Stan Ridgway

by Dan MacIntosh

From 1977-1983, Stan Ridgway fronted the band Wall of Voodoo, who many Americans know from their MTV hit "Mexican Radio." Post-Voodoo, Ridgway and his film noir movie star voice has released several solo albums and done a lot of touring. In songwriting circles, he is renown for clever songs that tell little stories in quirky narratives; songs that take you to another place and stir your heart. There's no compromise or any attempt to appeal to the middle, and in this interview he wasn't afraid to call us out if the question was too stupid - like when we tried to pin a musical style on him.

He admits that he's hard to classify, and considers "Eclectic" the best choice, but you'll get a better idea when you read the part about Johnny Cash, whose song "Ring of Fire" was covered by Wall of Voodoo.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Let's talk about "Mexican Radio."

Stan Ridgway: Do we have to?

Songfacts: Well, it's just one of those things I'm sure...

Stan: Can't you just find it on the Internet someplace? Read about it? Hey, you know, there's a song on my last record called "Talkin' Wall of Voodoo Blues." You should listen to that one, Dan.

Songfacts: Oh, okay.

Stan: Yeah, that's got that whole Wall of Voodoo story in there. "Talkin' Blues" tells the whole thing. But I'll give you a little tidbit. Yes, indeed, we used to go to rehearsals in my old '67 Mustang. And I used to get on the AM radio there on the console and try to find a Mexican radio station that was wafting in from the border over at Tijuana. This was like 1980, '81 or something. So when I would find one, I would say, "Oh, hey look you guys, I'm on a Mexican radio." And so, "Okay, I'm on one. I'm on a Mexican radio." And that was the germ of what started to develop, and then it just kind of developed, and a lot of planets were aligning at that point culturally. MTV was getting going and what they called the "new music" was making some headway into people's ears. Radio still was not playing it, but when MTV became as popular as it did, radio had to play it. And it was right about that time where the door to American culture – or actually straight radio culture – kind of opened up just a little bit, and a few people got their feet in.

And we made a video for the song. We went down to Tijuana and did it in about a day and a half on very little money. The record company did not want to spend money on the video or do anything about it at that point. It was kind of a success, it was kind of like a – you know what it was? It was an MTV accidental hit is what it was. And we had to push to get that thing out there ourselves. So in spite of the record company, whatever success it had was really the band's and mine. We were fighting quite a fight just in terms of what suddenly was expected of this electronic, avant-garde underground band. Because that's what we were.

And so we all dug "Mexican Radio" when we finished it. But we also knew that there were other things that we were doing, other things that were going to be more important, and that this was a good, fun song.

Songfacts: Do you still play it live?

Stan: When the feeling strikes me. It's not like a permanent part of my set or anything.

Songfacts: Did you ever encounter concerts where maybe people came expecting a zany band that does "Mexican Radio" and then they find out there's a lot of other things going on besides just that?

Stan: Well, to some, it's a one-hit wonder. To others, it's just part of the catalog of songs. To the great wide open American world public, "Mexican Radio" is known in America; when I go to Europe, it was never anything there. The song over there is "Camouflage."

Songfacts: Really?

Stan: Yeah, that was a Top 5 hit for like several months in 1986 in Europe.

Songfacts: I didn't know that.

Stan: I go to Switzerland or Germany and it's a song called "Calling Out To Carol" which was on Mosquitoes. So I'm not trying to overly wave my flag here, Dan, but there's lots of songs, and every song is part of a symphony, it's the only way you can look at it. And philosophically speaking, as an artist, first impressions are hard to beat.

It's funny. You can't diss it, because first impressions are hard to beat from people, and it's a complicated life, people get lost. You become just a memory for them, that song, actually, for one part of their lives, especially if it only lasted a certain amount of time, or they lost track of you. So a lot of music is like a floating buoy: it sits on the ocean, dips down beneath the water, every now and then something pops up, you go, "There – what's that thing over there? Is that coming up again?" I've always just tried to keep making music and moving forward with it. So I play the song when I feel like playing it. And we've played it several different ways. Sometimes I'll play it the original way, sometimes I'll have fun with it and play it as a bossa nova or something.

Songfacts: You know, it's hard to know what to believe on Wikipedia.

Stan: Oh boy. There's nothing to believe there. I've been trying to wipe that Wikipedia out. Well, not me, but that Wall of Voodoo and Stan Wikipedia stuff has grown like some sort of strange Frankenstein monster, where they've sewn an arm onto this guy's back, and then the back gets a thumb on its head, and a lot of it is pretty inaccurate.

Songfacts: Wall of Voodoo did a really interesting cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" in 1980. And I realized that you guys were covering Johnny Cash before it was really cool for rock guys to like Johnny Cash. Were you a little bit ahead of the pack there?

Stan: There's not a person alive who doesn't have a complaint.

Songfacts: (laughing)

Stan: Probably you, too, Dan, about something or other. I mean, all this nonsense about what's cool and when it's not. Not from you particularly, but I mean, I used to play Johnny Cash music as a teenager. I grew up with a lot of it. My dad had a big collection of Johnny Cash and all kinds of country western stuff. And as I got older I got into jazz and all kinds of stuff. There's good music, and there's not-so-good music. So a lot of the labels and things like that are really just that: labels.

The song came about with me fucking around with this Moog synthesizer that we had that was brand new at that point. And out came this crazy kind of throbbing sound. And I knew that we needed to assign some sort of idea to it immediately or we'd lose the whole idea, we wouldn't know what was going on. So I had to think to myself, "Quick, quick, what's a three-chord song that's a good song?" I thought, "Ring of Fire." So I sang it over that and then moved my hand and it kind of worked. We made a quick little demo of it, and from there it grew. I do think "Ring of Fire" is an excellent cover.

Songfacts: I agree.

Stan: A cover song needs to change the original somehow for it to be valid. We certainly didn't want to do it like John. He's already done that, and that was the definitive version. But I considered our version of "Ring of Fire" like an homage to the song, but placing it in another context, and changing the rhythm on it a bit, too; that's really how covers step out from the pack from the original: if there's a new perspective on the rhythm. In other words, if you're standing straight in front of something, you'll want to change your perspective and maybe walk five steps to the side and look at the subject from that angle and paint it from there. You're bound to get a different perspective. And that's what happened with the tune.

Songfacts: Did you ever hear back from Johnny or his people about what he thought of it?

Stan: I did. Met him a couple of times back in the middle '80s, maybe late '80s. One time me and my solo band were staying in Edinburgh, Scotland; we were playing there. And the whole Johnny Cash family was also in the same hotel; they were doing Johnny Cash's Christmas in Scotland. So we had a good time sitting down at the bar with June and Carlene and people like that. And I asked Carlene, "Has your dad heard our 'Ring of Fire' song?" And she goes, "Oh, my dad's a strange man." And right at that moment the elevator doors opened up, and it was Johnny. And you know people of Scotland aren't that tall. It's not that they're small, it's just that they're not that tall. And when this guy came out of the elevator, it was like there was some super-human being coming towards us. He looked very studied, he was tense. It was time to go to the show. They had a big show to do. So he motioned to everybody in the bar that was with him, "Time to go." And everybody just jumped up like a lightning bolt and went out the door. And Carlene said, "Oh, yes, Stan, he loves it." (laughing) So that was enough for me.

Songfacts: That would be enough for me, too, to have his endorsement of something like that.

Stan: Well it was interesting. I'm not sure if that really meant that he'd actually heard it. (laughing) And a lot of us are that way, songwriters and artists; we're very beaded down in what we're doing in a lot of ways. Sometimes there's only enough time for what you're making at the moment. But I'm not sure. June heard it. I remember June saying, "Oh, that 'Ring of Fire,' love what you did!" It was a long time ago, Dan. We were all over-served there in Scotland.

Songfacts: When I heard your version of the song, I was doing college radio. And it was exciting for me, because like you, I was raised with a dad that played a lot of Johnny Cash. Especially on Saturday mornings, I would wake up to that booming Johnny Cash voice. So for me to hear a band that I thought was pretty cool doing the Johnny Cash song, it gave me an affirmation that it's okay to like some of that stuff that my parents raised me on that maybe my friends didn't get quite yet.

Stan: Well, it's the funny thing about youth. You make your own explorations with music and tastes and clothing. And as you get older, your world gets a little wider, hopefully, and you see a number of things that maybe you'd dismissed that actually are quite valuable to you as you realize how they affected you. There's an old saying, I think Mark Twain said it in some speech he gave. He said, "When I was 19 years old, my father was the dumbest son of a bitch I'd ever met. But he seemed to get a lot smarter by the time I reached 21." So a lot of these things come forward, no matter what you got. If something has a value, it'll come out later. If it always was cheesy and not so good, it's not going to stick to your ribs much, right? But all Johnny Cash's music is so steeped in the American value of legends. It's what Americana really is, Johnny's music. Even when my dad and I would have arguments growing up and a generation gap and stuff like that, we always came together on that kind of music. And Johnny had his television show on then, where he introduced a lot of different people that maybe wouldn't have gotten the air time at that point. That was very important. So I'm still proud of the song. We still do it. And I always dedicate it to him and all that music.

Stan's 2010 album Neon Mirage was made under difficult circumstances: Stan's father passed away in December, 2009, and Amy Farris, who was playing violin on the sessions, took her own life while the album was being recorded. Says Stan: "The best therapy for me is always creativity and invention. And a dedication to the people and things you love. Most people live their lives upside down and backwards, only jumping in when the consensus says it's safe."
Songfacts: You worked with Dave Alvin on the Neon Mirage album. And that kind of surprised me, because I think of him as a roots rock guy, and you as more of an avant-garde rock kind of a guy.

Stan: America's a narrow thinking place, isn't it, Dan?

Songfacts: Yes, it is.

Stan: You're just asking that question because you think that's what people will think. But you're not honest with it. You don't really think that, do you?

Songfacts: No.

Stan: See? We're the same age, we play different music a little bit, but we're all playing folk music.

Songfacts: Right. Well, how did you meet Dave?

Stan: I met him, like, in the '80s. Los Angeles. We all came up together, playing all the little punk rock clubs, and hanging in the alley, doing quick-draw on each other, I don't know. You hang around long enough you get to know someone better, and I've known Dave for, I don't know, probably 25 years.

Songfacts: What's he like as a producer?

Stan: Dave's great. He's done it before, himself, and so that's a good thing. A producer acts like a director in a film. They have to be the audience. It's really their function. So Dave would very calmly just say, "You know what? Maybe that place should be shorter. You know what? Why don't we have that guitar come in there? That would be good." That leaves me to just think about singing the songs sometimes, or we would collaborate on what we would want to do with the song and stuff. The engineer on the session was a guy named Craig Parker Adams, who's also very good. And there you go.

Songfacts: Where did you get the idea to call it Neon Mirage?

Stan: I had the idea at first of calling the album "Desert of Dreams." But that was last year, before a lot of other stuff happened. And so I was working on this instrumental that's on the album that I thought of as being "Mirage" - that was kind of a working title. And then as I went on I thought of another title that wasn't very good. And then my friend Jerry McCully, who takes a lot of neon-light pictures, I looked at his pictures suddenly and went, "Oh, wow – neon." And so these things just pile up sometimes and word association is really kind of free association. And it brought up a picture in my mind, and then certainly when you have a picture, then you can attach a feeling to it, or sometimes the other way around, actually half and half. So, you're asking where I came up with that? It came to me.

Songfacts: And that's just part of being an artist, right? Things like that just come to you, whereas maybe they might not come to regular folk.

Stan: Well, I don't know. Everybody's a regular folk, Dan. They all come to regular folks, too. It's just that life is very frantic, life is very complicated, and it's just as hard for anybody to make a decision about anything, let alone the title of an album. So everyone has an imagination. It's just a matter of getting in touch with that big well of creativity that we're all standing on top of, but most of the time, don't see.

Songfacts: On the new album, you cover the Bob Dylan song "Lenny Bruce," and I wonder, what kind of an impact did Lenny Bruce have on you that caused you to want to sing that song?

Stan: It's not so much that Lenny Bruce affected me, although I'm certainly aware of his life and his career and his recordings, and his place in culture. But the song itself is about a lot more than just Lenny Bruce. That's the great thing that Bob did with that song.

Songfacts: Which he always does, right?

Stan: Yeah, there's always something deeper than just what's on the surface. There's always some sort of other facets, and once you get to that, you see a reflection into some other place. I look at it as a kind of celebratory tribute to anyone that's laid his body on the barbed wire for a cause or for a perspective or for an idea about what art is or freedom of speech or any of those things.

Songfacts: One of my favorite Bob Dylan songs was on the first Bootleg series that came out, and it's a song called "Blind Willie McTell."

Stan: Oh yeah, sure.

Songfacts: At first you think it's about this blues singer, but then he talks about the history of blacks in America and slavery and he goes through the whole history of a people. And so when you said that about "Lenny Bruce" it made me realize it's almost as if that person triggered the rest of the thoughts that he had.

Stan: Yes. Everyone who makes a journey to Planet Bob discovers some new territory there they hadn't figured on seeing. So I was really attracted to the song. I always liked the song. I also liked just the compactness of it, too. And so I had played it myself and just worked on it and had fun with playing it by myself. But the first time I played it was in a show for Peter Case that was a special show to collect some money for his medical expenses; he'd had a recent operation. And it was at a McCabe's here in Santa Monica. And so I sang that song, and Dave Alvin was also on the show, and Dave said to me backstage, "Stan, you did that Dylan song, you should cut that. I'll cut that with you." I said, "You will? Well, if you're going to help me out, then let's go do this."

So then we pulled in Amy Farris, she was there, too. She had played with me before, and Dave. And bass player Brett (Simons) and Pietra (Wexstun) – my partner here on piano, and we went in there and did that. And then at the same time we also cut "Big Green Tree" on the Neon Mirage record because that was a favorite of Amy's and she insisted we cut that. I cut the song before on a previous solo record, Black Diamond, more than a decade ago. But she really wanted to play that. And it turned into a different song, it was in a different key. We all knew we were kind of onto something. But "Lenny Bruce" – that song kind of got Dave and me into the studio there.

And of course as the year went on, a lot of calamity hit and other things happened, and we lost Amy, and had to kind of re-think the whole thing. I still had these tracks, and it was really tough to know what to do with "Lenny Bruce" for a while because the unexpected sad irony of it wasn't lost on me. Lenny Bruce is dead. And so I said to Dave, "I don't know what to do with this. I don't know if I can even mix it or put it out. Amy's on there playing so great, and Lenny Bruce is dead, and she's not here." And Dave said, "Oh, Stan, now you're just getting that haunted thing you're doing." He pulled me out of it and said, "Stan, she'd want you to put it out, are you kidding? You gotta put it out. That's her, she's playing great." So I got feeling better about it. A lot of other things happened that year. My father passed away, my uncle died. There's a number of things that put me to the side of the road for a while. I took some time off and I got back in late January or early February or something, and I knew I needed to write three or four other songs to make it right for me, and kind of let the music heal me up.

"Halfway There" was another song I cut with Amy, and that was pretty heavy when we were doing that. She was a great player and a great person. We all miss her. But the album changed a bit, and I had to think of another approach to make it right with me.

Songfacts: Well, I think it came out really well. From hearing you talk about it, I can understand what a difficult experience it must have been.

Stan: Well, I'd never really experienced having a deceased musical cohort on a record that you mix and go through.

Songfacts: Right, because then you have to listen to it, and you have to get so close to it.

Stan: Never really had that happen that way before. It was pretty abrupt and it was pretty brutal. But I'm really happy, I'm grateful we were able to put these songs together and people can hear them and they can hear how great she was.

Songfacts: I don't want to keep you too much longer, Stan. I know that you're preparing for a tour.

Stan: I appreciate that, Dan.

Songfacts: But I've enjoyed talking to you. You're kind of what I expected, because you've got a good sense of humor and you're quick, and you're witty, and that makes my job easy, so I really appreciate that.

Stan: Well, we all get something from our family, and that's the way I grew up, with a lot of half veiled sarcasms and a kind of failed romantic outlook. (laughing) Things could get better, but they just might not, but then again if they don't, what are we gonna do about it? Fall down in the road and die? No, no. We need to march on.

We spoke with Stan in September, 2010. Get more at
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Comments: 1

  • Simon from BelgiumNice interview!!!
    stan seems like a great guy to talk to
see more comments

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