Seasick Steve - Ramblin’ Man
Author Matthew Wight
Publisher Music Books
ISBN 97878418988 4
266 printed pages
If you’re like me, you can always find something amongst the music books on the shelves of your local Oxfam bookstore, which in my case is Oxfam Heaton, and Seasick Steve’s Biography by Matthew Wright. Seasick Steve's music I know a little, his life stories, myths and rectifications, are well documented. Would Matthew Wright’s bio reveal more confusion and fiction, or truths?
A stellar UK rise, brought hints of an earlier, very different Steve, less Seasick on those 70s tours and session work. Challenges to his ‘boxcar riding’, prison time, homeless myth days, all are nailed early. Sources are well documented, especially up to his ‘self invention days’, and fame, but there are inevitable gaps that only the artist could fill. Twenty two pages in, and as expected, Seasick had not cooperated with our author.
Steve’s ‘hobo’ myth is explored, and exploded, sympathetically, with his writing skills lauded. Other mysteries emerge, was he Portuguese? Who taught him guitar in Oakland Ca? Was he in Monterrey? In 2000, he loved hippie Frisco, by 2009, he’s just passing through. Friends with some of music’s greats? Met in passing backstage, at parties, or on bedroom floors. There’s no record of Prison, even for vagrancy, there’s records of professional achievements as a paramedic. No evidence of time in his spiritual home Mississippi.
Early chapters highlight Steve’s love of the Blues, his involvement with Rock, and his recognition that success comes outside the narrow formula the blues police in the UK would allow, where authenticity matters. The impossible purity test of the ‘you gotta have lived it’ Blues crowd.
One verified fact, his devotion to Transcendental Meditation is something of a surprise, and accounts for choices, travels, and homes. Trips, flights, no Box Car hopping, time in Paris is lightly covered. There’s a fair amount of Steve coulda, shoulda, woulda, if, if, if, running through the pages. Well documented are his travels to Seattle, to Nashville, and bizarrely Skelmersdale in the UK, not even a train station there, but a TM centre where Steve and first wife could rebalance.
Steve’s persona and image developed while living in Norway with second wife and family and establishing a Mississippi based label to distribute his hobo blues. Some actions and his rigorous image maintenance appear almost paranoid, or manic, as if his current Blues original persona is the ‘one truth’. Is there a control freak here, perhaps? He’d seen other’s destroyed by a media and business circus, perhaps he’s right, to build a wall of mystery around himself and family.
I understand the biographer’s stance, a very European fiction, that Americans are rightly bemused by Seasick’s fake persona, and hobo claims, and they’re right to be circumspect. Seasick’s lack of input roars out of the pages, and readers are left unsure of how or why this enigma exploded when he did, but it’s clear there was a plan, but perhaps not as cynical as some claim.
Although Ramblin’ Man is well researched, absent Seasick’s input, his non-music life is missing, so much unknown, so much unwritten, so much that can only come from Seasick himself. It’s these true stories that Steve has yet to tell the world.
There’s loads of Rock star biographies, many without artist input, some viciously critical, some obsequiously fawning. This Book, heavily based on existing interviews, offers a laudable objectivity. Sadly there’s not enough insight for me into the image Seasick presents, or even why representation as an authentic, hard life lived bluesman matters. After all Dylan never rode the rails, Cash never served time for a Reno murder, and Jagger was never a Street Fighting Man. We should judge Seasick by the songs he sings, he is after all a True Troubadour.