I know I'm a cynic, but this contemporary climate of trend-mongering, it seem like the limited attention span of today's fans doesn't grant a long life span to your average band. Then again, the Violent Femmes aren't your average band.
In fact, there's nothing average about them. The Fems are currently celebrating their 10th anniversary, and this trio of merry minstrels are still wearing laminates, booking studio time, and reading fan mail. Why? Charisma. Vocalist/guitarist Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie, and drummer Victor DeLorenzo put on a good show.
From their first appearance on the scene, their sound and unique songwriting pointed to greatness. Their self-titled debut album became a staple in the musical diet of every early '80s college student, and since has been passed on from generation to generation, like a warn out copy of Dark Side of the Moon. Over the year, their demographic grew to include kids of all ages, making their music a unique universal language, and their concerts something to experience. (You know what they say, "There's nothing like a Violent Femmes concert." Or is that?)
Subsequent albums Hallowed Ground and The Blind Leading the Naked met with similar acclaim, and the Fems became heroes of college radio, selling out the "'alternative' or 'new wave' spot in town" wherever they went. Then, like most marriages of a few years' duration, they needed some breathing room, and the band split up for a short while.
Once reunited, they hit back hard with the unexpected 3, spawning their first major radio play with "Nightmares." Two years later, the recently released Why Do Birds Sing? takes 3 one step further, earning them more radio (do you like "American Music") and live shows in the most unexpected places (You know what they say, "There's nothing like a Violent Femmes concert." Or is that?)
Have you noticed a them here? Gigs--always high-energy crowd pleasers with a satisfying smattering of old and new material, and a healthy dose of humor--are a vital part of the Violent Femmes' brand of entertainment. Take this last tour, f'rinstance. I caught the show at New York's Beacon Theater--a 3,000-seater meant for sit-down shows. Not! The sellout crowd was having none of that. Littered with duck decoys and backdropped by a trio of flags touting their home state of Wisconsin and a pretty fabulous 20,000 Leagues from Outer Space painting depicting an alien invasion of octopi, the zany show inspired the audience to sing every word of lyrics as if they were at some eerie Masonic-lodge meeting. During "Flamingo Babies," the Fems lifted their legs just like the pink birds themselves, prompting (for the first time since the band started doing the song a decade ago) the entire crowd to wholeheartedly do the flamingo dance too--a nifty bit of audience participation even Frank Zappa couldn't touch.
Appropriately, I conned Gordon into keeping a tour diary on a recent trip to Europe. What better way to present this band than getting inside their heads while on the road? Or so we though. Here's an excerpt from Gordon's first and only entry: "Why?! Why did I tell Rich I would keep a journal from Europe?! I'm a songwriter not a foreign correspondent! I neglected to tell him I flunked creative writing in my high school--mostly because I wouldn't turn in my journal!"
So, in the end, we decided to get together and chat about road stories, with a few bits thrown in about the new album (this isn't all fun and games you know)....
When the photo [at right] was taken, I said the same thing: "I'm just playing music hear, what's 'busk' mean? I think initially, it was a word from England. The definition of busking is performing on the street, so street performers are "buskers." Instead of just having to describe it--"playing music in the street for whoever happens to be coming by, and hopefully getting some money"--there's a word for it. I've heard it for so many years, I just use it. It took a much longer time, but I got use to it the same way I did with "gig." The first time I ever heard the word "gig," I probably couldn't even say it where it would sound right--"geeeg," "geeg," "geg."
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT
There was one night, a few years back...in, I thin, New Brunswick, New Jersey, at this real tiny, little, funky--whatever the "alternative" or "new wave" spot in town was. It was one of our first tours, and we didn't bring our lighting person, so we just used whoever was at the club. The lady who was running the lights at the club that night told one of our people she was on acid. Part of her trip for the night was, as we were playing--having nothing to do with the music--she'd totally black out the whole club so there wern't any lights on anywhere. I couldn't even see my hands on the guitar; just total blackness for maybe 20, 30 seconds, and then back with the lights. And this happened intermittently during the show. Somebody with us tried to get her--when she had the lights on--onto the dancefloor and keep her dancing as much of the night as possible, from keeping her from being on the lights.
The same night, the speaker column on one side came crashing onto the stage. Peter Balestri was playing saw with us, and saw it starting to happen. He ran up and pushed me out of the way. Actually, I can talk about it now in a lighthearted way, but it was pretty scary. I could have been seriously hurt, 'cause it fell right where I'd been standing. Peter was so heroic in doing that, but at the same time he left his sax and it was a flattened, cracked mess.
Also, at some point during the show, while we were playing, all of a sudden we saw this commotion coming toward the stage, and heard people saying, "He's got a gun! He's got a gun!" And this guy was waving his gun, rushing right toward us. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
WHY DO BIRDS SING?
I've been trying to learn German, and Brian picked up a book written in German, and gave it to me while we were recording the new album. After a while, I discovered it was a nature book about birds. Each chapter was about a different bird, and the last one was a philosophical one where they ere going beyond just writing about birds. It started out with "Why Do Birds Sing?," and went on to say, "Why do flowers bloom?, why does a lover love his loved one?," etc. And when I mentioned it, Brain and Victor really liked the idea. Victor said he though it was like a question that children ask there parents, and when I told my mother the title of the album, she said, "Oh, that's really good. That's like,'Why do you do what you do?'" Its a good title in that it means a lot of different things to different people.
BUD THE BIRDMAN
We did a tour, this past fall, of Australia and New Zealand. On the way back, we had a step-over in Hawaii, so I just decided to take three days and out to Maui. There was a man there named "Bud the Birdman" who had all these birds. He got tourists like me to come by, and put these parrots all over them and took their pictures. You could give him your camera, or for a little money, he could take the pictures and make little postcards for you.
We got this conversation going, and it turned out he had heard of the band and had friends that were big Fems fans, and we had a really great time. When we were making this album, we though of using this picture--which is kind of ironic, 'cause it's the only thing in the album picture-wise that has to do with birds.
DO YOU REALLY WANT TO COVER THIS SONG?
During the recording of Birds, we were looking at--as we had on The Blind Leading the Naked--doing a cover tune. I think one of the realities of the music business--or, at least with a band at our level--is that there's a good deal of pressure for doing somebody else's song. Of all the ideas that were brought up, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" by Culture Club was the most absolutely unthinkable. Every other song, we could imagine. But that song was the only other one [laughs] where the brain just shut down.
The record company were so excited about the idea of us doing this tune that they wern't even into making any other suggestions. So, we ended up taking it as a challenge as musicians. Could we do this song and really like it? From the starting point, none of us would have described ourselves as having even liked the song. If it didn't work, it wasn't going on the record no matter who wanted it there.
But we ended up liking it. We did a lot with it, arrangement-wise. Brian plays a bouzouki. I did a lot with the lyrics because--aside from being a judgement of whether I thought the original lyrics were good or bad--I just didn't know what Boy George was thinking about. I took it as a challenge as a writer to keep the same structure and format of the song, and yet rewrite the lines so that, as a singer, I could really be committed to it. I tried to keep in a lot of the same key words. For example, I believe the original line is , "Choose a color, find a star," and that doesn't mean anything to me, but "What's your favorite color of your favorite car?" does. To me, that has more meaning and more feeling, because it's a relationship thing.
YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY,"THERE'S NOTHING LIKE A GRATEFUL DEAD CONCERT"
We had a pretty unusual experience recently: the opportunity to open for The Grateful Dead! We got the opening spot during a show in Ohio, way out in farm country. When we went on, there were probably close to 40,000 people, and we were struck right away that--particularly with the young Deadheads--so many knew our music.
The song "American Music" went over fantastic, if there ever was a perfect place to be doing it...out in the Midwest, in the farm country of Ohio at a Grateful Dead concert, singing the praises of American music. Also, there'll probably never be a time where the line "I did too many drugs, did you do too many drugs?" will be more appropriate., When we do that live, sometimes I'll see somebody chortle, but when we said that line at the Grateful Dead concert, there was just this ROAR! [laughter].
Certainly--if I may be so bold--there's a lot of roots of American music in the Dead's music, and in ours, though its coming out in different ways. We've both totally gone against the grain of what one is supposed to be able to do and have such a successful career. They've gone I don't know how many years at a stretch without releasing records. And I've heard that our first album was the only record to go platinum without being on the charts. And the same dedication with fans, too--I guess I should say Femification if theirs is Deadication [laughter].
BEST-LOVED BALLADS AND DIRE DIARIES
Books are a big influence on me. I was this public-station special on Richard Burton that said he had this big book bag he had to have at all times. It was the first thing that had to be taken up to his hotel room and placed by his band in the bookstand...I can see myself being like that.
"hey Nonnie Nonnie" came from a book, The Greatest, or Best Loved Ballads and Lyrics of the English Language. My brother and sister-in-law gave it to me as a birthday present a couple of years back. I don't know how old it was, but they talked about different eras of poetry, and their "greatest living modern poet" was Tennyson!
Anyway, I was really enjoying the book, and after I'd had it for six months or so, I was playing the guitar one day and started remembering "Hey Nonnie Nonnie," which I though I remembered as some Shakespearean thing. So I looked through a coupla books, and realized that wasn't what I was remembering. Then I saw this book and these chords and melody started to come.
Country music is also a big influence. I grew up hearing Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and old Carter Family records. Also, my father plays guitar, and he'd play and sing. I forgot the list, but he had memorized and could sing any number of several hundred country songs. It was a real passion for him at an early age.
In fact, he said--and this is very funny, I've never told anyone this before. When my father was a boy--I don't know, it must have been around the time to the second world war, or earlier--they didn't have records or anything, but he would always listen to the radio, to the country music, and write. You could always figure out the chords, 'cause it's simple--and he was always writing down the lyrics. One time one of his aunts found his notebooks with all these country songs and though it was his diary, and he was so upset [general laughter. Boy, if you saw country songs and thought it was someone's diary!