NPR “WEEKEND EDITION”
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Songwriter Ridgway Offers Potent, Eerie 'Snakebite'
Sept. 19, 2004 -- In the early 1980s, Stan Ridgway's
nasally vocals and eerie, marching keyboards propelled Wall of Voodoo's
"Mexican Radio" up the charts. After a brief taste of success,
the New Wave band -- whose name was a play on Phil Spector's "Wall
of Sound" production style -- broke up in 1983.
Over the last 20 years, Ridgway has continued to record as a solo
act, telling stories of intriguing, eccentric characters in song.
NPR's Liane Hansen talks to Ridgway about his career and his new CD,
Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads & Fugitive Songs .
For a punk rock pioneer, Ridgway reveals a few interesting musical
influences, including Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith, the Oscar-winning
film composer who recently passed away.
Ridgway's style has often been described as cinematic -- he originally
envisioned that Wall of Voodoo would produce soundtracks for low-budget
Hollywood films. When no such work materialized, life as a band seemed
like the next best option.
Like most of his Wall of Voodoo material, Snakebite was a collaborative
effort between Ridgway and his wife, keyboardist Pietra Wexstun. "There's
nothing that I do that I don't talk to her about," says the singer.
Stan Ridgway has been turning out distinctive noirish rock and roll
since the late seventies, first as a member of the group Wall of Voodoo
and then as a solo artist. Snakebite (Redfly) is among the better
outings of his long, off-kilter career. In sixteen songs, Ridgway
blends together rock, jazz, and blues in the service of his always
strange, but never frivolous, storytelling. Over the years, his songwriting
has become more personal, and, in addition to intimately narrated
songs like “Our Manhattan Moment” and “Wake Up Sally
(The Cops Are Here),” there’s “Talkin’ Wall
of Voodoo Blues, Pt. 1,” a rollicking retelling of the rise
and fall of his former band.
With the art punk group Wall of Voodoo, singer Stan Ridgway released
two albums and had a hit with “Mexican Radio.” Since the
group disbanded in 1985, he's gone on to work on soundtracks and released
various solo projects. His latest album, Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads
and Fugitive Songs , isn't due out until August. But Ridgway's embarked
on a short warm-up tour with keyboardist Pietra Wexstun. We spoke
to Ridgway via phone from his Los Angeles home, where he was “paddling
around” in his home studio.
Does anyone ever call you Stan the Man?
Yeah. I just go “Wow.” It's not like I haven't heard it.
I don't know if I can live up it. I always think of Stan Musial.
Why is your middle name Q.?
That was kind of a nickname from years ago. I can't even pronounce
what it's short for.
Did you really go to jail at the age of 12?
Yeah. Everybody goes to that bio and looks at that. It's just one
thing I might have said years ago in an English interview. I don't
mind. It's colorful. By 11 or 12, I had it in my mind that there were
too many street signs, and me and my gang of juvenile delinquents
would take our toolboxes out and monkey-wrench the signs down. One
time late at night, a policeman was driving by and followed us. I
remember the boot coming around the corner, and there were 30 to 40
signs we had collected. He took us to jail just to show us jail. That
was the end of the street-sign collecting.
Did you get into trouble a lot as a kid?
Yeah. I was always vying for attention until music came along, and
then that was a reason to get the gang together with a purpose. That's
generally how bands start.
You've been called the Nathanael West of rock. How flattering
I don't know. It's funny, because I don't consider myself the bard
of bleak. But I'm attracted to stories about the underdog. I think
they're the best stories. I'm more inclined to tell those stories
than ones about walking on sunshine.
Why is your forthcoming album called Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads
and Fugitive Songs .
It's a tip of the hat to Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail
Songs . It had “El Paso” on it and songs like “Big
Iron.” It's a reference to a number of old Johnny Cash albums
about lonely trains and Indian reservations too.
You got your start writing soundtrack music for low-budget horror
I did stuff before that. Before Wall of Voodoo, I had burned myself
out playing in Top 40 bands. Before punk rock, there wasn't a scene
at all. It was eaten up by people with large record contracts. There
wasn't anything to do but play the hits of the day. I rented an office
on Hollywood Boulevard. I had a friend who worked on Harry Novak films.
They'd make cheap films and send 'em out to Kentucky or something.
They had partial nudity to sell the film. I did excerpts for their
trailers and stuff. In my imagination, I had a legitimate business
and called the company Wall of Voodoo.
Sounds like the same experience as Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo.
I ended up meeting Mark, and we found it was hard to make the music
we were making in a context where it felt right. There was a resistance
to anything that was different. In the beginning, punk was anything
goes, and then the hammer came down. We were often booed and people
would throw things at us and spit at us. I developed my armor on stage.
I turned into a punk-rock Don Rickles. We eventually started to attract
a core group of like-minded freaks who liked us.
Wall of Voodoo's biggest hit was “Mexican Radio.”
Have you gotten to play it in Mexico?
We did once. We played Iguana's in Tijuana. It was like Sodom and
Gomorrah. There was chicken wire on the stage in case someone jumped
up and tried to kill you. There was vomit on the floor, and kids were
drunk. I remember loading the equipment, and there were two roadie
guys like zombies coming toward the band. One said to the other, “You
did all that crack and you didn't leave me any.” It was a great
place to play “Mexican Radio.”
What's your favorite memory of playing Cleveland?
Peabody's. I remember that. The last time we played there, it was
not a good night. There was a huge Red Hot Chili Peppers show in the
stadium or something. We ate across the street from where we played,
and there was a wedding party over there. We pulled this whole party
to the club and put them on the list. They came over and we mixed
these straight people up with who was there, and it became a succotash
of sorts. I remember it was fun.
DETROIT METRO TIMES
by Eve Doster
It was 1982 when Stan Ridgway’s art-punk outfit, Wall of Voodoo
entered the charts. But when their catchy song “Mexican Radio”
hit the airwaves, few were privy to the genius behind the band’s
concept. Originally formed as a sound track company specializing in
cheap sci-fi and B-movie underground epics, Wall of Voodoo would be
(wrongly) lumped in with new wave bands and enjoy the career boost
of regular rotation on (then-new) MTV. The video, like the band, finally
faded out of rotation, but if you thought that the music stopped there
and the mind behind the bizarre hit faded quietly into one-hit-wonder
status, there is something you should know: The best was yet to come.
After Wall of Voodoo disbanded, Ridgway went on to a solo career.
Always teetering somewhere above or below the mainstream, Ridgway
has spent the last 20 years churning out an alchemist’s catalog
of unique and thoughtful music. From his debut solo release, The Big
Heat, to his Songs that Made this Country Great , Ridgway’s
ability to make music that adheres to no genre, yet manages to woo,
is remarkable. His songs range everywhere from Broadway musical covers
to synthed-out space-rock to traditional country music. To many, his
ability to paint scenarios and to develop characters within his songs
makes him a double threat: one part musician, one part author.
His latest release, Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads and Fugitive Songs
can best be described as abstract old-timey music with a hearty helping
of Wild West ethos. Just when you think you know what you are about
to hear, Ridgway changes the rules.
Magic follows former Wall of Voodoo front man
By HENRY CABOT BECK
Stan Ridgway was there when the doors opened, and he never left the
building. In the late 1970s, when L.A. punk was kicking off and Black
Flag, X, and Darby Crash were climbing out of the primordial muck,
still covered in La Brea tar, Ridgway was establishing his mutant
view of the musical universe via his band Wall of Voodoo. But what
made Voodoo great was its deep connection with Sunset Blvd. -- the
movie, not the street. The band drew strength from ancient Hollywood
tropes, not only writing for movies, but from movies. Ridgway continues
to score for films to this day, much like his ancient IRS Records
labelmate Danny Elfman, who went from Oingo Boingo to scoring Spider-Man
. But Stan Ridgway's work in the last 25 years has never deviated
greatly from his Voodoo roots, and there's a deeply skewed sensibility
at work here. He's a bit like a creepy uncle who tells you weird stories
that stick to the soul, even when they might not make any immediate
sense -- a non-sequiturian who works off his wit and Day of the Locust
Stan Ridgway: Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads &
Review by: Kent Harrison
Welcome back my friends to that world of Mr. Stannard Ridgway, he
of long-ago and hopefully forgotten Wall of Voodoo fame, not to mention
some outstanding solo releases and some film score contributions.
Seemingly, this world is inhabited by, as the song goes, loveable
losers and other outlaws. Every few years Stan Ridgway gives us insight
into his world, and this time he and with his wife Pietra Wexston
connects with his best solo releases, THE BIG HEAT and MOSQUITOS.
SNAKEBITE is another Ridgway understated sonic, movie-esque wonder.
The record is divided into three acts, each with a kind of theme.
Act One seems to fall into the “Blacktop Ballads” territory.
Like MOSQUITOS, SNAKEBITE opens like a film with some soft and smoky
keyboards and spaghetti western staccato baritone guitar which introduces
you to a place “where the air’s too thick to breathe...
[and] where the sand blows into your eyes. Again, welcome to Stan’s
>From there, Act One kicks in with “Wake Up Sally (the cops
are here),” an atypical Ridgway number about bumbling dog loving
inept thieves on the lam throughout the U.S. all the way to Idaho.
Brantley Kearns lends some tasty fiddle. Also in this act is the topical
“Afghan/Forklift”, the quintessential family man goes
bad “King For A Day” (once you’ve heard this, “Daddy’s
Home” will never be quite the same), and sexually loaded swamp
blues “Your Rockin’ Chair.”
The second act seems to focus on individual weaknesses and thoughts.
The listener gets an insider’s view of a carny’s life
in “Running With The Carnival,” sweats along with a chain
gang where “everyday a good day that you above ground”
on “Crow Hollow Blues,” shares the idle life of urban
hipsters and fake friends to a slow jazz shuffle on “Our Manhattan
Moment,” shares the toil and backbreaking worker of a railroad
man works ‘cause “hungry kids need clothes and shoes...and
moms and dads need their pills and booze,” and travels down
the midnight road to a Bo Diddley beat in “The Big 5-0.”
By Act 3, Ridgway is gets a bit personal a retrospective. “My
Own Universe” is a pretty moonlit ballad of love and regret,
“Throw It All Away” is a double meaning tale based on
the exploits of backs-stabbing dumb crooks getting caught in Italy,
and on “Talkin’ Wall Of Voodoo Blues Pt. 1” Stan
details the triumphs, tragedies, and lost chances of his former band
“How were chumps like us to know?” The kicker, for me,
and maybe other Southerners, is the closer, “My Rose Marie.”
It is an acoustic quiet and sad tale of a rebel soldier facing a firing
squad in a prisoner of war camp, only to be freed at the last moment.
He marches home to his Rose Marie in Tennessee, who, alas, has married
and moved away. Well done, credits roll, slide guitar instrumental
bleeds, come back again and see Ridgway’s next film....