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Author Archive: "Kristin Hersh"

The Beach House

I recently purchased a beach house. I've been saying this a lot lately — telling everyone I know and everyone I used to know on this island where I grew up. I'm hoping it sounds fancy. Like, "I'd had my eye on this adorable little cottage for the longest time and finally I thought I'm just gonna grab it! "or "I had a country house and a city house, so I needed a beach house" or maybe, "I heard they don't actually let you buy oceans — so I had to buy something near the ocean."

What really happened is that I had been homeless for almost a year and couldn't think of anywhere else to go but home. For me, being homeless isn't as dire as it sounds. As a musician, I often pack up my belongings and put them in storage before a tour to avoid paying rent on an empty apartment, but at times like these I've always underestimated the effect of placelessness on a psyche. It's lonely going from city to city, not belonging anywhere, especially knowing that you really don't belong anywhere.

So home beckoned. A wacky, little island in New England that I remembered mistily. I mean my memories were misty, but they were also memories of mist. A foggy world, but romantic in that. I realized that the clanging buoys and hermit crabs of my childhood were things my kids didn't have and suddenly, they seemed awfully important. I decided to give them salt water and lots of it.

So I bought the second cheapest house on the island, the first was an intriguing piece of real estate in someone's back yard that was without indoor plumbing. That one was a genuinely inexpensive property, but it lacked the fourth wall that would classify it as a building. It also didn't have closets.

The house I did buy is pretty funny, too. It's full of spiders and, for some reason, hooks. All different sizes and kinds of hooks. My four-year-old says witches and pirates used to live here — the witches left the spiders, the pirates left the hooks. Maybe they did, I don't really care; everything about our beach house makes us happy, no matter who used to live here. Turns out, compared to homelessness, a house is really, really good. We coo over its idiosyncrasies, treating this tiny little building (technically, it is a building, it has a fourth wall and everything) like a child with low self esteem. We are our house's spin doctors, spinning every feature up into the air and into the realm of fantasy. Rotting parts of it are "rustic", drop ceilings are "kitschy" and anything misshapen is evidence of architectural significance.

"Check out this scratched and bruised linoleum, so authentic. Like a church basement floor. I like churches and basements, don't you?"

"You know, the size of this place really captures the essence of smallness. The bathroom is chamber pot-close. So convenient!"

"Sure is a heck of a lot of dirt out there in the yard, kids! I read an article about dirt once; apparently it's good for planting things in."

The house itself can't know what hit it. It must think we're the nicest people in the world, when really we're just grateful. We're especially grateful for the things this beach house doesn't have: no driftwood, no shell decoupage, no nautical ropes used as railings or anchors as lawn ornaments. When you walk in the door, you don't smell the must of a thousand wet bathing suits, ghosts of summers past.

It's also located in an actual neighborhood, full of human people, not preps on spring break or drunks on vacation, and so lacks the retail detritus that serves those people: obscene t-shirts, clam cakes and eight dollar beers. There are no googly-eyed walnut shell poodles or day-glo bikinis. If I suddenly need any of these things, I don't know what I'll do because they aren't here. This quiet part of the island isn't popular enough to have any crap.


Beautiful Old Betty

My best friend in college was the movie actress Betty Hutton. She was too old to be in college and I was too young; this was all we really had in common, if you can call it that. Though she did like the fact that I was in a band.

"C'mon, Krissy," she'd say, patting the seat next to her in the student lounge, "sit down! Let's talk show biz!"

I had never heard of Betty Hutton, never seen any of her movies, and, frankly wondered if her Hollywood star persona wasn't invented. She was awfully... eccentric, to say the least. A gigantic woman who made herself seem even bigger by wearing rhinestone-studded turquoise cowboy boots and combing her white hair straight up, she smoked menthol cigarettes.

"Minty," I commented one afternoon.

"I don't like minty cigarettes," she said, "but I'm trying to quit chewing gum."

Betty did live in a bona fide mansion, though. Right on the ocean and decorated entirely in white: white furniture, walls, carpet, dog, piano. She'd sit at the piano with her gay friends, singing show tunes. Really. I mean, I assumed they were show tunes. When the singing was over, she'd wipe tears away and hug whoever had been accompanying her.

Then, glistening, she'd call me over and say to her friend, "Krissy's in a band. A band called 'Throw-ing Mu-ses'. Krissy's gonna be the new me." So sad. That she couldn't find anyone better than me to groom as her "show biz" replacement. All of that old school Hollywood wisdom to impart and no little tap dancing vessel in which to put it. Al Jolson once told Betty that when she left the stage, she should peek out of the wings and ask the audience with her eyes, "Do you want some more?". Betty tried desperately to get me to do this.

"Look, Krissy," (she always called me Krissy, she was the only person who ever did — I called her "Bob" for "Beautiful Old Betty") "it's not that hard. You have to play with them, flirt with them, string them along. Be the cat and the mouse, you know what I mean?"

"Sorta."

"Well you aren't actually doing it." Then she'd smile sweetly. "I know you're trying."

"I'm not really trying."

"No, you're not," and she'd laugh. Hard. I couldn't fake her out because she actually came to Throwing Muses shows. She always brought her priest, though she never explained why, and she and this priest would stand in the back of the room and look encouraging while we played. Betty would make her eyes real big at me, I guess telling me to ask the mosh pit if they "wanted some more". The thing was, my eyes were spirals while I played; I was so far from flirting with anyone. Lost in a swirl of sound, I never even knew where I was.

It was hard for me to explain this to Betty. "Why do we entertain?" she would ask — and then answer herself — "to make people happy!" She said this all the time. I didn't think I made anyone very happy by playing and I told her that. "Well, you do scream a great deal don't you? Which isn't very nice. But that's the style these days. And they jump around when you play. I think that means they're happy. So you gotta show them that you love them back. You gotta earn their love."

I couldn't tell her that I wasn't trying to earn love, that I was trying to own violence. I couldn't tell her this because it would have sounded as pretentious then as it does now. So I said, "I play to make the math work".

"Oh! Like tap dancing!" Betty was so beautiful.


Vodka and Chocolate

The year my oldest son (we call him Doonie) turned three was a difficult one. The term "custody dispute" in no way describes the agony of that time, a time colored by gutting loss. I was losing my son, my home, my grip. I spent most afternoons in a lawyer's office, trying not to cry in front of anyone, and Doonie was forced into a day care program where his choice of friends was limited to, in his 3-year-old-kid words, "kids what would eat cheese for dinner" and "kids who used books as bricks."

"You mean they build things with them?" I asked hopefully.

"No, Mom," he smiled sadly. "These are bad kids."

In the lawyer's office, while I sat and listened to people I barely knew read lists of lies that had been told about me and wondered how I would ever pay the lawyer's fees, my son moved between both of these social groups, defending the cheese eaters from the book throwers. I don't believe he ever let himself cry in public, either.

Sometimes, after leaving the lawyer's office, unable to face my empty apartment, I would visit him at the day care facility. I ...


Korporate Konsumer Kulture

[Editor's note: Kristin Hersh is the lead singer and guitarist for Throwing Muses and 50FootWave. A longtime favorite here at Powell's, we're happy to welcome her to the blog. (One member of our staff actually made her own Throwing Muses concert T-shirt back in the day. Really.) Kristin recently performed at a True Stories event here in Portland; you can hear her words and music on our most recent Bookcast.]

It's 2 a.m. and the rain is so loud and the moon is so bright that I'm lying on the closet floor, trying to get some sleep. It's hard. I mean, the floor is hard and it's hard to sleep on it.

You're supposed to empty your mind of all thought, in order to fall asleep, right? Or is that meditation? Either way. I believe the brain's first order of business is to lie to you, so I like to shut that organ down every chance I get.

Tonight, though, when I try to shut it up, it keeps asking this question: why do people think I'm foreign? My brain raises a good point. I've never been ...


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