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Got Legs

The perpetually self-doubting Todd Lewis stands tall on the Toadies' long-overdue second album

The story's a modern-rock fable, as pedestrian by now as the playlist at the Buzz: Regionally promising band self-releases good stuff, gets noticed, jumps to a major label, releases a debut with, suddenly, inexplicably, almost zero backing from a support staff that's already busy losing interest in its next next big thing, gets buffeted in the backwash of a mega-merger, sinks into a legal skirmish with its manager and drops off the map for almost seven years. Buh-bye.

The only difference between that tired story and the one Dallas's Toadies have to tell is that while no one was watching, that long-ignored debut Rubberneck spat out a compellingly creepy pile of rock called "Possum Kingdom," which has been in ubiquitous rotation at modern rock stations, and in more than a few classic rock formats, ever since. In a genre more or less defined by its chronic disposability, "Possum Kingdom" may be the closest thing to ZZ Top's "La Grange" that post-Nirvana rock has produced.

And never mind the local charm of listening in as that mammoth hit -- endorsed by everyone from Beavis and Butt-Head to a chat room's worth of unclear-on-the-concept goths -- forced a generation of befuddled DJs to repeatedly announce the name of a Central Texas reservoir on the Brazos River… "Possum Kingdom" wasn't even the best track on Rubberneck. Just one of a half-dozen standouts on an album without a single track to inspire a hit of the skip button, the aggregate of which managed to breed AC/DC's stomp to the Pixies' askew-idity, dropping the litter deep in the deviant heart of a heretofore inarticulated Piney Woods of sexual threat.

The Toadies and Todd Lewis (second from left): Perfecting the art of capturing East Texas menace in the studio.
Ralf Strathmann
The Toadies and Todd Lewis (second from left): Perfecting the art of capturing East Texas menace in the studio.

Todd Lewis was gonna take you out behind the boathouse and show you his dark secret. Wanna come?

Turns out that the dark secret behind Todd Lewis's bug-eyed aggression may have been the fact that "low self-esteem is no foreign territory" to him.

"I've had all sorts of doubts about everything," says the guitarist and vocalist. "People are either stroking you or telling you you suck, and I can do that myself. I can tell myself I suck enough times to make me happy."

There's little but distracted industry mumble to report about the fact that the Toadies, or Interscope, or both, dropped the ball for nearly seven years in following up a platinum album, waiting until just a few days ago to service record stores with Hell Below / Stars Above.

Apparently it's been ready for a while -- Dallas Observer critic Zac Crain listened to it back in August 2000, and his story, rightly fluffing the disc, was mostly about what the hell might be taking so long. Hell Below / Stars Above had been scheduled for release, on and off, for three years, for chrissakes.

The answer, Lewis says, is just stuff. "Label stuff, management stuff, band stuff, just a whole slew of things that changed and happened."

Interscope, for one thing, got shook down in 1998 when parent company Seagram ingested PolyGram, and almost 200 bands got their walking papers. Manager Tom Bunch, former Butthole Surfer Svengali and known in the early '90s as the local alt-rock impresario behind The Vatican and TAB Productions, has reportedly sued the Toadies, which Lewis isn't talking about. And Rubberneck guitarist Darrel Herbert left and was replaced by Funland's Clark Vogeler.

Speed bumps all, but it's more fun to look for the sources of the delay in the music, and it's there if you're looking for it: Todd Lewis's almost debilitating self-consciousness in the wake of an unexpected (and perhaps, to Lewis's mind, undeserved) monster single.

There's a pounding chant of "get your head around it" in "Motivational," Lewis channeling the voice of a million fathers "motivating" challenged sons. In "Jigsaw Girl," Lewis yelps, "This is not the same world you live in," his isolationist accusation and fair warning and security blanket, a worthy successor to GNR's "Welcome to the jungle, baby." The first single, "Push the Hand," invites outsiders to "Feel that weight feel that weight pushing down / what the hell we stepping into now / gotta push that hand away gotta push that hand away," which really isn't that hard to read into.

Rubberneck, it seems, spun Lewis's head something fierce, and when you're the son of a preacher, as Lewis is, pop success, guilt and self-doubt walk hand in hand.

"Oh, man, when we put out 'Possum Kingdom' I thought, you know, they're going to put the record out and then we're going to go away. They're going to give us all this money, and when are they going to ask for it back? I can't afford this. So it's a little different experience than that record."

What's different is that in writing Rubberneck, pretty much alone, Lewis indulged a perfectly reasonable expectation that no one would ever have occasion to judge the product. He's lost that luxury now.

"There were several times when I just wondered what the hell I was gonna do, and that's when I couldn't write, because I felt like I needed to impress somebody or some kind of bullshit like that. And I personally can't create anything if I feel like I need to do something for somebody else. I have to do it totally self-centered where I'm making myself happy, and I can trick myself into thinking nobody's ever going to hear this."

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