Part The First

  • The Femmes were not a coastal band. I’ve always thought of the Violent Femmes as being a Midwestern band, and all of the evidence I’ve seen over the past twenty years suggests this is true. People out here on the West Coast like the Femmes, but they don’t have that obsessive love that we had in places like Texas and Montana, and that I see in my friends from Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc. etc.

    I also think that the Femmes sound better in the Midwest. They sound awesome in LA or SF or Seattle or Vegas, as I can attest…but there’s something about Gordon Gano’s voice that resonates when it echoes against cornfields or amber waves of grain or the gray water of the Great Lakes.

    The same is not true of The Pixies. The Pixies, perhaps, are more universal — “Wave Of Mutilation (UK Surf Mix)” is fucking awesome when you’re driving down PCH from LA into Orange County, even though The Pixies were originally a Boston band.

    But as in all things, it’s the coasts that matter when it comes to the psychogeography of indie rock. That’s where most of the people who write about rock and roll live, and it’s certainly where the vast majority of people who care about the mythology of a few relatively obscure underground rock bands tend to live. So maybe that’s part of it.

  • People in the Femmes’ songs aren’t cool. They’re not. They’re sexually frustrated, creepy, paranoid, nervous, kinda retarded, occasionally homicidal. They’re pale and skinny, and not in that way that gets the H&M girls wet. They smoke too much. They wear ugly clothing. They’re full of loathing and self-loathing and obsession.
  • The Femmes weren’t cool. Gordon Gano’s a goofy-looking little Jesus freak. Collectively, in fact, the Femmes look more like a team of Wisconsin road-clearers than they do a rock band. They played acoustic guitars. They sang songs with titles like “American Music” and “Jesus Walking On The Water”. They were Rust Belt geeks.

    Now, this is a point of serious contention for me, because the Pixies weren’t cool, either. Ever. Black Francis was a chubby nerd. Kim Deal is awesome, but she looks like a waffle waitress. They didn’t do cool videos — the video for “Here Comes Your Man” is funny, but it doesn’t go anywhere.

    But both bands come from an ancient and bygone era when it was okay for underground rock bands to look like a bunch of plumbers on their weekend off rather than a) a pack of homosexual French bikers or b) a Burning Man camp. Neither the Femmes nor the Pixies made their career on clotheshorsing for the cover of Spin.

    (By the way, those sparks hitting you in the face? Totally coming off that axe I’m grinding. Sorry. But it damn well needs to be said.)

  • Nobody ever wore a Femmes shirt to prove they were cool. This is even true of Your Humble Narrator, who represents his indie cred with a Trompe Le Monde shirt but does not have, say, a Hallowed Ground shirt. I am very sad about this.

    But nobody ever needed to big-up the Femmes, because you just know they’re awesome. As one announcer once pointed out (captured forever on the band’s Add It Up collection), you cannot fuck with the Violent Femmes.

    You cannot fuck with this band.

Part The Second

I don’t know if this is still true, but I can tell you that the Violent Femmes were Our Secret when I was a teenager, a decade after that first album came out. They were one of the things you had to know about to be cool, like Love And Rockets (the comic, not the band) and ‘zines and David Lynch movies and Douglas Adams. You listened to the Femmes and you dropped acid and you talked a bunch of shit about the nature of reality and had trip sex with your female friends that usually didn’t go anywhere, afterwards. You would sit and shriek “Ten, ten, ten, ten for everything everything everything everything!” and air-guitar Brian Ritchie’s badass bass walk. (And Brian Ritchie is still one of the best rock and roll bass players, like, ever.)

One of the saddest things about the Internet era is that it provides us with instant access to information. This has, in some sense, limited the ability of disaffected teenagers in culturally arid places to form taste tribes around hoarded bits of shared culture. I don’t know if that moment still happens when the kid takes the dubbed copy of The Velvet Underground And Nico or Bossanova into her room, shuts the door, turns off the lights, lights up a clove cigarette, and has her mind blown forever. Now it’s just MP3s. I am a digital music guy and I’m the last one to bemoan the instant availability of almost the entire recorded musical output of humanity…but when one door opens, another one closes. Maybe they just have MySpace groups now, I don’t know.

But I still remember when Jeremy Snyder first put Violent Femmes in the tape deck of his shitty sky-blue European station wagon and played “Kiss Off” for me. I remember feeling like it was part of some world I never knew existed. I remember it sinking into my DNA and twisting it forever. I remember Gordon Gano singing “Why can’t I get just one screw / Believe me, I know what to do / But somethin’ won’t let me make love to you” and feeling it completely, all that lust and desperation. I had the Pixies, Concrete Blonde, Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, and, yes, Nirvana. (I remember smashing up my bedroom once to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, in some adolescent rage thing.) I had Oingo Boingo and the Screaming Trees and the Pump Up The Volume soundtrack and the Lemonheads’ It’s A Shame About Ray and They Might Be Giants’ Flood. These were the birdhouses in my soul.

And I was desperately uncool. I wasn’t the rad indie rock kid. I wasn’t a beautiful loser. I was just a loser. I dressed poorly and I was awkward and acted weird and felt uncomfortable and horny and scared all the time — scared of the kids who beat the shit out of me, scared that I was really genuinely crazy, scared that I was never gonna get out of these horrible little towns where I found myself, places where the highlight of Friday night was hanging out at the Town Pump gas station and trying to get someone to buy us Schlitz, and maybe get some stoner chick to let me touch her tits.

And I’d go home and sneak in and go into my little bedroom and put on the Femmes and it was okay, because I wasn’t alone. There was some other twisted weirdo nerd out there, singing songs to me. And I was cooler than the jock assholes and the rednecks, because they just liked whatever stupid shitty music was on the radio, and I had this secret thing, me and my uncool friends. They didn’t have Violent Femmes albums at Wal-Mart. They weren’t on MTV (except on 120 Minutes, another secret lifeline). You couldn’t find out about them on Wikipedia. You just heard things, or read them in ‘zines. (Gordan Gano was this crazy gay dude who was also a teenage preacher. Every one of the Cure’s albums was about a different drug, and you could figure it out by looking at the liner notes and decoding the hidden messages. Juliana Hatfield was Evan Dando’s girlfriend, but she was still a virgin. They totally didn’t do it, because he loved her that much.)

And what significance does all of this have, in retrospect? Very little. No more than whether Carlos D has herpes, or whether Jenny Lewis really has gone out with every single dude whose band is signed to Saddle Creek Records, or whether the frontman for Red State Soundsystem really is a tantric sex god disguised as a sort of low-rent douchebag nerd Buddha. (Two of these, I know for a fact, are absolutely true.) It’s all just pop culture, ephemeral as dew on early morning grass. It keeps rolling. Every day, new mysteries, new obsessions, and new people to have them.

But it was part of my cultural mythology, part of what kept the boredom at bay, like believing that Brandon Lee was killed by Triad assassins or watching Blade Runner and Aliens with my friends on weekends and reading Umberto Eco and Jack Kerouac and sitting in diners all night long, chain-smoking and drinking fifty cent coffee with two creams and eight sugars until the waitress made us order something. (Cheese fries with a side of ranch, generally.) It kept me from killing myself because I couldn’t see any options, like my friend Sarah Harms.

So in that sense, the Violent Femmes saved my life, and maybe that’s worth something to you, worth enough to go pick up that first album and go sit in your bedroom in the dark and put it on and try to remember when every day might be your last, and how it didn’t fucking matter, because you were never going to die.

The clove cigarettes are optional, but recommended.

  1. Awesome piece, even tho I don’t rate the Femmes nearly as high.

    One thing: “I don’t know if that moment still happens when the kid takes the dubbed copy of The Velvet Underground And Nico or Bossanova into her room, shuts the door, turns off the lights, lights up a clove cigarette, and has her mind blown forever.”

    No, it doesn’t. Not really, at least not with those records. That’s their dad’s music.

  2. The Violent Femmes were one band I never got into. Weird that you didn’t mention The Smiths… where did they fit in, in this whole adolescent angst thing?

    By the way, IMHO “Gone Daddy Gone” is one of the most overrated, overplayed, mind-numbing songs ever. Also one of the most inexplicably covered songs… and it’s not just Gnarls Barkley. Probably the top Italian rock act, Prozac +, also has a version that went pretty big over there.

    A chacun son gout, I guess…

  3. Michael R. Bernstein

    “But as in all things, it’s the coasts that matter when it comes to the psychogeography of indie rock.”

    I’m not sure, but it looks like Nashville is becoming the center-of-the-universe for mainstream rock (one data point: Jack White just left Detroit for Nashville, because “that’s where all the folks who know how to write hits live”). Dunno what this portends for indie rock over the long term, but I have a feeling that at the very least, it won’t remain a ‘coastal’ phenomenon….

    “This has, in some sense, limited the ability of disaffected teenagers in culturally arid places to form taste tribes around hoarded bits of shared culture.”

    Hmm. You should talk to dana boyd about this stuff…

  4. Heather McConnell

    To really like the Violent Femmes you have to be a true christian. The folk sound to Gordon’s voice is amazing! They have a very large fan base. They are one of the most ubique bands out there. Everyone on this earth is too closed minded!

  5. Great article. I’m having sort of a midlife crisis right now, and reminiscing about how Gordon Gano has touched my life. Growing up in Illinois, I remember riding my bmx bike to the Peaches record store and buying the Violent Femmes album. It felt so grittily indie in an excitingly new way, like my teen angst had a mirror.
    One of the first rock concerts I went to was the Femmes at the Metro in Chicago.. I snuck in with a fake id. I remember waiting after the concert hoping to see the band, and as a tortured super shy kid, I had absolutely no idea what to say when the Femmes came by to say hi to the fans. I was wallflowering over in the corner, and Gordon walked right up and introduced himself to me. I don’t remember any of the conversation, but I remember being freaked out that a guy who sings such tortured songs could be such a nice guy.
    Almost 20 years later, I just saw Gano again. I’m giving up drinking, at the time, so it seems fitting that Gano, who was there at the start of my drinking career, may be the other bookend to it as well. I saw him at a little club with the Ryan brothers on the west coast, and once again I could sense that Gano had a good heart. He looks like the rock and roll lifestyle has run roughshod over him, but when I saw him standing outside the club on the street after the show, chatting with fans, I got that this guy just likes people.

    Then this evening I saw the movie “Rocket Science” which features a lot of Gano/Femmes music, and which was deeply touching as I am a stutterer like the main character. I’m wondering what sort of milestone this will be for me.

    Gordon thanks for helping to punctuate my life. Your music is the music of my life.

  6. What a wonderfully written piece. You have quite a facility for this sort of thing. Keep writing. You are very talented.

  7. well, an interesting perspective, but let me offer mine, if you please. in the 24 years i’ve lived in nyc – an east coast city, i might add, every single club that the femmes played in nearly split wide open from the mobs of people who came to see them. talk about REVERED? i worked security at around 10 gigs they played and not only do new yorkers think they’re cool, they sort of think they own the band and that they had a lot to do with them hitting the big time, so to speak. but then, when it comes to “120 minutes” on mtv: to new yorkers, it was no secret lifeline. “120 minutes” WAS mtv. the other 888 minutes of the week were irrelevant to a new yorker. people in the femmes songs not cool? not to a new yorker. new yorkers, cool and uncool, are never short of words when it comes to bitching and and griping about failed relationships, sexual frustration, and the various angsts that fuel them and drive them on a day to day basis. while i respect the idea that you may have felt an affinity to characters in femmes songs because you felt they were sort of lonesome losers like you, new yorkers, cool and uncool, heard in their songs the simple straightforward rantings and ravings of a voice unafraid to ask the question: “why can’t get i get just one fuck?” in their case, however, these new yorkers generally GOT the fuck for having ASKED the question. (DEMANDED is more like it in new york, if the truth be told). by the way, i hate to shatter your cultural mythology as you called it, but brandon lee was simply shot by accident by michael massey, an actor with whom i worked on stage who dropped out of the stage show we were doing after announcing to us how distraught he was over the horrific freak occurrence. it’s bands like the violent femmes that new yorkers flock to in order to hear their own angst, and i somehow imagine michael moshing in the middle of that crowd, working out his own twisted angst. for him and the untold numbers of the rest of us new yorkers, the violent femmes were the very DEFINITION of cool, something that is not all related to jocks or rednecks or any other midwestern prop of irrelevance. i speak liberally on the subject of cool and new york because i was listed as one of the top 100 cool new yorkers by “daily news,” sort of wedged in between madonna and lou reed (draw your own conclusions about what THAT newspaper thought cool was). maybe in the end you weren’t entirely the twisted weirdo nerd you describe yourself as being. maybe you just resided in a place where the definition of cool is purely subjective and you, like me, might have wound up on some newspaper’s top 100 cool new yorker list. but then, who wants to be cool if madonna is cool? certainly not gordon gano, not michael massey, and i suspect a whole cast of cool characters from various femmes songs might walk off the list in protest too. while it might be cause for a lot of angst, i personally think THAT’S cool.

  8. I just read your piece, and I think I love you–you know, in a very, heterosexual, non-threatening way.

    Aw, who am I kidding–the way you spoke about the Pixies and the Femmes makes me wanna gyrate on your backside.

    Best, your new gay friend John in Philadelphia

  9. I read this article once every 6-8 months when I need a respite from the every day grind. Your writing is excellent.
    I did not share your love of the Femmes, but I can relate to your experiences – growing up in the middle of cornfields where even the girls dipped Skoal, “Bocephus” and Randy Travis were gods, and listening to GnR or Black Sabbath meant you were “out there.” I remember hearing R.E.M and Drivin n Cryin on WEBN and realizing there was something different about that music, but couldn’t put my finger on it. Then this kid from Utah moves to our school and introduces me to songs with names like Fight Like a Brave and California Uber Alles, and a whole new world was opened to me. I recall going to the Army surplus to buy my first pair of combat boots, endlessly watching The Lost Boys, and heading to Short Vine, where the only record shops that carried the “cool” music were.
    Yes, the internet has changed all that, but it can’t erase our memories. Thanks for the reminder of times gone by…

  10. This is a beautiful article. I think I am quite a few years younger than you, as my high school obsession with Violent Femmes was not quite as much a product of the secret indie culture as yours was. I was obsessed with Blister in the Sun from a young age, as it would always play routinely on the alt-rock stations. In high school I bought Freak Magnet because it was only a couple dollars at a local record store, and I recalled my young love for their infectious single. Freak Magnet, in comparison with the other Femmes albums, sorta sucks, but at the time I found it satisfactorily fun with a few stand-out songs that made me wiggle. But this C- album inspired me to go pick up a copy of their self-titled masterpiece, and my world was rocked. My friend and I would go to supermarket parking lots, roll down the windows, blare Add It Up and dance around the car, as if performing some sort of tribal dance summoning the power of music and begging for its assistance in releasing our teenage angst. And it worked. I would sit for hours on the floor in my room with my headphones, listening to the magic of Kiss Off and Never Tell. It was the soundtrack of my high school years — even though their first album was released before I was born. Will kids still sit in diners, bemoaning their existences while unknowingly falling in love with the world? Will they still sit on their floors, curled up with their headphones and comforted by Gano’s passionate little screams? The music definitely still has the same power… I think it will find the right kids at the right time and the connections will continue to be made, the lives continuing to be changed. Let’s hope.

  11. I used to have a Hallowed Ground t-shirt. Purchased in 1983… one of the most amazing shows I’ve been to in my life. But they never really topped their first album, did they. It’s totally one of the great 20th century albums.

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