Maybe the greatest subconscious human fear is that life is meaningless, or, as the late guru Alan Watts put it, that life is nothing more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.”
And Watts believed just that.
“It seems that only in moments of unusual insight and illumination,” Watts said, “that we … find that the true meaning of life is no meaning, that its purpose is no purpose, and that its sense is non-sense.”
Todd Snider is a big fan of Watts — he’s a big fan of nonsense, for that matter. The iconoclastic troubadour says he’s been hooked on Watts’ books for the past eight years or so, and just like Watts, Snider doesn’t believe there’s some divine equation we’ve all got to work out before we shuffle off this mortal coil.
“[Alan Watts] talks about defining the artist inside of yourself once you realize the art you’re doing is bullshit,” Snider tells me early on a Friday morning from his home in East Nashville. “And not, like, that means my songs are fake. No, it means no matter how real the songs I’ve been singing my whole life are, songs are bullshit — now go make one up.
“I’ve heard Chris Robinson (of Chris Robinson Brotherhood) talk about [how] when you’re young it’s easy to tell yourself that your concert is a revolution,” he adds. “Then when you’re 30 or 40, you realize the whole back row is nowhere near there for a revolution, but you have to find a way to tell yourself that they still are. And that may take acid, that may take something, but we’re taking the roof off this place even though we know it’s a silly [endeavor].”
At 50, that’s just what Snider did; he holed up with some friends a couple springs ago and took a bunch of acid, then eventually took to the studio to blow the roof off the thing with a splendidly strange collection of high-octane boogie-woogie, 2016’s Eastside Bulldog.
“It was just based on this ethic of partying and not thinking and just letting go,” Snider says. “All the songs are about fighting or fucking or both, maybe cars. But that’s it.” (For the record, Bocephus is also a recurring theme.)
Clocking in at 25 minutes, Eastside Bulldog pays blistering tribute to the two-word rock classics of the ’50s and ’60s — “Tutti Frutti,” “Wooly Bully,” “Hanky Panky” — by modernizing and adding some booze… and maybe a bump or three of cocaine. It’s a marked departure from the jangly yarns he’s woven over the years in his solo career, and certainly different from the meandering social-commentary Snider has been cooking up with his band Hard Working Americans over the last five years.
If his previous work engaged in soul searching, Eastside Bulldog is a cleansing fire, the record of a man admitting, from the first track, that he likes “chicks and cars and partying hard.” This is Snider truly embracing the sense of nonsense, accepting that his art — that everything — is bullshit. And there’s nothing futile about it.
“I feel like whatever your medium is, if you work hard enough at it you’ll see through it — I hope, if you’re genuine with it,” he says. “At a certain point it occurred to me that words aren’t the greatest; they’re almost the least effective means of communication. I think the thing that draws people to music so much is that rhythm is such an effective way to communicate.
“So if I’m a good poet, eventually I’ll shut up,” Snider explains. “That’s the natural course of things.”
It’s been a painful and transformative few years for Snider. He and his wife, artist Melita Osheowitz, divorced in 2014. The emotional pain formed an unholy union with the very physical pain of degenerative arthritis, and Snider “fell in the hole for a couple of years” using opiates.
He gave some scary interviews, one in particular in which he told Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle that he thought he’d be OK if he died that day since he didn’t feel like “there is anything on this planet that is worth hanging around for,” save for a Dylan record or two. He missed a few engagements, walked off stage a few times and fired his long-time tour manager.
Somewhere in all that he left East Nashville and went and stayed with some friends at a lake house and went on a “Hunter Thompson vacation”; he dropped so much acid in the course of a few days that he had a major seizure.
“I had a good time for about two-and-a-half days and then the last half of the last day was the day that I was like, OK I should be feeding pigeons. Time to be that guy.”
He may not be feeding pigeons, but he’s cooled his jets. Snider says, with a laugh, that he’s currently what his manager “would refer to as mildly dialed in. I’ve been to all the shows this year. I’ve almost been to all the stuff I’m supposed to go to this year.”
Snider’s never been afraid to talk about his demons and miscalculations. (“I have friends that wish I would shut up sometimes.”) While his mom and dad were “football-y,” “U.S.A. chant-y” types, Snider was “naturally a White Album type” — emotive, introspective.
The day we talk it happens to be the 71st birthday of his good buddy, comedian Richard Lewis, and Snider muses on the consequences of Lewis’ — and, in a roundabout way, his own — talent.
“I’ve noticed that for him to be so fucking funny all the time that he doesn’t really get to keep anything,” Snider says. “If he goes to the doctor or whatever, it’s all open. If he shits himself, that’s open. There was some comedian the other night that ripped his pants on stage — I was thinking about that the other day … it was brilliant for him. It would have been terrible for Joe Perry.”
I highly doubt Snider — a man who’s sung about the mortification that comes with getting arrested for possession of pot at 40 — would have a problem ripping his pants on stage. It’s just another story, and that’s Snider’s real addiction.
“I’ve never really partied,” Snider says, and he means it, and I kind of believe it. “Even if I’m going to try to find some ridiculous card game, I’m hoping there’s gonna be a guy there with a nickname that’s gonna give me the title of my next song. I always think he’s there, and so anytime I go to the weird drag race after work it’s not for the party, it’s for the story. I feel like that’s addictive. That happened to Mark Twain, to Hunter S. Thompson, to the guy who always wore the white suit. It’s like crack. And then you’re like, ‘Let’s find another weirder bar.’”
That may prove to be the most difficult obstacle to Snider becoming what he laid out as a “good” poet, one who finds happiness and eventually shuts up. More than drugs or booze or chicks and cars, what Snider craves most is a good story, one told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.
On the Bill: Todd Snider — with Matt McCormick. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 8, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Tickets are $30-35.