Man and Boy, Rat and Girl…

18 May

The bus runs from Palisades through the Boulevard and beyond Hollywood. Passing billboards and neon signs, passengers are reminded of their reality. ‘Get thin!’ ‘We buy gold!’ ‘Tune in to the David Letterman Show every weekday.’ To the far left, the hills stand strong and tall in the distance. Reminders of the foundations we are living our lives upon.

Nature versus nurture. The age-old conflict. Who are we and who will we become? Do we become what we consume? Maybe we’re just hanging from a showbiz dental floss – swinging precociously in the Californian winds.

The girl at the front of the bus stands twirling her bombshell-blonde extensions – the oversized headphones wrapped around her head. She raises her perfectly manicured nails, diamante gems glinting in the evening sun. Cupping the headphones closer to her skull, she mouths the lyrics that are filtering through to her very being. Is it about the music or all for image?

Who do you want to be?

We shoot past a store: Rock’ n’ Roll Cupcakes. Next, almost directly adjacent, stands the Mr Music Head Gallery – Where Music Meets Art. The corporate product made real from a creative thought. Who’d have thought music would be packaged up into literal food-for-the-soul: cupcakes sugar-coated and labelled-up with a Britney tag or a Beastie Boys barcode.

There’s a guy two seats ahead – he cranes his neck to face the boy behind him – possibly a quarter of his own age. These two strangers are engaged in a playful conversation – regardless of age, gender, background or lifestyle. The younger boy’s eyes light up as though fireflies are reflecting off the retina.

Really?! Wow! The Dinosaur Song?’ He does not edit or inhibit his words.
The guy with the guitar offers a fraction of his life-story to the boy: he rents his room in LA with five other musicians and he loves to write music but has to work on a beach instead, to pay the bills.

‘Are you a lifeguard?’ The boy sitting behind him, asks.
For a moment, the blissful bubble seems to deflate as the guitar man tells his new friend that he actually hands out promotional flyers for a taco shop. Still, they continue their conversation.
Producing a blue slip-case from his rucksack, the guitar man hands the boy a CD – with scrawled handwriting inscribed with a Sharpie on the surface of the disc.

This is very likely the first gift this boy has received from a stranger – he can’t be more than six years old. His Mum glances over (she approves) and returns to her daydream from the scratched window-pane.
‘For me? How do I play it? Will it work if I spin it like this?’ The boy hurls questions towards his musician friend – the CD is exciting – an almost alien-concept to him.

‘It’s not a toy’, he says with a smile. ‘Don’t go playing your GI Joe’s on it or anything.’
They talk about the Dinosaur Song – of which the boy seems to have some foregrounding knowledge of. It must be a popular children’s song. To learn that the song is included on this 19-track CD is quite a find. Questions boomerang back and forth between the boy and guitar guy.
‘You’ll have to listen to it for yourself and figure it out’, the musician tells his recipient.

‘Is the Dinosaur in there?’ The boy points towards the rucksack.
‘It’s a song – a dinosaur song. There is no real dinosaur.’ The guy explains.

Music is something we predominantly hear. Yet it has the ability to reach every sense and beyond to those we don’t even know exist. Do we see the lyrics, that melody and that image? Do we feel it? Can we touch it? Might we taste it like those cupcakes?
The dinosaur really does exist for that boy on the bus. It is a part of his reality.

For Kristin, songs aren’t dinosaurs. They’re snakes. They’re rats. Sometimes, they’re fish (disguised as Jesus).

As the bus trundles along Sunset Boulevard, to the left, high on the hill stands the Getty Center and Museum. Less than a week ago, on the evening of April 9, Kristin Hersh – formerly of Boston-based (Rhode Island born) indie-rock band Throwing Muses, stood before the packed auditorium of the William Harold Building.

Dressed in white, she begins her story.
Her fingers delicately coax her guitar into a soundtrack to move her memories, stories and memoirs along. Delicate might not necessarily spring to mind when you think of Kristin’s work with Throwing Muses and her later project – 50 Foot Wave. But delicate, it really is. Fragile words – arriving with tenacity and disintegrating into the world – to be absorbed by anyone open to them. Abstract images, colours and shapes fill the canvas, sweeping across the back of the stage.

Kristin’s memoir, Rat Girl (also known as Paradoxical Undressing in the UK) is the catalyst for tonight’s show. Dirty Answer, Pandora’s Box and Hook in her Head weave in and out of spoken excerpts – guiding us through the history of a life articulated via music – often noise and chaos, at times, serene peace.

Kristin tells her listeners of Betty and Betty’s Priest who regularly used to rock up at early Throwing Muses’ gigs. Betty is larger-than-life. The polar-opposite of Kristin – whom by all accounts has struggled to make sense of her own shyness and demons. A smaller-than-life persona – contrasted with the songs that bombard the musician and fill her body to bursting. Betty tells Kristin to mimic a showbiz-facade. For Betty, this isn’t a smoke-screen. This is her reality.

Cathedral Heat punctuates the next paragraph. Seemlessly bridging the gap between spoken-word and a song written over a decade ago, the images selected and shared with Kristin’s guests are a powerful combination of literal and abstract.
Aqua marine. Kristin recalls the vividness of that vile of liquid. Pregnant. The words floating through her – as numbly as the words coming from the mouth who also diagnosed Kristin as Schizophrenic (and later, Bipolar) – that same year. Aqua marine.
Kristin’s eyes exude this shade. She looks calm and open as she stands with her guitar on stage – honesty flowing through the notes and words she chooses to share. She isn’t afraid to speak her reality.

Yet a label is just that. A tag you attach to a thing. A string of letters abstractly joined together to describe an object, a person, and idea. How much are these words significant in music and how much do we understand from the sound alone? Music has a habit of reaching anyone and everyone. Regardless of language, culture, understanding or interpretation.

Kristin Hersh has become associated with clashing chords, songs that don’t fit inside themselves – lyrics about gazebo trees, mangoes and cowboys. Who knows why these songs exist. Are they a symptom of a neurological glitch, or do they exist in perfect totality from a person who is perfect in totality? As Kristin reads from her book, she too, questions the validity of the people who might well have her best intentions at heart – but can so easily get a person so wrong. She asks – isn’t life just full of highs and lows? Sometimes, Kristin says, we just are larger-than-life – our souls are fit to burst out of our bodies. Other times, our souls shrink so far, they aren’t enough to fill our pathetic outlines.

Whatever the ‘truth’ is; that evening in the Getty Center, Kristin Hersh chose to give away a lot more of herself to her fans, listeners and kindred-spirits. Maybe her story matches up with the stories told through her songs; maybe it clarifies; maybe it creates more questions. But one thing’s for sure – as Kristin leaves the stage in her gentle self-depricating manner, to a standing ovation from the audience – she once did say, as a member of Throwing Muses along with her step-sister Tanya Donelly: The idea was always to leave a gift on the table and quietly tiptoe out of the room.

There must exist many of us who are glad this person has returned to unwrap the present. To witness a show that, today exists because the past happened in the way it did – is an honour. Not always do you hear the song and see the person. Not always does the dinosaur actually exist. But just as the guy on the Hollywood bus said to the boy – ‘You’ll have to listen for yourself and figure it out.’

And that is exactly what Kristin Hersh is about.

Life is messy. There is no ignoring that fact. But sometimes, you might just figure some of it out.

You can buy Rat Girl through most bookstores and record shops – as well as online at Amazon. Also check out Kristin’s website and her CASH website which supports and enables independent artists to continue their work and creativity with full autonomy without the need of a label.

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