Cottonmouth

I read Kristin Hersh’s latest book Seeing Sideways. This is a memoir of her life from about 1990 up till 2020. During which time she had problems with her record companies, whilst releasing and touring many new albums. She had a custody battle over her first son and also had 3 more children with her partner, who left her near the end of this period. There was also a catalogue of traumatic accidents and disasters which would be quite enough for most lives.

Her first book Rat Girl (also published as Paradoxical Undressing) dealt with the early years of her band Throwing Muses and was comparatively straightforward, and even joyful, compared with this adult sequel. Rat Girl had plenty of pain and anxiety, describing the chaotic early gigs and attempts to convey the sound going on in her head, which was usually 2 songs occurring at the same time and entwined together. It described her first pregnancy and her mental health problems around the time, which have always been a large element in her writing. The style of Rat Girl at least had other named individuals and minor characters engaging in dialogue, and the fans can draw connections between the stories and some of the early lyrics.

The style of Seeing Sideways is elliptical and claustrophobic. We are on tour most of the time and it certainly feels that way, sitting at the back of a bus journeying around parts of America that are all hoping to audition for the next David Lynch film.

Truckers are lonely-ass folk, lonely as comedians, under fluorescent lights. Musicians are not like this; we go limp on the road, go dark, live a cult life. We watched these truckers carry their damp towels outta the shower, shop for speed, beef jerky, and Red Bull, then peer around Burger King for other guys doing the same, waiting to let go all the words piled up on their tongues while they drove and thought, thought and drove. (pg.82)

The people were not silent, though they didn’t whoosh. They spoke a lot of words without saying much; answered questions, then didn’t stop talking, just kept going after the answer was over. (pg.  86)

When we are not travelling we often get the muffled sounds of Kristin arguing with the Important People in a meeting room we are waiting outside of.

The book is divided in to 4 large chapters, named after each of Kristin’s sons – Doony, Ryder, Wyatt, and Bodhi. Episodes within each chapter are headed with brief snippets of her lyrics across many different albums. There is no clear chronological connection between the lyrical selections and the narrative, and the overall chronology is hard to follow even for a fan, since there are no explicit references to release dates or schedules. All other names have been redacted, and the other band members are cited as “drummer”, “bassist” and so on, and fans would also be taxed trying to work out which bassist is being referred to – even male gender underdetermines identity. “I use no names other than my sons’, since these four chapters are meant to reflect their individual voices.” she explains in the author’s note at the beginning. The other significant character is “the man”, her partner, experienced in the record industry and supporting his soul soldier in her battle to make her way in it.

Unable to buy or talk myself out of my contract, we decided to try our best here. To maybe bring some hippie-commie to a peak capitalism table. Blink and the meeting is over. In the meeting? We said what we always said. Essentially this:

Marketing could be honest: sharing substance instead of trying to fool dummies into buying style. There aren’t actually any dummies, anyway, and you alienate the musically literate when you throw fashion at them; they know what an insult it is. You also alienate listeners looking for depth when you define them by the superficial, calling them ages, races, and genders. Market this record as a search for those who want to hear it; a symbiotic relationship, cuz we’ll keep those listeners forever. If it has to be about the bottom line? You will sell more in the long run if you earn listeners’ loyalty by offering quality. Which, in music? Doesn’t cost any more than suck does. [sic] (pg. 61)

Record companies and the entertainment industry always want new fashion and easily-consumed products. Rock’n’roll is acceptable in the tamed, stereotyped imagery of “rocking out” as required in various photo and video shoots Kristin is booked for. There is the long sequence at the Chelsea Hotel.

Standing in the overheated hallway at the Chelsea Hotel was a nightmare of old Lysol, mildew, spilled booze, and puked-up booze, all covered with air freshener. And there was no air to freshen, so this didn’t work. I swallowed carefully as my throat shut with morning sickness, then said a silent prayer of apology to the human under my rib cage. It’s not that I didn’t understand the grit cred these photoshooty people went for. I knew the Chelsea was a place people took pictures of musicians because they were then allowed into a pile of other people they’d decided were Big Cuz Attention; I just found this irritating. Strike one for my bad attitude. (pg.94)

Appearing on a talk show gives her a chance to see the deflated, defeated clown of a presenter in his off-air moments, another lonely comedian miserable in a late-night stopover.

I watched dress rehearsal on the monitor: a slanted shot of a man at a desk, slumped over, as if he and the cameraman had both passed out… The slumped-over guy suddenly sat upright, yelling, and he was a crazy color: ash pink. His hair stuck straight up and his long arms flailed.

THAT’S NOT FUNNY!

Screaming seemed to take it out of him. His body dropped like a dead puppet; his limp torso just a lumpy extension of the desk again. (pgs.175-6)

The narrative is punctuated by interviews with music journalists along for the rides, and the Q&A formats are a handy way to get Kristin’s position in the business stated in bullet points. But she is rather unhappy about fans as well. Though they help out moving the band’s gear at some shows, and organise funding appeals on the internet, their motivations and demands can be as unwelcome as the corporate executives:

A listener might as well be a musician; we’re engaged in the same effort. A fan is not a listener. A fan – short for fanatic – is just insert temporary object of worship here and also be bonkers. They were the record company’s, not ours. They were people who liked to like, and like what others like; no love in this equation. They didn’t seem to hear the music we played but were wholly fixated on us. And not even us, really, our clothes or something. Pictures of us. Our records, but not the music on those records; the records were just cardboard to make us sign. I found fans darkly off-putting and oddly mean for people who were trying to kiss up to us. Fine line between sycophant and bully. They want you on a pedestal so they can knock you down. (pgs.126-7)

Kristin’s creativity and response to music comes from the synaesthesia she developed after a car accident. The core of the book is her exposition of her relation to music and the clear parallel with motherhood. It is not simply an expression of the existing self, but a co-operation in delivering an independent being with its own life and potentialities. This is the distinction between real music and cheap industry product.

The song jangled next door, playing out a window, but it also ran across my skin. Soon, these two stimuli would join up and I’d learn their chords. Meaning, I would learn how their particular vibrations parsed themselves out of a shooting prism of color and bounced back off each other. Well… fought. Violent and subtle, color would rush, and the marriage of tone would shape a sculpted body, a lifeline. You’re looking for a stringent truth and nothing but a truth. The whole truth, though? Can go fuck itself. Leave spaces.

We differentiate as minute, realised pieces of the holographic whole. These pieces sound like song bones. Phonetic percussion becomes words-ish and broken melody. You grow a baby, you grow a song. They’re both love, they both make you kinda sick, they both have hearts, pulmonary systems, skeletal structure, and idiosyncratic features. Also, your heart goes nutz.

The shit the songs say; my god. I listen and cower and scribble my fingers across the strings. If there was shame in music? I would be ashamed. But really, there is no “I”. (pgs.119-120)

Kristin had a long phase when she “could no longer hear music” and she seemed to have lost her synaesthesia. However it returned as a consequence of a bizarre rite of a “music blessing” in another diner on the roadside.

Tears were pouring down my cheeks. Choking, I couldn’t breath, and color was spilling all over me with the tears. I stared at the black speakers over the barista’s head, under an array of plastic flowers and chili peppers, while the man stared at me.

What’s wrong?

I could see music climbing out of the speakers and into the air and it was falling on me. I remembered the sense I had lost in the desert: songs. A desert as quiet as this one, where sound is not played by people but by coyotes, owls, and wind harmonica’d through whispering pines. In this place? People had made something physically real out of the essence of color, sculpted from sound waves.  (pgs.213)

Although the music of Throwing Muses may seem rough and ready, Kristin always has a clear sound in her head she is trying to capture, and can be very clear when the technical delivery is off.

He was still staring at the speakers. I watched him watch sound. The engineer turned and squinted at us. I shook my head and went down the list.

The snare is lame. It’s snappy and way too loud. My vocals are grating. They’re snappy and way too loud. The kick is booming when it should be thudding, the verb on the lead is glossy and the compression is fucking with its dynamics. My distortion sounds like a beer commercial instead of broken static. The bass is punchy and that’s stupid. It should be fuzzy here. I don’t wanna hear the texture of the bass strings cuz they’re playing off that lousy snare bite. The rhythm guitar is chunky and that’s almost as dumb as tasty. The hat is sizzling instead of cracking. The rhythm double is in perfect time, so panning them sounds like a chorus pedal. The backing vocals are singing and singing is against the rules. The percussion isn’t frantic enough, just clever and too tight. The tracks are all isolated and too airy when they should cohere into something tangled and enmeshed. That’s really all that’s wrong. But that’s not what’s wrong. (pg.123)

Music is not ineffable, and the realness of “real music”, which is not a dull hallmarking notion of “authenticity”, it can be identified and analysed as far as necessary. Though of course it is only necessary to distinguish from the phoney imitation. “The engineer stayed frozen, hands on the console. These were all the crumminesses that made the big, fat, American record company happy.”

Childbirth is a fraught and anxious process, and we have a long description of Ryder’s delivery in a hospital where everyone seemed to have clocked off for the night and the ones left behind barely understand where babies come from.

Ryder was born so early that when I went into labor, the man had not read far enough into the pregnancy books to know anything about it….

A child was standing at the foot of the gurney, looking scared. Two long braids, hospital scrubs, and a stethoscope. She wasn’t doing anything, just standing there, looking uncomfortable.

I’m a resident. They got me from E.R.

The girl was a baby doctor. I don’t mean obstetrician but, like, a baby dressed as a doctor. Could barely see her over my enormous belly….

The girl didn’t seem very composed. In fact, she looked really upset. Finally, she blurted out:

I’ve never delivered a baby before!

I started wanting to give up again.

Well… I have. (pgs.140-9)

The imagery of Kristin’s songs can be found in the world between engagements: explosions and sudden fires, theft and disintegration. Nothing can be abnormal in the world where this happens:

In Detroit, the children stare out of the bus windshield at a costume shop with dead clowns hanging by their necks in the window, masks grimacing.

…Up close, the clown costumes looked moldy, their primary-colored ruffles edged in greenish-gray. I pulled the boys back from the smudgy glass to keep their noses from touching it.

…Sirens, too many sirens, building in volume way too quickly, coming too fast. I glanced over my shoulder in slow motion and saw a van swerving wildly up the intersection next to us, behind a line of cars waiting at a traffic light, with many police cars in pursuit.

In one move, I swept the children back on to the bus as the speeding van plowed into a car waiting at the light, pushing it up onto the sidewalk and through the plate glass window of the costume shop, straight into the dead clowns. Shattered glass sprayed everywhere and the car horn moaned. Four police cars appeared, sirens still going, emptying cops onto the sidewalk. The driver of the car was clearly dead. The driver of the van, who’d rammed the other guy into the dead clowns, into his death, struggled to open his door, finally pushing himself through the window, then ran past the bus. Two policemen shot at him. I pulled my children down…

Was that scary?

Ry shrugged.

The clowns were scarier. (pgs.248-50)  

Kristin is not entirely clear when she describes her feelings, and passages like this could be best read as just another music, a structure of sound and syllables rather than a dissertation:

Opposed forces don’t immediately disengage. Did I call this violence? Dis-ease? What is interplay? What is dis-integration? What is an enemy? Every entity is both a system within a system and an organism. Every song a body; soul is its substance, this incarnation only its style. Same with us. This fingerprint will write its own story of engagement. (pg.29)

Those “what is…” questions recall the lyrics of “Mania” on the 1989 album Hunkpapa: “What means hallunicate? What are we supposed to see?”

I’ve heard a few people say that the early 1986-8 Muses were exceptional, but after that it just sounds like US college rock in the vein of Weezer and so forth. It’s certainly true that the sound changed to an extent, but it was already changing. As Rat Girl told us the very early sound around 1983 was quite fractured and noisy, with stage sets aiming more at performance art; that first album was already the product of a considerable amount of growth and refinement. As the current book makes clear, the record company never felt that those later albums were what they wanted. Singles like “Bright Yellow Gun” were written to be hits, and Kristin never denied it, but I think albums like Limbo and Red Heaven and at least half of University are quite far away from what anyone thought was commercial “alt rock” in the mid 90s. Pearl Jam, Oasis, and Alanis Morrissette sold millions in 1995, not Throwing Muses, though I wish it were the other way around.

Although some parts of this story could make an uplifting Hollywood movie starring Naomi Watts, altogether the central character may well be too detached and problematic to be appealing to a wider demographic, as all those rock hack questionnaires gently insinuated. I saw her in London doing a Q&A at Rough Trade East in 2018 and I wish I’d asked whether she was conscious when writing that some songs belong under the “Throwing Muses” label and others are solo works, since she releases different material under the two names. Maybe I would have just marked myself out as a mere fan and not a real listener. But at least my copy of this book was one of the ones Rough Trade got signed by her:

“Cottonmouth” is one of my favourite Throwing Muses songs. It was a b-side of the “Counting Backwards” single and not on any album except the live recording The Curse from 1992. For a long time I only knew the rather jaunty live take, so it was a surprise to hear the studio recording, with its heavier bassline bringing out the darkness of the lyrics. “I got the shakes…

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