A Different Kind of American Dream

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Welcome to an ongoing conversation between Todd Snider — a true descendent of Will Rogers and East Nashville’s finest singer-songwriter — and Dirty Impound’s Chief Instigator Dennis Cook. Think of it as Tuesdays with Morrie as reconceived by two pot-smoking, porn-watching, peace-lovin’, punk-hearted hippies.

In this installment: William Blake misremembered, what constitutes a good song and “Louie Louie.”

Todd: It’s not the despair that kills you; it’s the hope.
Dennis: That’s sort of a hillbilly version of Buddha.
Todd: It’s the despair that’s telling you the truth. We are born sick. It’s an expression from this great friend we just lost who had a ton of great expressions. He also said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Dennis: What is it about the gates of wisdom are stormed through excess?
That’s William Blake, the doors of perception. That’s how The Doors got their name. When the doors of perception are cleansed…the Path of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom…or some shit [laughs].
That’s the collective unconscious for you. We all have pieces of things but rarely the whole of them. But somewhere there’s one guy who remembers all of it [laughs].
Personally, I’m not sure I’ve been down the Path of Wisdom.
I know this is a cliché, but the older I get I’m pretty certain I know a lot less not more about the nature of the world than I once thought. I’m not sure that getting older does mean getting wiser.
Me neither. I got a new song I’m working on that goes, “The older I get the more that I worry that the more that I worry that the older I’ll get.”
And it’s true!
It is a fact. It’s like, “No, accept the despair in that statement. It’s the truth!”
Your songs are full of homespun kernels of wisdom like that. I feel that’s one of the duties of a good songwriter. So, what do you think constitutes a good song?
For me or someone else?
Both
What constitutes a good song is one that someone sang. I’m not a believer in bad songs. There’s an ear for every song somewhere, and every song I ever heard I picked up on some little snippet that I might get away with one day stealing.
Throw that one in the trick bag for later.
And then there’s a song that’s something of use. Is it of a healing quality? Does it count for the initial reason you set out to do this? Were you healing yourself, in a sense, or were you just making up a song? So, even a song like “D.B. Cooper”, which may sound like a song about a guy who got hijacked, there’s a real discrepancy in it. Well, not a discrepancy, but my father and I argued quite a bit over whether that guy was a hero or a bum. So, that song felt really good to sing, especially singing the part about how I hope they never catch him. My point is: Does a song have something like that in it or is just some chords and words? And if it feels like it’s in that category, then I take more interest in it, which I guess is called “The Is-Your-Heart-Open Part.” Then there’s “The Craft Part,” which centers around the words being finished. That’s harder for me. Once I get past what’s true, I guess would be the word, then I start wondering why I’m doing it. It can’t be for money. The thing I always go through is where I imagine there’s Shel Silverstein, Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, and somebody hands me a guitar and they’re the only five people sitting there and I want to amuse them or just sing a song they’ll like. Their idea of crafting a song is my idea of crafting a song. Whereas Ozzy Osbourne’s idea of crafting a song is very different from Kris Kristofferson’s but I like both very much. But, I can only speak about what will get me to leave the house.
Our true motivations tend to be pretty individual like that.
My wife will say, “Is that one gonna show up for work?” ‘Cause there’s always a handful of songs going and she’ll say, “I notice you sing that one a lot. I bet that shows up for work.”
That reminds me of the Bukowski poem that begins, “Poems like gunslingers/ Sit around and shoot holes in my windows.” It’s from Play The Piano Drunk Like A Percussion Instrument Until The Fingers Begin To Bleed A Bit, and all the unfinished poems are milling about his apartment, vying for attention and completion and making a mess of his life.
I’ve always liked that dude. I’ve heard some cool tapes of him reading. I liked his performance style.
He was so wonderfully full of warts. I love when someone is just so totally and unapologetically themselves.
That’s what I liked about him and a lot of the people I like. They’re not trying to figure out what you like so they can give it to you and get something for it. They’re taking whatever they can get for the thing they’re doing. Period.
And sometimes that’s a beautiful thing that lines up with entertainment and performance, but sometimes it isn’t. But that doesn’t diminish the intrinsic value of really honest work. I saw Hunter S. Thompson speak a few times and you’d be hard pressed to find a more unruly, cantankerous, couldn’t-give-a-shit asshole standing at a podium. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but you never doubted that he was being himself.
I like that in music, too. I don’t mind when people get mad. I’m so old now that I don’t know why I would do it anymore, but when I see a kid have a tantrum onstage, I’m like, “Well, at least he ain’t pro!”
I went to the Warped Tour and overall the music was abysmal [further thoughts here]. But, one of the acts I saw was The Riverboat Gamblers, whose lead singer jumped off the stage and grabbed a condiments cart and hauled it onto the lawn so he could gyrate on it, stomp on the mustard and make an unholy mess. I turned to my pal and said, “This guy’s got about 60 seconds before someone shows up to kill his fun.” Sure enough, three security guys barreled in and started barking, “Get the fuck down!” Afterwards, he kept looking for ways to get into it still. Even as sanitized as our culture has become — this is a packaged punk tour sponsored by a shoe company – there was still a spot of truthful chaos.
Isn’t that funny, a PUNK tour sponsored by a SHOE company [sighs].
To get to the main stage you had to run this mercantile gauntlet with perky, pierced folks shoving postcards and stickers in your face. At least the old school punks like The Dickies and The Adolescents were still tucked in a corner to crack my head open just like when I was 15 and first discovered them.
I was in Beaverton and it’s always bugged me that I kind missed punk. When I was in high schooll we just sorta listened to the radio. I remember hearing about punk but I totally missed it. It’s one of the few types of music I’m not versed on. I’m from Oregon so it’s like we never left the Grateful Dead. Once quaaludes left everything changed and the music wasn’t always so slow. And punk rock really hit once Kurt Cobain took it to the Super Bowl.
For awhile the Pacific Northwest was the epicenter of punk, its new heart that helped rescue rock from its 80s doldrums. Bands started reconnecting to the rawness at rock’s foundation, which go back a lot further than Nirvana in the Northwest with greats like The Sonics. Those guys had a song about the joys of gulping down strychnine!
The Sonics are my kind of punk rock because it’s still boogie woogie, Chuck Berry rock. They’re the only influence on The Elmo Buzz Band [one of Todd’s projects]. We do what The Sonics would do. We formed a lineup based on The Sonics, and we try to make songs that sound like The Sonics.
Do you do any of the vocals through a harmonica mic? That’s how lead singer Gerry Roslie got that nasty tone on a lot of their recordings.
That’s how they did it? We tried to get that distortion on the vocal mic when we recorded recently but it just didn’t sound the same.
It’s a mic that’s designed to pick up totally different pitches so it’s pleasantly unpredictable in what comes out when you shove a human voice through it.
They had to know they weren’t going to be on the radio with that sound but they just liked it. It’s like, “Who gives a shit? It’s a fucking killer sound!” It makes me want to go back to “Louie Louie.” My mom swears she heard it being practiced by a band called The Wailers from Tacoma, Washington in a garage before the world knew the song.
The going theory is there were three bands that initially recorded the song, which had been making the rounds in the club circuit. It’s The Wailers, The Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders.
And in the studio in Portland where Paul Revere cut his version, the next day The Kingsmen cut theirs in the same room. The song was written by Richard Berry in Los Angeles, and the story goes he was selling the single off the stage in a hotel bar, where he sells it to a kid on his way to college at Washington State. Kid sticks it in his bag and takes it up there. We don’t know who he gives it to up there but as the legend goes that’s where the journey begins.

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