“In the decades since their demise, a mystery has been simmering just beneath the surface. Walk into any respectable, local record store around the country, and it’s like a secret handshake: ‘Do you know the Embarrassment? How the hell did that band come from Kansas?’
“From Kansas, the middle of nowhere! The land of Dorothy and wheat and sunflowers and conformity and total averageness. Reagan-era Middle America.” So says Danny Szlauderbach, co-director of a new documentary, We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember: The Embarrassment, on another one of those best bands you’ve never heard of (except, maybe you have… secret wink).
The Embarrassment… not the Embarrassments, plural, which would be intuitive, and letting you in on the fun. Or at least making sure you knew they were in on it. But the Embarrassment, singular, which is like, what… a poo stain, premature ejaculation, turning up at your daughter’s wedding drunk?
All of which they would probably have embraced, and I have no evidence that they didn’t. That actually would seem to perfectly capture their métier. They were, by all accounts, which I can’t add to personally, but there are many, the greatest non-conformist rock band to ever spring from such unlikely, implausible origins, and then shrink back into obscurity.
And it wasn’t just coming from Kansas — I don’t get the emphasis in the film on that mountain being that steep to climb. It’s who they were and how they looked and how frighteningly naturally they plucked the Sex Pistols sword out of the mythical Punk stone and were so effortlessly and compellingly and savagely good.
They looked like they were in a deliberate costume, of prototypical nerds: plain T-shirts or long-sleeved button-down shirts and jeans and glasses, awkward and gangly, hairstyles without the styles, but they weren’t. This was them. As them. The effect, seeing them in motion, tripping over each other to get into a vintage car in the film, was the Monkees as shapeshifting geeks/demons.
The Embarrassment quite possibly never expected nor looked for their destiny beyond whatever they were doing at the art school they were attending in Wichita. But when Bill Goffrier, John Nichols and Brent Giessmann drove to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1978 to see the Sex Pistols, arriving early to greet them as they got off their tour bus, Destiny grabbed them by their skinny asses and sent them home to form a band, which they did months later, adding Ron Klaus as bass guitarist. They blazed their odd but brilliant musical comet across the midwest firmament for four years, breaking up in 1983. (Giessmann went on to be in the Del Fuegos, and Goffrier formed Big Dipper.)
“There was always something more to the Embarrassment than angry, two-chord structures and distorted vocals. Even their name demonstrated a wry self-awareness and playfulness that, like their gawky appearance, simultaneously legitimized them as a rock outfit and made you smirk, questioning what you were in for even before you heard them play,” says Danny, who has most definitely drunk the Kool Aid. As one must, to be honest, to do a documentary, by definition a labor of love. Especially when it took 15 years to make.
Their songs were danceable, even if they were about extraterrestrials and TV stars (different entities apparently) and American history and horror films (“and sexual frustration,” Danny hastens to add, in case I missed that).
The film, which premiered recently at the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, is clever and exciting and totally transporting. It profers that the Embarrassment were as good as any rock band out of New York or L.A., and speculates that “it seemed to make no sense for them to have existed,” as Danny puts it. They were a Black Swan. Had they lived at either of the music poles, they would have been seamlessly at home. As it was, they were a bright light on the Kansas music scene. Which, when you let that sink in, is the disconnect.
They came close to mainstream success but never arrived. John Cale wanted to produce them. In SPIN, in 1985, Mike Mills gave a shoutout to the Embarrassment as part of the scene that R.E.M. was then emerging from. Jonathan Demme and Allen Ginsberg recommended them to major-label executives, but, you know, who at a record label was going to listen to Allen Ginsberg for groups to sign? R.E.M. eventually got to the point, sharing the college-town circuit, that they wouldn’t let the Embos, as they were colloquially known, open for them, because they were afraid of following them. The Embarrassment were that good.
Forty years later we get a second shot to see them! Look for the documentary, coming to a screening near you, and eventually, of course, one of the streamers.
Here’s the world tour of the screenings…
June 30 – Lawrence, Kansas @ Liberty Hall (part of Free State Film Festival, with Embarrassment reunion concert following screening)
July 9 – Chicago, IL @ The Hideout (with Bill Goffrier solo performance following screening, director Q&A)
July 12 – Kansas City, MO @ Stray Cat Film Center
July 26 – Brooklyn, NY @ Nitehawk Prospect Park (with drummer Woody Giessmann & director Q&A)
July 27 – Los Angeles, CA @ Brain Dead Studios (intro by Adventures of Pete & Pete creator Will McRobb & director Q&A)
Aug 8 – Athens, GA @ Flicker Theatre & Bar (free screening)
Aug 17-19 – Wichita, KS @ Tallgrass Film Center. We’re back in Kansas, Toto! There really is no place like home.