PRINT May 1986


The substance of nobody’s voice.

IN STAN RIDGWAY’S SONGS, the man who’s speaking suggests a character who uses his voice mainly to talk to himself. At first he can sound like a jerk: it’s easy to imagine a life for him, a life reduced to a series of meaningless transactions. Even the most commonplace exchange taxes his ability to say what he means, so even “yes” or “no” comes out off-key, dubious, too eager to please. Maybe he has a job, so he says what he has to say to his boss and the people he has to work with; maybe he has a wife, so he says what he has to say to her. He buys what he has to buy when he has to buy something, and he’s polite about it: “Thank you very much.” But you can hear him listening to himself as he says it, as if he’s rehearsed the line a dozen times on the way to the counter, like a teenager combing his hair a dozen different ways in front of a mirror. The tone of the man’s voice carries a disquieting edge of stupidity. Something is disquieting about it, anyway.

“The American voice is flat, toneless and tiresome,” Raymond Chandler once wrote, but he also watched Americans, and one of those he saw “was a man who liked to make small neat inconspicuous motions with his hands. These motions neither had, nor were intended to have, any meaning. But the making of them gave him a quiet sense of his own grace and competence.” The second time through The Big Heat (I.R.S.), Ridgway’s first album since 1983, when he left the Los Angeles new wave band Wall of Voodoo, you can begin to hear this private dance of secret gestures in Ridgway’s voice. Yes, he’s listening to himself, but he’s less rehearsing his words than playing with them, playing with words as if they were social sounds, disconnected symbols of social reality. The songs hold great floods of words; the pleasure of putting them together almost outruns whatever stories are being told. Ridgway is playing with the possibilities of the flat, deadpan tone Chandler identified, looking for the money in it—he’s looking for the way, as Chandler also wrote, that American language comes “alive to clichés,” seeks naturally to make them, to make a language everyone can understand without a second thought. In “Pick It Up (and put it in your pocket),” a song about money, cast in the form of an occult rumor spreading through the economy, Ridgway gets it: “Now I don’t wanna seem to say that the time ahead won’t be ok, but the scale is loaded down with the weight of sixteen tons—and the ones that have tell the ones that don’t to tell the ones that can’t about the ones who won’t, and there’s no place left here ’round to run. Pick it up and put it in your pocket—or somebody else will.”

Speech that on one’s first listening to The Big Heat might have seemed dead in the mouth is now moving nearly too fast to follow. With a stuttering beat, the song takes cliches as tests of its ability to come to life (“sixteen tons,” which as a reference to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s wage-slave ballad sticks out as clumsily as would a quote from Karl Marx; the loser’s sentimentality of “no place to run”; the catch-phrase moral of the last lines). Picking up speed out of the rest of the performance, “the ones that have tell the ones that don’t to tell the ones that can’t about the ones who won’t” can blindside a listener. The string of words sounds like a cliché but it’s not; you seem to have heard it before but you haven’t.

What’s happening can only be called poetry. Here, words find each other in a certain social context, and, in their new unity (the tension between the obvious “ones that have” and the concomitant “ones that don’t” snapping forward to reveal the mysterious “ones who won’t”), that social context becomes flesh and blood. You begin to hear panic behind the matter-of-fact plainness of the voice, then plain fact behind the panic. “The ones that have tell the ones that don’t . . . ”—the words might fall apart when you try to analyze them, but heard as a piece they make the sort of line you recognize instantly, understand intuitively, as if it’s been hiding between headlines for the last six years, just waiting for someone to find it.

The Big Heat is a storyteller’s album; it’s no accident that on the lyric sheet the words are set as blocks of prose. Detectives and the man they’re after, laborers working a pile driver, carnies, a man dumped by his wife, soldiers on a lost patrol, a cabbie and his fare, a traveling salesman—together they make up a gallery of nobodies. These are people who have learned not to dramatize their lives, gestures, or voices, who know they have no claim on anyone else’s attention—people who, if they want anything out of language beyond the management of commonplace transactions, want only to explain their own predicaments to themselves. So they speak in that flat tone: “Old Mr. Johnson turns blue and starts to choke,” Ridgway sings in “Can’t Stop the Show,” the carny tune; “Somebody slap ’em on the back.” The way he says “slap ’em on the back,” he might as well not have said it at all. Save for “Camouflage,” the soldiers’ song, the stories are made as ordinary as dirt—and yet The Big Heat is probably the most compelling portrait of American social life to appear on a rock ’n’ roll lp since Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

For Ridgway, the story goes back to “Lost Weekend,” a number from Wall of Voodoo’s 1983 Call of the West. With deadly simplicity, with a perfect feel for the vague, tortured rhythms of a conversation in which no sentence is ever completed, he played a husband and wife driving back to LA from Las Vegas, where they’d lost all their money. He never raised their voices, barely allowed them a sigh; the band meandering behind him, the piece nearly screamed with all that wasn’t being said. The Big Heat is not so extreme: the arrangements and accompaniments are easy to catch, and sometimes they turn unusual hooks and riffs into a programmed commercial bounciness that pulls the numbers away from where they mean to go, breaking Ridgway’s desire to capture real talk by forcing him into singsong. The music is smart at best, too often merely decorative, occasionally obfuscatory, and almost always secondary to Ridgway’s voice and his words: his dramaturgy.

What one really hears on The Big Heat is a style of naturalism that calls attention to itself as an artificial construct. All across the record, Ridgway’s goal might be to assume the flat tone of American speech as a disguise, and then to discover just how much can be expressed, how intensely what needs to be said can be said, before fear or fury burns up the disguise from inside. He wants to go no farther; he wants to find the limit, not cross it. The disguise is crucial, one side of the American thing itself—without that disguise, there could be no private dance of secret gestures. The Big Heat is a set of stories from people who have no reason to expect anyone to listen to them, and so they tell their stories as if no one else is listening: without that flat voice there would be no story.

Greil Marcus contributes often to Another Room Magazine (Berkeley). His music column appears monthly in Artforum.