During the 1980s, while most of us were getting our groove on to Wham, Duran Duran, and early Michael Jackson and Madonna tunes, a long running, influential American art rock band, the Throwing Muses, was just getting started. The songwriter and guitarist at the centre of the band is Kristin Hersh and it’s her diary that has been adapted into a vivid and powerful memoir called, simply, Rat Girl.
From the Spring of 1985 to Spring 1986, Rat Girl recalls a chaotic year of living in squat houses, hearing voices, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, pregnancy and having her band signed to seminal alternative UK record label, 4AD. Hersh was just 19 but forced to grow up quickly, maintaining a sweet innocence all the while.
Forming the Throwing Muses when she was just 14, Hersh has always had a talent for music. Her hippy philosophy-professor father, whom she called Dude, would often play guitar and sing folk songs to her, but a concussion from a car accident in her youth brought music to life. It began to play outside of her, a jumble of ambient noise and voices that she would have to turn over in her mind to make music and lyrics with before it would leave her alone for a while. Consequently, Hersh has been an incredibly prolific songwriter. She has released more than twenty albums over the 25 years, including nine solo albums.
In 2008 and 2009, Hersh took excerpts of her book to the road. She performed intimate solo shows, under the title of Paradoxical Undressing, in which she would read parts of the book and sings snatches of songs that were relevant to those parts of her life. Along with a backdrop of soft, colourful imagery, they were haunting and beautifully honest shows. Indeed, it’s her voice I could hear when I read Rat Girl.
In written form, the stories from her diary are interspersed with childhood memories and fitting lines from her songs.
Rat Girl is poignant and funny. Although, humour isn’t something we normally expect from such a dark subject matter. Hersh tells stories of the deaths of drug-addicted friends and manic periods of insomnia and hallucinations. She tells of “songs crashing into each other” and a confusion of syllables and melodies that are hard to separate. “I smash my hands over my ears and the music plays louder.” But Hersh’s innocence gives a lightness to the book. She makes no judgements; befriending a young drug addict with blue hair and becoming close friends with old-time Hollywood actress, Betty Hutton—a fellow college student at the university where Dude teaches.
Before Hersh had submitted the book to publishers she released short excerpts to her mailing list of fans. I remember reading one of these that mentioned Betty Hutton, and assuming it was just an hallucination. What a strange scene to be describing, Betty Hutton and her priest at a Throwing Muses show, and Betty’s advice to Hersh to “show off more”. Having finally put the pieces together in Rat Girl, I can see it all much clearer now, even amidst all that is crazy.
The thing that struck me most about this book was the experience of a heightened sensory awareness. Hersh describes her visual perception of sound in rich detail. “I settle the record gently on the turntable like Dude taught me…In seconds, the room is full of bursting colour.” As her mania becomes depression, the book changes pace. The entries become shorter. The syncopation of her writing keeps pace with the syncopation of the music she hears outside of her head. Together, we see what she hears and feel what she sees.
It’s understandable to want to forget these dark periods of our lives. The consequent emotional upheaval gets locked away like an evil monster in the basement. But it’s clear that through the process of writing Rat Girl, Hersh has discovered a fondness for the young girl who was true to herself and everyone around her. She seems charming and hopeful, even while wrestling with her demons.
Her authentic style of writing is not unfamiliar to her legion of dedicated fans. They are used to receiving brief essays with each new song that offer a little of the back-story to the song’s creation. Hersh has never tried to be anything but herself and it’s evident in the conversations captured in her memoir. Often critically acclaimed, Kristin Hersh’s music seems to have flown under the radar of commercial success but in recent years, freed from the shackles of record label bureaucracy, she can now keep the truth in her music as well.
Funded by listener subscription, Hersh constantly rewards her fans with regular releases of new songs, special access to shows and recordings, and a genuine friendly interaction, in exchange for the studio time those funds provide. The excitement was palpable at the mention of a book deal. At last, there would be access to a small part of history—a personal memento—of a girl that has played a big part in one of the greatest alternative bands of our time.
Rat Girl has been released by Penguin in the US and will hit UK and Australian bookstores in 2011 as Paradoxical Undressing.