Story by Timothy Gillis
PORTLAND – Kristin Hersh, who at 14 years old fronted Throwing Muses, a punk rock band from the 1980’s, will play an acoustic set at the Empire on Friday, August 17. Now a mother of four sons, Hersh has travelled a long, strange road – from youthful fame to teen pregnancy and Intelligent, creative energy thwarted by bi-polar disorder. Most daunting of all was to have her passion for music turn into an obsession.
The early fame of Throwing Muses was crippling for the ultra-shy intellectual.
“I’m very, very shy. There’s no show person in me. It’s just the songs,” she said. “You can’t be a musician without playing. I don’t need to tell the stories, but I need to play the song.”
Hersh is self-described as a “reluctant” front person for the Throwing Muses, but it’s not as if she could have avoided the limelight. They were ahead of their time, creating something called “art-punk,” some sort of aesthetically pleasing microphone in a blender, say Nirvana meets Patsy Cline.
“We were playing our language, trying to overcome the maelstrom we were in,” Hersh said from her car, travelling to Boston for a show with her husband and promoter Billy O’Connell. “We were a little out of control, so we sounded out of control. We were Interested in every measure. Playing in Boston with all the garage bands, we had a similar, sonic sound.”
Hersh said there are not too many other bands playing their own language, neither then nor now. “I’m not sure what else to call it but art.”
Asked to compare “art-punk” to anything artistically-musical being created today, Hersh said “Radiohead. But my favorite band now is the Moore Brothers out of California.”
Music is too powerful, she said. “The good stuff is too intense, and the bad stuff is too lousy.” And raising four children – all boys – while working in three or four bands has precluded any time for kicking back casually to listen to new music.
Her sons are named Bodhi, Ryder, Wyatt, and Doony. Bodhi was named after a particularly resonant dream.
“There was a bear in the Bodhi tree,” Hersh said about the tree under which Buddha awoke. “I woke up and asked my husband what a Bodhi tree was, and he said we have to get a pregnancy test.”
The other sons are older. Ryder is 21, Wyatt is 15, and Doony, a chef in New York, is the oldest at 26. “He’s the child in Rat Girl,” she said.
Domestic life shelved her literary acumen for a while, and when she re-emerged on the art scene, this time in print not paint, it seemed a strange land. The work “Rat Girl” is based on her diary from the days when she was that fourteen-year-old punk frontgirl for Throwing Muses, and it foresaw the current craze for creative non-fiction, albeit unintentionally.
“I was doing all these literary events – I thought I was in a non-fiction ghetto. People seemed to look down on it,” she said. “What I’m writing is ‘Science non-fiction.'”
Hoping the story could help someone in a similar situation, Hersh felt compelled to write it even though twenty five years had passed between now and the events of “Rat Girl.”
It’s about bi-polar disorder, passion that becomes an obsession, and teen pregnancy.
“A memoir is your idiosyncratic take on a universal theme,” she said.
Despite the recent foray into writing, Hersh says she is foremost a musician. “The music slides out. It’s the only genre in which I am fluent.”
She spoke about her latest solo album, “Crooked,” which was released as a book with lyrics, essays, and photos, true to Hersh’s distinctively different style and sense of the artistic.
The audio commentary of the album features an interview with O’Connell about each track.
Hersh plays guitar, but dabbles in other instruments. For the song “Coals,” she said. “I do not play drums like a girl.”
Regarding the piano, she said “I don’t like piano. It’s too big. I just poke at it.”
Hersh says “Coals” reminds her of Portland, (Oregon) and creates images from the year they lived there. It rained so much, but Hersh said the town was “misty interesting.”
“It’s about Oregon, but I much prefer Portland, Maine,” she said. Last here in 1991, she said she was looking forward to the visit.
When apprised of the open mic scene in Portland, where most any night a week, one can find great local music, sincere and free, Marsh said “in Ireland it’s an ongoing tradition. They’re so musically literate. You know if you’re in a pub, you can get up and play. It’s an education we simply don’t have here in the states.”
O’Connell tells her on the “Crooked” audio commentary that “thinking is the kiss of death” for her. When asked what such a comment could mean to an obvious intellect, Hersh said “I don’t trust brains. I’ve got one, and I use it, but don’t believe intellectuals need to make intellectual music. I’m not bigger than the song. I let the songs talk and don’t let my head get in the way.”
She expounded: “Thinking in something we do in linear time. I will know the truth of a song the first time I hear it and play it, but it shifts and moves, and it can come back and the story will play again with a different meaning. A song isn’t stuck in linear time no more than a personality is.”
The end of the “Crooked” album closes with two songs which suggest the emotional range of this musician. “Flooding” is an incredibly sad song, one that causes its creator to be dispirited just talking about it. It’s followed up by “Rubidoux,” an infectiously frolicking song which was written in the back of “fifty-foot Bob,” the car owned by the drummer of 50 Foot Wave.
“We were traveling, getting gas, and we were next to a car with license plates that said Leisl and the pump which said diesel. They became these German characters as we raced away from the scary frog,” some statue they feared from The Phoenix hotel. One one the song’s lines – “I laugh from the back” – catches the whimsical manner of the day.
Hersh is old school, but also into social media. Minutes before our interview, I note that she has just tweeted: “My husband: You have to stop thinking invisibility is an option… Same goes for time travel.”
When I ask here about it, she quips “Twitter is like passing notes in grade school.” She prefers Twitter to facebook, she says. “Twitter is more zen. You have nothing more in common (with followers) than a couple of lines, helps you make sure you’re not segregating psychologically. They can be form across the world, look different, be different.”
The one-time punk rocker seems to have travelled too far to still be called just that, but she does keep dying her hair.
“I keep trying to dye it dark so it doesn’t look like me. but it keeps washing out. It’s dirty blonde, you might say dishwater blonde. A makeup person called it honey.”
It might be hard for a kid to rebel against a punk parent, but Hersh said her sons gave it a go. “I had some pink hair among my sons, some blue.”
Her sons were all homeschooled, and were always into her music scene, so rebellion proved unnecessary.
One of the strongest songs from Crooked is called “Fortune.” It’s rife with double entendre. She lingers on the line “thick with wonder bread” after the word “wonder,” creating first the impression of mystical magic, then dunks it into soggy bread.
She said the double meaning didn’t occur to her when she wrote it, or even when hesitating in the performance.
“We’re not in control of beauty, but is beauty is surprising and necessary – or it wouldn’t move us,” she said.
Some alternative questions for an alternative artist, answered unflinchingly:
Q: What’s your least favorite color?
A: Amusement park green. Apparently that’s the color my eyes are, a good color to puke by.
Q: What’s your favorite board game?
A: What was it called? Dream Date or Dud Date? The one where you open a door, you don’t know who your date is…
Q: Who is your favorite author?
A: Natalie Angier, the science writer for the New York Times, wrote “Beauty of the Beastly.”
Q: Who is you least favorite musician or musical genre?
A: I hate everything. People either are awesome or suck.