Read yr idols

Hard to believe this book is twenty years old. It still thrums with energy and danger. Half a lifetime ago, I discovered it at a friend’s house, devoured it, and started saving up to buy it myself. This was in the days before Amazon and Google Books. I had to take a bus to the nearest big city, forty-five miles away. (Even there, it wasn’t OK to be an “angry woman.”) Slide the scary Medusa cover off the store shelf, carry it to the cash register, look the clerk in the eye, hand over the money. Tuck the bag under my arm and leave quickly, gingerly, like I was carrying a truth bomb. A wonderful secret.

The secret was power. Even at the fringes of my utopian fantasizing, I never could have dreamed up these radical women. They fascinated and frightened me. Rereading, I felt attracted, repulsed, confused, excited, maybe even a little ashamed. Because they were thinking bigger and wilder than I’d ever dared.

If you didn’t come of age with this book resting conspicuously on every friend’s thrift-store coffee table and cinder-block bookcase, here’s the deal: interviews with sixteen female intellectuals, artists, sexual pioneers, performers, and iconoclasts. People like Kathy Acker, Susie Bright, Diamanda Galas, bell hooks, Sapphire, Lydia Lunch. Even their photos were amazing. But when they started speaking….just, WOW.

(One of the more surreal road-not-taken experiences of my life was being propositioned by Kathy Acker in a ladies’ rest room. But that’s a topic for a stand-alone post.)

The most enchanting interview was the last in the volume: Susie Bright, the lesbian “sexpert.” Her voice came across as funny, wise, unafraid, encouraging. Also, she was comfortable being sexual in her own skin in a way that I had never seen before. Her sexuality was not calculated to impress a male gaze. It was for herself, and for women more generally. My mind, as they say, was blown.

I began seeking out everything she had written, including:

During the eighties, at the height of anti-pornography feminist activism (think Dworkin and MacKinnon), Bright and some colleagues in San Francisco founded a magazine “for the adventurous lesbian.” Lots of flesh, frank sex talk, and (for their time, and possibly ours) daring features, such as butch centerfold subjects. Considering that the leading feminist periodical was called off our backs, on our backs was the obvious title for the pro-porn dykes.

Reading Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World, a compilation of the sexual advice columns Bright had penned for on our backs, was like having a really freaky, incredibly cool big sister. She could tell you which lubes worked best for certain activities. Why your sex toys must always, always have a flared base. Where to find “the Cadillac of vibrators.” She described her experiences teaching a fisting workshop, for crying out loud! All I could think to myself was, “In San Francisco, they really are different.”

Now for the buried lede: Bright has written a memoir, published last month. Given her reputation, I was expecting a juicy tell-all of her conquests. But Big Sex, Little Death is not that book. The reality is both more and less eye-opening.

As it turns out, being a sexual trailblazer is kind of a drag. (The health insurance sucks, for one thing.) You end up around a lot of skeevy people. Sex work, lest we harbored any illusions, is just that: work. And the mortality rate for queers of all stripes over the past few decades has been way too high.

Yet the story is also thrilling and hilarious: its subtitle could be I Was A Teenage Communist. From a youth saturated with labor activism and sexual precocity, the journey to lesbian provocateur is a logical progression: Bright claims,

When people ask me how I became a professional writer, I couldn’t give them a “climb the ladder” scenario, because I went out of my way to be part of a group. Everyone was supposed to know how to write, run a web press, unclog a toilet, stage a demonstration.

(n.b.: “web press” is not what it sounds like. We are talking handmade galleys, X-acto knives, offset printing, messy ink, mailing fees, censorship laws, and so on.)

Ah, the glamorous life of a pornographer. Is it better or worse to glimpse into the worlds of your heroes?


Around the same time Angry Women came along, I was also discovering Throwing Muses. Many of you already know how I adore Kristin Hersh, who fronts my all-time favorite band. If there were any justice in the world, you’d hear her voice on the radio every day, and she’d have been handed a MacArthur grant ages ago. Hersh has also recently written a memoir. Everywhere but the U.S., it’s called Paradoxical Undressing, also the name of the musical/spoken word/video projection concert tour of the same material. I am not sure why we get stuck with the title Rat Girl, but at least we get the cool Gil Hernandez cover illustration.

Hersh’s book is a genuinely good read, more of a novel than a straight-up “I remember…” tome. The language is unexpected, slightly off-kilter, and fresh, just like her songs. If anything, the plotting seems a little over the top. Then you remember that it’s not “plotting,” but what actually happened. Like starting a band with your stepsister when you’re fourteen years old, and percolating in the Boston club underground until becoming the first American act signed by British art-rock label 4AD. Being too young to get into the clubs you’re headlining. Being diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Recording your first video while nineteen and hugely pregnant. Rat Girl covers only about one tumultuous year in Hersh’s young life, and it’s not at all clear that the ending will be the happy one we know: a healthy woman performing all over the world for two straight decades while also being a wonderful mother to four (!) sons.

(By the way, here’s an amazing 1999 clip of Hersh on Danish television talking about being a rock star, all while nursing her baby. All I can think to myself is, “In Denmark, they really are different.”)


Here’s a “trailer” for the book. So stunning.


As Hersh describes it, she doesn’t write her songs; it’s more like they write her. They grab and don’t let go. Maybe that’s why this is such an arresting read.

Do you want your face grabbed and shouted at? Probably not; at the very least, it’s irritating. But now that it’s happened to me, I know music is as close to religion as I’ll ever get. It’s a spiritually and biologically sound endeavor–it’s healthy.

Some music is healthy, anyway. I know a lot of bands’re candy. Or beer. Fun and bad for you in a way that makes you feel good. For a minute. My band is…spinach, I guess. We’re ragged and bitter. But I swear to God, we’re good for you.


One thing Bright and Hersh seem to have in common is that they really couldn’t be anything else. They do because they are. I admire that so deeply, and wonder why some of us have that courage and others don’t. They also utterly demystify their professions, a move that seems rooted in feminist awareness. Reading their memoirs, I couldn’t help but notice that both were daughters of highly permissive, successful fathers in academia. Both are children of divorce. Both left home early. Both have struggled financially, but are happy. Both harness the power of anger, but have moved far beyond being merely “angry women.”


10 responses to “Read yr idols”

  1. jeremy says:

    When I got to the end of this post I was all, What?! No comments? Crazy.

    This is awesome. And I share your love for Kristin Hersh (or at least some significant fraction of your love). I remember being 17 or 18, too young to get into the local club in Long Beach (Bogart’s, now long gone), but going anyway so I could stand outside and listen to Throwing Muses’ set (I also did that for Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and My Bloody Valentine). Kristin Hersh was always the coolest.

  2. Rachel says:

    Thanks, Jeremy. Did I offend everybody, or what? Maybe it’s just a really busy Wednesday?

  3. J-Man says:

    Rachel, this is a fantastic post, The first part of your post reminded me of when I used to work at a non-profit environmental organization back in the late 80’s that was situated above a feminist bookstore. I’ve always been interested in the feminist pro- and anti-porn arguments; while reading your post I was wondering to myself which direction things have gone of late in that regard.

    I have a love/hate thing with Kristen Hersh – I think she’s brilliant and I love some of her stuff, but some of it grates on me too. Also, my understanding is that she’s bipolar, not schizophrenic, (which means she can still function with whatever medication she’s on).

  4. LP says:

    Rachel, it’s a slow comments time at TGW, that’s all! This is a great post, so insightful and fun to read. Funny to think back at how all this stuff blew our minds when we were in college – so new and unlike everything else we had read / seen / been exposed to. Pun intended.

  5. Tim says:

    (One of the more surreal road-not-taken experiences of my life was being propositioned by Kathy Acker in a ladies’ rest room. But that’s a topic for a stand-alone post.)

    Hellooo! I hope you’re planning on writing this post soon.

    I, too, enjoyed this post, particularly your coming-of-age experience with the RE:SEARCH book as desirable contraband that necessitated procurement via special means.

    As to the different book titles, I wonder if the US publisher thought Paradoxical Undressing would go over the heads of US book buyers. The European cover looks a lot like a 4AD record cover to me; the fonts are identical. I wonder if the US publisher thought that Gil Hernandez was more familiar and attractive for US customers.

  6. Rachel says:

    Ha ha, Tim. That reminds me of the great play “Heteroglossia,” which was horribly filmed and sold to U.S. audiences as “Nell,” which presumably looked better on a marquee.

    J-Man, you are very astute. KH was never schizophrenic, only diagnosed that way. I think way too much has been made of her condition by journalists looking for an angle. She handles it really beautifully in the book.

    LP, what I wouldn’t give to have a time machine to witness some of your collegiate mind expansion. (Ahem.)

  7. Susie Bright says:

    Thank you, Rachel. Health insurance pales…

  8. Rachel says:

    I don’t think #7 is a sockpuppet, you guys. Susie Bright is *just that cool.*

    Dang. It’s an honor to be read by her.

  9. PB says:

    I looked at this post right after it went up – I stared at the Medusa cover and knew I needed to find a space to read and watch and consider everything for more than the few minutes before work. A million crazy days later I just spent the time I wanted to spend. Although it meant a slow comment day, I am glad I waited. I loved reading and watching this. I did not have Susie Bright growing up, but I was obssessed by biographies of women. Ancient goddesses, saints, historical figures, actresses, literary characters; and the more “complicated” they were the better. They were living, breathing sisters for me in spite of being made from words and whatever pictures or illustrations I could find. When I finally took a feminist theory class in college and they bemoaned the lack of female role models, I looked at them incredulously, as if they were personally insulting my girls Hera and Joan and Eleanor. I eventually got their point – but I still maintain, when you find those women that inspire you, they fill up space, they shake you up and you never forget.

    PS – Kristen Hersh’s version of Cat Steven’s “Trouble” is one of my favorite covers of all time.

  10. swells says:

    When this post went up I felt much like PB: way too sucked in and overwhelmed to be able to formulate a response at the time, but damn, if I thought you were cool before, RB . . . and that was BEFORE Susie Bright commented! Our most famous commenter yet? (besides, of course, Jeff Koons . . . )

    Anyway, saw this on Sunday as I’m sure many of you did too, and of course thought of this post.