If matchbox 20 is the rock 'n' roll equivalent of McDonald's, then Todd Snider is the rock 'n' roll equivalent of El Fronterizo bar down at 14th Street on Van Buren in Phoenix.
It's where the smell of stale cigarettes, unfulfilled dreams and a thousand midnights of being drunk all collect. It's where unemployed rednecks with prison tats swill bad draft. It's where whores wander by, throwing midday shadows through an open door of the bar to the rhythmic soundtrack of their heels clicking away. It's where the juke is always relevant, spinning scratchy vinyl memories of old Hank, mid-period Stones and young Petty interrupted by off-time pool-ball swacks.
God bless Todd Snider and the tattered myth he rode in on. Todd Snider understands the jive. He sees straight through the fast-buck and frighteningly frigid pop-alternative mire. He and his band the Nervous Wrecks (bassist Joe Mariencheck, drummer Paul Buchignani and guitarist Will Kimbrough) are the apotheosis of ace, and they're rock 'n' roll in the purist sense: Lead singer and main songwriter Snider digs Chuck Berry, Jerry Jeff, and Dylan, and can say with a straight face that "we should all crank Skynyrd," even though he doesn't subscribe to their brand of racial defensiveness and cheap sexism. (Truth be told, in Lynyrd Skynyrd's heyday, them hard-drinkin' Southerners were more than just purveyors of white-trash twang--that's far too too simple: Skynyrd had great songs and were people to whom music was all that mattered.)
Snider's new record (Viva Satellite)--his third for MCA--is full of twisted romanticism and liquored-up tales, the kind one would associate with, say, early Kris Kristofferson, the Replacements, or even seminal drunk/poet Charles Bukowski (Todd's a confessed Buk fan, but of the late Replacements he says: "Yeah, they were cool, they had that spirit, we can see that. But we never got the punk chords, though that guy [Paul Westerberg] threw in the odd seventh chord, and that was very Southern").
The ragtag streams of sing-songy verse-chorus-verse on Viva Satellite belie that tired strategy by sheer spirit and force of rock 'n' roll/country will. And not without proper libation, either--while listening, one can almost hear a whiskey bottle in Todd's hand accidentally tapping the mike stand as he laid down his raspy vocals and empathetic trailer-park tales during the making of this recording.
The opening song, "Rocket Fuel," sets the tone for the rest of the album as Snider tosses off lines like, "My mom works/My dad's gone/I skip school all day long," while the Wrecks rattle off a racket of anthemic riffs underneath. Compact literate twists on updated countryesque themes run the gamut throughout, like: Deadbeat dads and Jesus ("Once He Finds Us"), pangs of troubled home life as a kid ("Out All Night"), transparent girlfriends ("Positively Negative"), reminiscing over lost love ("Yesterday and Used to Be," which has this heartstring tug for a verse: "With just a mattress on the floor/In that place we used to stay/You made me feel like I was more/Than anything I got today") and, of course, drinking, trailers and fights ("Doublewide Blues"). Certainly going without a Stones hat-tip would be remiss here, too, and the Dead Flowery "Godsend" (penned by guitarist Will Kimbrough) tells us of a guy hell-bent on redemption.
Over the phone lines, Todd's Texas-via-Tennessee drawl somehow matches his dirty-blond, Tom Waits-ish barfly persona as seen in the CD booklet photos. And the guy is a pure Southern gentleman with more than a limited grasp on wit and self-mockery.
"I was hoping to sing out something about Memphis, about the neighborhood where we live," Snider says when asked the story behind the acoustic proletariat confessional "Doublewide Blues," which closes out Viva Satellite. "That was the first song I wrote, and I was kinda hoping the rest of the record went with it."
Is Memphis a place he calls home, then? "I moved to a town called Fairview, right before we started the record, which is on a two-line highway about two hours from Memphis. My house is right on the highway," he says. "There's about a thousand people there, and there ain't much to do. There's one truck-stop bar that's good, and a gas station. There's the post office and police station where the mayor and everybody is in the same building."
Under most circumstances, that small-town, working-class-hero-is-something-to-be verbiage would be pure record-company bio/marketing horseshit to foster some contrived band image. And given the current climate in rock 'n' roll, we wanna expose the fakes as the greedy, selfish, career-tracked losers that they are.
As Alice Cooper said in 1973, "The kids want a savior; they don't need a fake." Cooper had a point. If Todd Snider was faking it, he'd look like the biggest pompous ass in the world. Instead, somehow, he's right on the money. Maybe that's because the songs transcend tripe by sounding like they were written by necessity, not by choice. Maybe because there is nothing else in life for him?
"I think everybody is on a mission. I feel like Bob Marley and Woody Guthrie did their job," Snider says in his current bio.
When that kind of mythology plays a hand, there's a whole lot of drinking going on as well. Admittedly, Snider is a bit of a self-abuse enthusiast.
"There will be pain medicine forever," he says about his band's particular boozy predilections. While working with Gin Blossoms producer John Hampton on Viva Satellite, however, Snider did hear the sad tale of the late Doug Hopkins. "That was one dude we lost; I had heard he was a good soul. John loved him."
For a bit of rock 'n' roll reverence, Viva Satellite contains a wicked take of Steve Miller's "The Joker" that, if nothing else, shows just how that song has been copped to death, perhaps most blatantly in Sheryl Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas."
"One of the things I said the night we cut that song was, 'If everybody else is gonna redo this song, we might as well just redo it,'" Snider says, laughing. "[Tom] Petty had it, too, with 'Lets get to the point/Let's roll another joint,' which was almost right on it. We originally did it for a movie, but it didn't happen. And then we put that little Booker T. thing in the back to give it our own little twist. That's one of my favorite things on the record."
Did Snider hear from Steve Miller?
"No, but the reason why it didn't get to be in the movie is because he didn't want it to be," Snider says. "He's not a stoner anymore, I guess."
Maybe Miller subscribed to all that 12-step rhetoric floating around these days. "Oh, man, I've heard enough of that to fuckin' knock a ship down," Snider says with a laugh.
The jury is still out on whether Viva Satellite will find the success it deserves, but the songs are raw enough to scare off the average radio programmer until instructed otherwise. Of course, those instructions will have to come from the kids of America.
Todd Snider is scheduled to perform on Saturday, June 6, at Cajun House in Scottsdale, with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Uma. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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