Maynard-Lao Archive: Item 0003 [Violent Femmes at Carnegie Hall t-shirt]

As I explained in an earlier post, I’m in the process of making my way through the house and separating the wheat from the chaff, determining which items will remain here in our 180 year old home, and which will be jettisoned into the ever-churning gyre of filth and garbage that surrounds us. Well, what follows is my justification for continuing to keep a t-shirt that I’ve been dragging though life with me for these past 33 years — a t-shirt purchased from a juvenile delinquent at New York City’s Carnegie Hall during my senior year of high school, on the evening of Friday, March 7, 1986. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the third item to be officially placed in the Maynard-Lao family archive, my Violent Femmes t-shirt.

TITLE: Violent Femmes at Carnegie Hall t-shirt
DESCRIPTION: This, the second t-shirt to be added into the archive, is special to me as I believe it’s the only evidence that exists to prove that I was among the rotten, “thoroughly spoiled” miscreants to have defiled the illustrious Carnegie Hall that storied evening in 1986, when Violent Femmes visited New York City from Milwaukee.

Thoroughly spoiled” is what the New York Times called us, but I’ll get back to that in a minute. [They also called us, “young, well-groomed (and) restive.” All of which, according to my recollection, were true.] First, though, I wanted to talk a bit about the Violent Femmes, the three-piece from Milwaukee that instigated the near-riot that night. They were, at least among my small circle of friends, an incredibly powerful influence. Living in a somewhat rural part of New Jersey at the time, I don’t think I heard anything by them until a year or more after their first record came out in 1983, but, when I finally did, it hit me like a neutron bomb. I was probably about 16 or 17, and I guess the conditions were just right. I was an awkward, hormone-addled kid looking for any opportunity I could to rebel, and songs like Add It Up just pushed all the right teen angst buttons. The soil, I guess you could say, was ready for something like Violent Femmes, with their angry songs of unrequited love and the internal turmoil that comes with the feeling that you’re never going to fit in and find your place in the world. In another culture, at another time, I may have become a suicide bomber. Thankfully, though, being a white American male in the mid-80s, I got to be a fan of the Violent Femmes.

I don’t remember where or when I got my hands on my first Femmes record. If I had to guess, I’d say I probably bought a tape from Brian Sferra at Country Pie Records in downtown Newton, New Jersey, which was about a ten minute walk from my high school. It seems like something that I’d remember, given how many times I’d end up listened to that first record, but I don’t. I do, however, remember finding out from Brian that there was a Slash Records compilation, called The Early Sessions, and asking him to order a copy for me, hoping that their label-mates might be cut from the same cloth.

As an aside, I know that the internet is great, and it’s awesome to have everything right at you fingertips, but you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that life was better when you actually had to discover shit for yourself. And it makes me sad that kids today will never know the joy of ordering a tape from a little, local record store, going every couple of days for a week to see if it had come in, and then finally being able to pop it into a car stereo to hear the likes of X, The Germs, and the Gun Club for the first time. It was just incredible.

But, yeah, it was completely nuts that night at Carnegie Hall, and the New York Times was absolutely right to call out the behavior of the audience, which was comprise almost exclusively of kids around my age. I remember thinking that people were going to die. My memory is somewhat foggy, as it happened almost exactly a third-of-a-century ago, but I seem to recall people trying to climb down from the balcony… like actually hanging off the railings, and dangling 30-some feet in the air. I don’t remember seeing people actually drop, but I remember this constant dread that someone was going to actually do it and break their neck. [I kind of have a vague memory of people trying to climb down draperies like rats.] The members of the band kept urging people to calm down, to stop rushing the stage, and to stop throwing things, but, the more they pled, the worse it got. According to the New York Times coverage noted above, Brian Ritchie, the Femmes’ bassist, said at one point, “We don’t care where we’re playing, we don’t want the audience onstage,” threatening to walk off and end the show. If I’m not mistaken, he said this after a number of people climbed onto the stage to grab him and pat his bald head before leaping back into the undulating crowd. [The show, as I recall, was stopped several times by the band, who, you could tell, didn’t like being put in the position of being authority figures. In retrospect, it’s kind of funny. Here they were, dressed in robes and the like, trying to give off the impression that they didn’t give a fuck, and they were put into a position where they had to admonish us, like they were “the man”. Ironic, right?]

The people at Carnegie Hall clearly had no idea what in the fuck they were dealing with. It was complete pandemonium from the beginning. When my friends and I found our seats, we were immediately offered shirts by the guys sitting in front of us, who, as I recall, said that they’d knocked over a merch table and absconded with several dozen. And I still feel bad about it, but I bought one from them. [It’s the shirt that this post is ostensibly about.] I’d like to say that I was inebriated, as I’m not usually in the practice of purchasing stolen goods, but I wasn’t. I hadn’t had a single beer, but the mob mentality, I guess, had kind of taken ahold of me. I didn’t boo, or throw things on stage when Leo Kottke — who opened for the Femmes — was playing, and I didn’t run up on stage to take a swing at a member of the band, but I suspect, in addition to buying stolen merchandise, I did my share of kicking seats and doing other things that Eagle Scouts from small towns in New Jersey probably shouldn’t do.

Lest I give you the wrong idea, this wasn’t that dangerous of a show. I’ve been to much worse ones, where I really thought that I might be crushed to death against barricades, as literally thousands of people pushed against me, and where skinheads were clearly looking for fights. This show, though, was one of the most anarchistic in spirit. The older folks who ran Carnegie Hall just had no idea whatsoever what they were dealing with. And I just got this really clear sense of these two cultures clashing, which you didn’t really get at other punk shows, even if they were louder, more violent, or whatever. This just seemed more historic somehow. It felt like something important. And, while I don’t really appreciate the Femmes the way that I once did, I’ll always have fond memories of this show, which I believe may have been just the second non-stadium show I’d gone to without adult supervision. [The fist such show was Steppenwolf in Elizabeth, New Jersey.]

Oh, I should also mention that the tickets to this Femmes show were incredibly hard to come by. I think the show probably sold out in minutes, but I got four tickets by calling the box-office repeatedly. I remember being stressed about who I’d invite, but ultimately I ended up offering tickets to my friends Rob, Dan, and Anthony, who, I believe, turned 18 on the day of the show.

I could go on, but that should be enough for most anyone in the audience, I suspect.

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  1. breaking news
    Posted May 10, 2019 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    They played last night in Austin, Texas with X.

  2. Max
    Posted May 10, 2019 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Awesome! I’m amazed that the shirt has held up so well after all these years. The first show I drove to myself was the Ramones at the Kalamazoo State Theater. You are correct that the pre-internet days of having to find music yourself made it so much more special. You’d hear a snippet of a song on the radio or in a movie and have no way of knowing who it was until stumbling onto sometimes years later.

  3. Gillian
    Posted May 10, 2019 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I remember when you guys went to this- I was so jealous! The first time I saw them was in a gymnasium at Rutgers–no riots, but a great show nonetheless

  4. Billy LaLonde
    Posted May 10, 2019 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    The death of a t shirt is one of life’s bittersweet moments. It’s odd how our minds assign such memory and emotion to a piece of fabric, but it does. So many great t shirts over the years, with so much blood sweat and tears ground into them… walking around like human Carebears… literally wearing our hearts on our sleeves…

  5. Nathan DeYonker
    Posted May 10, 2019 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Indeed! I almost cried when I was working in a lab and got enough hydrochloric acid on my Polvo shirt to have to retire it.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted May 10, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    You made me look up the show last night in Austin, breaking news. Here’s video.

  7. Posted May 12, 2019 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    As coincidence would have it, Linette was at that show in Austin, and she said that it was great. And, in retrospect, I should have probably just had my friends draw lots to decide who would accompany me. It was too stressful.

  8. stupid hick
    Posted May 13, 2019 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I was excited to go to their 1985 concert at the Michigan Theater but it was kind of a dud.

  9. Mike
    Posted May 13, 2019 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    For anyone who missed it a few years ago, take 15 minutes to read this brilliant review of The Violent Femmes’ first record by JK Rowling. Ruth and Martin somehow get famous people to listen and review an influential album they had never heard of before. Hers is by far the most entertaining.

  10. Rob
    Posted September 3, 2020 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Love this! I was at this show and remember it very similarly.

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