Kevin Stevenson explains what happened
BY AMY FINCH
For the past five years, 31-year-old singer/guitarist Kevin Stevenson has been one of the more visible players on the local music scene. Until last year, he was the frontman of the snotty-but-smooth popular punk band the Shods, who had a good showing in the 1999 Rumble and won as the Phoenix/FNX Best Music Poll’s Local Live Act in 1999 and 2000. He also toured as guitarist Nate Albert’s replacement in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones a couple of years ago. And back when Rivers Cuomo lived in town, the Weezer frontman drafted Stevenson to be his second-guitarist for a series of local solo shows.
Stevenson also commands a lot of respect on the local scene, where he’s known as “Stevie” because he’s such an approachable and energetic character. The Tewksbury native started his first band, the metalheaded Formicide, when he was 17, and he’s always been a devoted music fan. He’ll engage anyone in long discussions about the Dead Boys, the Undertones, Frank Sinatra, George Jones, Public Enemy, and scores of other musical topics. Head Bosstone Dicky Barrett calls him “The funniest man I’ve ever met in my life.”
So when his typically antic behavior became even more pronounced over the past couple years — when he’d fall over on stage, forget lyrics, or get into his sixth car wreck in three months — most of his friends figured it was just Kevin being Kevin. Then Stevenson revealed that he’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis almost two years ago. Now two of his friends, Eric Pestana and WFNX’s Angie C., are putting together a two-CD benefit compilation that’s due later this year.
It all started almost six years ago when Stevenson woke up with double vision and one side of his face curled into a snarl. The Shods were scheduled to shoot the photo for the cover of their second album, Bamboozled (Poorhouse), so Kevin made funny faces and wore sunglasses in front of the camera. Because he also had a little red mark on his cheek, he suspected a spider bite. That theory faded over the next four years, as his vision and balance periodically deteriorated; doctors labeled it an eye or inner-ear problem. Finally, in the summer of 1999, he got an MRI and a correct diagnosis.
He told his mother. After a while, he told his friends Jimmy Driscoll, whom he now plays with in the punk band the Tension Men, and Adam Shaw. Other than that, he kept the news to himself. But at the beginning of this year, he had his worst episode yet: he was on a sofa at his home in Tewksbury for almost a month, unable to walk from the living room to the kitchen. That marked a turning point; concealing the reality had become its own brand of stress. Now Stevenson has begun to talk publicly about his illness.
He admits that this is what broke up the Shods last September, after seven years and four albums. The band had reached the point where they had gigs booked up to four nights a week. “We were busting our ass,” Kevin recalls. And that was more than his condition permitted. “It was getting so hectic. I have to take it a little more slowly and pace myself now.”
Multiple sclerosis may have slowed Stevenson down, but it hasn’t halted his musical career. For starters, the second Shods’ album, Stop Crying, which had been held up for five years by legal hassles stemming from a soured MCA/Fort Apache Studios deal, is finally going to come out this summer on Acme Records. He just sold two Shods songs to a VH1 movie starring Olivia Newton-John. And whereas former Shods guitarist Dave Aaronoff has struck out on his own with Dave Aaronoff and the Details, Stevenson is back playing with former bandmates drummer Scott Pittman and bassist Dave Livingston in a soul/punk band that they’ve yet to name. “It’s a little punk rock with the sound of Wilson Pickett or someone like that. We played with these horn players once in the Shods. We were rehearsing for a studio session, and that’s all that kept going through my head — this sounds so punk rock. I knew that when the Shods broke up, I would start a band that sounded like that.”
Some MS sufferers experience mild effects, like fatigue or, as the MS Foundation’s Web site puts it, “severe attacks followed by periods of recovery”; some end up wheelchair-bound. Stevenson’s symptoms have kept him from holding down a steady job. Although he hopes to start working one day a week at a Tewksbury record store, the vision and balance problems that come with every flare-up forced him to quit his last job as a driver for a company that distributes CDs and videos. He also says that he can’t play guitar as well as he used to, and that it can be difficult to sing fast, complex strands of words. Mostly, he plays down his symptoms — “It’s not as bad as people think: so I lie on the couch for three weeks, who cares?” — but he’s seeing a specialist at Brigham and Women’s.
The benefit CD that’s in the works will aim to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation as well as help pay medical bills not covered by Stevenson’s insurance. “I don’t want anyone to think that I’m looking for sympathy,” he explains. “I’m finally comfortable and open enough about this problem to talk to some of my friends about it. But that doesn’t mean I’ve crossed that other barrier where I would be willing to put out a compilation record to help myself. That just doesn’t sound right to me. I told them if they didn’t contribute most of that money to the MS Foundation, then I wouldn’t let them do it at all.
“I just don’t want anyone to be worried and concerned about me. I am happier now than I’ve been in the past 10 years. I feel great. Now that I know what a flare-up feels like when it’s coming on, I’m not afraid of those things anymore. A few years ago, I was petrified. But now that I know what to expect, I’m all right with it.”
Adam Shaw, who drums in Lost City Angels, concurs. “Nothing has changed. He’s still loud Stevie. Obnoxious Stevie. Caring Stevie. He’s one of the most accessible people. Stevie wants to speak with everyone.” Jimmy Driscoll recalls that “when Joe Strummer was in town, he was just mobbed with people around him, but he focused on talking to Kevin because Kevin was bringing up these records and Strummer was just like, ‘Oh, man, I thought no one knew about that record.’ ”
Strummer, in fact, is on the “wish list” of big-name acts Angie C. hopes to include on the compilation, which will probably come out on the Co-Op Pop label. She and graphic designer Eric Pestana originally planned on a single CD, but too many bands want to help out. “The first CD is going to be what I call the ‘moneymaker,’ as many national acts that we can get,” Angie says. “Then we’ll have a second CD with more of the local bands. We’re going to do some shows this summer to raise money for the manufacturing costs. People talk about Kevin like he’s not going to be around, and it’s like, no he’s going to be around. He’s definitely going to annoy us for the rest of our lives!”
Pestana is chuckling as well. “He’s a little bastard. He’s really annoying, loud, and obnoxious. And yet there’s something about him that makes you want to help the guy out. There’s not an evil bone in the kid’s body. He’s really great fun to hang around with. He’s always a great laugh.”
All this isn’t surprising: it makes sense that even in the face of illness, Stevenson has always had a talent for bringing people from the music scene together. Scott Pittman recalls the effect he had on the Bosstones when he was touring with them several years ago, at a point when the Bosstones had been together long enough to have developed intra-band cliques and friction. “He’d like to mix and match and ask at random two people to come and hang out with him. He likes everyone to have a good time. Genuinely. I think a lot of people like to have a good time, but very few people like to make sure everyone else is having a good time.”
Indeed, Bosstones bassist Joe Gittleman recalls that Kevin “reminded me of how much fun touring can be. Maybe it was at a time when it wasn’t so much fun. Kevin kind of reminded me, ‘Oh yeah, this is a fucking blast.’ ” Dicky Barrett adds, “My sister was diagnosed with MS about two or three years ago. The disease itself, or the cause to find a cure, is something very close to me and my family.” However, Dicky goes on in his deadpan croak, “I have no plans to treat him any differently. I will give him the same ration of shit I’ve always given him. I will give him a minimal amount of respect, just as I did the very first day I met him. And I want him to know that.”
Kevin, we’re sure, wouldn’t want it any other way.
Bands and artists interested in contributing to the Kevin Stevenson benefit CD should send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Issue Date: May 24 - 31, 2001