Léna's Lit.Life

Léna (me): Lit, as in literature, Lit, as in light, Lit, as in a little kooky: Life.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Throwing the Muse: Meeting Kristin Hersh

Like every other teenager in the mid 80's, I had a plethora of tapes and "mix tapes" to slide into my walkman so that I could travel with my music. One of my favorites was by an indie band of kids a couple of years older than me from Rhode Island, called Throwing Muses.

I loved the fact that the band was mostly girls with a boy drummer, (unusual back then in a male-dominated industry) and that the singer was at once both ethereal and screechy, and that their lyrics were free association poetic rambles. It was full of raw emotion, and all of their music was full of the chaos of life. It reflected my own life perfectly.

I was introduced to their music via the Cocteau Twins and the British record label: 4AD the summer I turned nineteen, the summer of 1987. I was in San Francisco, and had gotten a job canvassing neighborhoods, asking for money to support saving the environment. All of my friends were a few years older and way cooler than I was. They loved my innocence and  I in turn worshiped them.  When one friend played all of 4AD's list for me, my mind had officially been blown. I had thought I was an indie aficionado, but it turned out I knew nothing. These bands were not just making music, they were making art, and they were succeeding.

All I was trying to do was finish college. After that summer, I went back to Barnard for a few months but then had to drop out because of depression. What was I doing with my life? What was my purpose and how would I make an impact? I had dreams of being an actress, but I was having a hard time reconciling my own narcissistic needs with a lack of real ambition, or at least a lack of interest in anything that was commercial - I wanted to make art.

And I wanted to make a impact. So I went to school to become a Drama Therapist. I was a therapist, I was making an impact on people in a creative way. And then when I had kids and I seriously had to reevaluate and push myself into growing my concept of art as service, because stories kept banging on my psyche.

Now everybody knows that I get cranky and depressed if I am not working on a project, that I know it takes discipline to listen to the muse, and when it doesn't seem to be there, I still try to look for art and kindness everywhere.

Looking for art - a year and a half ago I found the old tape. I hadn't listened to Throwing Muses in years, but my mom had generously bequeathed me her old car with a tape player, and I was able to unearth it, along with a few others.

Then a month ago, my friend Erika suggested that we read Kristin Hersh's memoir, Rat Girl for our book group.

"Who is that?" I asked.

"The lead singer from Throwing Muses - you love them, don't you?" Erika and I were in the same year at Barnard, but didn't know each other. She was a cool music maven and I was a theater geek - we ran in different circles, but she had booked Throwing Muses and they had played at Columbia.

Yes, but I never knew anyone's name. Of course I wanted to read it! Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down. It was about the year Kristin was 19 and getting Throwing Muses out there. It spanned the year from the summer of '85 to the summer of '86, and it chronicles her descent into a prolonged manic-depressive episode with an eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder, her being signed by 4AD and trying to reconcile making art in a contrived studio situation, to being ultimately saved by getting pregnant and finding a new voice in that process.

There is no drinking, drugs or sex. There is nothing but kind depictions of other people, and no glorifying of mental illness. It reads like a novel, and you fall in-love with the characters. It forced me to look at myself at that age and how lost I was, but it also gave me another layer of forgiveness.

Life is messy.

"I like that girl," Kristin later said to us.

Erika and I both wrote her fan gurl emails and were astounded by her kindness and generosity in responding. That generosity continued in her skyping with us last night for over an hour and a half, talking about the Rat Girl, art, music, and the craziness of the industry. It was thrilling. She is adorable and so, so kind. What is so impressive, is her continuing to make her own kind of music in the face of the psychosis-inducing recording industry. She has divorced herself from that and is completely listener supported through her non-profit, CASH music, an organization that builds open source tools for musicians. (If you are so inclined, click on the link and donate.)

Making art is about making connections, not only between concepts, but ultimately between people. Reaching out to be understood. It's not for narcissistic adoration, it's for finding meaning in this crazy world. Kristin, thank you so much for the music, your words and your time. You made a profound connection and impact on me.

And if you have to throw a few muses around, then so be it!


  1. Excellent! I love a happy music fan story. :)

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  3. I happily stumbled across this post today and was amazed that someone else had lived a life so close to my own: child of the 80's, love of Throwing Muses and 4AD artists as introduced by older artist friend, canvassing for the environment, dropping out due to depression, wanting to make art and not worry about making money, finding the mix tapes from years past and having an old car bequeathed to me with a tape player to relive the scratchy glory days, expensive 4 year (useless) degree from eastern private school(s) which I'm STILL paying off.

    I found out years later that the PIRG I worked for was only interested in the mailing list we passionate youths were populating for them. A list which they then sold as a "qualified leads" mailing list for hundreds of thousands of dollars to numerous Lefty marketing companies. The pot luck dinners were fun though. I'll give them that.

    Keep writring and I'll keep reading. :)

    1. Patrick - thank you so much for writing! That's some beautiful synchronicity there. What PIRG did you canvass for? The pot luck dinners were awesome - as was a retreat we did up in Yosemite with other branches of CALPIRG . . .

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