Joan Didion, noted woman of letters (and born of California's Central Valley) said that we, “search for the sermon in the suicide.” Meaning, we look for the narrative in all things, the story we need to tell ourselves in order to live. We seek this narrative because the idea of “knowing” makes a difference to our experience. We live by the imposition of the narrative upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria that is our actual experience. That is, until the contradictions of everyday life splinter the narrative and leave us to our fate. How long can we hold on to the idea that there is a maudlin greeting card sentiment for each of life’s torments? To understand the musical narrative of Judith and Holofernes, one must begin at the beginning, before they became a band.
It all began in a rural town in the California Central Valley, a small agricultural community comprised predominantly of Portuguese dairy farmers and immigrant Mexican field laborers. The town was a picture of industrious country living. Hard-working humble families, sleepy neighborhoods, fields filled with fruits and vegetables and almond orchards nestled amongst frontage roads, railroad tracks and irrigation ditches. Everyone knows (or is somehow related to) everyone else.
In kindergarten, two boys, Chris and Charles, became friends. They were neighbors and shared the joys that a small town affords children: a skateboard ramp in the street, swimming at Charles’ house after school, and, once they hit sixth grade, jamming in Charles’ garage. Chris and Charles started the first of many bands together; they would go on to play in bands for the next twenty years. Charles played drums, Chris played guitar and sang, and most of their friends, at one point or another, played alongside them. Chris, the more bookish of the pair, had a wild imagination and a proclivity for science, which often spilled over into his lyrics. As the band developed, so did their subject matter: African termites, plate tectonics, fruit and seed distribution, photosynthesis and Socratic pedophilia all found their way into songs.
As the boys grew into teens and got driver’s licenses, they began to play gigs. Their band, enduring several changes in both name and personnel, began playing in the small local scene of bands, most of them of the mediocre punk variety. Most small town bands either toil in shameless imitation of “big city” bands or spend a few years figuring out that they really aren’t that good (despite what their girlfriends may tell them). Chris and Charles, having played together all through elementary and high school, managed to define a distinct style all their own; shortly after high school, they began recording and releasing albums. I met both Chris and Charles around this time, as our bands had occasion to play together. When Chris yearned on stage to return to the comforts provided by his mother’s womb, most show-goers didn’t quite know what to make of it.
In the mid ’90s, the band became even more productive, but that period also saw Charles experiencing serious stomach illnesses. Doctors speculated, trying various dietary regiments, operations, and, finally, prescriptions. What followed were several years of grueling pain--a pain born in Charles that quickly spread to all around him. As the physical side effects surfaced, Charles became listless, gaunt, and was often too fatigued to leave the house, much less play drums. Things deteriorated rapidly from there: his girlfriend left him for his sister’s boyfriend (a story not at all uncommon in small towns), unemployment became the norm, and band practices were cut short or skipped entirely. Charles moved back into his parent’s house and began to sleep the days away. In less than ten years, Charles went from being an everyday kid to a wraith in human form.
A rash of suicides swept the once sleepy town. The first to fall was Brian Cooper, one of the first bass players in Chris and Charles’ band. Brian hung himself in an almond orchard behind his grandmother’s house, leaving behind a note in which he asked his ex-wife not to tell his son “what a pussy his father had become.” The second to hang was Ray Ross, a guitar player in one of the local bands. Ray and his drummer, Jeremy, had been feuding over a girl. Then Charles made his first suicide attempt. He failed, but things only got uglier.
Perhaps this had been their fate all along. Transplants from the San Francisco Bay Area overran the town in search of idyllic (and cheaper) “country living.” The land once abundant with farms, trees, and livestock, became an asylum of tract homes, strip malls, commuter cars and latchkey kids. The fields where carefree children whiled away their days were paved over to make room for Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
Charles’ decline took years; we all watched as he put distance between himself and his closest friends. Those that knew him best knew he was at his worst, and he didn’t need reminders. His tongue could be sharp, his mood foul. Other than those assisting him in his downfall, not many folks were around Charles. He and Chris disbanded. Charles tried--at times enthusiastically and at times spitefully--to continue writing music. His creative impulses kept him afloat, and those impulses had always been linked to Chris. Since kindergarten, the two had always expressed their innermost feelings together.
Charles had tattooed the word “HOPE” on his arm--a stolid attempt to redeem his fate. It was more of a wish than a testament. Hope, Well, that single word, would not have kept us. On April 12th, 2003, Charles decided to give it one last try. He drove to the almond orchard behind Brian Cooper’s grandmother’s house, the same orchard where Brian had hung himself three years prior. There, he found a branch more stubborn than he, and there he died. What followed was a wave of mourning, guilt, relief, and agony. Did we abandon our friend? Could we have done more? Isn’t he better now that’s he’s not suffering? Who’s next? What do we do now?
Those who remain have found strength in camaraderie. Survivor’s guilt? Holding on to what’s left? Biding time? After some time in the bottle, and a pilgrimage to their native Portugal, Judith and Holofernes were born. The survivors, then, are four:
- Chris ("dos") DaRosa: guitarra Portuguesa
- Tracy Hobbs: femme vocals
- Mark Hobbs: bass (husband of Tracy)
- Mitch Hobbs: guitar (Mark’s twin brother)
Mark and Mitch were also raised in the Central Valley and both share a long musical history with Chris. Tracy was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and was brought to the valley when she was ten, caught up amidst the exodus of commuters. (Tracy and Mark had their first kiss in my house, in fact.) Small towns...there are no secrets.
The four interpret a traditional Portuguese folk music known as “fado.” Fado literally means “fate,” but it’s really much more. The name Judith and Holofernes is a reminder of the desperation present in this music. The Book of Judith is a deuterocanonical book in the Old Testament about a beautiful Jewess, Judith, who beheads an invading general, Holofernes. Nebuchadrezzar I dispatched Holofernes to take vengeance on cities uncooperative to his reign. Holofernes was met in Bethulia by Judith, a widow who ingratiated herself with him. After getting him drunk, and with the help of her maid, Judith decapitated and deballed Holofernes. Judith marched into the city with the severed head of the general, thereby empowering the Jews defeat the enemy. The fate of Holofernes was memorialized in 1599 by the Italian painter Caravaggio in Judith Beheading Holofernes.
Caravaggio’s work inspired another Italian painter, a woman named Artemisia Gentileschi. At nineteen, after Artemisia was forbidden from attending the all-male academies of art, her father hired the painter Agostino Tassai for private tutelage. Tassai raped Artemisia, who reported the act. During the seven-month trial of Tassai, Artemisia was tortured; the belief was if her story was the same under duress as it was when she reported Tassai than she must be telling the truth. Tassi was imprisoned for just one year. Artemisia’s depiction of Judith Beheading Holofernes, painted the same year as the trial, has been interpreted as a wish for psychological revenge for the violence she suffered.
The narrative of Judith Beheading Holofernes--sex, betrayal, revenge, and death--is echoed in the traditions of fado music. Fado was created by a gypsy woman from the barrio of Lisbon, Portugal who was in love with a noble. Their affair was forbidden, leaving the gypsy to sing her lament in the bars. The music became synonymous with longing, hopelessness, fatalism, and futility—all sentiments captured by the untranslatable Portuguese word saudade. Fado has endured for two hundred years, at times being subject to censure by Portuguese dictators. Fado served as protest, subversion, and lament for the fadistas (fado musicians), who were often drunks and whores. More importantly, perhaps, fado provides hope for the listener. It’s camaraderie, the knowledge that others are with you at the bottom of the well. It reminds us of those overlooked moments in history; it admits defeat and even toasts it with drink, sometimes for days on end.
Like the prostitutes and barflies of the Lisbon barrio, and like the imagery of Caravaggio and Gentileschi, the music of Judith and Holofernes is not for the faint-hearted. This music is about getting it out--all of it, no matter how painful. The narrative, then, is a messy one, not unlike the deliberations of those of us who’ve survived “farm life.” To survive is to stay afloat, to get up day after day. Enduring the doldrums of everyday life, we find the same thoughts swirling around our heads over and over. Charles, Brian, Ray... regret, love, loss. It’s in the reliving that we learn more about ourselves.
When we started the Vanguard Squad, I had Judith and Holofernes in mind. The impetus for creating an independent record label was to encourage that sense of single-mindedness, that monomaniacal, obsessive lack of objectivity. We want this label to serve our creative impulses, wherever they may lead us. There’s nothing more insulting, in my mind, than to put your entire life into something, like Judith and Holofernes have, and have some unctuous asshole who doesn’t know you explain what “the people” want to hear. There’s no room for an external standard of acceptability in our enterprise. There is nothing objective about making or experiencing great art. So we, as a band of outsiders, are happy to say, “fuck the audience.”
Fate, being the whore she is, played a funny trick on us. It’s so small town of her, too. During the winter holiday season of 2004, I planned a trip back (from Brooklyn) to San Francisco to visit friends. It happened that Judith and Holofernes (along with Last of the Blacksmith and Sleeper Waves) organized a show on the night of my birthday. It was to be a celebration. Before the show I had dinner with two “new” friends, Ross Hogg and DJ Neta, who were not of our small town crowd. I had spoke of Judith and Holofernes with Neta, who’s Portuguese, months before. As it turned out, Neta’s mother has roots in the same dairy pastures of my small town brethren. Neta bought a CD for her mother, Marlene Angeja. Marlene is an artist, and being an Azorean immigrant who grew up in the valley, took to Judith and Holofernes quickly. Using found footage from an 8mm film shot by her mother in the Azores Islands in 1958, Marlene made videos for two Judith and Holofernes songs, "Throw Your Skinny Body Down" and "When the Drones Leave the Hive." The result is a beautifully sad, folkloric silent movie that shows the viewer the saudade of fado.
Judith and Holofernes have already self-released two albums, 2003’s Dairy Men & Festa Queens and 2005’s Matança. They steadily gig in San Francisco and the Central Valley, have been on two West Coast tours, and will embark on their first East Coast tour this summer. Currently, they are recording a full-length album, Abraça a Tristeza, due out on Vanguard Squad in 2006.
Still searching for “the sermon in the suicide"? Is it the story we tell ourselves in order to survive? What is the narrative of life? The truth is, there is none. There is no slogan. There is no one narrative. There are many narratives, and they all talk at once, often contradicting one another. The narration is the living, and living is done differently each day. Longing, love, loss, hope, hopelessness, betrayal, sorrow, revenge, friendship. It’s much like small town life, because in the end, everybody knows your business. How many songs can you sing about lost love, dead friends, and shattered lives? The whores and drunks in the barrio of Lisbon have been at it for two hundred years.
--Bambouche of the Vanguard Squad