always seemed to be going wrong in his life but, improbably, it never seemed to get him down.
There was a show, earlier in the year, a reunion of Steve’s old and new playing mates — a fund-raiser for him and his family. I intended to go but I was ill. Or rather, I had a baddish cold. Steve was the one who was ill. I thought there’d be more shows. There weren’t.
The funeral was in a cemetery I don’t remember going to before, though I’ve driven past it many times: the one near East Finchley, just off the North Circular. It’s vast, overgrown, almost rural, with roads winding around a hillside — the southern slope of what used to be known as the Middlesex ditches, where the North Circular now runs.
The service was in the Camden and Islington Crematorium, almost at the far end of the cemetery. There were a lot of people there who had known Steve even longer than me: Mick Jones, Tony James, Patti Palladin. It was a very rock and roll funeral: a well-dressed crowd. Black suits, white shirts and black ties.
As people milled around in the lunchtime sun waiting to go in, I had the first of two surprises — shocks, almost. I saw someone handing out service cards and realised I knew him. It was one of the lecturers from my MSc course: Jim Hopkins, a philosophy teacher from King’s. He gives the best scientific-philosophical explication of psychoanalysis you’ll find. I’ll tell you about it some time.
I went over and said hello, asking him what his connection was. He was Steve’s partner’s father, he told me — or rather, stepfather, I think. I was a bit shaken aback by this, so may have got a little confused in the moment. ‘Steve was a wonderful father to little Frank,’ he said — as simply and movingly as that.
The coffin rolled up in a motorcycle sidecar, ridden/driven by a bearded biker of a man in heavy leathers. The coffin was white, hand-printed with abstract shapes in gold, with a guitar of sorts on top. It was not much bigger than a child’s coffin. Steve was never a big man.
The chapel — I can’t think of another, secular word for the room — was full. The service was, well, there’s no other way to put this, one of the best funerals I’ve ever been to. It was led by Mary, a ‘celebrant’ — a new word on me but a good one for the person in charge of a non-religious funeral ceremony. ‘The most final of duties,’ as she described it.
She wore a classy Women’s Institute type frock and had the pleasing, authoritative manner of a nursery school teacher. (Not everyone agreed. Patti Palladin later told me thought she was awful — bossy like the TV dog trainer, Barbara Woodhouse.)
She had clearly gone to some lengths to get a rich, accurate and rounded understanding of Steve’s life — ‘to place him in our hearts’. I wrote down snatches of what she said — told to her, that is, by people who knew him far better than I ever did.
‘The brightest and most fearless of his time . . . sense of chivalry that was almost up to samurai level . . . He treasured women — and there were many in his life, which made for much complexity in his life . . . He was a fabulous girlfriend to women, listening tirelessly to their woes.’
And then . . . and then Rhys stood up to talk. Rhys was his last manager — the last of many, very many. And Rhys started talking about someone called Stella. Or rather, I quickly realised, about Steve being stellar. Which, given the trajectory of his career, was a more honest reflection of his talent than his delivery.
Then I realised I was wrong. Rhys was saying Steve was Stella. They were the same person. In the years since I’d last seen Steve, he had taken up another life, as a transvestite called Stella Nova. ‘The woman he was,’ in Rhys’s words. ‘He was always a natural anarchist. This represented the unexpected.’ And he carried it off ‘majestically’.
Later, I learned a little more about this — to me — unknown side of Steve (or rather, Stella). He had a band called Beastellabeast, with a younger woman Bea — who was in the front row at the funeral. His first words to his partner Laura — a typically unusual chat-up line — were: ‘Hello, I’m Stella, I’m a tranny.’ She told this story, as part of her oration, tearily. She recalled that they spent a lot of time talking about Steve’s hair that first night. ‘A lot.’
Looking around the chapel, I noticed/realised that the crowd was split in two. There were the old punk friends and there were the newer transvestite friends. Kind of like the bride’s side and the groom’s side at a wedding.
Rhys talked about Steve/Stella’s courageous facing of cancer and imminent death. ‘He loved his little bottle of liquid morphine, particularly frolicking in the knowledge that he was legal and the police couldn’t touch him.’
The celebrant led us in an acapella Shall We Gather At The River. We cried. The coffin made its way into that strange limbo of a place beyond the curtains but before the furnace. It needed a little shove. The celebrant waved her arms, called for another chorus, then another verse, then finally loud applause — and a little whooping.
Outside, we looked — somewhat aimlessly — at the flowers and tributes. We caught up with old friends — some of whom we didn’t recognise at first. I talked to Anne Pigalle, singer and artist. When we first met, she was the girlfriend of Steve’s first manager (Al McDowell). ‘This bond we all have, right back to punk,’ she said. ‘It’s important, isn’t it.’
Patti Paladin handed out black chocolate hearts. A kind of funeral communion wafer. I ate mine right away, not realising it was wrapped in foil till it caught in my throat for an uncomfortable moment. (Later, I thought: what an embarrassing obituary that could have made.)
We went off to one or other of the wakes. There were three in all. One at a local pub, for those who knew him as Steve, mostly. One at the house, for those who knew him as a father, mostly. One later in the evening, at St George Tavern in Commercial Rd, for those who knew him as Stella, mostly — it was a kind of homebase for Beastellabeast.
I was one of those who went to the local pub. I offered Anne a lift. ‘No, thanks,’ she said. ‘I like to walk after funerals. It’s important for me.’
That night, I was woken by a dream. In it, my wife was trying — and failing, to my irritation — to interpret the dream I’d had within the dream, which itself was about another dream. There was also a door, behind which the dreaming was happening. I knew there was something important there. But the door wouldn’t open.