Steve Ludwin is now best known as the dude that gets high on snake venom, but he was also once a frontman for numerous rock bands including Little Hell and Carrie. It turns out he was nearly in My Bloody Valentine and Velvet Revolver too…
One day in the 80s, I was unlucky enough to walk down a dirt road which had a handful of severed human fingers nailed to the palm trees. This was one of the many horrifying sights I witnessed while living as an American exchange student in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala during the Contra/Sandinista era of 1984-86. For me, the horror was enough to be life-changing. On returning to the States, I became so embarrassed by my country's murderous war games against Latinos that I decided to quit school, and impulsively set off for the UK to seek a life in music.
I arrived in stormy London in late 1987, where I bought my first copy of the music magazine Melody Maker and found an interesting advert in the “vocalists wanted” section. I called the number: they were called My Bloody Valentine and they had been in the UK indie singles charts with a song called "Sunny Sundae Smile". All I knew was; I had never heard of them.
Even rocking up to their rehearsal address was a fucked up trip in itself. Right near Euston tube station I had to enter a shop called Transformation, which sold specialist products to transvestites and transsexuals. It felt like a good omen, because I had been a cross-dresser most of my early life - whacking off in my sister's panties to Brooke Shields’ anti-smoking commercials. But even that wasn’t as warped as a My Bloody Valentine audition. Pushing past the silicon breast forms and latex vaginas, I was directed downstairs to a grotty rehearsal room. As I pushed open the door - sporting my shitty Duran Duran mullet complete with a backwards baseball cap - I quickly realised I was in the wrong part of the zoo. Stood before me in skinny black jeans, black shirts, and even blacker 60s bowl cuts were Kevin Shields, Debbie Googe and Colm Ó Cíosóig; aka My Bloody Valentine. I was a penguin in the fucking lion’s den.
I remember being asked by the band what albums I was listening to at the time: “Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill and The Cult's Electric.” I could see Kevin's eyeballs roll white into the rear of his condescending skull. I was thrown a mic and the band started tearing into a raw and unheard distorted sound that shattered my ears. To this day, all I remember is screaming apocalyptic faux-preaches about some nuclear war on the horizon, in the style of Ian Astbury or MCA.
One week later I received a pretty polite call from the band's bassist Debbie saying “Thanks but no thanks.” It wasn't until 1991's influential Loveless album came out that I realised if I’d been given the vocalist job instead of their eventual singer, Bilinda Butcher, I would have completely destroyed My Bloody Valentine with one inflection of my Connecticut rap drawl. I don’t think I suit swirling guitars.
In the mid 90s, and by strange coincidence, I actually ended up living next to Kevin Shields and Bilinda in Islington. At this point, after hearing MBV’s records, I regarded Kevin as a bit of a god. He was kind but shy as he showed me the herd of dumb chinchillas they had bred. I told him I had pet rattlesnakes next door; he told me someday they would escape and feed on his mammals. Then he asked me if my house was haunted, because they could hear blood-curdling screams roaring through the walls and it was really freaking them out. I jokingly blamed it on all the murderous Victorian spirits I had been contacting using my Parker Brothers’ ouija board, and he just stared at me, deadpan. Years later, I met Kevin and Debbie backstage at an Ash gig. They told me I should go to Amsterdam and try this new drug he was ecstatic about called salvia divinorum. “It’ll blow your mind” he said. I did. And it did.
I’ve done plenty of auditions in my time, but another bizarre one came my way in 2003. One night, in my Highbury flat, I got a call: "Hi. Is this Steve Ludwin? This is Slash and I'm here with Duff McKagan". At first I wanted to say fuck off to whatever friend of mine was yanking my chain, but he carried on saying they had a copy of the album Demonic Advisory Centre by my band Little Hell, and he was into my voice and songwriting style. He asked if I would be interested in trying out for a new band they were putting together (the as yet unnamed Velvet Revolver). Slash was, and is, a rock god, plus he likes snakes, so I said yes. He mailed over four gnarly punk rock tunes for me to work on, and I sent them back crammed with venomous, misanthropic lyrics and Satanic melodies.
A few weeks later, when my band was halfway through a UK tour supporting Amen, I took another call from Slash asking me to fly out to LA for a week to rehearse with his full band. He warned me there might be cameras in the room because they were making a documentary for VH1 about their new group. Alarm bells went off in my head - I thought it sounded like some sort of reality TV shitstorm - but I boarded the plane anyway. After a 12 hour flight I caught a taxi directly to their very large rehearsal space and met Slash, Duff, Matt Sorum and Dave Kushner. The whole VH1 film crew were there like vultures, and the cameras were rolling the whole time. It was all excruciatingly awkward.
I had brought Slash a navy blue Iraqi national team soccer jersey as a gift from London. It was two weeks before the second Gulf War and I thought he’d find it funny. Instead, he just held it up to the cameras and said, with a great pause, “um… thanks.” The room went silent. Then the drummer started talking about how the USA was going to kick Iraqi asses and fuck the French for not helping. What the fuck have I let myself in for - I said to myself.
Eventually, Slash and I got talking about our great love of snakes and reptiles, and he seemed interested in my venom injecting experiments (yeah, I inject venom) and joked about maybe trying some too. The ice was broken, and when he started thrashing out a new riff I hadn't heard before, I decided to grab the mic and warm up my vocals. I asked the film crew not to record and they assured me they were just setting up. In typical reality TV fashion, the stupid twats ended up using that very footage in VH1's "The Rise of Velvet Revolver". Welcome to Los Angeles!
The next four days were spent rehearsing the tunes I wrote with them and, no matter what came to pass, I had a blast. One song, called "Lucifer's Baby", was so fucking loud and powerful I would jerk and convulse all the way across the stage; once accidentally stomping on Slash's overdrive guitar pedal and switching him off mid-solo. He looked at me calmly and requested I never ever do that again.
Three weeks later, I was told I hadn’t made the cut. What surprised me more was that they had chosen a singer who was infamous for addictions, fake grunge and showing up late to shows. Did he learn nothing the first time around? My brief days fronting these iconic west coasters was electric; getting a mention in his 2007 autobiography at least raised my rock worth.
Sometimes, I have a dream in which I’ve convinced both My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and Slash to work with me on the world's most fucked up sound. Kevin doing his magical swirly guitar production all over Slash's freight train riffs. Shoegazing hair metal or something. Then I remember I failed both auditions and I laugh.
Follow Steve Ludwin on Twitter: @SteveLudwin