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Ex-rocker striking a different chord to find greater meaning in his life

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: March 23, 2013

  • The Autonomes today Stephen Harris, Andrew Griffiths, Neil McDonald and Richard Strawbridge, and how they looked in 1980. Below: Stephen performing at an Olchfa school drama hall concert in February 1980.

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A FORMER heavy rock guitarist who now hits the books at medical school, hoping to specialise in gynaecological oncology?

You can't get more Spinal Tap than that, can you? And Stephen Harris is living it.

The former Olchfa schoolboy is back on home turf, catching up with old friends, visiting mum and dad and cutting a single to help Swansea youngsters.

A one-time sneering rocker with Zodiac Mindwarp, The Cult, The Four Horsemen, and a guest player with Guns'N'Roses, Stephen bowed out of the music business aged 28, or as he more modestly puts it: "I didn't have enough of the music industry, the music industry had enough of me, let's be honest."

These days he is happily carving out a new life for himself, studying at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York.

Here in Swansea on a leave of absence at the moment, the 46-year-old is setting up a data gathering website called cervicalscreen.org, related to women's health care in post-civil war Liberia.

That is some career shift, but Stephen is sanguine about leaving the glitter and the heartbreak of rock'n'roll behind.

I get the feeling, though, that being back in the town where he bought his first bass guitar, made pocket money in its record shops, and played in his first band of Olchfa schoolmates, gives him a big kick.

"I come back to Swansea every year to see mum and dad, who live in Sketty Park, and my sister in Briton Ferry.

"And I'm getting together with the guys from the first band I was in, when we were all at Olchfa school. I was 13 years old and they were 15 and we were a punk band called the Autonomes."

Andrew Griffiths, now a carpet fitter and co-founder of Swansea performance arts group Swansea Mad, Swansea sound man Dick Strawbridge and Neil McDonald, who now turns out Revels and Maltesers for Mars at their Slough HQ, will throw some shapes with Stephen at The Garage club in the Uplands on April 6.

And it will be good to get back to those trusty 3 chords again, he says.

"You know how it was, in the days of punk you only had to know 3 notes, and that was all I did know.

"And I always say I only progressed to 8 notes by the time I got to Madison Square Garden with The Cult.

"It will be great to get back with the Autonomes again. We are all still alive, we all still have our hair, so why not?"

His improbable career began here, with a £30 guitar bought from Woolworths, "which was barely more than firewood," he says.

Struggling with dyslexia at a time when few people knew what it was or what to do with it, he left school with 3 O Levels and with scant expectations for his future.

Music seemed to be his best option, and his was a rapid rise.

"In 1985 I was sitting with my friends watching Live Aid on the TV in Portmead, and then a few months later I was in London, wide- eyed and naive, and in Suggs's house hanging out, when I had only been watching him on Top Of The Pops a little earlier."

He had been summoned to London at the age of 18 by Food records founder David Balfe to slip into Zodiac Mindwarp as their bass player. In the early days it was all very ad hoc, with David, who would later sign Jesus Jones and Blur, using his car as an office, but it was magic, says Stephen,

"It really was an NME reader's fairytale story, and I was such a wide-eyed kid.

''I had just turned 18, I had a thick Swansea accent and I wasn't at all integrated into the London scene.

"So the first 6 months were like those early days of a romance — when you are full of wide- eyed wonder and you don't see any of the problems com- ing." He allud- es to rough patches, and he saw a later, feted outfit of his, The Four Horsemen, disintegrate when two of its members were lost to drugs and a motorbike smash. But he seems to have survived the roller-coaster ride of life in bands with remarkably few dents.

And he has tales of life in the ranks of Guns'N'Roses and The Cult, not to mention of a spell, aged 23, of living in cowboy singer Gene Autry's home, to tell the folks back home.

"It was actually a horrible house," he remembers.

"It had wagon wheels pressed into the walls," he laughs.

"But by the time it all came to an end for me I admit I was lost. I was 28 and I just didn't know what the hell I was going to do next.

"Andy Warhol said in the future everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame.

''Well I had 45 minutes and I gave it a good shot and I had a lot of fun.

"But at the end I just didn't want to be one of those guys with the wig, in middle age, playing pubs and doing the same old thing."

Stephen turned to the suitably Zen activity of rock climbing, which led to an epiphany.

"I worked for a while at Goldman Sachs on Wall Street. They had built a huge gym under their office in the basement, with a climbing wall and they took me on to staff it." That was in 1999 and 2 years later, when terrorist planes struck the Twin Towers and the city was forever scarred, he had his Road to Damascus moment.

"I was supposed to be in work that day, but luckily I wasn't there. Because of that, after 9/11 I spent a lot of time at Ground Zero helping out where I could."

That event no doubt led to many moments of re-evaluation for New Yorkers, and for Steve it made him question what he really wanted to do with his life. Community college, further study and medical school followed, and while it is a tough road, he says it is a fulfilling one.

"I can't tell you how hard medical school is. But do I feel like I am doing something meaningful with this Liberia project? I feel the experts — the people around me are doing something very meaningful and I am helping them to do it. And in time maybe I will be able to do things that are meaningful."

The Lurkers and 999 join the Autonomes on the bill in April with The Autonomes 7ins single, iEnchanted, in support of Swansea MAD (a charity offering arts facilities for youngsters), available as a free giveaway at the show.

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