The list of bands and artists signed by Seymour Stein, who died yesterday aged 80 can be found alongside his obituaries across the internet. He managed, generally speaking, to maintain a reputation for taste and forward thinking combined with accurate predictions of success. The ultimate A&R, in some ways.
Time has a way of becoming an accordion, squeezing and expanding, sometimes harmonious, sometimes in discord. As you get older the effect can be disorientating. In 1987, when I met Seymour Stein, I associated him with old school rock bands, at a time when music, for me, was entering into a new and exciting future, powered by drum machines and samplers. The difference a decade makes when you’re in your twenties, compared to several decades when you’re old (as I am now) is hard to quantify. But, back then, the fact that he had been responsible for the seminal New Wave compilation and had signed a number of artists I had admired was no longer important.
Seymour was courting our group and made an offer to sign us to Sire Records. Now, that sounds exciting. Then, it felt retrograde. It didn’t help that the advance money was lower than some other offers at the time. It also didn’t help that our manager told me he thought that Seymour’s interest was more in me, romantically, than the band, musically. I’m not even sure he was gay but it added to the whole mood of old school impresario. Which, again, now seems very cool. I wish we had signed to Sire instead of Virgin. Who knows what would have happened? But at least our predecessors would have been The Ramones and Talking Heads, not Mike Oldfield and Steve Hillage.
We met after a show in one of London’s live music dives, as they were known then, ‘toilets’. He was charming and polite and I didn’t trust him. We didn’t talk for long, I don’t remember what we talked about but I remember being surprised he made the offer later. You didn’t meet many Americans in London venues in those days, especially those who were ‘old’. Thinking about it now he would have been in his forties. ‘Old’.
Eventually, three years later, I went to CBGBs in New York which he somewhat haunted in its heyday which was long passed and it was very similar to the crappy pubs and bars of London. It strikes me now that just his regular presence in these places, quietly checking out the bands, having his ears abused and being polite to drunk and drugged musicians as arrogant as me marked him out as exceptional. A music lover, perhaps, or just someone who understood that rocknroll, pop, whatever you want to call it, is birthed in the gloom of smokey, sticky joints and it is there that you experience the truth of it.