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The Real Deal: R.I.P. Stevo, aka Steven Deal, aka Steven Ceslik

MusicConcertsMusic IndustryRadioBuzzcocks (music group)

Steven Deal got it. No, I don’t mean cancer, from which he died earlier this week. He got the whole rock & roll thing. On whatever level he chose to play it.

Steve was a rock star in the signed-to-a-label sense. He was a rock star in that he could write and snarl a catchy song like nobody else. He was a rock star in that he didn’t give a fuck what other people thought.

When I took over the “Music Notes” column at the New Haven Advocate in 1991, Steven Deal was still known by his more adolescent moniker Stevo. This was who he had been when he helmed Bleached Black, a reigning regional power pop band of the 1980s.

For me as a journalist, Stevo was a gift from heaven. He was a character. He was outspoken. He was a self-promoter. He was a star.

He was also, he would happily tell you himself, an asshole. I’ve seldom known anybody who was more comfortable with the fact that he couldn’t help rubbing other people the wrong way. He loved to turn discussions into arguments and spats into grudges.

This was an incredibly endearing quality. Because beneath his naturally antagonistic exterior, Steven Deal was an extremely likeable guy. He was passionate about his beliefs. He was supportive of others. He believed art was an explosion, not some quaint rarefied craft. He wanted to make glorious noise.

He challenged people to take him seriously, and was always making fun of himself. I remember him going through a phase where he committed to being “a nice guy for a change.” He’d talk about what a consciously nice person he now was. Then he’d offhandedly say something insensitive and offensive right to your face, then catch himself: “Oops, I forgot I was being a nice guy now.” His smirk was a joy to behold.

Steve’s mock-abrasiveness definitely turned some people off, but I couldn’t get enough of it. Steven Deal was a perfect foil for what I was trying to do at the Advocate as a music critic. He and I were both so emotional about music that people would accuse us of being over the top. But we weren’t. We would joke together about how people thought we had invented personas, when we were just being ourselves. 

His sense of self-promotion made for some fun adventures in print. One time, I noted in a “Music Notes” column that a certain local musician had played for two distinctly different bands, one of them a Steven Deal band. He responded with a Letters to the Editor screed maligning the musician’s other project with such vehemence that letters from others in the local music scene poured in for weeks. This was a put-up job, engineered to spur interest in a new project, but I loved that such a debate was being fought on the letters pages of the newspaper and not in its back-pages music column.

Whether or not you got close enough to him to like him, Stevo/Steven Deal was a major presence in the New Haven local music scene for decades.

I moved to New Haven late in that decade and had missed Bleached Black’s heyday, but there are many who still bear witness to their adventures: Bleached Black on road tours arranged so they could compete (with Soul Asylum, as the legend had it) for a major-label deal. Bleached Black actually GETTING a label deal, with Relativity, and appearing on MTV a couple of times. Stevo responding to a public criticism of his antagonistic songwriting and attitude by wearing a Nazi armband at his next concert.

Stevo was a big fish in the small pond that was the New Haven music scene, but a tapped-in rock fan who corresponded (in the old-fashioned way, writing letters and putting them in envelopes with stamps on them) with some of his heroes, befriending some of his Britpop heroes who actually lived in Great Britain.

The Stevo I personally knew was Steven Deal, frontman of the perfectly timed late-‘80s/early ‘90s act Chopper. Chopper was the real deal, a tough pop trio with taste and talent and a tyrannical stage presence. Their first EP, released on an Australian label, was a monument to the fierce post-punk pop sound of the time, aggressive without being raw. Steve appreciated melody and harmony and solid playing. He dressed up for shows and cared about which other bands he might be sharing a bill with. There was a level of professionalism and purpose that you just didn’t find in many other local bands in those wayward times.

The dedication paid off, since Chopper got signed to one of the most respected indie labels of the time, Big Deal, which specialized in power pop. Chopper’s most mature work—1993’s overstuffed album Slogans & Jingles and 1995’s break-up spectacle Madhouse on Castle Street—were released on Big Deal. I remember writing a New Haven Advocate appreciation of Madhouse on Castle Street (the cover of which featured a photo of the British apartment where the playwright Joe Orton was killed by his lover and collaborator Kenneth Halliwell) and calling it “Chopper’s Big Star 3”—an album which announced that the band who had made it was over.

Steven Deal never rested on laurels. He formed a new a band very quickly after Chopper ended, and they recorded for Big Deal as well. The Absolute Zeros (which, like a late version of Chopper, featured Nick Appleby on bass) seized on the Blur/Oasis craze of the time, adding an American edge. I might have enjoyed their live shows more than I did those of any of Steven Deal’s other bands.

Steve’s  rocking ways continued right up until the bitter end, bolstered by longlasting friendships and musical collaborations. He joined members of former Big Deal labelmates Hannah Cranna in the band Naomi Star for a few shows. Then he went solo—in an openly collaborative way, assisted by Dan Kohler and Lisa Hammer—with a remarkable 2009 CD called Radio Twelve. The album celebrated Deal’s ‘80s pop and punk influences while sounding urgent and contemporary. A lot of the subject matter was downbeat, but he always had a way of making unpleasant things sound bright.

Steven Deal was a central figure in the New Haven music scene. Not the kind who books a club or hosts a local-music radio show or plays out five nights a week. Not the kind whose band was necessarily well known outside of a certain smart-set. The kind who jumps out of the dark corners and shakes things up. That energy was sorely needed in the scene, and Steven Deal acolytes, in his honor, should never allow it to dissipate. If you ever feel complacent, want to compromise your values to save time, want to not put everything you’ve got into a song… imagine Steven Deal’s smirk shining down on you and damn it, do the right thing.

 

TOP TEN STEVEN DEAL SONGS

The titles really speak for themselves here, don’t they?

  1. Caitlin Cries (Chopper)
  2. Nice Girls Don’t Explode (Chopper)
  3. Wrist Slashing Romance (Bleached Black, Wrist Slashing Romance)
  4. Circuitry Spiders (Bleached Black, Bleached Black)
  5. Fine (Steven Deal, duet with Lisa Hammer, Radio Twelve)
  6. It’s So Obvious to Me (Chopper, Madhouse on Castle Street)
  7. Tiger Beat (Absolute Zeros, Dreams Gone Sour)
  8. Timothy Onions (Absolutely Zeros, Twisted)
  9. I Can’t Be Happy (Bleached Black, Bleached Black)

10. Is It Love Inside?!?! (Chopper, Slogans and Jingles)

 

TOP FIVE POP CLASSICS COVERED BY STEVEN DEAL BANDS

  1. How Does It Feel to Feel? (Originally by The Creation, covered by Chopper)
  2. Stuck in the Middle With You (Originally by Stealers Wheel, covered by Chopper on the Supersmile EP, years before Pulp Fiction got to it)
  3. That circusy Blur keyboard instrumental from Parklife (Absolute Zeros, live)
  4. Autonomy (Originally by The Buzzcocks, covered by both Chopper and Absolute Zeros)
  5. Pleasant Valley Sunday (Absolute Zeros, at live shows)
  6. Hush, Hush, Hush (from a Plimsouls tribute album released in Australia)
  7. Even Fallen in Love? (Buzzcocks again, but in a cool acoustic arrangement. Chopper)
  8. (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me (The Absolute Zeros, for the Big Deal label’s tribute album What the World Needs Now: Big Deal Recording Artists Perform the Songs of Burt Bacharach. Totally obliterates any thought of Pet Shop Boys from your mind.)
  9. You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It) (The Undertones. Absolute Zeros)
  10. 10.  The Same Mistakes (Originally by The Records. Chopper, Slogans and Jingles)

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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