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All hail Rat Girl!

September 24, 2010

I won’t even lie: I was more than hesitant about reading this book, despite my long-time love of Kristin Hersh and especially her seminal band, Throwing Muses. I first discovered Hersh and her band at the tender age of 15 when a review of a live show in Spin magazine caught my attention, describing Hersh standing on stage, electric guitar pushed out in front of her bulging, pregnant belly while her head snaked back and forth like a charmed cobra as she wailed at the top of her lungs about demons, ghosts and animals bleeding through the walls. Kristin Hersh has never been a regular, run of the mill musician and her and her band’s music reflected that – fractured, shifting, mercurial and genuinely weird yet somehow crushingly beautiful at the same time. But with all of this mass love in mind I still had to wonder: could this wonderfully weird lady write a book I’d want to read or would I have to throw it down, cringing in dismay and trying to cast away the memory of the bad writing within for fear that it would corrupt my love of her music?  It’s a valid worry – it’s like musicians who decide to try their hand at acting or actors who want to break into the music biz; it rarely, if ever, goes well. And we’re all left to turn away and try to hide the embarrassment on our faces for ever having supported that person in his or her primary vocation. Thankfully, Ms. Hersh crafted a book that’s as perfectly strange and utterly compelling as the music she’s been making for the last three decades.

Rat Girl would almost better be described as a micro-memoir. Instead of giving readers the usual overview of a life thus far, Kristin Hersh presents us with one year of her life – 1985 to be precise – when she was 18 years old. And while I’m sure lots of us had our share of sturm und drang swirling about us at age 18 – it’s a teenager’s job to be full of drama and darkness, after all – the 18th year of Kristin’s life found her band, Throwing Muses, signed to 4AD Records amidst a growing whirlwind of buzz while, at the same time, Hersh was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and then found herself pregnant with her first child. But if that makes you think you’re in for a chick-lit-eqsue ride through tears, hand-wringing and a parade of victimization, you couldn’t be more wrong. One of the best things about Rat Girl is Hersh’s slightly self-deprecating detachment from telling her very intense, very chaotic, very painful story. The tone of Rat Girl often reminds me of Susana Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, a memoir of the author’s diagnosis with and hospitalization for borderline personality disorder. Hersh approaches her story with much of the same refreshing lack of sentimentality and poor-me-ness that Kaysen utilizes when recounting her experiences but with a voice that is uniquely Hersh’s own – peppered with made-up words, the naturally fractured nature of diary entries and snippets of song lyrics that Hersh felt related to or illuminated a given situation. And with Hersh, songs are always one of the biggest parts of her life.

I’ve often read about and heard that Hersh’s bipolar disorder often took the form of auditory hallucinations that would consume her until they forced her to sit down and give them structure and form with actual music and lyrics. But in reading Rat Girl I learnedthat she was the victim of a hit-and-run accident that takes place right before the beginning of her 18th year: an elderly woman ran into Hersh with her car, throwing her from her bike and causing her to slide along the pavement in such a violent way that she received a double concussion. It was in the hospital that Hersh first began hearing the relentless noises that eventually formed into the “song bodies” that have informed much of the music she has produced over the years. Soon after, Hersh is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and it’s like some sort of macabre chicken-or-the-egg scenario as she and the reader try to divine whether or not this condition came about as a result of the accident or if the accident merely brought out something that was already latent. Through it all she makes music with the bandmates she loves with a fierce protectiveness, goes to school with Betty Hutton, a faded Hollywood actress who makes the most charmingly odd companion for the tiny, besieged musician and tries to prepare for the new life she’s about to bring into the world.

But if all of this still sounds overwrought and dramatic, you really have to trust me when I say it’s not. I found myself belly-laughing at top volume on more than one occasion. Hersh’s stage shows have always proved she has a knack for hilariously wacky storytelling and Rat Girl proves that on a whole different level. From her tales of living in a squatter-esque household full of musicians and painters and the clashing dynamics inherent in those two groups co-existing to navigating the inherently silly world of music as a band of strange outsiders, Hersh manages to present truly harrowing stories and mundane events alongside each other with equal wit, insight and a surprising lack of pretentiousness. One of my favorite elements of the book is reading about conversations and interactions that clearly went on to fuel the lyrical content of so many of her songs. “Hate My Way” is one of Throwing Muses’ most visceral, aggressive, fantastic early songs and I had always wondered what it was that inspired Hersh to come up with the dark, disturbing lyrics that I’ve heard hundreds of times since my teenage years. Reading the banal-yet-oddball encounter that inspired said lyrics both had me chuckling in disbelief and admiring Hersh as an artist even more to see how she could mine just about any moment in her life for artistic inspiration. And Rat Girl is the ultimate expression of that talent. It takes a truly remarkable individual to be able to take one of the most difficult, dark, painful and simultaneously exciting and joyous years of her life and turn it into an enthralling, hilarious, unsettling, moving and completely readable piece of written art. Thankfully, Kristin Hersh is just such an individual. Now all I wanna know is when do we get year 19? And 20? And 21? And…

[Read a fantastic interview with Kristin Hersh about Rat Girl here at the Powell’s website.]

P.S. I had to add that one more wonderful component of Rat Girl is that Hersh and Throwing Muses are presenting four intimate sessions recordings of songs presented in the book called The Season Sessions. You gotta get the book to get the info on how to download these unique takes on classic TM/KH tracks. So much goodness, really.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2010 1:58 pm

    I was on the fence about reading another memoir, but you’ve convinced me it’s worth my time and appreciation. I don’t know her music – I mean yes, I know 4AD/Throwing Muses – but beyond name recognition and perhaps being able to isolate a few tunes, I haven’t had the pleasure. You talk about her a lot so I’m very curious about the book and her sound. Actually, lots of people I know love going to her shows. Do they give out sex and candy there???

    • September 24, 2010 2:04 pm

      I think people love her shows because she absolutely does not hold herself about the audience at all. And she’s always so adorably surprised that anyone shows up to hear her do her thing. And she’s really taken her career in a bold direction – providing most of her music for free online with merely the request of donations and “putting a tip in the hat” type of situations. And it seems like her loyal fanbase is sustaining her more than the traditional structure of the music industry ever did. I just have no end of admiration for her as a musician, artist and all around good person.

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