On Kristin Hersh's coffee table sits a beautiful handmade book illustrate and written especially for her by Joyce Raskin, a member of the rock band Scarce. Its pages have been smudged and tattered by the tiny hands of Hersh's two suns, Dylan and Ryder James. The book's title could be something like My Mommy Is a Rock & Roll Star. One page describing a rock concert reads: "People are having a good time. My mom is having the best time because she tells me. She says that playing music is better than skipping rope or eating ice cream. I know this is true because she has the biggest smile you ever saw." Hersh says that the first time she read the book, she wanted to cry. It was the first time someone told her that her lifestyle is normal. Later in the day, when the kids are with Hersh's mother, the husband is out shopping, and no one else is around, Hersh elaborates. "I have been made to look really bad just for being a mother in a band," she says, "so much so that they took Dylan away. People have no idea what these kinds of mothers are right now. In court [during a custody battle with Dylan's father], it was just easy to make me look bad - a history of mental illness, a rock band, traveling - but I'm not. You've seen me: I'm a really good mother, and we actually have a nuclear family. Yet they will not forgive me for that one lousy thing, which is that I can't give up my band."
That band is Throwing Muses, one of alternative rock's most influential but underappreciated groups. In the mid-'80s, the Muses were signed to the indie label 4AD before it became England's trendiest label and to Warner Bros before alternative rock meant big bucks.
Three years ago, Throwing Muses almost came to an end: Hersh broke up the group, and her band mate and stepsister, Tanya Donelly, formed her own rock outfit, Belly. Luckily, Hersh couldn't escape her muse. Throwing Muses' latest album, University (with original member David Narcizo on drums and former roady Bernard Georges on bass), is one of their best. And though they pretend to be indifferent to success, it is the Muses' turn to reap a few of the pop reards their peers have.
"I don't need money, and I certainly haven't dealt well with the little amount of fame I have," Hersh says in her soft, pinched and very distinct voice, "but we have never really had a record out since Nirvana changed everything. They were alternative music's Beatles: They opened the door to making alternative no longer a rude word to say. We had always been called alternative, but it meant that we were an alternative to real music."
Hersh is a petite, good-humoured 28-year-old with the face of a child, the experience of a middle-aged woman and the loud laugh of an old crone. Her hair is dyed raven black; her eyes - which roll around spastically when she's onstage - are placid and spellbinding, and she's wearing a brown leather jacket and a black midriff top. She has spent the last 15 minutes in the studio in her garage thumbing through the X and Violent Femmes records that she says saved her life as a teen-ager.
Hersh heads back to her house, where the rest of the band is waiting. They're used to waiting for her. After all, University was completed a year ago, but instead of releasing it right away, the band worked day jobs while Hersh toured and promoted her first solo record, 1994's Hips and Makers. In fact, the two just left their day jobs last month. Narcizo worked in an antiques shop where he polished picture frames, and Georges worked at a bike-repair shop where he wasn't trusted with anything that didn't come with training wheels or a banana seat.
Narcizo and Georges say that they didn't mind the time off. "Kristin's record was definately my favorite record of last year," Narcizo says back at the house. As Hersh slips a copy of Ry Cooder's soundtrack to Paris, Texas into the CD player, he adds in his soft, smart drawl, "I definately care more about what happens to Kristin than what happens to the band."
Hersh walks over to the couch to defend her name. She says that she was coaxed by her record label and friends into putting out the album. "But it is a good record," she says as her husband and manager, Billy O'Connell, walks in the door with the children and a bag of GapKids clothing. "It did good things for University, and it brought this house."
This house, which Hersh and O'Connell moved into last June, is a Spartan six-room, two-story affair in the tourist Mecca of Newport, R.I. Though Newport is where she grew up, Hersh isn't still living here by design. She moved back to the area in order to be close to her first son, Dylan. Though she has joint custody of the boy, because of a court decision three years ago she is not allowed to change his place of residence, which is Rhode Island, where his father lives.
Dylan and Ryder - the former 8 years old and serious, the latter 3 and playful, and both blond and angel faced - scamper off to the living room to toy with Georges' beeper. Hersh takes the opportunety to show off her third child, a documentary film that she and O'Connell made called Guess What's Coming to Dinner. It's about the breeders. That is, the ostrich and emu breeders, all of whom are hoping to sell their bird meat in grocery stores across the country as "the health meat of the '90s." It's a hilarious farce, filled with emu-feather coats, ostrich-eggshell sculptures and emu-toe necklaces.
Though the original plan was to cook lobster for dinner at Hersh's house, the thought of boiling a live animal suddenly doesn't seem so tasteful. So the band piles into the van and drives to a hip eatery where the roommate of Narcizo's girlfriend works as a cook. The owner of the Chinese restaurant two doors down, Hersh says, was recently found dead in his restaurant, wrapped from head to toe in duct tape. That might be why Narcizo has taken up karate. He's a yellow belt.
"I feel like I could really hurt someone now," Narcizo says, and then adds, "anyone," in a quiet voice filled more with surprise than violence. Narcizo is the unsung hero of the Muses. He has been their drummer for 12 years, becoming a sex symbol among Muses fans, a priah among his fellow drummers and an occasional source of amusement for the rest of the band because of his surreal nightmares - like the time he dreamed he was a giant piece of ziti.
"David sleeps like a dead person," Hersh says. "It's spooky: He doesn't move or make a sound."
"When I was younger, I trained myself to sleep like that," Narcizo says seriously. "I did it for two reasons. One was because I would cross my eyes, and my mother would say, 'If you cross your eyes, they're going to stay that way.' So I made myself learn to sleep on my back.
"The other reason was that I hated chores like making my bed," he continues, "so I trained myself to sleep so that I could slip out of my bed, and it would still be made."
"You have a powerfull will, Dave!" Georges laughs.
"I am so not experimental with my brain," Hersh says. "There's this curtain that just goes down as soon as something weird happens."
Kristin Hersh learned to shut off her mind the hard way. She was born in Atlanta and raised by freethinking hippie parents but swayed by Southern Baptists grandparents who quizzed her on Bible stories.
Hersh moved to Newport when she was 6; her father, a professor whom she describes as "a cross between Dr. Who and Jim from Taxi," began teaching courses on yoga, Zen Buddhism and American Indian mythology at Salve Regina College, in Newport. Her parents separated when she was 11.
At her dad's house, Hersh found music. "I thought songs were amazing as a kid," she says. "I used to bitch at my father when I was, like, 9 because he only knew a few chords. I didn't know what a chord was, really. I just knew you put your fingers here, and then you sang with it. I gave my father so much shit that he finally just handed me the guitar. So I started making stuff up and then started the search for the perfect chord, which has never ended. The way three notes vibrate off each other, I will never get over it."
At the home of her mother, a teacher of the learning disabled whom Hersh describes as "probably the smartest person I know," Hersh found her future band. It happened when her mom married the father of Tanya Donelly, Hersh's best friend at school.
"The band was totally my idea," says Hersh. "We were 14, and I was a pain in the ass about it. Tanya didn't even want to play anything for a year."
Narcizo, the son of a school guidance counselor, had known Hersh and Donelly since they were in first grade. But it wasn't until junior year in high school, after Narcizo invited the band to play at a party at his parents' huge Victorian house, that he was invited to join what was then known only as the Muses.
"When I started with the band, I had only ever played marching drums," Narcizo says. "I didn't really know how to play on a drum kit and used my hands mostly. Also, the guy I borrowed the kit from, somebody had borrowed his cymbals, so I just played without them and didn't think anything of it - though it's now become a statement or an idea to not have cymbals."
The early Muses songs, says Narcizo, were funny, poppy, slightly New Wave numbers played on guitar, bass, a Casio and junk percussions like hardware and hubcaps. From the outset the songs were written by Hersh, Donelly (who played a Casio set up on an ironing-board stand) and bassist Elaine Adamedes, but Adamedes soon fell by the wayside, and Hersh became the Muses' main songwriter.
Though Hersh had been writing songs for years, at the age of 14, she explains, a spring uncoiled in her head. She would hear sounds in her mind, write them down phonetically, and they would become songs. Soon there songs and her reality began to blur together. Songs began to write themselves and lead her life, she says. They became a separate entity, evil inner voices that she would try to repress but could not. And so the battle with madness began, a battle that she has won for now witha little help from the psychoactive drug lithium, which she recently decided to stop taking. Hersh is reluctant to discuss this part of her life, which has inspired some of her greatest work, but she doesn't look back on it with abhorrence. In fact, she seems to have learned a lot more than she lost during that time.
"I've seen one ghost and know him really well," Hersh says. "It's one person who's really dead and changed all of my thinking about what dead is: that it's right next door, and yet people or whatever change and gradually become different kinds of things. I got so attached to the ghost that I decided I couldn't go back on lithium because I was afraid he'd go away."
Hersh stops suddenly. She doesn't want to elaborate: She already has a bad enough reputation as a nut case, she says. This is probably due to some of her lyrics on the Muses' first recordings. On one of her early songs, "Delicate Cutters" - as chilling an account of a mind that has lost his balance as Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar or Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper - Hersh sings: "And the walls begin to scream.... I throw my hands through the window. Crash. Like poetry... a room of delicate cutters."
At the time, Hersh was majoring in archetypal psychology and philosophy at Salve Regina, going to art school at Rhode Islands School of Design and travelling to Boston every weekend to perform. It all got to be too much, and she dropped out of school during the fourth quarter of her senior year, in part because she was pregnant and kept fainting in class.
With a new bassist, a dreadlocked vegetarian named Leslie Langston, the Muses relocated to Boston. After one album and one EP on 4AD, they were signed to Sire records in 1987, where they've remained to this day. The quartet's experience with the record business could best be summed up by the word naive. "We didn't know what a producer was," says Narcizo, "and we were too afraid to tell the record company. So we just pretended, and behind their backs we'd be like 'What's he gonna do? Don't we just play the songs?' "
Life never got any less confusing for the Muses. Hersh's father and Donelly's mother divorced in 1988; Hersh had to have a tumor removed from her sinus cavity in 1988; she broke up with Dylan's father (whom she had never married) the following year; and she married O'Connell, who was the label manager at Sire, in 1990. In the meantime, Donelly recorded an album with the Breeders, and Langston left the Muses to live with her fiance in California. That's when the real problems began.
While working on the Muses' fifth album, The Real Ramona, in Los Angeles in 1991, Donelly, who usually wrote one or two songs per album, had come up with about seven. There was no way to include even half of them without changing the personality of the group. The fact that people who had heard early recordings of the album liked Donelly's song "Not Too Soon" better thatn Hersh's songs didn't help camaradery either, nor did Donelly's decision to start her own band. (Donelly would not be interviewed for this article, though Hersh says they're still friends.)
According to Hersh, it wasn't Donelly's independence that led to Hersh's decision to disband the Muses. It was a messy legal dispute with their first manager, Ken Goes, combined with income-tax problems. "I just hated the music business and hated being in the band," Hersh says.
After wrapping up The Real Ramona tour, a very pregnant Hersh tried to concentrate on just being a mother and wife. But the songs wouldn't die so easily. So, against her will and better judgement, she started writing and rehearsing with Narcizo. Eventually they released another Muses album, Red Heaven, in 1992.
Its follow-up, University, is a return to the melodic and rhythmic complexity of albums like 1988's House Tornado. Overall, the songs are among the Muses' brightest and most energetic. Hersh's voice has lost some of its nasal edge and dynamic quirks, but that just makes University more accessible. Though it includes the Muses' first song set in Newport, "Crabtown," the album still contains plenty of songs filled with Hersh's surreal, chopped-up images, but this time, most of them are about regaining control instead of losing it.
Hersh's stephmother once drew a picture on a napkin. It was of a small, circular, fairy-tale house. That, she told Hersh's father, ws where she wanted to live. Today, Hersh and her family are going to visit them there. "Hey, wait, I've got a new complaint," Ryder yells from the back seat of the van, singing Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box."
Hersh is in the front seat talking about her 10-year high-school reunion. Narcizo, who was president of their senior class, organised it. Hersh said she wouldn't go, Donelly said she would. Neither of them actually went. "David is Mr. Popular, and Tanya is Miss Liar," says Hersh, who has a remarkable gift for acting like a kid without acting immature. She's also an incredible story-teller and keeps the van entertained with tales of Ryder's and Dylan's exploits during the short journey to the 46-acre parcel of forest and swamp her father owns.
All that has been built on the land is a teeny circular house made from field stone. Outside the house sits a Buddha statue that has been disfigured by a shotgun blast. "That's what happens when you try to lead a philosopher's life among rednecks," Hersh says as she looks at it.
Hersh's father greets them at the door. He perfectly fits the stereotype of the mad-genius professor: tall with frizzy gray hair and a beat-up brown sportcoat. His wife, Paula, is slender and soft-spoken. Her oil paintings of men with oversized penises line the walls of the home-made sanctuary, blending not so subtly with the stained-glass windows that the couple salvaged from various churches and temples. The boys get to work on a train-shaped chocolate candy that Hersh's father gives them. Hersh, an ideal mom if there ever was one, asks her children with a mischievous smile, "Would you like some soda with your candy?"
After watching videos of Paula beating the shit out of a padded assailant in her self-defence class, the family walks to Marian Pond, a giant puddle 150 yards from the house. The boys and Paula attempt to navigate a small, unwieldly raft across the pond, and Hersh watches with much concern. Her face - button nose, small, sparkling eyes and guileless grin - is clearly that of a child. But beneath the surface lie 28 years packed with more pain and confusion, love and joy than most people experience in a lifetime.
"It's dangerous as hell," Hersh says as she looks at her kids, "being this in love all the time. The idea of danger has never been clear to me."
Dylan and Ryder arrive safely at the shore and sprint back to their grandparents' house. Hersh trails along behind them. If Kristin Hersh has an ego, it has blond hair and just disappeared around around a bend in the path.
"There's a gene we call the Why Me Gene," Hersh says. "Before I had kids, I never thought I had it. Whenever anything happened, i'd just shrug it off. But since my kids were born, whenever anything happens, I just think, "Whatever happens, don't let my kids' mother be taken away.' "