what i watched last week
music friday: carrie brownstein

carrie brownstein, hunger makes me a modern girl: a memoir

The day before Carrie Brownstein’s memoir arrived on my Kindle, I finally got a copy of Nick Tosches’ biography of Dean Martin. The book is endlessly praised, and I’d been meaning to read it since it came out 20+ years ago. I started right in, and realized instantly that it was as good as everyone said. That night, though, I wondered to my wife what I would do when Carrie’s book was finally released. Which book would I read? Would I go back and forth between the two?

The memoir hit my Kindle just before midnight. I looked at the pictures in the back and went to bed. When I woke up the next day, I started reading the memoir. There were a few things that sidetracked me ... I do have a life, no matter how much it seems I am drowning in idleness. A friend was visiting from SoCal, and we had dinner at a Louisiana-food restaurant. And the World Series was playing in the background when I was home.

I finished Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl about 9:00 PM that night. It took 21 hours from when I got it to when I was done reading it. Now I can get back to Dino.

Early in his book, Tosches describes Martin using an Italian colloquialism. From everything I’ve heard, and from everything I’ve read so far, this one sentence summarizes the life of Dean Martin: “Deep down, that, as much as anything, was what he was, a menefreghista – one who simply did not give a fuck.”

Carrie Brownstein gives a fuck. But, like Dean Martin and like most public figures, there’s the face she shows us, and what is actually going on inside. During her years in Sleater-Kinney 1.0, we got occasional hints that Carrie wasn’t just the perfect focus of our fantasies, most clearly on their last album prior to The Hiatus, with “Entertain”. Carrie always sang it with not a little venom, and the first lines show how confusing things were:

So you want to be entertained?

Please look away

Don’t look away

We’re not here cause we want to entertain

You can go away

Don’t go away

There was also “Jumpers” from that same album, which Carrie had written about people who committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. She wasn’t describing herself in that song ... on the other hand, she was admittedly depressed when she wrote it.

The thing is ... and we’re talking before Portlandia turned her into a semi-household name ... Carrie Brownstein’s stage persona was so liberating in its ferocity that I rarely if ever thought that persona might have grown out of someone who didn’t necessarily feel either liberated or ferocious when she was off stage. There is something about the indie ethic that assumes the musicians on the stage are “real”. This was never more clear than when the band would set up their own gear, or work their own merch tables. It’s not that I never fantasized about what Carrie and Corin and Janet were like off stage ... it’s that I assumed I knew what they were like, because of course they had to be the same off stage or on ... they were Real. (I could carry this to silly extremes. I once interviewed Corin and her other band, Cadallaca, and even though the three women all dressed up with big wigs and big makeup, and even though they adopted stage names ... Corin’s was “Kissy” ... my biggest memory of that interview was eating burgers backstage before the show. Corin Tucker eats burgers, just like real people, because she’s real, wigs or no wigs.)

What Carrie’s memoir tells us is that I had it wrong. She has always been articulate about the difference between being a performer and being a fan. Here, she delves deep into that difference. Much of the book is about her search for an identity. Her mom was anorexic, and in his 50s, her father came out to her. She writes:

We want our parents to be the norm from which we deviate. So when my dad came out, my instinct was that I needed to husband-up and get married. As if my family wasn’t freaky enough. Me: adrift. My sister: unmarried. My mom: ? And now my dad. Who would fly the flag of normality? ... I immediately felt like I should be popping out kids within a few years of my dad realizing he was gay. Let our parents be anorexic and gay! That shit is for teenagers. My sister and I would be the adults. We would be conventional, conservative even. Guns, God, country, and my contrarian, reactionary self. (This phase lasted about ten minutes.)

The book is broken into three parts, Youth, Sleater-Kinney, and Aftermath. The middle section is the longest by far, but the first part is fascinating, and it is there that she shows what a fine writer she is. I wanted to quote passages every other page. At one point, she answers a classified ad from a band looking for a guitar player. The band turned out to be 7 Year Bitch. She went for an audition, but it didn’t work out. She responded with a letter to band member Elizabeth Davis, promoting her guitar skills, but then going on to tell her life story:

I wanted so badly to be taken to some special place, to be asked into a secret club that would transform my life. I felt like music was that club. And to see inside for a moment and then be asked to leave was devastating.

As time went on, they would cross paths on occasion:

Later, when I knew what it felt like to carry the weight of your fans’ aspirations, I would remember the way Elizabeth looked at me after I’d sent the letter: a look of pity, distrust, and weariness. There is a gulf of misunderstanding between musicians and their fans, and often so much desperation that the musician can't possibly assuage, rectify, or heal. You feel helpless and you feel guilty. With Sleater-Kinney fans I tried to be generous, but I soon grew uneasy. For a long while I could share nothing more than the music itself. I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.

The first section also covers the “pre-SK” years. I was interested to find that Carrie first hooked up with Corin because she loved Corin’s band, Heavens to Betsy. I guess I thought of the two of them just popping up together one day, but of course, they didn’t come from nowhere. As you might imagine, Corin floored Carrie:

It was a combination of Corin Tucker’s voice and the lyrics. The beautiful parts were edged in disgrace and disgust; it bordered right on ugly the whole time. The singing was louder than it needed to be – did she even need a mic? ... The voice asked to be listened to but it did not beg or plead, it dared and challenged, it confronted but needed no reply from the listener. Any sadness was also defiant: it was not the wail of mourning but of murder. And there was so much I wanted to destroy.

The Sleater-Kinney part reminded me of a long-forgotten book by Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople, Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star. You learn what it’s like on the road, what it’s like to make records, what it’s like to be in a band. Much of it brought back good memories, but what seemed romantic for us (the lack of a road crew, the fact that they traveled in a van) was just drudgery to them. On tour, they lived for the time on stage. In the studio, they took pride in the ways they changed and the ways they never delivered a bad album.

I feel like I don’t want to spoil the whole book, so I’ll just say that it got really bad for Carrie by the time of The Woods tour. I remember sometime after the hiatus began, hearing bits and pieces about Carrie in the hospital while on the road, but here, you get the details. Throughout the book, she is extremely honest, which means she doesn’t always come across as the nicest person in the room. But she does come across as ... what’s the word ... real.

In an epilogue, she talks briefly about the return of Sleater-Kinney, and how their first rehearsal felt:

What I didn’t remember was how it feels to stand in a room while Corin Tucker sings. How her voice is the answer to so many of my questions, a validation, as if she knows the map of my veins. And I had forgotten the beastly avalanche that is Janet Weiss behind the kit, when our guitars are propelled by the cascading force of her. We ran through “Jumpers,” and this time it was not about death, it was about being alive.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl does a superb job of letting us inside Carrie Brownstein, via great writing and a smart sense of what makes a memoir work. In passages like the one above, Brownstein also perfectly describes why Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss are such special artists. If this book lacks anything, it’s just an outsider’s look at Carrie herself. That defeats the purpose of a memoir, to some extent. But those of us who read this book, who have followed Sleater-Kinney for all of these years, know that Carrie Brownstein is a special artist. She can’t come right out and say that ... it’s up to us to say it for her.