Stephen Yerkey's Wandering Songs
Conversations with songwriter Stephen Yerkey, like the songs on his latest
album, Metaneonatureboy, tend to wander a bit. You might start out
casually discussing the weather, then find yourself somehow engaged in a
story about Jack Nicholson buying a farm from Saul Bellow in southern
Vermont. You might ask him why it's been 12 years since his debut,
Confidence, Man, and become entangled in a tale about a woman who
lived in the mountains northeast of San Francisco. It's not that he's
evading the issue far from it but Stephen Yerkey has a circuitous way
of connecting the most disparate of ideas, a talent that makes his songs
continually surprising and interesting. Consider, for instance, the
wonderful "Link Wray's Girlfriend," which ties unexpected ligatures between
the lately-deceased guitarist, the artist Man Ray and 1950s pop singer
"I wanted to get Nicholas Ray, who directed Rebel Without a Cause,
into that song, too, but the song was going down the lower 40," remarked
Yerkey in a recent phone interview, using a term he employs whenever a song
starts to take on a wandering life of its own. This might take the form of
side-winding, far-roaming, story-telling lyrics, or it might involve mixing
blues, jazz, country, rock and folk in the space of a single
song. Whatever happens, though, you can be sure of one thing: it won't be
Yerkey's songs connect Golden Gate Park's wildlife to teenage hookers to
homeless drifters' battered corpses ("Cadillacs of that Color"). They are
grounded in traditional forms of music, but wheel wildly away from the
moorings. They are good enough that Kurt Wolff, in The Rough Guide to Country Music, called Stephen Yerkey "one of the greatest little-known
songwriters and singers west of the Mississippi."
But, to tell the truth, Yerkey wishes his songs were not quite so
complicated. "I don't write the kind of songs that I like," he
admitted. "The kind of songs that I like are ... about relationships and
about the heart, and they're very short and passionate.
"My songs kind of traipse along all over," he continued. "They're not that much about
women. I don't know why I write those kinds of songs, because I don't like
to write wordy songs. I want to write the other kind," he said.
Yerkey was born in West Virginia and moved throughout the Midwest during
his youth, living for a time in Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati and "all
the hillbilly capitals." His first guitar, an acoustic, arrived when he
was 14, about the same time he discovered the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
"[Dylan's music] was absolutely mind-blowing. It was mind-blowing that
somebody could... like in 'It's All Right, Ma.' That you could lash back at
your parents in that way," he remembered. "And the other thing, too, that
was really shocking, and I guess it still is, but it was the end of
'Masters of War,' 'And I hope that you die and your death will come
soon.' Apparently ... somebody told me that he did that on some rock and
roll hall of fame on TV three or four years ago, and he dedicated it to
Dick Cheney or something, and there was this huge brouhaha."
Yerkey's musical tastes were broad, something that, he says, wasn't unusual
at the time. "The thing that I remember as a teenager in the 1960s is that
you tried to be into all kinds of music, rock and jazz and blues," he
said. "They weren't into country. I remember country was very,
very unhip. That was another thing that Dylan did, when he recorded in
Nashville, which was just absolutely unspeakable."
Progress came slowly as Yerkey taught himself to play and sing and write
songs. "I wasn't any good for a long time," he said. "My mom and I went
to see the new Neil Young movie and I was thinking how good he was when he
was 18 and 19, and I was no good until I was like 30 or something."
He knocked around San Francisco as a young man, joining a band called
Nonfiction, and finally, at the age of 44, releasing his solo debut,
Confidence, Man, in 1994. The album, produced by Captain Beefheart and
Pere Ubu veteran Eric Drew Feldman, drew glowing reviews and seemed to set Yerkey
on the path to eccentric success, à la Tom Waits. But life
intervened, specifically that lady in the mountains, and it was 12 long
years before the follow-up, this year's Metaneonatureboy, came out
on Echo Records.
Lyrics From a Parked Car
Yerkey says he'd written many of the melodies on Metaneonatureboy in
the late 1990s, but didn't get around to the lyrics until 2004, when, back
in San Francisco, he found himself with time to kill in a parked car. At
the time, Yerkey was sleeping in a friend's photography studio, but had to
vacate the premises during working hours. "So I'd get up and get my guitar
and get in the car and go down, since I lived there for so long I knew
where you could go and sit around, and I'd just play my guitar," he said,
adding that it was an unusually productive period. "If you're playing
guitar at home, you'll goof off. You'll get on the computer or something,"
"I don't like writing lyrics," Yerkey admitted. "So what I'll do is I'll
sit there with a guitar and I'll have chords and I'll hum something or
other. That's the part that really lags behind," he said. "That's the part that I
wish I did better."
Yerkey said he envies writers like Neil Young who
seem to conceive of the melody and the lyrics together, banging out a
cohesive song in a single sitting. "Like in the Neil Young movie, for
instance, he does 'I Am a Child' and 'The Needle and the Damage Done'," he
said. "You can hear these little short songs and you can tell that he
probably wrote them in 10 or 15 minutes, and I thought, man, that
must be where it's at."
Yerkey's best songs are far from simple, though, either in conception or
execution. "My Baby Loves the Western Violence," for instance, is a litany
of violent images in jaunty couplets like "My baby love the
Unabomber/ Greatest dude since Jeffrey Dahmer/ My baby love the
vivisection/ Of the Valley housewives and the death injection." It is also
a sly tribute to an obscure Coasters wannabe band called The Robins, who
wrote a little-known song called "My Baby Loves the Western Movies,"
complete with cheesy gunshot sound effects. "It was just like a
Coasters song," Yerkey said. "It was old record-making business in
action. They literally wanted to make you think they were somebody else,
which was the Coasters." And, to add yet another layer, it's a commentary
on the current governor of California, the "governator" so beloved of the
Musically the songs are complicated, too, with contrasting genres placed in
very close proximity. For instance, on the lovely "Translated From Love,"
a country pedal-steel guitar intertwines with a jazz clarinet solo as if
there were no boundaries between the two musical styles and for the
space of this single song at least, there aren't. Ben Goldberg, the
clarinetist who also arranged the big-band opening at the beginning of
"Mood Swing Era," gets an old-fashioned sound on the solo that Yerkey
particularly likes. "If you listen, he's playing with a little bit of
vibrato, but the original people who did the big vibrato were Sidney
Bechet," he said. "I love how woody it is and how much grain it has, this
vibrato. It's kind of soulful and at the same time, it's kind of
outrageous. But that style went out of style."
As on his debut record, Yerkey worked with Eric Drew Feldman. "He's gotten
really, really good at getting performances," Yerkey said of his
producer. "You know, he was in Beefheart's band and he was in Polly
Harvey's band, I think he was in the Pixies for a tiny little while. He
was in one of my favorite bands, called Pere Ubu... these really pretty far-out, pretty hard-edged rock 'n' roll bands. Pretty uncompromising. And of
course the way life is, you'd think he'd be some sort of hard-assed punk
guy and he's not that way at all. He's very low-key and easy to work with.
"The other thing with working with somebody who is that hip is that you
don't worry about being unhip," he added. "Like with 'Cadillacs of That
Color,' I said, 'Hey, can we make it like Huey Lewis at the end?' And he
says, 'Sure.' He doesn't worry that his name's on it."
Yerkey's band includes long-time collaborators like jazz drummer Scott
Amendola and electric-turned-stand-up bass player Chris Key, who is also a
public defender for the city of Oakland, California. Will Bernard, one of
Yerkey's many former band members, plays guitar and banjo and David
Phillips plays pedal Steel. Goldberg kicks in clarinet on a couple of
tracks, and also did the jazz arrangements.
That's the core band, though for several tracks, especially the 10-minute-plus "Stinson Beach Road" the cast of characters expanded considerably.
This closing track was intended as the final 1960s freak-out, the long
Quicksilver Messenger Service-referencing cut that existed solely to "blow people's
"That was really terrifying to record," Yerkey recalled. "It was so
complicated and there were so many changes, and you had all these people
walking around with sheet music, which intimidates me because I don't read
and write music. There were all these people walking around with sheet
music saying, 'Have you got the 48 through the 52nd bar?' And I thought,
'Oh boy, this sounds like the Ford Motor Company.'" Yet the piece hangs
together psychedelically throughout its lengthy duration, showing none of
the strain and all of the wandering brilliance that went into its making.
Yerkey has a few shows coming up in the Midwest this spring. For an
updated list of performances, check his Web site. Jennifer Kelly [Thursday, April 13, 2006]