By John Chandler
The Geraldine Fibbers
(First appeared in The Rocket, 5/16/96)
"Oh God, you don't really want to dredge that up do you?" asks an exasperated Carla Bozulich. She's referring to my opening salvo question about her "tenure" in Hole ("Marquee Value" and all that rubbish). "All right, all right," she says. "It was about seven years ago. We rehearsed for two weeks. We never played any shows. We never recorded. It's not really worth mentioning." You know, she's absolutely right.
What is worth mentioning is Carla's current band, The Geraldine Fibbers, a tempestuous, almost-but-not-quite country outfit that tours relentlessly and never fails to burn down the house. Their 1995 debut album, Lost Somewhere Beneath the Earth and My Home, is one of those rare, original pieces of work that effortlessly fuses lyrical might and instrumental pyrotechnics (particularly the fiery fiddle of Jessy Greene and serpentine slide guitar of Daniel Keenan) with a singing voice that could bring an ice cube tray to a speedy boil. Is it rock? Is it country? Is it alterna-twang? Sure. Whatever. Let's just say The Geraldine Fibbers are a country band in the same way that the Stones or the Velvet Underground are country bands. Which is to say, when it sounds this good, who really gives a damn? What I can say is that Carla Bozulich is one of those larger-than-life performers who generate excitement as well as a palpable sense of mystery and danger. Since we seem adrift in an era during which pre-chewed, sanitized-for-your-protection, milquetoast video twerps drape themselves in the robes of cultural significance, we need real artists who aren't afraid to be rock stars, and we need them now.
The Geraldine Fibbers story takes place in Los Angeles, a City of Angels, both fallen and otherwise. Somewhere in between jamming with Courtney and heading back to the country to plow up her back 40, the Fibbers' frontgal did a memorable stint in Ethyl Meatplow, a sensationalistic (and some would say exhibitionist) sex/goth/industrial outfit which, in many ways, represents the exact opposite end of the musical spectrum she now occupies. Carla, who often stomped around the stage growling and howling while clad in dominatrix garb, describes her old band as a "super-sensory-overload-in-your-face-stimulation-fest."
"Ethyl Meatplow were about choosing sides," she continues. "Either you really, really liked it, and got freaked out by it in a good way, or you really, really hated it, and got freaked out by it in a bad way. We formed the band for just that purpose. We got a lot of bad press and we relished it. We were not well loved by any of the cool people. We were very anti-cool. The people who loved us, loved us, but I can't really figure out who they were. Just geeks like we were, I guess. "
How in the hell does one segue from capering about in leather bondage gear to singing the stormiest, heart-breakingest songs that weren't written by some old, spur-jangling dead guy? The transition between shrieking sex prop and teary-eyed tumbleweed seems a highly unlikely one. "It's only extreme to people who don't know me," Carla says, regarding her metamorphosis. "Ethyl Meatplow were only one facet of myself. I've always played a lot of country music. If you listen to the songs that were solely mine from the Ethyl Meatplow days--not that you'd want to listen to them (laughs)--like 'Ripened Peach,' or 'Queenie' or 'Sad Bear,' you can get an idea of where my head was.
"Sometimes we'd get asked to play acoustically, which we absolutely could not do," she elaborates. "Ethyl Meatplow were very sample-oriented, but sometimes we'd do these benefit shows for Act-Up or somebody. I would convince the other members of
the band to play country songs. We usually called ourselves Rectal Thermometer when we did
As Ethyl Meatplow transformed into more of a circus sideshow and became further removed from music and songwriting, Carla decided something a little more down to earth was in order.
The Geraldine Fibbers formed two-and-a-half years ago. It brought together guitarist Daniel Keenan, drummer and banjo player Kevin Fitzgerald, violinist Jessy Greene, and stand-up bassist William Tutton in a band that "was hard to figure out," Carla recalls of their formative years. "We played music that wasn't very popular."
Yet the power of this combination is undeniable, especially when Tutton and Greene apply the tremolo to their respective instruments (neither of which you'd find in a typical rock band), creating the musical equivalent of a strong wind that blows directly into the audience, messing up a lot more than a few 'dos. Is it country? If so, they're mighty loud and kick up a heap of dust.
"I've always been interested in strange experiments with organic instrumentation," Carla says. "I think it's pretty obvious that this band isn't shooting for some kind of country authenticity. We listen to a pretty diverse mixture of stuff when we're in the van, but people like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Bob Wills are really big loves of ours."
Carla and her mates spend a great deal of time in that van, as the Fibbers are bona fide touring fools. Even when saddled with dead wood like Green Apple Quick Step and Urge Overkill, the Fibbers win fans over the old-fashioned way: one at a time.
"We love to play live. I've always loved it," Carla explains. "I've been touring and playing for so many years now that it seems like real life to me. I'm sad to report that when I'm home I get disoriented. I feel like I have too much stuff and too much privacy (laughs).
"We keep getting offered tours and we keep taking them," she says. "Writing can be hard when you're on the road. Fortunately, I'm obsessive about everything
"Hard" isn't the right word to describe the songwriting on Lost Somewhere.... I'd say excruciating would be closer to the mark. Carla's lyrics strip away one layer after another until we're left with nothing but naked truth. The songs are remarkable, as they alternate between defiance, tenderness, sorrow, and towering rage. When Carla sings, "my baby blows a kiss," in "House is Falling" she comes off like Ann Margaret astride her custom pink motorcycle zipping through town on a sunny day with Exile on Mainstreet blasting in the Walkman. As she looks up from her life-going-nowhere and declares, "Gonna fly so far. I'm gonna kiss that star," in "Lilybelle," she's Dorothy stuck at Auntie Em's pad in need of a fix. By the time she gets to "Outside of Town," she knows her time is just about up when she snarls, "A fool I have lived, and a fool I will die!" Even with all the vitriol that comes alongside it, nothing quite prepares the listener for "Dragon Lady," as Carla explodes into a rant that makes Alanis Mor-risette look like Shirley Temple tap-dancing away on the poop deck of the Good Ship
"I wrote ["Dragon Lady"] one day when I was really bored, and feeling really penned in. It's a song about urging someone you're with to go off with you. It's like--let's go off!"
"Do you mean get up and leave, or explode?" I ask.
"Well, you know. (Pause) I don't need to say anymore."
If "A Song About Walls" is any indication of an early chapter in her life, then we can assume that Carla spent some time hip-deep in some pretty grim shit. The song's cast of characters features the "surly girl," who takes care of her "junkie boyfriend" by any means necessary, eventually ending up strung out herself. She leaves him, cleans up, and the next time she sees her "darling" he's dead. The Fibbers' version of country is violently transplanted from dusty, small-town America into the inner city rat hole. Like the Stones and the Velvets, it's urban folk music that burns hot, even shrouded in a narcotic miasma. But is it country? If the ans-wer lies in the hard living, the desperation, and finally, the redemption, then the answer is an emphatic yes.
"So you're not heading for 'The Grand Ole Opry' anytime soon?" I tease.
"Oh, we'll play anywhere," Carla answers deadpan. "But what they'll
get is us. Deal with it."
(c) 1996 John Chandler
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