Friday, February 5, 2016

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: a memoir - Carrie Brownstein (2015)


I first became aware of Carrie Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney when I was a sophomore in college, back when they were touring behind One Beat.  There were a couple girls I met that burned me a copy of Dig Me Out and let me accompany to them to the show they played at Irving Plaza, one of a series of NYU concerts that cost $5 or $10 per ticket.  I would see them several times over the next few years, and collect all of their albums (except their first).  I kind of had a crush on Carrie Brownstein when I saw them, though people seemed to intimate that she wouldn't necessarily appreciate that crush.  I got my hair cut in the spring semester of my sophomore year and a friend remarked that I looked like "that girl from Sleater-Kinney" (that I presumed wasn't Corin Tucker due to our facial features).  I just assumed that Carrie Brownstein was old, because they had been together for so long.  I come to find out that she was younger than I am now when they went on their hiatus in 2006.  She's like, barely older than me (at least to me--and maybe I'm alone, except for Nicki Minaj, when I say that '06 feels like yesterday), may or may not be single, and has one of the greatest and most unique catalogs of any rock band in history under her belt, and what, six seasons of a seminal sketch comedy show?  She's like, perfect.  Whatever she is on, I want to be on.

I'm only not naming this book one of the Best Books of Flying Houses because I didn't bestow that recognition upon Kim Gordon's Girl in a  Band.  Both deserve to be on the list, but in a way they are too easy: they both had such incredible stories to tell that the books must have written themselves, to an extent.  I feel a little dirty saying this, particularly in light of my previous review of an anthology of the genre, but I think memoirs are easier to write than fiction--except for the requisite "bloodletting" that they generally require.  All the source material is there before you; all you need to do is to decide where to start, where to end, and what to leave out.  You don't need to think up names for characters, or build whole mythologies out of imaginary people.  Having said that, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is probably better written than Girl in a Band, but Kim Gordon has her own separate barometer of authenticity or credibility that renders it more powerful.  Gordon is certainly vulnerable and confessional in hers; Brownstein opens up a lot in hers, but keeps most of her ex-lovers anonymous.  Sonic Youth is a bit more of an institution than Sleater-Kinney--at least, it was, when it broke up, before Sleater-Kinney came back.  Now, who knows, Kim was nearly 60 when Sonic Youth folded, so if Sleater-Kinney goes on another ten or fifteen years, then I would say they're of equal cultural import.  Frankly, though I love Sonic Youth deeply and dearly, so much that they must be included if ever asked to name my top five favorite bands, Sleater-Kinney has a stronger and more consistent catalog, and albums that are generally more solid from top to bottom.  I like them all--except maybe for The Hot Rock--I mean, I like The Hot Rock, I'd prefer the album to music by most other bands, but it's just my least favorite by them.  Maybe the self-titled is my least favorite because I don't have it on my iPod, but I actually don't have No Cities to Love on it (owing mostly to my own cheapness and reliance on Spotify and my unwillingness to load up my precariously aged device), though that album sits comfortably alongside their best work, which, to my estimation, includes The Woods and One Beat.  I love Dig Me Out and Call the Doctor, and All Hands on the Bad One to a slightly lesser degree, and The Hot Rock to a slightly less degree than that--but they're just a band that seems to get better with each new album they release.  I saw them about a year ago in Chicago and they were as good as they've ever been.  I seriously hope they come back every few years or so with new music, but another longer hiatus seems inevitable, particularly after reading about the exhaustion that Brownstein recounts occurring after each album and tour cycle.

So I love the music and I love her work on "Portlandia."  Do you really think I would say this is a bad book?

For a while near the end, I thought she was getting a little bit boring, writing about her pets.  I was like, oh, I wrote about my pets in my memoir, so that's normal.  Regardless, just writing about your pets can sometimes be boring.  However, she writes about her pets, in this segment, to ridiculously powerful effect, to the point that it is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the entire book.  There's a quote on the back from Miranda July, whom I learned was a friend and collaborator of Brownstein's in their earlier days (and more recently if I'm not mistaken)--Brownstein admits at one point that they both wondered if they should be together--as well as a noteworthy artist herself.  Me and You and Everyone We Know is a modern indie classic, and she also has a pretty good book of short stories, from what I've read.  July writes, as the last sentence in her blurb, "I wept."  I wonder if this story about her pets instigated those emotions.

Make no mistake, this is a great book.  It's a must read for Sleater-Kinney fans and musicians everywhere.  But it takes a really incredible memoir (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for example) to make the Best Books list.  Brownstein is a terrific writer, but I must admit that she doesn't seem to employ the "be harder on myself than anyone else" rule of memoir-writing.  Now she might say, "Come on, I'm pretty hard of myself a lot here!" And truthfully, she is pretty hard on herself a lot of the time.  But she still could have gone harder, more embarrassing, more vulnerable, more revealing.  This is a personal preference for memoir writers, and I totally understand not wanting to give out the most painful, secret, unflattering memories one has of oneself, but it's my personal preference that memoirs are as honest and unflinching as possible.  I would never say this memoir is dishonest in any way, shape or form, but I would have liked to have known more about Brownstein's personal feelings on bisexuality.  I believe she identifies as bi, though in practice mostly sees women, and she keeps a fair number of her exes anonymous and gender neutral.  It would be a generous act, if somewhat unsettling, for a writer to open up about such personally confounding matters.  Brownstein certainly describes her first moments "experimenting," but never really addresses the "choice" that's implicit in identifying as bisexual.  That would be something that I just personally would like to read.

It's also pretty much where my criticism stops, because even in that last paragraph, I had to qualify every blanket statement I made about this book.  It took me about a week to read this book, and I loved most every minute of it.  If you go purely by ease of reading and entertainment and occasional moments of profundity, this book should definitely be on the Best Books list.  It's only out of my snobbishness towards memoirs that it's not.

***

Carrie Brownstein grew up in the suburbs outside of Seattle--mostly Redmond, WA.  At this point I must make another personal statement: Brownstein's childhood memories are primarily set in the 1980's, and as such feel very close to mine.  At least in the sense that, I had three older siblings who were closer in age to her, so we had some Cabbage Patch Dolls in our home.  Our father also went to Australia on business and brought back a few things.  And we were also in the suburbs of a big city and we also had a dog named Buffy.  The similarities pretty much end there, though.  Brownstein had one younger sister.  Her parent's marriage broke up while she was in high school, her mother suffering from anorexia nervosa and her father suffering from repressed homosexual feelings.  These are delicately detailed in the third and fourth chapters "Disappearance" and "No Normal."

These very personal chapters showcase Brownstein's exemplary talent for writing (as if she needed to be talented at one more thing).  Earlier I've accused her of not being hard enough on herself in this book, but I want to say something else to tip the balance: she is extremely modest in this book.  She never once even seems to admit that she is a good musician, guitarist, songwriter, performer--anything.  Sometimes she admits that Sleater-Kinney is a very good band, but she is always laying the praise on Corin and Janet (in truth, Sleater-Kinney is such a good band because all three of them--like, say, Shellac--are ferocious players).  In writing about her mother's disease and her father's guarded lifestyle, she exhibits tenderness, strength, empathy, and realness.  She doesn't pity them for their troubles and she is very level-headed about she handles them.  She laments that her family was not "together" throughout most of her life, but she really seems like one of the best sisters or children anyone could have.  She learned from these troubles and became a stronger person for it.  (There could be more details about exactly what happened with her mother leaving the family--she briefly mentions staying at her house with her 2nd husband during the recording of Dig Me Out, I think--but I'm not going to push that criticism too hard.)

Most of this book, however, is about Sleater-Kinney.  And while the details about their earlier records are interesting (I had no idea they started the band in Australia, and the chapter about that is super weird--I don't know how they survived in the early part of their career, and I would have liked to see a few more paragraphs devoted to their ostensible poverty), it is really the material on the later stuff that is the most compelling.  Because despite their steady growth, they were never "really big" until the end, when they opened for Pearl Jam on the One Beat tour and when they finished up with The Woods.  When they got really big, Brownstein seemed more prone to depression, which seems odd but makes sense in a "Kurt Cobain kind of way" (which she references, and must reference, as this book is also thoroughly a document of the Pacific Northwest scene, K Records, Olympia, Seattle, Portland, grunge and riot grrl).  In fact, the book opens up in a kind of "teaser chapter" (not unlike Girl in a Band) about the shingles she developed on The Woods tour and her increasing frustrations with the band.  It's sort of unbelievable that anyone making what must have been pretty good money, doing what they love, could ever be unhappy with their situation, but Brownstein convincingly portrays the Big Picture and why it wasn't working for them (primarily due, it seems, to Tucker wanting to be a good mother to her children, which Brownstein completely understands).

Here is one example of how Brownstein takes this memoir to another level--her ability to write like a writer:

"The ways that oddity and detachment intersected in the family might best be summed up in the story of the family dog.  Buffy, a forty-pound golden retriever mix we adopted from the pound when I was six and my sister was three, had been smothered with love in her youth.  Buffy, for whom we took a pet first-aid class in order to learn how to be responsible owners, who was the muse for my grade-school poetry exercises ('Buffy is fluffy!'), our sidekick for picnics and outings, on the sidelines for soccer games, and the subject most featured in my first roll of film--posing on my baby blanket and wearing sunglasses--after I was given a camera for my birthday.  Buffy, who followed us around the cul-de-sacs while we engaged in dirt clod fights with the neighbor kids, and trotted after us while we rode Big Wheels and eventually bikes.  Buffy, who suffered the sting of the archaic idea that you could punish a dog by smacking it on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and whose tail was run over by my mother as she backed the car out of the driveway.  And Buffy, turned back into a stray in her own home on account of the rest of us surrendering to emptiness, drifting away from anything we could call familiar, her skin itching and inflamed, covered with sores and bites, like tattoos, like skywriting, screaming with redness, as if to say Please, please pet me!  But we didn't.  When we decided to put her down, not because she was sick but because she was old and neglected--a remnant of a family we no longer recognized--my father asked my sister to do it.  My sister was sixteen.  She drove the dog to the vent one day after school by herself.  No one else said good-bye." (34-35)

And then beneath that is a hilarious picture of Brownstein as a young girl with Buffy and a Cabbage Patch Doll.  It was moments such as this that reminded me of my earliest memories from the mid-to-late 80's.  The only thing that would have made that paragraph more literary is if the word "the" had been excised before "cul-de-sacs."  Brownstein may as well write a novel whenever Portlandia wraps.

There are great little references to other musicians in this book.  One of my favorites involves Jeremy Enigk, because he's relatively obscure, but not to those that understand what "emo" really means.  I guess I was surprised to read that he was pretty popular.  There is also this shocking anecdote about tour bus listening:

"We smoked cigarettes and weed, when available, ate copious amounts of chocolate and cheese, and fell asleep mostly tipsy if not outright drunk.  On one long drive, in a fit of giddiness and in the spirit of sisterhood and spreading cheer, Corin and I convinced Janet to throw a mixtape out of the van window.  It was a cassette she'd been listening to nonstop, made for her by a friend, a boy she was trying to no longer have a crush on.  That boy was Elliott Smith.  I still think about that tape, flung, and how I urged it to be so.  Gone." (147)

Harsh!  Finally, there is a priceless one about Jack White near the very end.  It's not really worth excerpting, just a funny story.  There is also a funny story about Sleater-Kinney's groupies, or lack thereof.  Brownstein does open up about her personal life here, and it is quite endearing to read about trying to maintain a relationship while on tour.  We will end with another extremely literary passage, this one in the fashionable 2nd person:

"Here's one way not to go about diminishing the distance: Obsessively call your girlfriend, who is eleven years older than you, crying and telling her you hate being on tour.  Rack up more than $1,000 in pre-cellphone calling card fees on various payphones because you are hopelessly in love, willing to ditch everything for this person, and paranoid that she will go back to dating men while you are away.  Get so worried that you walk into a family-run restaurant--perhaps the only restaurant--in the town of Lokev, Slovenia (population: around 1,000), ask to borrow their cordless phone, and call your girlfriend some more (sticking them with an international long-distance bill).  Write lugubrious, handwritten love letters that compare thee to a summer's day.  Drive your bandmates crazy by quoting your older girlfriend all the time and only reading books or listening to music that she has recommended.  Now your bandmates are practically begging you to dump her.  But, guess what, she dumps you.  Of course she does.  This girlfriend, who also plays music but who is not as successful as you in this field, you think she wants to hear how sad you are to have an album that is blowing up?!  She doesn't.  Months later you are still angry and confused and for the first time very, very heartbroken.  You freak out and drive to her house one morning and place a bag containing every letter she ever wrote you on her doorstep.  Then you write songs for what will become The Hot Rock, songs about a love that is so airless, it's suffocating.  Songs about wanting to steal your heart back from someone you never feel deserved it.  And thus begins a cycle, of falling in love and then getting hurt, or hurting someone else by falling out of love with them.  About trying to maintain closeness despite geographical disparities, then finding inspiration from all the ways you feel splintered and separate, hurt and broken.  So, this is one version, and not a pretty one, of being young and in a band and trying to be in a relationship.  This is teh version in which being gone and busy eats at you because you are scared of being left even though you are the one who is technically always leaving." (151-152)

You should read this book, even if you've never heard of Sleater-Kinney.  You will not be disappointed.


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