Stan Ridgway: Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads and Fugitive Songs
Even if he isn't remembered as one of the greatest musical storytellers of his generation (though there's little question that he will be), Stan Ridgway will forever rank high in the field of Most Distinctive Voice. That nasal delivery of his has been instantly identifiable ever since Wall of Voodoo had their commercial breakthrough in 1982 with, you know, that song.
Ridgway's never really been afraid to follow his muse wherever it takes him, as evidenced by such minor masterpieces as The Big Heat and Mosquitoes. Since leaving the constraints of the major label lifestyle in the early '90s, however (not long after the release of 1991's Partyball), he's really gone hog wild with the creativity. One minute, he's giving you the musical equivalent of film noir, then you turn around and find him doing a two-disc set of big band standards and Broadway show tunes, and performing them completely straight, no less.
Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads & Fugitive Songs finds Ridgway close to the sound of his Geffen-era work (1989-1991). Divided into three acts, Snakebite is full of the sort of lyrical darkness that's been a hallmark of Ridgway's material since the get-go.
In Act One, "Wake Up Sally (The Cops Are Here)" is narrated by a several-time loser on the verge of getting arrested for having robbed a bus. Total haul: $12.00. Nice one. "Now, didja gas up the truck like I told you to?" he asks. "No, we can't take the dog, he's gonna bark." A few songs later, in "King for a Day", another poor bastard ...or is it the same sad soul? ... is on the run, smoking crack, and bragging to someone (Sally, perhaps?) on his cell phone that, "Hey, I'm doin' 110 now / Can you still hear me on your phone? / I got a hundred cops behind me / And overhead I hear the choppers groan / Oh, I'm headed for the wall, now / Gotta hang up now, thanks for the loan".
In Act Two of Snakebite, it becomes evident that Ridgway is a man out of time. (If he wasn't, would he really be making lyrical references to Stubby Kaye?) Each song here could be a movie in and of itself, but every one of them would've been made before 1950. "Runnin' with the Carnival" would've been directed by Tod Browning, "God Sleeps in a Caboose" would have to have starred Henry Fonda, and there's little question in my mind that "Crow Hollow Blues" would've won Bogart an Oscar.
The third act of the album contains some of the most personal songs Ridgway's ever written, including "My Own Universe" and "Classic Hollywood Ending", where he bemoans the way things were left between himself and someone from his past, using film as a metaphor:
Now I never knew how your curtain came down /
Or what was backstage in your mind /
We never played that lost reel we found /
The lights went up, and we'd run out of time /
And it's only when the curtain's down /
That the ending's understood /
Like an old time movie, like a film from Hollywood
At the fifteenth of Snakebite's 16 songs, it becomes evident that Stan may well be a fugitive himself, having spent much of his life running away from his own past. Despite carving a unique musical niche for himself, there's been an albatross around poor Stan's neck for over two decades, and it's apparently gotten too heavy to ignore any further.
The "albatross", of course, is the aforementioned Wall of Voodoo, or, more specifically, that goddamned "Mexican Radio". Though hardly the first '80s band to have the one-hit wonder tag slapped on them, Wall of Voodoo had it worse than others; when the ears of middle America hear a song called "Mexican Radio" and lyrics about "eating barbequed iguana", son, what you've got yourself there is a bonafide novelty hit. Never mind that Ridgway was waxing lyrical about American tourists visiting our Southwestern neighbors; for most folks hearing the song, it might as well have been "The Curly Shuffle".
And, let's face it, Stan's face popping out of a bowl of beans during the video probably didn't help things any, either.
Twenty years later, Ridgway has finally tackled those Voodoo days in song. "Talkin' Wall of Voodoo Blues, Pt. 1" appears near the tail end of Snakebite; reminiscent of Cockeyed Ghost's "Burning Me Out (Of the Record Store)", where Adam Marsland details his band's pissed-up departure from Big Deal Records, Ridgway painstakingly relates the rise and fall of the Wall. It's sad that the tale begins with the observation that, of the band's original line-up, "two are gone to heaven" (drummer Joe Nanini suffered a fatal blood clot in his brain in 2000; guitarist Marc Moreland died in 2002 from liver failure), ends with the admission that the band disintegrated as a result of the fact that "we were all just big assholes", and, in the middle, includes these lines:
One weekend, Marc's song fell out, the single they still talk about /
We made a video with Frank Delia behind the lens /
Labor Day Mexico, lots of beans and drugs and friends /
But all was gonna bust; how were chumps like us to know? /
We took off on that tour so long and played and sang our radio song, oh-woah /
Now, it seemed like that old voodoo dog we had was payin' for its fleas /
We lost control of our own band to the record company
It isn't all anger and regrets -- although a hell of a lot of it clearly is. But Ridgway makes a point of acknowledging both up front, and in the song's finale says that "we had some punk-rock fun". And he's obviously still proud that "we practiced music night and day" and, as a result, eventually played the Whiskey-A-Go-Go "with Miss Ivy and Mister Lux" (the Cramps). After keeping it pent up for so many years, one can only hope that it's been cathartic for Ridgway to get some of this stuff off his chest, though some may wonder why it took long for him to get around to doing it.
I guess it just goes to show that, while master storytellers may know how to weave a yarn that draws the listener in and keeps them rapt 'til the very end, they oft have the most trouble just telling their own tales.