There are so many stories about Seymour Stein that it would take a book to recount them all. As the founder of Sire Records, Seymour both signed legendary acts (Ramones, Talking Heads, Madonna) and licensed performers for distribution in North America (Pretenders, Smiths, English Beat, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Echo & the Bunnymen, etc.) If you’re interested, you should pick up his autobiography.
He was a fixture at most music industry conferences for decades. I’d met Seymour a number of times at Canadian Music Week. I did a public one-on-one interview with him at the Music Matters conference in Singapore. (He was impressed that I had “Hocus Pocus” by Focus on my phone. Focus’ 1971 album Moving Waves was the first act he signed to Sire.) But the best encounter was at an event in Beijing.
Back when BlackBerry had money, they sponsored a summit in China at some retreat near Badaling. Seymour was there, of course. After things wrapped up, all the attendees bussed back to Beijing for an overnight stay before everyone flew home.
After I checked into my hotel, I headed out looking for dinner. I ran into Seymour in the street and told him I needed to eat. He turned around and pointed to a restaurant with his cane. “There. That place. Good kung pao chicken. Very good kung pao,” he said in his clipped voice.
I then asked him what he planned for the evening. “I’m going up to a club. It’s called D-22. People tell me it’s China’s CBGB. A bunch of young bands are going to play. China will be the next big market for music. I want to see what’s going on.”
He then turned in the direction of the hotel. “You should come,” he said over his shoulder. “Lobby. Nine o’clock.”
Seymour Stein was inviting me to go scouting for new bands with him? The man who introduced the world to the Ramones? Seriously?
At 9:00 sharp, Seymour, me, and his right-hand man (whose name escapes me) piled into a Beijing taxi. Seymour handed the driver a slip of paper with the address written in Chinese and we were off.
D-22 was in some kind of special arts district in Wudaokou about 40 minutes away in the northern part of the city. It was indeed literally modeled after CBGB (with better bathrooms) and had been open since 2006. When we arrived, someone found a barstool for Seymour near the stage and a parade of bands started to play. Some were really good. A few were pretty okay. Others were atrocious. But given that we were at a balls-to-the-wall punk show in Communist China, the fact that any of them existed at all was a miracle.
Seymour sat on that stool for several hours, eyes closed, and occasionally nodding. Was he listening intently? Or was he asleep? It was hard to tell.
After the last band–it was well after midnight by this time–the three of us piled into another cab for the long ride back to the hotel–but not before I bought a D-22 t-shirt, of course.
“China,” he kept repeating. “Next big thing. You watch. Untapped market. Going to be big. Very big.” We parted at the hotel. “That was good. We’ll see what happens,” he said.
I encountered Seymour several more times in the years that followed. His appearances at music conferences dwindled as bad health made it tough for him to travel. D-22 closed in 2012 and I have no idea if Seymour pursued any Chinese act that might have caught his ear. He died this past weekend (April 1) at the age of 80 after fighting cancer.
The man sure had a million stories. I’m glad I have at least one about him.