THE VIOLENT FEMMES
ROMANTIC AND SEXUAL frustration have long been central themes in rock, and Gordon Gano – the Violent Femmes’ 20-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist – seems a perfect chronicler of adolescent anguish for the new age of teen psychosis.
His songs by and large profile the concerns of your basic sensitive wimp, the clod who either never gets the girl or, once he has her, loses her. And yet, as the band’s name implies, things can get awfully messy along the way – especially when you’re as potentially demented as Gano shows he can be throughout this bizarre, fascinating debut LP.
If you took a lot of Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers (which inevitably means a little Lou Reed & the Velvets), some early Loudon Wainwright, and mixed in a dab of early Talking Heads (e.g., “Psycho Killer”) for good measure, you might come up with something that sounds a lot like this. The Femmes combine the romantic pathos and black humor of Richman’s first record with the scant acoustic approach of his later stuff, and the band is a genuine embodiment of Richman’s famous quote: “We have to learn to play with nothing, with our guitars broken, and it’s raining.” The combination of Gano’s low-key Velvet-ish guitar, Brian Ritchie’s mariachi bass (an instrument more likely to be used in a spaghetti western than a rock band), and Victor DeLorenzo’s junkyard drum set creates a uniquely invigorating sound, drawing on elements of folk, pop, jug band and blues, and tied together by the basic punk minimalist approach.
In true ‘80s fashion, Gano is what Richman would have become had he truly flipped when the girl on the “Astral Plane” wouldn’t love him back. The lead-off track, “Blister in the Sun,” introduces a strung-out, drug-overloaded, neurotic schlep going through hormonal shock. By cut two, “Kiss Off,” our hero comes back down – but only momentarily, so as to delineate his many miseries as he pops pill after pill to the beat of the multiple pains he’s trying to alleviate.
Which leads to the LP’s most dynamic track, “Add It Up,” a psycho-sexual epic (complete with Freudian mom references) wherein sexual frustration turns to anger, which leads to a gun, which leads to ... Jodie Foster, call your office. Propelled by numerous hooks and Gano’s terrific couplets (“Words to memorize/Words hypnotize/Words make my mouth exercise/Words all fail the magic prize/Nothing I can say when I’m in your thighs”), the song is somehow simultaneously scary, witty and exciting, and irresistible all the way through.
As a whole, The Violent Femmes deals with some of the worst things you can feel – hate, rejection, insecurity and alienation. And yet Gano has taken this negativity, said no to nihilism, put his heart on his sleeve, and molded it into something that isn’t “down” at all. In fact, this goofy, giddy record may make you laugh quite a bit. As Gordon Gano knows full well, laughing hurts a lot less than crying.
AN AMERICAN PRAYER
The man, a changeling, journeys across the radiant waste of the American west, there is a quake, a crack. he sprawls. he laughs. he sticks his prick into the jagged warp and spews his seed of trust and dis gust thru the hard red vein of the desert. he does not emerge. he cannot rise, his cock is caught in the mouth of the wilderness, gestures of sound but no sound. there is to be silence before god. the tongue is plugged but the transistor is waving. beach plastic only a few feet away. song on the radio: james brown/ this is a man’s world. The end/he’s lost.
But he is not silent. this time the gestures explode into music. into violence. he will not settle into a blissful jam. he is not accidental. he is the twisting remains of these united states. he desires not peace, but a piece of. he will not zip up, be good, shut up. he wants a bite. a slice of yet another life.
Tell them james how we pray screaming.
Tell them jim of the burden of mutation.
In the back of his mind, a crown of thorns spins and lands on the head of another. the ageless perfect center. the still and moving savior. in the pursuit of his own perfection the man rejects him: not the know ledge of him but the idea of him as the supreme middleman. the man is an artist. the artist is an independent businessman, one who labors with the flaw of desire. the desire to communicate one to one with his father.
Jim Morrison was such an artist. a member of the rude order of celestial screamers. one who would slaughter his brother to waggle tongues with his father. the absolute kiss and caress of death. the artist embraces his creator.
(should we eat this document)
A messenger appears. A cassette in plain envelope. No information, No clue as to packaging. We take it on the road. For several days we cannot even look at it. One night we’re gone. Holiday Inn. Dawn. We take it out and put it on. We put it on ‘cause it serves as a gun to aim and fire more than a few true holes in the dismal machine that man still calls radio.
The reasons for resisting it were good clean reasons. The instinct to protect the vulnerability of the artist. The respect for his privacy and most of all his conceit. There’s something slightly sacrilegious about viewing an artist thru the hands of others. Like strings over Hank Williams, Like the corpse post mortician.
But the aura of Jim Morrison is strong enough to armor his work against excessive doctoring, And despite certain flaws, An American Prayer has been pieced together delicately with obsessive devotion.
Its flaws lie in the forgivable limitations of these friends and some times in the poet himself. For, like Sterling Hayden, he is the possessor of a strange sense of timing. Some of it is regional. The California beatnik stuff.., the lusty language a la Michael McClure...the weird way L.A. people dance. But at best he is a west coast Walt Whitman, A square that communes with the gods.
In biblical times he may have appeared as Moses or Samson or his pick of mad prophets. Today the drama of his intensity seems dated. Dated in its passion and innocence, like West Side Story or The Grapes of Wrath. But he was always dated, at his most literal, even, when he was around. Bigger than life and so he was laughable. Laughed at by the court but loved by the people.
He possessed as a weapon this love and a remarkable sense of humor. Still there was some of the John Ireland about him. Not the hired killer, but nonetheless one guilty of murdering a stranger. A nigger out of step with the latest dance, who could suddenly turn and deliver a line like “we could plan a murder or start a religion.”
His fatal flaw was that his most precious skin was the thin membrane that housed the blood of the poet. He pledged his allegiance, in the end, to language, to the word. And it did him in. Made an expatriot of him. As the word, like him, is obsolete in our time on our radio.
And what will be done with him, his prayer? Where does a guy like him fit in? He stood on a tradition of men who could not be bought. Men that disintegrated fast, when borrowed, like salt in the rain. Will they sandwich a section of Jim Morrison sacrificing his cock on the altar of silence between Abba and Boston?
On the other side of pure AM is pure ART. And now FM, having sold out, where will they put him? As his friends sought to piece him together so the people must preserve him. It is worth the effort to fight for the rights of our genera lion’s most vigorous and aggressive poet.
An American Prayer documents a fragment of the passion of Jim Morrison. It is not art as he would have it, but nothing posthumous is perfect. It is not the whole picture but the best part of the trip is intact. And like finding a roll of Diego Rivera’s under an industrial sink, it is treasure unearthed. We feel a sense of guilt but we are grateful for the glimpse. Notes toward a symphony of ritual. Last movements to reach out, to penetrate. New information. Interesting, inspiring new ammunition and that is truly something.
Enough to base a movie on. Tho’ I do regret that I will not be called upon to play the part of the actor out on loan.
(the future looks...)
A child is a flower
His head is just floating in the breeze.
The artist is blessed with the curse of unceasing labor, we slip our hands beneath the birth of his work. we hide in the rushes. we build a raft. work sails away.
The artist must not be stopped. his cries are not to be censored, altered or suppressed. he serves the middle ages, the final century, the sucking cosmoss his is the irri tant, a tear to slaughter, caught like a wing in the palm of the hand and stretching across the plain like a bloody western sunset.
An American Prayer resounds in the silence that surrounds the cocoon of the lord. he is sleeping. hibernating. awaiting the changeling and the elegance of his change.
SEVEN AND THE RAGGED TIGER
Don’t know about you, but my own early inclination was to hate Duran Duran, to view them as so much baby-skirtface bait heavily treated with large doses of talent retardant. I’d look at ‘em and think, if I was a girl, I’d rather look at Joe “Deli” Russo or even Sid Vicious’s baby pix than these pouting tweeters. But in reality, if I was a girl, I’d probably spend all my time standing naked in front of a mirror and gasping, “Hey, where’s my Lady Schick?”
So you can imagine why dealing with Duran Duran posed a dilemma for me not unlike that of the English scientist who first successfully mated ducks and geese: Will they quack, or will they honk? Especially since it dawned on me that DURAN DURAN ARE GREAT! The real thing! Better then hands-free phone calls and the Handy Magnetic Retriever combined! Don’t judge ‘em by “Union of the Snake.” Sure, it’s plenty likable, but anything that enters the charts as high as that did must be viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Exhibit #1 for the prosecution, Your Honor: Lionel Richie.
Wake up and whiff the bitter Buf Puf, willya? The whole first side (five tunes worth) of this idiotically named LP is hotter than the single. Particularly “New Moon” which bears an indecently catchy synth hook and truly fine harmonies (sounds like another hit for sure), and “The Reflex,” with a chorus so undeniably winning, it’s good enough to be awarded bragging rights to the state of Ohio, at least.
Want more proof, Baby Ruth? Then check out “The Cracks in the Pavement” for its groovy vocals, “Shadows on Your Side” (more good harmony), and “I Take the Dice” for its electronic castanets. There’s even an instrumental (how advanced can you get?) that’d make a perfect soundtrack to the recent eddytorial discussion of great-car-missing-jump-over-open-jackknife-bridge-scenes in film history.
Just one minor complaint: Most of the tracks are too long. Duran Duran’s musical attraction is real but tenuous. After about three minutes, you find yourself contemplating suicide rates of fire apparatus photographers or wondering just what exactly a Spacely Space Sprocket is. These guys should never give their listeners an opportunity for their minds to wander. Or to jaunt, stroll, tramp, ramble, or just plain skip out, for that matter.
So are we all straight here? Ha ha -- “straight” -- but you know what I mean. While I find my own I-u-v of this record slightly shameful, like the time I intentionally watched Radio 1990 and worse yet enjoyed it. I do not hesitate to recommend Seven heartily to all fans of the group and the occasional normal person who’s got a taste for some yummy harmonies. Duran Duran may have the life expectancy of a minnow’s baby teeth, but they’re dangerous eyesores no more.
—BY RICK “RIO” JOHNSON
PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.
In the deepest recesses of my morbidity I have always found a special charisma of fear and dread surrounding pictures of famous people who’ve been murdered in particularly gruesome ways. Take a look at snapshots of Sharon Tate (later stabbed over 20 times), any of the nine Chicago nurses (to be slashed up by Richard Speck) or even Czar Nicholas (hacked to bits and burned), and they evoke a feeling almost as horrifying as the murderers themselves -- something to do with the inevitability of fate, I suppose. On Public Image Ltd.’s new album, Johnny Rotten/Lydon’s vocals have re-created this feeling of fait accompli horror exactly. On Second Edition Lydon’s voice is recorded in repressed victim mutterings, as fuzzily convincing an artifact as the kidnap tapes of Patty Hearst reborn as the SLA’s Tanya. Like Hearst, it’s as though the Rotten of old has been murdered (or committed suicide) by virtue of some heavy guilt trip, coming out as a more serious/committed “soldier.” What results may very well be gloomiest slab of sonic remorse since the Doors’ “The End.”
While the first Public Image album (not released stateside) largely continued the rotten image with snotty putdowns, this second edition no longer trusts its own accusing finger. Some of the same themes are explored (media hype), but with more bitterness. While the Sex Pistols and early PiL used the safety valve of exciting music and occasional self-parody, here Lydon and crew are more straight-faced about their challenge: namely, to bring high anxiety to your ears without the slightest trace of melody, energy or overt will. The results may strike some as an aural equivalent of Sisyphus’ plight (or worse, another Pink Floyd record). But if you have an unnaturally long attention span (in 1980, this means you can read two entire issues of People in one sitting), you’ll appreciate what is in fact a daring outline of “the enormity of the problem.”
Perhaps no conventional musical setup could drive all this home as well. Rather, each of the instruments is recorded like some limb from an unidentified body wrapped in its own Hefty Trash Bag and tossed into the gutter. The bass and drums are closest, keeping down a funky death knell, while repetitive tremoloed guitars squeal away in the background, like one endless groove of a Grateful Dead record. Then there’s Lydon’s muddy vocals -- different on each track -- from “Albatross,” where he really sounds like you’d feel if a dead bird was hanging around your neck, to “Chant,” where he screams words that sound like “love/war/fear/hate” about 90 million times under lyrics that posit protest as merely entertaining ambiance. The song is as complex as the Sex Pistols’ numbers that indicted the singer as well as “the establishment” (the moments that made the band so much more admirable than the finger-pointing Clash). There is irony here but certainly no fun. There are no rousing anthems to externalize the revolt. More to the point is “Birds,” where even redemption is viewed as embarrassingly pat. But the main thrust here surrounds the nuances of Lydon’s voice. He’s probably the only singer ever to match the emotional depth of white blues singers like Joplin and Cocker without the slightest technical ability to help him along. Perhaps this is the scream of the butterfly we’ve heard now-dead voices sing about for so many years.
—BY JIM FARBER
Some record reviews are exercises in futility, and this is one of them. You’ll hate reading it, I hate writing it. I know you’ll hate reading it because only Yes fans will read it, and I hate this record. So you’ll hate this review. And so on and so on and scooby dooby do. So screw the review, I’ll just answer the key questions you’ll be sending me.
QUESTION ONE: Why did you bother reviewing 90125 if you hate it? Nobody on the CREEM staff is a big Yes fan, and somebody had to do it. You would have been just as mad if we’d ignored it Besides, I didn’t know I hated it’d after I heard it.
QUESTION TWO: What do you know about Yes anyway? Same as most 30-year-olds who like pop music. I lived with that band from the Yes Album in 1971 through Relayer in 1974, when both the band and me got distracted. Those albums were always on the stereos in dorm rooms and big houses where they threw parties with beer and dope -- Yes was the band that played at our psychological senior prom. I knew up front I’d never like them, per se, but I’m not deaf -- I heard the technical chops and the beauty. What facts do I know about Yes? I know that Jon Anderson didn’t like Rick Wakeman because (among other things) Wakeman eats meat and isn’t terribly “spiritual.” Wakeman isn’t on 90125 and Anderson is. Steve Howe isn’t either, and he shoulda been. I know Chris Squire does great octaves on his bass.
QUESTION THREE: What do you know about good music anyway, you (fill in expletive of choice)? Same as most people, at least. I know what I like. I like the Earth Wind & Fire horn parts in “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” I know that the other song with funk, “City of Love,” sounds like an aerobicize class for Volga boatmen, so I don’t like it as much. Its guitar solo is nasty and fun and actually has musical ideas in its head (which the rest of the LP really doesn’t, for the most part). I like it when music doesn’t act like a showoff: I know for a goddamn fact that putting more notes into a piece of music does not make that piece of music good. Yes still puts more notes in their music than they need.
QUESTION FOUR: You’re full of shit. Not a question, but entirely possible as a statement of fact. But so is this record -- full of shit, that is. Especially the lyrics. They sound like they’re saying important things about the state of humanity but they’re not. They’re bad poetry by someone who thinks he writes good poetry. They’re arrogant and condescending to the listener, complicated for no good reason. Musically and lyrically, Yes confuses being complicated with being good. Surely you won’t make the same mistake with this review.
—BY LAURA FISSINGER
WAKING UP WITH THE HOUSE
You gotta hand it to Boy George -- he bugs all the right people. Reactionaries of every stripe, be they homophobic punks, born-again Republicans, or heavy-metal fans, insist on being uncool about Boy’s crafty, calculated image games. Which makes it always a little disappointing when, in interviews, he comes across as charming and inconsequential; i.e., a born celebrity. But it’s a trade-off. Musically, George and Culture Club have been not so much conservative as moderate internationalists, deftly peppering their pop stew with light reggae and Latin touches for Anglo consumption. Lyrically, after a small initial goof (with George smoothing things over in interviews by explaining that “white boy” is just a state of mind), the Club has stuck to moody but inexplicit odes to dissatisfaction and genderless love. It’s proven to be a commercially surefire combo -- a complex image that offers acceptable controversy combined with pleasantly catchy music and lyrics you can ponder or not, it makes no difference. Visual kicks, sonic reassurances, big bucks.
So at first the idea of Culture Club doing an out-and-out antiwar song seems daring -- not in any political sense (after all, how daring is an antiwar song during a period of relative peace -- even with the emphasis on “relative”?), but commercially, by threatening to upset the delicate balance that has it that George gets to dress as outrageously as he likes and you don’t have to take him seriously. But Culture Club stacks the deck -- from the generic title (“The War Song” as opposed to, say “Do You Really Want To Nuke Me”) and the Boy-centered high-fashion video that goes with it (George debuts a new look, guerrillas execute balletic leaps, George gazes heavenward in soft focus, fetchingly victimized by geopolitical insensitivity), it’s obvious that the Club is dealing with the protest song as objet d’pop, as another artifactual blast from the past to be tried on for size. No, the real risk here isn’t the song’s message but rather,
as is always the case when another item is appropriated for the Boy George grab bag, whether or not the audience might find the item too tacky. Initial response suggests that some fans are getting turned off, but, ironically, not because of the antiwar message but instead because of the line “people are stupid” -- a rather risky and unseemly assertion from someone as immensely popular as Boy George, since at best it seems ungrateful, and at worst it implies he’s been putting one over on people. Only small-time elitists can get away with disparaging the masses so blithely. In the mid-’80s, pop idols have to make nice.
As for the rest of the album, it’s the usual well-done musical mimicry and lyrical vagueness. “The Dive” and “Hello Goodbye” stand as definitive proof that not all of Culture Club’s music is lilting wimpiness, while “Crime Time” longs for the good old days when thieves had honor and, typically, makes the dubious sentiment palatable by doing the thing up as a snappy rockabilly number.
Lyric-wise there does seem to be one new trend here, namely namedropping, though, continuing the don’t-understand-me-if-you-can theme, it’s all by first name only. And while Martin, John, and Brian from “Danger Man” are obviously Buber, Cassavetes, and Piccolo, this reviewer is stumped by the following couplet from “The Medal Song”: “Beneath the sea of Hollywood/Where Francis used to reign.” Who could that possibly be? Farmer? Sinatra? Ford Coppola? The talking mule!? Well, one could stay up nights puzzling over this latest conundrum, but better to take a tip from the clear-cut message of the music -- relax, don’t bother, it doesn’t matter.
—BY RICHARD C. WALLS