I never met Steven Wells. I always figured I would some day, but that it would be totally random — I’d be in some dive bar on a road trip to Philly to see the Fire play the new team there that he, in a small way, helped make happen, the Philadelphia Union. I presumed we’d end up shooting the shit about the Sons of Ben and Section 8 and the good fight to keep American grassroots fan culture alive in the face of the McBeast. And then we’d get into an argument about the Smiths and something would get broken and shots would be downed in excess.
Sadly, Steven Wells passed away before this could happen. He died yesterday of lymphatic cancer, at just 49 years old. Wells made his name writing and supporting punk rock in Britain — from the Mekons to Black Flag — and his punk rock attitude more than spilled over into his later writing on soccer in the United States. He wrote about music fiercely until the end, illustrated well by this snippet from a recent Quietus piece:
I have argued for a long time for the state-subsidised mass-murder of all music journalists over 25-years-old. True we’d lose some cracking writers and cause a lot of human misery and suffering, but on the plus side we’d live in a universe where Q didn’t exist.
And when I say “we”, of course, I mean you. Because I’d be dead.
Frankly I think it’s the only way to shut me the fuck up. I mean who gives a fuck what I think anyway? I certainly don’t. And next year I’d be joined by Dom Passantino. Can I request now that we be buried together, intertwined like Ancient Greek warrior lovers, thus causing the alien robot squid archeologists in the year 4012 to scratch their throbbing giant computer-brain-cages with their super-advanced semi-liquid-space-metal tentacles as they wonder how these two obviously brutally murdered men – one old and the other, like, rilly rilly rilly old – were intertwined in life as they are in death?
Or even better, every year open that grave up and sling in the next generation of 25-year-old, past-their-fucking-pontificate-date music hacks so that when the Angel Gabriel blows his horn to signal the dead to rise on the day of judgment, this huge interlocked mass of creaking hack bones will rise from the grave like some enormous skeletal super zombie which will then engage is a mass fuck-in-a boney post-mortem sex and drugs and tediously over-told fucking anecdotes fucking orgy where slime encrusted femurs rasp chitinously into flyblown sockets and worm-gnawed fists are rammed repeatedly into crumbling pelvic girdles. Oh fuck me I’ve just come all over the fucking keyboard. But it was worth it.
At times, Wells’ half-crazed prose threatened to overwhelm the nuance, intelligence and truth in his arguments, but I suppose that was essential to Swells’ ethos: never compromise, never limit, always excess. What marks Wells out from other ‘angry’ writers was that his furious, energetic prose was just as often directed in support of something he loved as it was against the evils he hated. In this sense, he was far from a shock-jock, the coruscating nature of his writing employed for positive goals.
This was why when the rest of the world was fixated on Beckham’s big bucks move to the Galaxy in 2007, Wells instead introduced a British audience to grassroots American soccer fan culture, with his pieces in Four Four Two and the Guardian on Philadelphia’s Sons of Ben, a supporters group for a team that then didn’t exist.
One of the Sons of Ben founders emphasises the importance of Swells’ support:
He wrote about us in Philadelphia Weekly, FourFourTwo, and The Guardian…apart from a small little blurb in Sports Illustrated he was the source of all our solid media credits for months. He was at our first tailgate – he took the well-known picture of all of us there. He saw what we were really doing and what we were capable of doing before any of us did, I think. He gave us relevance.
Wells’ magnum opus on the SOB came last year after the announcement the city would have an MLS team in 2010, with this epic cover feature in the Philadelphia Weekly:
Meet the Zolos–the crazy fans of Philadelphia’s yet-to-be-named American soccer club. They’re better known as the Sons of Ben (SOB). They’ve got a club crest, flags, a Latin motto, a customized bass drum, six different scarf designs, thongs, mousepads, aprons and mugs. Lord knows how many songs and chants, and–at last count–2,010 members. (Hence Zolos. Get it?)
They’ve also got bitter rivalries with Major League Soccer (MLS) teams D.C. United and New York Red Bulls. And the New England Revolution hate them too. As do fans of the Portland Timbers and Toronto. Already. Despite the fact that Philly doesn’t actually have a team yet. How Philly is that?
As you’ve almost certainly heard, there’s a $115 million soccer-specific stadium and an MLS franchise coming to Philly. To nearby depressed-to-hell Chester, actually. They start play in 2010. (Zolo. Get it?) And the reason we’re getting a team?
“You can never underestimate the passion of the fans,” says Ed Rendell at a press conference in Chester. “You can’t measure it. Believe me, this group’s excitement and desire had a lot to do with why we’re here announcing this franchise.”
Big Ed goes on to compare the SOB to the Eagles’ 700 level. Which is kind of flattering to Eagles fans.
Wells’ point, which he made again and again, was that the vibrant potential of grassroots soccer culture lay in its contrast to the stilted atmosphere of professional American sports at the highest level, which sees adult fans infantalised and spoonfed seemingly anything to distract them from the game itself.
Wells understood that what happened at the bottom was just as important — perhaps even more so — as what happened at the top for the future of soccer in the U.S., as he told Richard Whittall in this excellent interview at EPL Talk:
The history of soccer is the US isn’t just the history of the professional game. There’s also the (in many respects way more interesting) history of the grassroots game. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but even if pro-soccer in the US once again shits the bed (and let’s not forget that last year saw both the collapse of NFL Europe and the AFL indoor football league) I don’t really think that would impact grassroots soccer.
Just as soccer boosters tended to massively overestimate just how much the establishment of the WUSA and the arrival of Beckham would “grow” soccer in the US, I think we also tend to worry a little too much about our failures and setbacks.
I think grassroots soccer survives and continues to flourish in the US for a whole host of reasons, but perhaps also because it fills a previously empty evolutionary niche.
In much of the rest of the world, you’ll find soccer balls in every work space (I’ve never been on a British rock band tour bus without one, for instance.) First chance you get, you set up goalposts, in the parking lot maybe, and you kick off.
The nearest US equivalent is basketball. But basketball without the hoops is futile. In soccer almost anything can be used as a goalpost, hell, you don’t even need a ball.
I see kids playing pick-up gridiron in parks and it seems to be spectacularly futile and unsatisfactory waste of time, with most of the players stood around doing nowt.
And there’s the American oddity of kickball. I passed a school playground recently and I thought: Oh my god, they’re playing soccer.
Then I thought: No they’re not, they’re playing kickball.
This I found extremely odd. I’d even go as far as to say that the day that soccer really succeeds in the US isn’t when the US wins the world cup, it’s when it becomes the default sport in the nation’s playgrounds. Which—in Darwinian terms—it really should, being far better suited to that arena (and way more fun as well as being better exercise) than all the alternatives. Way to go yet though…
Cancer means that Wells will not be around to see whether this happens. His battle with the disease does leave another legacy — his brutally honest and ferocious piece on his struggle within the American healthcare system will, I hope, be read by many more.
This is the tale of a smartarse Brit getting lost in the Philadelphia health system. The highlights–edited for shock value–include cockroaches, urine-drenched bathrooms, a crazed geriatric chip-sucker, a frenzied attempt to masturbate into a specimen jar while the chap in the next bed watches Patton at a libido-shattering 128 decibels, and nurses hiding their name badges while my wife screams, “My husband’s got cancer. Get off your arse and get him his fucking painkillers now !”
The story also features Kafkaesque data chases, a scrotal sac swollen to the size of a football, glimpses of oak-paneled $300-a-night posh-patients’ rooms where protein shakes come in silver salvers, the horror of the catheter they stick down your cock (and this is legal, why?) and the nightmare foot-long scented candle of compacted fecal matter that was so hard to shift that I collapsed and had to be given oxygen the first time I tried.
Plus more love, affection and staggeringly efficient professionalism from amazing doctors and incredible nurses than you could possibly believe. And more really, really, really great free drugs than you could shake a shitty stick at.
Seriously, having experienced everything from industrial-strength stool softeners to the same anxiety and pain relief medicine they issue to medics in the Marine Corps, I have to wonder why anybody in America would ever take crappy street drugs. Join the Army and get shot. It’s got to be cheaper in the long run, and it’s totally legal.
Did I type that out loud? I’m sorry. It’s the synthetic heroin. It’s great but it does have the unfortunate side effect of turning you into an emotional Republican.
Wells’ final piece, which he filed last week, was one of his best composed rants as he approached the end. Wells’ departure to punk rock heaven leaves a big blank space we might never fill again. His last printed words:
I blame it on sunshine. I blame it on the moonlight. I blame it on the boogie.