Art of Survival: A Review of Carrie Brownstein's Memoir
Rarely do great songwriters make exceptional prose stylists. If Steve Earle has authored his share of outstanding story-songs (“Copperhead Road,” “Ben McCulloch”), the same cannot be said of his prose fiction (Doghouse Roses, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive). As a songsmith, Neil Young has been rightly revered, but his recent attempts at memoir (Waging Heavy Peace, Special Deluxe) seem less idiosyncratic than tossed off (not unlike some of his later albums). True renaissance men and women are rare, and mastery of one form doesn't always lend itself to artistic cross pollination.
Happily, Carrie Brownstein is as capable a scribe as she is a lyricist and guitarist. With Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Riverhead Books), the Sleater-Kinney co-founder has penned a memoir that is not only readable but surprisingly linear, eschewing the experimental nature of her band's most challenging work for a more plainspoken approach. From the outset, the narrative voice here rings true, something much closer to the way Brownstein speaks than the mannered vocal style that characterizes much of her singing in S-K. If her Joey Ramone-esque phrasing has served as an effective foil to Corin Tucker's mighty vibrato in song (“Combat Rock,” “Fangless”), she seems to have understood that memoir-writing requires something a little more natural, more epistolary, if not unstudied.
“I've always felt unclaimed,” she announces at the beginning of Chapter 1. “This is the story of the ways I created a territory...something that could steady me, somewhere that I belonged.” Against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, she lays bare what she will later refer to as the “map of her veins,” a complex portrait of a shy girl from an emotionally stunted family who found her coping mechanism in performance and fandom. “[Performing] was a heightened way of dealing with people,” she says. “I could act out feelings instead of dealing with them. Few interactions didn't involve me hamming it up in some way.” Her account of attending a Madonna concert—her first ever rock show—and the ensuing natural high is vivid and recognizable, even if you were never a Madonna fan: “It was a moment I'll never forget, a total elation that momentarily erased any outline of darkness. There was light everywhere I looked.”
Later, as a teenager in search of more of more of that light, Brownstein would turn to punk rock, which ultimately led her to Evergreen State College and the burgeoning Riot Grrrl scene of Olympia, Washington. After playing in various bands that included Excuse 17, Brownstein eventually paired up with Heavens to Betsy's Tucker to form Sleater-Kinney, the band that, in her own words, would “[save] her life over and over again.” Indeed, much of Hunger could be read as a survival guide for other alienated young people—punks, geeks, outsider artists, gay or straight—unable to find purchase on the slick face of mainstream society, kids whose lives, to borrow a phrase from D.H. Lawrence, just won't go down the proper gutters. “Sleater-Kinney was my rescue and salvation,” writes Brownstein. “It was the first time I felt I could be vulnerable in my creativity in which the emotional and psychic stakes were neither futile nor self-annihilating.” With S-K, she found a vehicle through which she could not only survive but succeed on her own terms. Small wonder then that so much of the book is devoted to her time in that band.
Readers who only know Brownstein through the Portlandia sketch comedy program may be disappointed to discover there's very little in the book about her TV work. But that's a boon for diehard S-K fans, for whom this memoir seems to have been written. While the book is in no way a salacious rock and roll expose and may not offer up all the drama that you crave, it does provide valuable insight into Sleater-Kinney and their music. Ever wondered who “the other girl” in “One More Hour” is, or how Sleater-Kinney not only survived but thrived despite the demise of Carrie and Corin's romantic relationship? Did you know which Sleater-Kinney album is Brownstein's least favorite, or what really led to Sleater-Kinney's decade-long “hiatus” and the making of their bracing comeback No Cities to Love? That's all here. If not every confession is profound or revelatory, at least it is honest. For that, we as fans can feel privileged.
For those put off by the caginess of Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One, Brownstein's candor will be a welcome relief. If Hunger isn't quite a tell-all tome, neither is it guarded or artful. Most refreshingly, it is altogether free of the sort of backbiting and self-mythologizing that have marred many another musician memoir. Brownstein is affectionate and generous toward her bandmates (she calls drummer Janet Weiss the best decision Sleater-Kinney ever made) and fellow musicians, including Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, with whom Sleater-Kinney once toured. And she wastes no time disabusing would-be rockers of the idea that a working musician's life is in any way glamorous. These reality checks, however, are less about discouraging those artists committed to the long haul and more about weeding out the dillettantes.
On being named “America's Best Rock Band” by Greil Marcus in Time magazine, Brownstein has this to say:
Here we were...unloading our equipment that had been shipped home from overseas, that we'd just picked up from the airport by ourselves: drums, amps, road cases. We did not even have the help of a friend or a crew member to carry everything out of our van and into Janet's basement, down rotted steps with very low headroom. You had to duck your head or you'd give yourself a concussion. “Best Band in America” and my back is about a to go out again because I'm carrying a sixty-pound amp into a practice space the size of a pantry in which Janet's aged marmalade cat had sprayed multiple times. It smelled like piss and dryer sheets. This was having “made it!” We never stopped working. Most bands don't.
Actually, this one did stop working, but not for good. Brownstein's memoir helps us understand why the break was necessary, and offers some assurance that Sleater-Kinney is back to stay, for at least as long as they can continue to churn out powerful music that challenges them, their audience, and the complacency of a culture that still barely knows they exist—or why, maybe now more than ever, their music matters.
“My story starts as a fan,” writes Brownstein. To be a fan, she understands, is to be “curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness.” Think of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl as an extended love letter to S-K's own fans, an acknowledgment that Carrie Brownstein gets you, has been you, and knows what it means to be baptized by the noisy and absolute light of rock and roll.