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Butch

The Geraldine Fibbers

Virgin

In the August issue of Spin, Geraldine Fibbers lead singer and guitarist Carla Bozulich is pictured hovering over a kitchen counter clutching a huge knife. She’s supposed to be playing the trailer-trash femme fatale. There’s the mussed bob, red-licorice half-pout, raccoon eyes staring at the camera. This being Spin, she’s set up as the latest lipstick killer, another woman out for some male blood—a Courtney, a Liz, a Lorena. But Bozulich just looks miscast, more sleepy than steely—as if she just woke up to find herself playing Barbara Stanwyck and getting the irony. As Bozulich once described the music of Patti Smith, it’s so “kill, kill, kill, love, love, love, blah, blah, blah.”

The San Pedro/L.A.-bred Bozulich isn’t a runway model, but a runaway. On both her band’s debut, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, and its latest album, Butch, her characters are built around the pleasure of getting into a jam and escaping it. Angels bare wings (“Lilybelle”), junkies flee junkies (“A Song About Walls”), a woman peeks up another’s skirt for salvation (“Dragon Lady”), the singer floats away in a swan ship (“The Dwarf Song”), personalities split (“Seven or in 10”), boys fly like birds (“Butch”), and messages are sent through morphine drips to the dying (“Trashman in Furs”). It’s escape by any means necessary—a world built on magic realism and the stories of Dorothy Allison (who has got to be the most influential woman in rock). You can almost feel the characters sweating out an emotional crash, drug bender, or abusive relationship. And there’s Bozulich in the middle, egging them on, smacking her lips, and flashing a know-it-all smirk.

So when Spin’s RJ Smith dubbed her the “great frontwoman of the moment,” Bozulich probably jumped into her swanmobile and headed for Santa Monica Boulevard. Because right now sure feels like the late-’80s pop diva heyday. The roles for women are still either airhead saints or depraved killers. We get the Spice Girls, that Barbie song, Stevie Nicks again, and Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” (which has now become a drag-queen anthem). With hiphop sounding like ’70s rock, every babe is looking for her sugar daddy somewhere in Miami. On the Alanis side, feminism now sounds close to self-parody. Check Lauren Christy’s “Breed” from the Batman and Robin soundtrack: “I got soil/I got seed/I got 21 goddamn days until I bleed.” Bozulich is past this moment—remember, it’s Butch, not bitch.

Though when you listen to the Fibbers, it’s easy to get caught up in RJ Smith’s platitude. You can hear the front line of fem-rockers being obliterated. It’s easy to see Bozulich as Alice in Wonderland, falling asleep to Patti Smith’s punk, freaking over Liz Phair’s pregnancy, waiting for PJ Harvey to get rid of Nick Cave, and laughing at Courtney Love looking like a stuffed deer on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. “Trashman in Furs,” a surging ballad about a friend dying of AIDS, is similar to Bikini Kill’s “R.I.P.” in its direct emotional force, while “Arrow to My Drunken Eye” is the orchestral answer to Harvey’s spooky “Man-Size Sextet.” “Swim Back to Me” recapitulates all of Live Through This. In this context, Smith sounds right. Bozulich fulfills a utopian rock dream: She’s a singer who sings about the underground, has actually lived it as a self-described “junkie whore,” and has no aspiration to attend the Oscars.

She wants to be every scene’s fugitive lover. Her real of-the-momentness comes from her own version of roots music—even if those roots are the glammy side of L.A. She arrives at a time when most folks locate roots in the alt-country scene helmed by Wilco, Son Volt, and Whiskeytown. Butch only highlights the problems of that scene. She’s not about to play neo-traditionalist. Unlike alternative country, Bozulich’s take on country is relevant but not earnestly retro.

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Butch is escapism in the best rock sense. Sometimes it’s as overblown and pretentious as bad street theater. But much of Butch aches in all the right places, like some carnival version of grand opera. Bozulich takes up somewhere between Harvey’s Rid of Me and Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” The opener, “California Tuffy,” begins with Bozulich’s startlingly dark voice over a simple guitar twang. As the song progresses, the twang becomes a taunt and her voice grows stronger. Her vocals combine the sass of a Kirstie Alley barmaid with Marlene Dietrich vowels and Kim Gordon screams. Settled into a countryish 4/4, the song breaks up into waves of feedback between the choruses. The Velvet Underground, the Fall, and Sonic Youth figure into the mix, as window dressing to be screwed up.

“Toy Box” and “I Killed the Cuckoo” hit in similar ways. Riding bass tides on “Cuckoo,” Bozulich sings, “Doesn’t her smile smack of starvation?/Her legs outstretched towards her salvation/In a word it’s suicide like everything else…Don’t take no for an answer baby doll/Take your pill and wash it down with perfume.” Her utopia has a sense of humor—she is rooting for the waif the entire song. As she screams sarcastically, “I can see it in the tea leaves you’re fucked.”

What Pavement did to indie rock, Bozulich does for alt-country. So it’s no surprise that she keeps that scene at arms length. Although the Fibbers are featured in the current issue of No Depression, Bozulich knows the score. The piece is a short sidebar to a larger interview with the Jayhawks, who took the Fibbers’ violinist. “It was just a gimmick,” Bozulich said to an Atlanta paper. “They got us to enhance their Jayhawks article! It’s sort of like when you look in USA Today and it says, ‘Shuttle Launched Today,’ and it’s, like, the headline, and then there’s a secondary article underneath that says, like, ‘Astronaut’s Dog Found!’ I’m the astronaut’s dog.”

That dog recently stated her philosophy in the ‘zine Ben Is Dead. “Use your strength. Use your smarts. Break out the heavy artillery,” Bozulich writes. “Hold me. Stop me. Try to hold me. I want you. But in the end, I always get away.” Compare this sentiment to Americana’s mewlings and you can see why that scene is destined for the rock ghetto, nothing more than a category in the Columbia House catalog.

While Bozulich sings about getaway cars and great escapes, alt-country singers moan about spinning their wheels and cruising the strip, taking their lessons not so much from Gram Parsons as from Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway.” And when they aren’t driving, they park their muses at local watering holes. Scene bible No Depression plays along as if its editors wrote the thing on beer napkins. ND isn’t critical but downright weepy. In his intro to a piece on Chip Taylor (July/August 1997), editor Grant Alden writes, “In the keen clarity of night, just before descending into dream’s solace—a craving that can no longer be admitted into busy hours of daylight—there is always time enough to suspect that one has not fulfilled the promises of youth.” Doesn’t he have a copy editor? Doesn’t he have Prozac?

It is this white male-angst trip that makes the genre such a cold one. It’s fine to sing about cars and bars—as Robert Christgau once said, these groups are just bar bands—but surely a movement doesn’t begin and end there. Music will not be altered by this. Folks won’t stop buying Garth Brooks records. What alt-country delivers is soulless music made for white boys about white boys. You don’t feel a link to Johnny Cash or Hank Williams (to whom Option once compared Uncle Tupelo). You get copies as lifeless as the dummies in the wax museums of Nashville.

When Bozulich took the stage at the Black Cat recently, it became clear that she’s not so much escaping as hurling herself toward a sound no one can claim. She doesn’t want to be Alden’s next cover—or Emmylou Harris’. Lester Bangs once wrote that the Clash was “the missing link between black music and white noise, rock capable of making a bow to black forms without smearing on the blackface.” Bozulich wants to do that, too, only with hillbilly styles (waltz times, torchy ballads), not black ones. She wants to go beyond roles and role models, to fuck with the punks and cowboys in the audience.

It’s a strange scene to see guitarist Nels Cline and bassist William Tutton pogo while Bozulich sings her bruised country tunes about fruits, fucks, and fierce independence. After covering Can’s “Yoo Doo Right,” as they do on Butch, and Willie Nelson’s “Hand on the Wheel,” everyone leaves the stage except Bozulich and Cline. The two play an extended version of “Outside of Town,” one of her first songs. They layer it with noise and funked feedback. It takes them five minutes to get to the first verse. Bozulich’s guitar (pasted with picture of J.D. Salinger) is down at her knees, her head faces the lights, and she is smiling a big-shit grin.

Midway through the song, a guy in the audience yells, “What is this, avant-garde?” Bozulich ignores him, drops to the floor, gets her guitar close to an amp and strums harder. It’s almost trancelike. Eventually, Cline stops and taps her on the shoulder. It’s time to go.CP