• Title: Real Boys
  • Author: Robert Palmer
  • Publication: Penthouse Magazine
  • Date: August 1983

Baby-faced Gordon Gano stood huddled in his long gray overcoat on a chilly Milwaukee street corner, tearing savagely at his acoustic guitar as if he wanted to grab a handful of strings and rip them off the fingerboard. He was flanked by Brian Ritchie, who was flailing away at an over-sized guitar like instrument called a Mariachi bass, and Victor DeLorenzo, who was beating lustily on a single snare drum. Across the street, a knot of sullen rock fans who were waiting to buy tickets for the evening’s concert by the Pretenders studiously ignored Gano, Ritchie, and DeLorenzo-even when the nineteen-year-old Gano glared at them and sang, at the top of his lungs, “Why can’t I get just one screw? Believe me, I’d know what to do, but something won’t let me make love to you…”

Just around the corner from the group of Pretenders fans, the Pretenders themselves were watching the street-corner trio, and they were impressed. “Do we have an opening act tonight?” guitarist James Honeyman-Scott wanted to know. “Nope,” said lead singer Chrissie Hynde. They looked at each other and back across the street, and then Honeyman-Scott sauntered over. The crowd paid scant attention. “Hey, do you guys want a gig tonight?” the guitarist asked. Gordon Gano nodded. “What do you guys call yourself?” asked Honeyman-Scott. Gano lit up with a lopsided grin. “We’re the VIOLENT FEMMES.”

That was more than a year ago. James Honeyman-Scott, who gave the Violent Femmes their first real break in their own hometown, is dead. another rock’n’roll casualty. And the Violent Femmes are one of the most talked-about new bands in the country, with a splendid album, Violent Femmes, on Slash/Warner brothers Records and a coterie of admirers who think they could be the most important pop group of the 1980’s.

The Femmes are the sort of band legends spring up around. Gano says it all started when he met Brian Ritchie in a Milwaukee rock club. Gordon was graduating with honors from his high school, and he enlisted Brian to back him in a performance at an upcoming school assembly.

It was 9:00 am, and the auditorium was packed with students. Gordon was wearing a neat three-piece suit; Ritchie was wearing jeans and his thatch of carrot-blond hair was in disarray. School officials had heard Gordon sing his song “Give Me the Car” and told him not to do it at the assembly. So he started another of his songs, a quiet, harmless one, but after eight bars he signaled Ritchie to shift gears and sang: “Come on, Dad, give me the car/Come on Dad, I ain’t no runt/ Come on, girl, give me your…” The auditorium exploded in cheers. Gordon was summarily booted out of the honor society, but he didn’t really care. For the first time in his life, he was a hero.

Soon Gordon and Brian ran into Victor DeLorenzo, who was a few years older and had worked professionally as a drummer. They began performing, mostly on street corners and occasionally in a jazz coffee shop, and called themselves the Violent Femmes, a “femme” being Milwaukee high school slang for a wimp. Nobody knew what to make of them. They were a mostly acoustic folk-punk trio that sometimes careened full tilt, and without warning, into anarchic free improvisation.

And Gordon’s songs and his choirboy-sweet good looks just didn’t quite match up. One song seemed to be about smoking pot with and lusting after his mother, another was basically a long, disturbing confession that began, “Last night I was reminded of just how bad it had gotten and just how sick I had become.” Several evoked sexual desire in language plain enough to give a radio programmer fits: “Words to memorize, words hypnotize, words make my mouth exercise/ Nothing I can say when I’m in your thighs.” and as if that weren’t enough, the songs were fiendishly, irresistibly catchy. People walked out of Violent Femmes performances humming and whistling the tunes in spite of themselves or nonchalantly singing, “I look at your pants and I need a kiss.”

The Violent Femmes still play in front of theaters and delicatessens, but now that they’ve made an album and performed at prestigious clubs, even Milwaukee is beginning to warm up to them. Well, almost. Gordon’s father is a Baptist preacher there, Gordon himself attends a mostly black Milwaukee Baptist church, and there are those who feel that his songs are not the sort of thing a Christian should be singing. Gordon, who is about to turn twenty, just grins that grin of his when the subject comes up. The Violent Femmes’ music has its spiritual side, he explains, and “the spiritual side of things” is what really intrigues him: “That’s the only thing that really lasts.” A comment like that would sound suspect coming from a seasoned pop star, but when Gordon Gano says it, you can’t help believing him.