Monday, September 13, 2010

Rat Girl

As regular readers know, I’ve been a fan of Kristin Hersh’s for years. She has a new book out, Rat Girl, which is adapted version of her diary from 1985. It’s far better than that description makes it sound.

In 1985, her band, Throwing Muses, was starting to gain some recognition on the emergent indie scene. It went on to some level of fame and critical respect, though it never really broke big. The band consisted then of Hersh; her “step-twin” Tanya Donelly (referred to in the book as Tea) who would later achieve fame with Belly, on guitar; Leslie Langston on bass, and Dave Narcizo on drums.

I finally got to see her in concert recently, and I can report that the disjuncture between the singer and the song is striking. She performed songs, and did readings from the book; the songs are urgent and dramatic, but the stories are ironic, well-constructed, and frequently funny. She acknowledges the gap at one point in Rat Girl, during a break from a recording session when she’s trying to explain to her producer why a song isn’t working:

“So why don’t you sound like yourself? “ He squints into the sky. “What’d make you sound celebratory?”
“I do sound like myself. That’s the problem. This is my voice. The song’s voice is the one you’re looking for and I honestly don’t know where it is.”
Gil’s eyes widen. “The song’s voice?”
“The song isn’t Kristin?”
“Oh god, no.” Geez, that’d be awful. “It’s best if I’m not feeling anything. Otherwise, I crawl into the song and start messing it up.” (p. 287)

She frequently refers to herself as a scientist, one who goes into a lab and produces whatever truth there is to produce. That could sound cold, but there’s a warm humanity throughout Rat Girl. Hersh writes as a sympathetic, if somewhat distant, spectator to her own life. She recounts being airborne after being hit by a car while she was on her bicycle: “Flying through the air in vivid slow motion, thinking, so this is what this feels like.” (p. 74) After the accident, she started getting the auditory hallucinations that slowly became music, but even that process is presented matter-of-factly.

The contrast between her scientist’s temperament and the insanity of much of her life (both her bipolar disorder and the nuttiness of the music business of the mid-1980’s) makes for most of the comic relief of the book. She notes affectionately her time as a college student at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, where her father -- here identified simply as Dude -- taught philosophy. (Her depiction of an “art therapy” class is worth the price of the book by itself.) Improbably enough, while at college she formed a fast friendship with the 1940’s movie actress Betty Hutton, who took classes there. (Fans will recognize her name -- Elizabeth June -- as a Muses song, and apparently much of “Day Glo” was a eulogy for her.) Betty and her priest became regular presences at Muses shows in Providence, with Betty unsuccessfully imploring “Krissy” to make eye contact with the audience. Betty became a showbiz mentor of sorts, despite some pretty glaring generational differences:

Betty sings about starlight and champagne. I sing about dead rabbits and blow jobs. When I say playing music is owning violence, she says it’s owning love; when I say it’s math, she says it’s tap dancing; when I say it’s my gun, she says it’s her dance card. (p. 35)

All of the named characters come off well; Hersh seems too humane to go after anybody identifiable. Oddly, that even extends to her baby’s unnamed father; she just goes from ‘not pregnant’ to ‘pregnant,’ and that’s that.

When she chooses to be, Hersh is an adept chronicler of detail. She refers to the junker she and the band used to drive as the Silver Bullet; I couldn’t help but laugh, remembering an ex-girlfriend’s junker that I used to call the Flying Deathtrap. After the band moves to Boston, she notes (correctly) the arrogance and general ickiness of the Harvard frat boys; I recall being shocked at SLAC at just how graceless and entitled the rich kids were. Even the descriptions of the nasty little houses they lived in were spot-on; anyone who did the starving grad student bit will smile with recognition.

For my money, though, the highlight and encapsulation is a reconstructed interview with a journalist, when the Muses were starting to find an audience:

“‘Self-expression,’” says a woman with glasses, her army t-shirt bunched and sweaty. She holds her tape recorder out to us. We look at it.
“What about it?” asks Dave politely.
“Let’s just talk a little bit about self-expression,” the woman says.
Leslie looks at her. “What, just ‘talk about it’?”
“How important is it?” she asks, squinting thoughtfully.
“Self-expression?” says Dave. Tea and I just sit there.
The woman begins to rethink her impression of us as articulate. She turns to me and puts her tape recorder under my chin. “Tell me your thoughts,” she says slowly, “Regarding songwriting and expressing yourself.”
I’m confused. “My self? Why would I wanna express that?” (p. 201)

There’s an honesty in that distance, and a real discipline, too.

Hersh may be a mad scientist, but she isn’t an evil one. As absurd as many of the situations are, it’s hard to miss her underlying humanism. She comes off as a smart woman who just happens to channel broken songs, and to write well. She hears things most of us don’t, and has the uncommon grace to share them with anyone who wants to know. (Even now, she gives away her songs for free online, so anyone who wants to know, can.) Sharing her teenage diary with the world is just about as open as it gets; sharing one this well-written and thoughtful is a joy.

And check out the art therapy class. Seriously.