Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Sing, Muse

Alec Hanley Bemis


During Kristin Hersh's mid-1980s salad days as a teenage musician in New England, the very notion of rock stardom was being drastically revised. Early on in her new memoir of that period, Rat Girl, her father—an affable hippie-cum-professor nicknamed Dude—gives her a guitar lesson.

I didn't like how the chords sounded and I told him that. He looked hurt. "Why don't you like them?"
"They're boring."
"But Bob Dylan plays these chords. And Neil Young."
"Mm-hm." I looked down at my hands, willing them to play better. "They're probably nice guys." . . .
Dude took the guitar, then sat, staring at me. "Nice guys?"

Yes, the postlegendary era of pop music had begun. The '80s marked career nadirs for many "major" artists of the classic-rock era, turning them into "nice guys" before our very eyes. Hersh, like Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and X's Exene Cervenka, would choose a different route, becoming an "established" figure, but only within an underground rock scene that was diffident about top-forty success. Since 1986, Hersh has released more than twenty records, most notably with her band Throwing Muses, and later as a solo artist and a member of 50-Foot Wave.

I think Hersh would agree it's been a tough road—though she'd probably also say she has no regrets. Alternative music's guiding principle, inherited and refined from a notion in punk rock, was that the heroes of American pop culture were suspect. Living outside the mainstream meant a surplus of unique experiences and "credibility" (the word deserves the scare quotes), albeit no glamorous Grammy-winning moments and none of the income streams that accompany such breakthroughs. Nonetheless, the argument has been made—especially, in Michael Azerrad's excellent 2001 book, Our Band Could Be Your Life—that the best rock music of the '80s and early '90s was a samizdat pleasure. Hersh's story offers a close-up view of what this subculture was like for its participants—as well as the personal experiences that drew her to it.

Based on a diary, the book begins in spring 1985 with an artistic awakening at a squat called the Doghouse, continues with the emergence of her mental illness, and ends in the spring of 1986 as Hersh's band records its first album and she discovers she's pregnant. On one level, Rat Girl's narrative is in the mold of Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's 1996 Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk—wherein relatively obscure figures bring to life their perspectives on a crucial period. Where Rat Girl differs is in Hersh's refusal to champion her contributions to pop music's cultural legacy—she simply doesn't fret over that legacy like most artist-memoirists do.

This refusal to burnish her own reputation is a good thing. Hersh is far more interested in re-creating the context that fueled her music—a time when she swam in strangers' backyard pools, coped with a life-altering psychological condition, and befriended Betty Hutton, a fallen starlet from Hollywood's golden age. It's revealing to know what she leaves out, so I'll name just two of her accomplishments: Throwing Muses were the first American band signed to England's prestigious 4AD record label, the company that released some of America's quirkiest and most quixotic musicians—most notably Hersh's friends the Pixies. By featuring three female members, Throwing Muses also served as an augur of the "women in rock" meme that emerged in the 1990s.

In this sense, you can view Rat Girl as an unwitting portrait of a trailblazer for the alternative nation. Certainly her literary debut will find its initial readers in that preexisting fan base, a cult following developed during a quarter century in the semipublic eye. But this book is much more than that. Her perspective is filtered through her psychological break—bipolar disorder and the synesthesia that accompanied it.

She is at her best with kaleidoscopic depictions of the way putatively "crazy" artists process thought. Hersh has an intriguingly free-associative method of paragraph construction. Animals emerge as a totem of her connection to unseen worlds. She speaks of wolves and snakes as quasi-mystic forces. People, while vividly described, have an otherworldly sheen: Mental-health professionals are referred to as "soothers"; 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell is presented as a disembodied, British-accented voice heard over a long-distance phone line. She refers to him simply as Ivo, providing no last name, a conveniently impish way to portray this legendary godfather of goth culture. "Humans aren't creatures anymore," Hersh writes regretfully. "We're too out of touch with our own nature. We're just TV plus hair gel or something."

If Rat Girl has one thing in particular to recommend it, it's this deeply personal take on a moment that will probably be logged in rock-history books as "seminal"—that oddly gendered term, found mostly in music criticism, that denotes influence and acts as a faintly apologetic way of celebrating footnotes. Hersh is not a jaded "could-have-been" concerned with how the rage of her music got watered down into the "Girl Power" of the Spice Girls and the "sex-positive" feminism of Sex and the City. Rather, her book focuses on first principles—how posterity isn't as important as the simple act of making art, how working in obscurity can provide the space for someone to invent a private language. There's a magic in Hersh's reluctance to name anyone (herself included) as a hero or an icon or a "nice guy." This book is not a footnote to her musical career, but a new addition to an oeuvre that continues to crackle with the energy of samizdat pleasure.

Alec Hanley Bemis started the Brassland record label, manages musicians, and has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Stanford University's Arcade blog.

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