John Stevens (1940-1994) - by Roger Smith
"Champagne to your real friends. Real pain to your sham friends." (Francis Bacon)
The music says everything about John Stevens; if any confirmation of him being a beautiful geezer is required perhaps listening to it may be worthwhile. Evidence of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) on song is by no means readily available. Discographies have been compiled by Ian Vickers and Paul Pirongs, genuine long-term fans of John's music, and the estimable Paul Wilson of the National Sound Archive (London) - published in the Community Music tribute which itself has become hard to obtain; Derek Bailey, who wrote in it, warmly and humorously of an SME occasion, has not managed to see it since its publication in November 1994. Lots of recordings with Frode Gjersted, a big variety of odds and ends often of a very high quality, but with regard to SME, apart from a few strange little glimpses of funded concerts and contrived and strained studio sessions, nothing. So what's happened since the seminal Karyobin era and Emanems of the early 70s?
All mention of SME personnel and why they came and went during this period is strictly avoided. This is a long and complicated subject way beyond any possibility of analysis in a 1500 word article. Also, apologies to parenthesis detesters and for sparse information of specific venues.
Steve Beresford commented one evening in the Little Theatre Club (John's hotbed - my goodness he's had plenty of those during the time in question) that SME was 'folk music'. Now he certainly didn't mean the stuff John was performing professionally with the likes of John Martyn, Danny Thompson and Donovan. He never dissed 'folk' as it was more generally regarded and in fact a friend, Nick Connors, and his Irish band played at the LMC Memorial Concert. Ancestral echoes and his undoubted love of music played simply for the 'crack' may account for this but it must also be noted that he was a very broad-minded gentleman (If anyone requires information of great depth and accuracy they could do no better than consult Mr Beresford who consistently maintains sheer fascination for the John phenomenon and dare I say, simple love for him).
Elements of all other musics and arts were always RESPECTED massively. Names that figured constantly for 25 years included Charlie Parker, Philly Jo Jones, Monk/Evans/Nichols, Webern, Bacon and Beckett (John loved to recount SME's twentieth birthday rave-up. Joyfully playing late into the night he could see some feet in front of the drums. There was still an audiant so. . . onward! Finally, after apocalyptic finale, the end. The cleaning person stood up and meaningfully started to sweep up the rubbish). There were also ample sprinklings of the Clintons, pop, loads of AABAs and world musics. A recent Music In Our Time piece was entitled 'Gist' after a drummer John met in Gambia named Stig (Sadly, the new profit-orientated BBC is apparently obstructing availability of these and other tapes) [the piece dedicated to Stig was eventually issued by Acta in 1995 on A New Distance]. John once steadfastly defended everything of Jelly Roll Morton for two hours in solid debate with Jo Jones; Earl Hines chipping in occasionally.
If by 'folk' it was meant an expression of the times, social context, psychological outpouring, blah blah - SME was increasingly it. Tape recorders were appearing circa Little Theatre Club (Herman Hauge, can't trace you, do you have anything left?). During the LMC Gloucester Avenue days they became more sophisticated, operated, for example, by the supportive Martin Davidson ex-Emanem Records and Mark Rowlatt (likewise guv). Into the 80s and 90s and digital machines sprung up with Martin, Michael Gerzon, Ian Vickers, Richie Stevens, Japanese video people and occasional radio broadcasts. SME had not ossified in some plinky-plonk time warp. Tapes were channelled to John. He loved listening close to the gig, sometimes straight after. Imagine ex-Charlie Watts massive stereo system, everyone fuelled to the gills; John suddenly, frighteningly transfixed in a semi-catatonic condition. Then he would bung the cassettes in a chest and forget about them.
Little effort was ever made to get released by record companies. All the improvised music label people were chiselling away at their own agendas and weren't that interested. Parlous financial states and chaos in other areas of life were figuring with alarming frequency. Bringing out and distributing records or CDs is no simple task in these circumstances. Enter Paul Wilson. He took masses of material from a number of sources, including John, and has digitally copied old cassettes and DATs. Slowly but surely other tapes will be catalogued as long as he is around. So, on Exhibition Road, there's an opportunity to listen to the real SME. This came as immense relief to John. He was deeply concerned about there being recordings available, and a sense of posterity was entwined in a complicated way with his view of how history is massively distorted, and his love of family and sense of future generation, increasing concentration and energy directed towards his grandson, the gorgeous Max.
If there is anyone listening to this music in the future at the National Sound Archive, on CD or cable it's worth trying to get a picture of a typical 'gig'. The set-up was always unsatisfactory with ridiculous licensing laws and pathetic public transport. John invariably had to work hard during the day if he wasn't on the road; straight music and concerts abroad being less and less frequent. In recent years he was finding the gall-swallowing at Community Music, where he worked, increasingly debilitating although he never ceased to feel sheer joy with the younger participants. Pick up the drums, push them onto the tube (he never drove. . . thank goodness), push them, often a considerable distance to the venue. Set up. Allow time for a settled audience. Start at approximately 9.00. Finish 10.30-11.00, drink, relax a little, pack up, haggle over 35p, travel, cool down, get up, off we go again. A weaker man could have had a heart attack 30 years earlier. Just listen to the strength in his playing for a moment and you'll begin to understand.
Never ideal places to play, the often sad detachment of improvised music gigs was compounded by its almost exclusive maleness. This has always been a major problem in other music. Jazz, of course, being a prime culprit. John, and most of his associates over these years, revelled in the company of women, to some extent sexually but more broadly in a Platonic sense. An occasional singer and dancer would appear but bandwise and audiencewise 'Britimp' has been a very male preserve. Some jamborees in which SME participated were almost masonic in their white male middle-aged collective smugness about doing something vaguely eccentric. Not so much abroad though, and John would delight in Norway and some of the very few venues in other countries that would accommodate him. Maybe things have improved here slightly in recent years.
John was never one to encourage asking "Why?" Nevertheless, it is worth asking why his music remained so strong in this environment for so long. Sorry sir. Simply put, John knew that for him an inverse ratio operated. The more hustling the less the quality of music. Period. The Yeats aphorism, "The best lack all conviction whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity" does not apply, however. John was a hater of silly literary witticisms and in his actions belied this particular one. He had huge conviction.
Melody Maker, December 15, 1973. Stevens: "Phil Seamen would wink at me and laugh and say 'I know where you're at Stevens. I know what all that shit is about.' But that was just a joke between him and me."
No waiting at airports for the next foreign 'improvisor' to arrive, no systematic sucking-up to players and others with 'influence' and money. Yet, he did appreciate the strategies of marketing and, to a limited extent, did achieve success in other areas of music that are dominated by these. He knew all about the cancerous growth of 'management', hierarchies and insidious authority that facilitates mass brown-tonguing, sheer compromise and fatuous networking.
Authority in its many manifestations frightened him to the extent that he rarely overtly kicked against it. No jankers for John in the airforce. His love of group improvisation was one way of reacting to this, his own authoritarianism continually subverted in this perfect context of course. Joe Harriott walking off stage mid-tune for a drink was unforgivable. Even bar staff - Tracey of the Drill Hall seething one day: "This man last night wouldn't go; made me miss the last train." Guess who. It has to be admitted that sometimes he could get things wrong and in the world of improvisation there were plenty of people who could provide ample chastisement.
He knew how his 'successful' contemporaries had moved from the horrors of post-war Archer Street, fighting for a very small slice of cake, through the mumsy (a favourite word) 60s to the prevailing brutal clamour for crumbs. His ego could somehow picture himself as one of these 'leaders' but his heart, and here we touch on a subject of tremendous sensitivity, led him to simply play, paint and be himself.
Music helped him sort out these contradictions in his soul, not the artificiality of festivals and the packaging of CDs. Simply playing a musical instrument and vocalising (John had a beautiful voice and a vocabulary of sounds that was utterly unique. There was a variety of odd sucking and slurping noises and bilabial plosives, for example, a treatise on which would be highly inappropriate for such an upstanding periodical as Rubberneck) is denied to people more and more as is simple education and ultimately hope for the future. 'Improvisation' is a young person's music but the obstacles, often from within the music itself, preclude any participation for most (he was wonderfully Luddite in his horror of the rise and rise of knob-twiddlers culture with their somewhat cerebral frissons).
There was strong respect for musicians 'making their way' in the world, raising families, with ambition and purpose whilst retaining integrity. This would, however, be oddly disturbing when the equanimity was too close.
A few points about his last gig may help to sum up this little essay. It was at the Priory Arms in London and run by Alan Tomlinson and Dave Tucker. A previous jazz gig on the Medway, for £40-£50, had been a nightmare as he had attempted to get his big kit there and back. Problems hammering in, no money for a cab so, because of the distance from the tube, he turned up with trumpet only. As the night wore on he fell back on all his resources and sensed, as he always did in these circumstances, that this was improvisation at its best, on this occasion readily accepting the reality of being unable to play drums. Alan Tomlinson was horrified at the prospect of no kit and clicking trumpet, but even his determinedly individual sensibilities finally warmed, after years of grumbling, to what John was about that night. The Little Theatre Club ethos was alive and kicking in John's every sound, gesture and comment. The strangely British form of Ayleresque spirituality was all pervasive. And nobody taped it, much to his chagrin.
In recent years the playing had a tendency to be less precise and focused with more broadened and flattened strokes (David Solomon, a drum student of the late-60s noted that during that period the precise touch was of prime importance and was driven home to distraction in his lessons). A moment's silence was no longer demanded before playing and a wonderful sense of the absurd was encroaching a little into the music; for example, drum kits could collapse signifying the end of the shows. There were no longer any public statements of total abstinence from drink, etc, a regular occurrence at one time, and less and less desire to perform pieces. Titles became more infrequent. Periods of deep fragility and sensitivity were obvious. Immersion in the improvised music scene tired him and travel appealed less and less. He liked to chill-out in leafy Ealing and spend time in the local pub trying to sort things out.
As always contradiction piled on contradiction. To hell with tomorrow; precious concern for the future. Almost embarrassing revelatory detail; massively guarded secrets (the subject matter of some late painting was personal and so painful that it is unlikely they hung publicly). Out of touch with the detail of new music; very much in touch with the general direction of new music. And so on and so forth.
The wonderfully warped sense of political correctness was as strong as ever, as was the deep understanding and sadness about the darker aspects of human nature and the hugely important place the arts have in neutralising this. And it's all there in the music.
John Stevens remained consistent to his ideals, and demands no less from us in the years to come.
Shout going out to Anne, Richie and Louise. R
This piece was first published in Rubberneck 18, June 1995
Text © Rubberneck; photo © Ruth Davis (reproduced from the CD Gary Smith/John Stevens on Ecstatic Peace/Soul)
John Stevens on CD