Steve Wynn’s Sweet Green Icing Flows Down
Steve Wynn is a garage rocker at heart, but he sees no paradox in making the most calculated record of his career.
"It’s like writing a screenplay for Paul Newman, or for a certain star, where you say I want to write this so it’ll get the most out of this character," he said while chatting at the tres hip offices of his new label home, Zero Hour. Wynn has just released Melting In The Dark, his third solo album since the breakup of his seminal ’80s Velvets-influenced band Dream Syndicate, and he’d decided a while ago that it would be a collaboration with his longtime friends in the Boston band Come. "I didn’t want it to be just reducing them to being a backup band," he said. "Most records I’ve made in the past, maybe all of them, have been a collection of songs and I just chose the best 12 I had laying around. This is the first time I’ve written a record…for a situation."
Despite the forethought that went into writing the album’s 13 songs, they burst through speakers with a garage rock crunch captured in a mere four days of recording. "And it could have been three days," said Wynn. "We kind of screwed around the fourth day." The rapid-fire nature of the sessions meshed with hard-edged pop songs to produce a record that, in Wynn’s own estimation, meets three of the four qualifications he enumerated for classic recordings in his contribution to Rolling Stone’s Alt-Rock-A-Rama, an anthology published earlier this year: a classic must be funny, scary, sexy, and sound like it has the potential of falling apart at any time. "I don’t think it’s a very funny record," he conceded. "But as I say in the piece I wrote, a lot of great records miss on one thing. It’s amazing when a record hits all four."
The artist more than fulfills his own scary requirement this time out. An ominous view of love gone wrong makes the galloping "What We Call Love" a "horrifying song" in Wynn’s own words. "That’s the most disturbing song I’ve ever written," he said. "When we were doing it on the record…I was getting really close to Thalia [Zedek, guitarist/singer of Come], and I said, ‘Does this song go too far?’ That last part—‘I love you, I need you, I rip you apart and I suck you and bleed you’—I was thinking, this is bordering into the creepy territory. You think, how can I write this song and then go back home and listen to this on the stereo while my girlfriend’s sitting next to me? Is this the kind of thing where people would say ‘He’s a creep and I don’t even want to hear any more of this record?’ And she said, ‘No, because I’ve felt that way.’"
Somewhat lighter moments do surface in what Wynn his lyrical inside jokes, or what he calls "perverse humor." The melodic first single, "Shelley’s Blues, Pt. 2," is "a direct Monkees cop," he said, referring to the Prefab Four’s "Some Of Shelley’s Blues." And though the title track that closes the album with a climax of crashing electric guitars and feedback is a jolting meditation on addiction as seen before and after a fix, it lends Melting In The Dark its title, in fact, with its line "MacArthur’s Park was melting in the dark but so was everything else." Once past that coy opening couplet, though, the song’s nightmarish horror kicks in, leaving all inside jokes behind in a sticky puddle of sweet green icing.
"Maybe it’s because this is the way I see Come as a band, but I wanted to make a record that would be as intensely, relentlessly emotional as possible, that just didn’t let up," he said. "There are ballads on it, but I think even the ballads are a little disturbing. There isn’t a Bread song in the bunch, there’s no ‘Make It With You’ on the record. Next record…"
The spontaneous spirit of the Wynn/Come sessions produced a work that cuts with such emotional depth in large measure because the songwriter believes it contains the best songs he’s written in his career, although he offered an unnecessarily modest caveat. "I look at Melting In The Dark," he said, "and I say I like the songwriting here; next time I think it could be even better." Wynn’s confidence in his own growth as a songwriter argues against any likelihood of a decline in the quality of his music, though he is fascinated by the phenomenon of artists who make their best music in the first 10 to 15 years of their careers. "You hear people sometimes say, ‘When I was 20 all I cared about was music, and when I turned 30 I realized there are other things in life,’" he said. "I never realized there were other things in life."
If Wynn had his way, in fact, he’d "probably make three records a year." The financial investment required of each release by today’s music business makes that ideal unrealistic, but he still strives to be prolific. "I’ve gotten more into the school of make cheap records that can break even quickly, and make them on a regular basis," he said. He’d like to have a new solo record out next spring, or next summer at the latest. Wynn’s occasional "supergroup" Gutterball will also continue recording quickie albums from time to time.
He’s also planning an album of other people’s songs, mostly obscure ones, likely for limited release only on the small European label Normale, in 1997. "I’ve already got the covers picked out," he said. "To me, doing a cover record would be like having somebody over my house and saying, ‘You gotta hear this record, you gotta hear this record.’ There’s one song that I want to do called ‘Oh Lucinda’ by The Only Ones." No Jimmy Webb songs, though; Wynn said his songs are "too hard to learn" and, Donna Summer’s "MacArthur Park" notwithstanding, "almost uncoverable."
Before doing more recording, Wynn is engaging in his first full-scale U.S. tour in four years, planning to "stay out there until the last three people are showing up at each club." He wrote a diary of the tour’s short first leg for a Steve Wynn website run by a fan of his in Denmark and plans to continue contributing to the site, even though he rarely has an opportunity to see it. In the tour diary, he broke the news that he’s planning to work with ex-bandmate Kendra Smith on her next album. Co-writing, guitar playing, and co-producing all will likely be a part of his involvement, he said, but unlike their past work together, it firmly will be Smith’s project. "I’ll be happy to be John Cale to your Nico," Wynn said in offering his services to her.
In the meantime the L.A. native is spending weeks off between touring in his adopted home of the past couple years, New York. The hip new band he’s seen around town that he recommends is Baby Steps. "The lineup is piano, bass, drums, guitar, and three-piece string section," he said. "It’s a very Left Banke, Paris 1919, Big Star Third kind of thing." A lifelong Dodger fan, Wynn thinks the recently retired Tommy Lasorda will be remembered as one of the greats despite some of the younger players’ grumblings that he was too disruptive or too old; Wynn’s also managed to become somewhat of a Yankee fan in his new city. "They’re kind of a fun team, plus there are a bunch of ex-Dodgers on there," he rationalized.
And the answer to the question everyone’s melting to know: has Steve Wynn ever left a cake out in the rain? "No," he said with a laugh, "I’m from L.A. There’s no rain out there."
YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1996