As with Throwing Muses, so with this book: the high quality of the work isn’t in question so much as whether the work will find its ideal audience. (It was at #17,250 on Amazon’s Books List today.) Boston has long been an incubator for high-profile rock and roll, and Throwing Muses was just one among many bands that came out of Boston in the mid-to-late 80s – The Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr., ‘til Tuesday, Mission of Burma, and The Pixies among them. And Throwing Muses’ other songwriter was Tanya Donnelly, who later had her own band, Belly, and teamed up with Kim Deal of the Pixies to form The Breeders. Donnelly is also Hersh’s stepsister and plays a supporting role in Rat Girl. But it is easy to see (and you may remember) how the Muses got lost in that crowd; they did for me at the time – I can remember the college-radio hits like “Dizzy” and “Counting Backwards,” but flipping through my CD collection, I realized that I didn’t own anything by the Muses. Maybe in my attic are cassettes of The Real Ramona and Hunkpapa, or maybe I just heard them so often on friends’ stereos or on WFNX that it just seemed like I owned them. However, I have to admit that I found the Muses less accessible than those other bands, all of whose CDs I have long since ripped to my iTunes library. Belly’s debut sold more copies than the entire Muses catalog – and why not? Belly was smart, stylish, complex but catchy, great to play on headphones, in the car, or when hanging out with friends. Throwing Muses was also smart, but complicated as well as complex. Hersh’s singing is dynamic, forceful, and passionate, but also often agonized. In Rat Girl, we can see from where some of that agony came.
Hersh explains in her introduction that she recently came across the diary she kept that year. A painter friend had suggested it as a way to fill “the interim between making noise and artful sublimation.” She has reworked that diary into a memoir, and she sets off typographically those excerpts of the diary that she’s repeating verbatim; the rest, by implication, is an after-the-fact reconstruction of the diary’s raw contents. She also drops in lines from her songs – some from that time period, others from later work – when the lines resonate with the incidents in the story. This because, “Songs’re weird: they tell the future and they tell the past, but they can’t seem to tell the difference.” Statements like this provide clues to Hersh’s method. Rat Girl reads like a diary insofar as we follow Kristin’s day-to-day life in a straight sequence throughout the year, but the hand of the memoirist also shows in the development some of the incidents receive, the eloquence of certain passages that seems fresh and authentic but not spontaneous, and the ordering of certain images (the snake, for instance, about which more later) that gives the book a thematic coherence. The total effect seems consistent with Hersh’s stated intention: “This is my old diary’s story, riddled with enormous holes and true.”
In the first of the book’s four sections, Kristin is preoccupied with writing songs and then figuring out how to get her band’s performances recognized in the relative backwater of the Providence music scene (then as now, the Pawtucket Red Sox to the more famous franchise up I-95 at Fenway). She hangs out with painters and musicians and junkies in the park. She takes occasional classes at an unnamed Rhode Island college (which seems to be Salve Regina College in Newport) where her father teaches philosophy. Hersh’s father is a very minor character, and her mother, divorced from Hersh’s father and remarried to Donnelly’s, makes only minor appearances. The teenage Kristin swerves alarmingly from one predicament to the next, sometimes literally: her old car has a damaged exhaust system and Kristin says, “I’ve perfected the art of slowing to a stop” rather than trust her failing brakes. One wants to ask, Where are this child’s parents?! In fact, the closest Kristin comes to having adult supervision comes in the character of Betty, the “oldest student at the college” introduced by Hersh’s father to Kristin, who at fourteen was the youngest student at the college. Betty is Betty Hutton, a former Hollywood and TV starlet of some note – how the star of Preston Sturges’s 1944 The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek came to be Kristin Hersh’s mentor in 1985 in Newport is never explained. But Betty gives Kristin unstinting moral support and a steady stream of earnest (if cryptic) life-advice either in the student coffee shops or hiding out in the women’s room of the library. She faithfully attends Throwing Muses concerts, and at one moment seems a real-life Norma Desmond, in the next a guardian angel. (Hersh dedicates the book to her memory.) But until the band is under contract with 4AD and the company’s producer needs to coax performances from the erratic and third-trimester Kristin, no adult character is important enough to be given a name. For instance, Kristin is counseled by a psychiatrist when she gets her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and he helps her figure out how to back off her drugs when she decides to have her baby. But his name, she tells us, is unpronounceable. He is helpful and sympathetic – Kristin admits to him that she can’t remember his name so she calls him “Doctor Seven Syllables” and he chuckles, “Hee hee. Call me Seven” – but he’s also just one of the many “soothers” who can’t tell her how to be both a musician and a happy, healthy human being. The story’s central problem is that Kristin doesn’t want to be soothed or normal or happy. Nor does she want to lose access to “evil Kristin” – the voice she hears coming through her band’s best demo tapes. And worse, she doesn’t like that on lithium she no longer hears the voices or “sees the colors” that possess her when she is writing songs.
The tension between art and madness, the capacity of drugs to either conjure or soothe one’s demons, and the question of what will make a person truly happy: these themes put Hersh’s book not only in the tradition of rock and roll classics like Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, but also in the broader scope of coming-of-age tales, from Catcher in the Rye on the popular and literary side to films like Igby Goes Down or Rushmore on the cult-cinema side. Hersh even riffs on a famous scene from Salinger’s novel: Kristin and Tanya are in a green room, waiting to go on stage and keeping the pregnant Kristin out of the nausea-triggering, smoke-filled nightclub. Kristin lies flat on the floor and they are reading graffiti on the wall. Tanya, Holden Caulfield-like, is annoyed by a “fuck you” written on the wall.
Tea tries to rub the fuck you off the wall with her thumb. The wall bends in ominously. “Careful,” I say. “That could be load-bearing graffiti.”Holden worries in Catcher in the Rye that, “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the Fuck you signs in the world. It’s impossible.” For him, this impossibility is depressing, a cause for despair. But Kristin doesn’t rub it out – she assigns irony to it, which subverts its obscenity. She hasn’t made the impossible possible, but she has disarmed it. It’s a great example of how Hersh discovers in her younger, troubled self the assertions of a deeper sanity.
“I don’t understand,” she says. “Are they trying to make us feel bad? Why? That’s not nice.” She thinks. “Should we feel sorry for a person who writes fuck you on a wall?”
We both look at it. “Could it be an ironic fuck you?” I ask. We continue staring. It doesn’t look ironic. “Fuck just means sex, though, right?” I say. She nods. “So maybe they’re talking about expressing love.”
“Yeah, probably,” she says. “Like love ya!”
“Love ya lots!”
In the book’s second section, Hersh describes her breakdown, but in terms that are so closely linked to her composition of songs that Kristin doesn’t – and we don’t – realize that what’s happening to her is psychosis. She just thinks she’s got insomnia, or that she’s still not fully recovered from the bicycling accident. Since that accident, she believes she doesn’t write songs; rather she hears songs and then writes them down. She also believes the accident was no “accident,” but a witch casting a spell on her. She falls asleep one night in a friend’s apartment and wakes to an hallucination:
I see the snake before I’m fully awake. By the time I sit up, it’s gone. You gotta be quick with a snake.This is about as good as a description of psychosis gets – not that I can vouch for it as an accurate or true description of psychosis, not from experience anyway. But as description, this and the scenes that follow ring true; they convincingly create the effect of how words break down. It’s not Hersh’s vocabulary that fails, but the syntax that holds vocabulary together. The paragraphs become shorter, sentences become fragmented, dialog becomes telegraphic, even semaphoric – just gesturing and flailing. Kristin can offer only a set of unanchored impressions or, in reply to something said by others, only “Huh?” The problem, she realizes, is that the symptoms of madness described by her clinicians are also her personality:
Then I see it again out of the corner of my eye. Shooting my hand out, I reach for it. For a split second, I see something that looks like an X-ray of a snake, but all I feel is the cool wooden floor. I stare at my hand, flooded with adrenaline. There is no snake.
My mind races. What’s the vocabulary for this?
They also say it didn’t happen suddenly.In the second half of the book, as the band’s fortunes improve, Kristin is trying to understand whether she’s sick and the “therapeutic level” of drugs makes her better or whether she’s a musician “muted by medication.” This dilemma is never resolved. Instead, Hersh presents a series of scenes that portray the struggle. After one particularly intense vocal in a studio recording a demo, she has this exchange with the producer:
“Are you sure?” I asked them. I went to sleep on Jeff’s floor and then woke up broken. That’s pretty sudden. But they say I’ve spent the last couple years living with symptoms like… well, like my entire personality.
“Are you okay?” Gary asks me in my headphones after a particularly yucky take.So who is the crazy person here? And if it isn’t Gary, who thinks that you can sound “terrible in a good way,” then is it the singer who talks to hallucinated rats? Isn’t it crazy to be happy to sound terrible in a good way? The impressive power of the book comes from Hersh’s insistence on depicting these problems without resolving them. There is no simple answer. There’s just the complicated, distinctive music of Throwing Muses.
“Whaddya mean?” A young rat stops and looks at me. “I wasn’t talking to you,” I whisper to it.
“You weren’t?” Gary whispers back.
“Yes. I mean no, I was.”
He pauses. “No, you were?”
“What did you mean, am I okay? Did it sound bad?”
“It sounded terrible,” he says. “In a good way.”
“Well, then, I guess I’m okay.”
Instead of moving toward resolution, the story becomes further complicated when Kristin realizes she is pregnant. “I thought birth control worked,” she says to the pregnancy-test indicator. It is a terrific piece of understatement, and the whole thought process from the moment she knows she’s pregnant, through the decision to have the baby, to the realization that she’s putting at risk the long-awaited recording deal is handled in less than a page. When did she get pregnant? Who’s the father? These questions are ignored, passed over in the narrative. Because this isn’t a rock and roll star’s kiss-and-tell-all book: there is no “sex and drugs and rock and roll” here, at least not in the customary sense. There’s no sex at all, in fact, and the drugs are at first prescribed and later abandoned. What’s left is the music, the art. Or better, in this context – what’s left is creation, in several forms.
One can imagine the band’s reaction to Kristin’s pregnancy at just this point in their career. But as portrayed in the book, the band had already accommodated itself to Kristin’s illness and now they are ready to support her in her pregnancy. They help her select healthy foods; they insist the drummer “play quietly” during rehearsals; they decode the labels on vitamin supplements – is Vitamin C ascorbic acid or citric acid? Kristin has this latter conversation with her bass player while also discussing a fan’s reaction to Kristin’s pregnancy – a male fan during a show yells at her from the audience, “Haven’t you ever heard of birth control?”
“He was pissed off,” Leslie says.That she looks 13 is news to the 19 year-old Kristin, but the memoirist Hersh had made it clear all along that part of what makes her younger self so bizarre and exceptional is that she looks so young and her intensity can be not just unattractive but off-putting. The pregnancy, seen this way, is just another example of Throwing Muses’s knack for bad p.r.
“What the hell does that mean? What was he pissed off about?”
“Well,” she explains, “most people think teenage pregnancy’s a bad thing.”
I look at her. “It is a bad thing.” Leslie takes a bottle of pink juice out of the fridge, then sits in the seat across from me. She nods. “Nineteen is hardly a teenage, though,” I say.
“Yeah. But most people think you’re thirteen.”
Which returns to my original point: Throwing Muses always found it hard to find its audience. They could be unattractive and off-putting. In this respect, Kristin Hersh belongs to the line of women rockers for whom sexiness was not the major selling point. Patti Smith is the most obvious precursor for Hersh, and in this book Hersh, like Smith, is a crafty and craft-full worker in words disengaged from music. But Throwing Muses could also be off-putting in the sense that their quirkiness defied conventional expectations about what a pop band or rock band or punk band could be. Rat Girl also frustrates if you were hoping for a conventional or “soothing” ending: There is no grand, climactic scene in the delivery room, nor an elaborate, celebratory record-release party. We never learn the baby’s name and wouldn’t know the gender if Kristin didn’t tell us, on the last page, “He’s my baby, so everything’s okay.” The next line, the last line is, “I absolutely did not invent this.”
Throwing Muses held together for nearly a decade, producing a string of critically admired commercial failures. Kristin Hersh continued -- and continues -- to record solo albums. Her highest-charting song was “Your Ghost” from her 1994 solo album, Hips and Makers. You can also find on line – for free! – her most recent album, Power + Light, with her current band project, 50 Foot Wave, which I also recommend highly. Its sound is closer to the take-no-prisoners rock of Throwing Muses than the acoustic arrangements of the solo albums. It’s a nice pairing – the memoir and the recent album. There is a sense in both of an artist who has maintained a clear vision of what her work should be. Rock music has always been about the problems of growing up; but it always has problems actually growing up. At 19, looking 13, Kristin Hersh suddenly grew up much too fast in just one year. Her “soothers” worried that she wouldn’t survive, that she’d kill herself – 20% of people diagnosed as bipolar, Dr. Seven Syllables tells her, eventually do kill themselves. But Rat Girl isn’t the typical “I survived my Rock and Roll Youth” memoir. It is always about how to create art, how to go down the rabbit holes and rat holes of imagination and what you might come back up with. Yeats says that politics is the argument with others and art is the argument with oneself. Hersh lived through and seems still to thrive in the argument with herself: these seem to be the only terms that ever really mattered to her, and to that extent she has given us an excellent portrait of the artist as a young woman.
Many scenes in Rat Girl are located along the stretch of Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue from the Rathskeller (“The Rat”) punk club in Kenmore Square to The Paradise showcase nightclub in Boston University’s West Campus. In 1985 and 1986 – not to mention a good number of years on either side of those dates – I was also located on that same stretch of road, a graduate student at B.U. I was more likely found in the Mugar Library, a couple blocks from The Paradise, or Fenway Park, just around the corner from The Rat, but I assume that I crossed paths on Comm Ave with Kristin Hersh or her bandmates at some point in those days. I’m a few years older than Hersh, and in 1986 I was teaching freshman comp and Intro to Lit courses to students Kristin’s age – an undertaking profoundly less interesting than fronting a rock band and even less likely to result in commercial success for its practitioners. However, teaching gave me the authentic non-commercial reward of working daily with smart, young people just discovering how language – both as words written and words read – is a powerful tool of self-discovery and self-invention. And I have happy memories of those times when I managed to put a good book in the hands of a person who was transformed by it. Often these were books about coming of age – Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, for instance, were novels that, for the right kid at the right time, could make a brilliant, ordering light go off in that kid’s head.
It seems to me that Rat Girl, for the right reader, could be similarly transformative. Hersh’s prose is compelling, her tale is riveting, her self-deprecation is charming, and in her story, she doesn’t just come of age, she saves her own life. I suspect that there are many readers eager to hear this kind of story. I’ll bet that along the sidewalks of Comm Ave – along sidewalks anywhere – there are plenty young, intense, smart, unattractive Rat Girls and Rat Boys who can’t figure out if they are mad or possessed or just terribly out-of-place. Should such readers find this book, Hersh will have managed an impressive accomplishment: she will have demonstrated that the book (or song) you write as an act of self-preservation may also throw a lifeline to the reader (or listener) who needs to know that such acts occur and who can find there their own strength to persevere – that is, she will have found her audience.