I don't exactly remember the first time I got a ride from Ted Narcotic, aka Theodore L. Higgins, aka Yellow Cab number 352. It was probably late and probably downtown. That's where he usually turns up.
But I clearly remember his vague resemblance to Iggy Pop—long hair, gently weathered face—and his boyish friendliness. I also remember the music playing on his car stereo: fuzzy, stripped-down, bluesy rock 'n' roll that wrapped its hazy arms around vocals that were half-sung and half-spoken, which also bore a resemblance to Iggy Pop. I leaned forward and asked the driver who it was.
"That's me!" he said, smiling. At the end of the ride, he handed me two home-burned CDs, pulled out a marker, and signed them "Ted Narcotic."
I remember a few other cab rides with Ted over the years—he's a memorable guy—and, one recent rainy night, I hailed a cab downtown. It was Ted. He drove a friend and me home while playing another one of his songs, this one with a glazed, tinkling piano/guitar combination that sounded like the Velvet Underground. As he gunned up a hill, his voice warbled over the speakers: "You say you want something wholesome... Well, I'm reading your letters from a prison cell. Is that wholesome? I'm stuck in Folsom."
At that moment, he made a hard but smooth left turn, cutting in front of oncoming traffic that a nonprofessional might have paused for. "Nice," my friend said. "My turn?" Ted asked, grinning into the rearview mirror. "Or my turn of phrase?"
"Both," she said.
At the end of the ride, Ted handed me another one of his CDs, this one titled Big Deal. I called him up the following night for a ride-along interview.
Ted is a member of the Steilacoom Tribe, though he says the Steilacoom were denied tribal status by the Department of the Interior, which argued that their bloodline was too diluted by intermarriage to be officially recognized. That didn't turn out so well for his brother, a gill-net fisherman, who lost tribal fishing rights. "But I'm glad," says Ted, who used to work on the boats. "You'd spend all the best parts of the summer risking your life—just for a fish!"
Ted grew up around Puyallup, moved to Hawaii, and then moved to Seattle in 1980 to start a band. He's been driving cabs and making music ever since, and he estimates he's handed out 14,000 CDs to passengers in the past four years. CD technology has been good for Ted and his one-man taxicab distribution network. He says he recorded his first song in 1980, but had to save up for three years before he could afford a vinyl pressing.
He and his band, originally called the Erotic Narcotic, have played gigs in years past (mostly at clubs that are now defunct: the old Moe's, RKCNDY, the Art Bar, the Swan, the Off Ramp) and gotten some airplay on the college station KCMU (now KEXP). He also had a TV show on public access featuring his band and trippy visuals. But playing for hordes of people and seeing his name on a big marquee doesn't seem to be Ted's driving force. While he wouldn't mind having a hit song—who wouldn't?—he says he mostly makes music to articulate things to himself and to the people he meets in his cab.
"When I was a teenager and some girl dumped me," he explains, driving down Pike Street, "I'd think about how much I wanted to get on the radio and sing about it. If someone made [that feeling] into a great song, then you really said it, didn't you? I want people to listen to my music and see the same thing I see. Not everyone has the same dream." Dream? He pauses for a moment. "Stephen King, in the books he writes, he gives people the same dream," he says. "Well, it's not a dream, exactly." He talks about clarity of vision, of worldview, of trying to show the world what he sees through his eyes.
Ted says he gets a lot of comparisons to Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground from his passengers, but never listened to those bands much. "I actually went and listened to Iggy Pop because people kept mentioning him," he says. "But I don't think we sound the same at all. Not that I mind the comparison. Iggy Pop was a great musician." Ted says his musical education stopped around Dire Straits in the mid-1980s. "I love music," he says, "but I love my music. I listen to my own songs all the time. Isn't that awful?"
No, I say. There's no harm in recording the music you want to hear. A lot of musicians, and more famous musicians, can't even do that.
"I always thought if you made really good music, you'd get lots of girls," Ted says. (Sex and romance—from the innocence of going on a picnic to lewder songs like the 10-minute "I Wanna Feel You (Blue Version)"—are recurring themes in his work.) "But celebrities lose their girlfriends and wives all the time, just like the rest of us. No different."
Apparently, there has been some recent discontent in Ted's band. His longtime guitar player has suggested Auto-Tuning Ted's voice—"even when I don't sound that bad!"—which would change the raw, earnest charm of the music. Ted Narcotic, it must be said, doesn't always stick the landing when he's reaching for a note. But that's not what Ted is going for anyway.
"I just tell stories about things," he says, and quickly sings through the lyrics to his song about driving people around Capitol Hill: "Get in the car. And close the door. We're gonna go clubbin'. We're out on the road. Gonna club, club, club. Like a baby seal tonight... Gonna club you, club you, like a baby seal. Gonna club you, club you, club you, yeah. That's the deal." Then he sings through the lyrics of another song called "I'm Just the Singer," which he wrote for passengers who, when they hear he's in a band, ask what instruments he plays. (For the record, he plays clarinet and saxophone, but sticks to singing for his CDs.)
He tells other stories as we roll around the night: How one of his friends, a former bandmate, died a few years back from a heart attack while he was in a fistfight with his son. How his daughter lives in Alaska and has trained dogs for sled races, way out in the wilderness with wolves and other beasts, ("Really brave stuff," he says proudly), but isn't a city girl—a few years ago, she called him, scared and sniffling, because she got separated from some friends and was lost at Seattle Center. How when he picks up particularly drunk and belligerent passengers, sometimes he'll just pull over, get out, and walk out of sight, waiting for them to wander away. (They usually do.)
But he's still not tired of driving a cab, even after all these years. "It's fun to drive around all night and meet fun people," he says. "Seattle's got the coolest people in the world." And while they're in his cab, they're listening to his music.