Leo’s messages are not just slogans or extended catchphrases; they take aim at every meaningful target a song should strike.
A recent intrigue to disprove the frequency of apple-bobbing among peers and fans led Ted Leo to conduct an involved and tireless investigation into the supposed all-American rite of passage. He surveyed friends and foes, neighbors and strangers. He polled Web-surfers far and wide to affirm his hypothesis that he wasn’t odd for never having plunged headlong into a wet tub, chomping for a core. The results he returned with were staggering.
“I found that a lot of people had done it, and those who had have done it more than once,” Leo said. “Which is kind of gross.
“Earlier in the fall, something made me think about bobbing for apples, and I realized that I’d never done it before, and I didn’t really live a childhood that was that far out of the norm. So I started asking friends of mine if they’d ever bobbed for apples, and none of them had either, so I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Is this a big conspiracy?’”
The next topics up for discussion could be the lost art of pillow fighting or if anyone can positively verify that cats always land on their feet, and if not, from what height do we see crashes. Okay, I’m kidding about that. What really needs to be discussed is the general cover that Leo works beneath. Sure, he purposely shirks the mere concept of big labels, choosing to peck out an existence on Lookout! Records and make name recognition a struggle when competing against the bottomless promotional pockets that tout unimportant pretty boys such as John Mayer and Howie Day. What’s money better spent? Is it the green bills to support light, marshmallowy messages like those trash nuggets in Mayer’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland” or the cash put behind the smart, why-do-we-believe-the-illusion-that-the-rest-of-the-world-loves-us scoldings of Leo’s “The Ballad of the Sin Eater”?
Leo is this decade’s Bob Dylan, but with a voice that hits falsetto highs the likes of which only The Darkness’ Justin Hawkins could comfortably reach while wearing his testicles. Leo’s messages are not just slogans or extended catchphrases; they take aim at every meaningful target a song should strike. They’re lasting, roasting the hair off your brows, coating over your short-term memory like a slow wave of maple syrup, and dealing with principles and purposes that make a monkey of conventional love songs.
In Dirty Old Town, Justin Mitchell (director of Songs for Cassavettes, a documentary of the early ’90s West Coast punk underground) beautifully pans New York’s Coney Island during a broiling hot July 2003 day as the Siren Music Festival is taking place with Leo, !!!, Radio 4, Sahara Hotnights, Modest Mouse, etc., all sharing a stage bordered by the Astroland amusement rides and historical boardwalk. Leo’s performance is impassioned and aggressive, punching out words and giving them as much meaning as one throat can. He plays and sings as if it’s the last time he’ll ever get to and, in doing so, goes against the better wishes of his health advisors. They’d like him to take caution and cool the intensity since he blew his larynx to pieces last May in Champaign, Illinois.
“Pretty much every trip out [it acts up]. I wasn’t able to give it the time off that the doctors and my vocal coach assured me I’d need,” Leo said. “I’ve modified my road habits. It’s very important to me that I don’t spend a lot of time in the clubs talking to people and watching bands, which is unfortunate, because that kind of used to be my M.O. That, more than anything, helps me through.
“My whole life in a club that night requires that I be quiet and hide out in whatever modicum of a dressing room they give me. I stretch and I try to warm up, but it’s kind of impractical that you can have something soundproof where you can go, ‘Mi-mi-mi.’”
When the voice failure first happened, Leo’s doctors forced him to remain silent for three weeks. “It was easier being silent around other people,” he said. “What was really insane was that I realized how vocal I am when I’m alone. When I’m just milling around the apartment, I’m always making noise. For a half hour, I’d just be singing or talking to myself, and I’d be like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t be doing this.’”
The Siren Festival and a solo performance at the famous Pianos bar were two of the first appearances Leo made after his forced shutdown to rest his tattered throat. Initially, Leo worried that, with a project like Dirty Old Town which was going to have some permanence, a rusty, still-recovering voice wasn’t the one he wanted to showcase. “I sort of reluctantly gave it a thumbs-up,” he said. But he’s glad he did, noting that everything about the film is top-notch. “If anything is lacking in it, it’s me.”
Mitchell’s work gives fans a glimpse of the calm and humble man who can’t keep himself from writing songs or wearing a worn green T-shirt repetitively stating along the left side of his trunk that he loves New Jersey (he wears the same one on the cover of the Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead EP). He gives a lot of glimpses himself with constant Web site updates and actual personal responses to e-mails, just to stay in tune with his fans.
“I think it’s one of the most gratifying and energizing things about the way I do the thing I do. People feel really comfortable with friendly heckling, and they want to chat after the shows,” he said. “People are really freaked and appreciative that I respond to their e-mails. It would be the same way I would be, too. There might be a point where I can’t practically do it anymore.
“Sometimes there are people who’ll come up to me and be like, ‘What’s the deal, dude? I talked to you the last time you were here, and you said you’d write me.’ And I’ll have to say, ‘Sorry, that was six months ago. I’ve played 200 shows since then. Cut me some slack.’”
Ted Leo + the Pharmacists play the Rocket Bar on March 22 with Electrelane and Paris TX.