Kevin Nealon Interviews David Wilcox in Our 1993 SNL Issue
This story originally appeared in the February 1993 issue of SPIN, which was partially written and guest-edited by members of the SNL cast. Read interviews and stories from comedy icons of the era–Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Tim Meadows, Julia Sweeney and others–in our package of highlighted stories from the issue.
About a year ago I was in Aspen, Colorado, and I was leafing through the local newspaper. I stumbled upon an ad for a David Wilcox show; Wilcox was performing at the Snowmass Conference Center the next night. I had heard the name somewhere before but wasn’t familiar with his music. I asked a salesgirl in a clothing store if she had ever heard of him, and she started hyperventilating. She said, “David Wilcox! He’s great! You’ve got to see him!”
The concert was an incredibly cleansing experience. Songs with passionate, beautiful lyrics sung in a soulful voice, backed by crisp acoustic guitar arrangements that took me on an emotional roller-coaster ride (I know, kind of sounds like a wine steward describing a fine Burgundy, right?).
Wilcox, who grew up in Mentor, Ohio, and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, acknowledges that “this music isn’t one-size-fits-all” but remains unapologetic. He began performing at a local club in North Carolina called McDibb’s and in 1987 recorded an album, The Nightshift Watchman, on an indie label, Song of the Wood Music. Wilcox eventually landed a gig at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, where he caught the attention of A&M’s A&R man Patrick Clifford. On A&M, Wilcox has released How Did You Find Me Here (1989) and Home Again (1991); his latest, Hold It Up to the Light, is due out this month. His songs evoke feelings and images many of us have experienced: unrequited love (“Last Chance Waltz”), self-discovery (“You Were Going Somewhere”), illusions of romance (“Distant Water”), commitment (“Farther To Fall”), the need for speed (“Eye of the Hurricane”), and corporate deception (“Advertising Man”).
I met up with Wilcox for this interview just prior to his performance at a prestigious little club in Pawling, New York, called the Towne Crier Café. We had a nice chat over overstuffed burritos and mineral water.
Kevin Nealon: Some people label you a “folk musician.” I would think that would have a negative connotation, insofar as developing a following or finding a niche in today’s music market.
David Wilcox: It depends on how radical you go with the term. If you go to the roof of the term, then I’d say yes. But when we say “folk music” now, we’re referring to an era of popular music where people were singing other people’s songs and trying to associate with a tradition most of them didn’t get. It was, you know, white college kids picking cotton. I would say that this new acoustic thing that’s happening — it’s very different. It’s rock’n’roll that’s talking about solutions as well as questions and so the music is less shouting to the world about what’s wrong and more talking to each other about what we can do to fix it. And when we’re talking to each other we don’t need to have the music push the audience away with that kind of sound level. We’re saying, “Come here, listen to this,” and that’s when the acoustic music comes in, I feel.
Waitress: More water?
Nealon: Please. Your songs cover a variety of subjects, including emotional struggles with death, destructive relationships, family problems — you know, all those fun things — which is fine in concert because you have that comedic side to you, too. Those little song intros, especially — some of which are hilarious.
Wilcox: Yeah, when I first started playing music, I would only play the songs that were the truest — you know, the most significant. And I realized that not only from the audience’s reaction to my playing but when I go to hear music, when I go to listen to people that I really like. I realize that we need some pacing, we need some breathing room, and we also need to establish some sense of trust between artist and audience. So I started to do the funny stuff just to give some more dynamics, just to give a break.
Nealon: Has your outlook on life and your music changed since you got married recently?
Wilcox: It’s really changed a lot. What I was after with the music before was sort of like sending out my rescue prayers in a bottle: “Here I am stranded, won’t somebody hear me, won’t somebody come and—” And so the desperation of really wanting that personal return, wanting someone to come into my life and say, “I understand you, I feel the same way.” I’ve been blessed with that actually happening. So then comes the question when I’m writing a song, when I’m getting up onstage, what’s the reason behind it, if it’s not something I want to get from the audience? I’m doing it for what I can give instead of what I can get.
Waitress: How’s everything?
Nealon/Wilcox: Great. Thanks.
Nealon: Your new album is called Hold It Up to the Light.
Wilcox: Yeah, that’s an expression that the Quakers used that I heard when I was working a long time ago at a Quaker summer camp. It’s just a way of sorting out when a decision is really tough. It’s a way of saying look at the big issues and the way they shine through this particular decision and it’ll come clear.
Nealon: You have several songs about cars and motorcycles — “Eye of the Hurricane” and “Rusty Old American Dream,” for example. Metaphors mostly?
Wilcox: I like them to work both ways. I like them to work like Robert Frost poems, where it makes sense just on the surface, but if you wanna look at what it might mean inside, then there’s that too. I like a song to not leave you totally mystified on the first reading. I like a song that really—
Wilcox: No thanks. I like a song that will make sense the first time through.
Nealon: The nice thing, I find, is when I introduce your music to friends, either from your albums or at your concerts, it awakens feelings or emotions that they have hidden away on some shelf for years. When they walk away from it, it’s like, “Whew!” You can really tell what the audience is listening to or not. A lot of times you can’t tell by facial expressions. Sometimes when I’m performing stand-up, I’ll see a guy in the front row not even so much as a crack a smile the whole evening, and that very same guy will come up to me after the show and go on and on about how much he enjoyed it. In the short amount of time that you’ve been performing, can you see your audiences growing?
Wilcox: In a lot of areas, it’s really obvious. You play a couple times in one place and then it’s time to move to a bigger hall. And I hope that that continues because it’s real satisfying to have to work really hard. It’s been real satisfying to be scared and to be thinking, “Oh, I’ve never done this and I need to be at my best, I need to figure this out, I need to be learning how to do this.”
Last night [in Huntington, Long Island], the whole crowd was people who had heard my stuff word-of-mouth over the years because, apparently, I get no airplay at all around this community, so people were calling out requests that were all from the first album or songs I haven’t even played in five years! It’s really something.
Nealon: I remember watching Paul McCartney when he did MTV Unplugged, and he had some trouble remembering some of the words to “Ticket To Ride.”
Wilcox: Yeah, I saw that.
Waitress: Can I get you any dessert?
Nealon/Wilcox: No thanks.
Nealon: If you had a backup band, what would they be called?
Wilcox: The Experts, and they’d all be wearing labcoats.
Nealon: Tell me about “How Good Would It Feel.” To me, it seems like not only unrequited love, but the woman is also taunting you with “Maybe I’ll go out with you, maybe I’ll call you,” but you don’t want her to call you.
Wilcox: Actually, it’s a little bit sicker than that. There was a song I was listening to; the lyric of it was “I want you to love my like you love cocaine.” And I thought, this is really sick. So the song is showing the fallacy in that logic by taking that role of someone who is, like, too much in need, not giving himself any respect at all, but just devoted to another person in a sexual kind of way. The kind of attraction that gets portrayed in the cologne ads — the ones where all the naked people are draped across the set.
Waitress: Are you finished with your burrito? Would you like me to wrap it?
Wilcox: [In Spanish accent] Eees already wrapped!
Nealon: Hey, if you ever go to an area where you’re not that well-known, would you want to do a double-bill with me?
Wilcox: Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do it tonight.
And that’s exactly what we did. We decided it would be fun for me to go on as David Wilcox. From a hidden microphone, David introduced me as David Wilcox, and I took the stage with his guitar slung around my neck. From a few tables I heard, “Wait a minute! Hey! What the—” I immediately broke into a hack rendition of “Rusty Old American Dream” for a few measures, and then admitted that I was an imposter. I hated keeping the audience from him, so I quickly introduced the real David Wilcox and prepared for another emotional rollercoaster ride.