Filmmaker Jackie Weissman with Melanie and Peter Warren
Last Saturday, to get in the mood for Mother’s Day, I hosted a screening of Jackie Weissman’s fascinating documentary Rock N Roll Mamas. The goal was to raise attention and funds for this independent film, and to get people thinking and talking about what it means to be a working musician mom. We screened the movie outdoors on our patio, with the ocean rolling behind us. Afterwards, the Portland-based filmmaker answered questions.
RnR Mamas documents three women — Throwing Muse Kristin Hersh, Zia McCabe of the Dandy Warhols, and MC Ms. Su’ad — as they try to raise their children and follow their muse. Their specific stories raise a lot of important general questions about parental balance, working conditions for musicians, and plain old patriarchy. The discussion afterward was deep, and the mood of the beautiful San Pedro night magical, as at least one participant said.
Thanks to Jackie for making this film, and to everyone who came. Happy Mother’s Day!
My first, and only, internship was with Tony Lioce at The Providence Journal. I was going to college (yeah, Brown) in Providence, but really, I was going to clubs. Tony was a semi-legend around town. He had been the music critic at the ProJo. Before that, he was a sort of Tom White High Society gossip spy. When I “apprenticed” with him, for all of a week, he had graduated to editor. He was a total character and a great guy. Musicians around town kind of resented him because he bigged-up Throwing Muses after Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly had been his babysitters. That was jealousy, sour grapes; the Muses were geniuses, and that’s just how cool Lioce was — they babysat his kid! And yeah, he used to hang out with the Velvet Underground. These days he’s bartending in San Francisco. And he wrote this great piece for the Sunday Times about Lou Reed.
When Backstage Was No Big Deal – NYTimes.com.
I lost my dreams.
Dreams — daydreams and night dreams — used to guide me. In the morning when I woke, I would make sure to remember what had happened to me during the night, and that memory would cling to me throughout the day, like a tissuey emotional shroud. I loved my dreams; recurring ones were old friends. They helped me see life in new ways. They taught me.
I thought about my old friends when I toured “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.” This exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is one of the most powerful and affecting gatherings of artwork I’ve seen in years. Re-seeing imaginative and confessional works by Frida Kahlo reminded me of her deep gift and profound statements. Looking from her paintings across the room to Alice Rahon’s Ballad for Frida Kahlo, I was also reminded of the powerful connections between women — how we can be each other’s muses.
Rahon was one of a dozen painters, sculptors, and photographers about whom I knew little or nothing prior to this show, and now I’m obsessed with. Dorothea Tanning paints a bare-chested woman — herself, I think — with a seaweed skirt and a winged griffin at her feet. The fascinating Lee Miller — model turned photographer, object become subject — photographs a breast removed in surgery, and then twins it. Gerrie Gutman paints a terrifyingly ghoulish statement of herself holding a casket, symbolizing her loss of custody of her son; it made me think of Kristin Hersh. Sylvia Fein is gothic and impish. Leonora Carrington’s horses gallop and have breasts.
These are dreamscapes, fantasies, nightmares — projections from the parts of our brains and hearts that we don’t always use every day. The less we use them, I’ve found, the rarer they appear. In Wonderland inspired me to take those first moments of consciousness, and remember where my mind went wandering the previous hours.
In Rat Girl, her memoir about the early days of her band Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh recalls how reporters would hound her with questions about the fact that the band was fronted by teenage girls. Of course Kristin’s and Tanya’s cute, blond looks was a terrific angle — in part because they sounded nothing like cheerleaders. (“They’re nobody’s blondes,” I wrote earnestly — hey, it was my first byline!) There was no bubblegum sound and jailbait look to the Muses. They really were from another planet, it seemed.
Watching Kristin perform from Rat Girl Saturday, I thought about how different their trajectory was from the Runaways a decade earlier. And yet, there were also similarities. Hersh never talks about it now, but the Muses had a controlling, creepy manager figure whom they fired soon after signing to 4AD. Ken Goes also began peddling demos by another band that I thought sounded too Velvets-ish — the Pixies wound up dumping the Fowleyesque figure too.
The Muses would never have performed in corsets, but they battled for legitimacy just as the Runaways did — to be understood as musicians, not girl musicians. Kristin writes about having had a stalker. The drugs she had to battle with were the ones prescribed by doctors to control her manic depression. Not to mention, New England in 1985 was a very different place from Hollywood in 1975. The Muses were witches in Puritan turf. The Runaways were Babylon’s house band.
Both bands (including great Muses drummer Dave Narcizo) were brave and fierce even as they made themselves open and vulnerable. “Fuck you, stand up!” Hersh and Donelly used to scream. Decades later, I don’t think either band has ever gotten the credit they deserve.
(I know I said I would write about my interviews with Kim Fowley and Toby Mamis this week but I have Kristin on the brain. Those posts soon.)
During the 18th year of her life, Kristin Hersh went crazy, got signed, and made a baby. I first met her back then, in 1985, when she was the mesmerizing front person of the band Throwing Muses, and I was a college senior writing my first-ever newspaper article for pay. I had no idea everything she was going through or about to go through; I just knew I really liked the band, Throwing Muses, that she led with her half-sister Tanya Donelly.
Kristin reveals the depths of her despair that year in Rat Girl, the memoir released by Penguin last year, from which she performed excerpts at the Getty Center last night. It was an intense evening of profound psychological revelations, leavened by Hersh’s self-deprecating humor. Kristin imagines what people must have thought about her vocalizations: “It’s o nice they let that deaf girl sing.” Actually, those of us in the Rhode Island music scene knew she was gifted, the real deal. I wish I’d realized what hell she was going through — that I’d been a sympathetic shoulder, not a vulturistic journalist.
I wrote back in the fall, when I caught up with Kristin again for an article for the paper in which I first wrote about her, about how well written Rat Girl is. Her literary genius was clear to me again last night: She’s got a Sylvia Plath/Anais Nin vibe. She’s so the real deal.
I was blessed to have someone as talented as Kristin as my first assignment — maybe that’s why I’ve stayed with the game so long. If you care about music and writing, buy Rat Girl. It’s a dark book, a hard book. But as Kristin says, comparing Throwing Muses’s music to spinach, I swear it’s good for you.
Almost exactly to the day 25 years after I first met her, I talked to Kristin Hersh recently about that very time period — for the successor to that very same paper (The Newpaper, now The Providence Phoenix). She’s a great artist who has always influenced and inspired me.
I love this quote from Joan Jett in the Guardian:
Joan Jett would go even further than that: she thinks a new revolution is on its way. “I think we’re coming back to that fertile ground where people have had enough of the way things are, I can feel it. Those girls are out there, in every city, banging around – and when they find their outlet, it’s going to be just like it was for me.” Jett’s voice is defiant, strong, and celebratory. “A new generation picking up guitars and drums and saying, ‘I’m here! Let’s go!'”
Full article, including Kristin Hersh, Kathleen Hanna, and others, here.