Rock 'N' Roll Monster

Arthur Stevenson with his daughter, Lara.(Phil Marino for The New York Times)


The New York Times 07/30/00

LIKE most superheroes, Arthur Stevenson is a gentle, thoughtful working-class guy during the day and a stylish scamp at night. But when he slips out of his work outfit into his rock 'n' roll regalia, his blue-collar ethics are not left far behind.

 He is the archetypal rebel, full of contradictions, straddling many worlds. He is as easily at home swigging beers with bikers as he is debating social philosophy with urban intellectuals.

The hard-working house painter lives on the top floor of a modest Cape here with his wife, Traci, a former makeup artist, and 17-month-old daughter, Lara. He works 60 hours, sometimes seven days a week, in his one-man business.

But he is also an electrifying rock singer who has just completed a new record with his band, Seamonster. He is as interesting a character as any. An anomaly, he has been referred to as the prototypical suburban rocker by critics and sociologists. He attracts a diverse group of fans, including Lower East Side motorcycle gangs, wealthy Gold Coast socialites and the punk idol Iggy Pop.

In person, he is kind-hearted and extremely polite. On stage, he is a wild man. He is the stuff of which rock dreams are made. Tanya Indiana, a journalist, wrote an essay on "Why Smart Gals Love Seamonster," a discourse on Mr. Stevenson's relation to class, music and art. Dr. Donna Gaines, a sociologist, has written that he is "an old-school visionary" and a "prince among men."

Clues to the complex singer-writer-philosopher can be seen in his childhood. He grew up in a hardscrabble apartment complex in Freeport, where people had names like Tall Pete and Big Daddy.

"Nobody skipped a beat there," he said of his rowdy existence. "It was populated by all sorts of colorful people, and wild bars. I'm a byproduct of that lifestyle."

A perpetual outsider, Mr. Stevenson said, "I was never comfortable in my own skin   &emdash;   too many thoughts per square inch."

He hated school. His real education, he said, was through his brother, John, who taught him about motorcycles and let him ride in his 1961 Chevy. The death of his sister, Mary Ellen, in a car accident on Easter Sunday in 1970 was also a life lesson. "It just showed me how fragile life was," he said.

He began to rebel. But he also became interested in art (the postModernist Robert Rauschenberg was a favorite) and became an avid reader, a habit he has continued. "Everything changed when I started reading Capote, Faulkner," he said.

"School was a great social experiment that I had no interest in," Mr. Stevenson said. "I just wanted to get out early and go to work. It was like doing time."

The self-described "greaser" entered an accelerated program and graduated from high school a year early, with grades in the 90's.

Mr. Stevenson said he experimented with drugs and alcohol briefly in his early teens, but stopped at 15. "I got in a beef, got stomped, and took stock of myself," he said. He estimates that 60 percent of his childhood friends have died from drugs or suicide.

His work ethic also made a difference. While his contemporaries escaped through drugs and drink, he sought work. "Working was great," he said. "It gave me money, freedom, skills."

He still takes pride in his work, whether it's fixing a friend's broken washing machine, painting a biker friend's apartment or working on a breathtaking faux finish in a Lloyd Neck estate. "People who work for a living are virtuous and upright," he said.

But music is his driving force. "It is instant gratification," he said. "I can get up on stage and explode with the music."

In 1978, he met Fred and Barney Wagner (the brothers who inspired Joseph Barberra's "The Flintstones"), two older boys who encouraged him to write music, which eventually reflected diverse influences like the Velvet Underground, Hank Williams, pre-war blues and jazz, and Debussy.

They formed Flak, "a tribal rock 'n' roll band" influenced by English punk groups like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, and began playing top clubs like CBGB's and Danceteria.

An effulgent conversationalist, in a 10-minute span he expounded on Russian and German composers like Rimsky-Korsakov and Wagner ("I like the big movements, the crazy stories"), politics ("The best form of government is a meritocracy"), custom choppers, the ballet, the art of tattoos, the Napoleonic era and the benefits of home schooling. His big beef: "I'm sick of people complaining about differences. Everyone's an individual.

"I try to hold myself to the standards of what I really admire. I have disdain for the artistic temperament. It's about work, respect, and manners. That's all that matters."

Dr. Gaines, who wrote "Teenage Wasteland," a book about suburban alienation, says Mr. Stevenson is "the epitome of an organic intellectual.

"He draws from local culture and integrates it into a creative context," Dr. Gaines said.

In 1985, Seamonster was born. A band made up of hard-working hard-living guys   &emdash;   what rock 'n' roll musicians should be, Dr. Gaines said. Fred Wagner, guitarist, is a cabdriver. (Barney died of drug-related AIDS in 1990.) Mike Rock, guitarist, works in retail. Adolph Marcellino, bassist, works for New York City's sewage department. Phil Fellner, drummer, works in airline operations and is called "the suit."

"We go to work; it's a job," said Mr. Stevenson, who no one would ever suspect of strutting a stage singing songs about motorcycles and wanton women if they saw him cradling his daughter. With her, he is a soul at rest, as opposed to the restless soul he usually is.

When Mr. Stevenson takes to the stage, he is continuing a redemptory history of rock, blues, soul and folk artists who search for an outlet for frustrated lives and find relief in their music. Seamonster's determination to be noticed is no different than Chuck Berry's or Little Richard's struggle to be accepted by white fans. For those on society's fringe, music is uplifting.

The band's current priority is to find a manager and label for the new album, "Psychotronic Roller Boogie Disco Queen   &emdash;   Sock It to Me." The recording, a broad collection of rockabilly surf-punk, 60's-style ballads and straight-ahead rock, is classic. "I'm a purveyor of satire and burlesque," Mr. Stevenson said.

Seamonster, a commercial cross between the Stooges and the Dolls, succeeds through mostly satirical songs covering alienation, motorcycles, the libido and mortality (the poignant ballad "Clark Was a Fireman").

"It's hard," said Mr. Stevenson, who often travels between Levittown and Maine to tend to his ill mother. "I've got a lot of roles to play."

One way to read Mr. Stevenson, perhaps, is through his tattoos: Frankenstein scars on his wrists, references from Shakespeare and "Rocky and Bullwinkle," a memorial to Barney Wagner, 120-year-old Mexican flash and a little girl inscribed with "Lara." He is many parts: scarred child, pop-culture receptacle, tortured artist, loving family man, lay anthropologist.

Through Mr. Stevenson, a Long Island dead-end kid, comes Seamonster, the ultimate rock 'n' roll band.