In March of 2009, the Librarian and I went to a Kristin Hersh/Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. We were in counseling, just starting to talk about separating, and a night out in Brooklyn featuring anguished, ridiculously loud, slamming-hard art rock seemed like just what we needed. As if the universe knew this, it offered up a band called Screaming Females as the opening act.
We got there early and found a spot up on the balcony, away from the crowd and with a perfect view of the stage. Screaming Females is actually just one screaming female, a smallish girl with a powerful voice and an even more powerful guitar, helped out by a guy on drums and a guy on bass. She wore the same kind of form-fitting suit-dress my mother used to wear to work in the ’80s: London-callbox red with a double row of white buttons down the front, black stockings, shoulder pads out to the suburbs. That’s where the comparison to my mother starts and ends, and not just because this girl was wearing black Keds to complete her outfit.
She approached the mic with her head down, her black hair hiding her pale face, and made a few tentative sound-check-esque strums on her guitar. And then, without warning, the noise began. She played and sang with complete abandon, loud and fast and hard, giving herself over to the music. She performed on stage like a teenager alone in her bedroom with the mirrors turned away and the hairbrush turned up, able to let go because she knows no one is watching, secretly preparing for when everyone will be watching.
When it comes to music, I’m a lyrics girl; the tune can be catchy as all hell but if the lyrics are dumb, the song might as well be off-key. I couldn’t understand a word this girl screeched, but it didn’t matter, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I lost myself in wonder, in the wall of sound coming from her guitar. She thrashed jumped ran slid across the stage. She humped her guitar. She fit the entire microphone head in her mouth. I was embarrassed for her. I was jealous of her. I was fascinated by her.
Because I’m a lyrics girl, when I can’t understand the words to a song, my brain tends to supply its own. By the third or fourth song of the Screaming Females set, WB Yeats was starring in a little rock opera in my head. “Labor’s blossoming or dancing where! The body’s not! Bruised to pleasure SOOOUUUUULLLL!”, mind-bending guitar solo, “O! Body swayed to music! O somethingsomething glance! HOW can WE KNOW the DANCER from the DAAAAAAAAAAAAAANCE!!”, ear-bleeding guitar solo . . .
And while I was thinking of that fit of grief or rage, the Librarian had a completely different take. Yeats and Females were smashing to a climax when the Librarian put his mouth close to my ear and shouted, “She’s not as good a guitarist as she thinks she is! She’s good, but…”
I didn’t hear the “but.” The floor was sliding out from under me. I had to grip the rail of the balcony to stand up straight. My deepest, darkest fear had just been articulated by the one person I trusted to protect me from deep dark fears: When you give yourself over, fully, joyfully, really lose yourself in something, you leave yourself open to snark from the balcony.
I watched the rest of the Screaming Females set numb and detached. I could hear now where her guitar playing could be tighter, how her voice was losing power as the set wore on. During the last number, she sounded like a bad Eddie Vedder impersonator, and she either had an orgasm or a seizure before she collapsed completely onto the stage. I was only embarrassed for her now.
To avoid the between-show crush, I slipped to the bar before the song ended. Waiting for our beers, I stood elbow to elbow with scrawny Brooklyn know-it-all hipsters who talked like impresarios but had probably never held an instrument in their smug little lives. I watched the band finish the set on the TV above the bar and tried to ignore the guitar heroes around me. For the first time all night, the lead singer was standing still, and her feet rolled outward in the thin sneakers, so that her anklebones threatened to touch the stage. Her speaking voice was a surprise: high and trembly, betraying almost as much discomfort as her shy feet. She thanked the crowd, and then stammered through a good-bye: “We have these, um, records, out there somewhere. If you like us. We’re not 50 Foot Wave, though, they’re uh, they’re next. We’re Screaming, um, Screaming Females.”
I come from a big family, a big family with a lot of very strong women. We are not screaming females. We are opinionated and smart. We are sharp-tongued and quick-witted, and we are very, very funny. We use our wit and our humor to hide our own discomfort or hurt feelings; that very wit and humor is often the cause of discomfort and hurt feelings. We talk frankly and openly about each other, but we are rarely so direct with each other. We are critical, we are judgmental, and yes, sometimes, we are mean. But it’s for your own good, really, because we are right, we know what’s best for you, and you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself. And, come on. We’re only teasing. Can’t you take a joke?
Over the years, though, we’ve softened, matured. As women tend to do, we’ve added to our family. And so we’ve had the chance to see the power of our words register on the faces of our partners and our children. We recognized that quick flex of the mid-forehead, that fast blink, those telltale signs of pretending something doesn’t hurt. We learned to keep some of our harsher comments to ourselves and to be smarter about being overheard.
Because I went to a very competitive, all-girls, Catholic, high school, I was surrounded, both at home and at school, by women who were smarter than me, better than me, stronger than me. For all of my teenage years, I knew, as only a teenager can know, that always, somewhere, someone was talking about me behind my back. And because she was smarter better stronger, I could also be certain that she was right.
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to shake that feeling, trying to be indifferent to what other people might be saying. Adolescents are naturally solipsistic; it takes time to mature into the realization that you are not the center of the universe, that only you spend that much time thinking about you, talking about you, noticing or caring what you do. Thinking critically is not the same thing as being critical, but good luck convincing a shy, sensitive fifteen-year-old girl there’s a difference.
I had not quite finished that maturation process when I met the Librarian; we were both in our early twenties when we fell in love. Funny and smart, with a poet’s sensitivity, the Librarian was just as sharp-tongued and opinionated as me, only quieter. We bonded quickly over books—we could talk for days about just one book, finding every last flaw in even the books we adored. We were English majors, trained to be critical, trained to overanalyze. We could be scathingly cruel, witheringly funny, in our analysis; it’s very easy to forget that a real person lost sleep sweat blood tears to create the art we deconstructed And we applied the same type of analysis, the same harsh light, to everyone and everything outside of the little bubble of us. But it’s for your own good, really, because we are right . . .
At the same time, though, we discovered in each other, and developed with each other, a talent for using humor gently, to diffuse confrontation, to make a difficult truth easier to hear. We meshed, we complemented each other, perfectly, but I never lost the insecurity that he was holding back the mean, critical things that could be said about me, about my work. When he was critical of me, of my work, he chose his words carefully, but I heard only what he wasn’t saying.
I understand, now, too late, that this insecurity fostered and fueled the very thing that made us us. There was nothing he and I didn’t share. There was no part of my inner life I did not offer to him. I let myself go, fully, joyfully, into us. Maybe, probably, yes, definitely, my insecurity was irrational, but I spent my whole married life waiting to overhear him say something like, “She’s not as good a writer as she thinks she is.”
It didn’t help that as soon as Kristin Hersh started playing, I could see what the Librarian meant. The Screaming Females guitarist can only dream of playing like Kristin Hersh, because Kristin Hersh is a guitar god, disguised as a slight blonde woman in white t-shirt and jeans. I’ve never seen or heard anyone as good as Kristin Hersh play a guitar; her power is intoxicating and her control is flawless. Her lyrics and music are loud, angry, anxiety-driven, all raw nerve and sinew, but she stood still and straight as a lightning rod when she played. The veins in her neck popped when she sang, but her face was almost expressionless, even when she spit out lyrics like “it’ll take much more than water / to fix my hot pink, distorted face” or “gonna wash that man right out of my head / and soap him into my eyes” or “don’t touch me I don’t know where you’ve been.”
As I hoped she would, Hersh played “Pneuma,” one of my favorite 50 Foot Wave songs. “Did I just hear you try / To lemon scent the sky?” the first line asks, and the words just get trippier from there. It’s a tense, paranoid, jarring song, with hot hard technicolor sexual imagery. Energy coils and coils around the strange lyrics, building to a one-line refrain, “I know what’s in the air,” which she repeats with growing intensity. There’s a sudden lowering of volume as the guitar tempo increases, and she snarls, “You know what? You know what? You know what?” over and over and then pauses to take a deep breath, all the better to spring that coiled energy and scream, really scream, “Shut the fuck up!” It is the perfect song to blast when you want to give the world the middle finger, and I can still feel the electric pulse of her live performance of it.
But in spite of songs like “Pneuma,” or maybe because of them, between songs Kristin Hersh was funny and relaxed, cute and charming. When they transitioned from 50 Foot Wave to Throwing Muses, she called attention to the fact that the bands are essentially the same: as the new player got himself settled onstage, she joked, “Now we’ll march to the beat of a different drummer.” To start the encore, she said, “I’ve run out of songs, you guys, so I’m just gonna hum.” And she called us all “sweet as pie” when she said good night.
That Kristin Hersh was calm and collected on stage is not unexpected when you consider she’s been a professional, working musician since she was a teenager. She formed Throwing Muses in the early 1980s, when she was still in high school; she is 44 now. Throughout her career, whenever Hersh experienced a setback (and she’s had a few doozies), she simply reinvented herself or her band or her industry. I doubt it would even occur to Kristin Hersh that there might be snark from the balcony. I can guess what she’d say if she heard it, though.
Last Monday afternoon, All Things Considered aired a segment about Screaming Females, and I was brought right back to the balcony in Williamsburg. I learned that the tiny dark-haired guitarist is named Marissa Paternoster, and that she is just as shy as her turned ankles and stammering suggested. Listening to her play again, I realized that she is better than I remembered—even when I allow for the difference between a recorded track and a live performance.
She doesn’t like it, she said, when people are surprised that she’s a girl with a guitar: “I don’t want to be turned into some kind of, like, freak show, you know? I’d like to be considered as a good musician, even though I don’t consider myself a very good musician.” I flinched when she said it. Oh, honey, I thought, just ignore the smug hipsters!
But as I listened, I realized that Marissa, like Kristin, is more than capable of a You know what? / Shut the fuck up protective layer of skin. The segment contains a great story about her encounter with a Guitar World photographer: Marissa refused to pose as a “screaming female.” Where Kristin founded the innovative, open-source CASH Music project to “make the Internet easier for musicians,” Marissa and the Screaming Females are almost single-handedly keeping an underground music scene alive in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She and the band, like Kristin and her band(s), listen to the voices in their heads, not the voices in the balcony: “We don’t sound like what’s currently hip, and what people are trying to copy.”
The memories and emotions stirred by the NPR interview have left my thoughts in a bit of a Yeatsian jumble. A lifetime ago, the Librarian and I would have poured over our separate volumes of Yeats, teasing out threads together, turning the disconnected dots of social media and lyric poetry into a patterned whole, and there would be a much neater ending to this essay.
Instead, though, I’m going to turn up “Pneuma,” real loud. I’m going to take my battered, tattered copy of Yeats out by the pool, and I’m going to try to read and make sense of it on my own. But I will get distracted by the generations of notes in the margins, carefully penciled in by different versions of me, and I’m probably going to cry, remembering, longing. But then Yeats’s words will take hold of me, and I will lose myself, fully, joyfully, in poetry.