Cosmic Slop #83: Seasick Steve and the artifice of rock & roll
Originally posted on Getintothis
As Seasick Steve is revealed to be something of a fraud, Shaun Ponsonby responds with a resounding “so what?”
Performance – any kind of performance – requires a certain amount of artifice. It always bugs me whenever an artist is described as “real”. It’s bollocks, isn’t it? No matter who you are, or what you do, once you put yourself out there for public consumption there is always a slight tinkering with your personality.
In essence, you create a public persona, and there are things you keep private, not for public consumption. Some take this further than others and create complete alter egos. David Bowie is the prime example of taking it to the extreme (I hate to break it to you, but Bowie was from Brixton, not Mars), but is just as true for someone like Noel Gallagher. He has an easily identifiable persona that he uses in public appearances. You know the one, he says innocuous things as if they are in some way profound, knowing full well that NME will print every single word he says as a major headline news story.
During a Q&A filmed for his episode of VH1 Storytellers, Bruce Springsteen was asked about this and he responded by saying “Often my wife will end arguments with me by saying ‘Say that in your next interview, Mr Bruce Springsteen’”. No matter who you choose to bring up, there is an element of bullshit, to varying degrees. It is part of the package. This has always happened, right back to Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil, and probably before even that.
Despite the intentions, I’ve always found the Alice Coopers of the world are more honest than the Noel Gallaghers. Cooper went out of his way to make his act so absurd that no-one in their right mind would think it was really him. It’s a way of not just acknowledging, but full-on embracing that this is all bullshit.
So I was a little puzzled by the sigh of disappointment I heard when, over the last few days, it was “revealed” that Seasick Steve’s backstory is a sham. As it turned out, Seasick Steve isn’t even his real name (imagine!). It turns out that Steve Leach was a session musician and had even played on a handful of successful disco records.
But, let’s not get on our high horses here (as some people seem to be). There is a history of this all over rock & roll. In fact, Steve seems to have borrowed quite a bit from Bob Dylan for his backstory. Robert Zimmerman not only changed his name, he has consistently changed his backstory. He claimed he left school to join a carnival. Like Steve, he claimed he was a hobo riding the rails. He has said that he was as a male prostitute, all of which appear to be total bullshit.
Nobody I saw commenting on this story mentioned Joe Strummer, either. Far from an angry, working class punk, Strummer was the boarding school-educated son of a diplomat. Most people didn’t know this at the time as it would compromise his bona fide punk cred. And Led Zeppelin even claimed to be writing their own songs (burn!).
I’m actually surprised that people are surprised. Seasick Steve’s persona is so extreme, and his backstory so perfect and romanticised, that I wonder how it possibly be real. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who had an inkling that this was largely an act a long time ago.
If anything, it reminds me of Tom Waits. Most of his stories are bullshit too, and he has never let that mask fall in public; talk shows, award ceremonies, concerts, personal appearances. He always maintains the Tom Waits “character”. In some ways, Seasick Steve feels like the next logical step from Tom Waits.
Frankly, I give him credit. He found a way to get out of session work to become a bona fide star. Absolute power to him, and I genuinely mean that. I wish I would have thought of it. And had the patience to learn guitar.
Do people really feel like they have been duped? Did all the people who bought his records not really like them and only did so because they liked his supposed story? Honestly, if that is what makes you go out and buy a record, then you deserve to be hoodwinked. If people liked his records, that what the fuck does his life story matter?
I heard a few people say that the point was that Steve’s backstory was the only thing worth paying attention to him for. I say that’s far too subjective to possibly say with any authority, and whether you like his music or not you can’t deny that he is quite the showman, which I always saw as his real appeal anyway.
And, make no mistake, you might cling to your “honest” records, but when boiled down to its essence, no matter how transcendent and artistic rock & roll can get, it will always be show business.
I think we will all remember where we were when we found out Bros are reuniting in 2017.
Liam Gallagher has said that Oasis did in three years what took The Beatles eight. I’m assuming he means sales in a post-Thriller era of blockbuster albums, and minus any sense of progression or genius.
RIP Rod Temperton