Rat girl. Don’t be scared. Rat girl is Kristin Hersh. And it is the name of her quasi-memoir.
Someone gave me the book (its actually a diary of only one year of her life … when she was 18 years old … interspersed with stories from other times in her life) because they knew I have always thought she was an excellent songwriter and I loved the Throwing Muses.
If you don’t know Kristen Hersh let me introduce you to her through a remake of Cat Steven’s Trouble which I first heard on the old tv show Everwood.
Trouble (a remake of Cat Stevens song … and an awesome version):
Well. Anyway. The book. I finally got around to reading it. Wow.
I have always thought she was a wonderful lyricist and story teller and her music is always eclectic and sometimes jarring and extremely listenable at the same time. Well. Rat Girl kind of has the same traits. The book is jarring, discordant, sometimes uneven, often unsettling and yet because it is a glimpse of only a year it has continuity and charm and insightfulfullness and some laughable moments within the life of an incredibly talented, but only 18, girl.
Because of the year the book is also about the Throwing Muses. A great band. (a side story here): In fact when I went into my “purge all my stuff” mode when I downsized a couple years ago I remember spotting the Real Ramona Throwing Muses cd and deciding that it was one of the few from the 3000+ cd collection that had to stay in my possession.
The Throwing Muses. Whew. Jaggedly smooth . They were alternatively hard edged and smooth in chords in their songs. I loved that their songs were oddly complex. They always had multiple aspects and often contradicting sections. I do know it was love at first listen for me. With two lead singers, stepsisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly (who went on to Belly and The Breeders), wrote the group’s songs using shifting tempos, creative chord progressions, some really unorthodox song structures, and some seemingly philosophical metaphor-driven lyrics (but Hersh claims there is no underlying meaning … it is just what it is). Their sound was really unique … kind of an eclectic blend of jerky guitar pop-like riffs/chords and Kristin’s oddly paced singing. I know it all sounds odd but their good stuff was REALLY good.
Interestingly it is tough to find anything but live shows of Throwing Muses on youtube but here is a sampling. The live version of Hook in Her Head is a rambling eclectic version of the studio version.
Hook in her Head:
Two Steps (a beautiful haunting song which captures the best of the jangly guitar sound they mastered and Kristen’s voice)
Not too Soon ( bad video just to show how the video business made some pretty good musicians do some pretty wacky stuff to become marketable):
Anyway. Back to Rat Girl (the book).
Rat Girl is not an easy read.
It captures Hersh’s life as an 18 year old playing clubs in the mid 1980s showcasing her music, her bipolar disorder and first pregnancy. This happened to be the year when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she started experiencing mania and hearing things (music mostly).
The way she describes music and how she creates songs is spectacularly disturbing and beautiful at exactly the same time.
Apparently it all started after she had a bike accident (which was before the time written about in the book). She hit her head and started hearing voices and noises which to her were complete songs. We think of people hearing voices, but she would actually hear songs, like melody and lyrics and all the arrangements. And this is her mental illness … hearing songs. There are parts of the book where you only feel pain for her as the songs in her head compete with everything else going on and she fights to have conversations shutting out the music.
So The book is not only about her coming to terms with being a real musician but also coming to terms with the fact that she had severe mental illness as well as coming to terms with just being a young girl and growing up as well as being pregnant as well as … well … that’s enough. And she writes about it all in an amazingly detached non-self-pitying way.
It becomes an additionally disturbing read because you read parts about this incredibly talented songwriter where she can’t sing … she is in the studio unable to record … and she can’t do it because she’s afraid of all this evil (what she calls it) that’s buzzing around in her head.
It’s tough to imagine.
Even moreso if you go to her current website and watch one of the dozen or so free songs she plays live. She seems so comfortable.
The book is written almost entirely in present tense because most of the text comes from the diary Hersh kept throughout that year. As she describes it:
“I don’t know what a diary is, really, a book about now?”
That’s maybe the best description of Rat Girl I can imagine.
There is a relly neat “living in the moment” feel to it. It’s not a story, it’s just life in all its absurdity and youthful self doubt and jagged in its normalcy.
And yet it is a story about music and a music maker (who doesn’t believe she is creative at all), an incredibly shy girl, feelings, growing up, dreams and, as she describes it, ‘the gorgeous and terrible things that live in your house.’
Throughout the book there are these little gems that seem incredible coming from the mind of an 18 year old.
She says she 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.”
But she also says things like:
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.
How awesome is that?
But. The songs are painful to her in a way. She hears music in her head and say that the songwriting process is a way for her to exorcise these sometimes painful intrusions (evil as she sometimes sees it as). She describes her creative process as being inhabited by something outside of herself:
“Playing a real song is like keeping a wild animal for a pet: gorgeous and terrifying, it lives in your house, but it’s never really yours. It’s an honor to stand next to this beast, and yet at the same time, you know it can kill you. It’s bigger, better, more important than you and scarier than any person could ever be.”
And throughout what is a diary of an everyday girl you get a sense that she sees herself as an incredibly ordinary girl bewildered by the fact that others see something in her that she doesn’t see.
She is simply writing songs (in one part) to survive her own head (the manic depression) and while loving playing music she just cannot believe people really like it let alone like her playing it.
During one interview it comes out this way:
“Tell me your thoughts,” the interviewer says, “Regarding songwriting and expressing yourself.”
I’m confused. “Myself? Why would I wanna express that?”
What an amazing woman.
What an amazing unpretentious creative person.
Throughout her life she has heard things most of us don’t and yet she has been an open book with regard to sharing her innermost thoughts with anyone curious enough to ask (or care).
In fact she sometimes, in a quite charming way, seems surprised that people care.
Even today Kristin is delightfully simple and complex at the same time.
She is normal but talented.
When you see the early Throwing Muses videos she is just a young girl from suburban Rhode Island on stage. But the music is spectacular.
If you want more here is a great interview:
Good book if you like music.
Great book if you want a glimpse into one of the great creative minds of a generation.
An unparalleled book if you want to get a feel for success from a delightfully (and admittedly refreshing to me) unpretentious everyday talented person.
note: also know I could have pulled at least another dozen amazing quotes from the book. in an odd way it is also a life lesson book. a book to maybe remind us that no one’s life is easy (no matter how successful they may be) and you better get it through your head that you only have two options in life – keep going or give up. and self pity falls within the “give up” category.