08.13.19

Barefoot in Las Vegas w/ the Violent Femmes

The first thing I remember is a pack of slot machines glittering at the end of the jet bridge. Then later, just past the baggage claim, a police officer acting as volunteer greeter. No gun, big smile, wishing each tourist good luck. Las Vegas was welcoming me with open arms, and displaying the merchandise. As I stood waiting for my taxi, I quietly, urgently hummed “Blister in the Sun.” When I’m walking I strut my stuff— I don’t even know why. Words By: Daniel M. | Photos By: David S.

I’d spent the two-hour flight, and about two days before that, with earbuds in, listening to one band only. Thirty-five years of pulsating, bare-knuckle rock and roll from the Violent Femmes. There were songs about desperate lust. And frontier murder. And American Music itself. It was the soundtrack to my teenage years. In a way, the soundtrack to everyone’s teenage years.

I was in Vegas to interview the band. The band was there to play a show—of course—and to launch a shoe collab with legendary skateboarder/artist/chill dude Stefan Janoski and little/big skate brand Nike SB. I’d spent a lot of time trying to explain it to friends. “Stefan has a signature shoe. Stefan’s a huge Violent Femmes fan. No, the band doesn’t skate…”

Las Vegas was a middle ground. A layover that worked for everyone’s crisscrossing travel plans. My hotel room, I soon learned, overlooked a perfect half-scale replica of the New York skyline. In the twenty years since my last visit, sites like this had sprung up all over the city. The pyramids of Giza. The Eifel tower. It was like being at a Planet Earth theme park for alien visitors.

I met Stefan in the lobby of another hotel—or another dimension—under sky-sized frescos of angels and olive trees. As an SB writer, I’d been covering him—and various editions of his signature shoe—for years, but we’d never met face to face. He was long, lanky, with wide-open eyes that took in each detail, and then smiled about it.

“I suppose I should be thanking you,” I joked. “I get to meet the Violent Femmes! How’d you swing this?”

“I just kind of brought it up, you know? SB was like, ‘What kind of collaboration do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘We should do something with the Violent Femmes.’” He laughed, too, as though he’d only just now heard the news himself.

We decided to walk to the venue together—first through the hotel car park, then down a grimy side-street running under the tram. It felt like we’d passed outside the Matrix to some utility access tunnel behind surface-level Las Vegas. Stefan was walking on the edge of the curb as though it were a balance beam, telling me more about the shoe that brought us together.

“Nike’s all about equality and inclusion,” he said. “I was thinking about that, you know. I told them about one of my favorite Violent Femmes songs, ‘I'm Nothing.” It really speaks to that. To not labeling people. It’s very with the times.” He said this with the emphasis it deserved. “When the designers heard the song, they were like, ‘That’s perfect! That’s the theme of the shoe!’”

Of course, “I’m Nothing,” had been on heavy rotation during my week of “research.”

Are you a republican or a democrat?

A liberal fascist full of crap?

I’m nothing.

At first, I’d thought it was a defense of apathy. Nope. As the song goes on, the scope expands. A lot. “Are you gay or are you straight? Do you believe in love or do you believe in hate?” The answer, every time, was the same. Gordon Gano even spells it out: “I-M-N-O-T-H-I-N.”

As we walked on, Stefan brought his reflections back to the shoe. “So, how do you design nothing, you know? First, we made it all white. Like a blank slate. And then there would usually be a label, which would have my name and the Nike SB logo on it. But this time, we ripped it off. First time we’ve ever done that. Nike’s just a name. Stefan’s just a name.”

The song was still playing in my head. Its ending was pretty dark. Or liberating, depending on your outlook. The music, reduced to a whisper of guitar, goes small, while the lyrics go big.

I’m nothing now, and I’ll be nothing when

This nothing world comes to its nothing end.

So, among other things, I had the end of the world rattling around in my brain as Stefan and I made our way into the concert hall—which was also… a bowling alley? You could hear the rumble of the balls and the crash of pins as you came down up the stairs. It wasn’t a low-rent space, though. The stage was beautiful, the pit was huge, there were two bars and a balcony. There also just happened to be bowling going on at the building’s periphery.

This was all really weird, but kind of perfect. It gave the show a whiff of Americana I wanted. A Violent Femmes show should never be too far from symbols of the people. This was a band that had been discovered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, busking outside a Pretenders concert.

After waiting around for a moment by a few empty lanes, the band’s management ushered us into the green room. The two founding Femmes were lounging on a sofa set. Gordon Gano, the singer/songwriter/unmistakable high-voltage voice of the band. And Brian Richie, whose huge, melodic, charging basslines were the architecture of their sound.

When it was my turn to shake their hands and introduce myself, I was probably way too intense. “I’m the interviewer,” I said.

“Well, all right, then,” said Gordon Gano. He was as short as me, I noticed, with bright, piercing eyes that seemed to know a secret joke.

There was some general goofing around about the shoe itself.

Brian Richie—a tall man, wearing sunglasses inside, languidly amused—actually took off his left shoe. “You hid the best part on the inside,” he said to Stefan, holding up the open shoe to show the insole—a cartoon of a rudimentary human holding a protest sign: “I’m nothing.”

Gordon took his off, too. “I’m glad they make them in my size,” he said. “For my dainty feet.”

I could feel the improvisatory energy between the two of them, still crackling and unpredictable after thirty years. I mean, they were taking off their shoes.

It didn’t take us long to get to the song. There was, apparently, an origin story.

“I was asked to write a song for a movie,” Gordon said. “I was told what the character was supposed to be thinking. About they’re not a this and they’re not a that. I just dove in and wrote it. So, originally, it wasn’t a song that came from me personally. I just entered into the idea, feel, and flow of it. It wasn’t used in the film, but it’s become one of our most, uh, durable songs.”

Brian spoke up now. “The audience can still can relate to it,” he said, “as if it were written today. A lot of its topics are universal. More and more so every day. For example, ‘I'm not gay, I'm not straight.’”

“And now we’ve revisited it,” Gordon said. “Stuff I was actually thinking and feeling, instead of just what a certain character might be thinking or feeling. Stefan’s going to sing the new ending tonight, actually.”

And Stefan, in demonstration, suddenly started singing, in a quiet, pure tone.

I’m nothing now, I'm nothing free.

But being nothing is just being me.

It was as though someone had rung a bell in the room. Gordon smiled, and leaned back in his chair. The way most people would lean forward for emphasis, Gordon leaned back, as if inviting you closer, to listen.

“The old ending,” he said. “I think of it as very, uh, funny. In a dark way.”

“You were waiting for the nothing world to meet its nothing end,” Stefan interjected.

“But it wasn't my real, personal feeling,” Gordon said. “I guess this time I felt like saying something more celebratory.”

We were all smiling now. There was a buzz of fresh creation in the room. I couldn’t help feeling a little grateful to Gordon for his rewrite. Like, I felt the world kind of needed it right now.

I leaned forward. “This band brings people so much joy. You know that, right? Like even the songs about longing, anguish, there’s something joyous.”

“That's pretty much what the blues is,” Brian said. You could feel his eyes light up, even behind the sunglasses. “It's like, people talking about their problems—universal problems. Hearing it makes you feel like part of common humanity. And better for it.”

His words were still ringing in my mind a half hour later, as I slipped into the balcony crowd. I’d lost track of Stefan somewhere downstairs, but I didn’t have time to look for him. The Femmes were taking the stage. The crowd erupted into a wailing cheer as the band scooped up their instruments. Gordon started strumming the driving rhythm of “Kiss Off,” the drums and bass picked up a moment later, and there it was—that electricity.

It doesn’t quite cover it to say “the band still had it.” They had something totally new. It was probably new every night. They lost themselves in the music, and so did the crowd, and everyone was nothing. Or at the very least, everyone was singing.

They do it all the time! (Yeah, yeah!)

They do it all the time! (Yeah, yeah!)

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Violent Femmes "I'm Nothing" featuring Stefan Janoski