Kristin Hersh is that rare breed of musician who is also a fantastic writer. Though most people would know her from her solo career or her bands Throwing Muses or 50 Foot Wave, her first memoir, Rat Girl
, described her life as an 18-year-old songwriter, newly diagnosed with mental illness and pregnant. Mary Gaitskill
called it "awestruck — by music, feeling, perception, wild animals, mystery, dreams….It is an original beauty." Her most recent book, Don't Suck, Don't Die
, is about her deep and long-lasting friendship with Vic Chesnutt, another extraordinarily gifted musician who committed suicide in 2009. Hersh seems to write and live where magic does — her combination of unsettling honesty, intuition, and eerily poetic language creates an impressionistic portrait of a loving, conflicted friendship between two unusual people, their relationship to art, and their marriages. Michael Schaub of NPR raves, "Don't Suck, Don't Die
is not only one of the best books of the year, it's one of the most beautiful rock memoirs ever written," and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. writes, "A stunning, difficult, and beautiful chronicle. The true Vic comes alive." Funny, heartbreaking, gorgeous, and raw, Don't Suck, Don't Die
is a powerful work and a fitting tribute that will stay with you for a long, long time.
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Jill Owens: When I talked to you about Rat Girl, it sounded like you were reluctant to write that book at first — and I heard you were reluctant to write this one, too. How is it that people keep talking you into writing books?
Kristin Hersh: [Laughter] I don't know! I wish they'd stop, because obviously I'm a reluctant individual.
I was honored to be asked to write an article about Vic because it seemed like, well, better me than someone else. But when I said, "Sure," what I meant was "Probably not." [Laughter] I'm a musician, and I figured people think I'm a fuck-up, and I'm always gone, and so it's not gonna happen.
But then six months later, the University of Texas Press called asking how it was going. I said, "Oh. Well… How many words did you want again?" And when they told me, I said, "That's a really long article!" [Laughter] They said, "Yeah, we're a publishing company. You told us you'd write a book, so you'd better get on that."
I realized I was going to have to warn them that there would be nothing definitive or biographical or even typical about what I was going to deliver. It'd be more like dreams and memories combined. All true — this is nonfiction — but sense perceptions, perceptions like sense memories, are fuzzy and dreamlike. And so is a storyline when you're talking about a human being who is somewhat shocking every time you see them, unpredictable, like Vic.
Every time I told them this, every time I gave them an excuse, they would say, "That's what we're looking for." So I couldn't get out of it.
And when I started writing, I think it came very easily, but I have to say I don't remember having written it. I remember typing. I remember being up in the middle of the night, in New Orleans, with the dogs just looking at me like, What the hell are you doing here? But I don't really remember anything except this image of myself sitting on the couch in the living room with my fingers moving.
Jill: You wrote your earlier book in the middle of the night, too, when everyone was asleep.
Hersh: Yes, that's when it's not day or night, and that means your memories are vivid because they're there, but you don't need to call them up during the daytime. Particularly sense memories and people's voices. The things that Vic said were so striking, and they sounded so striking in that crazy voice, that it wasn't difficult to recall them.
Jill: His different voices come through so strongly in the book (his grandma voice, kind voice, mean voice…)
Hersh: I think you can hear those on his records, too, because his voice was such an array of different instruments.
Jill: How did you and Vic first meet each other?
Hersh: We didn't, really. We were introduced by a mutual friend, but we didn't really say anything to each other. [Laughter] He could be weird, and I could be shy. So I didn't really get to know him until he was opening for me in Europe on my first solo acoustic tour. I felt like he took me under his wing, because I didn't know how to play a solo acoustic tour — I'd been in a band since I was 14. And he said that I took him under my wing, because he'd never played theaters before, so it was a symbiotic relationship from the beginning. I mean, though we can sound hard, we're both actually very sweet people, and when you begin with sweetness, you can put in just about anything else.
|“We were free to do anything, have any fight, have any squabble, any phone call, and I think that's what adds so much color to writing about a friendship.”
And we did — we put in everything. I don't mean to imply that Vic and I got along. [Laughter]
Jill: There's a lot of sweetness, and a lot of sadness, in the book, but there's also so much fun, on that tour in particular.
Hersh: That's good to hear. It's not the maudlin piece it could have been. I guess it's sad that people die, but they all do. I even have a hard time being sad that he's dead because he just doesn't seem very dead. Tina [Vic's wife] was saying a couple of weeks ago, "It was a time of mission, and that's what love is. We were each so in love with our spouses, and we were all on the same mission." She said, "You can't even call that work. As physically draining as it could be, as psychologically confusing as it can be to always be the stranger, when everyone around you has a life and a home, even if we were four ghosts, we were happy, loving ghosts."
Jill: I like that this book is about your incredibly deep friendship, too, which is not a relationship we read about as much as, say, marriage or blood family but can be almost as close and meaningful.
Hersh: Yeah, it may not be as meaningful [laughter], but it's all layers of depth in the ocean. We know less about the ocean than we do about space, and these are the oceans that we live with. We're never sure exactly how deep we can go, how deep we are, how many monsters are down there. [Laughter]
You bounce around with people. You're up in the choppy waters until you realize, Oh, this is just shallow. This is not where meaning is. And then you're down so deep that you're starting to drown.
That's why the book is sad. We all drowned. I'm still walking the earth, and Tina's right. It is the end of ghosts, and I'm the one that's left. I'm the ghost.
But once you've been down in the depths like that with someone, it's okay to be a ghost. I loved Billy more than anything, and to have someone be your world means, I did it. I win. That's humanity. I lived my humanity. And if it's over, then at least I've got my affairs in order. I went there.
But when you go down deep with a friend, it's more like, you know, Sylvester and Looney Tunes and those big inflatable shoes. There's all this stuff between you and your friends, and that's very interesting, and you can tell great stories. But friendship has an aspect of lightness that is very freeing, when you're writing. It just doesn't matter so much that it can shatter you. And it couldn't shatter me. So we were free to do anything, have any fight, have any squabble, any phone call, and I think that's what adds so much color to writing about a friendship.
Jill: Speaking of stories, is there a story that you didn't include that you'd want to share about Vic?
Hersh: Sure, yes. There's a lot that I didn't include because with most of our serious conversations, I would feel like I was publishing without his permission. But one that's interesting and isn't in the book is that we both realized that we heard music and didn't feel responsible for it. He called it "the singer"; I called it "the song." But it was definitely something that we heard from outside of us.
Vic said that he once took an X-Acto knife to the drywall in his house because he thought that he heard the singer behind a wall, and he would get to finally find him. He cut up the wall pretty bad and there was nobody there. [Laughter]
For me… my husband could feel a song before I heard it. He could feel the electricity on my skin when there was a song coming. I don't really understand what it is, but it's definitely an entity that I do not control.
Vic tried to control it because he loved any kind of freefall. And I hated it. Which could be the difference between being trapped in a wheelchair and being the mother of four. I didn't like anything that smacked of mental illness, or strangeness. And, yet, oddly, I was the one that didn't want to control it. He was the one who did.
Jill: In the book, you talk about playing music as time-tripping — having to go from, and inhabit, one song to the next on stage — songs that were written during really different times in your life. I hadn't ever thought about it in that way before. Do you think that changes your relationship to time in general?
Hersh: Ha! I'm gonna say something really dorky, but it's true: time and space are exactly the same in my life. [Laughter] Because we moved constantly. Every six months to a year we'd move. That's how we marked time, by space. So each song is not only connected to a time, it's connected to a place.
And yet, when it did that, when it came out of that time and that place, it was just grabbing these pictures — my life pictures, like flipping through my photo album and saying, "I'm going to use this, and this, and this." The song makes its own point. They're a sort of scrim that one looks through and views one's own life in pictures, hopefully. And so that happens to me, too. A song will speak to me in the present even though it was written when I was 18, because a song is not me, and bigger than me, and hopefully it will be able to speak to a listener.
Jill: I love your description of how you can hear Vic and Tina's house in his music, and then that house becomes your safe place. There's a particular kind of house I think of as an Athens house — beautiful, worn, slightly falling apart, big wooden rooms with pianos and mason jars and weird thrift store finds everywhere, and big slanty porches. Or slanty floors. Your description made me intensely homesick for Athens.
Hersh: Aw, that's very sweet! They lived in the Pink House, they called it, a little house next door which never looked pink to me, which was confusing.
|“My husband could feel a song before I heard it. He could feel the electricity on my skin when there was a song coming.”
[Laughter] They were in the Pink House, and they were just fixing up this big, beautiful Athens house next door. And that's how I didn't know that he had put in a staircase, and an elevator, and had a second floor. [Laughter] Because when they moved in, it just looked like one of those big old one-story houses, and I thought, Wait a minute! Where does your elevator go? I've been to your house. There's no second floor! [Laughter]
Jill: You thought it was a metaphorical elevator.
Hersh: I know! Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!
Jill: I loved the scene with the thousands of bugs covering the ceiling in the hotel room in Germany. That was one of the scenes that injected humor into the book, but it also illustrates the point that sometimes you just want to stop looking, turn the lights out, and pretend that the ceiling is not covered with bugs.
Hersh: Which is the whole point of the book. Really, what else are you going to do? So you see something coming. There's a roiling cloud of bugs above you — what are you going to do? Nothing. You just have to keep walking.
Jill: When Vic stopped talking to you for a while, you started listening to his records. You said before that, you didn't because you "found facsimiles too uncanny valley, the production obscuring, and I was snotty enough about the real you to prefer it." Is that the case with most musicians that you know personally, that you'd rather not listen to their recorded music?
Hersh: I have an obnoxious answer to that. Do you want it?
Jill: Of course!
Hersh: I don't like music! Good music moves me too hard, and I'm not prepared for that, and bad music is lousy. So I don't play a lot of music. When my friends are around playing their music, it would be rude to walk away. [Laughter]
I told you it was obnoxious.
When I was on stage, playing with Vic, it was an honor. To see him go through these machinations that altered his physicality to the point where he looked like a six-year-old and then an 80-year-old, to see what he did and to hear the way he used timing as another instrument.
I mean, I love music as much as I hate it, obviously. People can play it in their cars, or play it over breakfast, but I just find it too moving. It's like God stepping into the café. I'm like, Let me finish my coffee first. [Laughter]
Jill: You do write in the book that when the four of you would listen to music, you would just listen to it, not talking, not doing anything else.
Hersh: Yes. Most musicians know that if you put a piece of music on, then you just freeze. Then when it stops, you pick up again.
Jill: One thing you touch on towards the end is what you call "the Great Depression" of the music business. You write, "We had always struggled toward Meaning; now we began to struggle toward Survival." What kind of effect has that had on your life, or your music, that redirection?
Hersh: Well, Billy saw that coming, particularly for us indie musicians, who were the first to fall. You know, we're on the front lines. So he started a nonprofit called Cash Music that would allow me to become listener-supported purely as an experiment. I was uncomfortable with the idea of asking for help, and yet I knew the music would stop if I didn't. Our listeners had seen Throwing Muses disappear because we could no longer afford to be in the studio or on the road, both of which are expensive.
|“He was a truth teller. Everything was true about Vic.”
So I thought, Who am I to not be humble? So I went begging, and I passed the hat, and I said, "Do you want to be my record company? Do you want to pay for studio time in exchange for music?" So they get free music, they get free tickets to shows, and they pay my recording costs. I have 50 Foot Wave, solo Kristin Hersh, Throwing Muses, and a band called Outros, and that's a lot of studio time to cover. And they've done it.
So now I'm seeing a circle of gratitude. They like being a part of it, and they thank me for that, which just seems crazy. And I thank them for saving my life, and they thank me for saving theirs. It's real commie and real sweet, yet there's a touch of capitalism in there that makes it spin. [Laughter]
Jill: In the book, I think you say something like, "Accepting sweetness is one way of being in the world, and gratitude is another." So maybe it's related to that?
Hersh: Yes, exactly. If you're not in a position to be thankful, you're in the black hole that everybody carries around in their heart. It's so big, but it's heart-shaped. Then you don't have the capacity to be grateful any longer. There's a lot of vulnerability in gratitude, so when Vic was mad, he didn't want to accept the sweetness, because then that would have taken his anger away. He would have had to feel lucky, and so he stayed a little too mad for that. I'm not saying he was mean, either. He could be sweet, and what he called lying wasn't lying. He was a truth teller. Everything was true about Vic.
But now that I long for comfort, and I can't find it, I'm extra pissed that he wouldn't accept it when it was there.
Jill: You write about Portland a bit in the book, when you were living here — being in Forest Park listening to Vic's music, the crows and the dogs. How will that feel being here again?
Hersh: Well, I go to Portland all the time. When I lived there they kept me working so hard, so much. They were so sweet. But there's always a reason to go back. I was there not too long ago; I can't remember where I played, though.
But when I go back — I mean, talk about sense memories. There's no other place that feels like that. And it was a very intense time; I thought I was going to lose Billy. And we were so poor that I was literally starving. You could see those stupid turkey bones in your chest that age you so badly.
And yet we pulled together. We couldn't afford Christmas presents for the kids — well, there were a few presents, but mostly we filled the space under the tree with these white balloons that cost a quarter for a bag. We almost passed out blowing them all up. But they remember it as the most special Christmas ever. It was cozy because Portland is cozy.
If you try to see things through your children's eyes, it gets a lot better. My son Wyatt used to call the lights of LA glowing in the smog "the golden ocean." That's where we lived for a while, and we were all thinking, It doesn't rain here, and it doesn't snow, and how dirty it is, and everybody's got all their makeup on. [Laughter] And instead Wyatt just said, "It's a golden ocean." So I see things through the kids' eyes whenever possible. It works. They are so smart.