The Embarrassment in “We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember”
The Other Side of Kansas
Independent Magazine, December 29, 2022
IF WE LIVE IN A GOLDEN AGE of documentaries, too many of them go on for too long without revealing much. In “We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember,” directors Daniel Fetherston and Danny Szlauderbach approach the Embarrassment, punk’s great left-of-center act, with earnestness and care, detailing the many sideshows (“Ron Klaus Wrecked His House”) and drive-bys (”Wellsville”). Some of this goes against the music’s caterwauling grain, and only accents the band’s freefall strangeness; on the other hand, it’s impossible to imagine how this content might guide a better form.
Most assume hailing from Kansas means that midwestern state’s Big College Town, Lawrence. But punk rockers the Embarrassment 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.
You can’t explain human paradoxes like the Embarrassment, and once the band’s playing cuts back in from the talking heads, the men reflecting back with matter-of-fact candor, the distance between the film and its soundtrack turns precarious. Put on the Embarrassment after watching this and you slip straight back into their jerky pleasures, unburdened by reason.
The band’s sound—at once incisive and loose, targeted yet scattershot—doesn’t fit even the most expansive definition of punk.
Perhaps earnestness suits this subject, since Fetherston and Szlauderbach have gobs of galloping live footage: imagining what these players 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. The band de-emphasizes fast-and-loud, and 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 Banala Idea 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?” This heightens the contrast to the Embarrassment’s mission: Poking holes in Wichita’s plainspoken pretense 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.
The band de-emphasizes fast-and-loud, and leans into its quirky hooks, as if songs could take the form of horn-rimmed glasses.
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 noises that bounce 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, like one of their jerk-motion songs, they’re gone. Geissman joined Boston’s Del Fuegos, Goffrier landed in Big Dipper, both of which reached more ears without nearly as much intrigue.
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?) sat down to rave about how much the group still means to him. After all, these Wichita warlocks went after the classic Seeds garage number, “Pushin’ Too Hard,” from such a sideways angle it made a lot of other punk rockers seem overwrought.