REVENGE OF THE GEEK
It's probably not a good idea to take literally singer-songwriter Lisa Germano's claim, "In the beginning, I was thinking I was going to do a happy record." After all, her terrific 1993 disc Happiness balanced gallows humor with material that was about as upbeat and chipper as your average funeral service--and her latest recording, the astounding Geek the Girl, is even bleaker. Listening to it when you're in a bad mood may be hazardous to your health.
According to Germano, Geek's dark tone can be traced to the circumstances of its recording. The quirky Happiness originally had been released by Capitol Records, and even though it received rapturous reviews, the label's minions (who'd signed Germano in large part because she was then the violinist in John Mellencamp's band) seemingly had no clue what to do with it. Fortunately, Ivo Watts-Russell from the 4AD label--home to the Cocteau Twins, among many others--recognized Germano's potential and freed her from her Capitol bondage. 4AD eventually rereleased Happiness, supplemented by several new songs, in mid-1994, but only after Germano had spent two months in limbo.
"During that period, I was home and I had nothing to do," she remembers. "And I had a dead album that might be resurrected, but probably not. There were a lot of hard things to go through, so I just decided to record."
Geek contains twelve indications of the torment through which she was passing, each presented in near-demo form. Germano worked at her house in Indiana using an ADAT machine and initially played all the instruments herself; a few drum and guitar parts, credited either to Kenny Aronoff or co-producer Malcolm Burn, were added later. Even Germano admits to being somewhat unsettled by the music she created. "I wasn't planning on writing about sexual issues," she insists, "but that's what came out, mixed with all this other stuff about being confused about how to be a person. A lot of the songs surprised me."
Particularly jarring are "Cry Wolf," a track about date rape that was inspired by imprisoned boxer Mike Tyson, and "Little Girl Princess," an unexpectedly naked autobiographical offering. But even these two soul-barers seem timid by comparison with "...a psychopath," which was inspired by a man who stalked the singer for several years. The song's harrowing subject matter becomes even more disturbing when juxtaposed with a tape of a 911 call made to a rape crisis center in Houston that's affixed to the track.
To Germano, the threat of violence is an all too familiar scenario. "At least three times I've called the cops when I've been hysterical and thought I've heard something, and they've been like, `Go to the door and ask who it is,'" she recalls. "And I'm like, `What?' And they say, `Go to the door. Let them know that you're not scared.' And I'm like, `I am scared. I'm sitting here in the corner.' They go, `Now don't be paranoid. It might be somebody who's drunk and he's just at the wrong door.' And I'm like, `Listen, I've gotten letters from someone who says God tells him that we have to make up and get back together. I'm sorry, but I need help right now.'"
Sometimes assistance arrived and sometimes it didn't. Nonetheless, Germano believes she was--and still is--in serious danger: The individual stalking her recently was released from jail, she says, after being convicted of attacking a man "who God told him I was with." She hasn't heard from the stalker since Christmas 1993, but she doesn't consider herself safe. Including the composition on Geek, then, is a very real risk--but one that she felt she had to take.
"My sister said, `Lisa, don't put that song on the record. He's just going to get excited about it,'" Germano reveals. "But I think people have to face these fears. Besides, I have a burglar-alarm system now, and I have baseball bats and mace all over the place." She pauses before saying, "I'll kill him. I really will. He intrudes on my life, and the whole point of this record is that life is hard enough just trying to figure out who you are without having to deal with something like that." She goes on to say that she's asked interviewers in Indiana to avoid mentioning "...a psychopath" in articles and has requested that radio stations in the area stay clear of the song.
No doubt heartland broadcasters would have made that choice independently, since "...a psychopath" sounds about as much like a breakthrough smash as, say, a recording of primal scream therapy. The only tune on Geek that exhibits as much as a smidgeon of commercial potential is the single "Stars"; the other numbers, though frequently brilliant and provocative, remain an acquired taste. 4AD publicists compare the album to Lou Reed's 1973 platter Berlin, a song cycle about sadomasochistic drug addicts that even its admirers describe as one of the most depressing collections ever committed to vinyl. So challenging is Germano's latest that she doubts the folks at Capitol would have given more than two seconds' thought to making it available to the public.
"My A&R guy there would have shit if I would have handed him this," she says. "He absolutely would have laughed and said, `Yeah, sure.'"
The reason, she believes, had everything to do with the Mellencamp factor. Germano was a staple of the band put together by the onetime Mr. Cougar; he was impressed enough by her songwriting to include one of her compositions on the soundtrack to the 1992 film Falling From Grace, a megaflop that marked his directorial debut. This led to On the Way Down From the Moon Palace, Germano's first album, which she released on her own Major Bill label. Capitol's offer followed, but after completing Happiness, Germano learned that the company's braintrust saw her as an extension of Mellencamp rather than an artist in her own right.
"I heard some of the publicists on the phone one day and I was absolutely shocked," she notes. "At the time, you had Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair and P.J. Harvey all out, and I just said, `How would you possibly try to sell one of those three girls if they didn't play a fiddle with John Mellencamp?' But Capitol was so into thinking that mentioning him was the only way they could promote my weird record that I lost any opportunity for people who might have liked it to hear it. And radio wouldn't even listen to it. College alternative would say, `We don't play John Mellencamp here,' but when stations that played John got it, they'd say, `This isn't anything like John.' It was a really destructive way of trying to market me."
In spite of these problems, Germano goes to great pains not to knock Mellencamp personally. "I'm totally proud of everything I did with John, and we're still good friends--I'll probably work with him again at some point," she claims. "I get people who are into alternative saying to me, `God, Lisa, how did you ever put up with playing with John?' And I'm like, `Why do you have that attitude? It was wonderful. It was great. I loved it. Why do you have to cut that down in order to like me?'"
With Geek, Germano finally seems to be emerging from her ex-employer's shadow: Although Entertainment Weekly reviewer Josef Woodard couldn't resist describing her as the "former John Mellencamp violinist," he gave the recording an A+ rating. Meanwhile, Germano is discovering that she's become a muse for an growing number of young men and women who identify with her emotionally stark tales of love, loss and terror.
"I had a lady come up to me one day after Happiness came out, and she told me, `I just wanted to tell you that I listened to that record every day for the last two months just to get through the day,'" she says. "So that made that a successful record right there. I'm learning that there are a lot of people out there who feel the way I do." She chuckles while adding, "Usually we wind up having some sort of talk about therapy."
Pale Saints, with Lisa Germano and Idaho. 9 p.m. Monday, November 14, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $5.25, 447-0095 or 290-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.