Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: Kristin Hersh's 'Rat Girl'

Between the springs of 1985 and ’86, Kristin Hersh was hit by a car, infected with an influx of incomparably off-kilter songs, lived as a squatter, befriended a former Hollywood star turned college student, diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, cut her first album with Throwing Muses, and became pregnant with her first child. Anyone swept up in such a dizzying draft of events during such a brief period of time—especially when that person is barely out of her teens—is right to think she might have an interesting story to tell. How capable she is of telling that story well is key. That Hersh based her memoir covering this topsy-turvy year, Rat Girl, on the diary she kept at the time might raise a big red flag that we’re in for an insular, possibly self-pitying ride. That Hersh is known for writing elliptical, poetic, angular songs, and not for composing lucid prose, might raise another.

Rat Girl burns those flags. This is a beautifully written, deeply insightful rummage through a year that might have crippled someone without Hersh’s good humor. Ironically, she seems most disturbed by the songs that suddenly begin pouring into her aggressively and constantly. Unsure if the songs are a curse or gift, the fruits of a creative mind or symptoms of mental illness, she can only collect them as they intrude. Hersh’s description of the songwriting process is the most accurate I’ve read, although “process” might be the wrong word. The way songs arrive—and, I assume, continue to arrive— is more like getting clobbered by a generous, if obnoxious, phantom. Equally fascinating, she illustrates numerous passages with her lyrics, which both emphasizes the importance of these moments and brilliantly illuminates Hersh’s famously enigmatic songs. Suddenly, the meanings behind such seemingly willfully obscure lines as “I have a fish nailed to a cross on my apartment wall” and “that looks like a carnival wig and two shiners” materialize.

Rat Girl also pulses with a cast of fantastic characters: Hersh’s geeky yet refreshingly self-possessed band mates, the sweet junkies she befriends, 4-AD’s eccentric founder Ivo Watts Russell (who calls Hersh daily to ask if he can help The Muses with anything and remind her that he doesn’t sign American acts. Until he does), restless producer Gil Norton, and especially, Betty Hutton. After Hersh’s hippy dad (another memorable character!) introduces his daughter to the singer, comedian, and star of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and The Greatest Show on Earth at Salve Regina University, they become fast and unlikely friends. Hersh’s recollections about Hutton towing her priest along to Muses shows and imparting show-biz advice she learned from Al Jolson to the mad-eyed, flailing singer are hilarious. The Jiminy Cricket guidance Hutton carefully portions out to Hersh provides the most moving moments in a book rich in humanity, humor, and honesty.

Plus, Hersh begins Rat Girl with quotes from Dostoyevsky and Micky Dolenz. Extra points for that.

Get Rat Girl at Amazon.com here.
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