Born in the wake of a legendarily disruptive high school performance and culminating in a near riot at Carnegie Hall, Violent Femmes, the folk-rock-punk trio from Milwaukee forged a unique sound out of influences as disparate as rockabilly, Appalachian folk, the Velvets, Hank Williams and Sun Ra. John Kruth has performed and recorded with the Femmes over the years. He offers an insider’s view of this delightfully abnormal band—the perfectly mismatched Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo, and their Horns of Dilemma.
When Milwaukee’s unplugged punk trio, Violent Femmes, formed in 1980, none of them had the slightest clue they would still be on the road, touring the world more than thirty years later. The band’s original handle, Hitler’s Missing Testis, was even more shocking than the provocative name we’ve come to know them by, which, as bassist Brian Ritchie told People magazine in 1986, “was just something that came out of my mouth, like automatic writing. We thought of the band as a temporary thing. We didn’t think we’d get stuck with the name.”
Before he’d even gotten his driver’s license, Gordon Gano, the introverted son of a Baptist minister, had written a batch of the most powerful anthems of alienated youth the world has ever known. Like Michael Jackson and Stevie Winwood (who, at 15, was the lead singer of the Spencer Davis Group), Gano did some of his best work as a virgin.
He was a prodigy of sorts, writing his first songs at age 12. Composed when he was 15, “Kiss Off” is the earliest song that still remains in the Femmes’ repertoire. The songs from their 1983 self-titled debut album were mostly autobiographical—stark, personal confessions of sexual frustration, filled with bitter contempt for authority, along with grim deliberations on back-stabbing friends. It seemed like Gordon’s only hope for relief from the teenage hell he endured was the spiteful act of suicide, which he somehow managed to avoid.
“The first album seemed like somebody’s diary and the second album [Hallowed Ground, 1984] was like we’d grown up and presented something to the world, like we had stepped forth and said what we felt,” Gano explained. “Once a librarian from Seattle tried to track me down. She had picked up the first album at a rummage sale and felt that she had read someone’s diary. I wouldn’t think of it that way myself. I don’t analyze my work the way that other people do. Some people felt that Hallowed Ground is a very depressing record,” Gordon said. “Yet there were songs of a more religious and spiritual nature on it.”
You just never knew where the Femmes would take you. One minute, Gano evoked holy visions of “Jesus Walking on the Water,” the next he was ready to beat-up some back-stabbing little snitch who ratted him out in “Never Tell.” Victor DeLorenzo, the band’s original drummer would suddenly flee his drum kit, as if stung by a bee, abandoning his bandmates in mid-song, to crouch at the edge of the stage, like a sulking imp. A moment later he’d scramble back and begin pounding away, maniacally driving the song to the point of collapse.
A big part of the Femmes’ distinctive sound came from Brian Ritchie’s punchy, thumping bass lines. Like many of rock’s best bassists (John Entwistle, Jack Casady and Larry Graham) Brian’s four strings, whether acoustic or electric, provided a solid backbone for the band, carrying the music through whatever dizzying heights or sonic train-wrecks that lay ahead.
“I first met Gordon at the Metropole, in Milwaukee,” Brian recalled. “A friend, theater director named Robert Soffian recommended him to me as, quote, ‘a pint-sized Lou Reed imitator,’ which he thought I would like, given my fascination with Lou’s music. Gordon was a senior in high school at the time. He was dressed in a suit. I was in torn jeans and a paisley smoking jacket. Then I bumped into Gordon again at [Milwaukee’s legendary punk club] the Starship, at an Oil Tasters gig, which was ironic because two of the band’s members, “Leb” [saxophonist Caleb Lentzner] and Guy [Hoffman, who would later replace Victor on drums] both ended up playing with us.”
Gano invited the lanky, blond bassist to join him for what soon became a legendary performance. “He was scheduled to play the Honor Society induction ceremony at Rufus King High School the next day. So, Gordon introduced me to his music teacher Mr. Kalfus, who looked at me with disdain and said, ‘We are acquainted,’” Brian laughed. “He had been my music teacher too and knew I was trouble.”
All was going according to plan as Gordon gently strummed the yearning ballad “Good Friend,” which his teacher had previously deemed suitable for the school assembly when suddenly the devious duo shifted gears and broke into Gano’s sinister adolescent plea “Gimme the Car.”
“C’mon dad, I ain’t runt!” Gano whined. “C’mon girl gimme your…” and the student body literally exploded as Gordon moaned ‘I ain’t had much to live for… No I ain’t had much to live for…’
“We hijacked the event,” Ritchie recalled with a laugh. “Afterwards, when Gordon got in all kinds of trouble with the school, Mr. Kalfus surprisingly stood up for us, perhaps on basis of freedom of expression.”
In short order, Gano was booted out of the Honor Society and subsequently suspended from Rufus King and this act of insubordination went down on his “permanent record,” as he’d later sing on “Kiss Off.” But Violent Femmes’ legend, however small and local at the time, was born.
Triggering a riot, or near riot, looms large on any rocker’s resume and while Igor Stravinsky might not exactly be considered “a rocker,” the Russian composer was notorious for inciting mayhem amongst audiences. Perhaps the most infamous incident of this sort in the twentieth century came with the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps (The Rites of Spring) in Paris, on May 29, 1913. Stravinsky, hailed as “The Prince of the Avant Garde,” jolted the crowd with strange dissonant chords and asymmetrical rhythms. Splitting into opposing groups, the audience began arguing with each other, quarreling over an atonal bassoon passage as well as the unconventional ballet which it accompanied. But very quickly the rowdy crowd joined forces and began throwing whatever they could find at the orchestra. As the gendarmes broke-up the brawl, a bewildered Stravinsky, made his getaway.
Gordon has a good dramatic persona on stage. I have a provocative nature which is also theatrical, while Victor added the overt theatricality which made it clear that we were no normal band.
Half a century later, Bob Dylan would walk a mile or two in the great composer’s shoes after he donned a black leather “sell-out jacket” (as The New York Times described it) and plugged his Fender Stratocaster, to shock his devoted fans at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Half the audience, depending who you ask, was outraged and betrayed by his abrupt change of style, while most of Dylan’s peers and his more forward-thinking fans took his transformation in stride. As Bob had already warned everyone “The Times They Are A Changin’”.
While Gordon Gano’s high school scandal carried nowhere near the social impact of such illustrious predecessors, it remains symbolic of the spirit in which Violent Femmes were born. That little punk and his goony pal flagrantly disregarded his teacher’s orders and seized the moment to incite an adolescent rebellion.
Violent Femmes began, as most bands, playing wherever they could scrounge a gig… at Brew City coffee houses, neighborhood pubs and busking on street corners, which was where the doomed guitarist James Honeyman-Scott happened upon them on August 23, 1981. That night the Pretenders were appearing at the Oriental Theater on Milwaukee’s trendy East Side. After hearing them on the street, Chrissie Hynde invited the trio to play a short set of their edgy punk/folk songs to open the show.
It was a Wednesday night in Greenwich Village, January 27, 1983, when Violent Femmes played Folk City. My friend, the keyboardist/composer Sigmund Snopek III called long-distance from Milwaukee to tell me, “You gotta see this band!” “Really? What’s so special about ‘em?” I asked. “They’re like Buddy Holly and the Crickets,” Siggy said. “Except on acid, the brown kind that they warned you about at Woodstock.” I was dubious. I’d heard that Buddy Holly comparison before, with Elvis Costello. But all similarities to the Lubbock rocker ended with a pair of math-geek horn-rimmed glasses and a Fender guitar. Not that I was disappointed when I first saw Elvis, but Buddy Holly he was not.
Besides, a bunch of cow-punks from Wisconsin on a Wednesday night hardly sounded enticing. Beyond the mind-bending punk/funk jazz of James Chance and the Contortions, whatever came out of Milwaukee that mattered beyond Liberace, Hank Aaron, or Laverne and Shirley?
Okay, so I was jaded, having played around the Village for the previous five years. But Folk City was just a few blocks away and I didn’t have anything better to do that night. So, I bundled up and ventured out into the January cold.
Before he’d even gotten his driver’s license, Gordon Gano, the introverted son of a Baptist minister, had written a batch of the most powerful anthems of alienated youth the world has ever known.
After a cool opening set by the Morells, from Springfield. Missouri, the Femmes took the stage. By the end of their first song, the Femmes’ turbo-charged psycho-delic skiffle put a serious chink in my arrogant armor. While possessing the manic energy and attitude of punk, their diminutive lead singer thrashed away at an acoustic guitar, while the bassist thumped a thunderous jumbo-body Ernie Ball acoustic and the drummer thwacked a snare and a big metal gardening bucket with a pair of brushes. They had a giddy Three Stooges-like chemistry as they ricocheted off each other like a handful of superballs. Mixing elements of Appalachian folk and rockabilly with free jazz and punk, the Femmes didn’t neatly fit into any particular style or genre.
“We loved the Femmes and had them booked as often as we could,” recalled Robbie Woliver, proprietor of Folk City. “Our Music for Dozens series was breaking all sorts of incredible indie, rock, new wave and punk acts and was getting lots of press attention. Lines were always around the block. And for the Femmes, two blocks! The first time they performed, it was thrilling to experience. They were so inventive, but grounded in real musicality, breaking the rules, but still steeped in multi-genre tradition. And they were the nicest guys to work with. They were excited about their growing success, humble and fun.”
After the show I approached Brian and asked him what music he’d been listening to lately. Sun Ra and Nick Drake were among a few of his more surprising answers while the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart came as no shock. Although music journalists had been quick to pin Gordon Gano as an acolyte of Lou Reed, it wasn’t an entirely accurate description. While Reed’s influence on Gano’s songwriting was clear, in both their simplicity and disaffected sentiment, Gordon’s voice (which a critic from Rolling Stone once claimed, “could empty a room quicker than a methane explosion,”) was not limited to Lou’s half-spoken monotone delivery.
“I never ever saw Gordon put on a Velvet’s or Lou Reed tape, ever. It’s ironic that they became pals because of a mutual appreciation the Mets and cigars,” said the Femmes’ alto saxophonist/road manager Peter Balestrieri. “Gordon always told me he didn’t listen to Reed or the Velvets, that he was influenced by Johnny Thunders, gospel, Prince, and Hank Williams.”
The Hank influence on Gano’s old-school, country-style singing is loud and clear as Roy Acuff’s holler. Like the Velvets, the Femmes often employed “noise” in lieu of typical rock guitar riffs. Both groups had been inspired by free jazz saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, as well as the spontaneous inventions of pianist Cecil Taylor, to infuse their songs with passages of chaotic energy.
“Brian and Victor were well aware of free jazz musicians like Ornette and Albert Ayler, but not Gordon,” Balestrieri pointed out. “I had never heard Ayler though I knew Coleman and Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp. The first time Victor and Brian and I jammed… after some frantic, free jazz playing, they came up to me and Victor said, ‘So what do you do when you’re not imitating Albert Ayler?’ I said, ‘Who’s Albert Ayler?’ They asked me to sit in with the Femmes and after a bit. I started sitting in, mostly busking but some actual gigs as well.”
Like the Doors, Violent Femmes improvised at will, stretching their songs in new, unexpected ways, while often driving their crowd to the brink of madness. Sometimes it seemed like a riot could break out. Abhorring rehearsal, the band still plays without a set list. Ritchie still calls the songs based on the crowd’s vibe.
They had a giddy Three Stooges-like chemistry as they ricocheted off each other like a handful of superballs.
The Femmes intuitively knew how to pace a show, easing up on their fans for a moment, they’d toss out the occasional gentle tune, whether the wistful “Good Feeling” or the reggae bounce of “Please Do Not Go,” in which Gordon confesses to his mother that he’s “stuck on this lovely girl.” And then a minute later its back to their regularly scheduled full-blown anxiety attack.
As with Jim Morrison and his nefarious crew, the Femmes also led their audience down the dark, dank corridors of the human psyche. Propelled by Ritchie’s thunderous bass and Victor’s skittery drums, Gano’s scathing lyrics confronted and disemboweled every social convention and taboo their fans have faced.
The Violent Femmes’ best known songs from their 1983 debut album were for the most part autobiographical, stark personal confessions which focused on the foibles of teenage life, from sexual frustration to contempt for authority to back-stabbing friends and contemplations on suicide. It also included their biggest hit, the anthem of disaffected youth, “Blister in Sun.”
Gano’s disturbing “Country Death Song,” which kicked-off the trio’s second release, 1984’s Hallowed Ground, was a radical departure for the band.
“‘Country Death Song’ was actually written back when I was in my junior year of high school,” Gordon explained. “I started writing a verse per class, throughout the day, in no particular order. It began with the idea of the man pushing his daughter into the well.”
While many alienated high-school students possess the uncanny knack of composing unnerving poetry, Gano’s two-chord Appalachian-style ballad conjures the desolation of the soul human soul on par with a Truman Capote story.
“This song was the least un-me thing I’d ever written. It’s complete fiction. I’m just a narrator telling a story,” Gordon explained. “It was just a way of telling the news or a story, an old tradition that goes way back before cowboy songs, to ancient Greece and Egypt. My sister who, has kids of her own (Gano became a father himself in late 2015) forbids the song to be played around her house! But for me, oddly enough, it connects with good, warm family feelings. It’s an enjoyable song to do.”
Every time Violent Femmes perform “Country Death Song” live, it inevitably elicits screams from their audience, not of shock or horror over the murder of a helpless child but oddly of cheers, as if they are rooting for the pitiful lunatic confessing to have lost his mind.
“I must be oblivious or ignorant,” Gordon pondered. “I never thought they were cheering because the narrator threw his daughter down the well! There’s a pause in the song and then we go into some improvised music. I always figured that maybe they loved our wild solos.”
That “wild solo” was played by banjo ace Tony Trischka, whose five-string loaned the recorded version of “Country Death Song” a bit of haunted Appalachian drone and twang. Brian Ritchie likened Tony’s unconventional approach to his instrument to William Burroughs cut-up method of writing, in which the writer employed a pair of scissors to the pages of his manuscript, then re-arranged the words, ultimately creating a strange new logic.
“It was exciting recording ‘Country Death Song’ with the Femmes, and even more so, sitting in on stage with them because of the symbiotic energy, pin balling back and forth with the audience,” Tony Trischka recollected. “Though ‘Country Death’ is a dark song, in the mode of such trad murder ballads as ‘Pretty Polly,’ the boys were willing for me to do whatever came into my fingers at the moment, which maybe would get a little out there. Of course, I was feeding off their wonderfully crazy energy and, in the end, I’m proud to have been part of that song.”
By the early 1980s, the stage at CBGB had become a conveyor belt of Ramones and Sex Pistol wannabes. In just a few short years, punk began to lose its edge, degenerating from a scene that inspired individualism and rebellion to one of overwhelming conformity. But, like their music, the Femmes’ fashion sense was eclectic and unique. In the band’s early days Gordon often appeared on stage in his bathrobe, looking like he just fell out of bed. At times he wore a shoelace tied around his head like the flimsy halo of a gym class loser. Victor resembled a mid-Sixties Ringo, freely mixing fab plaids and polka-dots in an optical mosh of patterns that evoked the paintings of Victor Vasarely, while Brian took his clothing cues from Beggar’s Banquet-era Rolling Stones. Combining trippy paisley shirts with Third World vests and hats, he resembled a decadent dandy staggering out of an opium den.
Although they played acoustic instruments and performed at the hallowed Folk City (home to Dave Van Ronk, Odetta and Bob Dylan), the Femmes were nothing like the new breed of Greenwich Village singer-songwriters, who wrote and sang confessional ballads about their quasi-bohemian city lives. Few of them, aside from Suzanne Vega (who upon signing a major record deal, immediately divorced herself from the Village scene) managed to move the music half an inch ahead of where it had already begun to stagnate in the wake of James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.
I told Brian I was a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who played mandolin, flute, harmonica and guitar and he generously invited me to sit in with the band the following night at their gig at Columbia University. Wherever the Femmes went, they were augmented by a revolving door of local musicians they dubbed the Horns of Dilemma (which over the years included saxophonists Steve Mackay of the Stooges, and Dick Parry – heard on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon) joining them on stage to amp up their set.
While seeing the Femmes live was a gas, the electricity of playing with them on stage was a whole ‘nother ballgame. Following the Columbia show, I joined the band in Provincetown, Rhode Island, and then tagged along to their Boston gig. And then I had to go home… after all I was married and what I’d witnessed over the last few days was enough to (and eventually would) sink that ship.
In the spring 1986, I visited the Femmes’ hometown of Milwaukee to record a handful of songs for my first album Midnight Snack with Brian and Victor, along with fellow Horns of Dilemma, Sigmund Snopek III on keyboards and Peter Balestrieri on alto sax. Gordon Gano later added vocals to one track as well.
While off the road, Brian and Victor played a weekly gig as part of Le Noisemakers from Hell, led by Sigmund and Peter. Having seen Frank Zappa many times in his heyday, I can attest that the spontaneous lunacy and musical chops displayed by Le Noisemakers each Sunday night at a local Milwaukee bar called Harpo’s was second only to seeing the Mothers of Invention in their prime.
Much to my surprise, Milwaukee was a happening place. So, in the fall of ‘86 my then-wife and I gave up our Brooklyn apartment and moved to Brew City. Its burgeoning music scene (which also included the BoDeans, R&B stalwarts Paul Cebar & the Milwaukeeans and the hard-core band Die Kreuzen, whom I also joined and recorded with) inspired MTV to dub the town “America’s Liverpool.”
I had moved to Milwaukee in the wake of the Femmes third “disappointing” album, The Blind Leading the Naked. It was produced by Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison, with the intent of “beefing up” the band’s light dynamic with keyboards, horns and a full drum kit. The album (the first and only to include songs by Brian and Victor) offered a mosh of styles which ultimately alienated fans instead of attracting more. The lead-off single, a funky cover of an obscure T-Rex tune, “Children of the Revolution” (which contained the lyric “I gotta Rolls Royce cause it’s good for my voice”) seemed like the antithesis of everything the Femmes stood for.
I remember stopping by the midtown Manhattan studio to say hello while they were cutting the song. The atmosphere could be described as “uptight” at best. “How’s it going?” I asked Victor. “Like water drops on the forehead,” DeLorenzo replied. “In fact, that’s the title of our next album!”
They were mired in the dreadful task of getting the right, “punchy” drum sound. “Everybody in the music business seems to think that something can’t be good unless it has this nuclear bone-crunching backbeat,” Victor groused. “The rhythm of a melody is enough to propel a song.”
Carnegie Hall would never be quite the same. The Violent Femmes were neither violent nor women. They were a rock & roll band weren’t going to take it anymore. Score one for the music.”
On March 7, 1986. Violent Femmes played the world’s most prestigious music venue: Carnegie Hall. The night began with an opening set by guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke that went largely unappreciated by “a young, well-groomed, restive and thoroughly spoiled audience,” as Jon Pareles of The New York Times defined the Femmes’ crowd. Yet Kottke soldiered on, grinning good-naturedly as he sat on a stool, picking and singing over the crowd’s chatter, while dodging an occasional paper airplane, fashioned from the concert programs.
“Carnegie Hall was troubled enough by having a punk band on stage so they wanted a ‘legitimate’ act to open,” Brian recalled. “We’d recently recorded with Leo on The Blind Leading the Naked, so we asked him. The audience did not understand it and threw paper airplanes. But he didn’t seem to mind.”
Forty-five minutes later, the Femmes took the stage. Ritchie’s appearance immediately shocked the crowd, having shaved off his long blond locks, and donning a saffron Buddhist monk’s robe for the auspicious occasion. The Femmes ripped into their opening number, but the sound in the house was muddy and muffled due to Carnegie Hall’s notoriously tight restrictions on volume levels. Their fan’s frustration quickly reached a boiling point and the crowd spilled down the aisles, climbing over seats to seize to the stage, despite Shirley Snopek, a piano teacher from Waukesha, Wisconsin (and mother of Sigmund Snopek III, the Femmes’ keyboard player) vigorously swatting them with a rolled up program and commanding them to “Sit down!”
As Pareles recalled: “Teenagers ran down the aisles to dance. Eventually, dancing fans also filled the stage; after ushers cleared them. The music came to an abrupt halt as Ritchie stepped up to the microphone admonishing the throng: “We don’t care where we’re playing, we don’t want the audience onstage.” But as The New York Times critic recalled, “His words merely slowed the onslaught.”
“That was just a bunch of misbehaving brats, where at Rufus King (High School), that was true, spontaneous anarchy.” Ritchie pointed out.
“We’ve had a lot of hysterical crowds over the years,” Brian said, recalling when a stage collapsed in North Carolina after their crowd jumped up on the platform to join the Femmes during the raucous “Dance Motherfucker.” “Once we were playing Town Hall in New Zealand when the crowd rushed the stage and pushed it back several feet, causing the speaker columns to tremble and almost fall.”
Bill Bentley, the band’s publicist at Slash Records saw it from a different angle: “When Violent Femmes played Carnegie Hall in 1986 it felt like the tides were changing. Music was in control. How could a three-piece band from Milwaukee who started out playing on the streets end up at the Grand Dame of musical halls in American in just three short years? The Femmes came out locked and loaded and immediately fired off their anthem ‘Blister in the Sun.’ The audience went completely batzo, jumping up and down and before too long, rushing the stage. After that was just a short leap for the wild-eyed kids to jump up on the stage with the band and start screaming into the microphones and actually try and take the instruments away from Gordon Gano, Victor DeLorenzo and Brian Ritchie to play themselves. Of course, that didn’t last long. The house lights got turned on as bright as possible, and the ushers in their dark suits and ties came out and stopped the show. No one cared because the establishment had been shut down and the audience owned the room. Carnegie Hall would never be quite the same. The Violent Femmes were neither violent nor women. They were a rock & roll band weren’t going to take it anymore. Score one for the music.”
Violent Femmes-“Blister in the Sun”, live:
Once off the road, the Femmes unanimously agreed the time had come for a hiatus. Within a matter of months, Brian would release his first solo album The Blend on SST, a post-punk label formed by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn. The collection was an eclectic mix showcasing the bassist’s songwriting abilities and impressive multi-instrumental chops. While his Jagger-like slurred vocals served the songs well, the biggest surprise came with Ritchie’s guitar playing. Whether seeing the Femmes live or listening to their first three albums most fans were oblivious to his ability to wrangle such scorching leads from a six string.
Later that year, Gordon Gano and his then-girlfriend Zena Von Heppinstall, a black gospel singer, formed the holy-rolling punk quartet the Mercy Seat, who released an album of jittery soul-saving rockers. Live, the band was something to behold. While Gordon and his fellow musicians donned formal wear, Von Heppinstall shook her moneymaker for her savior, clad in a miniskirt and gold lame as her mama banged a tambourine for “her Jesus,” in a chartreuse see-thru negligee. It came as no surprise that their take on the gospel (both musically and lyrically) was a bit skewed, as she wailed “The Word” or some variation of it: “I don’t wanna be caught doing my nails when the world comes tumbling down.”
After hearing them on the street, Chrissie Hynde invited the trio to play a short set of their edgy punk/folk songs to open the show.
In the meantime, communication between the band members had all but broken down. I began playing occasional duo gigs with Gordon, backing him on mandolin, banjo and harmonica on sets of old country and folk tunes. I also hung out with Brian a lot, getting high, going to restaurants and jamming. Having split from his first wife, Ritchie was holed up in a small room at the landmark Shore Crest Hotel, filled with a variety of instruments, exotic rugs, and Catholic vestments which he collected. With the shades perpetually drawn and the lingering perfume of pot smoke and incense in the air, his lair had the atmosphere of a debauched dungeon.
With the release of Brian’s first solo album, I joined Ritchie’s touring band, Elephant Lip, sharing bills with seminal SST groups like the Meat Puppets and Saccharine Trust, as well as Cleveland’s dada rockers, Pere Ubu. Although the band, featured the brilliant and hysterically funny Peter Balestrieri on saxophone, my enthusiasm for the project soon waned after Ritchie brought along his then-girlfriend, Cynthia Bartell, bassist with the Minneapolis alt-rock group Tête Noir, to hold down the bottom while he shredded on lead guitar. Playing in a “mom and pop” was a bit of a drag.
A second album for SST, Sonic Temple and Court of Babylon and another tour of the Midwest and South soon followed. Meanwhile, both Brian and Gordon awakened to the grim reality that playing small clubs for a couple hundred people (on a good night) didn’t make it. It turned out that Violent Femmes (despite Gano once branding the band as “a self-hating organization”) wasn’t such a bad deal after all.
Gano, Ritchie and DeLorenzo soon re-united to cut their fourth album, which they dubbed 3. The confusing title had nothing to do with the placement of the recording in band’s catalogue, nor was it a negation of their poorly received third album, The Blind Leading the Naked. Most likely it referred to the aggravating issue of the press regularly addressing various members of the Horns of Dilemma (Sigmund, Peter, and myself, among many others) as Violent Femmes.
“3 was an absurdist thing because it was our fourth album, but at the same time it makes sense because it refers to the three band members,” Ritchie explained. Although 3 was a return to the Femmes’ stripped-down sound after the more expansive, experimental Blind Leading the Naked, it lacked the intensity that made their first two albums so great. While “Nightmares” and “Fat” were classic Femmes fare, the record wasn’t… dangerous.
From the beginning there’d been an underlying tension between the members of Violent Femmes, a festering disdain capable of tearing the band apart at a moment’s notice. Yet that same tension (commonly found in the uneasy musical marriages of many great bands including The Who, The Kinks and Buffalo Springfield) provided the essential friction that continues to drive the Femmes’ creative engine to this day.
According to Ritchie, the problems between Gordon, Victor and himself initially arose due to Gano seeing “himself as an individual, in the vein of Bob Dylan. When we did the first few gigs, we called it ‘Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes.’ You can even find posters like that. When we decided to commit to the band, which Gordon was by far, the least committed member, we had to decide on a permanent name. He suggested ‘Gordon Gano.’ Victor and I suggested ‘Violent Femmes’ and he suggested ‘Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes.’ But Victor and I insisted on ‘Violent Femmes.’ So right there you have a totally different impression of what the reality is. [With the release a handful of spotty solo projects] time has proven that it is a band and that Gordon can’t stand on his own as a creative force as Lou Reed or Eric Clapton or even Phil Collins were able to. Which is a good thing. Bands are better than individuals. So, I think the tension began from him not wanting to need me. But he does.”
“In the beginning it was a true equal partnership,” Brian continued. “I don’t think the band would have succeeded with a different drummer. Gordon has a good dramatic persona on stage. I have a provocative nature which is also theatrical, while Victor added the overt theatricality which made it clear that we were no normal band. He would always get quieter when normal rock drummers would get louder. It was subversive. He liked to serve the lyrics. Without that we would have been just a pretty sloppy rock band. With it, we were an art project. After the first album, Victor decided he wasn’t going to play the snare and tranceaphone for Hallowed Ground. He announced he was going to use a different drum set on every song. Thereafter he usually wanted to play a conventional drum set. But there is something crucial about standing up and playing without a bass drum which makes the Femmes sound good. By the time Victor was out of the band [in 1993], his priorities had shifted and he was disengaged. So, we didn’t lose the energy of the early Victor, we lost something else…which was lose-able by that point.”
Yet together, the band possessed a contagious madcap energy, a diabolical Marx Brothers-like zaniness that not only sparked their live performances but their interviews as well. Sometime in the mid-Eighties I sat down to chat with Brian and Victor at Milwaukee’s Shore Crest Hotel about the solo projects they were cooking up while the Femmes were on their first of many “sabbaticals,” between The Blind Leading the Naked and 3.
“A lot of people ask us how the band started. Well we haven’t wanted to divulge the truth until now. But we must,” Brian said with a poker face. “We were all at a gay bath house and were looking around, checking things out and we noticed that the three of us had the smallest penile structures. So, we congregated with one another and that’s how we formed the band.”
“Boring!” Victor crowed. “What about the ‘I am boring’ story?” he said, with a laugh. “This sums up the Femmes totally!” But before the band’s original drummer could begin his tale, Ritchie cut in: “Peter Balestrieri and I were walking through the airport in Bergen, when this yuppie businessman comes staggering towards us with some froth coming out of the side of his mouth, like a dog. He says, ‘Excuse me, do you have a cigarette?’ We said, ‘No we don’t smoke.’ So the guy says, ‘Excuse me, I am boring!’”
“They kept him off the plane because he was bombed,” Victor laughed. “But that’s the Violent Femmes. That’s what we represent to the world! Take that guy and multiply him by three and you have the Violent Femmes!”
“Right!” concurred Ritchie. “Except one foams out of the right side of their mouth, one foams out of the left side of their mouth and one foams out of the middle.”
If you are looking for the slightest hint of meaning in any of this, dear reader, you have walked into a hardware store in search of a bottle of milk. As Steve Mackay, tenor saxophonist with Iggy Pop, prior to becoming a mainstay in the Horns of Dilemma in 1983 (until his death in October, 2015 at age 66) once described the Violent Femmes’ three-ring circus: “A poet, a musician and a clown.” But to be fair Victor, once a member of Milwaukee’s acclaimed Theater X has always been more of an actor/performance artist rather than “a clown.”