Ex-Guns N' Roses bassist Stephen Harris's Swansea reunion

By Neil Prior
BBC News

image captionThe Autonomes today, including Stephen Harris (far left) and Andrew Griffiths (second left)

Stephen Harris claims flunking his O-levels and narrowly missing being caught up in the 9/11 attacks in New York makes him the world's luckiest man.

If the dyslexia suffered by the Swansea bass player once known as Kid Chaos had been diagnosed, he would never have dropped out of school and gone on to play bass with The Cult and Guns N' Roses.

But there are more consequences in his life.

If he had not been confronted with the World Trade Center atrocity in 2001, he says he would not had the motivation to go back to school and study for his new profession as a doctor.

Today, however, he is back staying with his parents while he studies for a research project into cervical cancer amongst West African women.

And the result of that is that while home, he decided to look up the other members of his teenage punk band, The Autonomes.

Drummer Andrew Griffiths told him about the charity he set up called Swansea Music and Drama (Swansea MAD), which provides music facilities for disadvantaged youngsters in the city.

As a result, The Autonomes reformed for a one-off charity gig this weekend.

Mr Harris said: "I've been lucky enough to have gone all round the world, with The Cult on the Electric tour, and Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction tour, but there's nothing like the friends you make in your first ever band.

image captionStephen Harris played with Axl Rose in hard-living rock legends Guns N' Roses

"We haven't played together since we left school in 1980, and I was so excited to find out that the other members are still around and that they've still got copies of the songs we wrote."

"And if we can raise money and attention for Andrew's charity while we're at it, then great."

It is all a long way from "looking forward to signing on the dole," when he dropped out of school in February 1980. However, just a month before, the then government had changed the law to make under-18s ineligible for unemployment benefit.

So instead he enrolled in a Youth Enterprise Scheme, launching his own record label, but more for the £50 a week in grants it would bring in than with any hope of success.

But, rebranded as Kid Chaos, he would uncover the likes of local Swansea band The Pooh Sticks, and the attention this brought gave him an opportunity to play bass for Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction.

image captionHow The Autonomes used to look in around 1980 with Stephen Harris (far left) and Andrew Griffiths (second left)

"It was a mental time of my life. At 16 I was trying to come up with scams to earn a few quid and by my 18th birthday I was on the front cover of Melody Maker and Kerrang!" he said.

"I made so many good friends during the late 80s and early 90s that I wouldn't change a thing, but the rock star cliche is true - by the time I was 26 I'd burnt out."

So after leaving the music industry, he made his living as a portrait painter around Manhattan, before landing a job with merchant bank Goldman Sachs.

But like so many people in New York, his life changed forever on 11 September, 2001.

"Karma or serendipity or plain old luck has always played such a big part in my life. I'd say I'm the luckiest man in the world," he said.

"I didn't get out of our office in the World Trade Center until just before midnight on 10 September 2001, and I remember sitting on the subway platform thinking 'I'm having a lie-in tomorrow'.

"I tried to come in at about 10 the next morning, but the subway was down, so I started walking down town and ran into what seemed like the entire world coming the other way."

He says that the sense of helplessness he felt that day led to him finally taking the plunge to go back to school and follow his childhood ambition of becoming a doctor.

'Beard and mullet'

After re-sitting high school at night class, he won a place in New York's Icahn School of Medicine.

image captionThe Cult in their heyday in 1989 on the BBC's Top of the Pops, performing Fire Woman

"It's taken a bit of getting used to, but more for other people than me I think," he said.

"I have had a few patients recognise me on the wards, but not too many, as the doctor looks quite different from rock guitarist. I've lost the beard and mullet for starters.

"What I get more frequently is people thinking I'm the senior physician, because I'm shadowing a fully qualified doctor who's 20 years younger than me."

As well as a reunion in the Olchfa area of Swansea and a 50th birthday party for another former band member, Saturday's gig in The Garage club, Uplands, was a triple celebration.

Mr Griffiths discovered this week that Swansea MAD has secured a £200,000 National Lottery grant, enabling it to move into purpose-built accommodation on High Street, Swansea.

"We started out five or six years ago with a charity gig to raise money for amps and guitars for local kids to use, and today we've got a recording studio and green screen video capability," he said.

"This lottery grant is the icing on the cake. Now we'll be able to help so many more kids from all walks of life who share a love of music."

"Plus it takes the pressure off The Autonomes' gig, as with the money in the bank we don't have to worry about being good. We can just enjoy ourselves and tear it up like we were still in Olchfa."

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