Universal Feelings 

Loners of the world, unite: the Violent Femmes are coming to town

Alternative rock of the late 1970s and early '80s is old enough to drink. Yep, it's been more than 21 years since we listened to early punk rock, post-punk, new wave, modern rock and American independent music during a younger, less care-ridden era of Reaganomics and Pac-Man fever.

Sufficient years have passed so that we can now, with some distance and semi-objective ears, appreciate the value of such music, judging whether our alt-rock obsessions of high school and college were merely the whims of youth or truly important.

Which goes part of the way toward explaining why landmark albums from that period are being re-released on CD--often in versions digitally re-mastered, copiously annotated and generously stuffed with extras such as previously unreleased tracks, demos, alternate takes and, sometimes, video footage on DVD.

In the past few years, we've seen the release of deluxe reissues of Talking Heads' live album The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, the debut album by The Cars, Sonic Youth's Dirty (granted, this one hails from the early 1990s) and the crown jewel, The Clash's London Calling.

For many fans, though, the holy grail of alt-rock reissues is the 2002 deluxe, two-CD re-release of the first album by Milwaukee's improvisational, acoustic rock trio, Violent Femmes, titled Violent Femmes.

The updated version is bolstered with demos and live recordings of such classic tunes as "Kiss Off," "Add It Up," "Blister in the Sun" and "Gone Daddy Gone," plus an interview with radio talk show host Michael Feldman.

It's way cool, and this special pop-music fetish object helped solidify Violent Femmes' historical significance.

But bassist Brian Ritchie, although he loves the early stuff, was a little uncomfortable listening to old recordings, he said recently.

"Victor (DeLorenzo, drummer and co-founder) and I put together the bonus CD for that release, so we thought of it as a project and some work. But it was painful to listen to all that old stuff," Ritchie related via an e-mail interview while the band was touring in Florida.

That tour will bring the Violent Femmes to Tucson for a gig Thursday night, Dec. 30, at City Limits. Misfortune Cookie will open the show.

The band's manager allowed me to submit only six electronic queries for Ritchie, but taking a cue from a regular Tucson Weekly music feature, I actually sent nine questions. Ritchie graciously answered all of them at length, allowing me to break up quotations, add exposition and rearranging subjects to simulate the flow and dialogue of an actual verbal interview.

For instance, the following quotation immediately followed the last in Ritchie's e-mail text, a continuation of his lengthy answer to my fourth or fifth question.

"To be honest, when we were making the first album, I thought it would be a classic, so I'm not surprised that others feel the same way. It's an honor. We just did some shows with Dick Parry, Pink Floyd sax man, and of course the way we feel about Dark Side of the Moon is similar to the way punk or alternative fans feel about Violent Femmes. So I get a kick out of being monolithic like that. At the same time, we are still working on a journeyman level to keep that music alive for the fans and not a museum piece."

People are still passionate about the band's music, in large part because singer-songwriter-guitarist Gordon Gano's lyrics of adolescent angst have remained relevant over the decades. Whether it's from the group's most recent studio album, 2001's Something's Wrong, or from their universally adored 1983 debut, the audience usually sings along with everything--like a mass therapy session around the campfire.

"Observers are always amazed by the way our fans sing along. It's amazing!" Ritchie wrote. "The weirdest thing is that it doesn't matter where we are in the world--Turkey, Greece, Iceland, Portugal, wherever--it's always like that. There is an element of catharsis for those fans to be among like-minded people and letting loose like that. Our music attracts loners, and I think they feel good to find they are not alone."

And the music stays relevant, too, not simply Gano's words.

"This is the great mystery of Violent Femmes, and as such I don't like to analyze it," Ritchie wrote. "Because if we discover the secret, maybe it will disappear in a puff of smoke. Clearly the lyrics relate to an adolescent mentality and that brings new kids in all the time. (But also) the music and the way we play is timeless at least in terms of rock. We have always sounded out of time, and that's why we can fit in all the time."

In case you're wondering, Violent Femmes started in 1980. Ritchie and DeLorenzo founded the band because they had a great band name.

Ritchie remembered: "I was talking with a friend of mine, who asked what my brother was like. I said, 'Exactly like me; he has his own punk band and everything,' which was completely false. My friend asked, 'What's the name of his band?' which put me on the spot. So I blurted out, 'Violent Femmes.' A few minutes later, I walked over to Victor's house and told him that weird name, and we decided it was so good we had to form a band just to use the name."

The next year, Ritchie and DeLorenzo recruited high school student Gano, whose gloriously uncomfortable lyrics immediately struck a chord with the band's fans.

"He wrote most of those songs before he was in this band or any band and before he even thought of performing them," Ritchie explained. "The feelings he expresses are universal, and that's what arouses the emotions of the audience. They are relating to Gordon's problems."

In addition to touring, the members of Violent Femmes are assembling a "best-of" DVD that will include music videos and live footage from throughout the band's career. Ritchie confirmed that it is slated for release in 2005.

The guys continue to record together and apart. Ritchie has recorded five solo albums, and DeLorenzo has four to his name. Gano released his first in 2002.

But their band has survived for nearly a quarter of a century--and with only one line-up change. DeLorenzo took about nine years off while a different drummer, Guy Hoffman, filled in. But DeLorenzo's been back in the fold for several years, Ritchie said.

"Still, to be playing the same music with the same people for 24 years is quite a ... something. Our longevity can be attributed to a constant influx of new fans who make us feel fresh and original every time we hit the stage.

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