He jumped a train to escape an abusive stepfather, and began a life journey that took him to Haight-Ashbury at the height of flower power, and to the north-west at the birth of grunge. But now Seasick Steve has fetched up in the strangest place of all – a
THE next time Seasick Steve plays in London, it will be in the Royal Albert Hall on the posh side of town. It may well be the first time a former train-jumping hobo from Oakland, California has played that palatial hall since Queen Victoria opened it in 1871. Truth be told, the Proms don’t usually feature that type of character in their ranks.
Seasick Steve says he’s looking forward to that big night. Then again, he says with a deep, satisfied chuckle, he’s looking forward to everything right now. The way he sees it, it’s all good. “I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and find out it’s all a dream.”
Over the last 18 months, ever since he appeared on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny on New Year’s Eve 2006 and stole the show, Seasick Steve must have pinched himself a fair few times.
This has been a heart-warming success story. With his Dog House Blues album spreading the word, he has pulled crowds to every gig. Last summer, he was the hit of the festival circuit, filling tents week in and week out. The growth in his Irish popularity can be charted in how he has moved from Dublin’s Crawdaddy to the Spiegeltent to Tripod in the space of nine months.
He’s got quite a yarn to tell, this grizzly, bearded bluesman in the faded dungarees who looks like he’s just stepped out of an ad for a backwoods whiskey bonder. As he talks about his capers and adventures, you wonder how long it will take for some Hollywood scriptwriter to cop the potential in Steve Wold’s life story.
The music bug bit Wold on the ass early on. “My daddy would play the boogie piano and I’d lap it up.” Years later, long after his father died, Wold discovered a host of old 78s featuring his dad playing. “You could tell he was good; he was all over that shit.”
Wold knew he didn’t have the fingers for the piano so he learned the guitar instead from an old-timer called KC Douglas. “He taught me how to play a few chords, which turned out to be blues chords that they used to play down in Mississippi where he originally hailed from.”
Domestic discord at home (“my parents split when I was a young one and I had a step-daddy who started slapping us around and that did it for me”) forced him to hightail it from home and hit the train tracks.
“I lived rough and I rode the trains. I fol- lowed the work around the country; I was a migrant farmhand.” Looking back now on those wild days, when he went from picking apples to tomatoes depending on the season, Wold acknowledges that he’s edited out a lot of the darker stuff which used to occur when he was roaming from town to town.
“Some of it wasn’t nice. Sometimes it seemed like my whole life was a whole lot hairier back in those days. But when it wasn’t hairy, it was kind of boring. At the time, it seemed normal. When you’re young, you put up with that Skid Row kind of life. You don’t think about it, you just do it.”
All the time, he was still playing music and collecting tall tales for short songs. He shored up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury for a spell in the late 1960s. He describes those flower power days as “hobo heaven”, where he got his bed and boarding for free, hung out with various bands and was taken under the wing of such country-blues legends as Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
During the 1970s, Wold continued to roam. He spent time in Paris, busking to get by. He began to put down roots in Tennessee, where he married a Norwegian woman and began to raise a brood of kids.
Along theway, he’d started to work in recording studios. “I liked the technical stuff so I decided I wanted to know how to run a studio. Plenty of engineers had tried to tell me it was all a big mystery, but I figured it couldn’t be that much of a mystery if they could do it, so I learned the shit.”
A couple of years later, his wife tired of Tennessee and hankered for a move. “She wanted to move somewhere that looked like her native Norway. She was tired of the scenery in Tennessee so I tried to think of a place in America that had waterways and evergreens. We got a map of Washington [State] and blindly stuck our finger on the map and hit Olympia.”
Wold was apprehensive. “I wouldn’t have picked Olympia because I remember the city as a real redneck hangout in the Sixties. It was nasty, man. It was a logging town and it was rough. When you’d be trying to hitchhike through Washington, if you were looking to go from Seattle to Portland, you didn’t take a ride that was stopping in Olympia. But we stuck with the choice.”
What Wold didn’t realise as he and his family packed up the studio and trucked to the north-west was that Olympia had changed. It was now a liberal bolthole with a very healthy band scene – and grunge was just around the corner. “The first week I was there, I saw Nirvana playing in a bar.” The studio did mighty business. Wold recorded 80 or 90 albums and ended up playing guitar with Modest Mouse for a spell.
But what Wold really wanted to do was play his own music, that country-blues which had stayed with him down through the years. “I played every kind of music you can imagine to get by. Man, I used to regularly play The Girl from Ipanema in the bar of a Holiday Inn while I was raising five kids. But when I was sitting by myself, I played the music I grew up with, the music I still play now. I always played the same stuff.”
But he wasn’t finding much love for what he was playing. “Every so often, bands in the studio would ask me what kind of music I played and I’d say ‘oh, I play country-blues’ and their eyes would glaze over. They were so uninterested that it never even occurred to me to play my tunes for them. The last time anyone was interested in what I had to play was the late Sixties or early Seventies.”
When George Walker Bush came to power, Mr and Mrs Seasick looked at each other and decided it was time to move again. “I don’t like the way society in America has become less and less caring over the years. When people are in a hurry, they don’t even see the people who have fallen through the cracks any more.” They gave Norway a shot and never looked back. Seasick recorded an album, Cheap, and started to play more and more gigs and annoy the purists.
There’s an almighty snort from Wold at
this stage. “I call them the blues police,” he says dismissively. “There have been a few times, especially when I started playing first of all over in Scandinavia, that people would get up and walk out of the shows.
“I am so uninterested in their opinions and what they think. I think the purism is what killed the whole thing. I don’t talk to blues magazines, I don’t play blues festivals. I prefer not to have anything to do with them.”
But these days, Seasick doesn’t have to worry about the blues police any more. He’s moved on, far from their petty squabbles and point-scoring. The other night, for instance, he played a sell-out show in Leeds. A great show, a great response. They raised the rafters, he says. Afterwards, he got in his camper van, drove down south for a couple of hours and parked up outside a studio in the middle of the country. He’s about to begin recording a new album and that makes him the happiest man alive.
Seasick Steve admits he hasn’t been scratching his head too much trying to work out what the hell has happened in the last year or so. He’s been too busy enjoying the buzz.
“I don’t think about why it didn’t happen before now, to be honest. I’m just so grateful that something is happening now. I think people got a little fed up with everything else and things being so fancy that they just like me just sitting there with my battered old guitar and doing my hollering.
“All the shows I’m doing are sold out and people are excited and screaming at me. People were a little bit hungry for something different and, well, then I came along.”