EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from THIS WILL GO DOWN ON YOUR PERMANENT RECORD, the imaginary novel about the Violent Femmes’ classic 1983 self-title debut I am working on.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA The year is 1984. I am sitting Indian-style on the floor in my freshman year college dorm room along with a half dozen other self-styled punk-rock refugees from the stultifying conformity and bourgeois pieties of mainstream campus life. Incense burns to mask the sweet leafy odor of burning marijuana from the nostrils of our RA, or resident administrator, the closest thing to a sheriff on the first floor of Burnside Hall at Moravian College. Crumpled cans of Piels litter the floor. The ashtray overflows with clove cigarette butts. On the turntable is the debut album from The Violent Femmes. My jaw gapes in amazement at the rawboned simplicity and irresistible catchiness of the music and the brutal honesty and taboo-tweaking transgressiveness of the lyrics. The music sounds like the Velvet Underground at a campfire hootenanny. The singer talk-sings about unspeakably naughty things with a snarly Lou Reed-ian bleat. This is, I remember thinking, the most painfully, exhilaratingly confessional songwriting I have heard in my 18 years on Earth. I can’t help but think he is singing my life back to me. Better still, he is singing his own life back to me, and that means I am not alone in thinking the things I’m thinking and feeling the things I am feeling. I am fed up. I am horny. I am confused. I am lost. I am on the verge. I am half a boy and half a man. I am teenager, hear me roar.
My roommate, a self-styled jazz drummer and an insufferable musical snob who prized virtuosity above all things, is not impressed. “These guys can’t even play their instruments,” he scoffs.
“I know, isn’t it awesome?” I say.
The year is 1981. August 21st, to be exact. Beneath of the marquee of the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee, three grinning weirdos decked out in retro ragamuffin thrift store finery are entertaining the line of people outside waiting to see The Pretenders, with little more than an acoustic guitar, a mariachi bass and a snare drum. They call themselves The Violent Femmes. The front door opens and out comes James Honeyman-Scott, the erstwhile guitarist of The Pretenders. He stops and listens for a few moments, before grinning and walking off to purchase cigarettes at the drug store next door. On his way back he stops again to listen for a few minutes. At the end of a song he calls out to the band. “You blokes sound just like this band in the UK called The Stray Cats.” The three buskers exchange shrugs and puzzled glances. ‘Not only did we not know who the Stray Cats were, we didn’t know who The Pretenders were,” says Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo.
Honeyman-Scott disappears back into the theater only to re-emerge five minutes later with the rest of the Pretenders who promptly lean up against a car parked in front of the theater and assume arms-folded airs of bored expectation. The buskers quickly disarm their newest audience members with a long-since-discarded song called “Girl Trouble,” which features the profane yet catchy refrain of “Have mercy on me, I’ve got girl trouble up my ass/don’t tell me no jokes ‘cuz I ain’t gonna laugh.” The Pretenders laugh hard. “Hi, I’m Chris,” says Chrissie Hynde, introducing herself. “Do you guys want to open for us tonight?” After a summer spent busking in doorways and on sidewalks, playing house parties and faking their way into a Tuesday night residency at, of all places, a jazz club, The Violent Femmes have been officially discovered.
In less than a year, the Violent Femmes will record their self-titled debut and in the process unwittingly create a masterpiece of teen alienation and post-adolescent psychodrama with the same trans-generational reach and undiminished cultural potency of Rebel Without A Cause, Romeo & Juliet and The Catcher In The Rye. The album indelibly mapped the frantic vicissitudes of teendom — the nihilistic angst, the desolate anomie, the hormonal riots — and scored the late-night dorm room soundtrack for a million private rebellions. These are the fight songs of James Dean’s James Stark and J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. They contain multitudes. The entire social history of the motorcycle gangsters, the beatniks, the greasers, the mods, the rockers, the surfers, the hippies, and the punks fight and fuck and laugh and cry inside these songs. The Violent Femmes debut is an undeclared concept album about the gloriously juvenile delinquency of a rebel with an urgent cause: sex with someone other than his left hand.
Please Lord, just this once.
Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and nearly impossible to quantify, but by every objective measure, Violent Femmes is a perfect album, beginning to end, from song selection (the vast array of songs in the Femmes repertoire was whittled down to the choicest chestnuts) to sequencing (which gives shape to the ‘Road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ narrative arc of the lyrics) to the production values (invisible, like all the best production it is heard, not seen) to the cover art (an arresting image of a child in white peering into the shuttered window of an old decrepit house, i.e. innocence peeping into the abyss of experience). And it endures. The Femmes reliance on acoustic folk instrumentation and their antediluvian disregard for the modern miracle of electricity afford the songs of their debut an enduring timelessness that transcends the generational barriers that maroon lesser works in their era of origin.
In its earliest incarnation, rock n’ roll was a revolution, no less disruptive to the status quo than the printing press or the Internet. But by 1983, the year the Femmes debut was released on Slash Records, rock n’ roll was no longer a revolution, it was a rite of passage. If the songs on Violent Femmes perennially ring true to post-adolescent ears, it’s because they were written by a member of the tribe. Gordon Gano graduated high school just a few weeks before the Femmes started in the summer of 1981. All of the songs on the Femmes debut were written by Gano between the ages of 15 and 18, which is how old he was when they cut the first album. He met Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie in the spring of his senior year, after Ritchie was advised by a fellow Milwaukee music scenester to check out the “pint-sized Lou Reed.”
Gano asked Ritchie to back him up on bass during the talent portion of Gano’s induction into the National Honor Society. Breaking his promise to play a “nice” song, Gano instead performed the libidinous “Gimme The Car” much to the apoplexy of his teachers madly waving their arms from the wings trying in vain to get him to stop. Afterwards, Gano was summarily booted from the National Honor Society. This story is more than just amusing anecdote, it typifies the irreconcilable polarities that animated Gano back then, enabling him morph back and forth from church-going honor roll-making good boy to the pill-popping sex-mad reprobate of his songs with relative ease. But over time, it became harder to switch it on and off, to go to the dark side and then run to the light. And by then the stakes were much higher than a short-lived honor society membership. DEVELOPING…