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THE HEAR & NOW
Not The Last Straw
Folk-rock singer-songwriter Syd Straw returns with a new CD after eight years
by Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate


Syd Straw opened her 1996 CD, War and Peace, with the confession, "I'm not the toughest girl in the world." Because she hasn't released another album since then, her fans might be tempted to put other adjectives in that sentence.
"Somebody wrote to my Web site," the fortysomething folk-rock singer-songwriter said by phone from Los Angeles last week, "'Syd Straw -- I've always loved her work, but she's not the most prolific gal around.'"
That fact has only inflamed the passion of some fans. "Somebody at Sounds [Tapes & Compact Discs] in Saint Mark's Place in New York once told me, 'Yours is the most frequently shoplifted CD in the store,' Straw added.
"That's a dubious distinction," she noted, "but I like it. Either I appeal only to kleptomaniacs musically, or my limited fan base is very impoverished and willing to break the law to hear what I've done."
The good news for those who've followed Straw since her mid-'80s emergence as part-time vocalist with the New York hipster all-star band the Golden Palominos is that Straw has booked a few West Coast concert dates, including Saturday, Jan. 10, co-billed with John Doe, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
The even better news is that she's in Los Angeles to finish up a new album, Pink Velour, which should see the light of day sometime this year. "I've been working on it for two years, every chance I got," Straw says. "I finally decided it was time to leave my house and see what somebody else thought of these songs."
Straw's house is on a dirt road in rural Vermont, where she's lived for the past six years as what she described as a "happy little hermit." She makes occasional trips to New York City to play music with friends in her band Plankton ("any living thing that drifts") and has shown up with some regularity on tribute albums (to Bruce Springsteen, Kate Bush, Woody Guthrie, Tom T. Hall) and records by Dave Alvin, Wayne Kramer and Rickie Lee Jones, among many others.
Straw collectors can busy themselves tracking down her myriad guest appearances, including such stirring performances as her airy rendition of "Blue Shadows on the Trail" on the Hal Willner-produced collection of music from vintage Disney films, Stay Awake, and her heartrending reading of "For Shame of Doing Wrong" with Evan Dando on Beat the Retreat: The Songs of Richard Thompson.
But what they really want are new original songs to join the seemingly slow-moving parade that includes "Heart of Darkness," "Racing to the Ruins" and "Golden Dreams" from her 1989 debut Surprise, and "The Toughest Girl," "Love, and the Lack of It," "CBGB's" and "All Things Change" from War and Peace.
On "The Toughest Girl," Straw sings, "even the deepest well can run dry." But despite outward appearances, that's hardly the case with her creativity. "I have about 20 records[' worth of material] in my living room that I could put out," she said of the music she's recorded at home by herself, or with friends that make the trek to Vermont to "drop by," such as Marc Ribot and Peter Blegvad.
"I'm not as prolific as Prince, and I don't have a vegetarian caterer come in every day to make sure I'm eating right and healthy, but I have a lot of work that nobody's ever heard," she added. "What I'm hoping to do is screw up the courage to gather some of these things and hang them out on the Internet, just put them out there. It might be somehow scary/liberating to just put it out there."
"Raw Straw" might be a good title for such a collection, she said. And, by her description, it might be an apt subtitle for the forthcoming Pink Velour, as well. The title track, Straw explained, "is about my family moving back and forth between the east and the west, and my being kidnapped by my mother on Valentine's Day in 1969, and about not seeing my dad for almost seven years. That one gets me choked up even telling you that much."
Earlier this year, Straw sang "Pink Velour" for the first time in public at McCabe's in Santa Monica. "My mother was there with her oxygen tanks and her drama," she recalled. "I just started crying in the middle of the song, which I have to admit doesn't often happen, and I kind of just turned my head, 'cause there's nowhere to go, and tears were just falling on my shoulder. After the show, a few people who sat near my mother said she was sobbing. I figured that's a damn good song -- maybe."
Chances are, Pink Velour will be packed with other "damn good" songs. Not one to sing her own praises readily (and she had ample opportunity during our nearly 90-minute conversation), Straw has a knack for choosing great cover versions -- Harlan Howard's "Why Not Me" and Rodney Crowell and Paul Kennerly's "I Had My Heart Set on You" might show up on the new CD), and she said she thinks her own songwriting has dramatically improved since Wa - San Francisco Gate


One of my recurring fantasies is imagining Syd Straw in the no-rules wrestling ring with Alanis Morissette, Shirley Manson, and Sheryl Crow, wiping the floor with their self-important butts and showing them how a real woman makes hard-rockin' art out of her relationship woes. Never easily pigeonholed or tied down, singer, songwriter, and wandering spirit Straw wound up living in Chicago, recording her category-defying sounds in Missouri, and putting them out on the Nashville-based Capricorn Records. But the label that made Southern rock famous was as unlikely home, and War and Peace never connected with either the modern-rock or roots-rock crowds that it should have appealed to. Poignant, passionate, it's powered by the world's greatest garage band, the Skeletons. It's also filled with songs such as "The Toughest Girl In the World" (a moving declaration that Straw is anything but), "CBGB's" (a tale of a one-night stand that began at the infamous punk club), and the love-lost ballad "All Things Change. " They're unforgettable-just like Straw herself. Jim Derogatis - Rolling Stone Magazine - Jim Derogatis


"Syd Straw Plays With the Skeletons in Her Closet"
From Rolling Stone, 16 May 1996, p. 25
by Jim DeRogatis
... so Straw channeled her energies into acting, landing the role of Laurel in the PBS production of "Tales of the City" and portraying Miss Fingerwood on Nickelodeon's subversive kids' show "The Adventures of Pete and Pete." "That was a nice job to get, because the producers said to the director, 'For the role of the math teacher, we want someone just like Syd Straw,'" Straw says. "I didn't even have to audition, which is my favorite way to win work." (The show is directed by Katherine Dieckmann, who has made videos for R.E.M. Other rockers who've appeared include [Michael] Stipe, Iggy Pop, and Mark Mulcahy of Miracle Legion.) ...
Twin Petes
From SPIN Magazine, November 1994, p. 28
Jonathan Bernstein
There's something weird going on in the neighborhood. It's called The Adventures of Pete & Pete.
Or when Little Pete finds Polaris (Miracle Legion in a poppier disguise) playing in the garage. He's sufficiently moved to start his own band. "Yeah, the Blowholes," confirms Tamberelli, "with a teacher, a meter man, and one of my friends." Of course, the teacher was Syd Straw and the meter man was Marshall Crenshaw. Their appearances can't help but add to the show's cult cachet. - Rolling Stone Magazine


Why Syd Straw's hair is coming loose days between stations
Interview,  August, 1996  by Greil Marcus
Early in Mary Harron's film I Shot Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor) - handcuffed, looking straight ahead and bothered - is being led by police through a crowd of shouting reporters. "Hey, Valerie," one of them says, "got a boyfriend?" Taylor turns her head just slightly, and her eyes barely raise in the most subtle, devastating expression of disdain - as if - you'll ever see. It's all face, and everything you want from acting.
With no face, just sound, Syd Straw works on this level throughout War and Peace (Capricorn), her modestly titled second solo album. In "CBGB's," a woman runs into a man she hasn't seen for ten years and wonders if he ever did any of the things he was going to do. Just at the point where you can feel the conversation unraveling into what-do-we-say-now? cliches, a gust of hostility seems to blow the singer back, and she comes back in kind. "Hey, I'm just asking!" she says, and you'll never untangle the complex of emotions she gets into those four words. There's anger, vehemence, love, and a whole string of questions: Why are you so defensive? What is your fucking problem? Can't you tell I care? Don't you? You don't even remember me, do you? When at the end of the song she asks again, "All the dreams you had / Have any or all of them come true?" and then answers herself, because he can't or won't, "If they haven't yet I hope they do," it's so painful and lovely I just want to give it up, check into a monastery, and take a month to think through the way she balances the phrase.


Ever since she started singing with the Golden Palominos in the mid-'80s, Syd Straw has seemed too big for her settings: full-throated, passionate, heedless, and cramped. By the time she got into the Palominos, they were a downtown New York art band essaying a version of arena rock you just knew they hoped their friends would take for parody and everyone else would buy for the real thing. Straw's songs were unformed and she had nowhere to go in the group. Her 1989 solo album, Surprise, was so fussed over it took me forever to hear it and I can't remember a thing about it. But she made one recording in 1985 that put her on the same level as Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, and Alison Krauss, or rather showed she could get to the level where a singer does everything with the smallest twists and turns. That was "Listening to Elvis" by Scott Kempner - then of the Del-Lords, now of Little Kings - a vivid lament that turned up only on a New Jersey anthology called Luxury Condos Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood. Here's Straw, in a bar, sounding like she was born in one and she'll die in one, talking about why her boyfriend shot a guy the night Elvis died, and you're glad. It was all worth it - Elvis's death, her boyfriend ruining his life, the jerk he shot dying - if the end result is a performance this smart, thoughtful, and drenched in the anticipation of memories to come.

War and Peace is too long. There are too many how-could-you-leave-me? songs. By the time Straw sings "How could you leave me?" on "Madrid," not halfway through the disc, the question contains its own answer. But from the start, you can feel an artist rising to her own possibilities.

What makes Straw her own woman in the pop game is her ability not simply to summon or project emotion but to create characters, act them out, build suspense, and shock you with what a character who's been holding back has now dumped in your lap. Though her songwriting is often strong, and the backing on War and Peace - by the Skeletons, the been-there-forever Springfield, Mo., straight rock 'n' roll outfit - is fluid and taut, full of big rolling chords and theatrical shifts, what Straw does is all a matter of a singer's rule. With changes in tone, with inflections, hesitations, and leaps, she writes the scripts of the songs and directs them, translating words and melodies into the sort of real-life, real-time speech - thrown-away asides, explosions, pleas, mutterings - you can recognize in an instant.

This record can be troublesome. Given the way Straw rolls out a phrase and pulls it in, you may end up on the end of it. Straw moves slowly, deliberately, reflectively into "Love and the Lack of It," maintaining the same distance from the subject for so long that a sense of abstraction takes over. There doesn't seem to be any need here for an actual person - no one with her own specific desires and disasters. But then a few words build to a violent break you can't hear coming, and the stakes go up like a fever. Pressing down on a word and lowering her voice, Straw throws you into an unpleasant room where the woman over in the corner is Nan Goldin and she's not taking Syd Straw's picture, she's taking yours.

"You gave me up but I'm still within the reach of reason," Straw sings in "Love and the Lack of It." It's a disturbing line, and it echoes thro - Spin Magazine



20 questions

Syd Straw

By Margit Detweiler


Background: Singer and songwriter Syd Straw describes her long and sporadic career as "curvy, with a lot of hairpin turns."

"But I'm collecting the hairpins," says 37-year-old Straw. "At the end I'll have a lifetime supply."

Sparked by a Hollywood childhood (Straw's father was TV/movie actor Jack Straw, who starred in The Pajama Game), Straw moved to New York in 1978 to pursue her own stardom in theater. After hanging around open mike nights and comedy clubs, Straw's first gig was musical — singing backup for Pat Benatar. Focusing on music as her art of choice, Straw next offered her lilting twang to a radically different kind of sound in the first '80s incarnation of the avant-rock supergroup Golden Palominos. She established her solo career with a 1989 release Surprise (Virgin) and, after spending the next seven years doing sessions for pals like Evan Dando, Rickie Lee Jones and Vic Chesnutt, and brief acting stints (she played Laurel in Tales of the City), she's back with this year's stunningly emotional collection of songs, War and Peace (Capricorn/Mercury).

Most of Straw's songs on War and Peace are wistful in tone (mostly about, as one song is titled, "Love and the Lack of It"), but swaggering and passionate in delivery. They're driven by Straw's creaky, pretty voice and backed by The Skeletons, a cultish country-rock band.

Straw called from Chicago, where she lives with her "sweetie" and manager Tony Margherita.

First of all, I must know where you got that big hat you're wearing on the album cover.

It's a very, very old hat. I got it at this place in Chicago called Silver Moon. I bought it because I thought I should own it. I'm looking forward to fall when you can wear more clothes and more hats.

Isn't that the best? You can put on stockings. Wear layers.

I don't walk around in shorts because I'm sparing the world. Part of me likes to wear lots of clothes, but the other half is a nudist.

I love the song on War and Peace, "Static," when you sing, "I don't wanna be the voice of this or any generation. I feel like the static caught between the stations." The idea that you're in a purgatorial place... you don't want to be defined, well, you sort of do, but you don't know how to be. A lot of your songs are complex in that way. You're not saying one thing, you're saying five things.

I wonder why I wrote that song. I like your take on it there, I do. I hope to not be too obtuse. But I guess if I had any artistic ability as a painter or something, probably I would be doing watercolors. Big, loose sloppy watercolors.

Is it harder to write when you're happy?

I feel pretty happy now, but I've still been writing these songs that I can't believe are so sad. Maybe I'm crazy. I feel pretty good, so now why would I write this song?

What about?

Yet another song about... musing... pondering... something that ended years ago. I don't know why it takes me so long to understand anything. On a good day I like to think I'm pretty clever.

A thing like a relationship gone awry isn't something that ever gets solved.

You know what's so cool, a lot of painters, too, paint the same thing a lot. A lot of writers do that, too. I don't know. Is it wrong? I want to write about more things, though. You know Greil Marcus?

Sure.

He's a wonderful writer. He, oddly and kindly enough, wrote this whole page about my record in Interview this month. It's a beautiful piece. He rightfully points out that I have a few too many "how could you leave me" themes running through my songs. So I wrote him a really nice letter because I love what he wrote. And I put, "P.S.: How could you leave me? How could you leave me? How could you leave me?"

Do you accept criticism well?

I accept that people can say whatever the hell they want. I like to know what's bouncing back at me. I like to know what people get personally from what I'm doing. It's sort of part of the figure-eightness of it all.

What was the process of making this album like?

It was really pretty casual, hard work. I just went to my band's [The Skeletons] town, Springfield, MO. Lou Whitney, the patron saint of bass, has this wonderful studio called The Studio and we just did it there. It was not nerve-wracking. I think it should be a pleasure to record your songs, and I've heard so many nightmare stories from people about the making and recording of their records... I just stayed in this little motel, went to work, got a coffee across the street at Caf Moomba... every day.

What was it like singing with Pat Benatar?

Wow, that was so long ago. I don't think she remembers. But I do. Apparently I'm part elephant and I have this great memory. I just sang harmony for her for a couple weeks at Tramps.

Do you remember specific songs you sang?

Her big showstopper was a reggae version of "Stairway to Heaven." I felt kinda mixed about that song.

What was your part?

J - Philadelphia Citypaper By Margit Detweiler


Discography

solo records include----surprise----on virgin records
war and peace---on capricorn records
whole wide world---on skin-of-our-teeth records---
and my brand spanking new-ink-isnt-even-dry-on-the-cover-yet-record----PINK VELOUR-----self-released
The Golden Palominos: The Celluloid Collection collection 2006 Mar
Syd Straw: Whole Wide World — Uncollected Songs collection 2005?
The Golden Palominos: Run Pony Run collection 2002 Jun
Syd Straw...: Live at the Triple Crown live album 2001 Jul?
Golden Palominos: Surrealistic Surfer collection 2001 Jan
The Golden Palominos: The Best Of... collection 1997 Oct
Syd Straw: People of Earth single 1996
Syd Straw: Love And The Lack Of It single 1996
Syd Straw: CBGB's single 1996
Syd Straw: War and Peace album 1996 May
Syd Straw: The Christmas Twist single 1992
The Golden Palominos: a history (1986-1989) collection 1992 Jul
The Golden Palominos: a history (1982-1985) collection 1992 Jun
The Golden Palominos: The Golden Palominos ep 1991
The Golden Palominos: Thundering Herd collection 1990
Syd Straw: Think Too Hard single 1989
Syd Straw: Future 40's (String of Pearls) single 1989
Syd Straw: Heart of Darkness single 1989
Syd Straw: Surprise album 1989 Jun
The Golden Palominos: Blast of Silence album 1986
The Golden Palominos: Boy (Go) single 1986
The Golden Palominos: Clustering Train single 1985
The Golden Palominos: Visions of Excess album 1985
Collaborations with Other Artists

Rickie Lee Jones: Duchess of Coolsville compilation 2005 Jun
Rickie Lee Jones: The Evening of My Best Day album 2003 Oct
Matthew Sweet: To Understand collection 2002 Oct
Wayne Kramer: Adult World album 2002 Jul
The Dear Janes: Skirt album 2002 Apr
John Greaves: The Caretaker album 2001
The Adventures Of...: Just Say When album 2001 Aug
The Adventures Of...: Live at the Triple Crown live album 2001 Jul?
The Schramms: One Hundred Questions album 2000 Sep
Christy McWilson: The Lucky One album 2000 Jun
Mike Meltzer: The Big Go-'Round album 2000 Apr
The Hattifatteners: Rabbit Rabbit album 1999 Nov
Jeff Tweedy: Outta Print Outta Site pirate 1999?
Health & Happiness Show: Sad and Sexy collection 1999 Aug
REM — Michael Stipe: Not Field Recordings — Not REM pirate 1999?
The Del-Lords: Get Tough — The Best of The Del Lords collection 1999 Jun
Steve Pride: Haint album 1998 Nov
Richard Buckner: Since album 1998 Aug
Linda McRae: Flying Jenny album 1997 Sep
Wilco: Box Full of Letters single 1995
Kevin Salem: Will ep 1995
Kevin Salem: Soma City album 1994
Dave Alvin: King of California album 1994 Apr
Doug Legacy with the Zydeco Party Band: King Cake Party album 1994 Apr
Grant McLennan: Horsebreaker Star album 1994
Leo Kottke: Peculiaroso album 1994 Feb
Vic Chesnutt: Drunk album 1994 Jan
Harry Shearer: It Must Have Been Something I Said album 1994 Jan
Victoria Williams: Happy Come Home album 1993 Dec
Rickie Lee Jones: Traffic from Paradise album 1993 Sep
Dave Alvin: Museum of Heart album 1993 Sep
The Jim Carroll Band: A World Without Gravity collection 1993 Aug
David Halley: Broken Spell album 1993 Aug
Tony Trischka: World Turning album 1993 Aug
Hoppy Kamiyama: Groovallegiance album 1992
Marc Ribot: Requiem for What's-his-name album 1992
Loudon Wainwright III: History album 1992 Nov
Peter Blegvad: King Strut single 1992 Oct?
James McMurtry: Candyland album 1992 Jun
Hoppy Kamiyama: Welcome to F

Photos

Bio

i have been singing since the crib---

Syd Straw is an American rock singer and songwriter. The daughter of actor Jack Straw ("The Pajama Game"), she began her career singing backup for Pat Benatar, then took her distinct voice to the indie/alternative scene and joined the Golden Palominos (also including Michael Stipe, Matthew Sweet, and Anton Fier). She released her first album, Surprise, in 1989; it featured contributions by Stipe, Fier, Richard Thompson, Peter Blegvad, and a number of other well-known musicians. A second album, War and Peace, appeared in 1996. Recorded with a relatively obscure Midwest rock group called the Skeletons, it chronicled a brief and unhappy romance. As of August 2007, she had completed her new album, entitled Pink Velour. to be self-released early in 2008.
A frequent backup singer and contributor to duets with other musicians, Straw has also maintained an intermittent acting career, appearing on the television shows The Adventures of Pete & Pete and Tales of the City. Syd Straw can be heard singing harmony and backing vocals on the Rickie Lee Jones albums Traffic From Paradise and The Evening of My Best Day. She is also featured on Leo Kottke's Peculiaroso, which Jones produced. For a number of years she has given an annual "Heartwreck" live performance on Valentine's Day.