The sense of the American Southwest as a place that beckons the most absolutely venal and hungriest human scum on God's earth is nearly lost, though you might catch a glimpse of it projected into the mythic past in Westerns or film noirs—The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, say, or Double Indemnity. Even Erich von Stroheim's ancient Greed was looking back a quarter-century to 1899. Instead, recent movies about California—Laurel Canyon, for one—imagine it as an anesthetic place built on good intentions, rather than on the vices of people who had stolen the land itself. As Pat McCormick asks Fred C. Dobbs in Sierra Madre (shortly before running off with Dobbs' wages): "What couldja do with money out here anyway except gamble and lose it?"
Stan Ridgway is famous—to the extent he is famous—for singing "Mexican Radio" in the band Wall of Voodoo. Everyone in Southern California seems to know this song, though I would bet it is sung in all 50 states, having passed into our memory of "the '80s," a phrase that apparently no longer refers to a decade of historical experience but to a musical genre. "Mexican Radio" was—like Devo's "Whip It"—an arty, self-conscious song by a conceptual new wave band; stripped of its context on the radio, it was a cheerful, wholesome piece of nonsense you would not have hesitated to play for a newborn kitten, a Jehovah's Witness or a particularly slow cousin: "Wish I was in Ti-a-jua-na/Eating barbequed i-gua-na." (He puts an extra "a" in "Tijuana" when he says it, just like you and I do.)
It sounded very different, however, in its place on Wall of Voodoo's 1982 album Call of the West, a gloomy concept album about the people who live in the Southwest. Many of Ridgway's people have no idea what freedom they were looking for when they came here, and those who know are not to be trusted—they speak of having chili for breakfast every morning, selling Time-Life books, owning a minibike and not having to do their own laundry. That's what the liquor-store owner tells the young man who's come out west to start his life over in the title track. The young man turned the wrong corner, and now he's staring into the barrel of the liquor-store owner's rifle: "There's a conflict between land and people," the owner announces. "The people have to go."
Ridgway grew up in Barstow and as a young man wanted to make movie music, and there's certainly an echo of Morricone in his harmonica playing and use of guitar. His 2005 greatest-hits collection Songs That Made This Country Greatpursues a number of these regional types that fascinate him, and it's a good album once you get past the rinky-dink synth arrangements of his early solo work. Some of the characters just daydream, like the office clerk in "I Wanna Be a Boss" ("And I'll have people workin' under me/And this lousy job I'll toss"), or the cab driver in "Drive, She Said" whose latest fare is a woman who, it turns out, just robbed a bank and is trying to make a getaway. She yells at him to shut up and drive every time he opens his mouth, but he can't help it: "And when I turned the headlights on, just for a minute I thought I saw the both of us on some kinda tropical island someplace walkin' down a white sandy beach or somethin'." "Can't Complain" reports the extraordinarily banal conversation Bert and Charlie had once—Bert's back went out, he cut his finger, his boss is a "big ass," he lost his wallet, the wife's sick, the kids are going to hell, all that government paperwork, but he can't complain—intercut with a jolly Hawaiian chorus about sailing men out on the water, which is high, though the fish swim low. Then Charlie calls Bert a loser and workers drop a piano on Bert from the 10th floor of a building.
You couldn't much ride off into a sunset anymore, but you could drive west till you hit the ocean—and for Ridgway, that's probably just a fast way to get nowhere. There's a freeway in his song "King for a Day" (from his recent Snakebite) that his character rides at 100 miles per hour just to feel free, smoking crack at the wheel and pursued by wailing squad cars. You understand how that movie might end: having fled to the final frontier, Ridgway's characters dream only of having somewhere else to run.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
STAN RIDGWAY PERFORMS WITH SMILING FACE DOWN AND ANDREW HERINGER AT THE COACH HOUSE, 33157 CAMINO CAPISTRANO, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 496-8930; WWW.THECOACHHOUSE.COM. SAT., 8 P.M. $15. ALL AGES.