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August 24, 2010

Book Notes - Kristin Hersh ("Rat Girl")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Kristin Hersh has always been one of my favorite musicians. As a lyricist, she is one of music's best storytellers, and whether with her bands Throwing Muses or 50 Foot Wave or as a solo act, her music is always striking and honest. Her memoir Rat Girl, shares these same traits.

From its iconic cover cover (drawn by cartoonist Gilbert Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame) to its last page, Rat Girl is the arresting story of a year in Hersh's life in the mid-1980s, her music, her bipolar disorder and first pregnancy. Lyrical, funny, and always poignant, Rat Girl stands next to Rosanne Cash's recently published book Composed as one of the most thought provoking, enjoyable, and well-written musician memoirs I have ever read.

Mary Gaitskill wrote of the book:

"Rat Girl is the story of a wide-eyed soul coming to maturity in the ridiculous cacophony of modern life. Although it is supposedly about what we call, for lack of a better term, 'manic depression,' it has nearly no interest in such grim diagnostic thinking. It is instead awestruck - by music, feeling, perception, wild animals, mystery, dreams, 'the gorgeous and terrible things that live in your house.' It is an original beauty."

In her own words, here is Kristin Hersh's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Rat Girl:

These songs are from my forthcoming memoir, Rat Girl, a book based on a diary I kept in 1985, when I was eighteen. I included lyrics from my songs in the book whenever they helped shed light on the text or were just plain goofy enough to help the reader follow my goofy life for a few pages.

Songs are interesting in that they tell the future and they tell the past, but they can't seem to tell the difference. They also don't make too many judgment calls when it comes to good and bad experiences. If a moment is big then a song will engage. Songs're easily bored, however, and don't stick around when you're feeling safe. This is how they help us rise to any occasion in which we can't possibly feel safe. It's awfully nice of them.

"Elizabeth June"

"and you were right
it was okay to be scared"

A song for my friend, Betty Hutton, who lived an exaggerated fairy tale of a life, growing up poor in Detroit, singing in her mother's speakeasy and running from the cops. Her father abandoned them when Betty was tiny. Later, after Betty had run away to Hollywood and become a movie star, she learned that he'd committed suicide. This seemed to make her feel generally unsafe for her whole life. Which made her seem extra brave to me.

Al Jolson told her it was okay to be scared, 'cause if you don't have a heart, you've got nothing to give away. Good advice. It was advice Betty gave me as a teenager and advice I give to my children when they can't possibly feel safe. It makes you extra brave.

"Pandora's Box"

"inside that pandora's box
was a can of worms"

Bipolar disorder doesn't always announce itself as such. Sometimes mania looks a lot like schizophrenia, sometimes depression seems more like an extended response. Or foreshadowing. Because glaring light and dim shadows are not untruths, they're just difficult places for humans to spend their lives.

At its most extreme, bipolar disorder creates a cliff, then leads you over to it, and while you're looking down, trips you. Whether or not you fall seems to be a toss of the dice, but sometimes just looking over the edge helps you remember your future, giving it back.


"this war's okay
in a sweet, old-fashioned way
like a game we play"

A postwar postscript of a song, "Cartoons" doesn't stick around long because it has very little energy left. Clearly, we're all tired, but the stress and trauma haven't wiped us out, merely drawn lines where they needed to be drawn. Not every fight is the good one, obviously, but tired and sweaty, we no longer have the strength for making enemies because we're veterans and all veterans have something in common.


"i have a fish nailed to a cross
on my apartment wall"

When I was eighteen, I lived in an apartment with a homemade crucifix on the wall; a scary fish-like Jesus, bloody with tempera paint and crucified on Popsicle sticks. It was hanging there on the living room wall when I moved in and I never felt right about taking it down. Somehow, Fish Jesus showed up in a song in all his gory glory.

"Fuchsia Wall"

"then suddenly
everything i see's a love letter"

A song in process is like a seizure, or a heightened state of awareness in which pertinent images, sounds and memories glow in relief. The song has no interest in what it sees as unnecessary detail; things like logic and information fade into the dim background. The love letter that is the next line of melody or the next lyric is as beautiful as water in the desert. Beautiful because it's necessary; no explanation needed.

Of course, a functioning brain doesn't work this way. If you want to hear what a song has to say, you need to work very hard at the art of getting your brain to shut up and listen. Song noise is different from brain noise; it's water in the desert, glowing stories, love letters.

"Long Painting"

"static played through my middle
seared my gut"

Shyness has been a lifelong problem for me. I am ill-suited to my job in this regard, as a musician is expected to be a performer, a show-off. I didn't get the show-off gene and I doubt it can be acquired. My band started playing out when I was 14; I'm sure the gene would've kicked in by now, if it was gonna.

In fact, most of the real musicians I know are dorks, myself included. Dorks tend not to want to parade around in front of others. I've often wondered why we do it anyway and I think the answer lies in that magical moment in a live show when the musician disappears, leaving the music to happen somewhere between the stage and the audience's ears. Or hearts. Either way, music is clearly a phenomenon which occurs between people. It's not something I could make all by myself.

I know when music walks into the room because static sears my ribcage, I swear to god. Like a live wire I've gotta wear around my middle; it's crazy. But one of the best things I've ever felt. Energy? Mission? Aesthetic arrest? I don't know, but whatever it is, I'm addicted. It keeps me going, keeps me walking out there and dropping my shyness to the floor. Because I'm *not* showing off; we're doing something together.


"play a grown up
‘til you grow up"

I had my first baby when I was 19. Possibly a poor life choice, but it worked out well for me. I raised a child when I was still sort of a child myself and he inspired an interesting orientation: wonder. My son, Doony, was enchanted, intrigued, curious and baffled by...well, everything. And truth be told, so was I.

Whereas, I had assumed that I'd have to grow up the instant Doony was born, quite the opposite happened. He froze me in time. I learned from him what a child needs. Children know that instinctively, of course. No book or pediatrician is as well-versed in childcare as a child. So I could take care of him; that was easy. That took no amount of growing up, just love.

And I learned to emulate his lovely orientation before I could forget how. To keep looking around at our enchanting, intriguing, curious and baffling planet and never decide that I knew anything absolutely, as nothing is ever absolute.


"this gnawing emptiness
seeps in like a cold mist"

Of course, before I could have a baby, I needed to be pregnant. In case you don't know, pregnancy is a nutty course of events in which a whole human being decides to grow inside of another one, making the first human being into two people instead of one (!)

It's wonderful, of course. Bizarre and wonderful. All except the "morning" sickness which actually went on 24 hours a day for 3 whole months. I couldn't keep water down. My knotted, starving stomach convinced my eyes and nose that everything I used to call edible was poisonous garbage. If I managed to sneak a bite of food past my eyes and nose, my stomach would whip around, pissed-off, and spit it right back out again. A whole season of garish gray.

"White Trash Moon"

"out of the chaos
my us
and your little fontanel"

And all that puking makes for the most decent, punkiest, optimistic, forward-thinking art project any human could muster: another human. Such an enormous's lovely that we can actually hang out in the center of it sometimes. All you have to do is look at somebody you adore for a minute and you're in the middle of it all.

Kristin Hersh and Rat Girl links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
"Napoleon's House" (the author reading an excerpt from the book)
"Taffy & the Silver Bullet" (the author reading an excerpt from the book)
"The Witch" (the author reading an excerpt from the book)
"Boston Press" (the author reading an excerpt from the book)
"The Songs" (the author reading an excerpt from the book)

The Anti-Room interview with the author
Boston Globe interview with the author
Guardian profile of the author
musicOMH interview with the author
A Necessary Angel interview with the author
The Scotsman profile of the author
Serge the Concierge interview with the author
Slug Magazine interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists