I still love you, 33 1/3

Remember the time I totally fell in love with an album that completely rearranged my DNA and then tried to write about it analytically and it was a massive success? Me neither.

The 33 1/3 book series, with which many of you are familiar at least since it published Great Whatsit alum Bryan Waterman’s awesome study of Television’s Marquee Moon, recently reopened submissions for another slate of publications. I had heard that the series had recently been acquired by an academic publisher; that it was moving away from 90s alt-rock titles and more toward classic cult albums and/or underrepresented genres such as hip-hop; that now with established authors such as Jonathan Lethem in the game, the rest of us without critical buzz don’t stand a chance. I decided to write a submission anyway.

The application process was longer than it’s ever been before. Prospective authors had to include a CV, a discussion of other titles in the series, a sample introduction, an annotated table of contents, even a marketing plan. Despite the rigors of entering the competition, the editors received 471 entries. You can read the long list of proposed albums here.

The “long short list” of 94, from which about ten will be selected for publication, makes for some pretty interesting conversation. What album would you like to take a crack at? Do you like the way the 33 1/3 series seems to be headed? Would you ever pick up a volume about an album you don’t already love? Is the backward-glancing critical appraisal of alt-rock, for lack of a better term, “done”?

My proposal was rejected, but I sort of knew that it would be even while I was writing it. For one thing, the album in question has virtually never been commercially available as a domestic release. I intended to talk about reasons for that in the book, but it makes sense that few people would purchase a tome about an album that they can’t actually acquire. (There’s cult favorite, and then there’s….myth.) For another thing, I discovered that it’s really difficult to talk about art you loved when you were coming of age without resorting to swoony superlatives. People who can do that are either really good at compartmentalizing, or they are sociopaths. Probably.

Nevertheless, it was great fun to research and write. The editors at 33 1/3 are kind, gracious, and charming, and I’m not just saying that because I may submit again someday. If you’re at all curious, a piece of my submission is included below.

Introduction: You built a city in my head

For some of us, the Throwing Muses’ 1986 debut was one of those records, the kind that leaves you feeling your life has been changed in ways you can’t define.

Does Kristin Hersh have the most terrifying voice in rock?

I grew up fifty miles due north of Boston. Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly grew up seventy-five miles due south. If not for this accident of geography, I might not have discovered Throwing Muses in time for the band to revolutionize my life.

My fate was never to be one of those cool club kids who snuck into the city to see all the shows. The only “college rock” I managed to absorb growing up came from driving far enough into Massachusetts to catch static-y bursts of WFNX on the car radio, or—even more abstractly—from Spin magazine. And it was in Spin that I first read Simon Reynolds’ review of The Real Ramona. It was the first (and possibly only) time I decided to part with hard-earned cash for a record without ever hearing a note, seeing a picture of the band, or knowing anything about them.

Stuck in a rural community, with no decent record stores for miles, I must have bugged one of my family members to take me into the city, possibly under the dubious pretext of visiting the Aquarium or the Museum of Fine Arts. My real goal was to wrangle a few minutes to myself so I could duck into Newbury Comics, or maybe the Tower Records on Mass Ave. Such opportunities came along maybe once a year. Normally I browsed studiously, trying to take it all in, like a pilgrimage. But this time I was on a mission, a guided missile to the music that promised a transformation. The Muses happened to be a local band; the record happened to be in stock. I was in luck.

What was it about that review that hit me right between the eyes? The language Reynolds used hardly seems seductive—more forbidding than anything, in fact. Was it the phrase “Kristin Hersh’s fractured lyrics and hemorrhaging voice” that forced me to sit up and take notice? “Ravaged grace”? “Female trauma”? “The aftermath of self-immolation, burnt out and ashen”? “Shiny surfaces…scarred by deep furrows of corrosive pain”? (And this was a glowingly positive review!) What the hell was I thinking?

It was a cassette, of course. Most people I knew didn’t have CD players yet. Finally back at home, I slipped it into my tiny boom box, completely unprepared for what came next. Music had comforted me, thrilled me, bored me, energized me. But until that moment, music had never scared me.

I would eventually come to discover this sensation in art again and again—reading Anne Sexton claim misunderstood, twelve-fingered witches as her own kind, say, or looking at Annette Messager’s installations of ropy red yarn, fur, and hair. It was a feeling both intimately familiar and intensely upsetting: to be confronted with, and included within, abject humanity. Heavy business for a teenager, to get conked over the head with a feminist awakening via what Reynolds called “unearthly yodels and deranged vocal pirouettes.”

That tape went with me everywhere. Knowing Throwing Muses songs became a shibboleth as I made friends in my twenties. If an acquaintance and I discovered this marvelous secret in common early on, odds were good that we would trust one another with everything before long. The musical shorthand cut through all the niceties.

I began working my way backwards through the discography, to Hunkpapa and then House Tornado. The elliptical, stilted song structures, the punk attitude expressed in idioms of folky repetition, rockabilly rhythms, and even propulsive funk—it no longer throttled me with that mix of fascination and aversion that it once had. No, instead it became my musical home base. I found my way to more indie record stores and scoured them for B-sides. A copy of The Fat Skier discarded in a bargain bin made my year. I saw my first show.

Even so, long after claiming Throwing Muses as my favorite band, I had still never heard the debut. Released on the prestigious 4AD label—a first for any American act!—but never widely available in the U.S., the self-titled 1986 album remained elusively out of my grasp until I met John, and a glimpse at his record collection convinced me that we were destined to be roommates.

John had sex with men, but he loved women. He sometimes wanted to be a woman—though not in a drag queen sense. Sure, sometimes he’d swan around the apartment in a simple sundress, but his style icon was Bob Mould. Mostly he just got it. We were a couple of queers who made each other feel perfectly normal. John was a riot grrrl deep in his soul. He introduced me to The Raincoats, The Slits, The Au Pairs, The Marine Girls, Huggy Bear. He found me my own copy of Throwing Muses, with that instantly recognizable Vaughan Oliver cover. And incredibly—since my tastes had broadened and deepened immeasurably in the years since stumbling upon The Real Ramona—the album still scared the pants off of me.

Throwing Muses was dark, twisted, violent, sublime, visionary. It quivered with rage; it climbed inside of you and unraveled. It was like absolutely nothing I had ever heard. All I could think was, How did they do it? Set aside for a moment the singularity of the band existing at all: the stepsisters with the perfectly complementary voices, singing together since they were fourteen, growing massive guitar chops; the ruthlessly powerful rhythm section of David Narcizo and Leslie Langston. Before they even started to play, they looked like no other rock band. But then you heard them, and it was like they dropped in from another dimension. They seemed to have no direct antecedents. And ironically, while the iconoclastic bands of the nascent “alternative” scene spawned soundalike clones almost immediately after achieving any measure of mainstream success, Throwing Muses remained inimitable. They couldn’t be diluted or knocked off. Nobody even tried.

Hersh later claimed of those early years, “I swear to God, we thought we were a party band….We were then stunned and horrified to see audiences react with stunned horror.” Though there’s more than a speck of self-mocking hilarity in her words, Hersh is right, of course. ‘Stunned horror’ is really the only possible response to hearing “Hate My Way” or “Delicate Cutters” belted out by a pregnant teenager with the face of a cherub.

It isn’t merely the violence of the lyrics that makes these songs so frightening. Fellow Boston fixture the Pixies evoked a screeching Grand Guignol of sliced-up eyeballs, broken faces, bloody cacti, and pulsing dead organs, yet were never a fraction as disturbing. What makes Throwing Muses even more unsettling than the gleefully dissonant, destructive Doolittle is its emphasis on the domestic—the idea of “home” as a place both dangerous and safe, as eerie as it is reassuring, and “home” appears in almost every song.

This duality—familiar things made strange, and strange things made familiar—is often referred to as the “uncanny.” It is most obvious in the realms of the home and the body: the darkened hallway, the misshapen limb, the everyday stuff of psychological terror. The German word from which the term is derived, das Unheimlich, contains the idea of Heimlich, which means both ‘that which is comforting’ (literally, ‘homely’) and ‘that which is concealed.’ The unheimlich lays bare both, exposing the fragile boundary between our ideas of what’s normal and what’s monstrous. Throwing Muses are the troubadours of the uncanny, bringing home’s dark secrets into the open and finding solace in off-putting details. I’m hardly the first to notice: the word “uncanny” pops up in article and reviews on the band more times than one can count, usually alongside “quirky,” “off-kilter,” and yes, even “deranged.”

All of these descriptors, though, have an ultimately patronizing effect—they diminish both the band and the music. They are attempts to categorize something dark and powerful as merely daft. What is perhaps most truly uncanny about Throwing Muses (as well as Throwing Muses) is the sheer amount of control it takes to sound so unhinged. The time signatures that turn on a dime, the lyrics’ delivery flipping from wailing fury to dead calm—it all speaks of musicians who are absolutely healthy and confident, even though the message is often one of unfocused dread.

Finally, for all that control, Throwing Muses are one hell of a punk band. At a time when punk’s message seemed ossified, domesticated, Throwing Muses found the energy and danger of punk in domestic details. It’s the DIY aesthetic of punk that has kept the Muses alive for more than thirty years now, though the rise and fall of clubs, record labels, and virtually the entire music industry. While other bands from the era reap the rewards of nostalgia reunion tours without recording any new material, the Muses’ latest record is massive, entirely independent, listener-funded, and open-source under Hersh’s own CASH (Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders) Music initiative.

It might only add to the punk cachet of Throwing Muses that it has never been domestically released in the U.S. After all these years, there are probably more dubbed and burned copies, passed hand to hand and treasured in listeners’ collections, than there ever were originals. When 4AD and Rykodisc reissued the album on the first disc of the In a Doghouse compilation in 1998 (the second disc contained the original demo tape, the “Doghouse” cassette), fans rejoiced, yet that disc is now out of print in the U.S., as well. Fortunately, in the era of online searches, copies of both aren’t hard to find, and the album floats infinitely in the digital mist, waiting for new generations of minds to blow apart and reassemble into something fresher, smarter, braver.

11 responses to “I still love you, 33 1/3”

  1. Trixie says:

    rachel! shit!!

    this was SO MUCH FUN to read. and not just because i love throwing muses almost as much as you do.

    we have to make sure that kristin hersh reads this. i am going to work on that right now.

  2. theunrealramona says:

    “And ironically, while the iconoclastic bands of the nascent “alternative” scene spawned soundalike clones almost immediately after achieving any measure of mainstream success, Throwing Muses remained inimitable. They couldn’t be diluted or knocked off.” Abso-friggin’-lutely. Brilliant piece!

  3. Paul Valentine says:

    OK Rachel – you’ll do…

  4. Mikel says:

    Awesome post. The Muses are long overdue for some 33 1/3 love, but even without that materializing, this on its own is wonderful to read.

  5. Paula says:

    Rachel, This was one of the best pieces I have ever read on the Muses, not only because you express the flurry of emotions that were unidentifiable upon first listen to the group, (in much the way I felt), but also because it’s just darn good writing. I can think of no reason why you were not shortlisted to have your piece published other than a complete and blind oversight by reviewers! This brought me right back to my first time seeing a very pregnant Kristin playing a very round Ovation guitar, slung to the side, since the belly of both would have made for quite tricky positioning… and crying uncontrollably to Hate My Way, (even now, every time I hear it…) On a personal note, I’d be hard pressed to believe our paths never crossed as I lived in Boston in my early twenties and played some rock there (having been more than a little inspired by KH and co). Thanks for writing the review even in the face of non-publication.

  6. J-Man says:

    Fucking fabulous! Time to do some listening and re-listening.

  7. T-Mo says:

    I loved this, Rachel! I’m also jealous, in that I never went through with my plan to submit a proposal of my own. I couldn’t quite settle on a record to do, and then the amount of required material became daunting. For all those rejected, there are likely hundreds who didn’t even get it together to apply. Rock on.

  8. josh k-sky says:

    This was really great. I saw Kristin read at the LA Festival of Books last year and she was candid and open and funny. The line about your roommate makes me sad that they didn’t pick it up (and would have sold it to me in the store), but I’m glad to get to read the proposal. Thanks for posting it.

    Would you ever pick up a volume about an album you don’t already love?

    I’ve read Armed Forces because I like Franklin Bruno a lot and Elvis Costello a lot a lot; there’s something about Oliver’s Army that is perfection to me, in its prettiness, its anger and its wit, but the album itself had never had a hold on me. And I picked up Let’s Talk About Love because it had excellent reviews and I think about taste a lot. (That let me to Back to the World and Margaux Williamson, Sheila Heti, and Misha Glouberman, whom I now adore.) I recently bought Fear of Music not knowing the album (save the singles). Haven’t cracked it yet.

    I’ve read my way into appreciating lots of music. I had a little Zappa in my collection, but I didn’t get it until I opened The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, which puts Lipstick Traces to shame in terms of gleeful free association. There’s definitely lots of music that hit me head-on and rewired my brain on impact, but there’s plenty more that I met though literary appreciations.

  9. jeremy says:

    Wow, so awesome. As a tribute to you and TM–Farrell, Trixie, and I sat around drinking beer, making dinner (well, Trixie made dinner), and pulling up Throwing Muses videos on YouTube…

  10. David says:

    I was steered to this entry via Kristin Hersh’s own tweet and I just wanted to say 1) what a wonderful piece you’ve written and 2) I’m really sorry it won’t be published by 33 & 1/3 as I would have loved to have read more. Kristin has been a favorite for years (the Muses *were* the first date my wife and I organized so long ago) and the picture you’ve painted of Kristin and the band is just spot-on.

    After many shows, I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen someone as intense as Kristin Hersh was that first night at the 9:30 Club in D.C. in 1987.

  11. Missy says:

    Rachel, you made it onto Kristin Hersh’s tweet!!!!!!!!!!!!! AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!! Beautiful writing, beautiful piece. So sorry not to be able to buy this as a 33 1/3, but would love to see it come out somewhere else. Fingers crossed.