Tell No Lies
She lives about 20 minutes away, but she doesn't want to meet in person. She ostensibly knows how to dial a phone, yet she has her publicist place the call from a third location and patch her through. Sometimes, musicians seem to enjoy being eccentric simply because they can, turning even simple things such as interviews into the stuff of high drama. Then you get the feeling that Carla Bozulich lives for drama, that she enjoys making others just a little uncomfortable, simply because she can.
Such is the small reward, perhaps, for a woman whose band released a remarkable album two years ago only to find writers discussing her life instead of her art, placing her at the scene of the crime with talk of heroin days and streetwalking nights. The CD, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, became less about the music and more about reading between the lines of the lyrics: Was Bozulich Lilybelle, the woman rocking in the dark to the voices in her head? Was she the "girl so sleepy she could not be roused"? Was she the "girlie" who was "kinda surly, stuck a needle in her eye"? Yes, of course, she was all of them -- a very long time ago. A decade ago, to be precise, long before she cleaned up and set straight a punk-rock life that began in San Pedro, California, where she hung out with Minuteman George Hurley, and brought her to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, then to Virgin Records and the brink of greatness with a band called the Geraldine Fibbers.
The Fibbers have just released their second full-length CD, Butch, and it's among the finest CDs you'll have the pleasure of hearing this year. Wait, not one of the finest -- make that one of the oddest you'll hear in 1997, one of the most honest, one of the most disorienting, one of the most beguiling, one of the most enthralling. And maybe it's not such a pleasure to hear either, nor should it be. Butch might as well be a compilation: Every song sounds different from the one before it and the one after it. It's almost a dare, bigger than life, made up of pieces of everything you've ever heard before and things you didn't even know existed.
The Fibbers began in 1993 as a country side project, a way for Bozulich to act out her Bobbie Gentry and Dolly Parton fantasies at the same time she was fronting the sex-obsessed hip-hop band Ethyl Meatplow. The earliest Fibbers songs, such as "Marmalade" and "Outside of Town" and a Carter Family-style cover of Beck's "Blue Cross," were like Appalachian folk ballads dressed in punk finery, with banjos and lap steels forcing their way through the feedback. In an instant, the woman who sang "Devil's Johnson," the anti-crack anthem off Ethyl Meatplow's sole release, 1993's Happy Days, Sweetheart, was singing murder ballads like a refugee from Tennessee.
That country fetish has long since given way to metal side trips and ambient tangents and new-wave hoedowns; Butch is almost indefinable, intangible, maybe even impenetrable at first. From the edgy tension of "I Killed the Cuckoo" to the hazily gorgeous instrumental "Claudine" to the country-tinged "Folks Like Me" and "Pet Angel" to the cello-bound-and-gagged "Arrow to My Drunken Eye" to the cover of Can's "You Doo Right" to the orchestrated freak-out of "The Dwarf Song," it's a CD that frightened even Bozulich at first. She was convinced almost until the end it could never be put in any sort of order, that it didn't make sense. And in the end, that's perhaps the point.
"I really think people are being sold a bill of goods in general at this time in our little story," Bozulich says. "You look around, and everything is exactly the same. There's these limitations or boundaries on everything that people don't even question. Like, your average 20- to 25-year-old person doesn't remember when cars didn't all look the same, you know what I mean? And they don't remember when the music on the radio used to get airplay because it didn't sound like anything else. It's the opposite now. You get airplay if you sound like something else successful, but people that are before a certain age have never seen that. It's a bad thing, and that's kind of one of my little causes, I think, to let people know the limitations are a myth."
Butch is Lost Somewhere times a thousand, string sections filling in the awkward silences and band newcomer Nels Cline's guitar pushing against the sky like Chuck Yeager in search of Mach one. The Fibbers are now down Jessy Greene, the violinist who departed to join her boyfriend in the Jayhawks, and up Cline, the man who could play a symphony with a single guitar pick. (Cline replaced guitarist Daniel Keenan, whose bout with tendinitis has rendered him unable to play, though he did co-write one song on Butch.) Bassist William Tutton and drummer Kevin Fitzgerald remain from the Fibbers' original incarnation, and two rotating violinists will fill in for Greene, whose departure has clearly unsettled Bozulich, especially since Greene played on Butch and was expected to tour behind it.
"Um ... she ... I don't know what her trip is," is all Bozulich will say of Greene's exit. But of Cline, who has been touring with the band for years, she gushes with great enthusiasm. "Ol' Nelly boy saved the day," she insists. "Nels reinvents the guitar every time he picks it up, and there was a big fear that he was too ... um ... maybe just like ... too good for the music we were playing. The emphasis for us has never been on technique, and I've tried at times to keep it that way, even though everybody in the band -- maybe with the exception of myself on the guitar -- is a really amazing technician. I've tried to make sure that somebody listening to the music never is distracted by that. I always want it to be something that hits you in the gut more than in the head."
But it's Bozulich who defines the band: She writes the words, uses her sadness as inspiration, imbues every syllable with some hidden anguish. Her voice -- a haunting, haunted voice that's neither male nor female but something otherworldly and spellbinding and even kind of frightening -- stands out above the music. It's a voice suited to spouting four-lettered threats. "My shell on top of your knotty fist with a speculum shoved up my cunt after hours," she sing-speaks on "Toy Box" from Butch, and she sneers the word "cunt" almost as though it were a warning.
Lost Somewhere played like a collection of novellas set to music; it was a precise, overwrought, carefully told tale of death and redemption, about people who "never knew nothing 'cept hunger and fear," and ultimately about a woman who makes a pact with the devil and peace with God so she can trudge on and forget her past. In contrast, Butch is more like an enormous, sprawling epic; its language is less precise but more graphic, loaded with such images as "rivers of blood" that "pour from my eyes" and "a ball of light" that "comes down to bite me on the ass, the legs, the breasts." If Lost Somewhere was Bozulich's way of burying her past -- "I don't want to go there again," she said during an interview two
years ago -- then Butch is very much about the present, Bozulich's way of saying farewell to friends who have died of AIDS. As a result, much of the CD tells stories of death that comes with a kiss, of angels who sweep through the night serving death in teacups, of "fugitive lovers" who return to a place where "folks like me are from." In other words, it's a long good-bye.
"Certainly, if people believe a lot of the writing on Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home was inspired by, y'know, my drug days and stuff when I was a teenager, I can tell you it has been more than ten years since I've had any drugs or anything to drink, so it's pretty much ancient history to me," Bozulich says, her voice rising a bit. "But if that's been over for ten years, what's been going on for ten years is AIDS. You know what I mean? That's a current thing. To me, it's more of a ... what's that word that means you can sink your teeth into it? It's a more tangible thing, and much more of an influence on me than probably all that old history really is."
One song in particular, "Trashman in Furs," was written specifically for the late Jim Reva, who used to dance on-stage during Ethyl Meatplow shows, and who was once Bozulich's employer. But it's not a sad so-long; instead, "Trashman in Furs" is a celebration of a man Bozulich says was a liberating influence on her. "Don't cry don't cry," she repeats over and over again during the song. "I'm ridin' ridin' ridin' to a place with no pain no tears no art no ears no cars no need for you to cry."
"Jim was a jewelry maker and an artist, and I was his assistant," Bozulich says. "And then" -- she starts to laugh -- "we would do that by day and then put on some crazy... " She pauses. "He was just so great. He was just such a fucking great person. For instance, he would get a jockstrap, and he'd go buy a wig at a thrift store and cover the jockstrap in wig hair, and he wouldn't have on anything, and he was kinda chubby, and he'd just wear this jockstrap and make a fake black eye on his face. He was the epitome of an anti-sexy go-go dancer.
"That was his whole thing, and a lot of times people ... like, I try to explain what Ethyl Meatplow was about, and I can't explain it. But if I can explain what Jim Reva was like, it explains Ethyl Meatplow entirely, because that was the thing about Ethyl Meatplow -- we weren't just like some dumb-ass S&M band, it was funny. There was humor to it all the time." She laughs again. "It was meant to make you laugh and make you a little uncomfortable, but it was supposed to be liberating and funny and just fun ... I don't normally say, 'I'm gonna write a song about blah-blah-blah,' but in this case, I decided I'm going to write a song about Jim Reva. I want to make something for him. I felt better once it was done."
Bozulich seems to come to life when speaking of her old friend. She laughs often; she opens up. Perhaps that's because in Reva she sees much of herself -- someone willing to expose himself for the sake of art, someone who danced toward the light and didn't much care what anyone else thought.
"He was the type of artist who would take something that nobody would ever give a second look to or something that would be considered garbage, and he would turn it into the most amazing piece of art," she says of Reva, and she could just as well be speaking of herself. "He recycled cliches, he recycled anything that was ridiculous or useless or just completely absurd into something that made the most bizarre sense.
"So that's where the 'Trashman' part came from, and then 'in Furs,' obviously, a trashman in furs is an oxymoron, and we used to always listen to the Velvet Underground together, so it's also a little tip of the hat to 'Venus in Furs.' Yeah, it kinda worked. It's hard." And she laughs again.
The Geraldine Fibbers perform Friday, August 8, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6. The Eyeliners and Verbena open. For info, call 862-7580.
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