Rebirther: A Memoir-ish Book From Singer/Songwriter Todd Snider

todd snider

It must be a little frustrating, or off-putting, or maybe worrying, to be a singer-songwriter who’s best known for telling stories between tunes on stage. Didn’t people come to hear you sing? That’s the strange predicament that the singer Todd Snider has found himself in — he’s made a name for himself because of his outrageous rant-stories that he launches into to set up his material. To be fair, he’s funny as hell, like a jittery speed-freak after several beers retelling some of his best near-death anecdotes for the edification of all. Don’t get me wrong: people like his songs, too. But it’s fitting that Snider has finally written a book, since his narrative riffs in front of crowds always seemed to beg for being set to the page and bound between covers.

Snider’s “I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like” (out this month from DaCapo Press) rehashes some of his best material, about getting wasted, getting arrested, hanging with his idols, or generally pissing off the rich and powerful. It’s a book of unabashed road stories, drunk tales and thoroughly baked shaggy-dog sagas. His fans will already know that Snider is a huge Jerry Jeff Walker obsessive and devotee. (Snider released a tribute record of Walker’s material in 2012.) But the book drives home the degree to which Snider has found inspiration in the life and work of that adoptive Texan.

Snider embraces and champions the very idea that sometimes gets trotted out by those who want to dismiss Jerry Jeff: the fact that he wasn’t born in Texas, and that he changed his name and sort of adopted this freewheeling persona. (Which, as Snider points out, is pretty much what many great folk singers have done. Ever hear of Robert Zimmerman?) For Snider, it’s that bridge-burning act of self-creation that cements the inspirational genius of Jerry Jeff. Learning that “native Texas gypsy drifter Jerry Jeff Walker was actually Ronald Crosby” only increased Snider’s admiration for him. “In that moment, I knew I didn’t have to be Todd Snider, the Oregon kid who’d played football. I knew, I’m not who I’ve been told I was; I’m who I want to be.”

It’s a subject he comes back to a few times.

“I’m a good guy to have in your corner when your whole life turns out to be a lie,” he writes. “I won’t even hold that sort of thing against you, and I might respect you more for coming up with a grand grift like that.”  

He’s not shy about learning lessons from his idols. Snider picks up choice kernels of wisdom about the music business and being an entertainer from Jimmy Buffett, who signed and toured with Snider for a spell. Snider also takes to heart some of the advice he got from songwriting giant John Prine about the importance of crafting a song that’s honest and true and meaningful, without sparing yourself humiliation — how to avoid writing “invulnerable crap.” He’s got nice things to say about Garth Brooks (who almost released one of his tracks once — which would have been a huge songwriting-royalty payday for Snider) and the famous groupie Pamela Des Barres. Snider is not hater. And he basically sings praise songs in prose to Randy Newman and Kris Kristofferson. Plenty of aspiring songwriters could pick up some pointers from Snider, or maybe get turned off of that silly career path if they don’t have the spine to pursue it.

“I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t enticed by the idea of playing music in order to get wasted, have a cool scarf, and have chicks tell me I was deep, even if I wasn’t. But the thing I was wanting to be, which was what you might call a lifer, wasn’t going to be about coming up with a cute melody once. It was going to be about daring to be humiliated, over and over again. And when your heart finally starts to heal up, that’s when you’re in trouble. Contentment, not rejection, is the enemy.”

(Uh, okay, maybe I’ll get that degree in business after all, thanks, Mr. Snider.)

Snider deploys a giddy vernacular, deadpan and funny, aware of how talk starts to sound stupid after a while, and it all circles back around eventually. Here he is on the subject of hanging out backstage in dressing rooms:

“We get free celery and carrots and ranch dip and booze, even. We get towels. We get all kinds of shit, and nobody can touch it but us. You want celery? Talk to the hand.

That’s right, I said, ‘Talk to the hand.’ And here’s why: when it comes to slogans and fashions and bands, I like to be what I call ‘post-hip, pre-retro.’ That sweet spot, right when something isn’t cool anymore and before it becomes cool in an ironic way. The cutting edge of uncool.”

There are a lot of juicy tidbits about chilling backstage. Talking about The Daily Planet, a club that Snider played formative gigs at in Memphis, he writes: “In the back was a kitchen you could use for a dressing room, but probably not for a kitchen.”  

Snider likes stand-up comic rim-shot moments like that. You’ll either dig it or find it annoying. Like an absurd cartoon in the New Yorker.

One of the funniest mini chapters is about Snider hanging killing time at a bar in L.A. where Slash from Guns N’ Roses happened to be the only other patron, also nursing an afternoon drink. Slash, as it happens, was wearing shorts and no shirt and a bunch of suitably outrageous jewelry. Snider mostly just took it all in, marveling at the rock-and-roll audacity of it all, but not saying anything — though you know he wanted to. When he leaves, Slash nods at him and says “Take it easy, man.” And that’s it. End of famous-person sighting. Pretty funny, right?

Another thing that comes through in the book: this dude is a major-major pot head, like Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg-level. Snider also possesses a kind of surfer-dude zen wisdom about dealing with being misunderstood as an artist, about not being able to control what people think about your work, about basically being an artist.

As he says “chasing sanity or money isn’t part of this shit.”

He probably will roll with it — whatever happens — but this book could only enhance Snider’s reputation as a storyteller.

 

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