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Remembering Nikki Sudden

The English rocker, Nikki Sudden, died three years ago this Thursday. Unless you're one of a very small minority, that name likely doesn't mean anything to you. I won't be so presumptuous as to say it should. For a man who made his living as a musician--first in the late '70s with the noisy punk band the Swell Maps, then mostly under his own name--Sudden didn't write a ton of great songs. He was an adequate singer and a simple but effective guitarist. What he was, though, was someone who believed in the idea of a certain kind of rock 'n' roll. It's his devotion to that belief that deserves remembrance.

It's somewhat ironic that Sudden's initial foray into the music was made in the wake of punk rock. Punk--lean, direct, dirty--was a direct rebuke to the style that Sudden later adopted. What was that style? Think fluttering scarves and grandstanding rhythm guitar, velvet jackets and shag haircuts, songs about bad boys and the girls who leave them. On albums like Texas, Treasure Island, and, especially, the music he recorded with fellow romantic Dave Kusworth as the Jacobites (check out the compilation The Ragged School), Sudden came up with a sound and style that melded Stonesy swagger and introspective folk. Like I said before, the songs were generally good (though "Ambulance Station" is undeniably great), but when you hear them, you know that the singer has memorized every note on Exile On Main Street and spent some brokenhearted nights dabbing at his runny eyeliner with a lacy cuff.

I understand that dressing like a pirate and writing largely derivative, hopelessly romantic songs about your baby is a shtick, and one built on some kind of louche rock fantasy. After all, one of punk's main points was that you didn't have to dress like a dandy and sing songs about girls. But if every band was as austere as Wire or scabrous as the Sex Pistols, well, how boring would that be?

Sudden's fantasy didn't last that long--he passed away at age 49 after playing a gig at a tiny club in Manhattan. But I'm glad that he got to live it, however briefly. Because while he did, I could too--if only for the length of one of his songs.

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