In art, the romance of the road is matched only by the infinite possibilities of the frontier. That is why the American West has been so celebrated: Its vast horizons suggest limitless potential, which artists never will cease to glorify, celebrate and mythologize. In the realm of sound, singer-songwriter Stan Ridgway found a way redefine the kicks one could get along the mostly abandoned stretch of roadway known as Route 66.
You get the impression Ridgway would probably have been happier as a novelist. Ever since his days as leader of 1980s new wave wonder Wall of Voodoo, Ridgway has mined the literal side of rock, sculpting pictures with words while letting his music fill the rest of the sonic canvas. On the two albums he created with the band—Dark Continent and Call of the West—his way with the language forged unforgettable portraits of people in flux and places in decline. Songs like “Long Weekend”, “Factory” and West’s title track dealt with the ever-changing face of fringe society, where dreamers meet the dead end of their desires and must find a route back to reality.
After leaving the group in 1983, Ridgway continued exploring the new heart of American darkness. His first solo album, The Big Heat, was a series of sketches about soldiers, cabbies and other amiable outcasts, and relied heavily on spaghetti-western motifs and routines salvaged from Wall of Voodoo’s vibe. But on Mosquitos, the most conceptual of his albums, Ridgway moved beyond Morricone to fashion a fresh, ambient approach to Western vistas and small-town trials. Mosquitos is a cohesive aural experience in rags, riches, and redemption. Though it plays like a series of short stories, one can indeed envision a single main character, interpreted by Ridgway’s distinct affected drawl, at the center of each tale. For lack of a better name, we will call this character Heat, since the first song on the CD (an instrumental track featuring a flawless string arrangement by none other than Van Dyke Parks) is “Heat Takes a Walk”. Through the sound of insects and a wash of hot, dry winds, we are introduced to the world Ridgway’s characters will inhabit, an arid Southwest fantasyland where remnants of frontier days meld with the promise of the future to make everything and anything seem possible.
But Ridgway also reminds us that unlimited possibilities can produce inertia. “Lonely Town”, the album’s second track, paints the portrait of such an ennui-laden existence perfectly. As he does throughout the record, the singer takes on the role of several citizens, each offering their own take on life far off the browbeaten path. The tune, a beautiful ballad accented by a plaintive harmonica, is so tender and melancholy, you can almost see the tumbleweeds slowly lilting across. Naturally, Heat’s response to all this stasis is to hit the road, and Mosquitos‘s next two tracks, “Goin’ Southbound” and “Dogs” are statements of freedom, chances to break away from the monotony of all the one-horse hopelessness. The backing for these songs is secured by fat, thumping synth lines, their forced funk reminiscent of oversized boot prints left behind in a sand-strewn sidewalk.
During his journey, Heat stops long enough to overhear a conversation between two old friends, Bert and Charlie. The dialogue in song form is a Ridgway staple (Voodoo’s “Lost Weekend” is a similarly styled chat between a destitute couple), and in this case, our pals are lamenting their individual loser lots. “Can’t Complain” carries us past the first phase of Mosquitos, that of the journey. Heat has managed to make it out of his stifling situation, but the road has proven equally unforgiving. Something must stabilize this wandering rogue, and it’s sex that seals his fate. Heat’s turning point comes with “Peg and Pete and Me”. Taking James M. Cain’s classic Postman Always Rings Twice story of passion and murder and translating it into a musical mystery, Ridgway provides a peek into how temptation turns us, making the song’s narrative as much a why-dunit as whodunit.
With a crime of this magnitude, especially within a hick town, one expects scandal, and “Newspapers” highlights the horrors of being front-page tabloid fodder. Yet Ridgway doesn’t take the suspect’s perspective; he’s just the man who runs the local street-corner stand. Yet his comments about information as corruption and facts as deception illustrate the song’s yellow-journalism sentiments with perception and emotion. “Calling Out to Carol” is Heat’s attempt at salvation, a literal shout-out to a woman he once knew long ago. The desperation in the lyric, suggesting intimacy as well as inevitability, plays directly into the main theme of Mosquitos. By leaving home, Heat has destined himself to a foul fate. Taking on the dogs along his southbound travels, meeting up with men who seem unfazed by horrid personal problems, and agreeing to play fall guy to both Carol and Peg, he becomes a true tragic hero. His flaw? An inner restlessness matched by a false hope in finding something better.
It all comes together on the album’s final two songs. “The Last Honest Man” ties Heat to crooked preachers, sanctimonious shock jocks, and boxers who take a dive for money. Dishonesty and personal arrogance call out for karmic comeuppance. Ridgway, with his peculiar voice both strangled and soothing, likely speaks from experience. He too has been searching the wicked world of the music biz for anything sincere and genuine. Of course it’s a lamentable, lost cause, a depressing reality that’s laced throughout the album’s instrumentation. As Ridgway pines for a person of virtue, a guitar line bends and twists, suggesting the search is futile and foolish.
As with many novels, the album’s final chapter, the epic closer, “A Mission in Life”, deals with realization and reconciliation. It’s a slow, somber dirge that discusses something small (Heat, finally settled, now runs a dive bar on the edge of Vegas), then broadens its scope in the chorus to address universal ideals of love and brotherhood. Heat has come full circle. The journey, we learn, wasn’t so much of miles but of the mind. As he hits on a young waitress and avoids the standard phone call from his wife, Heat has reached his own reality roadblock. And as the music swells and soars, creating emotional epiphanies that careen skyward, we sense our antihero’s final consolidation with himself. As he wails the final lines
You got a mission in life, to hold out your hand,
to help the other guy out, help your fellow man.
That’s why I own this bar.
They’re thirsty outside, I give ‘em oceans to drink.
And they drown in the tide.
Heat sees the foolishness in escape. For his patrons, liquor is not the answer, and for him, leaving his little lonely town was not the proper response. Instead, acceptance comes from facing with who you are. Heat had to deal with it during his journey of the soul, and Ridgway had to resolve it in his post-Voodoo career. Over the past two decades, he’s come close to defining his place in the often perplexing pop-culture landscape. Always the outsider, he’s settled down in his own sanctuary, making music he wants to with people he prefers to work with. He may not be superstar famous, but he’s fulfilling his mission in life. And that’s all existence asks of you.
Stan Ridgway - Big Dumb Town
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