Girl in a Band
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
(Riverhead Books, 2015)
I’ve always been opposed to the whole “women in rock” categorization as a ploy for lazy critics to write about musicians who also happen to be women. But the current wave of memoirs by women musicians leads me to acknowledge that something is going on and I should pay attention. Maybe it’s just that publishers see a niche that needs to be filled or maybe it’s that some of our heroes (who also happen to be women) have reached a point in their lives when they want to tell us something. Three of the best of these recent memoirs are Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, and Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. While in the past I’ve had a somewhat “difficult” relationship (in my own head) with both Gordon and Brownstein, I have always been a big fan of Kristin Hersh. Actually, that’s not true: when I first met Hersh in the 1990s, I wasn’t sure I was a fan. I wasn’t sure her music was loud enough or if it was okay with me that she was signed to a major label. I was a snotty punk rock girl but I soon learned that not only is Hersh one of the greatest songwriters and guitarists to come out of “alternative rock” (whatever that means in 2016), she’s also incredibly smart, charming and honest. In a world full of shills and liars, I’m a big fan of honesty and Rat Girl is nothing if not brutally honest.
Rat Girl is based on a diary Hersh kept in a pivotal year of her own and her band’s history (1985 – 86). Fleshed out with dialogue, lyrics, and appropriately funny and foundational scenes from her childhood, this is not the “full story of Throwing Muses” that some fans might want. It is instead a deeply personal and at times, difficult and dark exploration of her relationship with herself, her music, her band, and the world. It also has a fair dose of humor because, as most who have met her can attest, Hersh is both smart and sharply funny.
Suffering a terrible accident that left her with a double-concussion, Hersh begins to hear “machines” and “voices.” This noise in her head is both terrifying and also where her songs come from. She does not “write” songs in the traditional sense but instead they come on her like a terrible possessive act and until she gets them out into the world, she cannot rest. Much of the first half of Rat Girl is about Hersh’s inability to sleep, to be still under the pressure of the noise in her head, those noises that help to form the nascent sound of Throwing Muses. But it’s not at all pretentious or precious as it might sound; this is a narrative rife with raw emotion and brilliant, often funny detail. We learn that all dogs in Rhode Island are named Bailey and that everyone in town wears motorcycle boots not because they’re cool but because they washed up from a cargo ship on the Rhode Island shoreline and really, who doesn’t want free boots?
Rat Girl is as much about Hersh’s personal life (school, family, first pregnancy) as it is about the music. But it is those moments when she details her synesthesia (chords are “red” or “green,” songs are “orange”) and the painful possession she suffers from her songs that help us to understand just where that glorious music came from and why Throwing Muses sound like no one else. Hersh introduces us to her early Throwing Muses bandmates: stepsister “Tea” akaTanya Donelly, Leslie Langston (on bass) and Dave/David Narcizo on drums/percussion. This is not a band that fights about chord changes or load-outs, instead this is band-as-family, the way punk rock should be and how it was for some of us. Unlike many music memoirs, Rat Girl isn’t full of excruciating detail or dull cliché but instead reads more like a darkly entertaining coming-of-age novel. Except that it’s true. This is a memoir as essential a read for its explorations of music and the brutality of Hersh’s “condition” (for lack of a better word) as it is for its singing prose. Hersh is no slouch when it comes to writing and this is no ghost written rock star memoir. Instead it is a work of art that stands up alongside anything calling itself literary nonfiction with as much roar and quiet insight as any of Throwing Muses’ songs.
Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band is a very different memoir by a very different musician who also happens to be a woman. Gordon was the bassist for Sonic Youth, New York’s legendary noise-rock band responsible, many would say, for changing rock history forever. After all, as the story goes, SY got Nirvana a major label record deal and we all know what happened after that. Sonic Youth were the cool kids in town and that comes across in Gordon’s memoir. Along with Marni Jaffe from Live Skull and Sean Yseult from White Zombie, Gordon started the tradition of “girl bass players” in the broader alt-rock world. While Hersh’s book covers two early years in her musical history, Gordon attempts to cover the vast sweep of her life from her childhood on to art school and her life in New York’s art and music worlds.
The book opens with the ending of both Sonic Youth and Gordon’s twenty-seven year marriage to Thurston Moore. In her sixties now, Gordon is older than Hersh and her narrative gives us a glimpse of ’70s New York. She drops names but then, these people were in her corner of the world: Koons, Basquiat, and Gagosian. For those of us who don’t care about celebrity (or the Seventies art scene), Gordon’s book can be a bit of a grind to start with. Aside from the opening vignette of SY’s last show, she doesn’t really get around to talking about music until about halfway through the book. But then again, Gordon was an artist before she ever joined a band.
Once Gordon moves on to talk about her life in music, she provides an insight into her own vulnerability that makes the read worthwhile. Gordon has a reputation for being “standoffish,” and even “elitist.” She attempts to explain this away claiming, “I’m extremely shy and sensitive, as if I can feel all the emotions swirling around a room.” Aside from her self-confessed sensitivity, she makes a case for the difficulty of being a “girl in a band.” Women in rock may not want to see things this way but men work very hard to keep rock as men’s business. Women on stage have to come to terms with their space in this world both in relation to the men on stage with them and the men in the audience. As Gordon says, “being that woman who pushes the boundaries means you also bring in less desirable aspects of yourself. At the end of the day, women are expected to hold up the world, not annihilate it.”
Gordon also tells us more than we may want to know about her relationship and her anger toward her ex-husband. In one self-deprecating moment she describes herself as “co-dependent” and Moore as “the narcissistic man.” Gordon doesn’t flinch from showing us deeply personal and troubling moments in her marriage and her life but one wonders, given that some of these passages seem written to excise her own anger, if she might not come to regret her venting on the page. Her prose varies widely from odd metaphors to matter-of-fact pronouncements on everything from love and death to music and art. To Gordon, “Marriage is a long conversation […] and maybe so is a rock band’s life.” Where she is at her best is in her depiction of her love for New York, a place where ”even though I was lonely and poor, no place had ever made me feel more at home.” It’s a feeling many of us understand and it’s these moments that make Gordon’s memoir worth a read.
Carrie Brownstein is the youngest of these three women and has been variously linked with Riot Grrrl, post-Riot Grrrl and now Portlandia. She is funny and smart but it’s taken me a long time to like her or her band. When Sleater-Kinney first formed in 1994 in my hometown of Olympia, Washington, I was already well ensconced in the East Coast alt-rock and punk rock scenes. I hated all the hype about “the Olympia sound” (I’d left that place for a reason) and scoffed at these younger generation white middle-class girls screaming about how angry they were. But they had a right to be angry; as much right as L7, Babes in Toyland and my other punk rock contemporaries. I still don’t like Sleater-Kinney’s music much and I can’t really get over that they’re named after one of the ugliest roads in my home town but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what Brownstein has to say. Brownstein’s book shares similarities with Gordon’s and some sensibility with Hersh’s but it’s also as different as Sleater-Kinney’s music is from Sonic Youth and Throwing Muses.
Named for one her songs, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, is about growing up out of place in a world that wants girls and women to fit in to roles already created for them. Brownstein is self-deprecating, funny and also honest. There are similar patterns here that show up in Gordon and Hersh’s struggles. Brownstein describes herself as having a “sense of invisibility and need for validation.” Her mother is anorexic; her father takes years to admit he’s gay. Brownstein shows us a girl who is insecure but can be fearless, a nerd with a need to entertain. She also writes about her early struggle with her own sexuality, “I was shut off from my body; I had barely thought about sexuality or longing.” There is a lot about the body in this book. From Brownstein’s brutal detail of her mother’s anorexia to her own career-ending physical breakdown, “Being sick had become my remedy for tour.” When she focuses on her various adopted pets illnesses, I had to look away.
There is an element in Brownstein’s book of overwriting, of telling too much without getting to the heart of things that differentiates it from Rat Girl and even Gordon’s work. She skims over events as much as she reveals. What is missing most is an exploration of the importance of Sleater-Kinney and Brownstein herself as outspoken icons of feminism. To a generation of young women, Sleater-Kinney represented a way to speak out against the brutal sexism of American life. In those instances when Brownstein focuses on politics, her prose becomes almost trite, “we wanted to expand the notion of what it means to be female.” But ultimately, it’s not the music Brownstein is writing about; it’s her own struggle to find a space in the world as a woman who also happens to be a musician. In recounting her childhood correspondence with soap stars, Brownstein states that when she heard back from these stars, “Suddenly I didn’t feel small […] Thanks to them, I somehow belonged in the world.” And that, ultimately, is what all three of these memoirs are about, the struggle to find belonging in a world that doesn’t want women to speak up, a world that doesn’t want us to get up on stage and play loud music.