On the Beat

Stephen Akin, super-fan of Chapel Hill music, dies at age 49

Stephen and Charlie Akin at Bald Head Island, June 2013
Stephen and Charlie Akin at Bald Head Island, June 2013 Photo courtesy of Andrea Akin

Stephen Akin’s performing career was fairly brief, consisting of several years fronting the early-1980s hardcore band A Number of Things. And yet he was still an integral part of Chapel Hill music for more than three decades as fan and participant until his death on Friday.

“You always wanted Steve around,” said Jody Maxwell, one of his bandmates and longtime friends. “Anything he was part of was always just that much more hilarious and fun because he was in it.”

Akin was 49 years old and is survived by his wife, Andrea, and 3-year-old son, Charlie. There was no sign of foul play, and the cause of his death is unknown pending an autopsy.

In August 2012, Akin had a stroke and aneurysm requiring brain surgery. But he seemed to recover fully and returned to his job as box office manager at UNC-Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company.

“It’s really upsetting,” Andrea Akin said. “That’s how everybody feels about it. So many people knew and loved him, and everybody is just kind of stunned.”

After graduating from UNC in 1989, Akin worked as a record store clerk. He also stayed involved in the music scene with Sex Police, a quintet that was part of the same family-tree branch that yielded the million-selling band Squirrel Nut Zippers. Although Akin didn’t perform with Sex Police, he was the group’s unofficial “sixth member.” He acted as sound engineer, roadie, tour manager and all-around bon vivant.

The rest of the Sex Police remember endless debates they’d have in the tour van. Topics included foosball, music and unanswerable questions like the relative superiority of UPS versus FedEx, or which city was easier to navigate without a map – New York or Washington, D.C.

“We could go for hours on either of those, argue all the way to Baltimore and beyond,” said Sex Police guitarist John Plymale. “He was wrong, needless to say, but he’d always stand fast on his opinions.

“He was a tastemaker, too, always a year ahead of everyone else,” Plymale continued. “He’d play tapes in the van, and we’d argue about that, too. So he made me a tape once called ‘Songs That You Hate,’ all bands I’d told him I didn’t like at some point. I wound up loving all of them, of course.”

Close to home, you could count on seeing Akin at just about every big Cat’s Cradle show, usually holding court with a steady stream of banter, running gags and recurrent in-jokes.

“He had his own language and was one of the architects of the slang we all used,” said Dillon Fence/Hobex guitarist Greg Humphreys. “He was so into the scene – the whole thing, not just one part of it. He liked it all and followed it all. He was the guy who went to all the shows, bought all the local albums, was always around. He was a big, big part of the scene.”

Memorial arrangements are pending. There are also tentative plans for a celebratory show in Akin’s honor at Saxapahaw’s Haw River Ballroom. Meanwhile, his Facebook page continues to fill up with tributes and stories about old times and old jokes.

“My emotions about it change hourly,” Maxwell said. “I deal with it, then I break down. It’s just so hard to believe. He was kind of larger than life in the Chapel Hill music scene. And as much of a sarcastic smart-ass as he could be, he was the sweetest person. He dearly loved his friends, and they loved him. It’s a tough loss.”