Tagged: Robert Christgau

In celebration of all Rat Girls

Cover to Rat Girl; image courtesy of examiner.com

Let me start this post by making it be about me, so that I can then make it be about somebody else. Last week, my writing kind of took a hit. I’m confident that my work is strong enough to take criticism. I’m also pretty lucky to have a supportive readership and not tangle too often with commenter vituperation the way so many other smart bloggers I know contend with on a regular basis. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t annoyed by charges against indulgent rhetoric that’s love-drunk on GRE words. It’s not inaccurate, but it seems sexist to knock a woman for using big words or bridge tenuous connections, especially one who grew up reading the work of music critics like Ann Powers. But folks hate on Joanna Newsom for throwing around words like “etiolated” in a song. But have you rolled that word around in your mouth? It’s kind of awesome.

I don’t mean to compare my prose to Newsom’s verse. Likewise, I don’t mean to suggest I’m in the same room as Throwing Muses founder Kristin Hersh, who is a queen of challenging song form. I just get where they’re coming from. It’s clumsy work to stumble into an elegant sentence. It’s embarrassing to write your feelings down and pass them over to someone else. It’s also liberating when you surprise yourself and tap into something unexpected and true. And as beloved as Hersh’s band was in the early offing, boy did she get shit for bending words. Witness Robert Christgau’s dismissal of her work as bad poetry.

Her elliptical flourishes are all over Rat Girl, an adaptation of her diary from age 18. It was a big year for her. She became friends with super-fan Betty Hutton, who she met while taking college courses. Her band (which she co-founded with stepsister Tanya Donelly) got signed to British underground powerhouse 4AD, then the first American band to hold the distinction. She also battled with bipolar disorder. I dealt with depression at 18 basically by retreating further under the covers to block out all the light that could seep into my pitch-black bedroom. She gave up lithium after becoming pregnant, confronting audiences, video directors, and producers with her pregnant belly.

Rat Girl is kind of hard to pin down for a review and I’m having trouble finding fault with it. I recommend Marisa Meltzer’s Slate write-up, which I linked in a previous post. Anyone familiar with Hersh’s rudderless songs can imagine that linear storytelling is not her thing. Yet I think this memoir gets closest inside the protagonist’s head, expanding and contracting as her mind ambles past the thoughts in her head with the actions that transpire between 1985 and 1986. I realize that drafting a list to break down what I liked about an autobiography as elliptical as Rat Girl doesn’t honor its spirit, but here goes.

1. Hersh’s candor toward her internal feelings about mental illness is astounding. Especially when she talks about not being able to see people like Hutton because she doesn’t want to burden her with her problems. Her empathic writing recalls Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ariel. Yet I like that she’s always trying to shake off the black cloud hanging over her head or use it productively to her advantage. There’s claustrophobia, but she also acknowledges how time, setting, circumstance, and people allow a person’s perspective to shift and expand.

2. Since Hutton eventually calls Hersh out on going MIA after a particularly harrowing bout of depression, I’ll use this as a transition to say that I really like their kinship. They don’t seem to have much in common. Hutton often gives Hersh advice on stardom and glamour that her young charge doesn’t want to take, in part because she suspects such tips destroyed her mentor when she was a celebrity. Yet they get each other’s oddities on a fundamental level. 4AD co-founder Ivo Watts Russell connects with Hersh on a similar level. I appreciate that Hersh’s internal universe is conscious of this. Recognizing that some people really love you and are capable of staggering generosity is sometimes the one thing that lifts you out of your brain’s darkest depths.

3. Betty Hutton attending a Throwing Muses concert with gold hair and a priest as her plus one? Amen.

This woman would later go on to become one of the Throwing Muses' earliest fans; image courtesy of usatoday.com

3A. An early Throwing Muses show sounds epic. Their stage set-up included lights, projections, and a TV monitor blaring static with mannequin legs growing out from under it. If only I weren’t 2 in Houston and was 18 in Providence. I also wish I could have helped defend them against sexist, lazy sound guys but they held their own.

4. The Throwing Muses were a group of smart, considerate kids. When confronted with the news that Hersh is pregnant, they figure out how to play quietly so as not to disturb that baby and makes sure its mom gets plenty of rest. Disbanding is never an option because they’re committed to what they’re doing. I’m pretty sure most bands would have kicked Hersh out of the group she co-founded.

4A. Hersh loves how being pregnant makes her feel like a superhero. Likewise, her band mates are fascinated by it.

4B. It’s not commented upon, but my guitar instructor pointed out that they must have had tons of support from their parents. Gigging steadily and getting signed when you’re 18? Some older person cares, financially or otherwise.

4C. Hersh never really discusses her blended family with stepsister Donelly–only the one she formed with her, drummer Dave Narcizo, and bassist Leslie Langston. But I like the glimpses into their acquired sisterhood, like when New Englander Donelly corrects Atlantean transplant Hersh on the correct pronunciation of “thing” and tries to remove “ya’ll” from her vocabulary. Hersh’s defense of the offending second person plural term makes this Southern girl nod with approval.

5. I learned about the universal couch, which you can find in any venue. It’s something of a home for the band when they’re alone and a prison when they’re strapped to it by music journalists chasing the buzz while missing the point. Their line of questioning is often so wrong-headed and I love how Hersh and the Muses play around with them, especially when they make assumptions about Hersh’s feminist politics. I also love when Hersh says that she’s missing so much great, original music from the bands they’re touring with by being subjected to pointless interviews.

6. It’s never revealed who the father of her child is, nor does Hersh discuss what it was like to pick up the guitar at 14. They’re just facts. Hersh seems to have evolved past both of them. While I wanted to know more about how Hersh learned to master her instrument as someone almost a year into playing my Epiphone, I’m glad she bypassed the conventional narrative of a girl becoming self-actualized by her guitar. At 18, this was probably the farthest thing from her mind. Plus, rock journalists seem to be reminding her enough how exceptional it is to be a woman who plays electric guitar that she probably wanted to bury any recollection of the initial clumsiness that comes from developing the muscle memory to play scales, chords, and strumming patterns.

I'm not going to explain how I came to this instrument -- can't you tell what it means to me?; image courtesy of flickr.com

7. I love how she veers into tangents and mental in-roads about the nausea induced by the sight of greasy donuts or the thrill from swimming in violent, cold water or the exact color of a chord or the power of pausing to look at Christmas lights or how her band is like spinach or whatever else runs through her brain. Her (ugh) musings seem (ugh ugh) thrown together and edge toward hippie wisdom possibly inherited by her bohemian parents, except they’re often brave and profound. Again, the one thing I hope people take away from this book is what a great writer Hersh is. Some of the sentences she puts together absolutely floor me.

I know that Hersh’s book will be met with resistance. Some may think it’s just one structureless yarn from a talented white girl who’s making herself crazy. But I think her decision to write herself out of depression and soldier into her twenties with a band and a kid on her terms is pretty admirable. I believe the complicated ways in which she expresses and documents this exhilarating time is honest. I think she nails how time passes in life — that nothing seems to happen until everything transpires at once. For anyone who thinks they may relate to this great skein of an autobiography, I highly recommend it.

Why it doesn’t bother me that Elastica stole from Wire

Elastica in its Buzz Bin iteration (from left: drummer Justin Welch, lead guitarist Donna Matthews, vocalist/guitarist Justine Frischmann, bassist Annie Holland); image courtesy of indiereview.wordpress.com

So, the cool kids already knew back in 1995 that the answer to the “Oasis or Blur” question was “Pulp.” In 1995, I certainly knew I was supposed to like Sheffield’s underdogs who rose from years of obscurity to deliver “Common People,” which is all the more relevant today as trust-fund kids remove the band’s class consciousness to ape their deadpan sensibility and ironic sartorial statements, which seem to be modeled after what European teenagers were wearing in the 80s according to my high school French textbooks. I did like them, and continued to after their 2002 split.

Jarvis Cocker: the reason twenty-something males in East Austin look like well-read Eurotrash; image courtesy of unrealitytv.co.uk

But if forced to chose one or the other, I’d take Blur without question. Their lyrics were clever, their melodies were interesting, and their influences more varied. Plus, the members looked like a nerdy straight girl’s version of a boy band. I liked frontman Damon Albarn, who had a snaggle tooth and a vaguely simian cuteness that comic artist Jamie Hewlett had to be tapping into when he was designing Gorillaz with Albarn. There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”

My kind of boy band: Blur, channeling Blondie (from left: bassist Alex James, guitarist Graham Coxon, vocalist/keyboardist Damon Albarn, drummer Dave Rowntree); image courtesy of flickr.com

Oasis, on the other hand, were doggedly working class Mancs. They also had no musical vision past Lennon and McCartney. Their lyrics, absenting principle lyricist Noel Gallagher’s dyslexia, were of the worst variety of rubbish: the purposeful kind. The Gallagher brothers also forged a rivalry with Blur for publicity and that their episode of Behind the Music confirms they’re despicable people. I like “Cigarettes and Alcohol” well enough. I enjoy singing “Morning Glory” at karaoke, but my enjoyment of the song completely resides in shouting the lyrics, a singular joy I also bestow upon Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” I have no use for these songs as listening experiences — I merely enjoy shouting along with them, largely to drown out the recorded sound. It’s an icky, selfish joy.

But if you’re angling for true Britpop allegiances, I’m closer to siding with Courtney Love on this one. Apparently some time in the mid-90s (possibly during Lollapalooza ’95?), she said that the future of rock music was “Elastica-r-r.” While history and personal drama unfortunately proved that mantle untenable, Elastica were my Britpop band.

I remember buying the band’s self-titled debut at some big box chain in 1995 because I saw them in Seventeen and heard “Connection” and wanted to be a member. I particularly responded to frontwoman Justine Frischmann’s androgynous look and too-cool persona, later finding out that she co-founded proto-Britpop band Suede and was dating Albarn. I already had the short dark hair and wore loose black clothes. I used dry sarcasm as a defense mechanism for being shy and chubby. In my mind, I was as good as in.

The clerk responded to my purchase with incredulity. Perhaps he found them disposable. I’m not sure if the guy was one of those boorish types who think girls shouldn’t play guitars. Their status at the time as a buzz band could have predicted their short shelf life, as assuredly it did for all-male bands like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and countless others. At around this time, shoegazer bands like Ride were aping the Black Crowes. A year later, peer act Lush would release their final album, Lovelife, which attempted to recast the group in a more contemporary image.

Shaking off the record store attendant’s rebuke, I took the record home and discovered a series of short, spiky songs brimming with frank recollections of a nightlife with friends that teems with the possibilities of bad sex and great sex recounted from a distinctly female voice. It was an exciting sound I was just starting to relate to. Revisiting the album this past week, I’m stunned by how fresh it still sounds. But when I was closer to Rory Gilmore’s age, I was just beginning to understand the frisson of sharing closed quarters with a boy you probably shouldn’t be with.

I wonder if the record store clerk and other folks of his station didn’t like Elastica because they knew the band ripped off bands like the Stranglers and Wire, the latter a lauded post-punk band then still pretty obscure in the states. I’d come to discover that the band lifted a riff from the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” for “Waking Up” and Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” for “Connection,” among others.

Frankly, I don’t care. Britpop could be defined as a post-modern response to Great Britian’s pop legacy. A band like Blur pilfered from a variety of influences, eventually branching out to American indie rock. Albarn was particularly influenced by Pavement, whose frontman Stephen Malkmus apparently hooked up with Frischmann at some point. A former acquaintance once referred to Malkmus as indie rock’s Peter Fonda. I only abide by this statement as a counter to Love’s pronouncement that Malkmus was indie rock’s Grace Kelly, which sounds great but makes little sense. However, I do think it’s interesting that Frischmann mentions the actor in “Car Song.” I interpret Malkmus responding to the Anglo interest with “We Dance,” a song that sounds like Suede’s Brett Anderson could have sung it.

Oasis swung for the masses with the Beatles, a safe move because everyone steal from them. Elastica appropriated punk’s terse songcraft and tinny production and was penalized for essentially having the same taste as discerning record store clerks. But if you take out the riff to “Connection,” you still have a good song with smart, funny lyrics. If you take all the reference in “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Wonderwall,” you don’t have much else left. This isn’t to say that the members of Wire shouldn’t have been compensated. Just as I think the Rolling Stones deserved to collect every penny from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled a classical arrangement of “The Last Time,” so do I think Wire and the Stranglers deserved credit. I just think, in the name of credibility, swiping from Wire is hardly a big deal. Bands with dudes in them do it all the time.

I also think my indifference toward Elastica’s musical plagiarism stems from the ubiquitous presence sampling has in my listening practices. I grew up on hip hop and probably justify the band’s decisions through that lens. Thus I’m also interested in Frischmann’s connection to former roommate Maya Arulpragasm, who would later become M.I.A. Then a filmmaker, Arulpragasm created the cover art for The Menace and directed the music video for “Mad Dog God Dam.”

(BTW, Robert Christgau agrees with me about The Menace being underrated. This is one of the few times we’ve agreed on anything. Even when we have, as with Sleater-Kinney’s output, he fixates on sex and Corin Tucker’s voice as the manifestation of the female orgasm.)

Arulpragasm would later vacation with Frischmann and write “Galang,” the song which catapulted her to pop stardom. If that’s the legacy Frischmann’s known for as she continues to retreat from public life, that’s a nice consolation prize. But I do hope people remember her band’s own limited output, regardless of its source material.