Once so pure, so innocent…a Slash Records publicity photo from 1984 for Hallowed Ground.

 

 

Here’s a juicy tidbit for Violent Femmes fans: lead singer Gordon Gano–America’s foremost voice of post-adolescent angst–is a transvestite. That’s right. After each show, whatever town he’s in, Gano slips into one of his backless, sequined Bob Mackie gowns (always black) and seeks out the show bar nearest his hotel. There, he takes the stage anew, belting out not "Add it Up" or "Gone Daddy Gone" or "Blister in the Sun," but such timeless classics as Bette Midler’s "The Rose" or Bonnie Tyler’s "Total Eclipse of the Heart," his usually gritty, monotone voice taking on a certain soprano softness.

More understated elegance than flash and sashay, Gano inevitably wraps up his evening with a beautiful, heartfelt rendition of "Over the Rainbow," his moving tribute to the woman who inspired him to write music in the first place, Judy Garland.

O.K., not really. I only called Gano a cross-dresser because, well, he said I could. When I called Gano for an interview at his Los Angeles hotel room, the first thing he said to me was this: "I’m gonna make this real easy for you. Just make up whatever you want about me. I don’t care, and I’m probably not gonna read it anyway."

Of course, I proceeded to interview Gano anyway. I had questions, after all, that I felt demanded answers. Like, why are you so angry and bitter? Answer: he’s not.

"People think I’m cynical," Gano says, "but I’m not. I think of myself as ironic and deeply sarcastic, but not bitter. It just goes to show you, people can listen to every song I’ve ever done and still not know me at all."

Gano admits that he writes songs to vent. "There have been many times where I’ve written songs where I’ve had to get something out," he says. "There’s a therapeutic aspect to it. I feel a great compulsion to write songs. It’s not that I have to do it, or that I don’t have anything better to do. I’m sure I’d be writing songs even if I was like Emily Dickinson and they ended up in my desk drawer."

But he won’t say what compels him to write, what he’s trying to say with his music, or what frustrates him. When pressed on these issues, though, he does at last reveal one motivational source:

"My frustration comes from the United State’s' policy on Cuba," he says. "It’s a foreign policy based on a domestic policy, and it's unfair and unworkable. Another stupid thing is the Electoral College."

Gano chuckles as he says this, then launches into a diatribe about the fundamental problems at the heart of the American two-party political system, stopping only when he literally runs out of breath. This is fairly heavy-duty stuff for the auteur of "Waiting for the Bus" and "Gimme the Car." But Gano sets me straight. "These are the things that drive me to write songs," he says. "They just come out in different ways."

"One thing I enjoy about song writing is that it always takes turns that I didn’t expect it to take," he continues. "I’ve never mapped out a song. I’m taking a Zen-like approach to it. And I’m surprised almost every time by what I end up with. And that helps keep it fresh too. It allows me to have a certain freedom in what I’m thinking about it when I’m singing it every night."

This is key for a man who describes himself as a "middle-class musician" and whose fans demand the classics every time.

"We’ve been playing the same songs for years and years, and we don’t get tired of it because of the energy the fans bring to the shows," Gano says. "There are always people getting into the Violent Femmes for the first time. We go and play, and its not nostalgia night. It’s what is happening right now."

Gano loves how fans sing along with his every song ("They’re not gonna drown me out–I have a mike," he says), and he loves the fact that they’re largely teenagers. "The fans keep getting younger and younger," he says. "It’s fascinating, we’re getting older, and the fans are getting younger. I’m sure there some universal principle at work here, but I don’t know what it is."

My time with him running out, I ask Gano what his favorite song is.

"‘Mutter Beinlein’ is my favorite song right now," he says. "It’s a German song by Bertold Brecht, and the main lyric is ‘Mother Beinlein has a wooden leg and she can go really good on it.’ She’s bringing some guy back to her room to do who-knows-what. And the only instrumentation on it is an oboe doing a two-note thing, and then the vocals. It’s just very melancholic, and ironic."

And Gano would know.

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