an essay by kristin hersh (of throwing muses)

[from "Walking Around Being a Woman," by Kristin Hersh, in Idle Worship, edited by Chris Roberts (Faber and Faber, 1995).]

My father was a Patti Smith fan before me, so my first impression was a very bad one. He used to play the Easter album in the house, and the title track freaked me out so bad that I used to plug my ears and run around in circles telling him to turn it off. 'Turn it off! Turn it off! Turn it off!' So he couldn't really hear it when it was on anyway; it was easier for him not to play it.

One day he sat me down and explained that there was nothing wrong with the record, and showed me the sleeve. I said something like: 'Oh no, it's evil, you can't have it in the house. It's just pure evil! How dare you take a word that means chocolate bunnies to me and scare me so bad with this!' But I was fascinated by the luscious armpits on the cover . . . that's the way I remember it anyway. Patti and her pits. I was probably about twelve years old. I thought: lesbians are so cool. I probably should've looked at my parents' armpits, but I was too busy running away from their loud rock music -- uurrgghhh, yucky! I liked my father's other stuff though, like The Doors and . . . well, I liked The Doors.

Soon I decided to give Patti a chance. This was just something that I didn't get. It started to sound good, I liked the sound of it, but I didn't know what the hell she was talking about. Twelve-year-olds don't really 'get' anything -- they're not kids any more and they're not grown-ups either yet. All I got out of it was: cool pits, cool lesbian -- which of course she didn't turn out to be.

It wasn't until I heard Horses that I thought: oh, now I get it. I was a 'budding musician.' I used to listen to a tape of Horses and Radio Ethiopia while walking from my apartment in Boston to the studio, which was a three-hour walk. In the snow. So it meant I could listen to both records twice, every day, on the way to work. That's a lot of listening time to put in.

The only impression I really took away, the only word I could remember, was 'fingers.' But while I was listening to it, it was this whole planet. It's her planet. She made a whole world. She can bring you into her bubble of sound, but nobody else can, not even your own brain can. It's not your bubble, you can't grasp it and carry it around. Yet I remember that she said the word 'fingers,' because she made it sound so beautiful and sleazy at the same time, and I couldn't figure out how you could just take a digit and do that with it . . .

My next peak experience with it was when my son Dylan was a baby -- his favourite song was 'Redondo Beach.' When you're a young mother you really rely on music. Dylan had distinct opinions as a baby. I must've heard 'Redondo Beach' a thousand times, so I remember that one for obvious reasons. Now, he likes 'Because the Night,' although it could be The Boss's version. I don't find that so odd.

In retrospect I realize I first heard Patti Smith out of context, and was very lucky that way. It was her bubble I heard. I didn't hear it as based in Seventies rock, or as coming out of a scene. I just heard a voice. It didn't seem so much of a 'fiery rebel' thing to me, and by the time I grew up I'd seen so many 'rebels' that it'd stopped meaning anything any more. I figured rebellion isn't really where it's at: it's been done so much.

In a way I also saw her as feminine. She was so delicate, and her voice was so thin. It's close up really tight like she was trying to squeeze the words out. She seemed kind of breakable, which is great. I mean, that's a planet!

All the references to Rimbaud and Genet and Burroughs went right over my head. My father had the poems, the Babel book and the rest. Poetry is great but it's always been so quiet for me. I like it as an instrument which she's very good at, but I'd rather hear her play than have me stare at it.

When I worked with Lenny Kaye everyone assumed we'd be chatting about Patti. Well, he would. I would just have felt tacky doing it. But he'd always say: 'You're just like Patti. You two always go off on those tangents.' I'd think: oooh, I'm just like Patti! But then he'd say something like: 'And you do laundry just like Patti does.' So it was all . . . balanced out. Lenny's a great musician and the Patti Smith Group were such a different kind of band. He was such a rock guitar guy, and they'd 'jam,' which is the opposite of Throwing Muses. It's interesting, but he couldn't explain or describe why they ended up sounding the way they did. Timing helped; the right place at the right time.

It'd be obnoxious for me to say I was any kind of kindred spirit to Patti. She did something great and colossally different, and I feel lucky to just jump in there every now and again. She was a first. I saw her as so physical, I like those physical things! She was so jumpy and screechy, and always going from confused/delicate to confused/screaming. We all do, of course. Maybe that's why men think of her as this anarchic rebel and women think: ooh, it's so pretty. Men are going WOAH! and women are going YAY!

If there is a parallel between us, maybe it's that she was dismissed as 'crazy' in the man-world of rock, and also dismissed as a poet -- like, she's not a real rocker, she's a poet, see. And therefore not so dangerous or strong. Too arty. That's hardly a basis for dismissal! She made an incredible mark, with dignity. She's a landmark, all by herself.

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To me, it seems perfectly natural to go from rock 'n' roll to raising kids, but I don't know if I'm the best one to talk about that. To me they go together very well, except as far as time goes! Every day we have to make a decision to either work the record or take care of teh children, so I can understand her wanting first to throw herself into a career that needs to take you body and soul, and then wanting later to throw herself into her children, something which needs the same kind of treatment.

I don't believe I ever did anything you could describe as 'fan-like.' At first I didn't know that she was still alive or anything! I felt as if I was digging up a dusty old book and falling in love with it. God, I hope I never have to tell her that! Personally I like the people you'd call fans very very much and I'm aware they're the reason I can keep doing what I want to do. I feel very grateful to them overall. On the other hand I'm not so much shy as I am just a private person, so the idea of going out and trying to attract attention is totally foreign to me. I do feel uncomfortable with such things as signing autographs, because most famous people are pretty obnoxious.

I used to get very strange people coming up to me and trying to be strange. But the more well-known I got, the more they realized I was just a goofy dork and they shouldn't talk to me that way. Or else they just didn't like me any more and went off and listened to other bands. The people I meet now are very down-to-earth and usually don't begin any tortuous interpretations. They have as much right to an interpretation as I do: I'd never go: ppfff, it's not about that! I've got enough reviews doing that already.

Last night some kid gave me the first British piece written on Throwing Muses. HE said it was his most prized possession but he thought I should have it. It was incredibly opulent, but our last quote was 'We don't have any idea what the things written about us mean.' Especially the ones about seahorses on roller skates. Our favourite was the one that said we were 'bad-assed rock 'n' roll motherfuckers on a one-way ticket to hell and oblivion.' I'm going to live by that when I retire. I'll get T-shirts made up that say it. Rock hard; I ain't no poet!

I've never met Patti Smith. Our paths haven't crossed, yet. She lives in Detroit now, I think. Being a mother. So maybe we could hang out and bake a cake together. Not that I can cook. But we could talk about baking cakes . . .

Copyright © Kristin Hersh 1995

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