Review: The Other Sides of Kansas

The Embarrassment in "We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember"

Most people assume the Embarrassment, hailing from Kansas means that midwestern state’s Big College Town, Lawrence. But these punk rockers met in Wichita grade school in the 1970s, outsiders crashing an outsider style. Even at full tilt, the band looked like four high school chess clubbers chased by a non-threatening loner aura—they made hip seem mannered. The band’s sound—at once incisive and loose, targeted yet scattershot—doesn’t fit even the most expansive definition of punk.

If we live in a golden age of documentaries, too many of them go on for too long without really revealing that much. In “We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember,” directors Daniel Fetherston and Danny Szlauderbach approach this great left-of-center group with earnestness and care, detailing the many sideshows (”Ron Klaus Wrecked His House”) and drive-bys (”Wellsville”). The lyrics bend sideways in the best possible way (in “Elizabeth Montgomery’s Face,” “her cheeks are a running race to see who gets to her collarbone first…”). But you can’t explain human paradoxes like the Embarrassment, and once the band’s playing cuts back in from the talking heads, the distance between the film and its soundtrack turns precarious. Put on the Embarrassment after watching this and you slip straight back into their uncommonly jerky pleasures, unburdened by reason.

Perhaps earnestness suits this subject, since Fetherston and Szlauderbach have gobs of live footage that gallops with intrigue: imagining what the group that makes these sounds might look like always proved tricky, seeing the band perform so matter-of-factly enhances the perplexity. To start with, Embarrassment records don’t sound the least bit angry. The group’s energy comes from some more peculiar place, a nervous slipstream that sidesteps romance. Its sound de-emphasizes fast-and-loud, the ensemble leans into its quirky hooks, as if songs could take the form of horn-rimmed glasses.

Guitarist Bill Goffrier once remarked how “You can’t have a successful rock’n’roll band until you first have a painting degree.” “We Were Famous…” emphasizes the preening banality of Wichita by intercutting each player’s home movies with an old 1960s documentary made by the Suburban Zombie Chamber of Commerce. Like that old National Lampoon joke about Tonight Show’s sidekick Ed McMahon’s celebrity assassin, “What kind of sicko would BOTHER to kill Ed McMahon?” A couple shots of Reagan would suffice. Why beat that dead Kansas horse about midwestern mediocrity? Sure, it heightens the contrast to the Embarrassment’s mission: Poking holes in Wichita’s grandiose banality counts as the rare sane response to sprawling malls and tumbleweed smiles. These art students probed hidden worlds that sound oblivious to everybody else, and over a slim selection of records (a single, an EP, scattered compilations tracks, and only one full-length 1983 LP, Death Travels West), created a ripple in punk space-time. 

All the usual rock-doc tropes tumble forward, so you learn about how guitarist Goffrier and drummer Brent Geissman wrote their first song together in grade school, and grew up in the same apartment complex as first bassist, John Nichols. Later, Nichols moved out front to sing lead and Ron Klaus joined on bass. As teens, they drove 150 miles through a blizzard to see the Sex Pistols in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which sealed their punk ambition.

The film can’t explain the distance between all the talking heads (including Freedy Johnston, the Lemonheads’s Evan Dando, and Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart) and the peculiar sounds that recoil off these interviews. The band’s output proves sparse: one single (”Patio Set”/”Sex Drive”), five songs on a midwestern punk compilation (Fresh Sounds From middle America No. 1), an EP Cynycyl Records, and 1983’s Death Travels West. Then: poof! they’re gone. Geissman joined Boston’s Del Fuegos, Goffrier landed in Big Dipper, both of which reached more ears without nearly as much rattle. Since the breakup, the Embarrassment played the odd New Year’s reunion gigs at their hometown Bottleneck club. But blink, and forty trips around the sun later, political gadfly and author Thomas Frank  (What’s the Matter With Kansas?) sits down to rave about how much the group still means to him. After all, these Wichita warlocks covered the classic Seeds garage number, “Pushin’ Too Hard,” and made it sound like a premonition.

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