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Former lead singer of the band Smash Mouth Steve Harwell dies at 56

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Steve Harwell, the former lead singer of Smash Mouth, has died. According to the band's manager, the cause of death was acute liver failure. Harwell was 56 years old. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: That first Smash Mouth record, 1997's "Fush Yu Mang," was this pretty straight-ahead ska-punk album with song titles like "Beer Goggles" and "Let's Rock" - and also this thoughtful ode to getting along with your fellow man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' ON THE SUN")

SMASH MOUTH: (Singing) It ain't no joke. I'd like to buy the world a toke, teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

LIMBONG: In "Walkin' On The Sun," Steve Harwell bemoans the conflict-ridden state of the world and talks about how it'd be a lot better if we just hung out together and maybe smoked a little. But it isn't some lazy stoner anthem. It's actually a song about urgency.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' ON THE SUN")

SMASH MOUTH: (Singing) So don't delay. Act now. Supplies are running out.

LIMBONG: In 2018, the band rerecorded that first album acoustically for its 20-year anniversary. Harwell and the band's primary songwriter, guitarist Greg Camp, told NPR that they wanted to test the mettle of their songs. And listen to Harwell make sure Camp gets the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE HARWELL: We wanted to remake it, you know, more stripped down and campfirey (ph).

GREG CAMP: Steve and I used to always say that a good song, if it can be played on an acoustic guitar, it's - that's a good song. And so we used to sit around in the back of the bus and play, like, Depeche Mode songs on acoustic guitar. And so it was fun to actually do that song that way and confirm that it was a pretty darn good song.

HARWELL: Pretty - you know, pretty darn good because you wrote it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' ON THE SUN")

SMASH MOUTH: (Singing) You might as well be walking on the sun.

LIMBONG: But of course, the band's biggest hit came from their follow-up album, and it's Harwell's voice that's front and center.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL STAR")

SMASH MOUTH: (Singing) Somebody once told me the world is going to roll me.

LIMBONG: In 1999, "All Star" was a top 10 billboard hit. Today, thanks to age, placement in movies and memes, it's a cultural touchstone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL STAR")

SMASH MOUTH: (Singing) Hey now. You're an all-star. Get your game on. Go play. Hey now. You're a rock star. Get the show on. Get paid.

LIMBONG: The band continued making music and touring for decades without ever reaching the highs of "All Star" again. But Harwell told NPR in 2018 that he was grateful for the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARWELL: People ask me all the time, they say, Steve, do you get sick of singing these songs and all that kind of stuff? And I'm like, no. We're proud to have these iconic songs that Greg has written and be able to perform them every night - you know, so it feels good.

LIMBONG: In 2021, Smash Mouth played a messy show in upstate New York. Video of Harwell slurring his words and cursing at the audience went viral, and he retired from the band shortly after. In a statement announcing his death, Smash Mouth's manager Robert Hayes, called him a true American original, quote, "a larger-than-life character who shot up into the sky like a Roman candle." Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL STAR")

SMASH MOUTH: (Singing) Well, the years start coming, and they don't stop coming. Fed to the rules and I hit the ground running. Didn't make sense not to live for fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong
Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.