With that first album, the self-titled debut released in 1983, the Violent Femmes quietly slipped into a strange pop-culture orbit, the same soupy gray space in which Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger float about. Who really cares that Salinger told his editor to screw off and sequestered himself for several decades? Who cares that Kerouac told the Beats to screw off, read a lot of Dostoyevsky, and died? So what, if the Femmes have, in large part, spent their subsequent career releasing difficult albums with arty pretenses? ("Country Death Song," anyone?) All fashion aside, ratty paperback copies of The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, and Femmes recordings like the debut and the compilation Add It Up, never fail to pass from one successive generation of difficult, moody adolescents to the next.
Every bit as recognizable and transcendent as Holden Caulfield's defensive mouthing or Dean Moriarty's insatiable impulses, Gordon Gano's squirming, neurotic vocals celebrate the kind of red-faced behavior a kid isn't supposed to think about, let alone mention out loud. Instead of simply singing about adolescent angst, Gano is adolescent angst. The music is, by turns, charming, bold, vulnerable, camp--uncomfortably persuasive and authentic.
Listening to masturbatory anthems like "Blister in the Sun," "Gimme the Car," and "Add It Up," it's nearly impossible not to picture a seventeen-year-old kid with a monster Adam's apple and an acne-spotted temple, hiding out in a dark suburban bedroom, ranting. And not only was Gano's nasal, pinched voice the one to pull it off, the Femmes were the perfect band to back him up. The acoustic trio had all the energy of a punk band combined with the rawness and intimacy of a folk outfit. A darkly awkward quality to the Femmes' music shined in Gano's twangy guitar, Brian Ritchie's squirming bass, and Victor DeLorenzo's hot-cha drumming. Even if you never got into the Femmes, chances are (if you graduated after '83), some shady kid in your high school class did.
The Femmes are on tour again, even though they don't have a new album. At one o'clock in the afternoon on a weekday, the acutely hung-over, raspy-voiced Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie discusses the Femmes' nearly two-decade-long history, their current status, and the fan base that continues to grow, after all these years, like a mutant Chia Pet. ("We're more popular now than we've ever been," he says.)
Predictably, the interview got off to a less-than-sterling start. But given a few minutes to warm up and wake up, Ritchie's responses doubled in length if not insight. He went on to characterize a band that, for all its avant bids and demurring attitudes, still thinks and acts like a crew of rough-and-tumble rockers.
One of the criticisms the Femmes have had to live with is that, after starting out with a great rock album, the band lost its way with successive efforts. Not so, says Ritchie, who claims that the band had always harbored an interest in the Lou Reed-derived, talky slow burners with dense, religious, political, and drug-oriented themes that permeate its post-debut material. The band seems to consider the debut album a fluke: a somewhat unrepresentative, unabashedly rock-oriented album that appeared to the band in its sleep and needed to be released like a hot potato. Once it was dispatched, the band could move on to better things.
"When we started, we had tons of material," Ritchie says. "The first album is not the way it is because that's all that we had. We specifically chose songs that we thought fit together and created some sort of a musical theme. The album was not as musically diverse as it could have been, because we already had all the material that we put on Hallowed Ground, the second album, and most of the third album, already written at that time. So we could have put out Hallowed Ground first. When people say, 'Oh man, they started out as a rock band, and then they started to get into these weird directions,' it's misleading, because we were already into that other stuff. It's just that we chose not to showcase that on the first album. So the way the band really is is more reflected by the other albums, I guess."
Today, Ritchie admits that the Femmes are as undirected artistically as ever. "We're befuddled--the way it should be. Any band that knows what they're doing should hang it up."
They've recently recorded a live album and an album of original material. In addition, they plan to release an earlier album that was only previously available in Australia and New Zealand. By now, a resigned Ritchie can easily predict how the fans will take their newest material. "I think it's like what the kids call, 'Weird, it's weird, man. It isn't like their first album.' Probably in that category."
In concert, the Femmes bring new material along, and, though it often draws stares of confusion, the Femmes' fans always tolerate. Ritchie even thinks of the band's more difficult music as a sort of public service. "The kids just listen to it. Sometimes they're confused, but that's good. Maybe they'll figure it out later on. But if they never get exposed to anything but Matchbox 20, then that's all they'll ever want to hear."
It's an oddly elitist pose from a band that draws continuing sustenance from a revolving-door fan base of rock-ready kids--a group so consistently young that Ritchie refers to them as "The Picture of Dorian Gray." But despite the lack of success with its later endeavors, the band isn't so arrogant as to dismiss its indomitable fans--kids who listen to whatever the Femmes play in concert, who've made the Femmes a more than viable touring band for years, and who've made the first record an underground hit.
"I went to see Lou Reed and Cheap Trick, and they had really old audiences," Ritchie says. "Since rock and roll is best for youth--I'm an adult; I really don't listen to that much rock and roll nowadays--I think that rock should be for kids. I think that that's a great thing, that our music is accepted by the target audience."
Few fans actually realize how old the Femmes really are. Long after their contemporaries have faded, the Femmes' music continues to fit comfortably alongside whatever gets a listen today. "I've got a son who's fourteen," Ritchie says, "and he told me, 'Dad, I don't know why, but the kids really like your band, and they don't even know that you're really old.' He told me that they think of us the same way they think of Green Day or whatever else is happening out there. It's not like they're thinking about the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith or some old thing. I think that our music was ahead of the times enough that we could keep up with [newer bands]."
And even if the Femmes don't really consider their first album representative, they're plenty proud of it. Almost belligerently so. "It's nice to have something that's considered to be a classic like that, even though those morons at Rolling Stone didn't choose it as one of the . . ." Ritchie says, voice trailing off. "Gordon was really upset when Rolling Stone didn't choose it as one of the top one hundred albums of rock. And I was a little bit too, because they put garbage in there like James Taylor, which isn't even rock at all. And they put some rap stuff in there, and heavy metal. That was pretty offensive. But it shows what a bunch of coke-snorting morons think about music."
In 1993, former Bodeans drummer Guy Hoffman replaced original Femmes drummer DeLorenzo. Past that, the Femmes have enjoyed a near-constant string of successful tours. The secret, it seems, is in more than just the prescient first album; it's also in the delivery. "It's fun to get up on stage and make a lot of noise--scream and yell and sweat, the kids going wild," says Ritchie. "It's pretty stimulating. Adrenaline is a good thing to have in the system."
An odd confessional, this, from the man who doesn't listen to much rock anymore. After seventeen years, eight albums, several marriages, assorted children, hard drinking, a license to tour and record whenever and whatever the hell they want, perhaps the Femmes haven't grown up so much after all. And as far as my friend knows, neither did that skinny kid.
Violent Femmes. 8 p.m., Thursday, April 22, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue, $14 ($15 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.