Live in Vancouver:
Todd Snider on the Skids
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2008, Volume 15, #3
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Publicity Photos by Senor McGuire
Wed March 12, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Swooping toward his microphone after switching guitars, a disheveled-looking Todd Snider faced the audience and explained, "Iíve just got one more song I have to get out of my system before I turn it over to you, and then, Iíll play whatever you want."
Sniderís hair was askew, and he jerked around like Keith Richards on too much coffee or not enough pot. Yet, he obviously was in his element as he ripped into Just Like Old Times, an off-kilter, down-on-your-luck love song from his recent studio set The Devil You Know. Even for a seasoned performer like Snider, it had been a memorable night. It was roughly one hour into his solo acoustic set at Patís Pub in Vancouverís Patricia Hotel, and it was clear that he had the entire audience, which was a hodgepodge mixture of fans and down-and-out regulars, in the palm of his hand.
The Patricia Hotel definitely has seen better days. Situated near the intersection of Main and Hastings, Vancouverís infamous skid row, the neighborhood seems like a living, breathing tour through Todd Sniderís songbook. A few hours before the show, I had to dodge past junkies and prostitutes in order to get to Sniderís tour bus for our meeting in the venueís parking lot. By the time we had crossed from one end to the other, Snider had a handful of pockmarked, gap-toothed hangers-on wondering who he was and "how he got so famous that he could buy a bus." Snider piled into the vehicle after me, and he was full of questions of his own, such as "Should I have put that hooker on the guest list?" and "Do you think anyone would shoot me if I went out onto the street and busked?"
I assured Snider that he was in Canada where guns are still fairly rare and that heíd find an appreciative audience on the streets of skid row. I told him about Patti Smithís and Allen Ginsbergís past impromptu performances in the neighborhood. He looked up at me, smiled, and said, "Well, Iíve had some funny offers already, and Iíve only been in your town for a few hours. This is the street where the pig farmer found all the girls and butchered them at his ranch, isnít it?"
I was surprised that news of Willy Pickton, Canadaís most notorious mass murderer, had reached Snider at his home in Tennessee. "Well, itís kind of an irresistible story isnít it? It has all the elements," he said. For an observant person like Snider, who has been writing songs from the dark side for well over a decade, it certainly does.
Snider confessed to being tired as we sat down inside his rig, but he quickly assured me that thereís nowhere else heíd rather be. "Eat, play, and sleep. Most of the time on tour, I just crash inside my bus. It gives me some consistency," he explained. "Usually I just play on weekends, but twice a year I become a road warrior. I go out for four or five weeks at a time. Iíve always really been into this job, and I get more into it as I go."
Switching gears slightly, he then stated, "I donít know what Iím trying to do with this music, but Iím passionate about it. At my age now, it doesnít matter. Iím not in a hurry. Itís not like if I donít hurry up and get my record out, Iím not going to be able to eat. So, I just keep working at it until it feels right to me ó until it feels honest. I just do everything with handshakes. I havenít had a contract, and I havenít signed anything for five records now. Iím too old for label stuff to really matter for me, I suppose."
I wondered how Snider knew when a song was ready ó when it sounded honest. "I donít know. Itís hard to say," he replied. "Thereís a certainty that I canít put my finger on. Iím not sure what causes the certainty, but once itís there, itís there. Once the door shuts, I say ĎGood! Iím certain of that.í But, if Iím not certain after a while, Iíll let it go."
"Actually, I turned in a record a month ago," he continued. "Iíve been listening to it for the last week, and I donít think itís done. Two songs arenít holding up for me. Iím giving up on them because theyíve been reworked a few times already. Iíve got two new ones, but I donít know if theyíre the two that Iím looking for. Right now, the record just doesnít feel finished."
When I asked him how the recording for his new album was progressing, Snider smiled and said, "It sounds funny, but every one of the songs has this Sanford and Son kind of beat to it. Itís kind of a funky record, but I donít want it to get too self-conscious. Iím trying to combine old-fashioned rock ínĎ roll with folk music in a way thatís unique."
Then, he rolled his eyes and laughed before adding, "But, trying to be unique ó thatís just a great medicine for not being unique!"
"There was a song I threw out yesterday. I listened to it over and over and realized, ĎHey, thatís a Bo Diddley song.í And, I thought I was being unique," he continued.
"Chuck Berry is my favorite. Maybe itís because heís Bob Dylan and Keith Richardsí favorite, but I love him. I still just love old rock ínĎ roll. I wish I could think of a Ďthin, wild, mercury thingí to describe what I do," Snider mused, making reference to Dylanís well-known response to a reporter who asked him to define his sound. "We call it folk rock ínĎ roll ó distinct from folk-rock because thatís clearly been done already. Iím trying to find a unique way to do something that is really roots-driven. I still like the same, old song. Iím just trying to find a new way to sing it."
As Snider slumped back on the couch, I was reminded of Gandhiís famous quote that sometimes it takes a lot of work to achieve simplicity. Tom Waits carried it further by asserting that it can take a $10,000 microphone to make a record sound like it was recorded in a chicken coop. For an artist like Snider who appears to be tormented by the disparate urges of looseness and perfection, the road to creation must be frustrating at times.
I remarked that I liked the warmth and richness of the sound heíd achieved on The Devil You Know, and I asked him if he was satisfied with the results. Snider sat up again, warming up to what was obviously a favorite topic of discussion. "I like the last two records a lot," he said. "I think I hear the sound I want before I make it, and Iíve got good people to help me reach that sound. Iím trying not to repeat myself. I want to be daring. Thatís one of the things I thought about today. I was listening to these songs for the new album, and theyíre lacking that sense of adventure. Iím hoping to get it back."
"For the last record (The Devil You Know), we got it," explained Snider. "We found the sounds. Like on If Tomorrow Never Comes...the piano at the beginning of the song...itís an old saloon piano. You canít copy that sound. Itís distinct."
"I work with people now who understand me," he continued. "Iíve always had the same people in my life, and I let them into my life because they knew the goal. Itís like a wink and a nod, and we look at each other. We know what weíre trying to do. When I bring a new song to the people I work with, theyíre not listening to hear if itís going to be something that will get me all over the charts. We have this aimless, undefined goal. I know this sounds corny, but Iím trying to be an artist, and I feel surrounded by people that want to protect that for me."
Elaborating further, Snider said, "My friend Eric McConnell has been collecting instruments and recording gear all of his life. When Iím home, we go over to his house. I met him through a pot dealer, and we hit it off right away. He made that Loretta Lynn Van Lear Rose record. When he did that, he had put himself in a place where I felt like he was ready, and I could go over to his place whenever I felt like it. Thatís the situation any artist is looking for."
When I told Snider that I considered All that Matters, the second to last track on The Devil You Know, to be an illustration of a song that sounded natural and unforced, he beamed. "Itís funny," he responded. "That particular track...I think I had just gotten out of bed and walked over to Ericís house. Thatís a good example of what we were talking about earlier. I said, ĎI think I have a new song.í Then, I grabbed a guitar without thinking about which one it was or even if the guitar was in tune. I played the song and said, Ďjust tap the snare, and letís just hear how this sounds.í We recorded it and thought, Ďthatís cool...thatíll go on the record.í"
"When we went to make the album," he continued, "we recorded it again and didnít like it. We finally used the version we had recorded that first day. I recorded it four times, and I used the demo. I liked that sound. You just never know how things will turn out. It was the vocal. On the other versions, the vocals sounded professional, or they sounded like we were at the studio trying to make a record, which is what we are trying to get away from."
"There are some guys like Bob Mercer, Bert Stein, Al Bunetta, John Prine, and Jimmy Buffett who have formed this protective circle around me," Snider explained. "My company is called Aimless, Inc., and they protect that intensely. No one has tried to make me aim. I feel totally free to pursue whatever sound comes into my head."
I asked Snider if he always has had the same attitude toward his music. I wondered if performing was a lifelong goal, or if heíd come into it in a more haphazard way. "I was about 18, and Iíd always been obsessed with music, but my dad didnít go for it. So, I never took it seriously," he said.
"I was on the roof of a building in Santa Rosa, and Iíd bottomed out. I thought that night I could try to do whatever I wanted. I could try to be an astronaut because I was at zero. I didnít have a leg up anywhere. I could try to be a pro football player or whatever. I could fail at anything, and I didnít feel as though anyone was watching," he continued.
"I remember sitting on the roof. At that time, I hadnít heard that song with the line Ďfreedomís just another word for nothing left to loseí (Me & Bobby McGee), but I remember knowing that feeling that I had zero to lose for real. In that moment, I asked myself, Ďwhat do you really want to do?í I didnít know how to play guitar. Iíd never even tried to open my mouth to sing, but I thought I wanted to be a singer. Then, I started trying to be it," he said.
"From there, I went to Texas, and I kept trying to get into bands with these lyrics I was writing," explained Snider. "I saw Jerry Jeff Walker play alone and tell stories. It seemed like he was living the life I was living. I said to myself, ĎThatís it. Thatís the model. Iím going to copy him and play by myself.í I had to go and get a guitar the next day. It looked like he wasnít doing a whole lot with his hands, and I thought that I could probably figure that out. Then, I started following him around and following John Prine around. I watched them play and memorized the words."
"When I finally got to play with Prine, it was really cool," Snider continued. "He still intimidates me a lot, and I know he wishes he didnít. He intimidates me as a man and an artist. I can hardly look into his eyes. Itís sad because I feel like Iíd really like to know the man. I feel like he senses that, too. Heís so amiable to everybody, and Iím just one of the tongue-tied, little songwriters who loves him. Iíve gone out, had lunch, and hung out with him a bunch of times, but I always feel like my heart rate is fucking flying. I hope I look composed. I know all of his songs by heart, and at one point ó before I lost so many fucking brain cells ó I could have won a John Prine trivia contest against him. Now, Iíve got too many of my own songs to remember."
Snider and I sat together in silence for a while as the sun went down. As he turned and looked out the window of the bus, he absentmindedly began talking again. "I think of myself as a fairly hopeless person and I draw great comfort from it," he declared.
"The working title of the album weíre putting together now is Crank It! Weíre Doomed," he continued. "Itís like why I told you I became a singer. It wasnít because I was convinced Iíd be good. Itís because I decided I could be shitty at anything I wanted to be shitty at. You know this is cool, and I really appreciate talking to you. But, the hard part about talking about your songs is that you work so long on making the lyric go exactly where it goes, and then you expound on it [in conversation] and ruin it. None of itís as real as what we can see out the window."
"I live in a neighborhood where a lot of people are in trouble," he said. "Itís not as bad as this one, but I see people who do stuff and it tears them up. Theyíre right in between their faith and what repercussions they believe will come as a result of their actions. Then, thereís the hard, concrete thing that youíre facing right now to contend with. It fucks up your choices. An example I can give is a friend of mine who sells drugs and thinks itís terrible. But, if she doesnít do it, her kids arenít going to eat. Sheís torn, and sheís trapped between how much she believes in Heaven and the devil that she knows. I donít think that makes her a bad person."
"What I was trying to say with that song (The Devil You Know) ó and all of my songs to an extent ó is that crossing over the line and doing evil things doesnít necessarily make you evil. That would be too easy," he explained.
During the hours between our interview and the beginning of the show, Todd Snider obviously had given some consideration to the nightís set list. He fashioned together a sequence of songs that commented on the environment in which he now found himself. Alone on stage, in the dark and moldy confines of the Patricia Hotelís bar, Snider looked into the crowd and began singing as if his life depended on it. Dipping deep into the dark side of his repertoire, it was hard to imagine a venue that was better suited for songs such as Tillamook County Jail or the elegiac Alcohol and Pills.
Sniderís hard-luck tales resonated deeply with the eclectic crowd that had assembled to hear him on such a rainy night. Everyone may have had a different reason for being there, but by the time Snider tore into Beer Run, a raucous sing-along from his 2002 endeavor New Connection, any sense of segregation that had existed within the audience prior to the start of the show had melted away. Every voice in the house joined together to sing the chorus. Whatever alchemy of events had conspired to create the atmosphere in the bar, everyone clearly was happy to hang on tight and follow Snider as he slipped into his own personal heart of darkness.
As the night wore on, and as the audience ó a sometimes uneasy co-mingling of music fans, junkies, and characters who looked as if they had stepped out of a Charles Bukowski novel ó boozily continued to scream requests, Snider wove his way toward his setís conclusion. Exhausted and elated, the sweaty singer rasped through Enjoy Yourself before leaving the stage. Sensing that those gathered would not let him go so easily, Snider returned almost immediately. After taking a long, slow, incredulous look around the room, he launched into Keep Off the Grass. The biting irony of the lyrics, which urged his listeners to "Keep your nose clean/Keep your head above water/Keep your feet on the ground/Keep your hands off my daughter," hung heavily in the room.
As the show ended, the Patricia Hotel ó which temporarily had been transformed from a junkie bar into a haven for roots music ó seemed to resume its former identity. Patrons left the building, and regulars, who now were freed from the cover charge, stepped out of the rain and filed into the room. As I left, I took one look back at the bar to watch as Snider, wiping sweat from his forehead, greeted the members of the audience who fast were approaching him, beers in their hands, to request his autograph. Out on the street, it was a different world. I pushed past two figures packing crack pipes in the doorway, and I thought of my kids, long in bed, and the fact that Iíd have to get up in four hours.
Real, authentic music is a rare commodity, and I left the Patricia Hotel thinking about how grace and beauty can appear in a variety of disguises. Looking at the poverty and despair around me, I couldnít shake the feeling that Iíd received a kind of gift or blessing from Snider. Although I hadnít been looking for much of anything, he had shown me something I hadnít realized before about the different paths that lead to truth in art. One night in Sniderís universe had exhausted me, but I knew that no matter how I felt the next day, it was worth it. Great music always is.
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