Steve Wynn – Out of Syndication
“And I think it’s been a hard time for a lot of songwriters in the last couple of years because all the sudden you’re overwhelmed with feelings and fears and uncertainties that are hard to address in a song. But to ignore it is like ignoring the seven-ton elephant.”
So Wynn internalized his emotions and churned out some of the most piercing songs of his career, bonded by a core theme of mortality. Static Transmission is framed by a pair of somber tunes, “What Comes After” and “Fond Farewell” — the former a piano ballad that suggests coming to terms with one’s fate (“To think that such a day would terrify/I can’t believe it now,” Wynn sings in fragile tones), the latter an ambient, slightly lilting coda in which the song’s character humbly ponders his legacy (“When they’ve added up the figures and tables that measure up to my life/And they take dictation from my child and spend a few hours with my wife/I hope it all turns out to have been worth all the fuss”). They’re epitaphs, songs built to be played over a life’s final credits.
Elsewhere, Wynn fuses words of characters confronting life-altering moments with another of his stock trades, a psychedelic musical crunch. There’s “Keep It Clean”, a stammering, near-spoken-word grind about a guy just trying to keep on the straight-and-narrow; the scintillating “Candy Machine”, about a woman who reached her own wit’s end; and the tense “One Less Shining Star”, which follows a man who quietly, cryptically, slips out of society.
“I like putting characters in really horrible situations and letting them fend for themselves,” Wynn says. “I’m always attracted to writing about people who are completely at this crossroads, when they’re in a moment when their whole life is about to change and seeing what they do, whether they fuck up beyond belief or whether they somehow break through.”
For a little levity, there’s “California Style”, a smirky, sunshine pop song inspired by an article in a British music magazine chronicling the rock ‘n’ roll excess of the Eagles; and “Hollywood”, a crotch-rock come-on that teases about Wynn’s own flirtations with fame during the Dream Syndicate’s days of wine and roses.
Both songs also point to Wynn’s ongoing fascination with his old hometown. “I lived in California for most of my life, and I will never know a city as well as I know Los Angeles,” he acknowledges. “I know every street, every taco stand, every stretch of the Pacific Ocean. And you write about what you know. It’s a very exotic, strange, deceptively sinister city, which is why there’s so much great hard-boiled literature out of there. It’s no accident that [the writings of] James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain are all based in L.A. It’s a real contradiction; it’s not what it appears to be.”
Still, perhaps nothing on Static Transmission is more monumental than “Amphetamine”, a six-and-a-half-minute runaway train and the yin to the yang of the album’s more pensive moments. Here, a character pumped on uppers heads down a section of L.A.’s 101 freeway at needle-pinning speeds in the wee hours. He’s thinking about “all his regrets and all his fears” as he continues to push the car, and perhaps his life, to the brink. “God bless the child, God bless his soul, God perish the idea that he will die before he’s old,” Wynn sings. “Gotta be cool, you gotta behave, man there’ll be time for that when I’m lying in my grave.” Then comes the song’s recurring exclamation point: “I’M GONNA LIVE, UNTIL THE DAY I DIE!”
“There’s something about driving through Hollywood or through the San Fernando Valley or driving down the Pacific Coast Highway at two in the morning that is a thrill,” Wynn explains. “As it says in the song, all your fears, everything you’ve been hiding in the back of your mind somehow come out. You’re alone, you’re behind the wheel and you’re a little bit tired or whatever, and you go to a lot of places in your mind that you normally wouldn’t.”
Musically, the song is as good as anything Wynn’s ever recorded, an explosion of guitars and rollicking rhythms that, perhaps impossibly, remain locked in from start to finish. “I’ve played that song live probably about 70 times, and the version on the record is the best it’s ever been played,” he says. “On that day, on that take, it just was there. It was like riding in the fastest, highest, most rickety, dangerous, soon-to-be-banned-from-public-use rollercoaster that you’re ever gonna find. It was terrifying…I remember that feeling like, ‘Please, let’s just get to the end of this song. Let’s make it through because this is gonna fall apart at any second.’ And I love that feeling. It’s probably why I still do what I do. I love that exhilaration that you get when you’re writing something that’s greater than yourself.”
“Amphetamine” also testifies to the quality of the Miracle 3, perhaps Wynn’s most cohesive group of collaborators since the original Dream Syndicate. No argument from Wynn: “There’s just that kind of anarchy that I remember from the days of the Dream Syndicate. It’s a thrill,” he says. “I get that terror every minute that it’s just gonna go all wrong, and then it rarely does. And that’s the sign of a good band.”
On the day that we speak, Wynn is still decompressing from a typically grueling European tour (49 shows in 54 days) in support of Static Transmission, which arrived overseas at the beginning of the year; it’s due in July in this country. (“I have jet lag, so I’ll probably be honest about anything,” he jokes.) He’s long filled his pocketbook playing to European audiences, which have stuck with him more devoutly than those in the U.S.
Wynn is hardly alone in what he refers to as “the ex-patriot syndrome”; he chalks it up partly to simple logistics — it’s easier to tour Europe than the U.S. — and perhaps to a lesser obsession with youth culture by European fans. But, he points out, “I still sell most of my records in the States. Why? Because there’s more people here. They’re just spread out over a giant country.”
“Ex-patriot syndrome” was hardly an issue in the early 1980s when Wynn, fresh out of his teens, assembled the Dream Syndicate. The group — its earliest, best incarnation featured guitarist Karl Precoda, bassist Kendra Smith and drummer Dennis Duck — soon carved out a place for itself as part of L.A.’s so-called Paisley Underground scene alongside Green On Red, the Bangles, the Long Ryders and others. Theirs was a visceral onslaught like no other, laced in acid and Lou Reed, coming at a time when, as Wynn says, “the first seeds of corporate rock were really taking hold….We figured the stuff we loved was gonna be absolutely hated.”
The quartet also brought with it an incredible level of attitude. For his part, Wynn was often quite confrontational from the stage and was known to occasionally lie his way through interviews. “It was almost like we were testing people,” he says.” If you can get past all of this, if you can get past a 20-minute version of ‘Suzie Q.’, if you can get past me onstage just insulting you, if you could get us doing covers of songs we don’t know, if you get past the song you loved on the record being turned inside out the night you came to see us, then you could be our fan. And we really felt that way.”