Photo courtesy Lookout! RecordsRight in the middle of the August before last, a sparksnapped in the dark deep inside Con Edison's hulking mainframe, and New York City—along with the better part of the American Northeast—was instantly powerless. Times Square's usual permanent daylight looked like a Christmas tree before the cords connected, and as commuters scrambled for taxis and everyone else took to the streets like kids on holiday, Ted Leo tuned his electric guitar on Manhattan's South Street Seaport, just before exercising his only option: finding a generator truck and playing his scheduled show for a bewildered mass of stragglers and the faithful alike.
And so the spirit has gone for well more than a decade: "Sometimes it's gonna hurt/sometimes you won't deserve it/but if you hold on to what you got/I know you'll keep it steady," says Leo on the title track of his new CD, the latest in a career that started in the '90s D.C. mod-punk band Chisel and led to a series of well-received if criminally unnoticed albums—including 2001's near-perfect Tyranny of Distance and its attention-getting follow-up, Hearts of Oak—with Leo's band the Pharmacists.
He calls it "classic punk," though even the obvious influences include such genre not-quites as Thin Lizzy, Dexy's Midnight Runners and the Specials. But his heart lies in the period from around 1977-'82, he says, when a certain common ground of energetic guitar-based music was still elastic enough to wrap around more than just three chords, and he plays it with an optimism and awareness set several steps toward the Mekons and the Minutemen and away from the sensationalist belligerence of McLaren's boys.
"To me, being a punk musician means there is an agenda to my music," he says. "There's a mission I'm on—it's not ancillary to my role as musician. It's part of it."
Shake the Sheets, Leo's latest and second for Lookout! Records, is his defining work—a true punk classic (or vice versa). Opener "Me and Mia" shimmers with joy: "If you believe in something beautiful/then get up and be it!" "Heart Problems" hints at the manic guitar brilliance of his live performances; "Walking to Do" builds a frantic chorus on a foundation of ska chords and reggae swagger. Sheets is also the most overtly political record of his career, his punk resolve put into the backbone of songs such as "The Angels' Share" (with its calls for "an open letter to a president") and a title track in which Leo wants to "sweep the halls of arrogance /sweep the walls of the excrement of these baboons."
"One of my biggest challenges [in writing Sheets] is that not enough had changed since I wrote Hearts of Oak," Leo says. "When I wrote those songs, things were still sort of wide open. When I wrote Shake the Sheets, we had been at war with Iraq for almost a year. There was a lot less possibility and a lot more depression."
But the album resonates with promise, not apocalypse, a testament to Leo's career-defining mantra of finding inspiration in desperation.
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"I think a lot of the reason it winds up sounding optimistic is because I was trying to comfort myself last year," Leo says. "When I was writing all these songs, I was as pessimistic about the future of the world as I've ever been in my life. When I would start exploring darker subjects, I would need to find a way out of them."
So Leo and the Pharmacists returned to New York this summer, met by the glow of an illuminated city, to the South Street Seaport, where they'd plugged into a generator truck during a blackout—only to be greeted by a fully electrified thunderstorm. Undeterred and certainly unsurprised, Leo, after skateboarding with fans in the rain, proceeded to play one of his best and brightest sets while lightning snapped between the skyscrapers behind him.
"Those are the funnest shows I've ever played in my life," he says. "The people that were there for those shows were there. There was this feeling of 'We're truly in this together. We're gonna get through it.'"
TED LEO AND THE PHARMACISTS WITH LUCERO AND THE LASHES AT CHAIN REACTION, 1652 W. LINCOLN AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 635-6067; WWW.ALLAGES.COM. WED., 7:30 P.M. $10. ALL AGES.