An Interview with Syd Straw
This was a hard one. Nothing I've done -- no reading, listening, or researching -- could have prepared me for my phone call with Syd Straw. And I'm a fan. Seven, eight, nine, 10 years waiting as Syd squeezed out one solo album, played scattered club appearances, took the odd back-up vocal or television acting job.We wanted more.All of us. It became a kind of game, finding Syd woven into small seams of popular culture, suddenly appearing on albums and TV shows, immediately transforming other people's vehicles into things Syd-quirky and hip. "Is that? No, it can't be! [Quickly dial a friend, one of the 'in' Syd-o-phile crowd] Turn on your TV! I think that's Syd Straw playing the math teacher on Pete and Pete! Wait until the show ends. Watch the credits. "Miss Fingerwood -- Syd Straw." Inexplicably, Syd Straw's voice comes booming out of the radio one day, telling us: "This Bud's for You!"And the few live shows -- they'd appear without warning, with no album to follow since 1989's Surprise. I've seen Syd Straw play twice. The first time was in October of 1989 at the Paradise in Boston, a few hours after my long-distance girlfriend told me to quit calling. The second time was in San Francisco in 1992 at Slim's, the night of the Rodney King riots. That night the emcee introduced her as "A sex symbol for the '90s!" "Maybe the 1890s," Syd shot back.So what do you say to Syd Straw, "alternative" music's Zelig, the woman whose indie credibility goes off the top of the scale, who's seemingly been part of every important musical movement since the late '70s? I prepared notes, planning to focus on the "lost" years since 1989. Rolling Stone got her to tell us all about that time. She'd been through the end of a marriage, been dropped by Virgin, her label, and moved to Chicago, where she met Tony Margherita, her manager and boyfriend. "Her life is an open book," the article said."All I can really say about all that is, believe me, I kept busy," Syd tells me when we finally connect. She'd iced me, kept me waiting as she drove from Boston to New York on the first leg of a five-week tour. Now she's calling from her hotel room in New York. I picture her with a giant suitcase, unpacking long dresses and bizarre hats, black lace-up boots and various rings. "I kind of paid attention to my life," she adds, and the subject of the past seven years is closed.What isn't closed, however, is every other subject I can imagine. My list of questions quickly becomes useless and obsolete, so I concentrate on the new album, War and Peace (Capricorn), recorded with St. Louis' legendary Skeletons (who also back Syd on the present tour). "I knew for some time that I wanted to make just a very bold, emotional record," she says. "I had this slew of songs. I was carrying them around in my pockets, which was pretty unsightly. They were making all kinds of weird bulges and my clothes didn't fit right, so I had to get those songs out of my pockets." She recorded the album in a month, driving back and forth between Chicago and St. Louis to play with the Skeletons. "Probably the best group I could think of was them, as far as attitude, vibe, competence, hilarity, and being able to play anything. And they are committed to supporting this album."Surprise was the result of sessions with almost every credible 1989 "underground" name imaginable, yet Straw was dropped by Virgin without releasing a follow-up. Why suddenly make an album after seven years, and without a record contract? Behind the rattle of her hotel room air conditioner, Syd considers this question, one of the few scripted ones I can manage. The air conditioner hums. "You know what?" she finally says, "My sweetheart said, 'I really hope we're not sitting around here a year from now still trying to figure out why you haven't made this great record you have in your head.'" She continues, getting to what seems to be a very important theme in her recent life: "I've been on my own for so long... I've often felt like I was on my own even when I was involved with other people. Now I'm really living and working with someone who's my best friend. And that kind of support was what finally kicked my ass." She pauses, then adds, "In a loving way. I really needed help. I can't thank him enough for kicking my ass."At this point the interview spins out of control. Syd tells stories about the letter she once wrote to E.B. White, and White's reply telling her that she was sadly misplaced. She tells me about the clown she saw today, stuck in traffic in Harlem, "...she was driving her car, drinking this big to-go cup of coffee, this clown with her coffee, stuck in traffic...," and her wish to someday be in Seattle long enough to ride her mountain bike. "The truth is, you won't find me chugging up the steepest hills because that's what I'm doing with the rest of my life; so when I'm on a bike, baby, what I want to do is coast down the biggest hills."Syd tells me she's about to order a grilled cheese and Caesar salad from room service. I've asked two of the 15 questions I'd planned, but the interview is about to end anyway. "If I have any hidden motive or subversive intentions," she says in closing, "it's to be your musical equivalent of a Wonderbra. And that's pretty much the kind of support the Skeletons provide me onstage every night. A girl can't have too much support."