Sid Griffin is an acclaimed musician and music journalist based in London. From 1984-87, he led The Long Ryders, who emerged out of the Paisley Underground to become one of the first alternative-country bands, before the term even existed. Final Wild Songs, a compilation of the band’s albums with additional, new live material, released in 2016, received a rare five-star review from Allmusic.
After a 30-year hiatus, the band reunited to record the well-received Psychedelic Soul, released earlier this year. In a turn of good karma, the band’s old roadie, now working as Dr. Dre’s PA, got the band a week at the rap mogul’s studio. In a way, it’s fitting: the Ryders make politically charged, insurgent country-rock.
Sid has written for Mojo, Q, NME, Rock ‘n’ Reel, and the Manchester Guardian. An expert on Gram Parsons, he has published Gram Parsons: A Musical Biography, and co-authored the BBC television documentary Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel. He has also written two books about Bob Dylan, Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band, and The Basement Tapes, and Shelter From The Storm.
In addition to his work with The Long Ryders, Sid has recorded and performed with the Coal Porters and as a solo artist. Mark Engleson of Parklife DC talked to Sid about all of this and more prior to a performance by The Long Ryders at Pearl Street Warehouse on Friday, Sept. 20.
Mark Engleson: Hi Syd, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. I’m a huge fan of The Long Ryders, and your other work as well.
Sid Griffin: Thanks so much. Thank you very much for saying that.
ME: I thought we’d start with talking about the recent stuff, then get into some band history, and maybe talk a little bit about your writing.
SG: That’s great.
ME: What would you say are some of the themes you dealt with on Psychedelic Country Soul?
SG: You mean the themes to the lyrics or what, exactly?
ME: Yeah, what themes were the ones that emerged in the songs.
SG: The Long Ryders have never been a moon-June-spoon romance kind of lyrical writing band. If you look at some bands, it’s a fairly minor — although it’s the backbone of popular music — such romantic songs. If you look at a lot of bands, it’s surprisingly a minor thing. For instance, the Beach Boys relationships were the backbone of most of Brian Wilson’s music. In Creedence Clearwater Revival, there’s hardly any. I don’t think Fogerty has a love song in his catalog. They were, of course, one of the world’s biggest bands 69-72. We err toward the Creedence side of this, as much as we love the Beatles or the Beach Boys. We definitely err towards the Creedence side. There’s some people that say you can only write about cars and girls, which I thought was very funny. It was a fan of the theme back in the ’70s and ’80s.
As for The Long Ryders, we just kind of gravitate toward the socio-political and cultural things. We just didn’t have conventional love songs. I don’t know why that is. Of the three songwriters in the band, we just didn’t have them. The first EP did have a conventional love song on it – but after that first EP, we just got into different things. It’s hard for me to remember what I was thinking 30-35 years ago.
Certainly there were bands out there — like X spring to mind, who didn’t have a lot of conventional love songs. They were very dominant in L.A. in a way that the Byrds or the Doors kind of took over for the Beach Boys at one time as a dominant cultural force. X were so big, and we were listening to them, and they had songs about relationships and romance.
When we started touring, that really changed things, because seeing the United States at that time was just eye-opening. I traveled through with my parents on a vacation. I once drove across it by myself. But that wasn’t the same as going to towns and staying 18-36 hours and reading about or hearing about problems there first firsthand. That caused us to have greater lyrical resources than just moon-June-spoon and cars and girls. That would’ve been a big thing, touring.
Stream Psychedelic Country Soul by The Long Ryders on Spotify:
ME: That was a really interesting and special time, wasn’t it, L.A. in the early 1980s?
SG: I would add something. I think David Frick wrote it, maybe that’s wrong, but some major rock writer, oh God, 10 or 15 years ago, was writing an essay on the scene at that time, say around the Millennium or after the Millennium, I’m not sure, but he was talking about rock ’n’ roll has around certain scenes in certain cities. He says, “Think about Memphis in 1954, think about Liverpool in 1963,” San Francisco in 1967, New York in 1975-76. And in the list, toward the end, he says, “Think about Los Angeles in 1984.” I’m looking at that and go, “Hang on, that’s me.” That’s me. Because the Blasters and X were already rolling up by then. He’s talking about the Paisley Underground and The Long Ryders and that ilk. So that’s kind of cool. That meant a lot to me, when I saw that Los Angeles 1984. That’s me. No one wants to think that our lives, we’re doing this work, we’re doing these travels, we made all these records, it ended up for very little. It’s one thing not go multi-platinum. It’s another thing to think we did all this work for nothing. It’s quite nice when people say what you said at the top of this interview. You spent your time well. So when I saw “Los Angeles, 1984,” I thought, ho, this is great.
ME: Green On Red was there, too. Chuck Prophet’s still doing work.
SG: Chuck wasn’t there yet. He didn’t come down until ’85. He missed it by about a year. He wasn’t in the band’s first three albums, but then he came down. A lot of these acts are still out there. One of the funny things is, in the old days in rock ’n’ roll, a band broke up, so many of the guys, almost everybody, male or female, got a job, quit, or changed careers, or all three.
You said Green On Red just then. Dan Stuart’s still out there. Chris Cacavas lives in Germany and tours; I see him and play with him about once a year at some crazy place wherever. Chuck Prophet’s still playing. That’s three of the guys in that one band just off the top of my head.
The Long Ryders, three of us still play, and Greg, the great success of the band, is a music publisher at Warner-Chappell. He still plays, but not really professionally, more on the side. He has a band that he plays drums in, and they gig and all that, but it’s not his main thing. So it’s just kind of amazing when you look at these bands, and it’s not everybody, but half or more of these underground bands of my friends are still out there. I just mention X. Besides X having reunited, John Doe and Exene [Cervenka] made solo records. DJ Bonebreaker’s playing with everybody under the sun. That’s three of the band right there. It’s just kind of incredible. We didn’t quit.
ME: I’ll tell you an interesting experience is, I went to see the Flesh Eaters –
ME: The opening act, the bassist from Husker Du is playing, and his friend Kim Thayil walks in just to chill with him.
ME: Yeah, that’s something. At this tiny club that only holds a couple hundred people, there’s a guy from Soundgarden.
SG: All these bands we’ve been talking about — some made it and some didn’t. Some of them have fantastic fans. Graham Coxson used to live within walking distance from my house here. He’s now moved to L.A. where, bizarrely, he lives near Greg Sowders, the drummer for The Long Ryders. Coxson told me his little girl went to the exact same school my little girl went to. So I saw Graham Coxson at all these family-PTA things and he told me how much he loved The Long Ryders and all this other stuff, blah, blah, blah.
The other day Greg met Noel Gallagher. Greg went to see him for song publishing. Noel Gallagher went nuts when he realized that Greg was a member of The Long Ryders. Called up his roadie friends. “You gotta over here! I’m with Greg Sowders, the guy we saw at the International in 1985 with The Long Ryders!”
There’s all sorts of respect that’s come down the pike. It’s not just something you can bank. It’s not record sales. But in terms of respect, all sorts of people out there have paid homage to Green On Red or The Long Ryders or the Bangles or whoever down the line. The Bangles have the blessed career of selling records. It’s amazing who you can influence, whether or not you’re a big band. Classic examples being The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Velvet Underground. Neither one sold records at the time, and now they’re really important.
Stream Native Sons by The Long Ryders on Spotify:
ME: Speaking of influence, you guys are cited for your influence on the alternative country scene as it developed. Which bands do you see it in the most over the years?
SG: I’d hate to say I hear it in a band because they could say we don’t care about you. But I can tell you a few for a fact. The Sadies are a wonderful band. They always take about how great The Long Ryders were. They wanted to do this and that at one point, and I couldn’t get my schedule together. So that’s one.
The Gin Blossoms, Jesse Valenzuela was saying how great The Long Ryders were, and we should do this and we should do that. I was leaving L.A. at the time. He was getting off the ground, and I was moving over here. The Gin Blossoms and the Sadies certainly come to mind. Over here, there’s some bands that haven’t done that well, that always get excited when I come to the gig or into the room. There’s one on Bloodshot, out of Chicago. They did a cover of “Here Comes That Train Again.” They were big Long Ryders fans. I can’t remember the name. They’re on Bloodshot out of Chicago. They did one of our songs and I got in touch with them. They were big fans. That kind of thing. Those acts are out there.
I’ll tell you a crazy one, is a band called Mr. Crowe’s Garden were enamored with The Long Ryders, and they evolved into the Black Crowes. To this day, Chris Robinson is a big Long Ryders guy. It’s a different thing, because he made it. He made money. But there you are.
ME: Obviously, the Jayhawks. There’s a debt there.
SG: The Jayhawks were already up and running when we were running. The first time we played Minneapolis, Minnesota, they were the opening band at Second Avenue. They, I think, already had the first album out, which most people don’t know about. Then they put the second album out, Hollywood Town Hall. That was the second album. It was the luck of the draw. The door was open a little by then, and they had talent, so they got it going.
The problem with The Long Ryders, or one of the problems, was we were the first. We’d go places and people just had no idea. Why don’t you have synthesizers? Why aren’t you a straight punk band? Why aren’t you this?
Oh, I’ll tell you — We went to St. Louis. Jeff Tweedy was working in a record store, and he had a Black Flag-style band. He later said in several interviews, “We quit the band that week.” They shifted over to The Long Ryders thing, which became Uncle Tupelo. There’s a band you can list with the Sadies and the Gin Blossoms, Uncle Tupelo. Directly, because The Long Ryders did an in-store where we played live, and then they came to the gig that night. That’s a good one.
ME: There’s an interesting article on the Belleville/East St. Louis scene in a book called The Honky Tonk On The Left, which is a very mixed quality anthology about progressive thought in country music.
SG: Country music’s always had a progressive wing. I said a million times in the ’80s, “Where is the song by Janis Joplin or Grace Slick about the housewife’s problem or the domineering male at the home?” Yet, if you listen to people like Loretta Lynn, she’s got “Fist City,” and she’s got “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” and she’s got one called “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ With A-Lovin’ On Your Mind.” It’s just amazing. She’s got one called “The Pill.” About birth control. “I’m sick and tired of delivering these babies.” She had these amazing proto-feminist or out-and-out feminist songs and the more accepted, iconic figures of the counterculture from the female gender don’t have that. Think about that!
ME: If you listen to someone like Billy Joe Shaver, the whole Outlaw and Progressive country wing of country, they are out there.
SG: I worked with Billy Joe on a tour. I laugh when people talk about — say, Pete Dougherty of the Libertines — and these are some kind of hard drug-taking men. I laugh. You’ve got to be kidding me, compared to these ’50s guys and country guys. When those guys were hitting the road in ’50s up to the middle or even the late ‘60s, as anybody that was alive back then will tell you, the Interstate system wasn’t even finished. Those ’50s guys really hit it hard with the pills and the booze and all that. I’m always kind of skeptical when there’s some indie kid trying to be badass. They’re never as badass as those old guys.
ME: I read about Johnny Cash’s intake of amphetamines.
ME: I’ve done the math. I have ADD, and I take Adderrall, and I know how much I used to take when I took short-acting. And I know as a factor of how many you take to get through an 8-hour day, just how many multiples of that he was taking. It’s scary and freakish.
ME: I can’t even imagine taking that much.
SG: Also, there was a lot of pressure. People forget that none of these country boys on these pathetic, low-income, low-aspirational family and farm situations, none of these guys dreamed they’d be as big as they were. Johnny Cash’s dream, he had a government assistance farm. They were little more than sharecroppers. In 20 years, you’ve got a net worth of millions.
A lot of these people, they worked their butts off and needed to stay awake to keep driving. Once they got to the top, there’s a lot of pressure, and they self-medicated, which is never really a great idea.
I just laugh. To this day, the Guardian newspaper over here will have some young person writing about the dark second album by this indie band. Well, maybe. How dark do you want it? We can get pretty dark. Of course, now we have the creature comforts of the road that the 50s guys or even The Long Ryders didn’t have. Touring is a dawdle compared to what it was when The Long Ryders were out there. I don’t want to think about how bad it was when Buddy Holly was out there.
ME: Speaking of the road, you guys opened for U2 at one point.
SG: No, no. Never did. What happened was Two Fisted Tales came out, and Bono liked it. In particular, Bono liked a song of mine called “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home.” It’s one of the more awkward, ugly chapters of our history with the record company. They invited us to open about a month of dates on the Joshua Tree tour. Our album got delayed because of Tom Waits or something, so Lone Justice took our place. We never did open for U2, although Bono still talks about the song “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home” to this day, for which I’m very grateful to him. But, no we never did. We were going to do a month’s worth of dates in America, and I’ve often thought that would’ve been an incredible audience to be exposed to. But no, it never happened.
Stream Two Fisted Tales by The Long Ryders on Spotify:
ME: Things could’ve been very different.
SG: Yeah, it never happened. That’s just the way it goes.
ME: You can’t waste time thinking about what ifs.
SG: No. You can’t. We had some real problems in the band with the record company. It’s just the way it goes. Some really ugly things went down. There’s nothing I can do about it now. My life could’ve been a lot different if certain things hadn’t happened, but it’s well documented in the liner notes to our three recent sets, it’s well document there. It’s just the way it is.
I’m grateful that we went as far as we did. That’s the best way to look at it. L.A.’s full of bars where there’s actors going, “I could’ve been this. This record company, this executive, this horrible girlfriend. I could’ve been this.” I used to see those people and think, “I’m never going to be that guy. Never going to be that person bitching in a Hollywood bar. That’s never going to be me.” I’m grateful for all the success The Long Ryders had. Matt “Guitar” Murphy says, “We went all around the world and we smoked everybody twice.” So that’s fine.
ME: There’s a word in Hebrew that I like to repeat to myself often: di’anu.
SG: What’s that?
ME: It means, “It would be enough.” I just like to say that to myself to remind myself to be grateful.
SG: It’s the best thing. When my folks died, a friend of mine said, “Be grateful. You had nice parents. Some kids don’t have one nice parent.” That’s so very, very true. Some people don’t have one nice parent. A lot of my guys, and this goes for The Long Ryders as well, and I’m sure members of all sorts of bands in the L.A. scene, a lot of my friends could play music as well or better than me, but they didn’t want to put the work in. They didn’t want to leave town. Thirty, forty years later they have these jobs which have provided them with a regular paycheck, which is fantastic, but their memories and after-dinner stories aren’t that great. They worked a job, and then they took two weeks’ vacation. They went to Hawaii, or they went to Florida. If they were lucky enough to go to Europe or wherever. Then they repeated the next year. They worked 50 weeks out of the year, took 2 weeks’ vacation. They went to the Bahamas. Then they repeated that, for 20, 30, 40 years.
My life’s been completely different. I don’t have a regular paycheck. When I’m paid as a writer or a musician, I’m paid well, and then I don’t work for a while, so it all evens out to being relatively low-income. I’ve had a really broad life and I’ve been a bunch of places.
Somebody said something about Hong Kong, and mainland China absorbing Hong Kong. I’ve been to Hong Kong twice to do gigs. You tell that to people where I’m from, they all look at you at the dinner table – “yeah, I’ve been to Hong Kong twice, I did two gigs there.”
There are all sorts of crazy places. I’ve been behind the Iron Curtain, and all that’s all due to pop music, all due to The Long Ryders or whatever band I was with at the time. I’m grateful.
ME: Can I ask you a couple questions about writing?
ME: As an independent writer, what’s your strategy for acquiring research materials?
SG: I have a lot of writers that know me and a lot of people in the industry that know me. The Bob Dylan book was mainly just a bunch of interviews I typed up. It’s nothing to be proud of. That was 40 years ago. I was a kid. The two Dylan books I wrote, Million Dollar Bash, which has now come out twice — with a garish orange cover, but it’s still good. Shelter from the Storm, my second Dylan book, I knew some of those guys, and I know people, I know how to get people to give these interviews. For instance, I wanted to speak to Robbie Robertson. Mark, I knew Greg was his publisher, so I called up my old drummer and said, “Can you get me 20 minutes with Robbie Robertson?” He got me more than that.
I found out who T-Bone Burnett’s manager was and just left a message. T-Bone Burnett got back to me and we had about four or five nice conversations. It’s just being diligent. It’s a bit like five steps from Kevin Bacon, that parlor game. There’s always a way to find out how to get in touch with Kevin Bacon or Nicole Kidman, or possibly someone in the government, if you want to do an article on politics. There’s always a way.
As I knew so many writers from writing a bit in L.A., places like Mojo, I knew so many writers I could call up: Sylvie Simmons or call up Barney Hoskins, and they would know either the principle I was looking for right there or they’d know who knew that guy or that woman. It’s like being a detective.
Here’s another tip, for what it’s worth: Fans are really good. If I, tomorrow, had to write a magazine article or a book on Marvin Gaye — I love Marvin Gaye, but I don’t know much about Motown, I’ve never met Berry Gordy, but I know people that have met Berry Gordy. I know some people in Chicago involved with gospel music, and I’d ask them, “Do you know anyone that knows Berry Gordy? Do you know anybody in the Detroit Gospel scene?” You’d eventually find them. It’s detective work. As a friend of mine said, if you’re going to write a book on Three Dog Night, a great way to start is contact the head of the Three Dog Night fan club, or the Three Dog Night Appreciation Society in Britain. Those people will help you out.
ME: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you!
The Long Ryders perform at Pearl Street Warehouse on Friday, Sept. 20.