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Kristin Hersh – Paradoxical Undressing

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by Lucy Cage

Six-year-old Kristin Hersh, in the way of small children told not to touch something because it’s not a toy, imbued the guitar belonging to her university professor dad (whom everyone called Dude) with mysterious and magical powers. She used to creep up and gaze at it longingly, imagining the thrilling sounds it would make when played.

Eventually Dude teaches her tiny hands to make E/G/A around the guitar’s huge neck but little Kristin is bitterly disappointed: the chords are boring.

“But Bob Dylan plays these chords. And Neil Young.”

“Mm-hm.” I looked at my hands, willing them to play better. “They’re probably nice guys.” Handing the guitar back to Dude, I stare at it, perplexed. Why doesn’t it sound as cool as it looks?

I complained that the chords didn’t sound magenta enough. “ … You know?”

“No”, answered Dude, bewildered.

“Well, red, I mean. I’ve heard red before. A million times. That chord was red. And boring.”

“E major’s red?” he asked. “E never sounded particularly red to me. You mean it’s a primary color?”

“Yeah. We didn’t even play green.”

“What chord is green?”

I shook my head and glared impatiently at Dude. “Mix a blue chord with a yellow one. Duh-uh. It’s stronger and prettier that way. Like those fish.” The fish I meant were African cichlids, who change color when they lose too many fights. They get their asses kicked enough times and grow pale, while the winning fish develop bright colourful scales and beautiful patterns … “If you play too many wimpy chords, you’re just asking for wimpy scales.”

“Are you calling Bob Dylan a loser?”

“No, just a pale fish.”

Dude looked at me sideways. “Are you calling my scales wimpy?” I shrugged and he handed me the guitar. “It’s yours,” he said. “Play colors”.

*

And so she did. The songs Kristin Hersh wrote with her band Throwing Muses are kinaesthetic wonders, flashing bright with fire and fury. Her autobiography, Paradoxical Undressing (Rat Girl in America), covers the frenetic year in which the 19-year-old Hersh is hospitalised with manic depression (“They don’t call it that anymore”), signs to British label 4AD, gets pregnant and along the way writes some of the most extraordinarily affecting, astonishing and inventive pop songs that have ever been recorded.

It does make me wonder how people who’ve never heard Throwing Muses experience this book. (Fuck knows what they imagine the band sounds like but I’d love to hear the music a forensically-minded reader might make, reconstructing Throwing Muses solely from what Hersh has written. It’d be awesome.) But if you do know their self-titled first album from 1986, the Chains Changed EP (1987), second album House Tornado (1988) or the In A Doghouse cassette of demos from 1985 (released on CD in 1998), then you can be sure of a hundred little epiphanies and the mental clicks of puzzle pieces fitting together. The narrative colours-in the recollection of familiar songs, and imagery that might have struck one as purely cerebral is revealed as having its feet set in concrete reality; not altogether an expected situation, given that Hersh has always been so clear that her songs drop from the ether, in a process not so much of being written as transcribed.

So the lyrics of ‘Fish’ (from In A Doghouse; also on the 4AD Lonely Is An Eyesore compilation (1987) : “I have a fish nailed/To a cross/On my apartment wall/It sings to me with glassy eyes/And quotes from Kafka”) are revealed to be about an actual scaly crucifix on the wall of the squat the teenage Kristin sometimes sleeps in, rather than hallucinogenic word play. (The story about ‘Hate My Way’ is far too good to quote now: you’ll just have to find it for yourself.) This demystification manages to be simultaneously delightful, satisfying and alarming, not least because the hallucinations, when they do appear, are all too real: Jesus Christ, she slept alone in a haunted apartment under a fishy, donut-headed Fish Jesus? Oh, little homeless Kristin…

(continues over)

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9 Responses to Kristin Hersh – Paradoxical Undressing

  1. Neil Kulkarni May 18, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    one of my favourite writers ever on one of my favourite musicians ever. This has made my day, my week, my month and possibly even my year. More Lucy please!

  2. Princess Stomper May 19, 2011 at 5:06 am

    Beautifully-written and passionate. Have you interviewed Kristin? If not, you really should.

  3. GBE May 19, 2011 at 5:46 am

    Wonderful review of a truly moving and amazing book.

  4. Melz May 19, 2011 at 7:15 am

    Prolific, pure, complicated musings…
    Could not have written this more honestly I don’t think – nice one Lucy x

  5. Lucy Cage May 19, 2011 at 7:30 am

    Thank you! *blush*
    Yes, Princess, I interviewed her a long time ago, probably at around the time of University: it was one of the easiest and most enjoyable interviews I’d ever done, cos everything she says is funny and astute plus there was an especially cute small child hopping about, causing chaos and amusement.

  6. SouthernDoofus May 19, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Okay, someone please clarify for the girl in the pointy hat here.
    Is this the very same book as “Rat Girl”. I feel so dumb.

  7. Everett True May 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Yes it is the same book.

  8. Owen May 19, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    That’s a lovely piece of work, Lucy – thanks very much!

  9. sid May 22, 2011 at 7:24 pm

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