I read Paradoxical Undressing just before reading a book which is in some ways comparable, in that it’s also a memoir by an American alternative rock icon: See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould. Over the years, Kristin Hersh’s music — mostly Throwing Muses’ early output, to be honest — has meant a great deal to me, and so has Bob Mould’s, especially his work with Husker Du and Sugar but also his first couple of solo albums. Of the two books, Hersh’s is about one year in her life, apparently her nineteenth, in which her band first got a record deal, she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and she became pregnant with the first of her four children. Mould’s book is an apparently straightforward autobiography: the tale of how Bob Mould, self-hating teenager from Macalester, New York, got to be Bob Mould, alternative rock star and benign gay icon. Hersh’s book, which is based on her diary of the period, is self-consciously artful; Mould declares his book to be a reckoning, an attempt to tell the truth about how he’s lived his life. Hersh makes no such claims.
Okay, anyone with the slightest awareness of the pitfalls and triumphs in autobiographical writing should not be surprised to learn that Hersh’s book is far, far better than Mould’s. Not just because it’s better (because more vividly) written, funnier, more moving, more insightful. It’s also more honest about the difficulty of writing about yourself. Mould’s book is a bald, meat’n’potatoes chronicle, occasionally enlivened by the odd anecdote, but above all it suffers from the fact that Mould is apparently unaware of the traps that memoir can lead the writer into. Precisely because his recall is apparently so good, we can’t help but mistrust it. The far more diffident Hersh, on the other hand, self-consciously writes her own history with a literary flourish; she can’t help recounting the adventures and conversations of the teenage Throwing Muses with something like the same style of affection that JD Salinger lavished on his own creations, the difference being that the Muses were not fictional. Her accounts of what it was like to write songs and rehearse and perform them live are not exactly lavish in technical detail, because only nerds like me would want to know e.g. where she got the idea to write the last section of ‘Call Me’ as a country waltz — but they are painfully vivid, because of the way she describes her own songwriting as being deeply involved with her bipolar disorder. See A Little Light makes you feel bad for angry young Bob, but it’s clear that he’s never going to be able to tell you what it was like to write and record Zen Arcade, because of all the beer and drugs he was doing at the time.
One of the weirdest things about Paradoxical Undressing is Hersh’s account of her peculiar friendship with Hollywood actress Betty Hutton, who (as an old lady) attended the same college as the teenage Hersh and who befriended her. Hersh recognised at the time that Hutton, with her constant advice to Hersh to not let herself be exploited by rich moguls, clearly regarded Hersh as in some ways her younger self, and Hersh bittersweetly and somewhat ominously felt bad that of all the younger selves Hutton could have chosen, she picked the young Kristin Hersh, who even then was battling the mental problems that land her in hospital half way through the book. If anything, Hersh downplays her own struggles with bipolar disorder. Compare Henry Rollins, another non-mainstream rock icon of the 80s and 90s, who in his Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag reprinted swathes of his own early-20s diary without the benefit of his older perspective, and who seems more like somebody who would have dearly liked to be genuinely crazy but had to compensate for it by being suffocatingly intense instead. Fortunately, Rollins matured into a wiser, funnier and more sensible person; like most people with a chronic illness, Hersh never seems to have got any sort of kick out of her own maladies.
Paradoxical Undressing progresses in brief flickers. Insofar as there is an overall narrative, it consists of the run-up to and the recovery from a suicide attempt; I’ve read that there have been others, but there’s only one in this book. What shines out of it most inspiringly, if you want to be inspired, is Hersh’s devotion to her fellow musicians. She honestly admires the fact that her bandmates are willing to help knock her tortured and sometimes ‘evil’ songs into shape, and one of the most touching bits of the book is when she first plays a new song to them and then is blown away when they join in the second time around; Kristin in the book experiences her own songs as devastating visitations, but when her bandmates join in, she feels less lonely because they inhabit the song with her.
Rock memoirs tend to be self-justifying, or score-settling, or grandstanding. They tend not to be love letters. Paradoxical Undressing is, among other things, Kristin Hersh’s love letter to Throwing Muses. Simultaneously very funny and utterly harrowing, it’s probably the best-written rock memoir you will ever read. As I write this, Throwing Muses have a new album out (Purgatory / Paradise); Hersh herself is just this side of fifty, and I calculate that the baby born at the end of this book, her eldest son, must be not far short of thirty. She’s still grappling with her demons and still making brilliant music. (Dave Narcizo, one of the great comic characters in this book, is still the drummer in the Muses.) Throwing Muses have long been underrated, at least by comparison with their more cartoonish labelmates, the Pixies, whose output was far less consistent. Hersh, in the book, puts it down to her conviction that her band was like spinach, ‘ragged and bitter’, but ‘good for you’. The Pixies were like takeout pizza; instantly satisfying, but you can’t live on it. Throwing Muses’ best stuff goes on being good, and this book does a great deal to illuminate the extent of the sweat, viscera, puke and tears that went into why that’s so.