Twenty-five years ago, Kristin Hersh was a guitarist, singer, and songwriter from Newport whose band Throwing Muses was building a rep for riveting shows around Providence and Boston. Live, the cherub-cheeked dirty blonde would enter a trance-like state, expelling demons in a commanding, quavering voice that seemed impossibly wizened and broken for a college student just 18 years old. Hersh and her bandmates — Tanya Donelly, David Narcizo, and Leslie Langston — wound up being the first American band signed to influential English label 4AD; later, Warner Bros. contracted them in the US.
It was a dizzying time for a young musician; only those who knew Hersh well knew just how dizzying. The daughter of hippie parents had suffered a head injury in a bicycle accident and was having hallucinations. Songs were aural visions that came to her with colors (a neurological condition called synesthesia). Her state became so severe that she went into hiding. She was diagnosed as bipolar. Then, she became pregnant.
Hersh chronicles this tumultuous year in her just-published memoir, Rat Girl (Penguin). This is not some sordid, drug-infested confessional; if you know anything about Hersh, you know she prefers the arch, poetic quip over the psychological bodice-ripper. Rat Girl is a smart, funny, literary antidote to the usual showbiz tell-all. Instead of dropping names, she dropkicks the vultures and vampires that try to feed off young talent. "VIPs' faces melt when they drink," she writes. "I don't know if it's face-lifts or tanning booth abuse or maybe hair transplants slipping down their scalps, but it's freak-in' weird." (I'm not saying this is who she's describing, but I did meet an orange-skinned Clive Davis when he was at the Living Room for a Muses show.) She also often decided that if she didn't have something nice to say, she would say nothing at all. Rat Girl doesn't divulge what happened next: the manager the Muses had to fire, how her baby's father had their son taken from her because of her ill health and itinerant musician ways.
Rather, Rat Girl is a wonderfully written glimpse of what it's like to be young and in a band: the language, jokes, and secrets you share; the way the music shapes and changes your world; the fellow artists and engineers who guide you (Boston recording veteran Gary Smith and the late film star Betty Hutton play luminous mentor roles). Its author calls the book "a love letter to the band." (The title refers to the band's frequent appearances at the Rat in Boston, the rats that ran over her feet while she was recording at a studio in that city, and the rats that were in the commune in which she grew up.)
I first met Kristin exactly a quarter-century ago — about in the middle of the period covered in Rat Girl — when I interviewed her and Tanya as my premiere assignment for The NewPaper (my first-ever professional assignment period). We've reconnected now and again throughout the years, as the Muses went international, then broke up and Hersh went solo. She has four boys now — ages 24 to 7 — the last three with her husband and manager, Billy O'Connell. They currently live in New Orleans, though Hersh spent the last summer in her old Rhode Island haunts. She's had an incredible odyssey — from Hollywood, to being wiped out by a flood, to helping reinvent the music industry with the open-source, listener-supported musician organization CASH Music. And for the first time in 25 years, her mental demons are gone — vanquished, apparently, by acupuncture.