David Dondero gets around. In his 32 years, he's traversed the continent many times over, traveling from Anchorage, Alaska, to Pensacola, Fla. Along the way he's resided in a slew of American burgs — including San Francisco, from which he reluctantly uprooted himself last September for a life of nonstop touring.
“I've lived in a lot of places,” Dondero says during an interview at his favorite Mission District spot, Oh So Little Cafe. “San Francisco is the only place I didn't want to leave. This is a liberating city. Then again, I suppose it could be a big cage for a lot of people. That's kind of why I had to break free. I figured if I was going to get [my label] behind me, I needed to break free of rent and live out of my truck — just to do all I can to sell records and play.”
On Shooting at the Sun With a Water Gun, Dondero's third CD overall and first for S.F.'s Future Farmer label, he sings, “This world is not my home, [I'm] just passing through it.” The songs on all three of his albums reflect this nomadic ideal, documenting the vagabond adventures of hitchhiking and train hopping, of truckers on speed and ancient tour vans. He also delves into what happens at the stops along the way, crafting snapshots of the many barflies, misfits, and everyday people he encounters on his journeys. Like some modern-day Kerouac, Dondero is a man who writes on the road — often from behind the wheel. And you thought motorists with cell phones were bad.
“I write when I'm driving, which is kind of dangerous, I think — especially when I'm driving down a curvy mountain road and trying to write ideas down on my notepad. That's why I need to get one of these things,” says the scruffy singer, pointing to his interviewer's microcassette recorder.
While Dondero's life-documents may come off a bit casual at first listen, closer inspection reveals clever, insightful lyrics as well as buoyant, catchy melodies. Also, like the best bohemian folk singers, Dondero makes music informed by experience, taken from autobiographical events and overheard anecdotes. “Most of them are little stories that I've seen, or my own story,” he says. “There's not a whole lot of embellishment — except for maybe the end of 'The Waiter.'”
“The Waiter” is a vintage Dondero vignette, found on Shooting at the Sun. Over manic guitar strums, violin vamps, and percussive slaps, Dondero documents a true-life horror: Apparently, while he was bartending in New Orleans in 2000, one of his service industry compatriots was mugged when returning home from work. Unluckily for one of the assailants, the waiter was packing a weapon peculiar to his field: a wine key. When he punched his attacker in the temple, the robber started twitching; the would-be thief's accomplices freaked and hauled him away. “The corkscrew thing happened,” explains Dondero. “But the rest [of the song] is conjecture. We were guessing his friends took him to the river, rather than take him to the hospital and get busted.”
Dondero resided in New Orleans for a year, then spent another 12 months in San Francisco, where he lived on Albion Street and bartended at the nearby Casanova. Images from both cities pop up on Shooting at the Sun. San Francisco references include such 16th Street fixtures as sidewalk troubadour Carlos Guitarlos and the infamous Swan, a scraggly, homeless disseminator of one-sheet rants who inspired Dondero's “Pied Piper of the Flying Rats.”
“Swan would feed the birds underneath my bedroom window every afternoon,” remembers Dondero. “It was just amazing, that flock of birds, thousands flying up into a gray cloud of life.”
As for New Orleans, Dondero name-checks Big Easy dives like Molly's and Checkpoint Charlie. He funnels a host of experiences into the song “The Real Tina Turner,” which takes its title from a conversation Dondero overheard in a Pensacola bar, where a former stripper talked about how she was a “real Tina Turner” back in her day. One line — “If it wasn't for the liquor and the weed/ I never would've made it through the winter” — came straight from the mouth of a friend who'd just finished a job in Alaska. Another verse, about the state of New Orleans back in the '60s, derived from Lance, a guy who'd served as doorman of Cafe Sbisa since the Korean War.
“Lance had great stories,” remembers Dondero, who claims he was the only straight guy working at the gay bar. “One night I was talking to him at the podium out front, and he looked down Decatur and commented on how there used to be clotheslines stretched across the street, with prostitutes and sailors everywhere. There were no parking meters, and you could park your car on the sidewalk and just leave it. I just thought that was a cool image, so I put it in the song.”
Ted Stevens, a member of Omaha, Neb., bands Cursive and Lullaby for the Working Class, once postulated that the mysterious Dondero was raised by wolves in the Appalachians. In truth the longtime musician is a native of Duluth, Minn., and has been making music since fourth grade.
One of his formative early experiences occurred when his parents divorced in 1975. Recently, he documented that event and its fallout in the Shooting at the Sun number “Analysis of a 1970s Divorce,” singing, “Sometimes I feel the product of a loveless interaction/ And I feel my heart was swallowed somewhere in the last transaction/ Cuz I saw the death of love between my parents.” The tune serves as a kind of catharsis for Dondero. “That song is a way of dealing in a more playful manner,” he says. “It's funny to think that, back then, everybody got married if they just wanted to have sex. My parents were in a traditional Minnesota situation where they just wanted to fool around, so they got married, and they didn't even really like each other.”
“My songs are definitely a way of working through troubles in my life,” he says. “It's an emotional purging.” Dondero's found that this sort of confessional songwriting speaks to people, the divorce number in particular. “I get a lot of kids coming up to me and saying they can relate to it.”
Dondero says maintaining relationships is the hardest aspect of his vagabond lifestyle. His current girlfriend lives in Pensacola and plays in a band called This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, a group Dondero used to drum for. In fact, the wandering folkie actually began his musical career as a punk rocker some 15 years ago; he also served as vocalist/guitarist for Sunbrain, a well-respected Atlanta aggro-pop quartet, during the mid-'90s.
But in 1997 Dondero became a solo artist by default, when Sunbrain dissipated after getting dropped from the Grass label and watching a self-released fourth CD go nowhere. Inspired by Woody Guthrie biographies and Phil Ochs and Billy Bragg recordings, Dondero decided to venture in a folksier direction. His nervous, warbled vocals and fervently confessional lyrics also suggest the influence of Austin savant-songwriter Daniel Johnston. “I'm a huge fan of Daniel Johnston,” he admits. “[I've] been aware of him since the late '80s, when I used to be a college DJ at Clemson University.”
Bruce Springsteen pops up as a reference point on Dondero's second CD, 2000's tragically out-of-print Spider West Myshkin and a City Bus. “Michael Raines,” a cautionary tale about a spoiled rich kid turned coke dealer, sounds a lot like the Boss, which is hardly surprising considering the song evolved from an aborted attempt to learn Springsteen's “Does This Bus Stop on 82nd Street?”
It could also be argued that Dondero invokes Conor Oberst, the plaintive singer for Midwestern emo stalwarts Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos. Actually, it's the other way around: Oberst cites Dondero as one of his biggest influences. “He is, in my eyes, carrying on the tradition of American folk music in the fashion of greats like Woody Guthrie or Townes Van Zandt, while still creating something modern and unique,” Oberst gushes via the Future Farmer Web site, www.futurefarmer.com. “Hearing his voice made me comfortable with my own. It seemed to me that his singing and writing had an involuntary quality to it. That it was something very necessary to him as a person. It was shaky and unrefined, but these qualities only added human character and beauty to the melodies.”
The admiration society is mutual, with Dondero calling Oberst an amazing songwriter and serving as executive producer of this year's Desaparecidos CD Read Music/Speak Spanish. “You know what that entailed?” laughs Dondero. “I had to make sure there was plenty of beer and cigarettes, and I had to watch television, drink beer, and smoke. It was a very regimented recording session. I think I did a great job. Oh, and I sang backups on one song.”
As for his own recent album, Dondero began recording Shooting at the Sun in spring 2001 at the apartment of Billy Konkel, a fellow Casanova bartender who had worked with Sunbrain years before. Future Farmer honcho Dennis Mitchell entered the picture around the same time, having been duly impressed by a guerrilla performance at the 16th Street BART station and several subsequent club dates. Following a meeting with Konkel and Dondero, Mitchell signed the itinerant songwriter; the label released Shooting at the Sun last November. Unfortunately, Dondero's album got tied up in the Valley Music/DNA bankruptcy fiasco, in which many Future Farmer releases were trapped in a distributor's warehouse, unavailable for sale. “Dave's on tour with Preston School of Industry, and his CDs aren't in stores,” says label publicist Rob Wells. “He doesn't even have CDs to sell at shows. All the kids that hear him on college radio can't even buy the CD.” (Dondero's album charted in the College Music Journal's Top 40 early in the year, an impressive feat for a relatively unknown artist.) This conundrum will hopefully change in July, when the album will be rereleased through the Sony subsidiary Red Ink, along with other Future Farmer items.
For now, Dondero is happy crossing the country in his '98 Nissan, bringing his music to a growing audience. He admits there are pitfalls, like coughing up $2,500 for a new transmission or having his guitar broken by Chattanooga skinheads, but the setbacks are outweighed by such “glorious moments” as looking out to see audience members smiling and singing along. Dondero enjoys life on the edge. “I'm living exactly on my own terms,” he claims. “I don't pay rent, I'm living out of my truck, I'm playing shows and selling my own music hand-to-hand with people.
“Ian MacKaye [of Fugazi] said it best,” he continues. “Shows are about creating moments. To create a moment for people, where people can escape and feel exalted: That's what musicians do. I can do that sometimes, depending on the night. If I try harder every year, maybe I'll get better at it.”