Songs That Fall from the Sky

Meet the Handsome Family: The story of the band that forgot time

"She sat down and we started talking and pulling on the bottle and kind of bonded. Then my date showed up, and I think the three of us went to a party. I ended up hanging out with Rennie and pretty much hanging out with her ever since. This was 1986 or '87. I was 23, I think, and Rennie would have been 20. I was in graduate school, she was an undergraduate. Rennie finished and went to the University of Michigan for an MFA program in creative writing. I followed her a year later. I worked in a music store in Ann Arbor for a year or so while she was finishing her degree. I'm just kind of a thirsty, hungry musical person. I went through a phase where I didn't listen to anything but opera for months. I went through a phase where I didn't listen to anything but art music, classical music that was composed in the 20th century, like John Cage, Stockhausen, Schoenberg.

"When I was in New York, somebody gave me a Hank Williams greatest hits tape. I was really just knocked down by its raw power. Really punk, very edgy. The lyrics were great, the music was great, and it was really simple. At the same time I was also really getting into Bob Dylan, and I saw the obvious line between the two of them. I was gravitating a little bit. I was in a rockabilly band that was basically playing all the material from Elvis's Sun Sessions. I was getting closer and closer to that kind of thing.

"When we lived in Ann Arbor, they had a great library with tons of records. I gradually checked them all out. Among those things was the Anthology of American Folk Music, the Folkways thing compiled by Harry Smith. It was another tire-iron over the head, like Hank Williams was. I started trying to write country stuff.

"It wasn't until we'd been married for about five years, and I was just working on my four-track stuff, that I asked Rennie to revise some lyrics that I'd written to a country song. They were cheesy, baby-oh-baby lyrics. She turned the song into a murder ballad. That was 'Arlene,' a song on our first record, and we still play it live."

c. Rennie explains

HOW THE WEST WAS WON

After winning the saddest girl in the world contest for six consecutive years, Rennie took to the streets, wandering from town to town wearing a tall pointed hat and warning people of her approach with a loud wooden clapper, not unlike the ones used by lepers in the middle ages. On the side of a dusty highway she laid eyes on Brett, wearing nothing but muddy overalls and a tin foil hat. He was singing Schubert at the top of his lungs and electrical sparks were flying intermittently from his fingertips.

"I'm a human battery," he explained, apologetically. "I often explode light bulbs just by looking at them."

"Do you like tequila?" Rennie asked. "I make my own using tea bags, number 2 pencils, and spider webs."

After several years of drinking, plate smashing, and falling down stairs and/or tumbling from icy sidewalks into busy streets, the two began collaborating on a letter to be sent to the President, the heads of all TV networks, and random people on the street wearing the color burnt umber.

Eventually the letter reached 80,000 words and still neither was satisfied with the results. However, when separated out into small sections, the letter revealed secret messages and suggestions of melody. Thus The Handsome Family's first songs took shape. Their first record was banned in several states, allegedly causing tumors and skin rashes upon repeated listenings.

Later albums refined The Handsome Family sound, and listeners reported brighter teeth, fresher breath, increased concentration, and a sexual energy verging on euphoria. The Handsome Family's latest record, Last Days of Wonder, has only just been released but already it's helped pull an elephant out of a muddy ditch and led hundreds of orphans across miles of wilderness to a truck stop in Denver where they were served hot chocolate and allowed to use the trucker phones. Rennie now only weeps approximately one hour per day and her tears are full of vital minerals that help plants bloom and birds to hone into magnetic fields during their migrations. Brett still sings Schubert, but he wears a shirt with his overalls and washes his face almost every day.

III. THE HANDSOME FAMILY ARE SAVED BY A WALGREEN'S CLERK

The Handsome Family's first record, Odessa, released in 1995, captures a fledgling band still in the process of deciding what it wants to be. Brett calls it "half a punk-rock record. Like a Bad Brains record. Half is a noisy record, and half is, like, not traditional country, but Nashville country circa 1963." They had moved from Ann Arbor to Chicago by then, into an apartment on "a busy, dirty street that was really noisy," in Rennie's words. Both were workplace transients, toiling at serial temp or short-term office jobs.

"I worked as a receptionist and secretary," Rennie says, "and then I did a lot of boring computer graphics, like page layouts for computerized tests for school kids. It was the same thing over and over, and it drives you crazy after a while. Because it's so quiet, and nobody does anything but goes to work and comes home, and that's that. The places I worked were all these forgotten places full of people who'd been left behind when all the good jobs were offered."

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