As Published in the Santa Fe New Mexican
Aug. 13, 2004
To paraphrase one of his songs, Stan Ridgway is just a little too smart for a big dumb music industry.
Ridgway is known to weave elements of jazz, techno-pop, horror-movie music, blues and country into his sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes outright lovely songs. The basic sound is rooted in the spooky, New-Wave, Wall of Voodoo rock from which he sprang and often colored by his trademark chromatic harmonica. But listing the ingredients hardly does justice to his sound. He’s hard pressed to describe it himself.
“As one plays more music and gets older, all music comes together,” Ridgway said in a phone interview last week. “Unless you’re into marketing.
“At this point in my life I just play the music I like,” he said. “But I should probably think of a clever little label for it. Metropolitan Rodeo? Neo-Neanderthal? Fuzzy Folk?”
Ridgway will play Santa Fe Saturday as part of a “broken elemental trio,” with his wife Pietra Wexstun (of the band Hecate’s Angels) on keyboards and Rick King on guitar and slide.
Twenty-plus years after a fling with national fame when his old band Wall of Voodoo’s pioneering music video became an early staple of MTV, Ridgway is still best known as the guy who sang “Mexican Radio.”
One recent article about Ridgway called “Mexican Radio” an “albatross” around the singer’s neck, claiming the artist is burdened by the song‘s success.
“Music is all about hits for some people,” he said. “I read an interview with Randy Newman where someone asked him what he’d be remembered for. He said `Short People.’ Sure, people who like him know Randy Newman’s got all sorts of great songs. But most people will remember him for `Short People’ because that was the hit.”
He still performs his MTV hit. “But we do it in a different way,” he said without elaborating.
But even back in the New Wave era, Ridgway already was showing big hints of his deeper talents. On Wall of Voodoo’s Call of The West, the album containing “Mexican Radio,” there was a low-key little heartbreaker called “Lost Weekend,” a sad dialogue between a couple who’s just lost everything they had in Las Vegas. You couldn’t pogo to it, and it never got its own video, but “Lost Weekend” was a punch in the gut.
The truth is, he ought to be famous for his impressive, iconoclastic musical output since the Wall of Voodoo came tumbling down -- seven albums of original music under his own name, another one of big-band standards and show tunes, one under the name of Drywall (he swears a follow-up to Drywall‘s Work the Dumb Oracle is just around the corner), an album of otherworldly instrumentals in collaboration with his wife, a bunch of live albums available only on the internet, an out-of-print compilation of his soundtrack music … and I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t a few so obscure even I haven’t heard of.
But even more that his unique brew of musical styles and influences, Ridgway’s greatest strength is his story-telling. He sings of losers, loners, small-time crooks, drifters, screw-ups and the women they love. He tells tales of bartenders suffering mid-life crisises, low-level smugglers, street vendors who sell newspapers, lonely kids listening to train whistles, old women too scared to leave their homes.
Not to mention “fuzzy folk” ballads honoring Johnny Cash, CIA godfather “Wild” Bill Donovan and a ghostly Marine named “Camouflage.”
Sometimes Ridgway’s lyrics tell elaborate stories. Sometimes they sound like conversations he might have overheard at a bus station.
Ridgway said he likes to write about characters on society’s margins. “Those are the stories worth telling in a song,” he said. “When you’re listening to music, you really are a solitary listener, even if you’re with other people. We’re all stuck in our own skins and you can’t get out. We’re encased in this skin and bones. When you play a song, it sings directly to your soul.
“I’m always drawn to this character,” he continued. “He’s got bits of me and people I know.”
Of some of the recurring themes in his songs -- the drifter arriving in a strange new town, the man on the highway, running from the law -- Ridgway said, “Sometimes my songs are obsessions. I start writing it and I find myself saying `Here I go again.’ “
Ridgway would be rich if he had a buck for every story about him that compared him with Los Angeles detective writer Raymond Chandler. That probably started because the title song of his first solo album, The Big Heat was about a private eye.
“I’m not arguing about being compared with Raymond Chandler,” he said. “It’s better than being called the Pinky Lee of Rock, or, as one reviewer called me, `The Porky Pig of Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ That was something to do with my voice.”
Ah yes, the Ridgway voice, an acquired taste to be sure. The All Music Guide describes it as an “unforgettable adenoidal vocal delivery that makes him sound like a low-level wise guy in one of those old Warner Bros. gangster films of the '30s.”
“The first time I heard my own voice it was just horrible,” Ridgway said. “I thought, `What a creep! What a jerk!’ “
Ridgway’s latest album, Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads & Fugitive Songs, has backwoods stompers, a sad cocktail jazz ballad called “Our Manhattan Moment,” a Civil War love song, a couple of songs that really are about fugitives and a sinister-sounding cover of an obscure Mose Allison tune (“Monsters of the Id“).
Ridgway was happy when he learned that Allison had performed “Monsters” last month at his Santa Fe concert. He said he sent Allison’s son a copy of the cover. “He played it for his dad right before Christmas,” Ridgway said. Allison’s song told Ridgway Allison’s reaction was “Stan got it right.”
Then there’s “Afghan/Forklift,” which deals with a warehouse worker who stumbles on to a terrible secret that compels him to unsuccessfully attempt to warn the president.
But like Bobbie Gentry holding on telling anyone what Billy Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, Ridgway demurs when asked what was in those mysterious crates bound for Afghanistan.
“All I can say is that it was once a much longer song,” he said. “I chopped it up and lost some verses.”
Ridgway, 50, apparently has had his sense of drama ever since he was a kid growing up Barstow, Calif.
Even before he got involved with rock ‘n’ roll, he said, he’d spend hours producing homemade “radio shows” with his brother and making 8mm movies of plastic models of werewolves being set on fire.
“We’d do anything having to do with ghost stories, myths, monsters,” Ridgway said. “I have a theory why people our age liked those Universal monsters so much -- Frankenstein, The Wolfman. … Those monsters were like overgrown children. They weren’t normal. They were looking for friends and trying to do the good thing, but they’d always make a big mistake and got the whole populace to rise up against them. Just like being a teenager.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday Aug. 14
Where: The Paramount Lounge & Nightclub, 331 Sandoval St.
How much: Tickets are $15 at CD Cafe, The Candyman, Bar B (after 5:00 p.m.), the Lensic Box office (988-1234) and online at Tickets.com.
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