Listening to Firewater's 2001 release, Psychopharmacology, conjures thoughts of Jim Carroll, but after a couple of spins it's still hard to pinpoint why. There are no ready-made comparisons of Carroll to Firewater front man Todd A. in the latter's press kit, nor is Todd A. a basketball star/junkie/poet likely to have Leonardo DiCaprio portray him in a movie.
Maybe it's that Todd A. is indeed a poet -- basketball and, as far as this writer knows, junk be damned. Maybe it's something about Carroll's native and Todd's current residency in Manhattan's Lower East Side that's soaked into the lyrical outlooks of both writers. Or maybe it's simply the fact that Psychopharmacology is an album about people -- Todd's good friends-- who died.
One wore his emotional problems on his sleeve and the other concealed his, but in the end they both committed suicide. "I'm telling their story, or maybe telling my own story through standing in their shoes," Todd says over a crackly cell phone from a hotel in Portland. "In a way I had to reckon with my own depression having seen two people that were close to me decide that they couldn't handle it basically, that 'this movie sucks and I'm walking out.' "
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For Todd, it was a classic example of Catherine Aird's maxim: If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to serve as a horrible reminder. "Their deaths made me come to the conclusion that this is my one shot and I wanna stick around no matter how bad it gets. Hopefully I can get all those songs out of my head and do it in a positive way, kinda come out swinging. So it was kinda like therapy -- that's where the title came from."
Unbeknownst to Todd, Jim Carroll once said, "You're born out of this insane abyss and you're going to fall back into it, so while you're alive you might as well show your bare ass." Likewise, Todd tries to live by mooning the monsters under his bed and flipping off the demons that visit us all. "That's how we get by," he says. "You gotta take the piss out of things. You defeat your fear by laughing at it. That's the way you render it helpless."
And if these antics land him in the stir, so be it. Todd's bio is chock-full of stories about his time -- make that times -- in jail, but he is quick to play them down. "I was in jail maybe three or four times, basically for shit like drunk and disorderly. I was never in prison or anything like that. My press kit is basically a bunch of lies."
Lengthy terms or short stints, jail does funny things to people. Stephen F. Austin turned from a great compromiser into a fiery Texas revolutionary. Hitler transformed himself from a fringe party gadfly into a reviled dictator. Dostoyevsky went from dilettante writer and fashionable radical to literary master and staunch conservative. Oliver North morphed from an obscure reactionary into a famous reactionary. Has there been a similar metamorphosis in Todd? He laughs off the suggestion. "Being in jail definitely convinced me that I don't want to be in jail."
He's hardly chastened by the experience, though, at least as far as popping a top in public is concerned. Todd sounds positively Gandhian on the subject of boozing on the front stoop. "There are certain laws that I refuse to accept because I think they are stupid," he declares. "And one of them is that I feel that I should be able to drink a beer whenever and wherever I want."
Perhaps the NYPD is singling him out. Maybe they know he used to front the infamous band Cop Shoot Cop, or perhaps the more religious officers remember that the first Firewater album was called Get Off the Cross (We Need the Wood for the Fire). At any rate, Todd has a few words for them from "Woke Up Down," Psychopharmacology's opener. "Fail me, jail me, feed me into your system," he spits. "You look a lot like aliens, but you're acting just like animals in a movie (and this isn't a movie)."
Those are some of Psycho's most opaque lyrics. Elsewhere, Todd is crystal-clear, as on the Irish-style dirge "7th Avenue Static." Todd says the song is about a hobo who lived in a packing crate on Todd's block and whom, incidentally, Todd hasn't seen since the World Trade Center collapsed six blocks from his apartment. He "takes what the Dumpsters are giving," Todd sings. "Bring out the gin and the small violins / I'm a raging success as a failure / And it's colder than hell in this cardboard hotel / Which I share with a chronic embezzler But I still think that life's for the living, for a while."
Todd's nicotine-stained voice packs these down-and-out lines with authenticity, and his backing band plays with conviction, even though the lineup changes with every album. Firewater is less a band than a collective. "There's been about eight people who have been or are in Firewater," Todd says. "We're all friends -- it's all based on who's available and who's right for the job at the time. It's a band, but we have an open-door policy. Right now our guitarist is touring Eastern Europe with a Ukrainian punk band."
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Todd doesn't like to do anything by rote, neither with his band nor with his life. Firewater's shifting lineup keeps things from going stale. "Keith Richards is a great guitar player, but I think if I had to go on the road with him for 25 years I would go insane," he says. "It's nice to keep shakin' it up."
And Todd loves to tour. Like many excellent songwriters, he's been doing it more or less all his life. "I was born in South Carolina, then I moved to Massachusetts, then I lived in Vancouver, then I lived in Wales, then New Jersey for a spell, then Providence, then New York.
"I don't know what all that moving brought to me as a musician, but as a person it's definitely convinced me that there's more than one way of looking at the world. I'm interested in learning what people think. I like meeting strangers and getting peoples' stories. If you stay in one place too long, you fall in the trap of seeing the world in one way, and that's where I think a lot of the world's problems come from."
The catastrophe of September 11 is, in Todd's opinion, a case in point. He was standing out on the street when the planes slammed into the towers, and his apartment was unlivable for a month. He doesn't like talking about it anymore, except -- in keeping with the themes of Psycho -- to try to find a shred of consolation in the wreckage. "If there's anything positive that came out of it, it's that some Americans can't sit with their heads in the sand anymore, and they are more cognizant of how other people view America and what our foreign policy does to real people," he says. "They can't just sit around and obsess about Courtney Love's breast-enhancement surgery or whatever other stupid shit is on the news. Our government is killing people, and some other people aren't happy about it."