I could dedicate this essay to just praising the originality and uncompromising dark humor of the Violent Femmes’ definitive first album. I could tell you how Brian Ritchie’s bass solo in “Please Don’t Go” may be my favorite one ever recorded. I could also recount how “Kiss Off” is a sleeper for one of my favorite karaoke songs. I could also get into a one-sided argument about how, in a hardcore landscape facing the disintegration of Minor Threat and a takeover by meatheads, there was nothing more punk rock than scrapping anything electric or distorted and essentially busking for ten tracks. Instead, I’ll share a couple disparate memories related to the Violent Femmes which illustrate just how pervasive and timeless this record is, in spite of itself.
Flashpoint: 2003. I went to the WBCN River Rave with my college girlfriend and some of her friends from the Boston area. I was already pissed because Blur cancelled, and in order to keep some seats we snagged near the pavilion, we had to sit though Saliva for 30 minutes. Now, my audience is so niche that I’m probably not off-base to write that anyone reading this already thinks that Saliva are one of the shittiest hard rock bands to ever (1) emerge from Memphis or (2) have a cross-over hit single. Because it was a radio station-sponsored music festival, a lot of the people there bopped up and down to “Click Click Boom” and cheered as Josey Scott ranted that the Dixie Chicks should have been kicked out of “our” country. After Saliva finally finished their set and got the hell offstage, we were more than ready for – “hey, who’s on next, anyway? …. JACK JOHNSON?”
Yes, the genius programmers at WBCN decided to follow a right-wing cheez-metal band with the most obnoxiously chill singer-songwriter to emerge in the twin frat-bro shadows of Dave Matthews and Brad Nowell. I didn’t know much of Johnson’s music at the time, and none of us had any beef with him, but like Matthews and Nowell, his fans hadn’t done his reputation any favors. Johnson himself was probably flabbergasted to have to follow Josey Scott’s talentless “Love It Or Leave It” boom-boom show, but the guy deserves a LOT of credit for resetting the temperature that day. As utterly inoffensive as Johnson’s music is, he helped dial things back a bit and put us all in a better frame of mind. Maybe that programmer DID think it through, in retrospect.
Anyway, the moment when my opinion of Jack Johnson shifted, permanently, came at the beginning of his third or fourth song, when he strummed the instantly-recognizable opening chords of “Please Don’t Go,” the third track on Violent Femmes. I perked up, probably vocalizing, “Is this dude really playing a Violent Femmes song? And a deep cut??” Turned out, that dude really was playing a Violent Femmes deep cut. He sang the first verse of “Please Don’t Go,” instantly making casual fans of every beleaguered music nerd in the amphitheater. It was still early enough so that the drunks were only tipsy, too, so I had yet to make a voyage to the bathrooms in a scene not unlike when Simon Pegg darts through a crowd of zombies in Shaun of the Dead.
Fast Forward 10 Years: 2013. The California Low Desert. Coachella Festival. My friend Laura and I met up to car-camp with a couple friends of friends. Our site was surrounded by, on one side, a group of nice folks who drove out from New Mexico, and on the other sides, about 15,000 of the worst people on the planet. However, Blur were playing, and although I finally got to see them play in Hyde Park in 2009, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see them on US soil for the first time*.
As the first night finally arrived, we watched the Stone Roses sleepwalk through their set before she split to go watch How to Destroy Angels, whose set conflicted with Blur’s. For those who don’t remember, How to Destroy Angels was a Nine Inch Nails side project with a relatively brief shelf life. From what she told me at our campsite later, she managed to get pretty close to the stage, where she befriended a short middle-aged man who mentioned his son was over seeing the Wu-Tang Clan. She could not get over how a person in their 50s would be that amped to see a Trent Reznor.
The following afternoon, our group migrated over to one of the main stages to see the Violent Femmes. As they took the stage, Laura lit up, turned to me, and said “Oh my god – that nice old guy I talked to before How to Destroy Angels?? That was the singer from this band!”
My response was hardly understated: “You hung out with Gordon Gano and didn’t tell me!?”
Laura defended herself, reminding me that she didn’t know who he was – Gano didn’t even mention being there to play at the festival! What a humble guy, considering how he wrote some of the most timeless and quintessential camp songs of the 20th century. So humble for a guy who created the best record of 1983, mostly when he was still a disgruntled teenager, forced to ride buses around Milwaukee and occasionally getting locked inside his house by his own parents.
Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo (who I’ve seen play with the band twice in between his stint being kicked out) opened their set on that blazing sunny afternoon announcing, “We’re going to play our first record for you, from top to bottom!” That’s the Violent Femmes for you – giving the people what they want! If only more foundational underground bands could be so thoughtful.
*I found out, years later, that the 2003 run supporting Think Tank was a nightmare for them, since Graham Coxon was no longer with the band, Simon Tong wasn’t a suitable replacement, and Dave Rowntree was going through coke-rage to the point where he was a tyrannical asshole to Nardwuar during their Vancouver stop. Rowntree did apologize and Nardwuar accepted, but goodness what an uncomfortable video if you find it.
^Am I the only one who can’t help but think about this when they look at this picture?
In 2005, when I first moved to DC, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life (something I still grapple with, 16 years later, with a PhD), I set up a website for TDC Productions, an informal “production company” my cousin, his friends and I, co-founded sometime in the mid-1990s. After the TDC crew dispersed in the mid-2000’s, I was the only one consistently using the name. Unfortunately, it took me a few years to get any video production work, so the website turned into more of a blog and repository for other projects and events I was starting to put on around town. In 2006, I started doing freelance writing for a briefly lived music and culture blog, and I remember the editor telling me that he liked my website, but he really had no idea what it was. Was it a music blog? Was it a comedy website? Was it a retrospective archive of some marginally funny DIY films my cousin and I had made over the previous decade (hindered, no doubt, by the lack of embeddable streaming way to share the films).
Nonetheless, I pushed on with the blog, using it as a way to keep generating what would, by the beginning of the 2010’s, be called “content.” Back then, “micro-publishing” would have been a better term for it.
Anyway, for my first two years after college, I worked for an audio company in Bethesda. It didn’t offer a whole lot of upward mobility (which was, to paraphrase my friend Jake Young of Wizard and the Bruiser, something of an American birthright, until around 2007), but it was flexible, cushy, and I actually liked my coworkers. During my lunch breaks, I had opportunities to wander around the fading landscape of “the old Bethesda,” filled with greasy spoon sandwich shops, an Olsson’s franchise, and a wonderful (long-extinct) used bookshop whose name I forget. All I remember was that it was located on/near the 7700 block of Old Georgetown Road. This dusty bookshop had bins of classic LP’s in decent shape for unimaginably cheaper than what they would bring today on the Bubble-driven Discogs. I could be wrong, but I bought a copy of Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years for $8 and a copy of The Housemartins’ The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death for $3. I wish I had bought more vinyl from that place, but I lived in a small room in my friend’s apartment, without much disposable income.
It was in one of these dollar bins that I saw Bobby Vandell’s photo for the first time – he was one of five musicians supporting Jesse Johnson, the hot-pink-bedecked Prince associate best known for playing guitar behind Morris Day in the Time) on his 1985 “solo” album, Jesse Johnson’s Revue. Vandell, Tim Bradley, Mark Cardenas, Michael Baker, and Gerry Hubbard were all stylish as hell for Minneapolis ’85, but from where I sat 21 years later, they looked like characters in some Rocky Horror/80’s Prom b-movie. In fact, Cardenas was the only one in the band without a ghost-whisper of a crustache. Observe:
For reasons owing equally to me being too young to lack wisdom for what to place on the internet and having too much time on my hands (a deadly combination, we all know), I decided to scan the photos and roast the band, individually, on a blog post. I was thoroughly convinced that my audience consisted of about 10-15 likeminded college classmates, so I filed it away and didn’t think of it.
A few months later was when it got weird. I checked my email at work, and I saw a message from an AOL email address that I didn’t recognize. It was Bobby Vandell, whose wife had apparently googled him, found that post, and completely lost it in laughter. She called Bobby into the room, and between uncontrollable laughing fits, read the post to him. He found my email address and reached out to tell me that I was welcome to trash him anytime I liked. What a guy.
Not know what else to do, I called my friend Adam and left a voicemail. He called me back to say it was the greatest thing he had ever heard. That night, I told my roommate Tom, who told me that I should interview him for my website. Tom was (and still is) a genius. So, I worked up the nerve to email Bobby back, explain myself, and ask if he would like to answer some questions. Below is the result.
I’m excited to re-share/re-issue this interview now after 15 years, since it was the first interview I conducted for my own publication, and it really set in motion what’s become a life-long passion for oral history and musical ethnography. Also, I’m sure this would gel with the research on the Minneapolis Sound by Maciek Smółka as well as Rashad Shabazz’s work on the role MPLS had in nurturing Prince.
TYLER: the general overview question. What have you generally been up to nowadays? Do you still live in the Minneapolis area? Wife/Kids? Still doing percussion much? As a side note, are you well versed in any other instruments?) BOBBY: I have been fortunate to make a “living” performing and recording music for my entire working life to this date. I got paid to do my first gig when I was 14. Today, 39 years later, I’m still doin’ it! I have begun to broaden out a bit however. Presently, I am working with my friend Scott Olson, who invented Roller Blades, on a book about the subject. Roller blades are considered to be one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century and I was lucky to be one of the first people on them back in the early 80s [since] I grew up playing hockey. I am doing all the research for the book. We will be video taping interviews for a documentary also. It is an exciting project.
I continue to play drums mostly locally, where I live, in the Twin Cities. I still get off on playing in a band. I get around a guitar and a keyboard a little and I love to sit in with bands on bass, but I am not very good. Unfortunately, I was not blessed with the common Minneapolis talent of being great on every instrument. I have a wife, 3 pugs and 2 cats. No kids that I know of.
Are you still in touch with Jesse or anyone from the Revue? I just got Mark Cardenas’s email address. He is in Seattle. Jesse is in the Phoenix area. He had to move there due to extreme allergies. I just got his [phone number] recently. I may give him a call. He had a rock trio last time I saw him in the early 90s. It was a great band. Very loud, tons of Marshall amps, really good. He is a great guitar player. The others, I don’t know.
Until when would you estimate you actually resembled that sexy photo of yourself on the back of the album? I would say I held on to it a bit [too] long, the 80s were hard to let go of for me. I met a woman 20 years younger than me in 94′. She eventually influenced me to change my hair and some of my clothes. But, I am embarrassed to say, that didn’t happen till about 1999. After she changed my look, I married her in 2000!
Who were your favorite drummers/percussionists while growing up? Anyone that you pay particular attention to today? I like drummers for different reasons. Some for their chops and others because they are simply so musical. In my early years, I loved Ginger Baker from Cream, Jon Bonham from Led Zeppelin, Mitch Mitchell from Jimi Hendrix’s band and Buddy Rich. My biggest inspiration was probably David Garibaldi from Tower of Power and Mike Clarke and Harvey Mason, both from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Tony Williams was a true giant, I dug him a lot. There are so many great drummers now. Keith Carlock with Steely Dan is a really cool drummer. Guys like Dennis Chambers and Vinnie Calliuta are true heavy weights but I also like drummers who are simply musical, I don’t need all those chops to be impressed. Don Henley with the Eagles is a great example. The guy with Maroon 5. I could go on listing great drummers for days.
What were your thoughts on the Minneapolis music scene (any/all of it) at the time? Were you guys positive or negative about Purple Rain mania? Looking back, it was cool living here and being part of it. When Prince began breaking this city wide open, we were all playing in bands around town. I made it a point to be in the best, funkiest band in town at any given time. Prince would come to our gigs often just to hang out or steal one of our members. The Time would come to our gigs and we would let them perform on our gear for a whole set. There was a really cool energy going on in the early 80’s in Minneapolis. Because of Prince and the Time, the ears and eyes of the musical world were on Minneapolis. It did not suck.
If you could conjure them up (I know you said a lot of it was a blur, haha), we’d love to hear one or two of the greatest stories you’ve got from your time playing/touring with the Jesse Johnson Revue. You must understand, Jesse Johnson’s Revue did not really exist, at least not in the way that you and the public perceived it to exist. That in itself is a long story you are probably not interested in. As a band, we did the video for the single, “I Want To Be Your Man”, only showed on BET. I wore a red suit that people still comment on to this day! A bass player friend of mine got that suit as a hand me down and sold it for a gram of cocaine! I would love it back, if you ever see a guy in a red suit, I’m sure it is mine so just take it!
We also did the Soul Train television show. That band did not tour so I really have no wild stories to relate but I remember the whole JJR experience teaching me the power of television and the media. In 1985, I worked for a short time for the group Chicago. We were in Canada and one night, Robert Lamb, Jimmy Pankow and myself went to a disco after a show. Now keep in mind Robert and Jimmy are very successful and rich rock stars in a band that has many, many top 10 hits but is virtually faceless. Our table was frequented by fans throughout the evening who wanted autographs, but not from my rock star friends, from me! Jimmy, Robert and I got quite a kick out of it. I will never forget it.
Also, I was in Africa shortly after that and I was recognized on a safari in a very secluded part of the bush country in Kenya. A very [bizarre] experience to say the least.
By the way, I was on a break at that photo shoot having a cig when that shot for the album was taken. I begged Jesse not to use it. I didn’t relish glamorizing cigarette smoking for kids but he loved the shot and the rest is history.
As what may possibly be an addendum of sorts to that last question, your first email made it sound like the groupies were flowing back in the day. What sort of audience and ‘backstage friends’ did the JJR shows attract? As I said, we did not tour as the JJR. but I will say that where ever I went back then, there was an abundance of women. Mostly young, black or mixed and fine. More times than not, they thought I was quite something. Those times were very good for my ego and other parts of my body as well. The good thing was that the worst STD you could get back then was treated with a trip to the doctor. Let’s just say it was a good time to be young and known.
What have you been listening to primarily as of late? Any favorite artists out there today? I listen to a lot of different stuff, I always have. Mostly I listen to obscure stuff. I love Jon Cleary. He is Australian but has lived in New Orleans for years. He also plays keys with Bonnie Raitt. I dig this group called Soulive, I just got hip to a group called CAB, their CD “CAB4” is really cool. I love Donald Fagan, Mark Brussard, Maroon 5. I like country guys too, Vince Gill is awesome, so is Brad Paisley. I dig Latin music. Big band Salsa stuff.
What do you think you’d be doing today had it not been for your experience with this band? Quite honestly, even though we never did a gig, The exposure that band got me was quite amazing. I definitely would not have gotten known as much as I would have without JJR. But I would be doing the same thing now regardless.
Any final reflections on the state of music/the world/the lack of pink cars with “Jesse” license plates today? I have played music all my life. JJR was a small fraction of the experiences I’ve had. I have been fortunate to play for many great artist’s. Bonnie Raitt, Roy Buchanan, Al Wilson, Sam Moore, Bruce Conte, The Time and Chuck Berry to name a few. I even produced the music for Rosanne Barr’s comedy album and backed up The Amazing Jonathon and Soupy Sales. I was a member of the band Lipps Inc. who had the number one hit in the world at the time, “Funky Town”. I performed for 65 thousand people with Alexander O’Neal at Cincinnati’s River Front Stadium and RFK Stadium in DC, We also sold out Wembly Arena in London 10 nights in a row. I have earned 4 gold records. I have also performed as a Lion in a fast paced stage show with costume changes and pyrotechnics for one passed out drunk at a smoke filled casino in Wendover Nevada on a sunny Sunday afternoon! I remember opening the Soul Train Awards show on live National TV and the next night playing blues for a bunch of cowboys in a funky bar in the Colorado Rockies that had bra’s and panties hanging from the ceiling! All have been rich and rewarding experiences.
My main observation about performing now is that audiences don’t seem to listen like they used to – the passed-out drunk in Wendover excluded! – It seems like live music doesn’t have the same effect on people it did years ago. Almost as if the music is bouncing off them, like it’s disturbing their television watching. I blame MTV for a lot of it. People seem to listen with their eyes now. It also seems like people are unable to discern between quality and crap in live music and there is a lot of crap! Everyone now wants to be on stage and it seems like everyone is in a band. News flash: Not everyone is a musician or a singer!
Audiences in Europe are more discerning. I know a number of American artist’s that have moved to Europe for the very reasons I’m talking about. I realize my comments seem a bit jaded and tainted with anger and bitterness. I accept that criticism but I don’t feel that way. I can only observe from my perspective of years of performing and that is what it feels like. I also acknowledge that there is an enormous amount of talent in young people. Those are my observations today, tomorrow, who knows!
Another month, another set of 30 song challenges, some clearly better thought-out than others. I admit this one was perhaps my most challenging and definitely the easiest to mess up, given what a wide berth of songs (many of which are boiled into our collective pop subconscious) were prohibited. On several occasions, I caught myself being that guy – commenting the year of an 80’s song’s release under someone’s submission – but I don’t feel quite so bad, since I saw people jumping in to sound that buzzer before I even could. To me, that just means that these challenges have been building followings of people who feel an increasing sense of ownership, which is flattering as much as anything. Or, many people still have too much time on their hands. A little from Column A, a little from Column B.
Alright; to the tape!
The Wailers – “Simmer Down” (1963)
The Slackers – “Keep Him Away” (1998)
The Donna’s – “Let’s Go Mano” (1997)
The Steinways – “I Wanna Kiss You on the Lips” (2007)
Blackalicious – “Sky is Falling” (2003)
McLusky – “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” (2002)
Deftones – “Tempest” (2012)
Belle & Sebastian – “The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner” (2000)
Chuck Ragan – “Do You Pray?” (2007)
The Bouncing Souls – “Kate is Great” (1998)
The Chats – “Smoko” (2016)
The Afghan Whigs – “What Jail is Like” (1993)
Kacey Musgraves – “Love is a Wild Thing” (2018)
Yo La Tengo – “Sugarcube” (1997)
Run Maggie Run – “Lion Tamer” (2015)
The Leftovers – “Dance with Me” (2007)
Supergrass – “Going Out” (1997)
Massive Attack – “Safe from Harm” (1991)
Airbag – “Prefiero la Playa” (2001)
Sly & the Family Stone – “Hot Fun in the Summertime” (1969)
Masked Intruder – “Crime Spree” (2014)
The Kinks – “David Watts” (1967)
Rancid – “Time Bomb” (1995)
Mustard Plug – “Beer (Song)” (1997)
The Buzzcocks – “Orgasm Addict” (1977)
Dropkick Murphy’s – “Going Out in Style” (2010)
Reel Big Fish – “I Want Your Girlfriend to be my Girlfriend” (1998)
Big Star – “Thirteen” (1972)
Roxy Music – “Do the Strand” (1973)
Aesop Rock – “One Brick” (2001)
Thanks to everyone who participated on multiple platforms this month. Tune in tomorrow at 8am ET for your October Song Challenge. That’s right…this train is still chuggin’ along and only stops at zoo station!
Happy almost-September, everyone. I had a whole bunch of folks guessing where I was going to go with the September song challenge, so I’ve decided to throw a curve-ball and raise the stakes. I give you:
THE “NOT FROM THE 80’s” SONG-A-DAY CHALLENGE.
Will this one be more difficult? Probably. For a lot of folks playing along, the 80’s was a unifying time of (some would say obnoxious) monoculture, and honestly, a few of these clues apply to more than one song released during that decade. It was a funny revelation coming over drinks from a former colleague who came of age in the 80’s just how overplayed so many currently-beloved songs were. I mentioned how I had rediscovered Tears for Fears, and she said, because she was a teenager in the 80’s and forced to hear “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” 11 times per day, she can’t listen to them anymore.
The only rule for this month is somewhat straightforward: Your song cannot be released between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1989. Everything else is fair game. Granted, covers released in a later decade are technically cheating, but I can’t tell you how to live. Save it, share it, and don’t forget to hashtag it #NotFromthe80s. Have fun! Special thanks to Lisa LaDuca for her numerous assists with this one.