Valentine's Day Grinch
When you ask Syd Straw normal questions you get unnormal answers. So what's one of her best new songs, "Toughest Girl in the World," about? "I was approached by this woman in a cafe in London as I sat sobbing over my latte," she replies in an enthusiastic California drawl. "I was literally crying into my coffee, and this woman comes up to me and says, [broad Australian accent] 'You're Syd Straw, aren't you? I'm obsessed with you!' I'm like, 'Get a doctor, you need help.'"
The accoster turned out to be Deborah Conway, an Australian pop star; she ended up nursing Straw through the heartbreak that had prompted the tears. "I was just wild over this affair I was having with this man," Straw recalls. "I thought he was going to be faithful to the both of us, his wife and me, but then it turned out he was stepping out on us." Straw and Conway became friends, and together they eventually wrote the song--a mournful rocker memorializing her sadness.
Straw--actress, rock 'n' roll singer, songwriter, scenester, and raconteur of the first order--is known for a couple of things that happened some years ago. Her distinctive voice marked Visions of Excess and Blast of Silence, two of the better late- 80s experiments by the Manhattan art rock ensemble called the Golden Palominos, a downtown supergroup that included ringleader Anton Fier, Michael Stipe, Bernie Worrell, Bill Laswell, and Chris Stamey, among others. In 1989 she released her only solo album, Surprise, a slightly off-kilter enterprise in which her sensitive songwriting, folksy approach, good taste in covers, and extravagant, soaring voice all married to create a lasting charmer. While at least one song--her plangent version of Peter Holsapple's "Think Too Hard"--got some radio play, the record never took off and remains a buried classic of the prealternative era.
Straw was born to LA actors, but did most of her growing up with her mother in Vermont. After high school she moved to New York to become an actress; there she took acting lessons, did walk-ons on Saturday Night Live, and met the right people in the music business. Her thirst for collaboration is famously unbounded ("I'll back 'em up, front 'em up, side 'em up--I don't care," she once said). The massive guest list that makes up the credits of Surprise includes Stipe, Richard Thompson, Marshall Crenshaw, Dave Alvin, Don Was, and Van Dyke Parks.
Straw drifted into Chicago last April on the Poi Dog Pondering tour bus; exiled from Athens, Georgia, after a broken marriage, she had nowhere better to go. Now going through the logistics involved in getting a label to let her make another album, she makes the club scene, and performs only occasionally. What might be seen as her coming out party is Tuesday at the Coronet Theatre in Evanston.
She's dubbed the performance "Syd Straw's Heartwreck Show" in honor of Valentine's Day. "Hopefully everyone will be sobbing on the floor by the end of the night," she says. "We haven't decided yet if we're going to have a happy ending." Her band includes Poi Dog refugees Dag Juhlin and Steven Goulding; other musical guests will show up as well. Michael Hall opens.
Straw has supported herself over the years doing voice-overs for commercials and acting. "It's a lucrative but competitive thing," she says of the former. "Took me years to break into it in New York. I'm trying to meet someone to crack that case" in Chicago. On late-night TV you can sometimes hear Straw holler "Head for the mountains of Busch!" Her personal best? "My favorite has got to be Greyhound. They let me say 'And leave the driving to us!' at the end!"
She acted in PBS's Tales of the City series and occasionally appears on the Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete & Pete. A new episode starring Straw will air March 5, and a rerun, "Saint Valentine's Day Massacre," in which Straw's character, math teacher Miss Fingerwood, falls for the school janitor, will air Tuesday at 6:30, just before her concert.
After a long hiatus from recording anything other than one-shots, Straw's currently preparing to record a full new album, paring down a large group of songs built up over the last few years. "I'm interested in writing more and moving forward," she says. "I've got to get these kids off my chest and onto the bottle." She's currently negotiating with a number of labels. Among the new songs are a couple of terrific tunes: "The Toughest Girl in the World" and a full-throated roarer called "CBGB's (Hey, Remember Me)," a twisted true tale of a one-night stand with a bartender at the New York nightclub.
While Surprise was considered a commercial failure, it's hard to find in the used bins, suggesting that the people who did buy it are holding on to it. And 85,000 albums isn't that bad. "That's a lot of people I don't know," she notes. Why Surprise had no successor is a question she answers with surprising self-reflection for a rock artist. "After the first one, I asked several producers to do the second, and that process just started taking months. I only asked the people I wanted to say yes, and, wow, the process was just really dragging on."
At the same time her record label, Virgin, intervened. "I kept hearing ideas that didn't have anything to do with the record I wanted to make. I'd had all the freedom I wanted with Surprise, and I started sensing that the label, with all due respect, was trying to take my freedom away with the second one. But as I look back--and I've had plenty of time to do so--I think I wasn't flexible enough."
But soon, she promises, Surprise's long-awaited follow-up will come out. "I want to make some really good records and put some more work out into the world," she says. "I want to have an actual record section in the stores with some records to fill it. I've come to admire the people who have been more flexible, who've just kept putting out good records.
"The industry," she continues, "is now so much more about business that it takes a little bit of the joy out of it. On the other hand, I'm just going to make another one and see what happens; a lot of people still need and are still seeking out music that will move them, and I'm kind of counting on that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.