Violent Femmes fans are forty. Forty plus. They still wear black T-shirts emblazoned with the names of once obscure bands, though now some are less so. In the bathroom, two pregnant women nearly bump bellies, and these are not scrawny teen-junkies, but adults with jobs and a piece of furniture that wasn’t retrieved from the street. Maybe they even own something that doesn’t come from Ikea either. Compared with the crowd I might see for Wolf Parade or the Killers, fewer people show their midriffs and no one looks particularly cuddly. This is the contemporary face of 1983 punk.
While there’s a lot to get pissed about in today’s world, it is probably a bit of self-congratulations to believe that the people at the show and the rest of my angsty generation got this brand of melodic, unscreamy punk better than any other. There are other types of punk: Sex Pistols punk and Dead Kennedys punk and Agent Orange punk. The Femmes are punk for a smarter set, the anarchist rebels, the intellectuals, the ones who think reading is power and feel alienated because of that. Nerd punk, I suppose. We didn’t protest with a hashtag and a marketing department. We didn’t launch massive Twitter campaigns or pour our hearts out to Oprah. We didn’t drop out or tune in and find our inner child with some maharishi in the Himalayas. We made ‘zines and hung out at the record store and found camaraderie through a midnight program on the local college radio station, the alternative one that had no appeal to the rest of the losers at our high schools. Meeting certain on-air DJs Larry the Duck and Malibu Sue was the end all and be all of an epic journey into a crappy ghetto neighbourhood. There was no Starbucks to hang out in. There was nowhere to hang out but a basement, a park, or the mall.
Luckily, I had cool parents who didn’t like my music but understood my devotion to it. From an age younger than any parent today would possibly believe, I devoured concert after concert at small bars and college campuses, at big arenas and local clubs. Love and Rockets, the Psychedelic Furs. Of them all, the one band that probably spoke to me most: the Violent Femmes. I played their first album on my tape deck until the tape got caught and couldn’t be rescued with the old pencil-rewind trick. Then I biked the two miles to the alternative record store and ordered a second copy and spent those Femme-less weeks trying to make a mixed tapes off the radio.
This first album was perfect for my furious little world as I was disenchanted with the larger one. It was bland and cookie cutter and didn’t seem to get what it meant to feel alienated and lonely with all these other people around. I didn’t want an emerald green lawn or a sports car. I wasn’t a Reganite or interested in doing the 20-minute-workout. I had 20 channels of cable TV and only MTV was interesting (it played music back then). I was pretty sure that the get-rich ’80s were for people who didn’t need to use a fake ID. I knew that computers were going to change the playing field but the only people who used them were asthmatic and wore orthotic shoes and those were my friends. What I wanted to know was why this particular boy didn’t like me and how to get the hell out of the goldfish bowl mall life of suburbia.
These are the things I was thinking about when I heard those first notes of Blister in the Sun, song 1 on this first album. Imagine my glee when next song up was song 2 from the album, Kiss Off. I could sing every word from the bottom of my heart, close my eyes and absorb every word, bounce up and down to every word, because this is what I was doing all those years ago. And, then, oh, wow, song 3, Please Do Not Go. And so on and so forth until they went through all of side one, and all of side two. All that was missing was the annoying need to fast forward the tape to get to the start of side two. Yes, 30 years on, the Femmes can rock that first album from Blister in the Sun to Good Feeling. Not a note needed to be changed (I’m sure a few were). Brian Richie played an acoustic. Victor de Lorenzo took the drum kit. Hearing it live revived my past for me, the things that I may not necessarily miss, but that I certainly liked.
I wasn’t the only one, as the audience decided to forego recording the concert with their smartphones and instead initiated a Metropolis sized mosh-pit (of course, with a laptop to protect, I chose to stand on the balcony and watch from on high). A girl with her arms stretched out like a gingerbread man crowd surfed her way to the stage and then trusted the audience as she fell backwards onto their hands. Crowd surfing? These days, even the Vans Warped Tour has banned it.
After playing that first album, Gordon Gano declared it would be a long night. The Femmes plunged into “later” material from The Blind Leading the Naked and Hallowed Ground including Country Death Song and Jesus Walking on the Water. Oldie but goodie Never Tell prompted excitement, especially when Gano informed the audience that he was playing the song only because of an audience member’s Facebook request. Take note: life is so much better because of technology now.
When things wrapped with American Music, and the Femmes had to leave, I was ready to leave this little time warp and return back to 2014 where I have 6598 unread messages in my gmail and several texts on my smartphone that need to be addressed while seated in the 24-hour Coffee Depot.
The Violent Femmes played at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 3 at Metropolis