Of songs and memories

‘(T)hat girl isn’t me anymore. Now it’s just a story.’ In Paradoxical Undressing, Kristin Hersh tells the story of herself twenty-five years ago – a story of songs, snakes, shows, madness and friends, in which she gets lost and finds the beginning of a way out. The book is based on a diary she kept for a year when she was eighteen years old. It reads like a song – like a Throwing Muses song that is. It is fast, colorful and strange, the story is fragmented, the chronology unclear, but it does make sense. And by describing what took place when the first Throwing Muses songs came into being, the book makes clear why they sound like they do, and gives insight in the meaning of the lyrics.

Almost twenty years earlier, Patti Smith went to New York to become an artist. She met Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom she lived and worked together for years – as lovers and as friends. Smith wrote a book about their relationship, Just Kids. Although the main focus is on the first years of their relationship, the book starts with Smith’s birth and ends with Mapplethorpe’s death.

Although they are set in different time periods, there are striking similarities between these two autobiographies. Both describe the coming of age of a musician, which is accompanied by a feeling of alienation. They perceive themselves as different (from other people) and relate this to being an artist; the people they can relate to are also outsiders (band members, other artists). At the same time, they do not really know yet how to make being an artist work in a practical sense. But music is what gives them direction and what will save them.
For Hersh this happens in a painful and uncertain way, the songs really take over, for Smith it seems to be much clearer and calmer. But they both do not really choose music; music chooses them and gives them a sense of belonging. In terms of gender, Smith repeatedly speaks of perceiving herself as ‘not a girl’. Hersh also states this explicitly – ‘but I am not a girl’, and she continually questions gender roles, on stage and in her personal life. They are forced to think about gender because people define them in terms of their femininity (or, in other cases, lack thereof), and they need to respond to this image. And those are not the only issues regarding femininity they are forced to deal with: both women become pregnant when they are young. The books do not describe the relationships with the fathers of the children; Smith gives her daughter up for adoption, Hersh chooses to care for the baby by herself.

Of course there are many differences between the two – Hersh acts more maturely when she is young, Smith is more naïve. Smith’s book focuses more on the relationship with Mapplethorpe than on her own development (which is unfortunate, in my opinion), though both are closely interrelated, whereas Hersh is the main character in her book. However, although Smith’s prose is more romantic (Hersh is wilder), the tone is really similar. Maybe this is because both Hersh and Smith are songwriters, maybe it is a result of the fact that they share a lot of experiences – touring with a rock band, raising children, the changing music industry and so on. During the course of their lives they have made their memories and stories into songs, and now they have made the memories, diaries, poems and songs into books. But the strongest connection seems to be that both Smith and Hersh had to create their own space, in music, in order to be able to work and live. Their books give us some insight in how they did this, by showing how they started.

This piece was written by guest contributor Eva Meijer. Eva is an artist, writer, philosopher and singer-songwriter. Find out more about her on her website.

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