My Back Pages is a series that explores our relationships with the music we grew up with. Violent Femmes is the subject of this installment.
The details of how the Violent Femmes became part of my musical world are fuzzy, maybe even inconsequential, but the alt-rock trio from Milwaukee soon became a major part of my life during that oh-so-magical summer between high school and college.
You know the summer. You just turned 18, had no responsibility other than to work your few select hours at your grocery store job each week and to raise a little hell because your parents finally (slightly) relaxed their watchful eyes to let you come and go as you please, to maybe drink an underage beer now and again (and again and again …) beside a moonlit lake … Or maybe that’s just me. Either way, that summer is generally the time you enjoy the freedoms of life before you start the path that will lead you to adulthood.
That summer of 1995 was spent drinking those beers beside that lake, working and taking frequent weekend trips to New Jersey with my friend Beth to visit her brother. Every window in her Subaru wagon would be open to blow around our long hair, and we smoked tons of cigarettes, shouting over the always-blasting music. Sometimes it’d be our perennial favorite The Dead, sometimes Bob Marley, and then, seemingly out of the blue, it just started being nothing but the Violent Femmes the whole way down and back.
We’d scream every word of every song on the band’s greatest hits album, “Add It Up,” and only ever “Add It Up.” Sure, you might scoff at me saying I’m a “fan” and then only having this album, even now, 18 years later, but I just plum don’t care. There are 23 songs on said album — that could technically count as two records in some circles.
The thing that really does it for me with the Femmes is how all-over-the-map their sound is. It ranges from catchy and rhythmic (who doesn’t love — or clap along to — the oft-played-in-movies classic “Blister in the Sun?”) to dark and sinister (“Country Death Song”). I mean, how many other bands wrote a song about a man killing his daughter? Well, there was that time one was taken to the slaughter, but that’s another story. And we can’t forget about the joyous “Jesus Walking on the Water” and “American Music,” which is definitely in my top three Violent Femme songs.
To be honest, just about every song on “Add It Up” is fun and great to sing along with, but my absolute favorite is “Kiss Off.” It’s another dark track, one that’s both catchy and powerful as it makes you want to want to tell “the man,” the boss, that bully to just kiss off — but hopefully not take all those pills I so love to sing along about at the top of my lungs.
When I listen to the Violent Femmes these days, I’m taken right back to that carefree summer so long ago, and I think a line from my second favorite song, the short, jaunty “36-24-36,” sums it up perfectly: “I know this summer’s gonna be the best/ If I don’t die from lack of rest.”
I can still see me riding shotgun, feet up on the dash, a menthol Marlboro between my fingers, and my hair all knotted up from the wind, drunk on sunshine and no sleep. Yep, it was one hell of a summer, and I’ve got these 23 songs to prove it.