NOVEMBER 30, 2015
MEMOIRS BY MUSICIANS you’ve loved feel like unnecessary souvenirs. The musicians have already given you life-changing songs; seen live, they’ve given you moments of transcendence. What more would you need from them? The older I get the more keenly I feel the inefficiency of words, and the more I value music for its ability to say so much with so little. Musicians have the desire and ability to get a group of people together to do something physical and social, and a knack for distilling complicated states of being into, say, two lines that could become as quotable as anything written by a poet — why would they sit at home, alone, and try to mess around with a less forgiving medium? Leave words to those of us who need to sandbag our anxieties with sentence after sentence — to those of us who won’t push words aside to let something more unpredictable in.
That’s what the writer in me thinks. But I will admit to an enthusiast’s appetite for sheer information, especially where pop music history is concerned. Tales of countercultural New York, London, and Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s are my Tatooine, my Middle-earth, my preferred far, far away times and places, and my preferred source of epic stories full of excess, squalor, courage, and dumb luck. However, the recent explosion of memoirs by musicians has left me ambivalent: these books trade on some promise of revelation that can threaten the mystery that fandom often thrives on; and memoirs, of course, never do reveal all that they could. To quote a line from the Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town,” a song Chrissie Hynde wrote from the perspective of a fan: “It’s not my place to know what you feel/ I’d like to know but why should I?” Confronted with Hynde’s memoir Reckless — and with Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl — I feel the same. After all, as Hynde told NPR earlier this month, “The rest of me isn’t really up for grabs.” She doesn’t owe me a politically correct interpretation of a sexual assault she experienced decades ago. And Brownstein doesn’t owe me the full story of her relationship with Corin Tucker. These women have made music that is my Fifty Shades of Grey, so I want to say they don’t owe me their true heart of hearts in prose; that I’m satisfied with the version they consented to give me on their records.
And yet. Even if I accept that certain truths are unavailable to me, I still can’t help thinking that what musicians do owe me with these books is a performance that will make me love them more. I want to feel, after reading them, that I know them more intimately than an interview, or profile, or biography will let me. I want to see them differently, but not to be disappointed by what I see, despite knowing that books, with their many pages to fill, provide ample opportunity to run into something disappointing. It’s unfair, what a fan asks of her heroines. Be like me, but better than me. Be real — but not so real that you bore me by saying stuff I could have come up with on my own, or stuff that runs counter to my impression of you, because then I will be forced to question my own wisdom in having made you a heroine in the first place. So don’t let me down, as John Lennon sang. Don’t let me down.
At its best, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a palpably aching account of needing to belong. There are winning evocations of what it’s like to be an awkward kid addicted to the drug that is music. As a Madonna fan in the 1980s, Brownstein says, “I’d obtain the piano sheet music and plunk out an anemic version of it on the keys, so wholesome that I was re-virginizing ‘Like a Virgin’ right there in the living room.” Her characterizations of being in her late teens and 20s and trying to make her way in the Olympia, Washington, indie punk scene are wry and sympathy-inducing. “There I was, a puffy cloud on a couch, surrounded by women who were so clearly thunder and lighting,” she writes of a botched audition to play in the band 7 Year Bitch. She writes this of another aborted attempt at a group:
We didn’t care that we were the musical version of a stick figure — it was more about feeling like we were doing something. It was a way of being around one another. By now the band consisted of two pseudo couples and a fifth wheel, “pseudo” meaning none of us would really admit to what was happening. We were like Fleetwood Mac without the sex or drugs or hair or songs.
When yet another of her bands bungles a big-deal show, she says they “felt undeserving of having ever been onstage, blaming one another and ourselves, mad and heartbroken.” With a few vivid lines, she captures the galvanizing sight that was Corin Tucker playing in Heavens to Betsy: “[I]t bordered right on ugly the whole time,” she says, with the drums “like an uneven stagger, a determined but ungraceful late-night walk home.” But she still can’t find the girl gang she dreams of joining. “My heart hurt and I hated it,” she writes. Until she and Tucker start a band: “Together we felt bold enough to be amplified.”
If you’re a Brownstein fan, you expect her to be funny. And sure enough there are a few very sharp and self-deprecating cultural observations, such as this description of being taken by her dad to shop for a guitar:
Buying your first guitar in the suburbs does not entail anything that resembles the folklore. There is not an old bluesman who gifts you a worn-out, worn-in instrument, with a sweat-and-blood-stained fret-board, neck dusty from the rails, possessing magic but also a curse. Rather, you go with your mom or dad to a carpeted store that smells of antiseptic, where everything is shiny and glistening with newness, where other parents are renting saxophones or clarinets for their kids to play in the school jazz band, where some other kid is being publicly denied a drum kit on account of his parent’s sanity. The cheapness, the vagueness of brands, the generic aspect of it all screams “WAREHOUSE FOR THE NONCOMMITTAL.”
It’s a well-timed one-liner. But there’s a disappointing sense throughout the book that Brownstein herself has not committed as fully as she might have to the project, and her attempts at insight are sometimes less than insightful. For example, in a passage on nostalgia, she offers this ponderous definition:
To get a sense that we have already journeyed through something — survived it, experienced it — is often so much easier and less messy than the task of currently living through something. Though hard to grasp, nostalgia is elating to bask in — temporarily restoring color to the past. […] Nostalgia is recall without the criticism of the present day, all the good parts, memory without the pain.
And about seeing Bikini Kill, she muses: “It’s hard to express how profound it is to have your experience broadcast back to you for the first time, how shocking it feels to be acknowledged, as if your own sense of realness had only existed before as a concept.” But if you’re writing a book, and not a three-minute song, isn’t that the point, to try express the hard things — the things that couldn’t fit into a song?
Brownstein has called this memoir the “anti-behind-the-music,” and she’s always ready to measure and mock the distance between the rock myths of yore and the much less dramatic reality she and her peers experienced as they tried to make their version of punk. But it’s not the lack of sex or drugs that makes this an unsatisfying reading experience. It’s that nowhere in the book is Brownstein ever quite as hilarious as she’s been on Portlandia, or as ferocious as she can be on stage, or as dynamic a writer as she is on songs like “Future Crimes,” “Jumpers,” or the one that gives her memoir its title. The infectious joy of a Sleater-Kinney concert is in short supply here. By her own admission Brownstein has a hard time articulating emotion, and her narration of wrenching developments — her mother’s hospitalization for anorexia, her father’s coming out, her relationship and breakup with Tucker — is stiffly related. In memoirs, it’s perhaps not how much truth you tell, but rather how you present the truths you’re willing to disclose, and one gets the impression that Brownstein is more than a little uncomfortable in confessional mode. The distance between the narrator and her story might not be so distracting if it were clearly a choice — think of Just Kids, in which Patti Smith’s prose was thoroughly crafted to give her story the air of fable, so that whatever elisions the reader suspects are forgiven, dictated as they are by style and tone. But Brownstein only seems ill at ease. Tellingly, some of the most entertaining and affecting writing in the book comes near the end, after she’s left Sleater-Kinney, and is spending her time volunteering at an animal shelter — perhaps because the focus is not on her, but on the dogs and her fellow volunteers.
Chrissie Hynde lived the clichés that Brownstein’s version of punk attempted to kill off for good — clichés that Hynde fully acknowledges as such in her book. According to Hynde, the sex and drugs that fueled those myths of yore were not satisfying at all. “I think it’s easy to see,” she writes on the last page, “that the moral of my story is that drugs, including tobacco and alcohol, only cause suffering.” Occasionally, Hynde seems to want the book to be a tract against some of the cultural forces that she and her generation, she insists, unwittingly embraced. She mocks the constant search for highs and experience, and thinks that the sexual revolution was a rip-off that in the end served only men. “[I]n the spirit of non-conformity we would conform to it,” she writes, damning her generation’s belief that they were as free as they thought they were. When Hynde tells of the excess of the 1960s and ’70s, she doesn’t sound like a disgruntled customer — more like someone who can’t believe she was so fucking stupid.
Still, the record of experience at all costs is sometimes — sometimes — enviable. (Especially if you grew up more like Brownstein, in suburbs that were even vaster and blander than the ones Hynde grew up in, inheriting a version of punk that couldn’t help but be a more Puritanical revolt against the excesses that had come before.) Enviable not because that experience often put Hynde in the way of grave danger but because it put her in the way of people who have made history — David Bowie, Ray Davies, Iggy Pop. Who did she whine to about not having a band? Motörhead’s Lemmy. Who put together the first band she ever sang for? Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. Whose grandmother made her beans on toast while she tried to write songs? The Clash’s Mick Jones. And even if you grew up on indie and alternative music that was (ostensibly) morally opposed to the old rock tropes of egoism, glamour, and self-destruction — while watching and rewatching This Is Spinal Tap — it’s a thrill to hear about these absurdly routine brushes with greatness.
If Hynde’s book were nothing more than a list of marquee conquests and the blacked-out nights that preceded them, it would be thoroughly tiresome. Her tough-chick patter and sentences like “I know they aren’t referred to as ‘Indians’ these days, but c’mon — they were the Indians to us” do try a reader’s patience. And because of sentences like those, it feels like a betrayal to knock Brownstein’s effort while giving Hynde’s a pass. But read generously — and this writer (forgive me) read it that way — the book is a hymn to female wandering. Hynde writes of walking and walking with friends from junior high school as her hometown turns into a faceless suburb. Mute, callow, and curious, she takes buses around Mexico on a winter college course, not learning much Spanish but discovering that “[s]eeing new places would become like a drug.” She walks and walks in London — trailing people into apartment buildings so that she could take the stairs to the roof and look out over the city. “I saw St. Paul’s Cathedral as I emerged from a station one afternoon,” she writes, “and, although I’d never heard of it and so didn’t know it was famous, when I saw the office buildings slammed up against it, it made me cry. I had fallen in love with London and couldn’t bear to see it fucked with.” Of driving around to shows with a girlfriend, she says she still remembers the way that friend’s silver rings sounded as they clunked against the gearshift.
Hynde’s book isn’t the more satisfying read of the two because she’s in possession of more salacious details. It’s because she slows down often enough to record, with unexpected poignancy, otherwise unremarkable moments of solitude and connection. In the end it’s not the figurative dirt we’re after, but rather how convincingly the more literal dirt is portrayed. Here’s Hynde, reminiscing about a Rolling Stones show she saw as a teen, when she was a fan like any other:
I saw some folded notes that hadn’t made it to the stage, like confetti on the floor, and pocketed them […] I saved them, and I would often take them out of my jewelry box and wonder who the girls were that had scribbled their phone numbers, hoping the band would intercept them.
It’s her willingness to dwell in a moment like this that makes Hynde’s book a less guarded, more passionate rendition of the hunger that makes a modern girl.
About that hunger. However evasive at points, however unevenly written, these books do deliver on a very important count: they take on existential questions in incredibly direct, almost naive ways that fiction often won’t. Who am I, what am I, and how am I to settle my fears that I’ll never amount to anything? Where do I belong? When will I begin to feel at home somewhere, anywhere? When these kinds of questions crowd the page, the authors lay themselves bare in ways they don’t elsewhere. After all, it’s easier, probably, to write about wanting when you’ve gotten what you wanted. And it’s easier to tell a love story about music — the house they finally felt at home in, that abstract entity that loved them even when they couldn’t love anyone else — than it is to tell a love story that might hurt the feelings of living humans. To be able to say my heart hurt and I hated it — to describe that kind of pain with complete unselfconsciousness — that’s what makes both these books powerful.
Both Brownstein and Hynde wanted something badly. Unrelentingly. Awkwardly. They wanted it and tried to get it before they had perfected boldness or learned how to swagger onstage. They were embarrassing themselves all over the place before they became heroines. In that high school band with Mark Mothersbaugh, Hynde was so paralyzed by shyness that she couldn’t practice with the band. “I shut myself in the laundry room with cord stretched under the door in his parents’ basement, and sang from atop the dryer,” she says. And as a kid Brownstein wrote long letters about her troubles at home to the stars of General Hospital and The Young and the Restless, because, she says, “I needed someone on TV or in the movies to reach out to me, not because they were famous but because they were so far away, it was like being seen from outer space.”
Neither woman was a sex goddess, nor did they want to be. They couldn’t be. For both of them it really was about the music. And they’re not serving up their vulnerability — that now overused word — to earn our sympathy or to emphasize that they are living messy lives as unlikable female characters. They’re just telling us, with no other agenda apparent than full disclosure, at least on this count, that they were lame — or in other words, lost and undone by their own desire. Stars — they’re just like us.
Carlene Bauer is the author of the memoir Not That Kind of Girl and the novel Frances and Bernard. Her work has been published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, n+1, The New York Times Book Review, and Elle.