Paradoxical Undressing by Kristin Hersh – review

Throwing Muses singer Kristin Hersh's teenage memoir is all the better for having a former Hollywood star at its heart

Paradoxical Undressing is based on a diary that Kristin Hersh kept when she was 18 years old. And as such, she claims in the foreword: "It can't really count as a story about me – that girl isn't me any more. Now it's just a story."

It's the story of a year in the life of a very un-average 18-year-old girl. But then, it's hard to believe that Hersh has ever been average. She spent her early childhood in a commune in the woods, "a gigantic barn full of hippies", with her father, Dude, a philosophy professor, and her mother, Crane, and having the likes of Allen Ginsberg pop around for tea. Then, at the age of 14, she set up her own band with a couple of friends and her stepsister, and by the time the book opens, Throwing Muses have already been playing gigs for four long years in Rhode Island where they live.

If you were around in the 80s and into indie rock then you'll know all about Throwing Muses, precursors to bands such as Nirvana. If you weren't, well, it's hard to get to the end of the book without wondering what the music was like, because this is a read that requires a soundtrack, a twangy, guitary, rocky soundtrack, at that. (Hersh explains in the afterword that she's recorded all the songs cited in the book, and you can download them for free at kristinhersh.com.)

But what of that year? "I seemed awfully young that first spring," she says of her teenage self at the start of the book, "and not so young the next, though this wasn't a year when a lot happened in my opinion."

Eh? Well, not an awful lot, apart from the fact that she moves to Boston, has a breakdown, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, lands her first record deal, gets pregnant, records her first album and has a baby. And then there's Betty – Betty Hutton, the MGM musical star who partnered Fred Astaire in Let's Dance, and most memorably replaced Judy Garland as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun.

As unlikely as it seems, they're studying at the same university and become friends. Dude introduces them: "It's perfect! Kristin, you're too young to make any friends here and, Betty, you're too old!"

They're a brilliant double act and when Betty is around, the book leaps to life, with her stories of Cecil B DeMille, and how her mother put her on the stage and told her to "sparkle!"

"Betty's afraid some cigar-chomping studio mogul's gonna stuff me full of pills just because I'm in a band. 'Listen, this is important, Judy Garland and I had a long talk about this once in Vegas.' Geez, sometimes she just seems nuts."

Kristin, of course, has no idea who Betty is and when she finds out at the end of the book: "I was kind of disappointed. I wanted Betty's world to be Betty's world, not dumb ol' Hollywood." But it's a beautifully painted friendship, Kristin, the sassy smart arse, wise beyond her years, and Betty, the ex-sassy smart arse, still struggling to make sense of the world. "It occurs to me, not for the first time, that Betty talks to me as if I were her younger self. Poor thing can't find a better younger self to talk to than me – I have no ambition, no sparkle."

There's a lot more to the story than Betty: the early gigs, the "Doghouse" squat where they crash, Hersh's night-time meanderings – instead of sleeping she breaks into pools and swims – the memories of the bicycle accident that seemed to unleash her songwriting from within, and the delirium and hallucinations that eventually lead her to be hospitalised. It's where she finds out that "night swimming is mania, wanting to learn everything and live everywhere is mania… a disregard for the future, seeing things that aren't there, insomnia, racing out into storms… these are all symptoms of a long-term manic state. How embarrassing. So what's left? What's 'me'? Anything?"

She's prescribed a cocktail of drugs that she stops taking when she gets pregnant, and although Throwing Muses have no desire for fame ("Fame's for dorks," she tells Betty), and turn down a stream of cigar-chomping record executive types who probably would have stuffed them full of pills, they do eventually sign a deal with an English indie label and record their first album with Hersh just a couple of months away from giving birth.

The angst and the artiness, and the self-conscious literariness of the hallucinatory highs and the spirit-busting lows, are things we've read before, although the emphasis on creativity over commerce means it ought to be read by any teenager contemplating entering The X Factor. But Betty is brilliant. Betty and Kristin together, Betty singing about "starlight and champagne", Kristin about "dead rabbits and blow jobs", even more so.

Click here to read Gareth Grundy's interview with Kristin Hersh

Contributor

Carole Cadwalladr

The GuardianTramp

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