• Title: Looking Into the Loving Abyss With Gordon Gano
  • Author: Michael Friedman
  • Publication: Psychology Today
  • Date: July 25th 2019

“There’s nothing high
There’s nothing low
There’s being, and nothingness is our flow.”

–from “I’m Nothing” by Violent Femmes

Emptiness is, to use a clinical term, a mindf*ck.

On the one hand, emptiness is the stuff of existential nightmares – a forbidding black hole that sucks us up and sucks us dry. And we’ll do anything to avoid the emptiness – drink, do drugs, have meaningless sex, or binge eat, all to avoid the Megalodon of emptiness.

And yet for some, emptiness can be a blissful, peaceful state. The notion being that achieving a Zen state of “no-mind” – free of boundaries and expectations — is when one is truly free to experience life fully and directly.

Big Hassle Media
Violent FemmesSource: Big Hassle Media
Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes has been mindf*cking us for almost 40 years. Let’s face it, we’ve been singing “Blister In The Sun” at the top of our lungs for decades and we probably still have no idea what it means, nor do we care. Talk about embracing emptiness.

And with Violent Femmes’ new song, “I’m Nothing” off of their 2019 album Hotel Last Resort, Gano is at it again, challenging us to give our emptiness a warm hug and a sloppy wet kiss. He is challenging the labels that we use to define ourselves, and encouraging us to embrace the nothingness and emptiness inherent in being unchained from categorization and limits. And perhaps ironically, in confronting us with the value of having no labels, he is actually helping us better define why Violent Femmes epitomize “folk punk.”

Gano is very clear that emptiness appeals to him. “Is emptiness a kind of a fullness? Is the abyss loving?” Gano asked me. “Or is the abyss something that’s not loving? I go the loving route.”

One of the most alluring parts of emptiness for Gano is a freedom from labels that he sees as restrictive and harmful. Research supports his sentiment, as stereotype threat has been shown to hinder performance in a number of areas including memory and academic testing.

“I don’t care for labels and they don’t mean that much to me … Democrat, Christian, White person, Black person … What is this type of person supposed to do, think, say? If you’re identified with a certain group, it comes with judging and differentiating. It has to do with duality and not unity,” Gano explained. “I just don’t think that way. I think it’s the person — not as a representative of a race or belief system. It sets up ‘us’ and ‘them.’

“The whole construction of it doesn’t ring true to me.”

Gano has been fortunate to find other people in his life who share his disdain for labels. “I know somebody who’s adamant – will not stand for being called a lesbian. One time I said, ‘You’re a woman and your life partner is a woman.’ And they’ve been together for decades and are loyal to each other,’” Gano recalled. “She said, ‘But that doesn’t matter. I’m a woman, she happens to be a woman.’ She just completely rejects the label of being called a lesbian.”

Similarly, Gano has bristled against the labels applied to Violent Femmes music. “People have called the Violent Femmes music different things over the years. Different people have used different terms. And none of it matters to me as long as people are enjoying it,” he described. “I felt that for many years there was the term ‘alternative rock’ and I thought that didn’t exist when we started. And it begs the question, ‘Alternative to what?’ And it had the implication that you’re somehow less than the real thing or the big time or something.”

Gano took this hatred of labels into his writing of the song “I’m Nothing.” The song was originally written for a movie, but then a potential collaboration with skateboarder and artist Stefan Janoski inspired Gano to take the songwriting a bit further to include some of his personal feelings.

“I wrote the song as a kind of assignment years ago for a film. They said there was a character for a film who didn’t feel like they fit in or belong. They wanted it to be something that was kind of up and kind of rocked. And I thought, ‘I could write that.’ And it ended up that it wasn’t used in the movie. But then I had this song that I really liked. So that’s when we started doing it in the band and had different recordings of it,” Gano explained. “Then Stefan Janoski … wanted to do something with Violent Femmes and he’s a skater … I wasn’t familiar with him at all and then started checking his stuff out and he does his own music, he does all forms of visual arts. It was great meeting him and he was such a fan of the group. And then he got into talking about this song and what it meant to him, about the freedom of not having a label. And then I wrote a couple of more little bits that added to the song. And then the parts I put in were, ‘There’s nothing high, there’s nothing low, being in nothingness is all flow. And then the other line was ‘I’m nothing now and I’m nothing free, being nothing is just being me.’ And that was expressing more how I was feeling.”

Gano explained how he enjoyed challenging both sides of the political spectrum with the song, as he feels that people from all political persuasions can put pressure on others to conform to their belief system. “It is fun to sing, ‘Are you a Republican or Democrat, are you a liberal fascist full of crap?’” he said. “And sometimes there are those people who are referred to as the liberal or left sadly can often get restricted in views and not be so open and expansive. Basically almost the same thing as the conservative side — you have to agree with us or you’re wrong and you’re evil. So it’s a fun thing to sing and there’s a lot of truth to that.”

Perhaps ironically, indirectly confronting us with the embrace of emptiness and the rejection of labels, Gano has given us a deeper insight into why Violent Femmes are considered pioneers of the genre “folk-punk.” In that past, Gano felt that the term “folk-punk” was mostly a description of the Violent Femmes sound.

“I always thought of it, and I think how it was used a lot, was related just to the music — the idea that we’re playing acoustic instruments primarily. So the acoustic aspect of it makes it folk. Acoustic is folk. Folk is acoustic,” Gano described. “And yet the energy, the attitude, the songs themselves, are all in this punk rock world, this real intense thing. And just the songs themselves are more like punk rock songs. So I’ve always thought those terms were put together just to refer to the music.”

And yet the song “I’m Nothing” tells a “folk-punk” story that goes beyond aggressive acoustic guitars. At its core, folk music is intended to be inclusive and open. Historically, songs were passed down from generation to generation, often without knowledge of the original songwriter, sung around campfires to any and all who were interested, evoking a strong sense of people united rather than divided by labels.

In contrast, punk rock is confrontation – making the audience uncomfortable by presenting new and challenging ideas. Taken together, one interpretation of “folk-punk” is a confrontation with the universality of music and people – exactly the type of “no labels” and emptiness confrontation epitomized by Violent Femmes with “I’m Nothing.”

In fact, one might argue that “I’m Nothing,” with its rejection of labels, is the spiritual descendant of the album Blank Generation. The song by the same name by punk rock legends — perhaps “folk-punk” legends — Richard Hell and the Voidoids, directly confronted us with a refusal to label their generation as having a specific and rigid identity. “Any reference to Blank Generation I love because, man, that’s still one of my favorite albums,” Gano said.

Well there’s no better way of saying that we are free from labels than being willing to embrace a label. And never a conformist – not even to his own rejection of labels — Gano was open and empty enough that he actually didn’t mind the “folk-punk” tag.

“Saying I don’t like labels – I kind of like both of those…I like all of the folk tradition. It’s been such a part of my life. We played the Newport Folk Festival and we got a review in the New York Times that said we were the only folk band there,” Gano explained. “And also punk — I know when we first started the band, we thought of ourselves as a punk band. The biggest impact of putting on an album and hearing the first few seconds of it was the Ramones album. I never heard anything like it. And the biggest excitement of a live show was Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers Live at Max’s Kansas City … He could hit just one note and let that note ring. And there was just so much swagger it was ridiculous. It was like taking it very seriously, and also who cares?”

So there you have it. Gano and Violent Femmes have mindf*cked us once more with “I’m Nothing” and shown us a path towards embracing a life without labels and judgment.

Who’s ready to peer lovingly into the empty nothingness of our own abyss?