As with Genesis P-Orridge, I first met Sonja Ahlers at one of the Cocktail Fridays we held at Art Metropole. My girlfriend and I at the time both enjoyed her book Temper Temper which featured doodles, collages, snippets of text and drawings of bunnies. She started rifling thru the CDs I kept at work and got excited when she found the Throwing Muses. "I love Kristin Hersh, she said, and began to tell a story of a concert she attended a few years prior. "It was so good," she said, "that I cried and cried all the way through it". This sounded a little familiar but I couldn't place it. "Then afterwards I went up and told her it was the best show I'd ever seen". I then realized that I had heard this story before, but told from another point of view. It was an introduction to a song on a live bootleg cassette. Hersh found it odd that she could cause such loud sobbing, and then be thanked profusely.
Sonja's response might seem like an over-reaction, but it is not uncommon. Hersh's music can inspire simultaneous sadness and gratitude. Roula choked back tears all the way through her performance the other night, and then remarked that it would stay with her as a positive memory for years to come. We saw Hersh together in June of 2001, as our first 'date'. She hasn't been back in Toronto to perform since, and we were grateful to learn that our stay in Edinburgh coincided with a weeks worth of performances of her new show Paradoxical Undressing. Better still, her husband and manager Billy put us on the guest list when all we requested was a way to book tickets in advance.
Hersh still performs as a member of the Throwing Muses, with her more recent power-punk band 50 Foot Wave, and as a solo artist - sometimes accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, other times with guest musicians or string players. This evening, though, was a series of readings, punctuated with short snippets of songs from throughout her career (Fish, Hook in Her Head, Hysterical Bending, Your Dirty Answer, Cartoons). Hersh read from a forthcoming memoir, based on her diaries that were lost in a recent flood.
I remember a Kids in the Hall sketch where Bruce McCulloch is in a hospital bed after attempting suicide, indignant that his friends hadn't read his rather lengthy suicide note. Mark McKinney says "Look, I just skimmed it, looking for my name. I'm sorry." This is my general view of other people's diaries - that they're like other people's dreams - only of interest to me in the places where they intersect with my own life. Exceptions are few and far between and the phrase "a young girl's diary" is almost shorthand for self-indulgence. This is far from the case with Kristin Hersh, though. Beyond her ability to bring them to life on stage, Hersh's entries are profoundly compelling, extremely well written and with a self-awareness that belies her young age. Her storytelling is bravely candid, charming and frequently very funny.
The diary focuses on a single year from her late teens, but it was an eventful year - the Throwing Muses were signed to the influential British label 4AD, she was diagnosed as bipolar, and she became pregnant. She describes harrowing hallucinations, extreme poverty (living in squat made available when the owners died), and performing in clubs which she was too young to be in. Perhaps the most fascinating stories involve her relationship with the Hollywood actress and singer Betty Hutton, star of Annie Get Your Gun. The actress had fallen on hard times and returned to school where she befriended Hersh. Hutton would attend Throwing Muses concerts with her priest and then offer 'show-biz' advice to the band.
I've seen Hersh perform a dozen times, with and without the Throwing Muses, as far back as 1989. Even the weakest show (the Limbo tour, maybe) was still excellent, and this evening surpassed all of those performances. I can't recommend it strongly enough. A weeks worth of shows begin tonight. Ticket info here: www.theedgefestival.com and Ticket Master 0844 999 990
Also, Here's a five star review from the Guardian.
Lastly, a selected discography, with a quick rating system, coz I like to put numbers besides things.
Your Ghost EP 9.8
Hips and Makers 9.5
Strange Angels 8.5
The Holy Single** 7.5
Sky Motel 6.8
Murder Misery and Then Goodnight 7.6
Sunny Blue Border 9
The Grotto 6.9
Learn to Sing Like a Star 7.5
**Hersh's idea of a Christmas EP is to cover Big Star's Jesus Christ (haha).
House Tornado 8.5
The Real Ramona 9.2
Counting Backwards EP 9.5
The Curse (live) 7
Throwing Muses 6.5