Road Journals - Vol 10 (January 2004)
New Connection - An Interview with Todd Snider
Todd Smith - Sharkbitten.com -
As a writer, opportunities to interview people you find interesting can be difficult. Usually it involves a horde of public relations people, managers, agents, and anyone else except the person you wanted to interview.
A few weeks ago, an interview I had always hoped to conduct came looking for me. I received an email from Bart Bacon asking if I would interview Todd Snider as a replacement for his normal journal entry on his website.
In light of Todd’s well-known recent battles with drug addiction I jumped at the chance. After all, Todd is among my favorite musicians—an influence on my own writing and songwriting. Further, I had a distinct interest in breaking the silence that had prevailed after his wife Melita posted an exceptionally honest letter in mid-November about Todd’s drug problem.
Todd opened his life to me, and in turn to you because he felt he owed everyone an explanation regarding his troubles. In this course, I found one of the most genuine people I know and a man I now think about daily. I’m sure you’ll find the same.
(Todd Snider) Before we start the interview, I want to thank everyone for the cards, letters, flowers and gifts. It's been so moving for me. I can't describe the feeling. Also, the reason for the interview is that I wasn't sure how to approach this as a journal entry. It was a little too close to home for me to do without help.
Also, anyone who knows me knows I like to joke around. Let me assure everyone that I'm taking this very seriously even if I joke around. I hope to never let anyone down again.
(Sharkbitten) First and foremost, how are you feeling and how is your wife Melita?
(TS) Melita is in the room and she says she's fine. As for me, I'm writing more than ever and going through tons of notebooks. Emotionally and physically I can only say that I'm so-so. This whole thing started for me when I was in the 6th grade. That’s when the teachers started saying I needed to go to a psychiatrist. I flunked that grade. And, how should I say this? That, whatever that was is still there then is here now and it’s hard for me to sleep. I’m sleeping every couple of days but I’m working on it. I started going to those types of doctors when I was a 6th grader. They said something must have happened to me when I was a 5th grader. I got suspended 8 times from high school. That kind of behavior didn’t end for me until I started smoking pot and drinking. Then as I got older my back started hurting and that’s how I got on the pain pills. I've been living on that combination for a long, long time. So anytime I’ve ever stopped, whatever it is that makes them say I’m crazy comes back. I don’t think that I’m crazy but I’m at least at an age now where I'm old enough to acknowledge something’s going on there. If don’t find a new way to face it or deal with it I’m going to die. So I’m trying to find a new way to deal with that. Right now I’m just working on trying to get to some sleep. From there we’ll figure it out. I’m alive. Not knowing what comes next, I’m assuming that’s a good thing.
(SB) How long have you gone without sleep recently?
(TS) Well, I sleep like every couple of days and then I have nightmares. I don’t want anyone to go, “Oh poor Todd!” you know because I made it through junior high school like this and I can make it like this. I’ve never stuck with any of the shrinks that I've gone to because it seems they all do the same thing--they hypnotize you and want to talk about your parents. I go until they say they have some long word about me. Then I say, “Well now that you’ve got some word I’m going to go back to work.” This time is the most dedicated I’ve been to it. I’m going to three doctors. It’s kind of like doing press but you don’t talk about the record. I don’t think anything happened to me in the 5th grade but they think something did and that’s where I am with that. Also, my back is hurting a lot now and I’m going to start doing yoga.
I’ve never been a partier. There are two drugs that you can say I was addicted to that I’m still not sorry that I took and that I will miss. There's another drug that is just the devil and that’s the one I’ve never bragged about or made jokes about on stage. That’s a dangerous drug.
(SB) What was that?
(TS) Painkillers. Oxycontin—that’s the soup du jour now.
Like I said I’m not a partier. I never really go out. I smoke pot to keep me from being so angry. I started using that same excuse for the Oxycotin
When my friend got sick, it just escalated everything.
(SB) Kent Finlay by any chance?
(TS) Yeah it was sort of Kent and Skip all happening at once. In the moment I was not really aware of what was going on. I just thought that I needed another pill. Now a month later I can look back and see what I was doing. Skip told me as he was dying that I had to quit when he died.
(SB) I’m really sorry about Skip.
(TS) We feel like he’s following us around. He had a very specific smell to him that was like Marlboro, Southern Comfort, marijuana. I swear to you we get in the car, like just the other day we went to get our Christmas tree and the car smelled like Skip. It doesn’t smell like Skip all the time so we’re convinced he’s following us around.
(SB) The last time I saw you was November 8th near Tampa, Florida—the site of your last show. You looked great and sounded as if you were in great spirits. What happened between that night and your trip to the hospital?
(TS) That’s a great question but I don’t have any real recollection of going to Florida. I remember being in the airport and I was really down because we had such a good time the last time we were down there—me, Skip, and my wife Melita. My stomach hurt and you can't find a clock in an airport which I don't understand. I remember being in the airport getting ready to go and being pretty angry about not being able to find a clock. I might have even mouthed off to someone who had nothing to do with it.
Then I woke up in this cabin out in the woods in a cot. I thought, “Oh fuck!” I thought I was in jail in Florida. I looked around and there was all these other guys. So I started looking for Josh, my new tour manager, because I thought, “Oh please don’t let me have gotten this new young kid’s life off on the wrong foot. And then I noticed that it looked like I could walk out. I thought, “Shit there’s nobody by the doors or anything—seems like you could just leave." So I sat up.
When I sat up my stomach hurt and so immediately some lady came over and started talking to me. She wasn’t in a nurse outfit or anything but she said I had fainted in my doctor’s office. And then it started coming back to me. Then when I talked to my wife she told me that when I came home from Florida I had this really bad stomach pain. She said that Sunday or Monday when I got home it was really bad and her and her mother and father took me to the doctor where I fainted.
(SB) What was your first thought when you were told you needed to return to rehab?
(TS) I had already scheduled to go in January. Like I said Skip had said when he died I had to go handle this. It was a promise I made but I also had those tour dates I wanted to fulfill. I was planning on going to rehab the day after New Year’s Eve. My stomach broke the glass on the alarm so to speak. I really fucked up my stomach and I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t know what it was. So when I woke up there I wasn’t that put out about being in rehab. I felt really bad about canceling shows but I knew that I needed to be where I was. I had already gone through the motions. The place I ended up was expecting me in January. I’ve never wanted to be hooked on those pills. That was something that really bothered me. It only takes about four days in a row to get hooked on those pills.
(SB) Melita wrote a rather frank letter on your website explaining the situation. How hard was that for her to do?
(TS) She had her parents here with her. It’s funny. I read her that question and she said, “I’m as bad as punctuation and spelling as you are.” But the truth has always been pretty easy for her to tell. Neither of us is really afraid of failure. I’m more afraid of the telephone than I am of failure and I think she’s sort of like that too. When you put yourself out you face rejection. She could have gotten a lot of mail going, “Well fuck all y’all! We had tickets!” but we didn’t any letters like that.
(SB) How long did you spend in treatment?
(TS) Just long enough to get over the detox part so it’s like which I don't know how long that lasted. It seems like when I go--this is my third time in rehab--as soon as I'm not sick anymore they ask me all these questions. It seems if I get the questions right I can go play ping-pong, sit in circles and stuff. I never have been able to answer the questions right. I can't figure out what the inkblots are. I think it looks like a cloud and apparently it’s not a cloud. The three times I’ve been to rehab they tell me I have a lot of long words that I am. Like now I’m bipolar. I also have a lot of slogans I’m supposed to say now. They want me to take lithium, which I'm not sure I'm going to do.
It’s not that hard for me not to take the drugs. It’s just hard for me to face things. I don’t know why but I just get really nervous going anywhere. The phone makes me really nervous.
To finally answer the question I was probably there a week or a little more than that.
(SB) Are you still in outpatient care?
(TS) Yeah and I probably will be for the rest of my life.
(SB) The traveling troubadour lifestyle doesn’t jive too easily with recovery. How do you plan to tackle the temptations you’ll certainly face back on the road?
(TS) I won’t be able to do the meet-and-greets and things like that. After the show I like to go out and meet everybody but that’s when people hand me drugs and that’s when people say things to me that make me want to take the drugs. I got to get myself together with that before I can go back out there.
(SB) What about the red wine?
(TS) Oh man I’m going to miss it. I have a psychiatrist and psychologist—they tell me I can drink wine again someday. I have to wait for my stomach to heal—I blew a hole in it. They say I can probably smoke pot and drink again if I ever just figure out what’s wrong with me. Right now I’m enjoying being off everything to be honest with you.
I’ve been writing more than usual. The last time I got straight I didn’t write anything. Then I was playing at a hippie festival in California and someone threw a joint on stage. I put in my pocket, smoked it and wrote “Beer Run.” That was one of the reasons I was really scared to get straight. This time I was about halfway through with a record or at least halfway writing a record when I got straight. So I came out and wrote the rest of the record. It worked very differently this time. I filled a few notebooks full of short stories and things too.
This is the first time I’ve been interested in getting my head clear and figuring out why I can’t sleep and why I have nightmares all the time.
(SB) So is sleeping going to be your biggest challenge in your recovery?
(TS) I think so. That and the part about the job I have a hard time with is being judged and misunderstood. Those two things are very hard. Those are two concrete things I know will be difficult without any kind of pain-numbing type of thing.
(SB) Whose judgment are you worried about?
(TS) It’s just random. It’s everybody. I don’t want to think about that, and I don’t think about it to the point where it changes my actions. Most of the people on the Shithouse Wire notice it’s happening and try to save me from it—but you line up some people and start shaking hands with them and some will very subtly tell you who you are, what they don’t like about you, and what you should do. I wish I was a little stronger at handling that but I'm not. Like I said I don’t take it to the degree that I change who I am, but I take that stuff hard. I’m a pretty sensitive person. You only need to make fun of my shirt once for feel sad and go back to my room. I usually go back to my room and smoke pot after the show and watch the news.
(SB) Have you talked to John Prine or Kris Kristofferson--anyone at the label?
(TS) Yeah. Kris sent me a letter just a couple of days ago.
(SB) He has a lot of experience with the sort of thing you’re going through.
(TS) He sure does. In fact one time I was in a hotel room and there was a knock at the hotel door and it was Kris Kristofferson and he had a huge bag of pot. We just spent the whole day smoking pot, drinking wine, and trading songs. It’s one of my favorite memories of being a musician.
(SB) Your fans are often known to treat you as a friend and their outpouring of support has been quite amazing. Have you kept up with the amount of well wishes they’ve been writing on your website as well as on the infamous Shithouse Wire?
(TS) The Shithouse Wire thing I don’t listen to because I want people to feel like they can criticize me. I don’t think I should be on there defending myself. I don’t want them to stop. I’m probably too sensitive to watch without getting on there and making the whole thing boring for everyone. I have checked my website though. I’ve gotten a lot of stuff at home and at the record company. It was really moving to me. People have said stuff about my music that meant more than, “Hey that was a fun Friday,” which is as far as I’ve really been able to look at it until now. It makes me feel good. Some people are taking away more from it than just a place to go get a beer and yell, “Alright Guy” every once in a while.
(SB) I’ve heard people say that if all the money they had would buy them a Todd Snider CD and a ticket to a show that’s how they’d spend the money.
(TS) I always try to keep myself from that because criticism and praise are both unhealthy if that’s what you’re fixated on. I’ve tried to avoid that but with this thing that just happened one of the blessings I guess is that I’ve become a smidge more aware of that kind of thing. It makes me feel better than I could probably put into words.
(SB) You recently played a highly anticipated show with the Nervous Wrecks. During that show you apologized to your fans for the roller-coaster ride over the last few years. You also mentioned you planned to celebrate your birthday by getting drunk and taking drugs. How do you feel about those two statements now?
(TS) I don’t feel bad. First of all I like to tell the truth more than anything else. Second, in that moment I wasn’t thinking of mushrooms, pot, or red wine. This may sound awful but there’s nobody that I would tell not to take those drugs. I would keep your kids away from me because I won't tell them those things are bad. The thing is that when I say things like that I assume that nobody thinks I’m talking about painkillers, which I’ve always thought of as my shameful little secret. There are probably about four people in the world that knew that what a huge part of my life it has been for so long. If you think of where I was coming from in saying that, taking out that I was addicted to pain killers, I’m kind of glad after that show smoked a bunch of pot and drank a bunch of wine with my friends because I may not get to do that again.
I’ve done cocaine once or twice in my life and I can't stand it. With that said, I was just glad that for my 37th birthday I went out and did some things I enjoy. I was saying earlier and I hope people don’t find this offensive but ten years from now when I’m not smoking joints and I’m not drinking wine it’s because my stomach is fucked up. It’s not because I was ruining my life or felt so sad. I even have a therapist who doesn't believe I'm a normal drug addict.
(SB) Some folks, myself included, that saw you that last night near Tampa noticed the very haunting version of “Waco Moon” you performed as the lunar eclipse began. Eddy Shaver’s death as chronicled in that song was weighing on your mind wasn’t it?
(TS) I assume that night, because like I said I don’t really remember, but I can tell you this and I’m trying not to be too over-dramatic in this interview, but the drug that killed my friend I was on enough of it to die in that moment. Looking back I can only imagine I was very aware my friend died from the drug I was on in front of all of those people. When I wrote the song it was the same thing because I was on that drug when I heard he was dead. My favorite line in that song is “it hits me like a waterfall.” I was really sad about my friend and mad at him too because he’s one of a few people that introduced me to the drug. But I was also feeling sorry for myself. I wish I had been straight for the lunar eclipse.
They tell me that I’m bipolar now. I think there’s probably some truth to that. The three times that I’ve gotten myself messed up on narcotics is when I've hit the bottom. When I've come out I've had some baggage--pills I mean.
(SB) During your recovery, what’s gotten you through?
(TS) Playing the guitar. Playing different music. I've been playing the mandolin and piano. Actually playing the music really helps me. It’s like a drug to me. You can make hours go buy. I’ve been recording in the studio. That's been fun. I've never done that straight.
It’s funny. I hear that word “recovery” and I’m trying to pretend I'm not an alcoholic or a drug addict. If you go through detox you are. You can’t pretend you’re not. When I hear you say “recovery" I think the biggest part of my recovery is trying to figure out why I can’t get my brain to sleep. In that light I feel like I may never recover.
I’m like a panic attack-type person. I got in a lot of physical confrontations until I was in the 10th grade. I’ve never touched anybody since then and never will. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a fistfight but there’s thirty seconds right before when you know what is going to happen. I feel stuck in that place sometimes. Just waiting in line at the grocery store or trying to find a clock in the airport. That's why they want me to take lithium.
(SB) Do you get worried about that you’re just heading down the same road with a different drug?
(TS) Yeah. I do not want to die. I get so depressed I think about killing myself. I always come to the conclusion that I’m not going to do that. Sometimes at the bottom I think about it but I’m not going to do it. I know that I’m not.
Sometimes I get scared because I know what it means to go back down that road.
I really want to communicate with people but I’m not going to be one of those guys that comes out of rehab and ten days later says, “I’ve really got my shit together now.” Right now I’m worried and it's tough. If anyone wants to do me a favor don’t give me any drugs at the show. Bring me flowers. Throw flowers on the stage—any kind.
(SB) No trips to Key West anytime soon?
(TS) (Laughs). I’d like to. I may even get to smoke joints again someday. They keep telling me there may be some event that I can process and work through. If that happens then maybe I could have a glass of wine on New Year’s Eve but I’m not going to look at it like that right now. I so desperately need to not think about it like that right now. Right now I need to keep thinking that if I take any drugs I’m going to die.
(SB) That’s how you see it?
(TS) That’s just the truth. I almost died.
(SB) Do you look in the mirror and see an addict?
(SB) Is that hard to see every day?
(TS) It’s harder to see my how fucked up teeth are. (Laughs) I don’t know why. Some days of course I do. I've been an addict since I was 18. So I don't really like looking in the mirror much.
(SB) Your songwriting often lends itself to the more humorous side of life. There’s not much to poke fun of in your recent experiences. What makes you laugh these days and is it influencing the new songs?
(TS) It almost always influences my songs. Although the ironic thing is that most of the funniest stuff sometimes comes from the darkest holes. It’s almost like the subject is too hard for me to approach without levity. Will Kimbrough is very funny. My wife is very funny. She’s painting like crazy.
I called Will to cancel a date one afternoon recently because I needed to see a shrink and he said he could have told me that a long time ago.
Skip’s funeral was hysterical. I know that sounds weird but it was funny. I love stuff like that. For some reason it helps me to laugh even in moments of pain.
(SB) You often say that your wife’s paintings make you laugh. Has she been able to work much recently?
(TS) Yeah. As we speak she's painting.
(SB) Speaking of Wrecks, you’ve been almost continually working with Will Kimbrough for years now. He’s one of the hottest guitarists and songwriters out there. He’s on tour with Rodney Crowell and just wrapped up recording with Jimmy Buffett. Is there anyone more deserving than Will?
(TS) Well probably not but I’d have to meet everyone. (Laughs) I’ll tell you he’s a good slow dancer but he’s a terrible, terrible, violent man. He bullies the elderly. He steals. He flat refuses to admit I taught him to play the guitar. He attacks me physically from time-to-time for no real discernible reason. And when I see him again you can bet I’ll be heavily armed. The man is a true menace to society and a draft-dodger.
(SB) You both recorded on Adrienne Young’s “Plow to the End of the Row.” How did he rope you into that?
(TS) We owe each other a lot. He could call me and say he needed help washing his car and I’d drive right over.
I was driving down the street the other day and heard Adrienne Young on the radio. The studio that they made it is right down like a block or so from here. I know the guy that runs it. They just did the White Stripes and Loretta Lynn record there like three months ago.
So that’s what I’ve been doing--recording. I asked if I could produce myself. The record label thought that sounded great. So I went down to that studio where Eric, a friend of mine who runs it and is about my age and who is a gifted engineer works. I started—just like you say—I roped Will into like how he got me to play harp on that record. I called and said, “Hey I’m over here and I’m stuck and I need you to come over.” He’s always been like an older brother to me and he’s good about metaphorically holding my hair while I vomit. Now we’re producing the record together.
(SB) Some of your fans have sent in some questions if you have the time. First, are you surprised none of the questions were about your recent illness?
(TS) A lot of them seem to know--a lot of those Shithouse Wire people don't grill me about what's going on. They don't grill me about wanting me to do things their way. One of the hardest things in this job is when people want you to do things their way. And if you don't then they think you're listening to somebody else. I've been lucky with my group of people. They seem to understand that I'm going to be autonomous. It seems I don't get as much "when you are going to do this or that?"
(SB) With a little time off, what are you listening to? Any rock or country acts you find interesting these days?
(TS) I've been listening to classical music a lot. I like the Kings of Leon, the new Robert Earl Keen album, and I'm a big fan of both the Strokes albums. People say the Strokes are derivative but they're derivatives of people I haven't heard. It's pointed me back to the Velvet Underground. Everyone keeps saying they're like the Velvet Underground. So I went and checked that out. It reminds me of how someone my age would have listened to the Stones and then checked out Muddy Waters.
Greendale by Neil Young is probably my record of the year--the Neil Young record. I just love it.
I like the song with the White Stripes guy. I like that one riff (does the riff). I haven't heard any of the rest of the new stuff though.
Country music--you know--I like the whole Texas circuit. Jack Ingram is my favorite. I like Pat Green--I see him on TV and I like his song "Wave on Wave."
(SB) Your setlists have recently been quite varied. What do you consider when you’re picking the songs you’ll play?
(TS) I try to go with my mood combined with my memory of what I did the last time I was in town. Somehow when I get into the dressing room I remember what town I'm in. That's when I remember if I told this story or that, this song or that one--so don't do those again. Then I get a rough plan together. In the last few years or so I've been saving a spot just to let people yell stuff. I've been surprised they don't just yell, "Beer Run" or "Alright Guy." There doesn't seem to be one particular song they all want. I don't have a "Freebird.”
Playing the crowd is like surfing. I don't know how to surf but we have some friends in California that do. They tell me surfing feels just like what I'm doing. You choose a board and you choose a specific beach and you choose a specific day but once you get out there it's up to the waves. The waves sort of decide what's going to happen. And the more you're open to the wave the more therapeutic the show is going to be.
(SB) No one told you paddling out is the hard part?
(TS) Yeah! (Laughs) That's good. I didn't think about that. I'm going to ask them why they didn't tell how hard it is to paddle out.
(SB) Once upon a time you the rumor was you were going to record an album with Jack Ingram. What’s the latest on that one?
(TS) Another bastard. A rotten bastard who owes me $7.50. All negotiations are bogged down until that $7.50 is returned to me. Another menace. A true land shark who refuses to admit I wrote "Biloxi" and has egged and tee-peed my house on more than one occasion. He's one the one that needs lithium. He's the fucking crazy person with his make-believe friends Bruce and Charlie or whatever. I know these people don't exist. He just yammers on. Another good slow dancer though I must say. Both him and Kimbrough.
(SB) Doesn't step on your feet?
(TS) Never. But I could take both of them in wrestling match I think. That's what I'd like to see. I'd like to see Kimbrough and Jack Ingram go at it.
(SB) Who do you think would come out on top of that one?
(TS) Ryan Adams. Maybe Pat Green. (Laughs)
(SB) Finally, you can bet all of your fans will be reading this. What would you like to say to them?
(TS) I've been thinking about them lately--more than I ever have before. Especially some of the ones--like Lynda and Michelle, the Riddle brothers, Sparky, the Carries, Fay and Mike, Tom, Mel and his wife. It chokes me up to think about how they have supported my desire to switch my styles so much. They may not always support the music but they deeply support my desire to follow my own heart regardless of what the labels, DJs, or even Shithouse Wire members think. There are bands like AC/DC and the Ramones that figure out what you like and stick with it. Then there are people like Neil Young that keep making left turns and right turns and going different directions. It's a lot to ask someone to stick with you through that. Just recently I've had this awareness of how there's been people that stick with me. They don't always like the direction I take but they like that I go the direction I want to. So I guess, "Thank you," are the words I'm looking for. That's what I was trying to say the other night at the Reno Wrecks show. Most of them seem like they would stick with me if if I wanted to make a jazz record and for that I'm incredibly thankful.
That and anybody that had a ticket to one of those shows that got cancelled and the people that promoted those shows--those guys work so hard. They lose money--everyone I cancelled on lost money. So I'm apologetic for making my personal problems their problems. Other than that, I would quote Bill Murray in Meatballs, "Wear bright colors and stay low!"