Title: Add It Up: “Violent Femmes” at Thirty
Author: Sarah Larson
Publication: The New Yorker
Date: Sep. 16th, 2013
If you’re a Violent Femmes fan who’s been to a baseball game in the past decade, you’ve probably heard the beginning of “Blister in the Sun” and laughed. It’s a jaunty bit of music, innocent and urgent, perfect for revving up fans. An acoustic bass plays a singsong melody, solo. Two snare-drum beats punctuate it, twice. The bass line repeats; the snares repeat. Then an acoustic guitar joins in, and everyone’s in on the good time.
At the stadium, that’s all you hear; you laugh because the rest of the song continues in your head. A nasally weirdo sings “When I’m a-walkin’, I strut my stuff, and I’m so strung out.” He’s high as a kite, he just might stop to check you out; he stains his sheets, his girlfriend is starting to cry, he’s like a blister in the sun, and he likes big hands. What? “Blister in the Sun” has a universally appealing sound, but its lyrics don’t apply to anyone, perhaps, besides Gordon Gano, the singer, who wrote it in his late teens, in Milwaukee. If you’ve heard the song in a dancing-and-singing scenario, you’ve noted the palpable relief when the “Let me go on” part comes around, so people can forget about the stained sheets and the crying for a minute.
“Blister in the Sun” is the Violent Femmes’ biggest hit, but the rest of the album it opens, “Violent Femmes,” is equally good. It was released in 1983, when Gano was just out of high school; in many ways, it is the ultimate high-school album. It’s vital, it’s fun, it’s desperate, it’s catchy, and it’s fueled by raw id. The singer might be a jerk, or he might be bravely exposing the parts of the soul that we’re all not proud of. He whines things like “I look at your pants and I need a kiss.” But he’s not playing at anything; he feels everything that he sings. For a teenager, this is important.
The album has simplicity, cohesiveness, and power that Rick Rubin might envy—and that seems to have eluded the band ever since. They made several follow-up albums, none as brilliant as their first, and have had many stops and starts and breakups and fights. In 2007, Gano licensed “Blister in the Sun” for use in a Wendy’s commercial; Ritchie, horrified, sued him, and posted a withering comment about him online (“It is his karma that he lost his songwriting ability many years ago, probably due to his own lack of self-respect as his willingness to prostitute our songs demonstrates”). That put a damper on things for several years.
This year, though, that first, great album turned thirty, and the band reunited to play it in its entirety at a few festivals. Even the original drummer, Victor DeLorenzo, who doesn’t much like Gano either (or Ritchie, for that matter), signed on. (He soon quit, or was kicked out, again, citing the band’s “disrespect, dishonesty, and greed,” and was replaced by Brian Viglione, of the Dresden Dolls.) A show at Summerstage, in Central Park, last Thursday was billed as the Femmes’ “triumphant return to N.Y.C.,” their first show in Manhattan since 2004, and some kind of miracle.
That week, the weather had turned from deliciously crisp to muggy and ominous. A storm was forecast, and they’d moved the concert up by forty-five minutes, in an effort to get out of its way; in Central Park, minutes before showtime, big groups of muscular joggers pounded along the road near Summerstage as the cloud-darkened sky shuddered with little flashes of heat lightning.
Summerstage, at Rumsey Playfield, is a walled-off concert space near the center of the park, in which a small V.I.P. tent, metal bleachers, and concession stands form a perimeter around an expanse of green industrial carpet dotted with metal light towers and rubber-covered tracks of electrical cords. That evening, it was also covered with puddles. The lightning flashed every minute or two, but, around 7:15, there was no rain, no thunder. A crowd of sweaty fans—including a guy in a memorial-golf-tournament polo shirt, a group of dressed-up girls, an older woman who yelled at anyone who moved into her sight line, and a stout wiseacre in a tank top and a gold chain—anticipated the show in varying stages of mirth and anxiety. Some people smoked cigarettes, some drank beer out of plastic cups, some grabbed strangers as they tried to navigate around puddles.
A cheer went up as the band took the stage. Here they were! And time was of the essence! But they didn’t dive right in—they warmed up with some later numbers, beginning with the rather boring “Hallowed Ground.” Gano wore black. “I see the fear, it’s on the rise,” he sang, placidly. With his self-tinting glasses and receding hairline, Gano looks like a world-weary high-school math teacher; Ritchie, a big, long-haired guy who now lives in Tasmania (he also plays the shakuhachi, the jaw harp, and the didgeridoo, among other instruments), looks like a man who has sought, and found, himself. He was playing a big wooden acoustic bass and wearing a wide black hat with a brim. They played two more listless later songs, “All I Want” and “Nightmares.” It was hard not to marvel at Gano as he sang these songs as the air pressure shifted, the sky darkened, and the lightning popped; he was the bandleader on the Titanic, post-iceberg, and he was saving the best music for when the boat went underwater.
A cloud of pot smoke added to the thickness of the air; a sweaty bearded guy wandered into an inch-deep puddle and stayed there, not noticing it until his girlfriend came up and pointed to the ground.
Ritchie took the mic. “Thank you for sticking around for those three songs,” he said. “We’re going to take you on a trip through time and space!”
“Whoo!” people yelled.
Ritchie played the bass riff that begins “Blister in the Sun,” and the crowd erupted; Gano tilted his head a bit, frowning. He joined in on guitar. “When I’m a-walkin’, I strut my stuff, and I’m so strung out,” he sang. The crowd hollered the lyrics with sloppy enthusiasm. The rain started to fall. People danced. The guy in the tank top knew all the words, and yelled them to his friends, pointing his finger: “I’m high as a kite! I just might! Stop to check you out!” At “Big hands, I know you’re the one,” he, and plenty of others, stuck their hands in the air, like, Hey! My hands are big! About a third of the crowd held up phones, recording. Others were clapping along with the drumbeats, or somewhere vaguely near them, with gusto. The band’s performance had a relaxed, almost perfunctory quality; it was neither as rousing nor as menacing as the single, and whatever power it mustered was absorbed by the punchy enthusiasms of the crowd. It was like a tribute to the song, performed by the band itself.
By the end of “Blister in the Sun,” it was pouring. After the last drumbeats, the crowd screamed in catharsis, the anticipation of the big song, and of the rain, finally over. The big hit was behind us, and the rain was here to stay.
“Kiss Off” was more energetic, more vital, more like the feeling of the album. Ritchie’s bass and Gano’s guitar sounded good, and Gano didn’t sound tired of it. Some people danced while holding umbrellas; others raised their hands on the “yeah yeah”s, in joy, rather than mime. It was clear that this exuberance would persist through as much of the album as we would be able to hear. Ritchie played a great solo. A gust of wind blew a stage curtain around, turning it green in the lights. The crowd excitedly sang the counting part of the song—one because you left me and two for my family and three for my heartache, and so on, and ten for everything, everything, everything. At the end of “Kiss Off,” the cheering was full throttle.
After one tantalizing note of “Please Do Not Go,” which would normally lead into a terrific, cascading bass line, the music stopped. “We have to make an announcement!” Ritchie said. “We’re sorry, but we’re going to have to stop because of this lightning for a few minutes.”
“No!” people yelled.
“And then we’ll be right back, and we will rock as much as we possibly can,” he said, reassuringly. He had the tone and appearance of a kindhearted conflict mediator. He seemed to understand both sides: rock, and its equal, opposing force, nature. The band left the stage.
“I think it’s time to get another drink!” a guy yelled.
The storm raged harder. For the audience, there was nowhere to take cover except the inaccessible, tented V.I.P. area in back. The V.I.P.s looked at the crowd, now the only thing to watch.
“Where are you from?” a blond, umbrella-less man asked two women with an umbrella. “Connecticut,” they said. He ducked under their umbrella. “Oh yeah? I lived in Connecticut once,” he said. “What do you do for work?”
“Man, my sandals are wet!” a guy in a clear poncho said. The rain had reached dumping-out-a-bucket intensity. A tall man in a P.I.L. T-shirt gazed into his beer, saddened that rain was falling into it. An attractive young couple, a man and a woman, kissed each other. Her dress was soaked; his shirt was soaked; their hair directed little streams of water onto their shoulders. “It’s going to rain for hours,” the man said, his expression hardening. “Let’s go.”
“I don’t want to go,” the woman said.
“Come on. The guy’s in his car, on the way back to his hotel.” His tone had a they’re-all-scumbags quality.
“I don’t want to go!”
He took her arm.
“No!” she said, struggling. “We’re staying. I’m staying!”
It was hard to argue with her. Though it was obvious that the storm wasn’t going anywhere, Ritchie had told us to wait. And after all the Femmes mayhem, and the rarity of the occasion, what right did nature, logic, or safety have to intervene? The album had just begun, and one of its pleasures is how it fits together. It’s hard to hear the first two songs without craving what follows. The earnest pleading of “Please Do Not Go,” full of strange baby talk (“But then she turn around, she turn around and like another guy!”); the whining, psychotic horniness of “Add It Up” (“Why can’t I get just one fuck?”); the poisoned optimism of “Prove My Love” (“Just last night I was reminded of just how bad it had gotten and just how sick I had become / But it could change with this relationship”); the drugged comedown of “Confessions” (“I’m so lonely, feel like I’m gonna crawl away and die”); the rewarding pick-me-up of “Promise” (“You know that I want your loving, but Mr. Logic tells me that it ain’t never gonna happen”); the whiny breather of “To the Kill”; the ripsnorting xylophone freakout of “Gone Daddy Gone”; and then the gentleness of “Good Feeling,” which, like the Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” just begs for one small moment of happiness, goddamn it. Throughout, what holds the album together is the immediacy of Gano’s songwriting and the wise, wry melodiousness of Ritchie’s bass. Gano’s voice and lyrics add personality, and define it as the work of a teen-age id, but the bass, guitar, and drums have an elemental quality, a maturity that elevates the record beyond adolescence.
Twenty minutes after the band left the stage—rain still bucketing, thunder getting louder, lighting still at it—Ritchie reappeared. “It’s very unfortunate, but the rest of the gig is cancelled,” he said. The crowd roared in dismay. “It’s nobody’s fault; there’s no bad guy here,” he said, peacefully. “We’re not allowed to let an event of this nature go forward when there’s thunder and lightning. We really want to apologize for that. But we’ll be announcing a makeup date, and you’ll be able to hear all those songs we did again, and more! So we’ll see you soon! Thank you!” This yielded cheers. Then the crowd, wet and befuddled, began pouring out of Summerstage, stepping over the rubber speed bumps of electrical cords, and through the puddles, now pointless to avoid, and down the steps, into the darkness of the outer park, toward Fifth Avenue and whatever buses that came by. An entrepreneur in a raincoat was selling rain gear. “Ponchos! Umbrellas!” he called out.
“We’re already wet, man,” a man said, insulted.
“Blister in the rain!” another guy said, smiling and pumping his fist.
Above: The Violent Femmes perform at Tower Records, in Sherman Oaks, California, in 1985. Photograph by Ron Wolfson/WireImage.