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.