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Songwriter Ridgway Offers Potent, Eerie 'Snakebite'
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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.

—Jeff Niesel

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 is that?
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 films?

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.


He do voodoo

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.


Stan Ridgway

Magic follows former Wall of Voodoo front man


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 soul.



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 world.

>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....