For someone who in 1983 had just recently been released from the torture garden of high school, the Violent Femmes debut resonated like no album ever had before. While initially stunned by the raw performance and emotional fury of songs like "Blister in the Sun," "Promise" and "Add It Up," I was, by the last cut, completely won over. It was fun relating to the catharsis in those grooves, which affirmed every twitchy, "wrong" feeling I ever thought was unique to me. And this young Midwest trio was making it all with acoustic instruments, music as hopped-up and honest as anything in punk and, arguably, even more threatening to the rock establishment. Seething with sexual frustration and rage, Violent Femmes is probably the most sincere and unselfconscious manifestation of adolescent angst ever recorded, a teen manifesto with few, if any, rivals.
"The thing that has been so great with [the first record]," says Femmes singer/guitarist Gordon Gano, "is that it has continued over the years to have a similar, positive effect on young people when they first hear it. And it could have been done at any time. There's nothing that dates it really. It certainly didn't sound like anything that was considered popular at the time we did it. It's never really fit in with anything too much."
The Violent Femmes, with their commitment to self-expression regardless of the commercial consequences, have never exactly "fit in." They first emerged from the Milwaukee post-punk scene in 1981 with Brian Ritchie on bass, Victor DeLorenzo on snare and "tranceaphone" and the teenaged son of a Baptist minister, Gano, on guitar and vocals. The band built a local following by performing its furious acoustic rock in area coffeehouses. The Femmes were "discovered" playing on a street corner by Pretenders' guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and asked to join the Pretenders' American tour. That led to a signing with Slash Records in 1982 and to the release of the self-titled first album.
But if Violent Femmes was a revolution, the second album, Hallowed Ground, with its fusion of punk, folk, country, gospel and free jazz (on "Black Girls," "Never Tell" and the terrifying "Country Death Song") was even more challenging. Gano says Hallowed Ground remains the band's personal favorite.
"This is true for the entire band, not just myself," he explains. "I think that's because of the way those songs tap into the different kinds of music that we loved and in the way that we arranged them."
After an additional four regularly scheduled albums, the band's recorded output trailed off a bit (the last Femmes album was 2000's Freak Magnet). Yet the members have remained active in solo and side projects (Gano's Hitting the Ground, featuring performances by Lou Reed, John Cale, PJ Harvey and others, was released last year) and still perform Violent Femmes shows whenever they get the call. That call to duty brings the band -- complete with original drummer DeLorenzo -- to the Spokane Convention Center next Thursday night for an all-ages Halloween bash.
"Periodically I hear people say, 'I thought you guys split up a long time ago.' Or 'I thought you guys were dead.' Because we didn't happen to play in their city or they didn't notice when we were doing it," says Gano, who has family in Spokane. "We don't get major media attention."
Though in all of recorded history there has never been a band quite like the Violent Femmes, Gano is quick to point out that the whole idea of furiously rocking acoustic had been explored in some depth, pre-Femmes.
"I know Jonathan Richman has done that at times, but even going back to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley kind of stuff, that was acoustic instruments and they were rocking."
He also seems amused by the popular conception of "acoustic rock" -- the one imposed on us by MTV.
"When this unplugged thing became popular, it was usually a code word for 'We sit down when we play.' It may or may not be an acoustic instrument, but you'll think it is because we're sitting down. And we're playing slow. It's slow and we're sitting down so that makes it acoustic or unplugged. The funny thing is, for about 10 years there, we'd periodically ask our managers, 'Well how come we're not doing unplugged? I mean that's what we do and we're really good at it.'"
But the Femmes -- whose live shows are anything but sedate -- were never allowed on the show.
"One explanation I heard was that unplugged was supposed to be something unique and interesting for a band to do. But because that's what we did, there was no point."
Maybe it was because MTV didn't want to mess up all those comfy chairs and couches they have nailed to the stage.
"Yeah, that's right," he laughs. "We'd be running around and just throwing everything off."
Hello Again -- Hello From Waveland looks and sounds, initially, like yet another standard rock foursome sporting vintage-era duds. However, a quick spin of its debut album, Strangeways, reveals something deeper. The songs are familiar, yet original. The lyrics are smart, but not overly clever. This is music that goes on like a favorite flannel shirt. Vocalist/guitarist Michael Jaworski describes it this way: "as if Elvis Costello had grown up in Omaha, Nebraska -- which I did."
Jaworski moved from Nebraska to Seattle in 2000 to pursue a career in music. He and buddy John Randolph formed the band the following year and played together for five months before picking up a rhythm section. They recorded Strangeways last year and, after recruiting a new bass player and drummer, hit the road. They'll show up at the Detour on Saturday night.
The band prides itself on the quality of its live shows. "We're unpredictable in a lot of ways," says Jaworski. "We're high-energy -- I like to say that we 'blast off' onstage. We jump around. And if we were rich enough to break our equipment, we would do that, too. The show could be great, or the show could be a disaster, but at least people will remember what they saw."
Hello From Waveland has been compared to bands such as Wilco, the Replacements and R.E.M., comparisons that Jaworski welcomes -- to a point.
"I agree with those comparisons to some extent," he says. "Obviously, R.E.M. is one of the greatest American rock bands. I just don't think we sound all that alike. The newer material [a sophomore effort due in 2004] is a lot more British Invasion-influenced. I think when that next record comes out, the R.E.M. comparisons will fall by the wayside."
Jaworski cites a number of '60s-era bands -- among them the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Zombies, and the Kinks -- as Hello From Waveland's primary influences. But he's careful not to limit the band to a '60s sound.
"We try to be memorable, interesting, unique," Jaworski explains. "Great artists are great because that's what they've accomplished -- something interesting and unique."
The Smick Age -- I think it's perfectly legitimate to say that Pat Smick, Spokane's most celebrated nightlife lifer, has spent more of his own hard-earned disposable income keeping this live rock thing happening than any other single figure in local history. He's done it one cover charge and one cheap beer at a time. Well, Pat is turning 40 next week, and to commemorate this milestone, his friends and some of his favorite Northwest bands are getting together at Mootsy's and the B-Side on Friday and Saturday nights to raise a ruckus and tip an Oly to the undisputed godfather of Spokane punk as he passes into adulthood. Or something like that.
Pat's been a fixture at rock clubs here for the past 20 years. He's the guy in the leather jacket, thick-rimmed glasses and big, goofy grin socializing with young scruffs and scene vets and pounding the suds like it's the night before the New Prohibition. You've seen him at basement parties and Grange Hall bashes; at Club RURED, 123 Arts and Pompeii; at the Big Dipper, Henry's, Mother's, Ichabod's, Mootsy's and the B-Side. Pat's undying enthusiasm for 1-2-3-4 rock 'n' roll has led him to form or join several local punk bands over the years (including the nefarious Smickage). His small apartment is littered with local scene memorabilia, hundreds if not thousands of punk .45s and LPs, and cigarette scars from some of the countless visiting bands he's let crash at his place over the years. At Chez Smick, there is always cold beer in the refrigerator and some totally great obscure punk single on the turntable. His taste in such things is impeccable.
I've known Pat since we've both been able to drink legally, though I can't exactly remember the moment we first bonded over our mutual love of the Ramones. Was it next to the keg at that Moral Crux house party? At some grotto or Moe's Garage show? Heh. It's all a little blurry. But hey, Pat probably remembers.
Happy birthday, you geezer. See you at the next show.
Publication date: 10/23/03