Perfect Sound Forever

California Tuffy:
A short history of Carla Bozulich and the Geraldine Fibbers

By Meg Wise-Lawrence (July 1999)

Not a boy.
Not a girl.
Not anything.
Not anything.
--Carla Bozulich "Stay in Bed"

Hardcore fans might remember Carla Bozulich from Ethyl Meatplow in the early '90's, but the talent of Bozulich struck me like a homing beacon when I first heard her with the Geraldine Fibbers in '95. A good friend had sent the debut CD to me with a money back guarantee, and with my usual cynicism I cued up and prepared to hate it.

Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home begins with a lilting yet moaning viola. Then comes the crash of drums and guitar. And suddenly it chills for a spell and Carla's alto breaks in:

In the dark she is rocking, not to records but to voices in her head...

Then a melodic crash of sound ("it feels just like High Noon"-- um, the John Wayne movie) and:

Male chorus: Get off that trip
Carla: Don't touch it baby.
Guys in band: Get off that trip... You'll burn your pretty fingers.

The music crescendos yet again, sending the listener into fits of ecstasy (or epilepsy). Carla Bozulich sings-- no, rails (controlled passion; dry ice)-- with the freezing flames of the Venetian courtesan or the modern girl of the streets:

"Scissors and paper and other sharp things you can chew on for awhile you're trained dog girl you got house and a heart of gold won't you try to forget won't you let me won't you let me go to sleep close your eyes shut it down pull the plug kill the lights shut it up... let your head go under... let your head go to nothing nothing nothing nothing girl"

The music of the Geraldine Fibbers, which evolved from L.A.'s post-punk scene, seemed tailor-made for Bozulich's bluesy evocations of the southern California rock 'n' roll evolution: witchy women were transforming into tuff gnarlin' grrls. What were the boys of summer to do now but watch, confused and transfixed?

Musically, the Fibbers marriage between rock 'n' roll, country and punk (with wonderfully constructed guitar and fiddle consummations) worked perfectly amid the darkly confessional lyrics. Bozulich's husky voice seemed to catch in my own throat like a forgotten gender-memory. Okay, I was hooked.

Unlike the band X (formed in '77 by Exene Cervenka, John Doe and Billy Zoom), Bozulich didn't just flirt with the country rock sound-- she took it back to the trailer park and really got to know it. With William Tutton on stand up bass, Jessy Greene (and later Leyna Malika) on electric violin, Kevin Fitzgerald on drums, and Daniel Keenan on guitar, the Fibbers rocked and rolled-- without missing that millennium beat between punk, jazz, funk and country.

Back when Bozulich was the yin to John Napier's yang in the funky, sometimes clunky, band Ethyl Meatplow (Happy Days, Sweetheart, which was produced by Barry Adamson, an original member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, as well as former bassist for the bleak pre-drone band Magazine), her talent was not yet in full blossom.

It wasn't until the break with Meatplow that Bozulich hit her stride. In '95, not only did she sing two tracks on Mike Watt's fun 'n' funky Ball-Hog or Tugboat? (including my personal Watt favorite, "Sidemouse Advice"), but Carla Bozulich's hard work had finally gotten her a contract with Virgin Records. Fronting one of the truly seminal bands to come out of L.A. (okay, along with the Doors), the Geraldine Fibbers released Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home (1995). Even Spin Magazine rose and took note, voting them one of the best new bands of the year.

The X country-western LA influence was most clearly eluded to in Which Part of Get Thee Gone Don't You Understand? While it wasn't an official follow-up, but rather a compilation of outtakes and live tracks, its inclusion of such underrated classics as the brilliant little ditty "She's A Dog," only illuminated Bozulich's talent as a singer/songwriter.

(Regarding What Part of Get Thee, hearing such live performances as "The Grand Tour" attests to Bozulich's perfect balance of originality and professionalism. The covers of Dolly Parton's "Jolane" and Bobbie Gentry's "Fancy" illuminate Bozulich's own darker song tales; while other covers, such as "Pills," "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me," and "Kiss of Fire," breathe a life --both dark and light-- all of their own. And lest you think her sound is merely throwback, postmodern posterchild Beck Hanson contributed the poignantly apt "Blue Cross." Bozulich's light yet cynical vocals never cease to send a shiver when she sings, "She's a blue cross....")

With Nels Cline (replacing Daniel Keenan) on guitar, the Geraldine Fibbers released Butch in '97. It was a great album but despite excellent reviews, Virgin dropped the band. But Bozulich has promised more from the Fibbers (and I'm holding you to it, Carla).

Strapped for money, Bozulich had to rely upon a trade learned from her stepfather: housepainting. Nevertheless, she and Nels Cline, whose experimental jazz guitar has graced Mike Watt's performances among others, released Scarnella (an anagram for his and Carla's names).

A disappointment to some of the more hardcore fans, I found the album laced with a certain unavoidable and melancholy maturity that made me yearn for more. Where is Carla Bozulich going from here? All I know is that, like Patti Smith, Bozulich's songs elude to strange and beautiful things: starships, abuse and redemption, out-of-place females, the seduction and illusion of reality. About Smith, Bozulich wrote:
"It's hard to say who my biggest influence is. So many inspired me, changed me, raised me, fucked with my perception of reality and let me know I was not the only freak on a planet of Stepford Wives, but let's talk about Patti Smith. "When I was 12, I saw her do "Gloria" on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. She disturbed me. She was the most defiant woman I had ever seen. No make up. No bra. Unshaved. Singing about another chick. This one had circumvented everything by which other women had silently agreed to abide. She didn't care about seeming sweet or pretty or nice or fuckable. It was dirty, like the insides of a real person. It was raw power, reckless abandon, there was a knife in her voice. "To me, Patti Smith is about taking risks. Things I've learned from her: Go out on a limb. Don't try to control every element of a song or a show. Let chance have its way with you. Risk embarrassment or imperfection in order to allow spontaneity to run its course. Be proud. Have guts. Kill, kill, kill. Love, love, love. Blah, blah, blah."
--Alternative Press, November 1996
Like Gustav Mahler (whom Bozulich wrote an homage to in the 'zine Ben Is Dead), Bozulich's music can be simultaneously tragic and life-affirming. With the Fibbers, her odes to love and heroin lost join the canon with the Rolling Stones classic Sticky Fingers.

The sadness does escape me now. I care not where I go. The black old moon takes off my clothes, and throws me in the snow.
-- "Get Thee Gone"

Bozulich's songs are as breath-takingly angry and tear-stained as the Stones, Lou Reed, and Neil Young. Bozulich's songs are transcendent. Maybe that's because it's the '90's and even music evolves. Whatever the case, I think Billie Holliday would approve.

I was lucky enough to have a cross country cyberchat with her recently about what else she's been up to (despite the fact that the computer Carla was on was making a sound like "filing metal on a buffing machine").

PSF: What's up musically?

Carla Bozulich: Artistically, Scarnella is my main focus; I am also in Nels' instrumental 6-piece called Destroy All Nels Cline. I'm starting to hatch a plan as to which of my own projects I want to pursue next.

I want to do two albums: a new Fibbers album and an album of very strange dance-y kinda stuff. I haven't decided which to do first, but right now I can't really think about either because I am losing my footing financially and need to do something lucrative before I can even consider these projects. The need to survive is winning. But I am happier right now than I've ever been! I just need to try to anchor myself to an annoying work regimen very soon.

PSF: When can we expect a new CD?

Carla: Well, I'll have to get myself strong enough financially to be able to do those projects with no concern for how many sell and on a label that does not expect radio airplay in this ridiculously conservative and generic radio age. I'm not complaining. I don't want to be on the radio-- commercial radio, that is. The programming does not consider art of originality or inspiration to be relevant elements of music. I have given up on making money off of what I feel is my most important work. That work is not going to appeal to large audiences, at least not in these conservative times. I need other ways of making money to support my "art habit."

PSF: I know what you mean. So what ways have you discovered?

Carla: Elbow grease... I know I could be on a major label again-- I have been approached by several-- but I just can't seem to stomach the inherent sickness of it all right now. I may not ever be able to. Don't get me wrong though, I am grateful for the run on Virgin Records. They supported us all for four years! I was able to get a great publishing deal which enabled me to buy a house (that I'm fighting to keep) but I don't know if I could ever go through that fucking shit ever again. I shiver to think of how I'd be doing right now (I've had a tough year). Those dollars have saved my life.

PSF: Do you ever miss the Ethyl Meatplow days?

Carla: No, but I dream of Meatplow sometimes when I am working stuff out in my sleep.

PSF: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What propels you?

Carla: Hope gets me out of bed. And I am propelled by an overwhelming love for man, woman, and art.

PSF: Some folks from the Fibbers mailing list want to know if "Marmalade" was ever a video and was a French version of Butch released?

Carla: Ahhh, those folks are precious. I mean it very sincerely... "Marmalade" was never a video and I don't know about French version of Butch.

PSF: What would you like to tell your fans?

Carla: I just typed out a whole thing to tell the people who have supported me, but it was too silly, so I deleted it. Suffice to say, almost all of you [fans] are strange and smart and even though there are not thousands of you in every town, I wouldn't trade any one of the people I've spoken to for any 1000 generic musi-clones.

PSF: Thanks Carla!

Get ready for the change.
The one that never comes.
So happy when you're crying.
So ancient when you're young.

Wake, Sleeping Beauty.
Stay in bed with me.
You know it's coming.
Stay in bed with me.

Mad about the girl
That lives inside the man.
Drowns just like Ophelia
And flies like Peter Pan.
--"Stay in Bed"

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