Saturday, January 9, 2010

Stan Ridgway: The Big Heat

Stan Ridgway: The Big Heat

When it comes to Detective Narrative in pop music, I always end up turning to Stan Ridgway and his 1986 tune The Big Heat first. The title track from his first solo record Ridgway, who had just finished up his tenure with the New Wave group Wall of Voodoo, was on his own and still probing the dark-pulpy landscape of the broken California/American Dream of moving west to find a better life. Crime, loss, darkness and Noir imagery were nothing new to Ridgway as much of this territory was covered in his songs with Wall of Voodoo. Spy World, Call of the West and The Lost Weekend being prime examples of lurid pulpy tunes from the early days of the band when they played along side early LA Punk bands.

Sonically his music paints a shadowy, hollow, dark and depressed atmosphere. The ringing of an early drum machine and the echoing dirge like tempo of the music stands in contrast to Ridgway's voice which is high and plain spoken, lacking the gritty bass of Johnny Cash or the tortured whiskey taint of Tom Waits. Maybe Ridgway is to Punk/New Wave what Warren Zevon was to the 70s singer-song writers at least vocally.

anyway on to the song.
The room was dark
It looked like someone had to get out fast
A window open by the fire escape
"How long have you been following this guy?"
The bell boy asked
"Not long enough, 'cause we got here too late."

"And everybody wants another piece of pie today," he said
"You gotta watch the ones who always keep their hands clean."
It's the big heat
There's someone followin' you
It's the big heat

Step aside we're comin' through
Well we followed him from Tucson, ended up in Baton Rouge
We trailed him here with information by
A woman he knew in Barstow that would like to see him dead
That was four weeks ago...well maybe five


A block away he wondered if he'd left behind a clue
The front page of a paper dated 1992
He remembered when he used to be the chairman of the board
But that was when the world was young and long before the war


The narrative the song is mostly a pretty straight ahead story, someone following, someone's searching, only it takes a William Borroughsesque turn when it references a news paper and memories from the future. The song gives only the outline of a story, it's stripped down and sparse, elusive but with just leaving just enough clues to starts following what is going on, and leaves more questions than answers. Who is this guy? What was in Tucson? Why is there a woman in Barstow that would like to see him dead? 1992? What War? all of these questions, and no answers, yet still I keep coming back to the song.

The stand out lyric for me is the "And everybody wants another piece of pie today," he said. The meaning of the line at first seemed like a straight ahead statement, someone in a lonely diner, the kind where they keep the pie on the counter on a glass covered tray or pedestal. The kind of pie that diners set out as the grail of your experience in their establishment, where patrons count their nickles in hopes of afford that first slice. Slice you buy a slice, not a piece, maybe that's the clue that this pie isn't a crust filled with peach (which I could for for at this moment), but more likely apple (which makes me think of the golden delicious apples in the film Thieves Highway)-- but a piece of the dream, the cash, the scratch, the action, the Moolah. Is that code for greed and taking it on the run to have more? As in life, it's never that simple, yet it's often not that complex either. Answers lead to question which lead to answers which lead-- and on and on and on.
Stan Ridgway official site

Comments, thoughts, anything?

Note: for some reason the song can briefly be heard in the 1986 film Night of the Creeps, which is only of note to because while the film is a fun 80s horror comedy, the real reason to watch it is for Tom Atkins as the quintessential hard boiled detective character.

12 Crime tunes is a new series inspired by the Narrative Music Feature over at Hardboiled Wonderland. It is my intent to write about songs that most people don't know, have never heard, but that I love. All of the songs deal with an element of crime and either tell the story or evoke a mood and atmosphere of crime and of Noir. I would like to have an installment each month during 2010, but currently only have 8 songs selected, so we will see how things progress.

Coming in Feb 2010: The Leningrad Cowboys -Thru the Wire


Paul D. Brazill said...

Smashing post.Top piece of music.

Juri said...

I really loved this album back in the day, will have to dig it up on Spotify. And yes, you're quite correct, it's very much film noir -influenced stuff. Will have to take a look at the William S. Burroughs influences.

Iren said...

Paul: Thanks for the feedback, I'll be curious to see what you think of the next one.

Juri: There's a band in Helsinki called Gun Molls & Gangsters, I'd love to hear them cover this one.