ARCHIVE: A Stan-Storm of Song and Story


LA noir-wave storyteller Stan Ridgway rolls right-coast on Wednesday night, with a presentation at Asbury’s Wonder Bar entitled DESERT OF DREAMS: A Sandstorm of Song.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 19, 2009)

A twenty-dollar bill found on the Santa Monica pier. Just one of many people, places and things name-checked in the liner notes to The Big Heat, the frankly amazing solo debut of Stan Ridgway, back in 1986. That little tossed-off acknowledgment always stood out for us; got us thinking about the little tweaks of fortune and how they butterfly-effect the rest of your life.

For most people, Stan Ridgway showed up like a found object one day circa 1982 or 3, as the drawling, twitchy singer with the LA postpunk combo Wall of Voodoo, whose roller-rink classic “Mexican Radio” briefly brought the band nationwide airplay, MTV rotation and a pole-position spot on a major music festival or two. All that tic-laden energy no doubt also hastened the crack-up of WOV’s best-remembered lineup — sending the now-solo Stan back to the Chandlertown streets and dusty desert roadhouses of his noir-obsessed imagination.

Through a trio of major label albums and standout story-songs like “Camouflage,”“Drive She Said” and “I Wanna Be a Boss,” Ridgway worked a side of the street populated by a cast of losers, dreamers, cheaters and schemers that couldn’t have been scripted any tighter by James M. Cain.

The unlikely rockstar wasn’t “Walking Home Alone” through any of this, as it turns out. The start of his solo career also marked the beginning of a longstanding collaboration with singer and keyboardist Pietra Wexstun; a partnership (and eventual marriage) that branched out into their harder-edged side project Drywall, his guest appearances with her own chamber-rock ensemble Hecate’s Angels, and even a madly sought-after soundtrack the two composed for an exhibition of paintings by Mark Ryden.

Ryden returned the favor by designing the cover to the most recent Ridgway-Wexstun moonlight project, Silly Songs for Kids Volume One, which is precisely what you think it is. Added to such further experiments as Ridgway’s 2007 “crooning the classics” CD and a growing catalog of self-released albums like Holiday in Dirtand Snakebite, it represents a combined career that’s just now hitting its stride; producing its most inventive and mature works even as it leaves the mass market far back in the rearview mirror.

Ridgway, Wexstun and Drywall bandmate Rick King have hit the road once more, previewing Stan’s new summer 2009 release while they work through a stripped-down retrospective of Ridgway mileposts entitled Desert of Dreams: A Sandstorm of Song. The show rolls into the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park this Wednesday, March 25, for a 7pm performance — preceded on Sunday evening by an in-store appearance at The Record Collector in Bordentown. Red Bank oRBit rang up Ridgway at home prior to the big trip east, as we were just dying to know more about that twenty. Read on…

RED BANK ORBIT: So what exactly can we expect to hear when you get to Asbury Park? The show looks intriguing, but a little bit of a mystery at the same time.

STAN RIDGWAY: Expect our trio — two guitars, or guitar and bass, and Pietra on keyboards. We’re lean and mean, and we’ve kind of broken down everything into the essence of the song.

And the tour is promoting a brand new album?

It’s called Desert of Dreams. The record is actually not out yet, but instead of sitting on my ass I wanted to go out and play some of the new songs — about three or four of them, and the rest go back thirty years; Wall of Voodoo stuff, solo songs, covers. It’s a “Sandstorm of Song.” Bits and pieces of my sad and pathetic life.

You don’t get on over this end of our great nation too often these days, do you? I don’t recall ever seeing you around Asbury way…

I don’t believe I’ve ever played Asbury Park. But I was in New York last year, and the year before also.

Really? Sorry.

It’s a funny world, Thomas. Just depends on where you’re at. You know, when you work on your own, you’re connected to all sorts of things, but you can really lose track of people. I kind of travel under the radar for the most part myself — and every now and then you’ll think of someone, like “fuck, where’s Tom Rush playing these days? Is he still alive?” And you’ll look him up and discover that he’s playing all over the place.

Well, I have to tell you that my 16-year old daughter has gotten to digging some of your stuff, based on being forced to listen to it on the iPod in my car.

You want me to comment on that (laughs)? I can’t actually be held responsible for any brain damage resulting from exposure to my product.

And along those lines, we have to inquire also about your professional connection to Johnny Depp.

That was an album called Rogues Gallery, which came out around the time of the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It was a collection of sea chanteys; some of them very old, and it was produced by Hal Willner. My contribution was a cover of a song called “Hangin’ Johnny” — it’s a song that has to be six, seven, eight hundred years old. It had about thirty verses to it at one time, but we cut it down to a more manageable size.

Maybe your daughter would be interested in a new recording that I did with my wife Pietra, called Silly Songs for Kids. I’ve entered the world of kids’ music — there are six songs up on iTunes right now.

You guys have kids? That’s a whole ‘nother set of human observations right there. You’ll be having them advise you on tech issues before you know it.

We don’t have kids of our own — but we have nieces and nephews, and we always like to sing for them. I heard that the new line being drawn between kids and older adults now is the phone, and what it means to them, the place that it occupies in their lives. I’m talking to you right now on a three-year old cell phone — it has numbers on it, and I can call people with it, and that’s fine with me. I’m happy that it doesn’t have e-mail on it.

Still, I know you’re not some sort of technophobe Luddite; you’ve gotten very good results with do-it-yourself recording.

Recording at home is the way to go now. There’s a lot of music being made in bedrooms these days — although I should say that some of it’s falling a little flat.

But would you say there are still certain occasions, certain kinds of music that might warrant getting a bunch of people together in a room and recording it old-school, Sinatra style?

I like a little mixture of both — there are some things you do, where you need music to happen in a social sort of atmosphere. But economic realities tend to dictate the things I do. I work a lot with Ralph Carney, who you probably know from his work with Tom Waits — Ralph lives in San Francisco, and he’ll send me his stuff through the internet. And that’s worked out very well.

You came up in a time that really straddled some significant history; the last golden age of the major labels, the MTV era, and now the total reset of everything…

The bell is definitely ringing for the end of the record labels — it’s unfortunate, but it had to be. You know, Thomas, life is a timeline, and it’s hard to get a view of things when you’re standing right on it. From our perspective, we’re getting older, we’re like, what’s happening to us?

There are a handful of older guys — Roger McGuinn, who I got to speak with the other day, is a good example — who have really embraced the DIY ethic; the desktop method of creating an album. Of course, somebody from that era has probably been through the wringer with record companies, business managers and all.

I had the pleasure of working with Roger on his Back From Rio album a few years back. He was recording at Capitol Studios, and I got the call that they wanted me to perform a part on this song called “Car Phone.” I got there and I saw that Roger had left his briefcase open; of course he had his own cell phone, and also a black box with an antenna sticking out of it. I asked him what it was, and he told me it was a scanner of phone waves — “I’ll take meetings with the people from the label, and they’ll promise me all sorts of things,” he told me, “and then I’ll go out in the car and turn this thing on, and listen to them talk about what they’re really gonna do to me.”

With all of the changes in how music is made and delivered these days, there’s more of an emphasis on live shows than there has been in quite some time. How’s that sit with you? Were you always a fan of touring, or more of a homebody these days?

Touring is like a war — traveling can be hard, but once you get there it’s a good time. We both have aging parents, you know — it’s a bit of a melancholy time. But there’s a certain sense of calmness that settles in when we tour — we actually can’t wait to get on the road, to relax. Home is just a lot of clutter; so much junk comes into our house and stays there, but when you’re touring, your life and everything you need is there in that van.

You always struck me as a collector of stories, a guy who’ll hear a good yarn at a truckstop and twist it back around into a bit of folklore that’s all yours somehow. Are the stories still lying around, waiting to be picked up off the side of the road, or are they getting scarce as the whole country starts getting a sameness to it? 

A lot of America seems the same. But stories can be found anywhere. In fact, we’re making a documentary of our trip; we’re driving all the way from LA to Detroit before we go to Asbury Park.

I think you’ll enjoy the Wonder Bar. It’s a real old working-class Asbury joint, with a real significant Springsteeniana history to it. A little strangely laid out, but it’s got a seedy charm and character, plus the famous “Tillie” face painted on it.

You’re making it sound like a dive.

Nah, it’s a lot of fun! They’ve had Jonathan Richman there; strange acts like We Are Scientists and Rasputina — the kind of acts to whom attention must be paid. It’s right across from a couple of buildings that you have to see while you’re in town — the old Convention Hall, and this landmark flying saucer-shaped restaurant that used to be a Howard Johnson’s.

In LA, you know, there’s not much thought given to preserving old things, historic places.

Well, there’s been good and bad going on in the way of redevelopment, but it’s an interesting corner you’ll be landing on, right by the boardwalk. Which reminds me of a question that I’ve wanted to ask you for over twenty years. On THE BIG HEAT album, in the liner notes, you thank dozens of people and places and things, including a $20 bill found on the Santa Monica Pier. I’d like to know the story of that twenty; what you used it for and the impact it had on your life. It must have something for you to mention it like that!

I suddenly remembered that the other day. The story is just that I’d run out of gas on the pier — and I also lost my wallet. There was nobody else around, I’m wondering how I’m ever going to get home, what am I gonna do, when this twenty just comes blowing my way. No one else in sight — I grabbed it and looked around, and just like that I had a way out of my predicament. Simple enough, but it just came at the right time, and it allowed me to get home.

And having gotten home safely, it all springs from there, right? That twenty brought you to where you are today.

I guess I could be karmically correct about it and toss a twenty onto the Asbury Park boardwalk when I get there!