"Hey, remember me? We met 10 years ago at CBGB's," Syd Straw sings on War and Peace, her new album. In the seven long years between her first and second album, Straw has somehow managed not to be forgotten by the music world. That hardly surprises me; I can never forget meeting her for the first time, some 13 years ago, at a party in downtown Manhattan.
It was a small gathering of music types, but I had no idea this woman who joined our crew for a night of party-hopping was a singer. She was just this odd, compelling presence, like the archetypal gawky gal who overcompensates by being thoroughly wacky. She had it down to a science, and she was unforgettable.
"Who was that Syd girl?" I remember saying the next day. Not very much later, I went to see The Golden Palominos, and there was "that Syd girl" again, this time up there on stage singing Lowell George songs as if they were written for her (no small accomplishment). She kept popping up here and there afterward--singing with somebody's band, doing her own showcase gig--but nothing prepared me for her 1989 debut album on Virgin Records, appropriately entitled Surprise.
By one of the first few listens, the album became a personal favorite, and if I were forced to choose 10 Desert Island Discs, Surprise would certainly make the list. Recorded in New York, Los Angeles, London (at Brian Eno's house, no less), Woodstock, and Austin, the album had three co-producers (Van Dyke Parks, Daniel Lanois, and Anthony Moore) as well as an impressive and incredibly broad roster of musical contributors like Michael Stipe, Richard Thompson, Don Was, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, Marshall Crenshaw, Dave Alvin, John Doe, Bernie Worrell, Benmont Tench, and a host of others.
But for all its obvious sprawl, Surprise was indeed Straw's show, an album of incredible sophistication and a singer's tour de force. A musical astonishment, the album was like her personality, charming and unforgettable. Critics raved, but after a short tour with a band that included Alvin on guitar, Straw seemed to fade from the limelight; not too much later she was dropped from Virgin's roster. It has taken her seven years--almost to the month--to release another album. As the advance tapes of War and Peace began circulating earlier this year, you could almost hear the critics climbing over each other to weigh in with their enthusiasm over Straw's return to action (this time on the Capricorn label). If you had dropped a bomb on Austin's La Zona Rosa during Straw's private South by Southwest music-festival showcase last March, you could have ended rock criticism as we know it (not a bad idea). Like me, scores of other critics found Straw unforgettable.
Seven years is a long time, and today Straw is a much changed person. At least that's what she says in her own inimitable way, following a path somewhat akin to the one an atomically charged pinball might leave after zinging around inside your brain. "I think the person that I was then--that I still am--but I was a bit younger, like six or seven years ago...I felt like...I'm not sure I like this analogy I'm gonna make," she allows, "but I kinda felt like I was a pile of gunpowder without a gun...so I didn't know what to do with myself. I was just a pile of gunpowder. I am really starting to dislike this image I am painting--now it's like...I'm loaded."
It's not as if she wasn't busy in the meantime. With amazing regularity, I would hear this cool harmony part on some new record I liked and then look at the credits, and there was Syd, who estimates she's sung on something like 200 albums. She was a featured artist on the first MTV Unplugged show, and scored TV acting roles in the BBC/PBS production of Tales of the City and Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete and Pete. (The daughter of TV and movie actor Jack Straw, Syd grew up in the Los Angeles show-business world.)
She also moved back to L.A. after I met her, later moving on to Athens, Georgia. She got married and divorced, then moved to Chicago. She's reportedly going to get married again, this time to her manager, Tony Margherita. Margherita supposedly sprang the question by slipping a glazed donut onto her finger like a ring--just the kind of proposal someone like Straw could never resist.
"I am a traveler, that's well-known," she admits. "I have a traveling heart, you know? I'm interested in a lot of things and people and places. That's why I had to limit my pursuit of other interests, to finish this record at last, and I'm so happy that I did...I don't feel that I missed too much. There's always more stuff happening. That's what I love about the tilt of this crazy planet."
The axis War and Peace spins about is formed by the crooked poles of love and romance, and Straw's blunt tales of love gone weird, recalled in song, tempts many listeners to read her compositions as if they were her life. "I don't feel that I write songs that are extremely autobiographical," she explains, "or even literal--not all the time, but some of the time. But I'm not going, 'My name is Syd, and this song's about me, Syd, and I did this, and I loved him...' It's not really like that, 'cause I always think of the bigger picture, the bigger romantic framework."
Aha, the Richard Thompson defense! "Wow, is that what Richard would say? I definitely don't evade the truth, but I also really don't spell it out. I feel that I allude to truthful things."
The truthful thing inside the last seven years--artistically at least--is that Straw has spent much of the time woodshedding, growing from singer to something more like a complete artist. On Surprise, all of her originals were co-written, but War and Peace finds Straw writing 11 of 14 tunes herself, in addition to playing rhythm guitar and producing. While Surprise was recorded all over the map, Straw cut War and Peace in Springfield, Missouri, of all places, known as "The Recording Capital of Greene County" to those who make the pilgrimage there to work with Lou Whitney and the Skeletons, the NRBQ of the Midwest, ergo one of America's greatest relatively unknown rock 'n' roll bands.
"The thing about the way I worked back then was I was all over the place. And it was great--I have no regrets, coyote," she says, quoting Joni Mitchell (another allusion, perhaps, that indicates something about Straw's talents and her unusual subject matter). "But this way, I just plain wanted to make a 'be here now' record. Let's see what we can do right here, right now, with what we've got. It was really fun.
"You're hanging around with Lou Whitney, you're going to have some serious fun," she assures. "It's a guarantee. I wish Lou had time to hang around with everyone. You know, if I ever get my variety show--[the one] that I've had in my dreams for about 15 years--up and running, definitely Lou is going to be my Ed McMahon times 10. In my head, it's really great."
Whitney and the Skeletons are also her road band, hitting the highway themselves for the first time in years. As a live unit, it's an explosive match of singer and band. Until Straw gets her talk show on the air, she still has her ongoing soap opera, a.k.a., her songs. From the album's highly allusional name and witty song titles like "Love, and the Lack of It," "Water, Please," "The Toughest Girl in the World," and, of course, "CBGB's" (the name of New York's original punk-rock mecca), you can get an idea of her unique brand of (seemingly) nonfiction confessional. Whatever truth may or may not be in the lyrics, Straw does admit that she is something of a drama queen in both her life and her art.
"I always wanted to fall in love until I decided that it was really cutting into my songwriting time, and I thought I would like to be a priestess for a while," she says. "But that just didn't work out because of my libido. Well, you know, rock music is a fairly sexually driven medium."
She nonetheless cautions her listeners to never read too much into her tragic tales. "I would say, Don't assume you know me intimately," she whispers with an intimate chuckle.
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So how many dates would it take to get to know her intimately? "When I was 20, I would definitely not sleep with anyone until the first date," she says with a laugh. "Now I'm a whole lot harder to get...'cause I'm a one-man guy." Once again, it's an allusion, this time to a Loudon Wainwright III song.
That's just Straw's way as she roams through the (musical) world, soaking up ideas and experiences like some kind of unquenchable sponge, then wringing it all back out with her own off-kilter reconstructive skills.
"I feel very open to and inspired by lots of things, lots of nouns," she concludes. "Fun with words, that's what I'm here for!"
Syd Straw and The Skeletons perform at Sons of Hermann Hall July 6.