Matthew Wright Seasick Steve: Ramblin’ Man
(Music Press Books. 266 pages. £7.99. Book review by Chris Parker.)
When Seasick Steve performed ‘Dog House Boogie’ on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny programme, on New Year’s Eve 2006, he achieved what Matthew Wright calls ‘one of the most remarkable breakthroughs in music history’. His home-made recording Dog House Music sold out, he received a MOJO award and as many festival commissions as he could perform in 2007, and the following year saw him gain a major-label contract and worldwide success.
If this performance showcased Seasick Steve’s many musical strengths – effortless command of a battered three-string guitar, a grainily passionate vocal style, an ability to pump out an infectious blues boogie beat that John Lee Hooker might have been proud of – it also owed a great deal of its success to an entirely extramusical element: authenticity. In both his appearance (checked shirt, grungy cap, workman’s boots stomping on ‘the Mississippi drum-machine’) and his mid-song patter (left impossible home situation at 14, bummed around playing for change, received no formal education), Seasick Steve sends out a clear message: this is the Real Thing, downhome, earthy blues played direct from the heart by someone who’s lived the life he sings about, with all its customary blues ingredients, from riding the blinds to occasional incarceration. Subsequent publicity reinforced this reputation, and a narrative slowly solidified: Steve was born in 1941, left an abusive stepfather when he was a teenager, then became an itinerant musician: ‘Hobos are people who move around looking for work, tramps are people who move around but don't look for work, and bums are people who don't move and don't work. I've been all three.’
Matthew Wright, however, has done enough digging around in Seasick Steve’s past to be able confidently to label the singer’s widely accepted self-description as ‘a defiant act of the imagination,’ starting with his birthdate (he was born in 1951, not a decade earlier), taking in his claim to be uneducated (he is actually a fully qualified paramedic courtesy of a relatively demanding course), his unsophisticated approach to music-making (he honed his instrumental skills by collaborating with a number of high-profile musicians and was a sought-after lo-fi grunge producer in the early 1990s), and even his philosophical outlook (he has apparently been practising Transcendental Meditation since his exposure to it in 1960s Haight-Ashbury, even relocating to Skelmersdale’s yogic flying centre in the early 1980s).
The book’s blurb puts the following gloss on this fundamental discrepancy between Seasick Steve’s carefully created legend and the facts: ‘The myth is astonishing; the real story is even better.’ Readers of this intriguing, but occasionally somewhat frustrating account – Wright mentions Steve’s reported collaboration with Joni Mitchell a dozen or so times, for instance, but never manages to authenticate it; numerous leads are similarly abandoned unexplored; there is no index – might, understandably, be less forgiving. A brief glance at the online comments under Seasick Steve’s various YouTube appearances, for instance, proves just how much his many admirers have invested in the legend rather than the facts, and the thoroughness with which the former is still promulgated only goes to prove how important an ingredient it is in the singer’s ongoing success. The book’s inescapable message, in short, is a rather depressing one: the search for ‘authenticity’ is probably as fundamentally misguided and doomed to ultimate failure as the alchemists’ search for the philosopher’s stone.