Blood on the Tracks

by RJ Smith
Spin Magazine, September 1997

The Geraldine Fibbers' new album, Butch, is a wonder, a violent, uncompromising sprawl of a rock record, a punch to the heart. But, worries RJ Smith, if a record comes out, and no one hears it, does it really make a sound?

William Tutton, bassist for the Geraldine Fibbers, has busted out the salsa verde, he's got a W.A.S.P. record playing on his stereo; if only we could find the bottle opener, this meeting would be called to order.

Drummer Kevin Fitzgerald thumbs through a fanzine while new guitarist Nels Cline, fresh from a visit to the local record store, flaunts the catch of the day: a compilation of music from Fassbinder films, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Duke Ellington's Far East Suite, and the new Blonde Redhead. Cline's either an ex-rock critic or a former record store employee--if you guessed the latter, congratulations and spin the wheel again.

Sitting in Tutton's living room in Los Angeles' voguish Silver Lake neighborhood, the Fibbers pore over a list of groups they could tour with when they hit the road shortly. Singer and guitarist Carla Bozulich goes down the list with Cline, checking off names they are considering. She stops at one, looking thoughtfully at the page. "Who are Hanson?" Bozulich asks earnestly.

It says a lot about one of the best bands in L.A. that they personally know the Dust Brothers, the Silver Lake hotshots who produced "MMMBop," but express some confusion about the chart-busting teen 'throbs themselves. "Oh yeah," Tutton perks up. "Well, we opened for Silverchair once...."

It's easy to say where the band's careening new album Butch fits into the summer's pop vista: absolutely nowhere. The record is its own creation, a work that barely connects to anything else going on in music today. Like Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out, it shows guitar rock can still find new things to say, and it should come as no surprise that both are unmistakably the work of women whose voices you can't get out of your head--if you ever get a chance to hear them.

"Hopefully [with Butch] people are going to be in the mood for something that's a little more complex to digest than just three chords and a stolen rhyme," Bozulich offers with guarded expectation. Though a lot of women are on the charts right now, Liz Phair seems like a long time ago, and it's quite a distance from "Bitch" to Butch.

Two years ago, the Fibbers' major-label debut, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, sold only 15,000 copies, but remember: An asteroid as small as a kidney could still take out Tennessee. This was a country-inflected record made by people whose lives were changed by punk rock 45s. For them, hillbilly was a fiddle and a voice that sounded a long way off, even when it was ringing in your ears. It didn't always cohere cut to cut, but it didn't have to, what with Bozulich standing in her cowboy boots and print dress at the center, her voice stretching across the sky. There was a rootlessness to her singing that sometimes suggested Okie-girl blues, sometimes a teen runaway ranting into the receiver.

Today it conveys self-confidence. Everybody in the band gets along just fine as they sit around Tutton's apartment and dip into the salsa. But don't mistake the Geraldine Fibbers for a democracy. Ask the guys if it is, and there's a diplomatic silence before Fitzgerald musters, "Uh, Carla, you want to answer that one?" She doesn't need to. When Bozulich finishes an answer with "That's it," she's talking to the rest of the group. This band isn't about a guitarist-singer dialogue a la the Stones (though given the addition of freak-out whiz Cline it certainly could be, and maybe even should be). It's about foreground and background. That's it.

And at that foreground stands Bozulich, 31, the great frontwoman of the moment, twitching between victim and avenger at the bat of an eyelash. Like PJ Harvey, she exploits and dramatizes the madwoman role society carves out for sexualized women, but while Harvey lets the beast run free, makes it a monster prowling the borders of gender identity and self-control, Bozulich internalizes, keeps the madness on a short leash. On Butch, she moves from disturbing clarity to lulling abstraction, like an adult reconstructing memories of a childhood trauma so fully she finally falls asleep in the crib. In a time when reflections on trauma are marketed in a batch of stylish literary memoirs, Bozulich's self-reflections remain a little too bloody, and a little too obtuse, to join in that pop phenomenon, either.

Which is ironic, because I bet she has a pretty good book in her. "I write fiction quite a bit," she answers. "I could easily just drop everything and do that for the rest of my life. But as far as a memoir...." She stops herself, and eventually there's a dark chuckle.

"I don't know. At this point I'm not really ready to. Let's just say I've had an extreme life that I don't feel like constantly answering for. I'm not in the mood to go through that right now. Though it would make a good book." And an even better book tour.

Maybe the biggest change on Butch is the group's emerging ensemble sound. "We really hadn't been together that long when we made that first record," 33-year-old Kevin Fitzgerald tells me. He had come from Fairbanks, Alaska, where he played in a band called "Mary Poppinz--calliope-core," he ventures. Tutton, 34, and original guitarist Daniel Keenan arrived from Glue, Silver Lake's prettiest punk band. They came together when Bozulich left Ethyl Meatplow, a guitarless beat band that catered to L.A.'s sex-scene fringe and released a record on the now-defunct Chameleon in 1993.

Ethyl Meatplow wanted to fuck with indie rock's macho bullshit by playing gay clubs, emphasizing polymorphous polyrhythms, and eschewing electric guitars. "We tried to piss off people that were strapping on their spangled, phallic whatever-the-fuck," says Bozulich. They pissed off Kim Gordon and Julia Cafritz, who loudly complained about Ethyl Meatplow's naked dancers and recorded music at a Lollapalooza show--it doesn't get much worse than getting dissed by Free Kitten. Ethyl Meatplow broke up, ironically, after Bozulich decided she wanted to strap on a whatever-the-fuck and form her own band.

The Fibbers' first single and an early EP introduced their fiddle and featured country covers, making them seem more whateverbilly than they really are. There's still a violin on Butch, though since the album was recorded, violinist Jessy Greene has left the band. She was the third fiddler to hold down that slot; a replacement had since signed on for one day and then bolted. "The violin is our nemesis," Bozulich jokes. In the video for "California Tuffy," Butch's first single, a violin is set on fire and stomped, an image you don't need a Jungian analyst to interpret. With the group sounding these days more like Jefferson Airplane than the Stanley Brothers, it's a shame Papa John Creach ain't available.

The string section is now firmly anchored, anyway, by Cline, the greatest L.A. guitar player since Black Flag's Greg Ginn. He's played with folks as varied as Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra West Coast and Thurston Moore; for four years Cline has orchestrated a Monday night series of improvised noise and space jazz at a nightclub that's planted in the shadow of a freeway overpass.

The oldest member of the group at 41, Cline favors an aesthetic--as does Butch--that is a throwback to a certain era of L.A. bohemia. Call it the time of the Great Why Not? or just call it late SST, when free jazz fit easily alongside guitar feedback. This wasn't art for art's sake--these bands pushed beyond pop, confident that some culture only thrived way out there.

Which is kind of funny, if only because that era of the L.A. underground seems bent on reassembling itself in the Silver Lake that's hyped as a hotbed for the great new whatever. At the restaurant where Fitzgerald sometimes works, you might find Thelonious Monster's Bob Forrest taking your order; nearby you can buy fake vomit at Exene Cervenkova's trinket shop. Leaving Trains' Falling James lives in the 'hood, and preposterous screeders Saccharine Trust even got back together for a Silver Lake show. Some buzz burbs attract young bands hoping to make their first deal. Silver Lake at the moment is a magnet for the veterans, too--for Why Not? bands who never got over like Beck.

Today, Cline is a reluctant astronaut, someone who seems to naturally fade into the background, at least as much as any six-foot-plus bag of bones can. Asked why he so rarely shows off with a rock group (save Mike Watt's demolition derby two years ago), Cline refuses to answer on the record. Then, when the tape recorder is off, for five minutes he gushes about how much he likes being in the Fibbers.

"Frankly, I'm a little let down, Nellie," Fitzgerald kids, pretending the off-mike gush wasn't gushy enough. With the good vibes momentarily blocking out the sun, you'd think they were considering the Hanson tour after all.

On Butch, everything Bozulich's voice achieves it achieves through aggression, through a forced entry that doesn't trust the listener to invite her in.

But sitting in the courtyard of a German restaurant--blond guys are drinking Ritterbrau out of glass boots and speaking in the father tongue all around us--Bozulich has met her match. She has done battle with a plateful of potato pancakes, and the starch has won a triumph of the will. She pushes the cooling tectonic plates slowly and more slowly around her plate until, cold, they won't budge. About this time her voice gets quieter and more reflective.

Bozulich was born in New York City and raised in the working-class beach town of San Pedro--one of her best friends today is Mike Watt, of the city's once and forever Minutemen. Bozulich grew up among Pedro's Yugoslavian community, going to Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, eating the pasta that was a staple of the local diet. Her parents divorced, and her mother remarried.

"I didn't have the best experience there, being a teenage fuck-up. It didn't go that well for me as a girl," she says. "School was a drag. Junior high I ditched every day, I was in the bathroom smoking with the other girls. Basically trying to look good in a tube top, trying to pull off girls' clothes.

"And then I didn't go to school for a year, went and did something else."

Like what? I ask. A giggle bubbles up as she sips a nonalcoholic beer.

"Just sumpin'!"

Over the next few years, Bozulich grew addicted to heroin and cocaine, and became a hooker to finance her habit. Eight years ago, she wrote a blunt, fearlessly triumphant account of these years in the fanzine Ben Is Dead. "Once when I was a junky whore, I was standing outside an Arby's on Sunset waiting for someone to pick me up so I could make a fast twenty bucks for a shot of heroin," is how she begins. From there the tone stays cool and nerve-fraying to the end that comes too quickly:

"I was twenty years old and a raving, muttering, sometimes violent, madwoman. My toenails had fallen off, my hair came out in clumps, I was scabby and dirty, bruised, battered, and totally resigned to my impending death.... I was a kind whore for the most part. I knew I was going to die there."

While the Ben Is Dead piece makes the death watch compelling, only her songs make it relevant. They seem to reflect the past and turn it into art, over and over again. Between the Earth and My Home's "A Song About Walls" is about putting down the needle, and everywhere in her writing the world is full of unhealthy attractions. Time and again love is equated with an equatorial pull neither healthy nor rational, a tug offering a perfect, final warmth.

Butch's songs aren't as self-lacerating as the first record's; the singer is more in control, if only from within a fantasy life that erupts into violence. "I gotta little trick for you / I can split in two or in seven or in ten little friends," she screams on "Seven or in Ten." Then: "Not so fast, fucker."

The record also has several songs that clearly describe acts of incest. "Don't be caught with your nightie mussed / And if you are questioned, don't tell them, don't tell them what we've discussed," she sings on "Arrow to My Drunken Eye." And there's the chilling "Toybox": "I asked my daddy for a quarter / He gave me 25 cents and a kiss for good luck."

"It's one of the world's strongest daddy-bashing songs," Bozulich says with confidence. She declines to talk about the inspiration for these lines, except to say, "Things don't interest me as subject matter unless they personally touch my life."

Bozulich doesn't flinch from questions she knows are going to come, but she hardly feels a need to say more than what's already been written. "I assume this stuff will come and bite me on the ass real soon," she says evenly. "But I'm not trying to hasten the event."

She pulls a jacket tight around her as the wind whips up. When she has time, Bozulich says she's been reading memoirs of Chinese women, learning from the level clarity of their voices. "I'm the kind of person that always has chaos in their life--not drama so much as everything breaking, never being able to find anything. And if I try to collect it all in, it scatters to the four winds. I could just stand there, and everything would commit wild entropy in front of me and I wouldn't have to do anything."

With that, she gives up a husky, entropic laugh. Downstairs, you can hear violins playing, but dammit, they're on a record and come with an oompah-beat.

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