Not that Straw wasn’t working through the intervening years. Her husky, distinctive voice has made her a favorite among discerning artists and producers looking for a duet partner or backing vocalist; her list of guest credits is as long as her own discography is short. She also found work as an actress during the 1990s, and a generation of Nickelodeon-bred dorks (you know who you are) remember her as the number-fetishizing Miss Fingerwood on The Adventures of Pete and Pete.
Most of all, she has remained a beloved, influential (and eccentric) presence among fellow musicians, indie-rock scenesters, artists and literary types – always quick with a bon mot (or 10), always with her beloved dog Henry in tow, and always generous with her time and talents. (The title of this Popdose Guide was Straw’s idea, something to do with a well-connected artist who’s released just three albums in 20 years circling all the way back around from obscurity to a position just the other side of ubiquity.)
The Golden Palominos, Visions of Excess (1985) and Blast of Silence (1986)
Straw got her first exposure to the musical big time singing background vocals for Pat Benatar, but she rose to prominence with her contributions to these albums, which (like all the Palominos’ discs) featured collectives of high-profile alt- and art-rock musicians gathered together by former Feelies and Pere Ubu drummer Anton Fier. Visions of Excess was the group’s second album and its most popular, thanks to Michael Stipe’s vocals on “Boy (Go)” and “Omaha” as well as John Lydon’s on “The Animal Speaks.” It was Straw, however, who proved the real discovery on Visions; her riveting vocals came as a revelation toward the end of the set, on the tracks “(Kind of) True” and “Buenos Aires.”
Blast of Silence followed a year later and featured an utterly different sound from its predecessor; two decades on, it’s remembered as one of the albums that gave birth to the alt-country genre. Fier’s assemblage this time featured Matthew Sweet, Jack Bruce, T-Bone Burnett, Don Dixon, Chris Stamey and many others. Again, however, it was Straw who provided the most resonant contributions, including “Angels” (which she co-wrote with Fier and Peter Blegvad) and a terrific cover of Lowell George’s “I’ve Been the One.” Straw toured extensively with the Palominos during this period, enhancing her reputation as both a lead vocalist and band member, and endearing her to a vast array of alt-rock insiders who would provide her with work and comradeship for decades to come.
Responding to a question about Fier’s working style, Straw says, “He was neither genius nor evil. He’s like a lot of people I’ve known, smart and troubled. That was a very meaningful time for me. Anton was the first person who gave me the assignment to write a song – he said, ‘Here’s some music, why don’t you put some words and a melody to it.’ That was a wonderful thing for me.
“However,” she adds, “we did this Peter Holsapple song called ‘Diamond’ [on Blast of Silence], I was in the studio doing the vocal, and Anton was screaming at me! We’d been up all night recording it, and he’d get on the talk-back button, and at one point he said, ‘You know, I can make one phone call and get a real singer in here!’ I loved that song, and it was my idea to do it, but I wound up being tortured because he was so mean and drunk and critical. I left the studio and walked into a little snowstorm at 5 in the morning, and I had his angry yelling in my ear, and I realized that I was so tortured by Anton’s deep beratement that I didn’t sing the third verse – I just repeated the first verse, and I missed the best verse of the song.
“Except for that little moment, working with Anton making those records and touring [with the Palominos] was nothing but deep, deep learning and pleasure.” Collector’s note: Visions of Excess and Blast of Silence are both available on import, but a better bet is the Golden Palominos box set on the import Golden Stars label, which collects the group’s first three albums at a bargain price. Perhaps a dozen Palominos compilations have appeared through the years; this one has the distinct advantage of remaining in print.
Signed to Virgin Records America, Straw made her solo debut with this slice of state-of-the-art, late-’80s modern rock. All the requisite ingredients for just-left-of-the-mainstream success were in place. A clutch of sturdy, self-penned songs? Check! (Among the best: “Heart of Darkness,” co-written with former Slapp Happy member and occasional Pink Floyd collaborator Anthony Moore.) A ringer of a jangle-poppy cover tune? Check! (Peter Holsapple’s “Think Too Hard,” on which Straw previously had sung backing vocals when it was recorded for the dB’s The Sound of Music album.) High-profile guests? Check! (Alphabetically, among others: Dave Alvin, Ry Cooder, Marshall Crenshaw, Joe Ely, Jim Keltner, Daniel Lanois, Van Dyke Parks, Benmont Tench, Don Was and Bernie Worrell, as well as Palominos cohorts Fier, Blegvad, Stamey and Richard Thompson.) A Michael Stipe cameo? Check! (The soaring “Future 40’s (String of Pearls)” would mark her sole appearance on a Billboard chart, peaking at #16 on the Modern Rock Tracks list. Stipe later would sing a verse from it on R.E.M.’s Tourfilm video.) A quirky, well-made video perfect for MTV’s 120 Minutes? Check!
Nonetheless, Straw had no illusions that she would become as popular as some of her peers. “Oh, God, no – are you kidding? Nobody ever even saw that video!” she says now. “Did they ever even play it?” She exaggerates, perhaps, but her instinct was correct: While Surprise attracted near-universal critical acclaim, it failed to catch fire in the male-dominated realm of modern-rock radio and didn’t sell enough copies for Virgin to commit to a second album. Still, she says, “It was a great experience, because of the people who were with me on that album and tour … I had met a lot of nice people on tour with the Palominos, and what I have found in my experience so far is that people love to work. They love to be called upon to do what they excel at —and that’s what I asked those folks to do for my first album. And I’ve been asked to do that many times by all sorts of people I admire since then. If we can just put whatever we’re good at in a big pile for the greater good, we can make a big contribution to the world. That’s my modus operandi.”
When Straw’s name finally graced a CD again, it was in a radically different guise from her first album. The humbly titled War and Peace, released by the reincarnated Southern-rock label Capricorn Records, is a far rootsier, more rocking affair – which makes sense, since it was recorded with Lou Whitney’s renowned garage-rock outfit the Skeletons at their home studio in Springfield, Missouri. Straw laid out the album’s principal themes on its opening track, “The Toughest Girl in the World,” serving notice that she’d be exploring her wounded heart from a variety of angles. She’s jaded, if not quite bitter, on the jangly “Love, and the Lack of It”; on “CBGB’s” she’s earnest and touching, wondering if a onetime lover remembers her and if he’s turned out happy. Later she begs for “Water, Please,” hoping not to get hung out to dry by an inattentive boyfriend. Through it all the Skeletons shift brilliantly with Straw’s moods, and give her wry wit plenty of room to color the material.
“It was such a riot making that record,” she says. “I had been such a fan of the Skeletons for so many years, and I been down in Springfield years before with my good friend Eric Ambel from the Del Lords, when we made this fun record called Roscoe’s Gang [in 1988]. Lou Whitney makes pot after pot of very weak coffee, and I once said, ‘Lou, my God, is there some reason your coffee is so bad? It’s so weak you can see right through it! What are you saving the beans for – is somebody better coming in later to record something?’ And he said, ‘Well, Syd, if I keep it weak like this I can keep drinking it all day and all night.’ And that’s when I understood the genius of Lou.”
War and Peace met a fate quite similar to that of Surprise. Hailed by critics, well-regarded in the industry, played some by Adult-Alternative radio and treasured by a cult of worshipful fans, it still failed to become a hit. Released just a bit too early to ride the Lilith Fair wave of late-’90s female singer-songwriters, and buried by more accessible contemporaneous releases like Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Sheryl Crow’s eponymous second album, War and Peace also suffered from Capricorn’s insufficient marketing (the label folded again a few years later). Straw moved on, hopeful about the future; in 1997, she told the British magazine Hearsay that “I’m gonna make a record in late summer! In keeping with not letting seven years just slip through my fingers, I’m just gonna get right back up on the horse and ride again.” Famous last words…
Straw was hardly inactive as a songwriter during the dozen years that separated War and Peace from last year’s Pink Velour; indeed, several tracks date back to the millennium and even before. (Once she stopped laughing after having the above quote read back to her, she said, “Hmmm – something must have happened in between, right? I guess something came up! A lot can happen in the average day, you know.” Anyway, after completing various tracks in fits and starts, and after searching in vain for a label to release the album, she finally went the DIY route and started her own imprint, Earnester Records. It’s a good thing, too – even though the album has been roundly ignored in the overwhelmed music press – because Pink Velour is a witty, serious, utterly mature stunner of an album, steeped in love and history and (especially) loss.
The heartbreaking “Pink Velour” lays bare Straw’s pain at the deaths of both her parents in recent years; it traces the emotions that surrounded her move to California as a child following their divorce. (A few years ago Straw told an interviewer that she had been “kidnapped” by her mother and did not see her father, the musical-theater actor Jack Straw, for seven years afterward.) “Where in the world are you now?” she sings to her father. “We only see you in movies / And I wish for you when I’m wishing on a star / And I always check the weather where you are.”
“About to Forget” continues along these lines, sorting through Straw’s (and her dog Henry’s) responses to her mother’s death – and beginning with an unforgettable stanza: “It’s hard to explain heavy things to a dog / But one day you’ll sleep like a log / It’s hard to explain heavy things to a pup / One day you’ll sleep and you won’t wake up / And it kills me in advance, my dear.” On the other hand, “Marry Me” is considerably happier – in fact, it just might be the most loopily romantic wedding song in pop history. (The full stories of both songs will be told on Thursday, when Popdose publishes a full-length interview with Straw.) Elsewhere, some of the album’s strongest songs recall the themes of War and Peace: “Storm Warning” hearkens back to the loved-and-lost trope that dominated the earlier album, while the whimsical waltz “Papier Mache” asks a new lover to tread gently because “I’m tough but I’m tender, in my own way.”
The closing track on Pink Velour is the extraordinary “Actress,” a caustic, autobiographical epic built around the central line “I’m having a kind of career.” Straw says, “The whole damn thing’s about me. I am having a kind of career! I really like that song — though, when I played it for my father, he said, ‘Oh, honey, that’s the dullest song ever, nobody will ever want to hear that.’ I said, ‘Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?’ And he goes, ‘It goes on and on, and nothing ever happens!’
“The song really is me, though. If I was a bit more driven, or ambitious, or beautiful, I’d be working it a different way. But I have so much pleasure at the margins! It’s so frolicsome over here at the edge of the paper, where nobody really much cares what I do, so there’s not a lot of editing.”
Straw recently contributed several songs and incidental music to the soundtrack of Motherhood, a new indie comedy directed by Katherine Dieckmann (with whom Straw previously worked on Pete and Pete and other projects) and starring Uma Thurman. Dieckmann had written Straw’s song “CBGB’s” into the closing scenes of the film, which premiered at Sundance in January. Additionally, Straw just recorded a cover of “Hey Self Defeater,” a solo track by Miracle Legion co-founder Mark Mulcahy, for an upcoming tribute/benefit album; proceeds will go to Mulcahy, whose wife died suddenly last fall, leaving him to bring up their two daughters on his own.
Such projects have always played a key role in Straw’s career. Here is a small selection of her contributions to compilation albums and recordings by friends and colleagues:
“For Shame of Doing Wrong” (with Evan Dando, from the Richard Thompson tribute album Beat the Retreat)
“I’m a Believer” (with Squeeze and Jules Shear, from the first-ever episode of MTV Unplugged)
“When I’m At Your House” (with Loudon Wainwright III, from his album History)
“My Daddy (Flies a Ship in the Sky)” (from Daddy O Daddy: Rare Family Songs of Woody Guthrie)
“(I Am Always Touched By Your) Presents, Dear” (from the Chris Stamey Band’s Christmas Time album)
“The Man With the Child in His Eyes” (from the Kate Bush tribute album I Wanna Be Kate)
Of the last track, Straw says, “That’s the only [song of hers] I wanted to record. I don’t think we did it justice, but I was pleased to be on that record. I met Kate Bush years ago, at a Pink Floyd party in London. And I went up to her and said, ‘Kate Bush! You don’t know me from a pole in the ground, but someday I would like to sit in a room with you, on a couple of chairs, and sing together.’ And she got all nervous, and finally said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because you and I would sound like angels in heat!’ And at that point, she was like … [holds her finger up] ‘Security!’”
Come back on Thursday for more crazy tales from the life and career of Syd Straw.