Flying into the Sun to Make Notes
A Q&A with Todd Snider
By Geoff Gehman
Todd Snider writes songs dosed with sneaky sociology. He believes it’s his job—maybe even his sacred duty–to hang out with strangers for the express purpose of musical storytelling. After all, if he hadn’t accepted an invitation to enter a drug den, he probably would never have written “America’s Favorite Pastime,” a delicious ditty about a pitcher who during his LSD-laced no-hitter views the mound as birthday-cake icing.
Snider is typically sly and wry on his latest CD of originals, “Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables,” released last year on his own Aimless label. Recorded intentionally as a “mess,” the fine-tuned tunes range from “New York Banker,” a deceptively jaunty chronicle of a teacher ripped from his retirement savings by a bond built to fail, to “Brenda,” a tough, tender tribute to the tender, tough marriage of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. This sharp-minded hippie vibe also colors “Time As We Know It” (Aimless), Snider’s 2012 funky, affectionate collection of numbers by Jerry Jeff Walker, Snider’s role model. It was 27 years ago, in an Austin bar, that Walker convinced Snider to start writing tunes, learn guitar and make music that mattered all by himself.
Snider, 46, will bring his top-hatted, bare-footed, rambling, laser-etched, Woody Guthrie-meets-William S. Burroughs self to the Mauch Chunk Opera House on July 19. During a recent conversation from his home in East Nashville, near the bar where he collects characters, he discussed his devotion to instinct and craft, passion and compassion, hymns & fables & pretty much everything else on life’s fretboard.
Q: Your new record includes “Brenda,” an ode to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and their engaging, enduring, crazy-assed marriage, as well as their commitment to keeping the feeling honest for six decades. What was the first Stones song that really made you admire their partnership?
A: It was “Little Queenie” and it was from the version on “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” I first heard it in the movie “Gimme Shelter.” I was a big Stones fan but it wasn’t until I made my first album that I understood what their arranging meant. The more I learned, the more I respected the gravity of their talents. It wasn’t just being lucky or cool; it was knowing a whole shitload of stuff, from writing songs to engineering to choosing photos. As a musician I feel the same way that a plumber or a doctor feels about a master of their trade. I’d say I admire the Stones and Bob Dylan more than anyone, especially when it comes to longevity.
Q: Would you say you’re more like Keith—you know, the devil-take-the-hindmost rebel? Or do you also have a little bit of Mick’s control-freak side–you know, the put-all-my-euros-in-a-basket mentality?
A: Well, I’m a very disorganized person. I have no idea how much money I have. My bills don’t come to my house; my accountant tells me I don’t spend much. But Mick Jagger is my Stone. Maybe it’s because Keith Richards is everybody else’s. I think Mick is just as cool and hip and artistic as Keith.
You know, I know their producer and he says their reputations are crap. He says they’re totally old black blues men with the soul of the earth at the core at their hearts. Both of them give lots of orders; neither one is out of control. They may be three hours late for the session–but they know they are.
I’ll tell you something else: Mick Jagger is not a control freak, either. I’ve seen him spend a total hour fucking with the guitar.
Q: That reminds me that Keith in his autobiography insists that Mick is a killer harmonica player, something that even ardent Stones fans overlook.
A: You know, I made up that song [“Brenda”} after reading Keith’s book [note: “Brenda” is one of Richards’ sarcastic nicknames for Jagger]. I mean, after you’ve [written] that someone you know so well has a small dick, well, you have to praise him for something, right? [laughs]. Although I also know [fabled ex-rock groupie] Pamela Des Barres and she says otherwise about the size of Mick’s dick. “That’s not true,” she says. “He’s a healthy gentleman.” [laughs]
Q: In “America’s Favorite Pastime” you absolutely nail the Dock Ellis I admired: the corn-rowed, drug-taking free spirit who was also a splendid pitcher. Do you have a favorite story about how the baseball world reacted to your tribute to Dock?
A: Well, I was invited to go on ESPN. And I got an autographed ball from Robert Earl Keen [another keen singer/songwriter/sociologist]. The thing I like about Dock Ellis is that a certain part of our society delegates people like him to a lesser status just because they do something unconventionally well—like throw a no-hitter on acid. You can take the worst part of a person and paste it up and not show the good sides.
I have a story about that. I was at a party at a restaurant owned by Phil Lesh [co-founder of the Grateful Dead]. Now, whenever Phil Lesh is there, there are going to be about 22 people in the parking lot whose lives are going to be destroyed by hallucinogenic drugs. But I’ll tell you something else: The guy who oversees this restaurant also took acid. And I’ll tell you something else: Bob Weir [another Dead co-founder] took acid, too, and you should see the gorgeous studio he has.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to be afraid of Dock Ellis just because he pitched a no-hitter on acid. I mean, he pitched a no-hitter on acid; that’s pretty remarkable from every angle. It’s not the drugs that make you live in a fuckin’ dumpster; you could live in a fuckin’ dumpster even without the drugs. Happiness doesn’t have favorites.
Q: Do you feel that you’re misrepresented as just a bare-footed, pot-smoking, free-wheeling hippie, that many folks overlook that you’re also a sneaky sociologist who tries to get under the skin of all sorts of people in all sorts of settings? I mean, in “Devil You Know” you get under the skin of a gang member who doesn’t want to work in a fast-food joint and in “Big Finish” you hit the bull’s-eye with the line “It ain’t the despair that gets you, it’s the hope.”
A: No, I like my reputation. I’ve earned it. I think it’s fair. I think it’s good in my line of work. If someone describes me, in any way, I say thank you; I don’t interrupt them or correct them. I feel like my job is not to ask people how to feel, but to feel. If they clap, I’ve done my job. If they boo, I’ve done my job.
I first thought about songwriting as a way of being understood. Then I learned that songwriting is a way of getting over wanting to be understood.
Q: I like to have three uninterrupted hours to write, some of which I may just spend thinking about writing. Do you need a certain kind of mental space to write? Do you hang out at Drifters, your neighborhood bar in East Nashville, specifically to tune into songwriting vibes?
A: I do the same thing every morning. I get up at 5, make a huge thing of coffee, put on music, and write for a few hours. Then I smoke some pot and edit or just look at what I’ve written. Then I smoke the rest of the pot and play guitar for one or two hours. Around 11 or noon I’m done working on songs, but I’ve given it a good five or so hours.
Then I return the phone calls. My phone is in the basement, so you can’t hear it; you have to look at it to see who’s called. Usually, it’s a call from my manager asking: “Do you want to play here? Do you want to play there?” I tell him: “Okay, I’ll take that one; okay, I’ll take that one.” Then I go to the bar and come back a little drunk.
Most of what I write that day will hit the floor. If it’s a good day, one line will sit there for a year or two until it makes its way into something. I mean, my next album is made up mostly of lines from the last three years.
What I have is a kind of mental disorder similar to what people have when they have to turn the light off five times. I could take medicine and I could quit. But I like it. And, you know, my wife isn’t complaining
Q: I’ve been interviewing musicians for 33 years—yes, I feel a bit like Jesus Christ–and I’ve never met a musician with more stories about chance encounters that morph into songs and more stories about accidentally hearing your songs played on CD by strangers. Do you feel like a tuning fork for tales?
A: I do feel like a freak magnet; my family has always said so. I also think that’s part of the job—as much as I feel I have to spend five hours a day working on the songs. If a guy with a weird nickname asks me to get into a car, I have to go and spend five hours with him. My job is to go into basements and find out things. It’s my job to be alive. If I had a metaphor, I’d say I’m supposed to fly into the sun and make notes.
I don’t feel bad that I’m an alcoholic or a druggie. I’m a part of that; I am that; I’m the guy your parents warned about. People party when they’re in pain, and I like to go there. I wouldn’t have come up with songs like “Moon Dog Tavern” if not for reverie.
In fact, I got [“America’s Favorite Pastime”] from sitting around in some person’s house. I was with Jeff Austin [singing mandolinist with the Yonder Mountain String Band] and it was one of them “You should come with us” deals. So we did and we ended up with somebody on acid. We were all laughing about that and within the joke me and Jeff said that the only job in the world where you show up on acid and you’re not fired would be ours.
And this one guy says, “Not true, man. There’s a pitcher who threw a no-hitter on acid.” And we say, “No way, man, c’mon.” And then he showed me about Dock Ellis on the Internet. And that’s when I said: “I’m on this; don’t worry. Next time you see me, I’ll have something.”
Q: Have you made any strange-bedfellow fans along the way, like Christian conservatives or New York bankers?
A: There’s a bunch of people I get to meet. Movie stars. Lots of rock stars–sometimes really, really big ones. I’d have to say my favorite is Jerry Jeff [Walker]. He’s just like my dad; I just love him. Whenever I’m around him, I feel like I don’t want to screw up.
Q: So what does Jerry Jeff think about your record of his tunes? It’s certainly not a tribute record; with that deep hippie groove it’s more like Todd Smokes Jerry Jeff.
A: He’s changed his mind several times. At first blush he said: “What the fuck, man! It sounds like a bunch of dope heads. You didn’t do any arranging.” And I told him: “We didn’t have arrangements. We did smoke dope. It’s just a hippie record, Jerry Jeff.” So I went to speak to his wife and 20 minutes later he says: “So alright, I’ve gotten my head around it. Man, I love it; I get it. It’s fuckin’ great.”
Two days ago he was driving in his car and he heard my version of “Derby Day” on the radio. He said he was moved. And I was moved because I think [“Derby Day”} is the best track on the record.
You know, yesterday he called our machine and just yodeled for five minutes.
Q: I know you’re not crazy about setting goals; your record label, after all, is called Aimless. But are there any things you’d like to do within reason within the next few years—like writing with Jerry Jeff?
A: Ooh, I’d love to do that. It could be a bit tricky, though. When we get together, I’m always asking him to teach me things–you know, “What about that turnaround in ‘Hill Country Rain’?” So the song sort of gets lost in there.
Actually, I’ve been pretty busy lately. I’ve got a record coming out this fall with a hippie band called The Hard Workin’ Americans. We play tunes by cool well-known songwriters like Kevin Gordon and cool underground songwriters like Hayes Carll. We’re doing a two-month tour next year. And I have a book coming out; even if I die, it comes out [laughs]. Da Capo [Press] came to my show and offered me a book deal and I said “Fuck yeah!” So I started typing and I did 90,000 words, which they wanted, and they liked it! There’s a story in there about Jerry Jeff’s balls. But it’s not as gross as it sounds.
Q: So, Todd, my 90-year-old English scone-baking mother wants to try a pot brownie before she dies—a goal she’s had since the late ’60s, when she saw a pot-brownie-baking happy hippie chick in the movie “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.” Do you have any advice for her?
A: For sure. Do it and don’t have one–have two. One’s not the deal; two’s the deal. And I’m being serious. You have to eat two to get the deal going.
And then don’t panic. Ride the wave. Don’t be like the cop who ate pot brownies and called the ambulance and said “I’m dead.” So tell her you can’t die.
Todd Snider: The Scoop
The first song he couldn’t forget was “House of the Rising Sun,” minted by the Animals. “I couldn’t have even been in first grade when I first heard that,” says Snider. “The next one was [the Hollies’] ‘Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.’ Although, actually, no, I think my absolutely first [influential] song was ‘Run Through the Jungle’ by CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival]. That was the first one my dad played for me, my first memory of what rock ‘n’ roll was and turning it up way loud.”
He had a major-league jones for Tom Petty until people kept telling him his third album sounded like it was made by Tom Petty. Snider exorcised his embarrassment by including a joke about the comparison on his fourth album. He still thinks Petty is “maybe one of the finest writers of his generation.”
His songs about musicians include “The Ballad of the Kingsmen.” “Heavy Metal Has-Been” and “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” the tale of a band that becomes more popular the more the members refuse to play music or play the success game.
“Greencastle Blues,” his hilarious “Alice’s Restaurant”-like epic about his pot bust, includes a reference to a sheriff-fan who attended a Snider concert the night Snider was released from custody.
He was inspired to write “New York Banker” after his pal Rahm Emanuel—former White House chief of staff, current Chicago mayor—told him that investment bankers needed to be taken down.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. His favorite Todd Snider lines have a Christian twist: “When I was a child I spoke as a child/I wish I could remember what I said”; “I’m broke as the ten commandments/Sometimes I’m harder to follow.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.