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Alt icons Violent Femmes to mix old and new songs, improvisation at City Winery shows

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Although the Violent Femmes are known for getting their start in Milwaukee, Gordon Gano, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, was born in New York City, where his family lived on E. Seventh Street in the East Village. They moved out of the city when he was still a kid, but he later returned for most of the 1980s and ’90s. A brother lived near Tompkins Square Park, so Gano hung around the neighborhood a lot back then.

Gano lived part time in the West Village in the 1990s. Although he no longer does today, he and the Violent Femmes will be returning to the Lower West Side for a series of shows at City Winery at Pier 57 in Chelsea on Oct. 9, 10, 11, 13 and 14.

The Village Sun recently spoke with the frontman of the famed folk-punk band and, as one might imagine, it was a fun, funny and free-flowing interview.

The East Village was tougher back when he lived there, he recalled. Asked what it was like, Gano said with a laugh, “Umm…stay alert. …” He remembers being told the ropes about who to be careful around, or as he put it, “‘This person here is very dangerous or that person really isn’t.’”

Another key pointer was, as Gano recalled, “If someone’s wearing sneakers — you gotta be on high alert. Look at their footwear. Things have probably changed, but that was the tip in the early ’80s — a mugger, ready to run.”

The Violent Femmes’ music is fun, kind of kooky, darkly comical and infectiously catchy. They were discovered by Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders when the fledgling acoustic trio were busking on the sidewalk in Milwaukee. They burst onto the music scene with their 1983 self-titled debut album when Gano was 19.

With quirky songs like “Blister in the Sun,” “Add It Up,” “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Country Death Song,” they went on to become one of the most successful bands of the ’80s, one of the top alt bands ever and the angsty soundtrack for generations of college kids. Although the Femmes have gone through ups and downs over the years, they’ve released 10 albums and 15 singles.

Of course, The Village Sun — like everyone else — had to ask Gano about the meaning behind “Blister in the Sun.” Is or isn’t it about masturbation, already? As he has previously said, Gano claimed it was only years later that someone in another band he was playing with insisted that the tune clearly concerns self-pleasuring.

“I think it was somebody in the Bog Men that told me that song is about masturbation,” he said, “and it never occurred to me. That was the first time I heard that. I guess the Bog Men have a lot of friends because they spread the message.”

O.K., then, so what exactly is the “blister”? The Village Sun asked.

“You don’t think I’m actually going to tell you, do you?” Gano laughed. “People take it in different ways.”

He said he actually wrote the song for a woman in another band to sing, but when he showed up for the rehearsal, it was canceled and she was nowhere to be found.

“I had met her at a poetry reading,” he recalled. “The only thing I heard was that she had joined a cult and went to Canada.”

A lot of people think the song’s lyric is “a blister in the sun” rather than “I blister in the sun.” Gano noted that he actually would write his capital “I”’s in lowercase and then sometimes mix up “a”’s and “i”’s in a sort of dyslexic way, and that he thinks this happened when he was writing the song. He said that some in the Femmes’ audiences compound the lyrical chaos by singing “let me go wild” instead of “let me go on” in the song’s chorus.

He added that it was also decades before he and bass player Brian Ritchie, the band’s other remaining founding member, realized they were actually playing different notes on the song.

Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes performing in Washington, D.C., in 2019. (Photo by Jay Westcott)

The pair had a huge falling out in 2007 when Gano licensed Wendy’s to use “Blister” in its advertising, leading Ritchie to call it “disgusting” and briefly quit the band. Eventually Ritchie sued Gano for half ownership of the Femmes’ music, plus proper royalties accounting. They settled out of court in 2012. Ironically, despite letting the fast-food burger chain use the song, Gano is a vegetarian.

The singer said, though, that while he and Ritchie have had their issues off stage, they get along great when they’re on it. He said it’s not surprising that the type of people who wind up in bands are going to butt heads sometimes.

As for their shows, he said they never have a pre-planned set list and freely mix their old tunes with new ones. Unlike some bands who hate playing their older music, Gano said the Violent Femmes enjoy it. And since they are big improvisers, they don’t feel under pressure to play every note just the way it was on the original recording.

“We don’t have to duplicate the song exactly,” he said. In fact, he added, sometimes the performances go in their own unpredictable directions, or as he said, “not knowing what I’m doing and being totally fine with that.”

Since they’ll be playing five shows at City Winery, they also will mix it up and play different songs on different nights, since they know some fans will be coming back to see more than one show.

“O.K., the blister — what is that?” Gano laughed. “Well, it just occurred to me as an image. I don’t know how or why.

“But the important thing is they’re playing it at ballparks — the riff,” he said, of “Blister”’s simple guitar notes followed by the quick pair of rat-tat / rat-tat drumbeats. One of his brothers is a huge Mets fan and digs hearing it on the Citi Field PA.

Gano is incredulous that the “Hey, ho! Let’s go!” snippet from the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” is also played at baseball games.

“That’s just unimaginable,” he marveled.

The singer said he thinks it would be hilarious if, after the “Blister” riff plays and the fans — as they do — clap along to the staccato drumbeats, the lights would suddenly shut off in the stadiums.

“Somebody should do that at a night game and the lights go off,” he laughed. “Remember The Clapper?”

He was referring to the product, widely advertised on TV in the 1980s, that would turn off up to two household electrical devices with a hand clap. The ads featured the famously goofy chant, “Clap on, clap off…clap on, clap off — The Clapper!”

“Uh-oh, maybe this is a good time to end!” he laughed. “He’s talking about The Clapper, we gotta come in and stop him!”

Opening for the Violent Femmes at City Winery, at 25 11th Ave., on Pier 57 at W. 15th Street, on Oct. 9 and 10 will be Amy Ray and Jeff Fielder. Opening for them on Oct. 11 and 13 will be Alsarah and the Nubatones. There is no opening act listed for the Femmes’ sold-out show on Oct. 14. For more information and tickets, click here.

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