Agent here to take a look at me
But he left before I even started
Then said that I was talent-free
I’m having that kind of career…
Having a kind of career”
— Syd Straw, “Actress”
A night in the career of Syd Straw begins like a bad joke: A woman and a dog walk into a bar … the bar, in this case, being the Cinema Bar in beautiful downtown Culver City, California. The place only holds about 40 people, so Straw’s arrival with Henry is difficult to ignore. The two take their time getting situated – Straw greeting friends, Henry sniffing the floor – while longtime L.A. scenester Dean Chamberlain (whose regular Sunday-night gig Straw is commandeering) and his band clear the tiny stage for her. Just as she’s finally removing her coat, strapping on her guitar and soliciting the last-minute participation of Chamberlain’s bass player, Henry makes the mistake of poking his nose behind the bar — at which point Sara the bartender goes apoplectic. “You can’t have that fucking dog in here!” she yells.
Straw protests – “What did he ever do?” – but Sara’s word is law, so a friend trundles Henry off to an undisclosed location as Straw and her band pull themselves together. She hoists a cheap boombox onto her shoulder, turns it on, and the band launches into a whimsical tune called “Invisible Current of Love.” She gets through about eight bars before realizing that no sound is coming from the boombox, then starts over – only to have the appliance crap out on her about three minutes into the song. That doesn’t stop Straw; she begins riffing that her recent purchase “wasn’t such a ‘Best Buy’ after all,” while her band shuffles along behind her. Getting ready to repeat her chorus one last time, she beseeches the small crowd, “C’mon, sing it – I dare you!” And when her entreaty fails to elicit a full-fledged singalong, she glares at us and snarls, “Hipsters!“
Straw treats her set list less like a regimen than a rough draft, choosing songs seemingly at random and trusting the band to follow along. Deciding at one point to sing Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” long a linchpin of her live repertoire, she enthuses, “Oh! You’re going to love this one! … And if you don’t, please just file out in an orderly fashion.” The line could serve as an apt metaphor for many a pop-music career, including Straw’s – except that her wit is so sharp, the most shambolic of her shows so endearing, that it’s difficult to imagine leaving the room for any reason while she’s onstage. Her annual Valentine’s Day “Heartwreck” concerts have long been a highlight of the winter concert schedule in New York (at least until this year, when she was unable to find a suitable venue). “She really ought to make a live album,” one Internet commenter recently wrote, “but it would be a two-CD set with three songs on it!”
I chatted with Straw (and Henry) over a grilled turkey sandwich and exhaust fumes outside L.A.’s La Brea Bakery a couple weeks ago. (Portions of this interview, dealing specifically with her three solo albums and her work with the Golden Palominos, appeared on Monday as part of Beyond Ubiquitous: The Popdose Guide to Syd Straw.) The still-single chanteuse – who’s currently crashing with Henry in a friend’s dining room while she plots a move from her rural-Vermont home to new digs in L.A. – was reeling over the morning’s sitcom-worthy predicament, in which she found herself feeding breakfast to a pair of male suitors who had arrived separately on her doorstep. She was still jazzed over the previous weekend’s gig, as well as her recording session a couple days earlier, covering “Hey Self Defeater” for a Mark Mulcahy benefit album. “It’s one of his best songs,” she says. “Everyone I know and love the most is a real foot-shooter, someone who has a lot of talent and a lot of trouble believing in himself. So the message of this song is, ‘Hey, self-defeater, you’re better than you think you are — so stop looking down!’ That’s a great message for the world right now.” (Thanks to M. Ramirez Photo for the use of several images.)
I was looking forward to this interview until I read a review of the They Might Be Giants documentary, A Tale of Two Johns. The review read, “It’s pretty good — with the striking exception of every single Syd Straw interview segment.”
Who wrote that?!? What does that even mean? Maybe what he meant is that it’s pretty good, but my scenes are great! Well … everyone’s entitled to their opinions, uninformed or otherwise. That’s one of the things I don’t like so much about the ‘intranets,’ is that now everybody’s a critic. I can understand it — I have lots of opinions, and many of them are uninformed, but that doesn’t make them any less strong. But now everybody gets to pass judgment on everybody else, no matter what they know or don’t know. [A sudden cri de coeur, into the heavens] I don’t care what you think! Just send me your love!
It’s too bad Henry got kicked out of the bar the other night. He missed a pretty good show.
The bartender thought he was drunk and misbehaving, but he hadn’t even had … well, he’d had one little shot. [She cradles Henry’s face in her hands] Look at that face! How could you kick that face out of a bar?
Considering how small the bar is, maybe she thought he was taking up valuable drinking space.
But he does drink, a little — he’s not just taking up space! He doesn’t even need a bowl — he just licks it off the floor. He’s not proud. I don’t bring him to shows that often now, because he doesn’t have much restraint — he will lick the entire floor. One time not too long ago we played the Great American Music Hall [in San Francisco], and he licked that entire floor, and after the show he was bombed. He fell over into a drunken heap! I said, ‘Henry, my dear, I’ve been there. I’ll sober you up.”
Your gigs seem to be organized rather loosely these days. How much planning goes into them?
Planning? What I try to do is make sure to remember to put my dog and my guitar in the car, and then I try to have a general idea of where the show is supposed to be that night. That pretty much describes my current level of planning for shows. Right now I’m just playing a couple little hidden shows, mostly to scrape off the rust, and to encourage my fellow adults to get off our comfortable couches and our lard-like asses, and get out and change our molecules by paying attention to someone else’s ideas for once.
You do seem intent on bringing people together these days. I heard you were running for Justice of the Peace back in Vermont. How did that turn out?
I lost, by one lousy vote [out of about 420 cast]. I was on the ballot with Mr. Obama –
And you were running as a Republican?
What? How could you say that?
I was just trying to give you an excuse for losing.
No. Don’t ever say anything like that again. Anyway, it was not a disappointment, because I lost to a great man. His name is Wayne Granquist, and he was an advisor to Howard Dean. He runs our City Council meetings. He’s a great, eloquent man. If I had to lose to someone, I’m glad it was Wayne. But I’ll run again – I’ll get you next time, Wayne Granquist! [derisively] One vote! I’m not bitter … much.
Why did you run in the first place?
I’m a very civic-minded person – did you know I’m constable of my little town? Mostly I run around rescuing animals. But I was asked two years ago to fly from Vermont to California and officiate at my friends’ wedding — the ‘Alaska pipeline of rock,’ TrueTone Dave Jenkins [owner of the L.A. instrument shop TrueTone Music], and Cynthia Overstreet. We had the most fun time — it was just what you’d want a wedding to be. That got me thinking about how much I love the process, so I ran for Justice of the Peace and got my Universal Life ministry card, which anyone can get.
You could use your song “Marry Me” [from Pink Velour] to advertise your services. You could promise to sing it at every wedding you perform.
I wrote that song on the way to a wedding. It was four days after 9/11. I had literally just escaped New York at 11 o’clock the night before [the attack], and driven overnight up to Vermont. I had been house-sitting for some friends who lived a couple blocks from the twin towers! I’m blind as a bat at night, but I drove through the night anyway, and I’m glad I did.
So, four days later I was compelled to sing at the wedding of my friends, [the authors] Mary Gaitskill and Peter Trachtenberg. They wanted me to sing a certain Lou Reed song. I didn’t even want to leave my house. But I drove down the Taconic Parkway at 85 miles an hour, and I wrote “Marry Me” on the directions to the wedding. At a certain point, the song and the directions just went fffwwwttttt! out the window! And I thought, Oh my God, I don’t even know where this wedding is! I only knew it was in the town of Red Hook [along the Hudson River north of NYC], so I got into town and started asking people if they knew of any weddings that were happening that day.
I finally found the place, and I remember being at the bottom of a mile-long driveway and running and running with my guitar case, and I got there just in time to hear them say, “I do.” Then they turned around, and Mary Gaitskill, who’s a fierce little customer, glared at me. And when they walked up the aisle they were growling at each other like little bears — they’re creaturely, it was wonderful and charming — and then she looked at me and growled, “Where were you?” And I said, “Hey, little bear cub, it’s your wedding day! Get happy! I’ll talk to you about it later.”
And so, during the cake-eating and champagne-drinking part of the reception I sang an a cappella version of this brand-new song, and everybody seemed to enjoy it — some people told me it’s the funnest wedding song they’ve ever heard. But guess what? The fierce little bride in her little goth wedding dress, growling – we had a little quiet moment off to the side, and she asked me, “What happened to the Lou Reed song?” I said, “Mary, I wrote you a song on your wedding day, on the way to your wedding, for two writers I love very much. I thought you would like that!” And she said, “Well, I didn’t. I didn’t like it that much.” She’s a tough cookie.
So, now you’re thinking of abandoning the Northeast and moving back to L.A. Why?
I love this town. I miss this town like a phantom limb — like all my limbs were phantom limbs. People deride it, but I just say to them, “If you can’t come here, of all places, and have a good time, then you should have left whatever crap you brought with you back home.”
Vermont is a very important factor. I have a little tiny house, a cocktail shack in the woods. My father built it when I was 5, and I have cocktail parties. I’m like Snow White, but 30 years older — I have cocktail parties, and deer and bears and all the dogs from miles around come to my house. Little woodland creatures.
I lived in Vermont as a kid. My dad [the film and TV actor Jack Straw] was an innkeeper — he got disenchanted with showbiz, so he spent the ’60s running a little entertainment hotspot, a tiny country inn in Vermont. He was the innkeeper and the chef and the entertainment. I was the bartender, starting when I was about 5 years old. I can mix you a fine, delectable cocktail. I can remember serving Carol Burnett once, when I was about 7. It was New Year’s Eve. My dad told me who she was, and I remember looking up at her, and I said, “What’ll it be, Carol? What’s your pleasure, ma’am? My dad tells me you’re very funny.” I’m pretty sure I made her a nice martini, with olives and a twist.
When did you move back, and why?
I moved back in 1998, because my father was dying with the lung cancer. He was in the hospital system in New York – a very overwhelmed hospital system. I was so pleased to get him out of there, because every day he was in that system I think he felt it was his job to die that day. I think he felt it was a disappointment to them if he continued to live. I think that’s no way to approach your final days, so I conned this crazy Vermont ambulance driver to come down on January 1, 10 years ago, and drive him back up to Vermont.
Isn’t this a fun showbiz interview?
Absolutely! Well, it’s clear from the Pink Velour album that you’ve been affected deeply by the loss of your parents. It seems Henry was, too. Did you write “About to Forget” directly to him? Did you sit down one day and think, “I’ll write a song about death to Henry”?
After my mother died five years ago, Henry sat by her chair waiting for her to return. She had a big, flowery chair that was the center of her universe, where she conducted all her business, and Henry just sat there for weeks and weeks, waiting for her to sit down in the chair. I was taking care of her final business, and I looked down at the chair and he was there, just looking up. And that line of the song came to me — “It’s hard to explain heavy things to a dog.” He was just sitting there, saying, “Where is she? When’s she coming back? She’s so big on treats!”
My mother and Henry were so in love with each other. My mom stole his heart, the same way she used to steal boys from me. When I was just starting to figure out men and boys, a million years ago, they would come over and I would turn around for a second, and when I’d turn back around I’d think, “Why is this boy suddenly sitting in the dining room listening to Rachmaninoff with my mother?” And I’d think, “Come on, mom! Just let me try and kiss this guy! ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy, mother!”
Anyway, he’s still looking for her. I am, too. It’s part of growing up, at my advanced age. I am actively engaged in square-dancing with my inner adult. I’m fully in touch with my inner child, but I’ve been investigating my inner adult, and I really like it.
What would you want to do that for? Isn’t the idea to put that off as long as possible?
There’s a lot I want to use my faculties to accomplish. I do have ambition — it’s just not a very “showbiz” kind of ambition. I’m not very competitive, unfortunately. There are a lot of people who are competitive, and right now they are sitting in somebody’s office, waiting to do some horrible audition, and they want that job so much more than I do. I only tend to get a job if they’re inclined to hire me anyway.
I heard the gig on [the 1990s Nickelodeon show] The Adventures of Pete and Pete came to you that way.
The producers said they wanted the math teacher to be someone like Syd Straw! And [director] Katherine Dieckmann said, “Syd’s a really good actor — and she’s exactly like Syd Straw!” The fun part of doing that show was that I got to name Miss Fingerwood, and write some of her material. And Katherine and I have been friends a long time. I’m a big fan of longevity.
Well, now that you’re a mogul with your own label [Earnester Records, which she set up to release Pink Velour], you can hire yourself as often as you like.
Yeah, it’s been really fun! I’m the CEO of everything I’m doing, and so far the CEO and the artist are getting along really well. I take myself out to fancy, posh lunches. I have learned so much while doing this. For one thing, I’ve learned that I’ve had so much help along the way that I didn’t even know about! So now I’m far more grateful to Virgin Records [which released her first solo album, Surprise, in 1989] and to Capricorn Records [which released War and Peace in 1996], for all the concerted effort it takes to put anything out there.
The best part of this is that now nobody is inviting me to watch them in their office while they put a giant tuna-fish sandwich in their gullet, and at the same time take 19 phone calls, all while pretending to listen to my songs in the background. I just don’t go to those meetings anymore.
There’s still the occasional interview, though.
Well, now the business and the marketing are an extention of the music. There’s no difference between sitting here talking to you, and the song I’m going to be working on this afternoon. It’s all part of one big whole.
I know my appeal is kind of wide, but limited, and I accepted that a long time ago. Here are the only opinions I care about: I care about good, smart people. [She tears up slightly] I just want my songs to be heard by the people who need to hear them. Apart from that, I don’t need to be popular, though it would be nice to have some security. As a person who gives birth to songs once in awhile, they are like my offspring, and I want them to go to the best schools, to be invited to the really smart kids’ houses for snacks. I want them to be picked for all the good teams, and I don’t want them to go out into the world and be humiliated.
Mostly, I want to have what I’m having, which is an awfully interesting life. I think I was put on this planet to be open to all the currents, and to walk through the world in an open way. That’s dangerous, and I get hurt a lot, but it’s about drawing the kind of people to me that I want to spend the rest of my life in tandem with.
And I wouldn’t mind if it made people love me.
A selection of Straw’s compilation appearances and collaborations:
“Listening To Elvis” (from the Luxury Condos Coming to Your Neighborhood Soon compilation)
“Medley Two: Stay Awake/Little Wooden Head/Blue Shadows on the Trail” (with Suzanne Vega, Bill Frisell & Wayne Horvitz, from Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Classic Disney Films)
“Down in Love” (with Freedy Johnston, from his album Can You Fly?
“The T.B. Is Whipping Me” (with Wilco, from Red Hot + Country)
“I Must Be In Love” (with Marc Ribot, from Rutles Highway Revisited)
“Golden Dreams” (from Live from Mountain Stage, Vol. 8)