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To Hell and Back

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Geraldine Fibbers

Butch

(Virgin)

By Monica Kendrick

On the surface rock 'n' roll may be about fucking or fighting or driving really fast, but the subtext of most of it is that these are just things we do to escape our boredom with the world, to push down, if just for a moment, that sense of futility that would otherwise drive us to fritter away our lives watching TV in our bathrobes.

Ennui is an affliction of the relatively privileged; there's no pretty French word for the daily exhaustion and hopelessness that poverty can produce. In fact, middle-class kids have often been drawn to the music of poor people, from blues to bluegrass to hip-hop, in search of what they've perceived as a greater intensity of living, a determination to squeeze every drop out of an unyielding life. Inspired, they did their best to find intensity in their own lives. Then, at some point in the last decade, people with a lot of money gave those kids the idea that ennui all by itself was all they needed, and now the market is glutted with music made by well-meaning young men and women who celebrate their low-grade anxieties with a flatness that perpetuates the very state it acknowledges. Richard Hell did not in fact belong to the blank generation, but Liz Phair and Pavement certainly do.

What makes the difference? Some folks still think it's real, hard life experience that makes the artist, which probably goes a ways toward explaining the cult of personality that's sprung up around Geraldine Fibbers frontwoman Carla Bozulich, whose personal history happens to include hard drugs and prostitution. (One alleged journalist even took an essay Bozulich wrote about those experiences for the zine Ben Is Dead a few years ago and recast it as a new interview, giving the impression that Bozulich had been telling and retelling the story as a claim to fame.)

The Geraldine Fibbers (who play Saturday at Lounge Ax) began as half homage, half parody, an insurgent-country side project of Bozulich's industrial-punk outfit Ethyl Meatplow, which had a minor club hit years ago with the sardonic anticrack anthem "Devil's Johnson." The Fibbers' debut EP, Get Thee Gone (Sympathy for the Record Industry), was a collection of country covers and a few rough-hewn originals; it was rereleased last year as part of the demos and obscurities collection What Part of Get Thee Gone Don't You Understand? (also on Sympathy). It sounds now like what it was: a rough draft of what would become the Fibbers' aesthetic, a blend of the resigned-but-fierce working-class pride of classic country music and the spitfire squall of pre-ennui Sonic Youth.

The Fibbers' first full-length, 1995's Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home (Virgin), cut like a beacon through a particularly bleak year in rock. Happily hopping from genre to genre, often in a single speaker-blasting dynamic bound, Bozulich painted a dark world populated by junkies and mental patients, betrayed and betraying lovers, and the nightmares of children, while guitarist Daniel Keenan, drummer Kevin Fitzgerald, fiddler and violist Jessy Greene, and upright bassist William Tutton played as if their lives depended on it--a musical incarnation of the will to survive.

In his 40,000-word, ennui-free on-line diary of a tour with Mike Watt that year, avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline wrote voluminously about the Fibbers, who were opening for them. He said their mournful, perpetually climaxing "Lilybelle" moved him to tears every night. By a few twists of fate, Cline is now the Fibbers' guitarist, replacing Keenan, who suffers from tendonitis, and his contributions from the world of free improvisation spur the band to yet greater heights on its new album, Butch. Bozulich at last seems to have brought together a group that can keep up with her and even occasionally drown her out. On the fast-enough-for-hardcore "I Killed the Cuckoo," she seems to deliberately retreat into the mix, only to emerge in a sudden pocket of silence, purring and then howling in her distinctive mountain-lion screech (which she only ever overdoes on the wickedly excessive bit of Method acting that turns the Fibbers' version of Can's "You Doo Right" into a sly parable of near pornographic obsession).

In the face of all this lust for life, it's a bit startling to note how many of Butch's songs are about death. The most obvious example is also the album's most beautiful song, "Trashman in Furs," written for a close friend succumbing to AIDS, but mortality and loss haunt every song on the record, even the hokey-jokey country swinger "Folks Like Me" (the gender-unspecific story of an alien who must leave an earthling lover for the human's own safety) and "Pet Angel" (a country death-waltz that Nick Cave must wish he wrote). It's tempting to make a leap here, to say that art comes easiest in the presence of death, where there's no time to waste on TV or smug, half-assed nihilism.

But even the most jaded suburbanite is at the very least mortal, and many people who face death every day simply give up and die. Plenty of sharecroppers couldn't play a blues lick to save their lives, and plenty of abused children never picked up a guitar. What makes an artist is something else entirely: an iron backbone, a willingness to break rather than bend, a sense of discipline, the conviction that any circumstances can be grist for the mill, the courage to embrace them, the instinct to transform them. There's nothing reticent about the Geraldine Fibbers' music; Bozulich boldly approaches her raw material, be it her own hopes and nightmares or the smorgasbord of sounds that the postpunk world has to offer. On Butch's opening track, "California Tuffy," she yearns for the lover who "found a pearl in a strange and twisted girl." But in real life, it's Bozulich herself who digs for the treasure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover/ Geraldine Fibbers photo by Howard Rosenberg.

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