Violent Femmes vocalist Gordon Gano is smoking something in a fancy hotel room somewhere in Cincinnati. His drags are too long for a cigarette, and it can't be a pipe. Not enough sucking noises. One deep, long, exaggerated whoosh.
"It's a cigaaaar," Gano breathes passionately.
He's sucking on an Ashton, a high-class, handmade cigar in an aged maduro wrap. Set you back about $3.65.
Gano's affair with the cigar is entirely audible through the telephone, interrupting his sentences and providing ample thinking time before he has to talk. And when he does talk, it's about the cigar.
He takes another pull. "This one I picked up around the corner," he says in a pinched voice, followed by a dry chuckle and a blow of smoke. "I hope you understand a cigar is not like a big cigarette. I hope you're not in that camp. You don't inhale." God forbid.
And what about the remnants of a cigar? The bad taste, the slick of impropriety that layers the buds of the tongue, exuding the scent of a 70-year-old man wearing a stained undershirt and sock garters?
"Well, there're a lot of cheap cigars out there that are just . . . wretched," offers Gano. "But a good cigar is 100 percent natural tobacco and if it's made well, it's not a bad taste."
Another draw on the aged maduro. Gano, along with bassist Brian Ritchie and new drummer Guy Hoffman, will be playing this night in Cincinnati, just one more show on a nationwide tour that will burn through December. On the road again, and there's a new album, too.
It's the sixth release from the Femmes, Add It Up (1981-1993), a postpunk-angry-anthem-greatest-hits collage of sorts. A greatest-hits album generally means one of two things. One: The band is financially and creatively dead and needs to stab fans for the cash, or two: The musicians have convinced themselves that some of their hits are greater than others, hence the term.
Neither is applicable in the case of the Femmes; Add It Up was simply a settlement in a rather nasty argument. The album alone exonerated the band from its long-term and tumultuous recording contract with Slash/Warner, which, according to Gano, would rather "let our career die" than promote and support the band. It was your typical "take the kids, the car, the stereo, get me out of this, I don't love you anymore" kind of divorce. "They kept asking us if we could sound like R.E.M.," Gano moans.
As Slash/Warner's ass got hit by the door on the way out, Elektra was moving in. The company struck a contract with the Femmes and things have been lovely ever since. Take their accommodations, for example. It's Hotel, with an H, not an M.
"Couldn't you tell from the way the front desk answered the phone?" Gano asks.
Oh, yes. No need to know a room number. Just a name. Gordon Gano.
"Just one moment, please."
Gano is right. Only a glamorous hotel practices the word "please." He's emitting clouds of smoke in a suite stocked with more than two towels in the bathroom and a double chocolate chip cookie waiting patiently for him on his pillow. The cookie's caliber supersedes the quality of, say, a Pepperidge Farm cookie, he adds. He's already gobbled it.
Gano talks, comfortably, sharply, sometimes quickly. He whines, too. He chats like a friend who has shared a thousand drunken, stumbling, where-the-hell-were-we nights. He laughs a lot, and most of his sentences are followed by a dry, monotone "Heh, heh, heh." He talks about wealth. Religion. The departure of drummer and co-collaborator Victor DeLorenzo. The addition of former BoDeans drummer Guy Hoffman. Why live albums don't sell. Where he will or will not spend Thanksgiving. The location of a concert where the highest count of undergarments has been launched onstage in lusty appreciation.
He recounts the underwear story, tells it with an occasional choppy giggle. The complete lingerie harvest rolled in at three bras and four pairs of panties at a university in Billings, Montana. Hardly enough to make Tom Jones jealous, but wait--there's more: In the cup of one of the slinky supports was the tantalizing invitation--Holiday Inn, Room 102."
"We gave it to somebody on our crew," Gano says. "I don't know how long he kept hold of it, heh, heh, heh." Despite the metamorphosis of "alternative" music into that of mainstream, and despite the fact that a good portion of the bands that receive heavy rotation on MTV could easily cite the Femmes as major influences, you still won't find the boys riding the Billboard charts.
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Why does Eddie Vedder get to be on the cover of Time magazine when Gano was writing anthems for troubled teens back in the early Eighties, when he was a troubled teen? From "Add It Up": "Why can't I get just one screw/Why can't I get just one screw/Believe me, I know what to do/But something won't let me make love to you."
Yes, once again the music world is in love with the kind of tormented, despondent, emotionally tortured songs that are the Milwaukee trio's specialty. Will the fickle bitch-goddess Success finally take a liking to them?
"I don't know," Gano says. "We have a history of people opening up for us on tours, and then leaving to go and do national television. We've never been allowed to do that. From time to time, it seems so unbelievable. We come up with these conspiracy theories. It just doesn't make sense. . . . I just hope that if some of these bands that are considered more unusual become widely embraced and promoted, that we're on that list."
But Gano is not bitter. So what if the band hasn't played the MTV Music Awards or made the cover of Rolling Stone? The singer is thankful for the simple things.
"Sometimes, I'm amazed that I don't have to have another job to try and pay the bills--that this is really what we do. We make records and travel around the world, playing our music.