2(a). The Pixies

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Four Muses + four Pixies take Europe, Melody Maker, 7 May 1988

Throwing Muses and the Pixies: both New England quartets, both American 4AD acts. They shared a manager, opened for each other. But where the world needs reminding of the Muses, the Pixies are fixed in the firmament.

Idling through YouTube, I was struck by how many videos there are of teenagers doing Pixies covers. Of the late Eighties/early Nineties US “alternative” bands, barring Nirvana, the Pixies could go the furthest distance. Their appeal to kids isn’t a mystery: their songs are (seemingly) easy to play, fun to sing, geeky, filthy. They may well be heard more today, if you compare their streams to ca. 1989 US radio and MTV.

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They had no childhood or regional ties. Their booking agent Jeff Craft described them in the Fool the World Pixies oral history as “four completely and totally different people. They appeared to have nothing in common at all offstage.” In 1983, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Charles Thompson, a South California ex-Pentecostal and UFO believer, met Joey Santiago, whose family had fled the Philippines after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Thompson was an anthropology major; Santiago studied economics. They dropped out, moved to Boston, worked in warehouses, formed a band.

They found Kim Deal, an Ohio transplant working in a Brookline doctor’s office, via an ad in the Boston Phoenix (“no chops”) and David Lovering via Deal’s then-husband, John Murphy, who’d worked with him at a Radio Shack in Burlington. Deal, a guitarist, was the bassist by default while Lovering “was always a drummer,” Murphy later said.

Rehearsing in Lovering’s parents’ garage in Burlington and in a grotty room near Fenway, the band became, in under a year, the Pixies as we know them (see this T.T. the Bear’s performance from October 1986, about a month after their first gig, & a January 1987 WERS broadcast). It was as if they’d crystallized upon forming. They’d hone a piece until it was sharp, and that was it. Live performances differed little from recordings, apart from songs sometimes going louder or faster. No jams, no improvs, no fuss. They’d do setlists in alphabetical order, slot them by length or tempo. Deal was their charismatic because she talked between songs.

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Some of their influences were open—the “1-2-3-4! here’s a chorus, and another, and another” pace of the Ramones; Iggy Pop’s Tarzan yells (cf. the end of “Funtime” with “Tame”); the Cars’ “muted and clicky” rhythm guitar lines and, especially on early tracks like “The Holiday Song,” Gordon Gano’s phrasings in the Violent Femmes. Santiago and Thompson grew up listening to Sixties pop (Deal was more of a Seventies rocker; Lovering mostly liked Rush) and shared a taste for surf music, first heard in Santiago’s lead lines, later becoming a strong color in the band’s sound in Bossanova.

“If you can get it down to one chord, a beat and no melody…that’s the best song,” Thompson told Sounds in 1989. “If you can keep stripping stuff away and still have it be fascinating…like rock music that anyone can play. EAEA [thumping a table] go like this, even the drums.”

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That wasn’t how his band worked, though. The Pixies were askew formalists, with Thompson comparing his songwriting to doing crossword puzzles or math equations. “I want rules, I want standards,” he said in 1990. But only to break them, such as by throwing “wrong” chords into a sequence. “There’s a lot of half-steps, a lot of chords that don’t theoretically go with the key, but it seems to work,” Santiago said in 2008.

More often, it meant monkeying with structure. Shifting time signatures, for instance: see the long outro of “No. 13 Baby,” which moves to 2/4 every fourth bar (same as in the verse of “River Euphrates”); the shift to 6/4 in the first three bars of the refrains of “Wave of Mutilation”; the 6/8 “CB break” in “Trompe le Monde.”

They’d screw a five-chord progression into a four-beat measure or stretch a three-chord progression over four bars: see “I’ve Been Tired,” where “a four-chord sequence would sound natural, we’ll turn it into a three-chord sequence, make it trip over itself…it’s kind of religious sounding,” Thompson said. There’s “Velouria,” whose verse chord progression is at odds with its vocal line (five bars for chords, four for vocals—they soon go out of sync; also the case in “Gouge Away”); the seven-bar 3/4 verses of “Silver”; “Tame” and “Hey,” with their three-bar refrains whose repeats sound as if they’re showing up too soon. “We knock off two beats here on some lines and not necessarily go four, so we have all these twists and turns,” Santiago said.

It’s where Lovering was most valuable—he’s always right on the beat, whatever the song gets up to, and slips in fills when things need a boost, as if he’s working a bellows (he used mallets on floor tom and snare for a fatter sound on the likes of “Wave of Mutilation”). His only reported struggle was on “Havalina,” where Thompson wanted him to do fills in 4/4 while everyone else was in 6/4 (“we ended up playing a bunch of chords in 4, had David do the fills, and then we recorded our real parts in 6,” Thompson told Melody Maker in 1991).

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The poster that roiled Boston, 1987: the band wrote the setlist for the “Purple Tape” session on the back of one

Thompson—a modest-looking man who’d won a “teenager of the year” award from the Kiwanis Club of Westport, Massachusetts—had a burrowing, scrabbling verse voice, sometimes vaulting up and down an octave (from “air” to “ground” in “Where Is My Mind”). He sang refrains as if someone gored him in the navel with a corkscrew. “This mass of screaming flesh,” as his fan David Bowie once described him.

The producer Gary Smith recalled that, when introducing a new song, Thompson “would get excited and stand inches away from my face with an acoustic guitar and say ‘and now it’s going to go BLAH-HA’ and he would do this chorus to the point where you could see his uvula.” He decided to call himself Black Francis when the band was designing their demo’s cassette cover; he took his stage name from a never-born sibling (his father had told him it was what he’d have called another son).

I was trying on clothes in an Old Navy and in the hallway between fitting rooms a boy walked back and forth, repeating door numbers. Five. Six. Seven…FIVE. SIX. SEVEN! [whine] Fiiiiive! [shriek] SIX!!! [bigger shriek] SEH-VEN!!!! That’s the heart of Thompson’s phrasings—this scraping against boredom, this rosy delight in being an irritant. “The pure satisfaction of screaming,” as he told Simon Reynolds in 1988. He’s picking at scabs: Elevator lady elevator lady elevator lady elevator lady ladylevitateme. Riririri riririri ri-ri-riri riri-riri. Choruses are when they bleed: Uh huh huh uh huh huh uh huh huh uh huh huh: TAHYYYYYYYYYYYME. If the devil is SIX, then GOD IS SEH-VEN! IF GODDD IS SEH-VEN

It culminates in “Debaser” which, as Santiago told Ben Sisario in the latter’s book on Doolittle, is “the whole formula of the Pixies, that one song…All the sound qualities are there.” A box is built: two bars of bass, two bars + lead guitar, four + drums, four + rhythm guitar and percussion. In it, Thompson’s flipping through television channels, flicking from Un Chien Andalou (“slicin’ up eyeballs! Hah-hah-hah-ho!”) to Purple Rain (“shed, Apollonia!” was a mooted opening line for the refrain). He wants to grow up, not to be some respectable member of society, but a canker sore in it, a worm, a rotter, a befouler. He longs for his diseased future. “De-base-er!” he screams in a cracked joy, while Deal quietly repeats the word after him, as if soothing a disturbed child.

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Mainstream guitar had a lot of typewriting skills. They were typing as fast as they can, and I couldn’t hear it. The only thing that was impressive about it for me was the speed – how can they play so fast? But in the back of my mind I was like, ‘I don’t care’. It just wasn’t my thing. I’m more like a classic rock guy. You gotta hear some riffs or something you’re going to remember, and that requires less notes.

Joey Santiago, 2018

Santiago, self-professed non-ace guitarist (“there are enough real guitarists already”), is the hero of the Pixies. He was a scrapper, checking out records from the library and fastening on chords that sounded good: “it’s all derived from guitar moments that perk my ears up.” Hearing the VU’s “White Light/White Heat” he felt, for the first time, “this is doable. I can get my hands around this.” He grabbed “octave thingies” from Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix records; the latter also gave him the dominant 7#9 chord (used on “Here Comes Your Man” and “Tame,” among many Pixies tracks).

It’s lead guitar with the boring bits cut out: all jump-cut riffs, the quick-change of a few chords, speedshots along the high E string, torturing a few notes for a fill, making songs uneasy by, as on “River Euphrates,” picking between root notes and leading tones.

The bass in Pixies is just glue; that’s all it is. It’s not supposed to be something else.

Kim Deal, 2004

Where did Deal fit in? Her bass style (initially she played an odd-sounding Aria Pro II Cardinal Series borrowed from her twin sister; she had a 1962 Fender Precision on Doolittle, a Music Man StingRay on Bossanova, and even a Steinberger on Trompe le Monde) was to play steady eighth notes. “I am good at that, aren’t I? It’s not easy to do. A lot of players lag behind. It’s so irritating. And they’re playing with their fingers, so they never really get a good attack at the top, and one hit is louder than the other,” she told Bass Player in 2004. She’s the deep current that propels songs (and holds it together in the middle of the Surfer RosaVamos“), locking in on Lovering’s kick drum wherever he might be.

Because she’d only taken up bass for the Pixies gig, she didn’t have reverence for it. “I can step back and look at the instrument.” She saw no point in trying to be a virtuoso, but was happy to play a “static, groovy thing…We’re not a dance band. It would be awful to try to play some sort of interesting, intricate rhythm over a 4/4 drumbeat with the hi-hat constantly on the eighth-note.”

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Pixies as normcore pioneers, ca. 1989

Everything we did was with the Pixies and they had three boys and one girl, and we had three girls and one boy, so we just kind of made one gender!

Kristin Hersh, 1994

Throwing Muses were their benefactors. After seeing the Pixies at the Rat (“when they walked onstage I thought they were all lesbians”), Hersh told her band’s manager Ken Goes that he should take on the Pixies; Gary Smith, who’d cut the Muses’ “Doghouse” demo, cut the Pixies’ “Purple Tape” demo in the same Roxbury studio, Fort Apache; said demo led the Muses’ label head, 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell, to sign the Pixies.

“The Muses had cut the trail….It was far easier for [the Pixies] to get to the same point in their careers than it had been for Kristin and Tanya and company,” said the late Joe Harvard, who co-founded Fort Apache. “There was no question…that they would have gotten there eventually, but [Smith’s] efforts on their behalf probably saved the Pixies a year or more in an industry where timing is everything.”

Watts-Russell also had learned from working with the Muses (“they were kind of the trial run for the Pixies in a lot of ways”). Rather than having the Pixies remake their demo, he picked what he thought were the tape’s eight strongest tracks and issued them in September 1987 as a 12″ EP, Come On Pilgrim (a reference to Christian rock musician Larry Norman’s “Watch What You’re Doing” and, given Thompson’s lyrics, an unavoidable double entendre).

It was the Pixies in twenty minutes: incest, screaming, disease, Spanish phrases, sexual frustration, loathing, guitar runs, whores, death, Deal harmonies. “When you don’t use physical imagery, you just end up talking about, you know, emotions and everything,” Thompson said in 1988. “But ‘Broken Face’…people understand what a broken face is.”

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Meet the Pixies: their first Melody Maker cover, 19 March 1988

Within six months came Surfer Rosa, their debut LP, recorded in the South End of Boston by Steve Albini (4AD went with him because their warehouse manager was a Big Black fan). “He’s like this brainiac, about six foot tall but only 80 pounds, always reading, always figuring out manuals to see how things work,” Thompson said. The band had been using tiny amps (“that was how they got their reputation: underutilized equipment,” Murphy said) until Albini pushed for them to get Marshalls for the record, on which he made them gargantuan: guitars shearing through the mix, Lovering’s kick drum sounding like a giant knocking at a basement door.

Albini, in a 1991 Forced Exposure interview, bashed the Pixies as being sellouts “anxious to be led around by their nose rings” (he later apologized, and Deal would work with him several more times). The tension of Surfer Rosa is that of a producer who seems as interested in recording the sound of the room as he is the band playing in it, whose performances he graded either “pussy” or “non-pussy.” The album was a documentary short of a rapidly-developing band, shot in black and white, with hard cuts. Snippets of studio dialogue (Deal: “all...Iknow is that there were rumors he was into field hockey players…it was so hush-hush“; Thompson: “I said you fucking die!”) were as memorable as its lesser tracks. “Because they had developed as bedroom players, they had distinct styles,” Albini told Spin in 2004. “People who taught themselves to play had an advantage because they wouldn’t be mimicking.”

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Pixies around the time of Surfer Rosa‘s release, spring 1988 (Millicent Harvey)

Triumphs were “Cactus,” blueprint of the “whispered verse/ exploding refrain” style the Pixies bestowed upon the Nineties; a remade “Vamos,” on which Santiago and Albini literally pieced together a solo (Santiago played fragments, which Albini distorted or played backwards, then edited together on quarter-inch tape); Albini turning “Something Against You” into a noise-pop blast worthy of Husker Du; the cheery filth of “Bone Machine” (as per Thompson, “the hips of a woman…it’s an obscene song”), and the grand “illicit lust” piece “Gigantic,” recorded mostly in an industrial bathroom. Deal, given a title by Thompson, first thought of writing about a gigantic mall until she recalled the Sissy Spacek film Crimes of the Heart, where a married woman sleeps with a teenager. She’s only narrating the song, but sounds so delighted for the lovers in it, cheering them on, singing with this wild, goofy elation.

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Phil Nicholls’ contact sheet for a Melody Maker feature, May 1988 (via KH Archives)

There’s the legend that the upstart Pixies, opening for Throwing Muses in a spring 1988 UK/European tour, blew the latter off the stage, soon demoting the Muses to their opening act. Watts-Russell said this wasn’t quite the case: that in the UK, the Muses held their own, and that the swap in headliners was owed to dismal European promotion of the Muses by their label there, Warner.

But the Pixies were connecting with audiences harder, with moshing crowds singing along to “Where Is My Mind” and “Gigantic.” Thompson said it felt like being in the Pogues; Deal said she found it weird when crowds cheered them as they walked on stage (“why are they applauding? We haven’t even played yet.”) Where Kristin Hersh filled her songs with dense lyrics to honor the Muses’ “make each bar complicated” credo, Thompson kept his words simple—the fewer you sang, the better. It let Pixies songs translate easily. Even if you had no idea what he was singing about, you could soon latch onto something—break my body, hold my bones!—and hurl it back at him.

“I honestly didn’t have a problem with the Pixies headlining but it was awkward at times, not between bands but within our band,” the Muses’ David Narcizo told Martin Aston. “The Muses was Kristin’s baby and she struggled with it.” For her part, Hersh told Aston that “to follow Pixies, it’s hard for audiences to get down and listen to subtleties when they want to crash some more. But it was such a great high to see a band that you love play before you play yourself.”

The bands ended their tour in May 1988 at different stations: the Muses would continue to struggle in the US; the Pixies were ready to jump to another tier. “After that tour, it was over, it was really over,” Hersh said in Fool the World. “They were always rock stars, they were rock stars from day one, and they expected people to like them, they expected to be valuable. We just felt like we were on our own planet.”

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When they cut Doolittle at the end of 1988, again mostly in Boston, Thompson was at a boil—he’d written a batch of new songs, often so brutally short that the producer Gil Norton begged for some solos and second verses just to hit the two-minute mark. The lyrics were more elaborately surreal. “Dead” is the story of David and Bathsheba as told by a lunatic; “There Goes My Gun” is a murder in a sentence (Yoo hoo! Looka me! Frienda foe? BANG); “No. 13 Baby” is a memory of falling in love with a Samoan-American girl next door in Los Angeles (“six foot girl gonna/ sweat when she dig/ Stand close to the fire/ when they light the pig”).

Of course, this was mostly discernible via Thompson’s interviews—I’d long thought the last verse of “Dead,” which concerns the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah (“Uriah hit the crapper”), was Thompson singing “you are a hippo-crapper.”

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As Pixies songs were formalist games, so were Thompson’s lyrics—structural restrictions meant as much as his words: “I Bleed,” with its AABCBDD rhyme scheme; “Ana” whose acrostic lines spell “surfer”; “Hang Wire,” whose first verses are haiku; the B-side “The Thing,” written as a sonnet.

In Doolittle, the body horror and self-revulsion of the first Pixies songs—-incestual lusts, masochistic urges, Thompson’s hunger to peel off his skin—broadens into a decaying world, aided by Norton’s overdub-heavy production. A businessman drives into the ocean, which is so polluted with sludge that it’s killed Neptune and his daughter. Even “Here Comes Your Man,” the would-be pop hit (“the Tom Petty song,” as they called it, though it’s more a sharp R.E.M. parody, from boxcars to Peter Buck guitar lines to Michael Stipe ah-hooos), ends with an earthquake.

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The Pixies’ fun fourth, 1988

By the mixing of Doolittle, a foundation crack was visible: Thompson and Deal were growing estranged.

It started when 4AD chose “Gigantic” as the single off Surfer Rosa. The only song that Deal co-wrote and sang lead on became the Pixies’ most popular track. When Thompson met his idol Iggy Pop, Pop raved about the song Thompson didn’t sing. Deal’s stage presence was also, apparently, bugging him—he once griped that fans would cheer when Deal smoked a cigarette. She was the band’s open face, having a whale of a time, cracking up, grinning, yelling “hi!” between songs (Hersh recalled Deal constantly saying “we’re the Pixies!” at their first Rat gig), yet still enigmatic. To little surprise, she was the main visual interest in a band that looked rooted to the stage.

The core problem was that Thompson and Deal were temperamentally bandleaders, and it was Thompson’s band. For Deal, something she’d joined as a lark had become an all-consuming job, with no outlet for her songwriting. Soon after she started a side project [see Quartet 2(b)], she was nearly fired from the Pixies, who’d relocated to Los Angeles in early 1990 without telling her. A meeting in LA brokered by a lawyer managed to keep the band together, but whatever camaraderie had existed was dead. (Thompson reportedly wanted to fire her again just before recording Trompe le Monde.)

So she got pushed into the background, having no more lead vocals on albums after “Silver.” The sibling-like interplay of her and Thompson’s harmonies grew formal on Bossanova and she’s all but a ghost on Trompe le Monde, where Thompson sang most of what would have been her parts and scotched Norton’s bid to have her sing “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons,” which Norton thought better suited her voice.

To Option in January 1991, Thompson described a band who seemed on the verge of being renamed Black Francis and (Some Of) the Pixies:

It kind of pisses me off when people ask me, ‘why aren’t there more Kim songs on the record?’ It’s like, I write the songs—it’s always been that way, and why shouldn’t it be?…Why should that change?…People have this notion that a band has to be this democratic unit, like’s it’s some kind of rule or something…This band was never a democracy…Joey and I were friends, and then the other two joined up. And if anybody has a problem with that, they can leave, y’know? I’m the president, Joey’s the vice-president. That’s the way it is.

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Bob Stanley parses Bossanova for Melody Maker, 11 August 1990

The records were taking longer to make and costing far more, with the band using multiple studios on different continents (as per Sisario, Doolittle‘s production cost was roughly $40,000 while Bossanova‘s was $200,000 and Trompe le Monde‘s was over $250,000.) Doolittle was the last album the Pixies thoroughly demoed before recording. Thompson drew from a pile of old compositions (“Subbacultcha,” “Dig For Fire,” “U-Mass,” “Down to the Well,” among others) and wrote some new pieces in the brief rehearsals for Bossanova.

Bossanova, cut in Los Angeles in spring 1990 (the Muses were making The Real Ramona there at the time; the bands lived in the same apartment complex), was a retrenchment. Thompson felt pressured to top “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” whose spirit instead diffused into their quietest, prettiest record—sequence the songs seemingly named after women (though “Allison” is about Mose and “Havalina” a wild pig), and you have their most charming miniature. The album also had “The Happening,” their first true dud, a song in which weirdness curdles into banality.

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Pixies gone Hollywood (Kevin Westenberg for Melody Maker, 11 August 1990)

By the time he cut Trompe le Monde a year later, Thompson had gone from writing during rehearsals to full-on studio improvisations. Norton would record drum tracks for songs that didn’t have melodies, the band tracked their parts at different times, and Thompson brought in Eric Drew Feldman for keyboards and synths. He’d whisk together lyrics at the mike. It could be inspired; it’s also why he’s riffing on the tabla player’s name (Jefrey, with one F) in “Space.”

It would be a double-LP to rival Zen Arcade, or an “eight-track punk album,” Thompson said during its making; Trompe le Monde wound up as another 14-track Pixies album that sagged on its second side. It’s their most guitar-crazy record, with Santiago having a go at heavy metal, doing hammer-ons, pull-offs and fretboard taps (“Trompe le Monde is hilarious,” he said in 2004. “There’s so much shredding on it!”). It didn’t sound like a last record as much as a transition piece, one which led nowhere (though it previewed Thompson’s solo years).

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An “our car broke down in the desert” press photo as a sign of band spirits, 1991

Opening for U2 in their spring 1992 tour was supposed to break the Pixies at last (Elektra head Bob Krasnow, looking for a Nirvana on his label, put chips on them). And it did, just not commercially. Taking an arena-level opening gig was often dispiriting for Eighties “indie” bands—see the Replacements opening for Tom Petty in 1989. Nothing brought home your relative insignificance like playing your 120 Minutes hit to a two-thirds-empty stadium in daylight.

Even Saint Patrick’s Day at the Boston Garden—the hometown Pixies, opening for U2 on Boston’s carnival night—was the same empty rows of seats and tepid applause, Lovering said. A snarky U2 cover article in Spin by Deal’s then-boyfriend Jim Greer (cover tag: “The Story They Didn’t Want You to Read”), which recounted such gripes as the Pixies being called “Support Act” in tour materials, didn’t help.

At the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, on 25 April 1992, the band closed with “Vamos” and “U-Mass.” Thompson said he wanted a sabbatical, changed his stage name to Frank Black, spent the rest of the year making a solo album, and in January 1993, on a BBC radio show, claimed he’d killed the Pixies via fax. After this interview, Deal called Santiago to ask if he’d heard the Pixies had broken up.

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Reunited: well, for a while. Washington DC, 1 December 2009 (Angie Garrett)

They got back together in 2004. Some of it was for the money, some of it was getting over, or papering over, old quarrels, some of it was validation. Doolittle had sold over a thousand copies a week, on average, in the late Nineties (it was certified platinum last year, while Surfer Rosa went gold in 2005). A generation who had been in embryo or kindergarten during the Pixies years had discovered the band second-hand, whether via older siblings’ CDs or hearing “Where Is My Mind” in Fight Club. “For some reason, over the decade we got popular,” Deal said in a Spin profile pegged to the reunion.

They played Coachella and were treated like the Rolling Stones, though a documentary of the 2004 tour showed a band who still acted like strangers off-stage (the New York Times: “Boring people who made extraordinary music, the Pixies are inexplicable.”) For years they sporadically considered making an album, while the only new music they issued in the 2000s was Deal’s fun “Bam Thwok,” rejected by the Shrek 2 soundtrack.

They finally decided to cut some new songs. Recording in Wales one day in spring 2013, the Pixies broke for dinner. Deal paid, and the next day she quit and flew home. “All we could do was ask her and plead with her, “Please, come on, Kim.” Like that. That was a decision she made and she left,” Lovering told Billboard in 2016. “Whether she didn’t like the music, or felt she didn’t want to go on—there’s nothing we can do about it and we just wish her well.” (Thompson described “All I Think About Now,” a song on their 2016 album Head Carrier that recycles the “Where Is My Mind” riff, as a “sort-of thank you letter to Kim.”)

It was ironic: after everything, Deal would fire herself from the band. She had her own to reunite, and apparently was skeptical about the worth of doing a new Pixies album. One new song, “Indie Cindy,” was a plea to a younger audience, its sentiment that of Iggy Pop in Lust for Life: fall in love with me (again).

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New four (Q, November 2016).

Instead, the three Pixies EPs issued in 2013 and 2014 got some of the last great Pitchfork pans to date (the first EP was rated 1.0!). It was a band sounding vaguely like themselves, as if working based on others’ recollections—a Pixies with less vocal range, less dynamics, moving slower, having fewer hooks; like a harbinger of FaceApp. Things brightened when Paz Lenchantin joined, first as a touring bassist and then full-time member (she replaced Kim Shattuck, sacked after three months (“Personality-wise, [Shattuck’s] very west coast, she’s very extrovert. We’re very east coast, very introvert,” Thompson told the Guardian in 2014. Lenchantin, an Argentine-born west coaster, appears to have worked out, though).

The Pixies have been back for fifteen years now, far longer than they were originally together. I saw them not long ago, at Smith College. The crowd was about two-thirds middle-aged, the rest teenagers and college kids. The band was solid, were shrouded in dry ice much of the time, mostly did the old stuff. The likes of “Where Is My Mind,” “Bone Machine,” “Wave of Mutilation,” ringing one after the other through a college auditorium, felt as storied as a “Fortunate Son” or “Jack and Diane.” It was as if they’d become classic rock standards by sublimation.

They didn’t engage the crowd until the close of the encore, when they said thanks and took a bow. In a way, they have become their own tribute band, and there are worse fates.

2. Throwing Muses

DISCOGRAPHY                              SOURCES                       PLAY (1) LIST (2)

Johnny Angel Wendell played in Boston rock bands (City Thrills, The Blackjacks) in the Eighties. Speaking to the writer Brett Milano decades later, he recalled another local group.

As soon as I saw Throwing Muses at the Rat, I thought, that’s it, it’s all over for me. I don’t know how to do this, it’s everything I can’t adjust to. The drummer doesn’t play a beat, he just accents everything the singer does. The chords are weird. The melodies don’t make any sense, and yet they’re really good. If this is what’s coming next, then I’m finished.

A night at the Living Room, on Promenade Street in Providence, Rhode Island, in spring 1985. The headlining band sets up. Their gear includes a pair of mannequin legs in a gold lamé miniskirt, a decrepit Moog, a television tuned to a grey channel, and an ironing board that serves as a shelf for a Casio keyboard and hubcaps.

They are three women and one man (the drummer). When they start playing, drunks at the bar hoot “whoo! girls! The Go-Gos!!” and rush the stage to leer at them. Three songs into the set, the drunks have backed off, leaving an empty half-circle before the stage. Most of the crowd are regulars: punks, art students at RISD, junkies who sleep in a park in Wayland Square. In one corner of the club is the Hollywood eminence Betty Hutton and her priest.

The lead singer/guitarist stares into the middle distance, unblinking, craning her neck and twitching a foot. At stress points in songs she channels an eldtrich power from the pits of her lungs. My PILLOW SCREAMS TOO but SO DOES MY KITCHEN and water and my shoesI have a gun in my head…I’m invisible…I can’t! FIND! THE! ICE! The other guitarist sings harmony: how do they kill children? Songs fray, splinter, hang together far longer than seems possible. Some seem to be only bridges and long outros. Chords are open strings and warring notes truced by a pressed finger. The drummer, on a kit without cymbals, snaps sixteenth-note marching band patterns across his snare. The bassist plays melodies the singer won’t sing, riffs the guitarists don’t play, beats the drummer doesn’t hit.

“We didn’t mean to ever be strange. I guess we were because everybody says we were,” Kristin Hersh said in 2004. “It’s almost like speaking your own language. I find we kept people out of our world by doing that.”

We All Do Throwing Muses

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The [Boston] Noise, October 1985 (via Michael Aguilar). Hersh recounts this photo shoot in Rat Girl.

In the autumn of 1985, music writers, radio stations, and labels in New England, New York City, and beyond (even the UK, it turned out) got a demo cassette and typewritten press release in the mail.

“Kristin Hersh is a singer and guitar player and biggest writer and sometimes has blue hair and sometimes glasses. Tanya Donelly is the other singer who plays keys and guitars and noise toys. She writes some songs and shirts. Leslie Langston does very good bass and backing voice. She did punk, funk, Portuguese polkas, jazz, hardcore, acid rock, classical and even more reggae…David Narcizo does drums and hubcaps. He lives in a room with walls like a subway’s and used to be in a marching band.

We all do THROWING MUSES and average our ages at 19.”

In half a year, Throwing Muses had a contract with the British label 4AD; in a year, they had released an album and were opening for Cocteau Twins.

They were lucky, in part. They lived within a drive of Providence, Boston, and New York, and so could play a club every other week. They had a score of colleges (Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design especially took them to heart) and a healthy ecology of local newspapers, magazines, and radio stations to promote them. They had the bravado and sleep-resistance of teenagers. They became a band as a positive charge in a negative adolescence, but treated it as the only job they would ever hold. 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell said Throwing Muses were always working: demoing, rehearsing, improving. “So many of the bands I’d worked with had pretty much made things up in the studio and only rehearsed when they were about to tour,” he told Martin Aston.

You can hear influences in their music—X, The Raincoats, Volcano Suns, Violent Femmes, The B-52’s, early R.E.M. (see the intro of “Vicky’s Box”)—but they appeared more to have come up with a version of rock music by reading about it. Their look countered their volatile sound—they were a well-scrubbed pack of “art hardcore” college kids. Gary Smith, who recorded their essential 1985 demo, made sure their photograph was on the cassette cover because, as he told Hersh, “you’re adorable.”

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The band joked that while they had to be at a Throwing Muses show, they didn’t know why anyone else was. “Sometimes I have a lot of respect for people sitting through our shows,” Hersh said to CMJ. The bands who “put on a show,” who catered to the crowds, all the would-be rock and roll stars, made no sense to them.

“People said the main problem with our music is that you couldn’t ignore it,” she added.

Rat Girl

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Heather Kellogg (as Kristin Hersh) & Christina Augello (Betty Hutton), Rat Girl, 2014 (Claire Rice)

Do you get misunderstood much?

Oh, all the time, but that’s the best way.

KH, interviewed by Melody Maker, March 1988

Kristin Hersh was born in 1966 in Georgia; her family’s roots lie in the Tennessee mountains. An early memory is of her father “playing me these Depression-era Southern mountain songs. They were Celtic in origin so they’re in a minor key, and they’re whiny and dreamlike,” she told Liz Evans. “I could never figure out if they were dreamlike because the people wrote them when they were drunk or starving, or because they lived up in the mountains by themselves.”

Her parents (immortalized as “Dude” and “Crane” in her memoir, Rat Girl) moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where she spent her school years being mocked for her accent. Taking up guitar, she grew frustrated by Dude knowing just basic major and minor chords—he could only play Neil Young’s Harvest, pretty much. So he handed her the guitar and she started making up chords. Later, she had to find sort-of root notes in her chords so that she could teach them to her bassist.

Put on the gifted-student track, Hersh was taking college classes in her mid-teens (“I was like Lisa Simpson when I was a kid”). At Salve Regina University, where Dude taught philosophy, she met Betty Hutton, a sixtysomething retired actress who was getting a college degree. Hersh’s memoir is a loving picture of their strange friendship—Hutton giving Hersh stage presence lessons (“sparkle!”) or bucking her up when she freaked out while making the Muses’ debut album.

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Hersh at the Tractor Tavern, 27 February 2004 (Mike Baehr)

When she was fourteen, while riding her bicycle, Hersh was struck by a car (driven by an “old witch” who died soon afterward, as if she was a honey bee). It gave her a double concussion, a post-traumatic stress disorder that wasn’t properly diagnosed for decades, and the songs. She’d call it the “Rat Girl” accident.

She heard the first song in her head soon afterward: “a metallic whining, like industrial noise and a wash of ocean waves, laced with humming tones and wind chimes,” she wrote. “Soon the song began organizing itself into discernible parts.” Clang noises formed into percussive lines; she fished melodies, riffs, and basslines from “the bed of ocean waves”; she got lyrics from the hum-syllables in her thought currents. “A song lives across time as an overarching impression of sensory input, seeing it all happening at once.”

In her memoir and in many interviews over the years, Hersh has described these post-crash songs as being a possession of the self—that she felt at their mercy, getting woken up by songs trapped in her head, burning through her body, until she found the chords on her guitar neck, scribbled words on notebook paper. Only when she pinned the song to the world was she free of it.

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Another piece of her creation myth was the Doghouse, a nondescript apartment where she lived in autumn 1984. It reminds me of the poet Fernando Pessoa’s recollection of how he’d found the voice of an alternate “heteronym” self, spending a day braced against a dresser, writing while standing up, poem after poem flowing out of him. For Hersh, the Doghouse was where the trauma songs fully took hold. “My thinking is liquid and quick,” she wrote of the period. “I can function at all hours. My songs are different…when I play them, I become them. Evil, charged.” She left the Doghouse with her guitar case stuffed full of song manuscripts.

She’d break her work into thirds—the imitative songs before the Doghouse (“those songs deserve no more than to disappear forever”), the Doghouse songs themselves (“songs on fire”—she held back on recording some for years, like “The Letter”), and the post-Doghouse songs—music seared by her time there. What made a Doghouse song? It tore and grabbed and screamed at you, it wrote itself on your skin—she called them “ugly tattoos.” It was her artistic birth: by nineteen, she’d written “Hate My Way,” “Call Me,” “Vicky’s Box,” “Stand Up,” “Delicate Cutters,” “Soul Soldier,” “Sinkhole,” “And a She-Wolf After the War,” “Fear,” “Fish.”

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Hersh at the Living Room, Providence, 1987 (Jeff Notte, via KH Archives)

In the autumn of 1985, she was diagnosed as being bipolar, was prescribed lithium. She described her therapy as a disenchantment—doctors telling her that the accident hadn’t been a witch casting a curse on her, that the possessive songs weren’t real. But the Doghouse songs were still there—they had taken shape and form. After all, she’d taught them to her step-sister, who was in her band.

Tea

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From “Fish” (dir. Charles Jevremovich and Lisa Munrose, 1986)

I showed this girl my stitches
She said she had some too
She said she thinks she’ll start a rock band too

Tanya Donelly, born less than a month before Hersh, spent her first years moving around the country with her family until they settled in Newport. “People came and went at our house all the time, although it wasn’t a commune exactly, it was our house,” she told Evans in 1994. “There was a lot of nudity, a lot of drugs and a lot of very strange situations…I have been left with a lot of images that I wish I didn’t have, pictures that won’t go away. I do use them in songs.”

It left her wary of hippie life, which was “based on just bullshit, concepts that don’t exist…I don’t think open marriages have anything to do with human nature, I don’t think drugs expand your consciousness…A lot of concepts from that time were really so corroding. And most of the people that I was exposed to then were just lying.”

School was the first environment she’d encountered with adult authority figures and structured time. “I felt like I was from France or something! I didn’t know the code…So me and Kristin gravitated towards each other and it was the best thing that ever happened to me, but we definitely reinforced each other’s separateness too.”

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By high school, Hersh and Donelly were consumed by music, both playing guitar (“the fact we felt physically worthless was a real blessing…we were wretched!”). They formed a band with a friend, Elaine Adamedes.

“Boys would become their mirrors,” Donelly said of other girls in her class. “Whereas our guitars were our mirrors.”

Their parents had each divorced, and now Donelly’s father married Hersh’s mother—they’d met via their kids. Best friends became step-sisters, sharing a room in the house where Hersh had been raised. While “it kind of forced a relationship on us that wasn’t part of our friendship,” Donelly recalled to Evans, it also reinforced their bond: a band forged in teenage friendship was now a family union. The two woke up every morning “and made a fist…we yell it, trying to catch the other one out,” Hersh wrote. “Make a fist!

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Andrew Catlin, ca. 1986

In Throwing Muses, Donelly was confined to two songs per album (one per EP). It’s easy to compare her to other “secondary” songwriters in bands dominated by strong personalities—particularly Colin Moulding in XTC. “I think people saw my songs as not having too much depth in Throwing Muses because of the context in which they were aired,” she told Evans. “I was in a band that was very weighty and so in contrast to Kristin’s songs, mine seemed lighter.”

Songwriting came easy—it lacked the exorcistic nature of Hersh’s composing. For a time, she even felt guilty her songs were full of zinging barre chords and three-chord progressions. She had the glorious “Not Too Soon” written in 1984 but didn’t record it with the Muses for more than half a decade, while “Raise the Roses,” her barbed rewrite of “Paint It Black” (“don’t call me girlfriend! Don’t call me girl!”), never made it beyond the demo stage. Instead, her early Muses tracks like “Green” and “Reel” were deliberately-complicated pieces, Donelly in the shadow of her step-sister—she even sings like Hersh at times.

Their developing styles are heard in the romances on the B side of the debut Throwing Muses EP, a self-released disc from 1984. Donelly’s “The Party” is a Casio-centered tale of a leather-jacket-wearing guy who turns his back to her when he reads (“I loooved that back”); after he bleeds on her dress, they end up reading together, back to back. It’s answered by Hersh’s “Santa Claus,” a psycho-sexual piece hooked on a cycling guitar figure. A young woman (“only eighteen and a half! ho! ho! ho! ho!”) tells a man he reminds her of Santa Claus (“in a good way!”). Sleigh bells ring upon his appearance, sounding as if shaken by drunks.

The Island

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Likely the first photo of Throwing Muses, Newport Daily News, ca. June 1984 (via KH Archives)

We’re on the island, we can smell the ocean and everything slows down.

Hersh, Rat Girl.

Newport is the southernmost town on Aquidneck Island, a piece of Rhode Island that truly is an island—it’s only reached via three bridges. Long a summer playground of the wealthy (Edith Wharton had an estate there; John Kennedy and Jaqueline Bouvier were wed at St. Mary’s), Newport was in a slump by the early Seventies—the Navy’s cruiser-destroyer fleet, which had harbored there, was relocated and the Quonest Point naval base deactivated after Vietnam.

So Hersh and Donelly’s Newport was, as the latter described it to Amy Raphael, “an uncomfortable combination of tourist trade, fishermen, craftsmen, and drunks.” Add some hippie semi-communes and the vestiges of old money Newport and you have the Island.

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The Muses heading upstairs, Newport, 1985 (Paul Robicheau, via Warped Reality)

Throwing Muses is inseparable from the Island—most of its members grew up in Newport. “Sandy, salty little islanders—beach kids who don’t belong here in Providence, the Big City,” as Hersh described the Muses’ early years. “Our clothes might be dirty but our bodies are clean, inside and out. We practically smell like sunshine.” It was a tight-knotted community—after a party on the Island, everyone always walked home together.

“Everybody from an island has an island-based psychology: you know that you’re essentially safe,” Hersh later told Andrea Feldman. “All you gotta do is wander around in order to get to where you’re going.”

The Muses (changed to “Throwing Muses” when Hersh found the phrase in a Martin Heidegger book) were four classmates at Rogers High—step-sisters Donelly/Hersh, friends Adamedes and Becca Blumen. They rehearsed in a space where, in an adjacent room, another Rogers student practiced for all-state marching band on a snare drum. When Blumen left, Hersh asked David Narcizo to join her band. He’d stay longer than anyone else.

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Providence College freshman interviewed by his school paper, The Cowl, January 1985

Narcizo was once called “the pants of the band,” and it never would have worked without him. At first he was an improbable addition. He hadn’t played a full set of drums before (he’d drum with his hands in early rehearsals), and because the set that he acquired lacked cymbals, he’d never played them in the Muses’ first years, and was sparing once he got a proper kit.

Having fallen into rock ‘n’ roll sideways, he was the perfect drummer for Hersh’s songs. Using snare patterns from his marching band days, he’d lock in on wherever Hersh was in a song—her strum patterns, her phrasing—and he’d accent her, shore up her rhythms, or play against her. As Ross Palmer wrote of Narcizo, “he’s made a tough job look pretty easy and instinctive…[his] drums had to find ways to live in the quiet parts of these songs without overwhelming them, while driving the heavier sections along.”

Watch him on “Garoux des Larmes,” a dervish of a song where he’s constantly shifting patterns, hurdling through a stop-time section, even giving it a martial swing, enough for Hersh to hopscotch back to the mike after one break.

Anchored by Narcizo, Throwing Muses grew in force—he recalled Hersh, post-Doghouse, was overflowing with songs. While he and Donelly were in college in Providence by now, they were back in Newport every weekend for rehearsals in the attic of Narcizo’s house (his parents would sit at the foot of the stairs, listen while they read, and talk about how songs were developing). Adamedes had potential as a songwriter—her “Dirt Is on the Floor” is a synth-pop Muses that never were—but couldn’t devote the time. They needed a new bassist, and found one working in a Newport delicatessen/drugstore.

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Leslie Langston, Wesleyan University, 1987 (Scott Munroe)

Leslie Langston had recently moved to town from California (“I got tired of sitting around in my own space,” she told the NME in 1986). The non-Newporter of the Muses had the deepest roots there—her family traced their heritage to Native Americans of the Rhode Island area. She was already a gifted professional musician, having played in a Whitman’s sampler of bands in California, from polka to hardcore to reggae.

Sparingly quoted in any Muses interview of the period, Langston is an essential, if obscured part of the band—her experiences and thoughts, as a musician, as a woman of color working in the very white East Coast indie rock scene of the Eighties, are all but undocumented. She’s the missing, integral piece of the puzzle.

And she was the ace of the group, the prog-rock/jazzer who could play anything, in any style you threw at her. “She was more of a technician than us,” Narcizo told Aston—she’d have to be the one who made formal sense of the things the Muses were doing in rehearsals. Her basslines, with their thick, growling tone and fluid fretting, were connecting tendons, hooks, counter-rhythms, accents, and a melodic voice as frenetic as Hersh’s vocals (here’s a bassist on YouTube trying to play along to “Colder” but admitting “some of Leslie Langston’s rhythmic figures I just cannot quite get my head around.”) As Narcizo said, “it was like she came from another world, an adult world.”

All Hard Chords

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A song means filling a jug, and even more, breaking the jug; breaking it to pieces.

H. Leivick

Miki Berenyi of Lush was once asked about the Muses’ debut album. “Lush could never cover one of their songs, no way,” she said. “Too many fucking notes for us, man.”

Muses songs were “too complex to be groovy,” Hersh said. “We wanted to be fascinated every measure…we had been trying to push the limits of each of our parts on every measure of every song” (“we just played a lot of notes very, very fast,” Donelly added). It was the same impulse that made her ditch basic chords. Great, but what else can you do? The intro-verse-chorus-solo-verse-chorus-etc. thing has been done. Why not make one song from three: use good bits of each one? Why always 4/4—why not in 6/8, or 3 + 2 + 3/8 time? Why not keep changing tempos or, better, why doesn’t everyone play at a speed that suits them? Why sing notes in the chord you’re playing? Why not seven bars in one verse and ten in the next one? Why not start slow and deathly and then rip into a hoedown? (see “Rabbits Dying,” the Muses’ Goth/punkbilly Watership Down.)

First, the chords. Hersh said she’d been looking for the perfect one since she started on guitar. “It’s versatile enough to be beautiful without necessarily having to be striking…[it] should also be a little confusing, so that you have to listen to it. Every time you change the root or the accent or the key underneath, they become a slightly different color.” She had chromesthesia even before her accident: certain major chords were primary colors, turning them into minors shaded those colors, making them major sevenths added secondary colors, and so on. “When I invent a chord, I invent a color,” she wrote.

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 At the Riverside, Newcastle, UK, 25 June 1989 (John Ferguson, via Their Dark Address).

On House Tornado‘s “Colder,” Hersh wrote an intro “based on an A major, so at first I felt like I was selling out, like I was writing a jingle or something,” she told Kevin Ransom in 1994. So she replaced the chord’s major third, C-sharp, with an E-flat note (so her A major chord is now A-Eb-E). “I guess if you sat around strumming that all day, it would sound ugly to some people. But for me it just rings against the E so well. Sitting under an A bass and resolving into a B gives it a sadness, or a bit of stress…it’s like ocean waves instead of a straight line.”

Her invented chords could be daunting to fret, with Hersh having to twist her wrist into torturous shapes, bending at the top joint to reach a note. “Using an ascending half-step progression all the way up the neck makes it discordant sometimes—which a lot of guitarists avoid unless it sounds like ‘art,'” she told Ransom. “It’s discordant without sounding sad. To me, it just sounds alive.” Building a chord progression was like arranging words in a sentence, she said. Jam enough sentences together and you have a song.

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Muses in Berkeley Square (Frank Andrick, ca. 1988).

Hersh built some of her songs on an “anti-beat,” where she’d strum around where beats normally fell in a bar, moving into a different time depending on where she was in the melody. The role of rhythm guitarist, she said, was to confuse the issue further. At the same time, she knew the guitars “had to play on top of the beat, ahead of the drums…if we don’t sit solidly behind the kick, we sound like a giant spaz,” she wrote. “We have to hit our notes a breath after every kick beat, even if the passage is racing by at a hundred miles an hour.”

It sometimes drove Langston to distraction, as Donelly would be in a different time than Narcizo and Hersh (“together it sounds solid,” Hersh said), so Langston had get the chords and rhythm shifts down on paper to make sense of it. “Sometimes you can’t just say, ‘these are the counts’ to somebody,” Hersh said. Langston “would be going ‘why? Why does it go like this?'”

It’s no surprise that when a fan once called them “untrained,” Langston snapped, as per Hersh’s memoir. “You know how hard it is to play this way? Try it sometime! There aren’t any lessons to teach you how to do this!”

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“I often sing phonetically, as if I don’t speak English,” Hersh wrote. “I make up new notes, ones that don’t belong anywhere near the chords I’m playing, and I sing those.”

It’s there in embryo on “Catch,” an early demo. Over a repeating two-note pattern, guitars scribbling in the background, Hersh works through a single refrain:

catchcatchcatchcatchcatchcatchcatch a bullet in your teeth
I put my head in the sand o!boy! o!boy! o!boy!
HIIIIIIIIIIIyyy
bad big brid-ges big big build-ings  bluu-hoo boy
it’s raining out here OH oh OH OHH

By “Finished,” which led off their great 1987 EP Chains Changed, she was an inspired phraser, dispensing with rhyme or simple patterns for hooks, trusting listeners to stay with her on her long drives. She opens with short, percussive phrases that set up Narcizo’s hammering snare fills:

With a loud noise
ev’-ry-thing breaks
ev’-ry-thing falls
{wham-wham-wham-wham-wham-wham x 5]

As the song moves through its shifts, guitars shuffling through chords, she builds out lines, elongating particular words or syllables, swallowing others. She’s diverting a river of grief:

His wife diiied  saw! her! face! re-vealed re-fused
coming ho-ho-aho-haa-hoh-oh-oh-hooome
kept it OUTSIDE laughed it GOODBYE..
turning it O-PAIN, leaving a HOHlle
good! BYE!uhhye!uhHY-YYE!…
can not    say    good bye
(finished)

Hersh has a great rock ‘n’ roll voice—even in Muses demos, it cuts through the tape murk. She can go from sounding like a squashed bug to a blank reserve to a Roky Erickson-worthy shriek in a single line; her voice’s consistency lies in its insistence to be heard. Amanda Petrusich was right to say there’s something “unmistakably southern, cracked and bluntly soulful” in Hersh’s voice—it’s there in her phrases, in her vowels—the revenge of her suppressed childhood voice on the Yankee world that had mocked it.

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For lyrics she’d quarry from dreams or memories (e.g., the opening verse of “Hate My Way” came from a spiel that a “punk minister” gave her on a Providence street), and they’re often elliptical, rarely “narrative.” But there’s also a plainness to them (Donelly was more of a natural surrealist). She crafted lines for common use, dispensing a sort of emotional currency. The feeling describes itself. Here I am, what a loser: waiting for years to go by. She had striking, aphoristic lines—He moved me, and the chains changed—and some self-mocking ones: I found last September in a notebook/ it was too much for the book to hold.

Early Muses songs are full of images of retreat, entrapment, imprisonment: the burrow, the ant house, “I’m in a deep hole,” the sinkhole, Vicky’s Box (which has more boxes within it, like the car he won’t drive in anymore), cages, the room with many doors but “all but one of them are closed,” the Doghouse.

Most of all, Home. In a Hersh pun, it’s where the heart lies. “Home is your body, a home is your parent’s home, it’s your married home, it’s your country, it’s life itself,” she once said. “But if you’re young, if you’re a teenager, you have no self-concept, no idea of where you’re supposed to belong. Things come very readily to you—you just feel what’s happening in the world and it happens in you, and it’s hard to tell the difference.”

Support Original Rhode Island Music!

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A flyer for the Muses on “Noise from Neville” (WRIU, University of Rhode Island), 26 January 1985.

By the time they were sixteen, Throwing Muses were playing the Blue Pelican in Newport; in Providence, they were at the Living Room, the Rocket, Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel. “We were mostly girls, and they said ‘girls don’t start fights,'” Hersh recalled in 2013. Clubs first pitched them as a novelty—the beach town kids playing their weird sort-of punk rock. “Our first show [headlining] at the Living Room, they gave people money to come.”

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Salve Regina University newsletter lists student of note, 1985

At twenty-eight, she looked back at the performing half of her life. The condescending sound techs, the hostile bouncers, the crooked promoters, the stalkers and creeps. “I grew up in clubs. It was hard, but it was worth it, so it never occurred to me that it was hard. The seediness of it,” she told the Alternative Press in 1994. “Ever since I was 14, I’ve been getting felt up every time I go into the bar, had guns pulled on me, been dragged into cars and vans and had drunks all over me, and that’s not what a normal person would want to go through. But I was doing it for the band, so I just thought, all right, everybody has to go through this, just paying my dues.”

Ivo, the Engine Driver

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In the summer of 1985, all four Muses lived in one cheap apartment in Somerville. Whoever answered the phone wrote a message for the recipient on the wall, like the uncle in Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” One day Hersh saw that “IVO” had called.

She thought it was an acronym. It turned out to be Ivo Watts-Russell, co-founder of 4AD, the Goth heaven of record labels, home to Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil. Its reliquary LP covers, exquisitely designed by Vaughan Oliver, were as treasured as the records in the sleeves; its executives looked hipper than most musicians. Why was Ivo Watts-Russell interested in some weird guitar band from Rhode Island?

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A quiet evening at home with This Mortal Coil (Watts-Russell, right)

The Muses had sent 4AD a demo, prompted by an interviewer at RISD’s student paper (the band had never heard of the label). Watts-Russell was fascinated by their sound—their aggressive front riddled through with veins of beauty. But what did it was speaking to Hersh on the phone. Like many bright kids, she was adept at befriending odd older people. In Watts-Russell she found “essentially a child in a man’s body, and I was still a child,” she told Aston. They talked nearly every night, sometimes for hours. “We’d discuss rose diseases, interesting animals, crazy shit that we saw.” 4AD soon went from wanting to boost the band in the UK, to wanting to help them find a label, to becoming their label.

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For their debut Throwing Muses, recorded in spring 1986 at a farmhouse in central Massachusetts, Watts-Russell hired Gil Norton to produce a band who’d never been “produced” before (Narcizo, the Muses’ representative during mixing, vetoed Norton’s bid to put strings on “Hate My Way”). The problem was that they’d already cut a great record, and now had to remake it.

Their 1985 “Doghouse” demo tape (officially also called Throwing Muses; it was released in 1998 on the In a Doghouse compilation), captures a young band right at its moment of breakthrough—a dark energy courses through it. With most tracks cut in just a few takes, it moves fast, everyone barely keeping up with each other yet goading each other on. Hersh sings with an electrified recklessness.

Watts-Russell, perhaps to make the Muses a touch more “4AD,” nixed their loopy, funnier pieces (like “Sinkhole,” a Georgia apocalypse that lays waste to recreational vehicles and airplanes) in favor of the heaviest songs they had. So the LP’s sequencing was brutal—ending the album with “Delicate Cutters” was like a dose of laudanum after a hard night of drinking.

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Hersh at Wesleyan, 1987 (Scott Munroe)

In her memoir, Hersh describes another problem: she was scared of singing as she had on the Doghouse tape. Pregnant and having stopped her lithium treatment (she’d give birth to a son soon after recording the album), she was scared of losing control, wanting to keep “evil Kristin” away from her unborn child. So she sang with less power, more self-consciousness. It meant take after take, week after week, and though Norton managed to get a strong set of vocals in the end, Throwing Muses was haunted by its predecessor—many of its tracks wilt in the face of their demos.

Soap and Water

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Muses in the reeds trump Glass Spider for Melody Maker, 1987

“We were used to looking at the audience from the stage and seeing what we called ‘the sea of glasses.’ Nobody danced. Some people actually took notes,” Hersh told Milano. “Then we went to the UK and there were drunk, sweaty, screaming boys all over the place. I have no idea where the girls were—maybe in the back so they wouldn’t get knocked over.”

With Hersh’s infant son in tow, Throwing Muses played Britain and Europe in late autumn 1986. They cut their finest miniature while in London—the Chains Changed EP. It was a band over their first-time jitters and focusing on a set of four tight compositions, some of which were Hersh’s best songs to date (“Finished,” “Cry Baby Cry”). They got scads of press, built a fanbase, set the template for the rest of their career—they’d be an American band better known overseas, regularly making the covers of UK music magazines and newsweeklies while getting a few paragraphs’ notice in their US equivalents.

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The problem with signing an American band, as Watts-Russell had noted from the start, was that 4AD lacked American distribution. This soon became an issue—no matter how deftly 4AD marketed them in Britain, they were at the mercy of Sire/Warner Brothers in the US. Both Watts-Russell and Hersh complained that Warner poorly promoted the Muses when they were touring with another 4AD American act [see Quartet 2(a)] in spring 1988—label reps allegedly sometimes wouldn’t show up for gigs, let alone push them.

The Muses got a poor exchange rate—what they called indifferent to ham-handed American promotion, but enough corporate obligations to weigh them down. Gigs now had to be booked months in advance: no more hops between Boston and Providence. “We couldn’t just slide into the weekend bill with five other bands we loved at the Rat, like we used to,” Hersh told Milano. “The scene just disappeared for us then, and the rest of the world was a flimsy consolation prize.”

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Sounds, 26 September 1987

Their first American release, the EP The Fat Skier, was recorded over a few nights in spring 1987, in part at a Boston studio at which Apollonia was working by day. The Muses cracked themselves up by singing from lyric sheets she’d left on music stands; they’d also hold “rat races…leaning out the window and following rats down the alley…cheering our rat on as it collected food from the dumpsters and carried it home,” Hersh told With Guitars. “I personally don’t remember doing any actual work on this record.”

Highlights were compositions pulled from the archives—“Garoux des Larmes,” a rockpile of cod-French that Hersh had written at fifteen (the title was meant to be something like “werewolf of tears”); “And a She-Wolf After the War,” a rare upgrade of a Doghouse song. There was also “Soap and Water,” named after the basics of hotel life and driven by a rhythm guitar track that got erased from the mix, and Donelly’s sweet bizarrity “Pools in Eyes.”

Bash! Crash!

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Men are allowed to write songs about people and women are allowed to write songs about women.

Hersh, 1994

Of House Tornado (1988), their second album (and US LP debut), Hersh said it’s the one time the quartet Muses were truly captured on tape. “It’s very realized, it’s this gnarled ball that won’t let you inside,” she recalled to Uncut in 2001. “That’s exactly what our music should’ve been. You have to force your way into that record and trust it, then you can get in there.”

Reunited with Gary Smith, the band were free to do whatever they wanted in the studio, and wound up “arguing over every note,” she recalled. The result was their densest, prickliest record, but there’s also a lightness in it, even in the hardest-edged tracks. Langston in particular darts and spins all over the album. “The parts fly off in all different directions…the strength of it comes from detail and solidity,” Hersh said.

House Tornado has recurring images of marriage as a form of binding, of tethering a couple to the material world. Saving grace “drags us by the legs across the living room.” A couple swings around the marriage tree. “I can’t play when he wakes up,” the singer of “Juno” begins.

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If you’re of a particular subset of a particular generation, this may be a very nostalgiac image

Throwing Muses were always asked about being a rock band of (mostly) women, and their general response was that they didn’t think of themselves as one. “Our genders were often stated by journalists, both male and female, who would then sit and wait for a response, as if saying the three of us were women was a question,” Hersh said. But she argued there was such a thing as “male” and “female” music, which anyone of any gender could play. She used the Raincoats as an example:

They would just bang whenever they felt like it, and when they felt like it was their real time, and that’s female time…women know what changing is, so they seem, when left to their own devices, to be underneath pitch and winding around pitch, and so they just remove all the numbers.

House Tornado wound up a “very female record,” Hersh said. The lyric of “Mexican Women” came from images of “kinds of lives where women are just left. It’s accepted that a man can sire all these children and just leave, so these women are left with no houses and all these children.”

The LP title was the chaos and energy of the domestic world, by default defined as a “female” one. “The idea of the savage housewife,” she said. “There’s so much violence in a house…Have you ever washed up? All those dishes? BASH! CRASH! with kids running around, your emotions are up and down, it’s a perfectly noisy and traumatic thing to write about.”

When Hersh was cutting vocals to “Juno,” her tribute to the patron goddess of housewives, the other Muses surrounded her with buckets and mops, doing sound effects. She liked the joke but was also defensive. “I was shouting, ‘no, you can’t do this! Don’t touch my song!’ The image of the housewife is something I’m very attached to, so it almost felt like they were desecrating it.”

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Muses c/w Mitchell, Melody Maker, 14 May 1988

Some of it came from how she was treated in the press. She was often defined in band profiles as being the mother of a toddler, with an almost-apologetic note that her son was with his father when she was touring (did anyone ask Curt Kirkwood who was watching his kids?). She resented being made to feel like a negligent mother and, later, being tsk-tsked for touring while pregnant. “You can do every other job pregnant,” she said in 1998. “I have to work, it’s not like I choose to hang out in rock clubs when I’m pregnant, but it’s my job.”

You Could Be Melting In America

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Hits and fame have never been my concern. Michael Bolton has hits. Satan is famous. That’s not company I want to be considered in.

Hersh to the CMJ, January 1995

Throwing Muses “was never fun, but more of a need. Now I need to look for my catharsis in slightly different places,” Hersh said in 1988. “There’s so much more involved, so much more than just being an outlet for our electricity. That sounds kind of dicky, but it’s true. The dangerous quality is not so pure any more.”

In the US, they were a band on a major label who didn’t move many records. In 1997, the LA Times reported that two of their most well-marketed albums, The Real Ramona and University, had sold roughly 60,000 copies apiece in the US (UK/European sales were slightly higher). By contrast even Hersh’s 1994 solo album Hips and Makers sold around 300,000 copies worldwide (helped by a peak-R.E.M.-fame Michael Stipe guest spot on “Your Ghost“).

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Among the last shows with Langston: Atlanta, 9 October 1989 (Michael Branch, via KH Archives)

She claimed Sire/Warner kept asking if Throwing Muses could be a little less…Throwing Muses? Could Hersh not sing like Kristin Hersh all the time? “We were so nice, we kept thinking: ‘Hmmm, we’re hurting Warner Brothers’ feelings,'” Hersh told Vox in 1998.

So, a compromise: a song that Hersh wrote to “play the game,” and an inside joke—much of it was a song Dude had come up with years before (“but I destroyed it…made it dumb and added a hook, some sex and PC crap”). “We thought: ‘OK, we’ll give them a stupid song, then they’ll sell a Throwing Muses record instead of a Phil Collins record.’ So we did this terrible song and remixed it in this terrible way, and all these lame jocks started shouting for it at shows. So we quit playing it. It taught me a lesson.”

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A few things about “Dizzy” (a Billboard Modern Rock #8 in March 1989). It’s the Muses shoehorned at last into a verse-chorus-verse structure; said chorus sounds like a blighted Juice Newton track; the intro guitar hook is the most Late Eighties College Rock thing they ever did; its video has the band moving in the sort of weary choreography you get from non-dancers marshaled through dozens of takes, while Hersh seems to be staring at a clock showing the track’s remaining seconds.

Yet it’s still a great over-packed weirdo Muses song. Hersh’s labyrinthine verses, a goofy Comanche girl-white boy Western romance whose lines include “‘Goodbye my father,’ I thought/ “I’m carrying the light/ the light of my Comanche/ make sure the dog remembers me.'” (The LP edit plays with the structure, breaking the refrain in halves between verses.) Donelly’s guitar never stays still, roaring and tearing around the verses, agitating things. And it’s one of Langston’s last shining moments: a bassline that dances through the song.

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Hunkpapa, its title a pun on one of the Lakota tribe’s council fire names and a “hot dad” counterpart for the House Tornado, was crafted as their “accessible” record (Bernie Worrell on guest keyboards!). It got a full-court press promotion, including a 1989 Spin profile that called the first Muses album “a college girl’s dining hall conversation,” wrote up Donelly as if she was a Playmate (“a soft breathy Marilyn voice and soft wispy Marilyn hair and a tight black top and red lipstick”), and made sure to note the “$180-a-night rooms overlooking Central Park at the Mayflower Hotel” that Warners footed the bill for.

Hersh had said that she didn’t want the Muses to become an elitist venture, only making music for other musicians or hardcore fans from the Providence days. She likened that to the academic journals Dude subscribed to—professors writing for other professors.

On Hunkpapa, going “mainstream” meant cutting things down, having less information. Songs stayed on one chord, if often a chord Hersh and Donelly kept undermining (the D-D7-D blurs in “Devil’s Roof,” the E minor with constantly shifting roots in “Bea”). Fewer odd song structures. “As we were going through the material, I’d say, ‘Cut it in half, cut it in half again, then cut it in half again, repeat it a couple of times’,” she told Melody Maker in 1989. “The average person doesn’t want to follow all the counter-melodies and rhythmic shifts and chord changes.”

“I feel that, at last, I’ve finally learned how to play the drums,” Narcizo added.

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The result was betwixt and between—early Muses advocates like Simon Reynolds feared they were plateauing (see above review), and Hunkpapa didn’t sell in great numbers, either. As with other once-indie acts on major labels in the late Eighties, playing the game led to more innings of it. “We’d make videos and shop them to MTV and they’d show them at 2 AM; we’d have to do radio tours, begging them to play the single,” Hersh recalled in 2001. “We’d do tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of photo shoots, you know, hoping to fool people into buying the record.”

“They were always telling me to either dumb it down or play it up,” she told Billy Hell in 2004. “Playing stupid music definitely works, but so does being melodramatic or pretentious.”

Fall Down

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Narcizo and Hersh in Central Park, NME, 11 Feb 1989 (Steve Pyke). “Don’t you think Throwing Muses is essentially you and Dave?” Ivo Watts-Russell once told Hersh. It was, soon enough.

The turn of the decade was brutal on Hersh, who lost a custody battle for her son (his father’s lawyers used her life as a touring rock musician against her), and on the Muses, who had a costly split from their manager. Hersh was also sued by the Musicians Union and had a colossal tax bill. “It was just one of those years where everything falls apart,” she recalled of it. Langston, exhausted by it all and getting married, left the band at the end of 1989. She was replaced by another Newporter, Fred Abong, who fell in the minor rock ‘n’ roll tradition of the longtime fan who joins the band he loves.

Donelly had considered leaving too—a side project [see Quartet 2(b)] briefly staved off the inevitable. Hunkpapa had her most ambitious work to date: the fantasia “Dragonhead,” which opens with an eerie “he lies! he lies! he lies! he lies!” refrain in which multi-tracked Donelly sounds like children tramping through a forest, moves through its barrel-churn of an opening section until, midwifed by a guitar solo, it falls with a sigh into its gorgeous second half, serenaded by violin. A dreamer wakes from a nightmare into a sweeter nightmare; his lover swallows “creepy things.” In one performance clip, when Donelly takes center stage on the latter half of the song, she could lull Glastonbury to sleep.

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Record Mirror, 1988

And “Angel” was the hookiest song Donelly had cut since the Muses’ demo days. Trim some guitar tracks, punch up the chorus a bit more, and it sounds like a radio-ready “alternative rock” hit from the early Nineties. Though Hersh once said she had “songs the Bangles would die for” but chose not to record them, it was increasingly clear that Donelly would be the one who would deliver them.

Tanya touring the Real Ramona album The Leadmill, Sheffield March 1991

At the Leadmill, Sheffield, March 1991 (Greg Neate)

So when Donelly turned up with an album’s worth of compositions, it brought home that Throwing Muses was Hersh’s band, it had always been, and it always would be. Hersh was blunt in 1994: “I had tunnel vision when it came to the band—it is my child and my life.” (There’s a wonderful video of her singing “Finished” alone in a record store in Utrecht during the 1991 tour—it’s as if she carries the entire group within her.)

If Donelly wanted to be an equal songwriter, she’d have to leave. And she did [see Quartet 2(c)]. Many bands break friendships; she broke with a band to save hers.

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The Real Ramona, recorded in Los Angeles in summer 1990 and released the following winter, is the end of the quartet Muses. Hersh hasn’t been kind to it, citing battles with Warners (“trying to break up my band, telling me we needed Eighties drum sounds, even though this was the Nineties!”) and its “evil producer,” Dennis Herring.

It’s the most produced Muses record, making Gil Norton look like Steve Albini by comparison. Given that Hersh once called the recording process “a big lie…you rip the song apart little by little and pretend you’re all in the same room together,” it’s obvious why the album, recorded in pieces, with Donelly and Hersh often working at different times, has little appeal for her. (Also, making it was a grueling experience: in 2013, Hersh said she’d been in pain from a root canal she couldn’t afford to finish, medicating with painkillers, “beer and cheap champagne,” and blanking out after doing takes.)

“There were parts of the recording that brought their own tension and that’s what I remember,” Narcizo recalled to the Quietus in 2011. “There was abrasiveness with the producer. Kristin may not agree with me, but I think he did a really great job and worked really hard. But of all our records it had the most treated sound, which—as she has demonstrated over the years—Kristin has never been a fan of. She felt she lost control of the reins on that record.”

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Herring was the first producer who’d paid close attention to their guitar tracks, so Hersh and Donelly’s work never sounded more intricate (both had shifted to Les Pauls, after playing Strats in the late Eighties)—on earlier albums their lines were a ball of strings. You can easily follow every strand in the interwoven guitars (hummingbird-fast descending three-note lead figure/ chunky rhythm line) of “Counting Backwards.

There’s also greater dynamics than on previous Muses albums, previewing their “power trio” records of the mid-Nineties. In Abong, a former drummer, the band had a punchier, less improvisatory bassist, while Narcizo got the full gated drum treatment. Cut in large rooms miked in every corner, “we got every nuance of the real sound and didn’t have to screw around with it from the board,” Hersh said at the time. If House Tornado sounded like a band playing in a corner of a gym, Ramona “happens around you. You’re right in the middle of the gym.”

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Hersh was writing terser compositions, devoting more room to space; letting her melodies stand out against less frantic accompaniment (see “Graffiti” in particular). Side A comes off as a parallel sequence to the same side on Bowie’s Low—both have seven tracks, mostly of high-strung pop; some tracks appear severed midway through (see the seventy second “Him Dancing”); both have an instrumental closer: here, “Dylan” (a homage to Hersh’s son, not Zimmerman).

But where Low is isolation and removal, Ramona is someone reviving in the midst of a hard winter. Hersh had met Billy O’Connell, the Muses’ new manager and her soon-to-be husband, and there’s a feeling of relief in her performances here, that she’s finally met someone who can match her, from “Counting Backwards,” referring to a technique O’Connell had suggested for her to use in panic attacks, to the Bo Diddley shag-beat of “Golden Thing” (“when you get there better kiss me!“).

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Muses at the Mayfair, Glasgow, March 1991 (Greg Neate)

Hersh had been working on “Hook in Her Head” for years. The idea came, she told Melody Maker, when

I read about this woman who believed she had a hook in her head that her husband used to use to drag her around. Now, he thought she was crazy but that was her perception, and our perception is our reality. That woman perceived a hook in her head, so she really had one. You have to go with the assumption that there’s a hook inside her head that needs to be treated, and I feel our songs are like that, they need to be treated, they call for themselves to be seen in their own peculiar light.

It’s all in the way she sings “literally” in the refrains—with this acute precision. The longest track on the record, “Hook in Her Head” develops into a great, grumbling noise, set midway through the album sequence like a boulder dropped upon a freeway. When “Not Too Soon” bursts in after it, it’s as if another band has cut into the frequency.

And “Ellen West.” Hersh, throughout her performing life, has been open about her mental illness and has used it as an element in her songwriting (see “Mania“). This has led to criticisms of rather incredible callousness, even cruelty, and has made her an object of obsession for some fans. “Lately I’ve come to hate myself—that image of me obsessed with poetry and suicide—as much as people who hate this band hate me,” she said in 1991. She was likened to Sylvia Plath: another likely doomed New England poet.

A slow Narcizo opening figure. That last one messed me up. Things look bad, she starts. Things look tragic. But there’s a trace of humor in how she sings these lines; there’s a strut in them. “Courting Ellen West…dancing on her grave,” Hersh sings. “Saving Ellen West.” West was a patient of Ludwig Binswager’s in the early 20th Century. She likely had anorexia nervosa, depression, possibly schizophrenia, and killed herself at thirty-three. Ellen West the woman would be erased by West the case study, symbol, martyr.

At the hinge point of the song—my mouth is full of demons, I SWEAR TA GOOOODDD—Hersh lifts the song off the ground with her voice, while Donelly loops around her. Not despair, not even rage, as much as it’s an absolute will to live, to flourish, to channel a power through her and out of her. I need to go to bed, I need to go to sleep. But she won’t, not yet. The songs won’t let her be. She’ll be heard through her art, not as whatever person you imagine she is. It ends with guitars.

Two Step

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Twelve strings goodbye, Guitarist, May 1991 (James Cumpsty)

I’ll never stop walking away

“Two Step,” the last track on The Real Ramona, “was a real goodbye song,” Donelly told Milano. “It makes me cry to this day. It was written by the whole band together in one room.”

The Muses learned songs by standing in a circle around Narcizo’s drums, watching each other as they played, Donelly seeing where Hersh was fretting, Langston checking Narcizo for tempo changes, Narcizo locking into Donelly’s riffs. “Things would begin with me and Dave,” Hersh recalled to Guitarist in 1991. “And Tanya and Leslie would have to fill in the spaces, so there was a lot going on. Each measure was contested, note for note, between me and Tanya.”

It was how they knew where each of them would be in their songs—they had built them by sight.

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“Two Step” started with Narcizo and Abong playing a riff, Donelly working her away into it (she cringed to an interviewer that, yes, Throwing Muses was jamming for once). Hersh had a song in her head that she hadn’t figured out on guitar. “Fred was playing this line in F, so I thought, ‘let’s make it in F!’ And then we all started playing seriously, and it still sounds the way it did then.” They had the ending early on—the song would fade while reverb was pushed up in the mix. The last quartet Muses album floats away.

In spring 1991, they went on their final tour. Donelly described it as being bittersweet but not sour—in their end was a lightness. It’s in “Two Step” as well: loss, a kind wistfulness. Its few lines are the history of a band. Two step, behind the rest. One fingertip too long. There’s another box, another hole to fill in. The future won’t be theirs together, but there will be one.

The Long Yay

1508055897_77e9cc2e6c_oHalf-Muse reunion at the Brattle, Cambridge, MA, 6 October 2007 (bradalmanac)

In 1992, Throwing Muses was a duo (Abong had left with Donelly). “Dave and I were the ones who’d always seemed to care the most,” Hersh recalled to Uncut. She thought about quitting (she’d given birth to another child soon after the 1991 tour) but “the songs didn’t give a shit. And they kept coming.” After making Red Heaven, she and Narcizo added the last Muses bassist—Bernard Georges, who had been one of their roadies (the Muses kept things in-house).

The “trio of strength” Muses, which cut University and Limbo and toured in the mid-Nineties, refined the aesthetic of The Real Ramona. “The luxury of dynamics you can only get in a trio,” she said. “When you have two guitarists playing, all you can really make is a wall of sound—and if you back off that for a minute, it always sounds like there’s something missing.”

She said it was the band’s best incarnation, though with greater strength the trio Muses lost some nuance and unpredictability—Narcizo sat on the backbeat and took up cymbals with a vengeance (University sounds sponsored by Zildjian); Hersh got seriously into pedals—the Wah-Wah all over University is still a bit wild to hear.

They broke up in spring 1997. Leaving Sire/Warner at last, they wound up on Ryko when that label was heading into its last years. Limbo sold 19,000 copies; there wasn’t enough tour support for a full band. “We can’t afford to go on,” Hersh told the LA Times. “It’s heartbreaking for me. This [past] year just killed us.”

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Muses at KEXP, 25 February 2014

I point out to Hersh that twenty-seven years is true longevity. “It’s also poverty,” she says. “If you’re never in, you’re never out. We never made much of a living but we’re still here. We were happy over the past decade to play for each other and the sky and whoever else showed up, because that’s what music really is. You can’t count the number of people paying attention.”

Hersh to Peter Terzian, December 2013

Today, Narcizo runs a design studio, Georges works in bicycle shops as a technician, Abong is a Vedic astrologer (Langston, long-retired from music, is a counselor). Donelly was a postpartum doula for a time. Hersh has been a working writer and musician for over thirty-five years, and the mother of four. Once in a while, they still do Throwing Muses.

They tour, in various combinations (Abong played with Hersh this summer; the Hersh-Narcizo-Georges Muses has festival dates in late August). Sometimes Donelly makes them a quartet for a night. Releasing albums at a craftsman’s pace (2013’s Purgatory/Paradise took roughly five years to write and record), they’ve become an artists’ collective, making books, CDs, videos, illustrations. They’ve retreated to Newport (and New Orleans, where Hersh lives part of the time). “We live on this dome-island,” she told Guitar World. Their music “is just a keyhole into what we do in a big barn.”

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Quartet Muses at the Aladdin Theater, Portland OR, 31 May 2014

We were too weird for the straights and too straight for the weirds.

Tanya Donelly

In 2001, Uncut asked Hersh what Throwing Muses’ legacy would be. “We’re in that list of bands with integrity now, I think. Even when we made mistakes, we didn’t do it out of greed, we were just young.”

That Throwing Muses never made it out of the semi-popular circle, that they’re forgotten in retrospectives today, that Hersh and Donelly aren’t often mentioned in “great rock songwriters” discussions, that many Muses records are out of print and aren’t streaming (in the US, at least): it’s a shame. But it’s a triumph the Muses went as far as they did.

I told my friend I was writing about them. She grew up in Mississippi, and said hearing Throwing Muses as a teenager told her that there was something else in the world, that they gave her the way out. I’m sure she wasn’t alone. The Muses made sure you weren’t. “For me, good music still just makes me feel like YAY!” Hersh once said. Sing on, you muses of the Island.

1. Booker T. and the MG’s

DISCOGRAPHY                 SOURCES                    PLAYLIST

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Njårdhallen, Oslo, Norway; 7 April 1967.

It’s the next-to-last night of the Stax/Volt Revue, a Memphis record label’s debutante tour of Britain and Europe. The Revue’s backing band is called Booker T. and the MG’s. They open the show with songs of their own—“Red Beans and Rice” and “Green Onions.”

“Green Onions” is their first single, biggest hit, founding document, statement of principles; it’s why the band exists. In Oslo, they take it fast. Everyone does. The headliner, Otis Redding, has been pushing to kick up his tempos—audiences want to move, he says.

Going at a remorseless clip, they stretch it out, find more room in the song: it feels as if it could go for an hour. The drummer, Al Jackson Jr., does a tom fill as a controlled explosion, with a balletic turn of his torso. He plays his ride cymbal with sweeping, delicate swats of his forearm.

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Norwegian state television films them. One camera, facing the stage, captures a striking visual for 1967. Two white Southern men stand between two seated black Southern men. A handful of years earlier, they couldn’t have eaten together in restaurants in their hometown.

House left is Jackson, set up on a riser; house right is the band’s namesake, Booker T. Jones, on organ. They’re sources of power, turbine engines. Center stage are Donald “Duck” Dunn and Steve Cropper, on bass and guitar, respectively. They stay in place, feet in first position, swaying, glancing left and right for cues. Cropper does a loping kick as he solos.

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Another camera frames Booker T. and the MG’s from the side, in close-up—it’s a wings-eye view. Here the band is a four-headed unit, faces and bodies in a collective motion. They’re the gears of a clock.

The Backing Band

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From Monterey Pop (Pennebaker, 1968)

Booker T. and the MG’s are heard more on other people’s records: a 1969 Ebony profile estimated that less than ten percent of their performances on Stax had been issued under their name. It’s Jones playing keyboards on William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.” It’s Jackson spurring Otis Redding through “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Respect,” Cropper sliding a Zippo lighter along his strings on Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” Dunn tacking down Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.” It’s all of them backing Redding at Monterey Pop in 1967.

“We weren’t viewed as an artist…We weren’t even listed in the meetings as artists when [Stax] talked about what artists would be cutting,” Jones told Stax historian Rob Bowman. “Booker T. and the MG’s were not one of the viable artists at Stax. I think [co-owner Jim Stewart] was afraid of losing the house band.”

In the mid-Sixties, they were Stax’s house band—they were on salary, had titles, even offices at Stax’s studio/headquarters on McLemore Avenue in south Memphis. “You see, though we record under our own name, we’re really employees of the studio,” Jones told Record Mirror in 1967. “People figure we should get out more. But first and foremost we want the company’s records to sell.”

Booker T. and the MG’s records were sometimes afterthoughts, as the likes of Redding, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, and Sam and Dave dominated Stax’s roster. “We did the MG’s music when there was extra time,” Jones said. “When there was nothing else going on, ‘well, let’s work on Booker T. and the MG’s.’ That was the attitude.” Cropper recalled “always using the last thirty minutes of a session, or when somebody else had called for a demo and didn’t show.”

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Until 1967, their post-“Green Onions” singles rarely troubled the charts. They had a measure of freedom on record, particularly on their albums: four session musicians sneaking out for a few hours, for a more exacting degree of work. Hard formalists, they spoke to each other in riffs and hooks; their music sounds distilled. “We made dance music. It was a lot easier sitting down and playing a track without having to worry about words,” Cropper said last year.

Each time the band kicks off a track, they look to make something new within the same shape. It’s a tectonic shift when a Cropper solo chorus is sixteen bars instead of twelve, or if Dunn uses roundwound strings on his bass (“Hip-Hug-Her”), or if Jones plays an eerie clavinet (“Eleanor Rigby”). They named songs after food or board games or states of mind—what mattered, what was key, was when Jackson’s drums came in, or if he’d slip in a fill midway through a chorus. Where Dunn would set up on the bottom. How Cropper and Jones, the melodic leads, would spar off this time. “We wrote sounds,” Jones told Bowman. “We thought a lot about sounds.”

“They’re so soulful without knowing it,” Pete Townshend raved about the band to Rolling Stone in 1968:

“It’s the truth, it’s the truth. They are playing exactly the right things. They are playing them straight and they are playing them off-the-cuff, as they come, the sounds which appeal to them and the sounds which go down with them, things which they groove to, things which they think other people will groove to, too. They just happen to be totally right. They don’t know this, because nobody expects to be totally right. We’re not as straight as they are—we try, but we’re not half as right as they are. And they’re so straight and they communicate.”

A common perception of Booker T. and the MG’s at the time: a straight-laced outfit, living in isolation, unaware of how good they were (their Canadian equivalent was The Band, of whom similar things were said). This ignored how much they did consider themselves artists, how meticulous they were about keeping their sound current.

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Still, they showed up at Monterey with barbershop haircuts and chartreuse lounge suits (the writer Stanley Booth said they looked like “filling station attendants” when he first met them.) When Townshend introduced himself to Jones, in a fanboy gush of praise, Jones smiled, thanked him, and kindly said he had no idea who Townshend was. Jackson listened to a Dylan record for the first time for Rolling Stone in 1968 (“Being so wrapped up in what we are doing, a lot of times what you are listening for can be right around the corner and you overlook it. I dig what I just heard.”) It was a half-intentional separation, Jones recalled to the AV Club in 2009. “On some level we knew we were doing something unique because we made a conscious effort to keep it pure.”

Their world revolved around the studio on McLemore Avenue. Cutting takes, rehearsing, working up songs for others, twelve or fifteen hours a day. Listen to any MG’s track and you know where all four stand. The conservatory keyboardist (“Booker was a genius. He was the keyboard-player genius, and he would come in with ideas, and I’d turn them around and make them easy for myself,” Cropper said. “If Booker came up with something more complicated, we just put it into a dance rhythm.”), the groover jubilant of a bassist, the drummer you could set your watch by, and the guitarist who plays as though he’s being taxed by the note.

Four Pieces

test2Booker T. (for Taliaferro) Jones, born in Memphis in 1944, was a musical prodigy. He started on oboe in fourth grade (“a C instrument: that’s how I got into the school band,” he recalled to Terry Gross), soon taking up clarinet (“a B-flat instrument!”), soon again piano (“another C instrument—it helped me to get the structure of music in my mind”). He learned trombone, saxophone and bass; by fourteen, he was playing bass at nightclubs on Beale Street and in West Memphis. “The bandleaders had to come to my house [and] persuade my mom and dad that they were okay,” Jones told Stax historian Robert Gordon (he once was called out of algebra class to play in a recording session.)

On stage, he was often paired with a drummer named Al Jackson Jr., who’d curse at him whenever Jones fell behind the beat. Jackson was older—he was in his late twenties when he started cutting Stax records—and was a scion of one of Memphis’ African American musical families. His father ran a swing band; Jackson was on stage with him by age five. By fourteen, he was in Willie Mitchell’s band (“I said to his father, ‘Hey, let’s use your son!’ He said, ‘Oh, man, he can’t play this shit!’” Mitchell told Traps in 2007. “He set up his kit—a cymbal, a snare drum, and a bass drum—and I kicked the thing test4off. And, man, that thing went off at 20 tempos!”).

Time only mattered when he was keeping it. Sometimes he had to be rousted from bed for a session, with Cropper gingerly prodding him awake with a broomstick (“Al was a real heavy sleeper, and Al was one of those sleepers that came up fighting.”) At Stax, a song had to prove itself worthy of him. Jackson would sit down at his kit only when something was ready to be cooked. “Let’s put a pocket on it,” he’d say. “You just had to kind of had to wait on him,” Dunn recalled. “He had such a delayed back beat that when he came down on a beat, it felt like it wasn’t going to get there….Al played like a singer.” Cropper compared him to a preacher; watching a session, Booth called Jackson an arranger by how he hit his drums. Few drummers impressed him—it’s a joy to see Jackson trying to puzzle out Charlie Watts’ performance on the Rolling Stones’ “Connection.” He used the butt end of his left stick (“I developed that from playing hard on gigs. I’ve tried to change but I can’t feel it any other way”); he tuned his snare by slapping down his thick billfold on it to dampen the tone; he’d only replace his drum heads when he broke them.

Steve Cropper first saw Jackson and Jones playing at the Flamingo Room, off Beale Street. Born in 1941 on a farm in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, Cropper moved to Memphis in the Fifties. At the time, the city was two-fifths African American and greatly segregated. Cropper went to the all-white Messick High (Booker Jones went to the all-black Booker T. Washington High), where he formed a band called the Royal Spades—the sort of name that white teenage Southern hipsters would give their R&B band in the late Fifties.

croppedcropper“We would leave our job and go to the colored clubs and listen to those bands play. That’s really how we got started,” he said in 1967. As Jonathan Gould wrote, “whites could move with relative impunity through the black locales of Memphis…their presence not appreciated but tolerated.” (The reverse obviously wasn’t the case.) He took up guitar, soon favoring the Fender Telecaster. An early influence was Lowman Pauling, guitarist/composer of The “5” Royales, and like Pauling, Cropper’s playing was stamped by its restraint. To imagine Cropper noodling through an endless solo is to imagine a fish singing. He played “lead rhythm guitar,” working out tight riffs for turnarounds and intros, keeping notes to a minimum, using string bends to color chords. “I had to be two guys, because they couldn’t afford two guitar players,” he said in 2014. “So I played rhythm, and then I’d play a lick or what we call a fill, and then back to rhythm.”

Roughly around the same time, Cropper and Jones started hanging out at a record store/studio on McLemore Avenue, near Jones’ home. Cropper had helped to convert the building—an old movie theater, later a church—into a studio, making sound panels out of pegboard, hammering off floor bolts and laying down carpet. This was Satellite Records, soon renamed Stax after its owners, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton.

Jones turned up after school; sometimes Cropper picked him up after band practice. At Stax, they became part of a coalescing group of session players that included bassist Lewis “Lewie” Steinberg. Like Jackson,steinberg (Bill carrier) Steinberg was nearing thirty and had a deep musical lineage—his father was a Beale Street pianist; his sister sang with Fats Waller; his brothers played with Lionel Hampton; his niece was a Memphis DJ. He’d come up in jazz, favored the upright bass and had a brisk, walking-centered style.

Around late 1964, Steinberg was replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn. Allegedly more comfortable on electric bass, Dunn was nearly a decade younger than Steinberg and looked it. He was a dynamo on stage, and ambitious—he’d buy a couple new 45s each week and spend his few hours at home learning the basslines. Most essentially, Dunn was Cropper’s high school friend and former bandmate (that was the main reason, Steinberg believed. “Every time Stax would get a hit record, I would be the one that would put the bass to it…and every time it comes out, someone else is reaping the benefits,” he said in 1999).

duckThe bassman swap happened while Booker T. and the MG’s were a provisional concept. Jones was at college in Indiana from fall 1962 through spring 1966—some piano and organ parts on MG’s singles of the period are by another Stax mainstay, Isaac Hayes. The band was a foremost a studio outfit (live, “Booker T. and the MG’s” were whoever got on stage under that name—David Porter sometimes sang with them). For a long time, they were that group that did “Green Onions.”

Funky Onions

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No music gives me as much pleasure as listening to Booker T., like “Green Onions” is my ultimate record of all time, practically, and the guitar work is so tasteful; it’s everything that I want to do.   Pete Townshend, 1968.

An occupational hazard if you’re Steve Cropper is that if you go to a blues bar, you’ll be asked up on stage to play “Green Onions.” Cropper’s fine with it. It’s just that bar bands get “Green Onions” wrong.

They know how to play his lines and the bassline, but the drummer never nails Al Jackson’s part. “Green Onions” is in 2/4, but “the ride is playing straight fours, the kick is going dom dom da-dom dom—it’s a sort of half-shuffle thing in the foot,” Cropper told Jim Payne. And keyboardists play it like a second-string church organist, all splayed fingers and heavy-handed chording. But Jones glides and pivots, his fingers dancing down the treble end of the organ’s upper keyboard, playing sets of fifths for the theme/bassline. It’s as if he’s consoling his notes while he’s sounding them.

He credits it to his childhood piano teacher, who taught him to keep his fingers arched and to “crawl”—hold down one key while moving your other fingers to their next positions, so there’s always a drone note to cotton the melody’s progress. (You can see him demonstrate it to Keyboard in this video.)

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It’s a Sunday afternoon, sometime in July 1962. The session is for a radio jingle, or prospective single, by fading rockabilly star Billy Lee Riley. It’s a bust (Riley’s too drunk or hung over to sing, or fails to show up—memories are cloudy, as it was a lifetime ago). The band put together for the session—Jones, Cropper, Steinberg, Jackson—hasn’t all played together before. Jackson’s recently begun working at Stax, thanks to Jones’ lobbying.

There are some hours to fill, so they might as well cut something.

Jones is playing a Hammond M spinet organ. It’s in the studio thanks to Jim Stewart, who found it in an old woman’s living room and took pity on it. It has cheap plastic pedals and an eight-inch speaker at knee-height. Cropper picks up on Jones’ riff—he and Jones have been working on it, inspired by something they’d heard on the radio while driving to Stax. But Jones has only played it on piano before. This is the first time he tries the riff on organ. It’s different. The speaker cages the riff, gives it attitude—it sounds more urgent.

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Booker T. gets an award from his high school bandmaster (Jet, 1 November 1962).

They start working it out: a 12-bar blues in F minor with tricks in it—while Jones starts on the F minor home chord, he substitutes major IV and V chords (Bb and C) while Cropper plays major chords for his staccato counterpoint. “I’m just playing a four major to a one major, four-one, four-one, on my intro,” Cropper said. “Booker’s in a minor and I’m in a major. It works because the bassline supports all of it.” (Jesse Gress argues that Cropper’s in two keys at once, playing “three-note, second-inversion major triads a fourth higher than each chord in the progression,” hence playing Bb chords over Jones’ tonic Fm figures and Eb and F triads in Jones’ Bb and C bars.)

It’s an unintended bitonality—these are green musicians, fresh out of school, and going by what sounds right on their strings and keys. But Jones and Cropper already know how to orient against each other. Each takes two solo choruses. Jones’ are precise, sharp-edged, playing descending variations on the riff or building it out; Cropper’s are bristling, hooking into a juicy repetition for his second chorus. Their chords work in service to Jackson’s drum pattern, with its hard judgement.

Steinberg makes it swing: he’s the dance floor’s advocate. “All three of us, bass, guitar and organ, were all playing the bassline,” he told Uncut in 2006. “When one soloed, the other two would take up the bottom of it. And…we never made Jackson turn around in it. It just kept flowing right on through. Wasn’t no blahblahblahblah from him, then go into the next 12 bars. No, no. It just pulled right on through.”

goBooker T.’s opening organ riff (song transposed to Gm)

As Jones ends his solo, someone in the room yells before Cropper rolls in. One of this makeshift quartet, playing in a former movie hall whose floors slope down to where a screen once stood, looks up and catches what’s happening. Hey!

At playback, Cropper thinks it’s the best dance track he’s ever heard. They cast about for names. Steinberg suggests “Funky Onions.” That’s a bit low-class, a bit too close to “Fucking Onions.” So instead they honor green onions, those stinky, not-fully-grown scrubs you’d find in any Southern backyard. Stax makes a pressing, Cropper takes it around to the local stations and the phones light up. “Green Onions” hits #1 R&B and #3 pop in 1962, sells over a million copies, and every bar band in America still plays it, if not well.

Mo’ & Mo’ Onions

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(Bill Carrier, ca. 1962).

So begins Booker T. and the MG’s. The name came from the car, though to avoid copyright hassles they always said it meant “Memphis Group” (“M.G.’s” or “MG’s” varied throughout their history; they were at the mercy of art directors). They cut the Green Onions LP in a day in August 1962. It has trebly covers of performers now mostly remembered by God (Acker Bilk, Dave “Baby” Cortez), contemporary Motown (Mary Wells’ “The One Who Really Loves You,” where Jones ornaments Smokey Robinson’s melody as he would the Beatles years later) and older Atlantic sides. On Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue,” Jones elaborates a keyboard technique he’d done on “Behave Yourself,” a slow blues originally slated as the A-side of “Green Onions.” It’s a telegraph-fast repetition of a note or two, a pointillist flurry, as if he’s boring into the song (you hear it throughout the MG’s lifespan—see “Pigmy” or “Heads or Tails”).

The LP’s only fresh original was “Mo’ Onions,” a bald attempt to reuse the formula. They kept at it on subsequent singles, their Onions Variations, in which a band invents itself. “Jelly Bread” has Cropper’s guitar as gruff lead figure while Jones plots against him; its B-side “Aw’ Mercy” is Jackson as centerpiece, keeping a cha-cha rhythm on cymbals, rumbling on his toms, punctuating lines with a snare fill. “Home Grown” has a slow menace of an organ groove, with Steinberg as undertow; on “Chinese Checkers” the Memphis Horns play organ riffs while Jones does a guitar line on organ; on “Plum Nellie,” the Hammond’s pedals make Jones sound like he’s playing in a well, while the horns sound phased.

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These singles (mostly compiled on 1965’s Soul Dressing) are the continuing education of Booker T. Jones during his time at Indiana University (he’d drive back to Memphis in the car he’d bought from his share of “Green Onions”). “I could play my little theory chords with Steve, Al and Lewie…they had the expertise with the rhythm…all I had to do was play my little chords and it came together,” he said. Once in a while, he’d pull off a steal: “Big Train” nicks from Little Walter’s “My Babe“; “MG Party” is a more subtle reworking of it.

Working with Otis Redding narrowed Cropper’s already-minimalist tendencies. “Even when I take a solo, you’ll notice I don’t play a lot of notes. I just play something very bluesy,” he said to Hit Parader in 1967. “Even the solo is mainly rhythm, what you call block form phrases.” He became a secondary percussionist. “I treated the guitar…like I would a set of drums, picking up from the little things you do on the hi-hat, on the cymbals, and little stabs and rim shots,” he told Gordon. “I would weave in and out of Al and play when he didn’t and lay out when he did.” See “Tic-Tac-Toe,” where Cropper and Jackson are competing fronts while Jones sends out distress calls on organ, or “Soul Dressing,” whose rim-shot drumline started with Cropper messing around on the studio drum kit, Jackson translating the pattern for public consumption.

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Some of Dunn’s bassline on “Hip-Hug-Her” (from Tim Tindall’s What Duck Done)

With Dunn, the band got yet another percussive dimension. “I stick with pure syncopation. Upbeat is the thing now,” he said in 1967. It was a survival tactic—early on, Jackson had warned him “don’t ever play before me!,” meaning that he didn’t want to hear a bass note before he came down on the one. “I listen to the foot,” Dunn said. “You can’t get in the way of that foot or you’re in trouble.” He lived in the off-beats—on “Time Is Tight,” his bassline in a typical bar is a note on the downbeat, a pair on the “&” of “two & three,” three notes starting on the “&” of “three & four,” and a last after the fourth beat.

He was a syncopation agent, keeping close to the beat but parrying around it, digging into easy, repetitive patterns. He finger-picked, alternating quarter and eighth notes to parallel Jackson’s shifts between kick and snare, and a signature move was to slide a sixth note between his root-fifth movements. “Be My Lady,” a late 1965 single, is a Dunn showcase—the rest of the MG’s cha-cha in support. It’s so rhythm-drunk that a tambourine is a lead voice.

Shindig, August 1965

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Having signed a distribution agreement with Atlantic—Stax became their regional soul wholesaler—in August 1965, Stax arranged a West Coast promotional tour, centered on LA television shows and clubs.

Booker T. and the MG’s did a ferocious performance of “Green Onions” at the 5/4 Ballroom in Watts days before the riots started. Cropper sounds like he’s chopping through metal. “They were holding lighters and matches and saying ‘burn baby burn’ and we thought they just loved us to death, but, naw, they were talking about something else,” he recalled to Gordon.

They also appeared on Hollywood a Go-go and Shindig! The latter performance, where dancers multiply like Tribbles with each camera change, is psychedelic vaudeville. Jackson’s in the rear and Dunn and Cropper are on pedestals up front. Jones sits at his organ between them. But for his college deferment, he’d likely have been in Vietnam that summer (he was in ROTC in high school: “I could dismantle an M1 [rifle] blindfolded by the time I cut ‘Green Onions'”). On stage, Jones is always quietly observing, craning his neck, looking out across the crowd, surveying his band. He’s a ship’s pilot.

Sweet Potato Hip-Hugger

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Tour program for the UK Stax/Volt Revue, March-April 1967

At Indiana U, where he’d lived with “the old masters” from Bach to Stravinsky,  Jones learned to read and write music, dug into counterpoint and fugue (he majored in trombone). For his post-graduate work, he had his R&B band.

An early sign of his ambitions is the MG’s take on “Summertime,” cut in summer 1965 but held over for a year. It’s one of their slowest-tempo performances on record—the band moves as if sleep-stung, Jackson’s cymbals and Dunn’s bass a foundation for Jones’ elongations of Gershwin’s melody. The fruition was And Now! (1966), their first cohesive album, the first that Jones cut as a full-time Stax employee. On “My Sweet Potato,” Jones moves to piano—he’s changed into a dress suit, doing his take on Vince Guaraldi—while Cropper’s guitar is absent (he’s on bass, while Dunn plays claves). It’s a Jones solo piece with Jackson’s annotations.

“Jericho” is a Cropper and Jones mind-meld, playing the theme in unison on organ and guitar, Cropper echoing Jones down an octave, Jones darting off on variations while Cropper keeps to his riffs. Jackson snaps in as if to settle a tab. “No Matter What Shape” (a quintessential MG’s song title) has Cropper as bristling counterpart to Jackson’s ride and snare patterns—Jones is a free agent. “One Mint Julep” starts as yet another take on “My Babe” and yet another “Green Onions” remake, but then it flashes into the contemporary—the four-bar bookend riff between Cropper solos all but quotes the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” as covered by Otis Redding and most of the MG’s not long before.

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Cover: George Rosenblatt. H-H-H began a brief period in which models replaced the band on their LP covers (see also Doin’ Our Thing, which the MG’s aren’t.)

Jones wrote much of “Hip-Hug-Her” in Indiana. “I remember the way I was voicing the chords,” he told Bowman. “Knowing for sure what those notes were that I was playing gave me a confidence I didn’t have when I recorded ‘Green Onions.'” One key to “Hip-Hug-Her” was an upgrade in gear—by now, Jones had moved to the more resonant Hammond B3.

Each of the MG’s stake outs a position on the first downbeat and bang! they shift, counter, push around; it’s a four-man chess game. Cropper’s descending riff is answered by Dunn’s bass, whose notes have a brighter timbre thanks to his change of strings—he sounds like he’s about to blow out his amp. Jackson’s killer beat (later sampled by the Jungle Brothers, among others) is the rotating stage for Jones’s theme melody. Cropper’s twelve-bar solo is him elbowing onto a packed dance floor; he pulls shapes, bows out.

There’s a trick in the song’s turnarounds, with their augmented chords (the first chord that Jones plays is likely a F7 suspended, but Cropper’s bending his strings up to nearly sound Ab and Db notes, making the harmony a thicket). Every second of “Hip-Hug-Her” is soul-clasped to rhythm, to shakes and riffs and breaks, to riffs within riffs—it spins like a top, a perfect dance record. It can still shake down a house.

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Recording in London, 1967. Carla Thomas far right.

The album was nearly as good. “Soul Sanction,” with its irregular structure (the theme sections are either thirteen or eleven bars); “Carnaby Street,” where Cropper listens to the Byrds and does a perfect variation on them for the intro; “Double or Nothing,” an Al Jackson monument; “Slim Jenkin’s Joint,” where Jones plays a looping figure on piano to rival John Cale.

Soul Limbo

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Recording at Stax ca. late 1968. Ebony, April 1969.

Within four months, Otis Redding died in a plane crash, Martin Luther King was murdered at a Memphis hotel that Stax used for business meetings, and whatever racial harmony existed at Stax (albeit the sort of harmony where white people owned the business) was over.

Jackson, hearing a rumor that Dunn had used a racial slur, stopped talking to him for a time (Dunn swore on his life it wasn’t true). Though Cropper in 2017 claimed “we said it back then, and we’re saying it now: there was no color at Stax Records,” Rufus Thomas and Sam Moore recalled otherwise in interviews (as per Thomas, Cropper “had that white thing that said because you’re black, you’re supposed to do exactly what this white man says”). Musicians started bringing guns to the studio, as they were getting harassed while parking their cars. Jones got kidnapping threats.

Stax’s relationship with Atlantic ended and, in a corporate ruthlessness, Atlantic took ownership of all Stax’s released masters (Jim Stewart hadn’t read the fine print). In 1968, Stax was an independent again, with no catalog. So it made a new one. Al Bell, the label’s new driving force (and eventually its owner, as he bought out Axton and, later, Stewart), turned Stax into a round-the-clock hit factory. Thirty albums and singles would be released at once.

With Redding dead and Atlantic artists like Sam and Dave no longer available, Booker T. and the MG’s became a priority for Stax. It was a devil’s bargain—they got more promotional attention and got worked into the ground. Signing with Gulf & Western for its new distributor/backer, Stax caught conglomerate disease—more administrative staff, more offices, more outside producers and studios, more formalized sessions. The latter in particular irked Jones. “We were getting memos as to what time to have the sessions, and at one point they had us operating in shifts…three shifts with Stax? We started as a company that had trouble getting the drummer to the studio at noon,” he told Gordon. “It wasn’t the same company. The music was coming from a different place.”

Booker T. and the MG’s released three albums in roughly the span of a year, relying on covers and dusted-off outtakes. The latter included “Soul Limbo,” a shelved MG’s track given a fresh marimba overdub (Cropper experimented with spoons on glasses for one take) that would sell 470,000 copies.

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By 1968, they worried they were looking out of date. “We had trouble getting airplay because disc jockeys did not like playing songs without vocals on them…they finally pushed every instrumental band in the country out of business,” Cropper recalled to Bowman. As early as 1965, Jones was saying they needed vocals: “in the future we would like to try a record other than an instrumental.”

Stax resisted. It saw them as a group that, after Redding’s death, was one of their biggest crossover acts to white record buyers. The MG’s were being lauded and interviewed in the newly-launched Rolling Stone; they appeared with Pink Floyd and The Who on a French TV special full of dancers who seem cast by Antonioni; the Velvet Underground had a song called “Booker T.” Would whites keep buying Booker T. records if he started singing on them? Don’t mess with the formula.

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Beachcomber MG’s, their strangest incarnation

Of their 1968-1969 “formula” albums, Doin’ Our Thing‘s heart is in its covers: the Association’s “Never My Love,” where Cropper takes the lead, with Jones challenging him on the bridge and later in the second verse; an “Ode to Billy Joe” where Jones barely keeps to the melody, slowly musing around it, with a spectral echo on his Hammond. It also has one of the more teetotal versions of “Let’s Go Get Stoned” ever recorded.

Soul Limbo’s peaks, along with the title track and “Over Easy,” whose looser structure and terse piano/guitar dialogues previews their last records, were more interpretations: a cold funk “Eleanor Rigby“; “Willow Weep For Me,” with the MG’s becoming a jazz quartet for four minutes. And another hit single—“Hang Em High,” the soundtrack theme of a Clint Eastwood western. With a magnificent Dunn bassline as its spine, “Hang ‘Em High” shape-shifts in each verse—Jackson moving from a snaking hi-hat pattern to snare; Cropper’s riffing becoming fanatic; stop-time sections in the bridge and outro, where Cropper solos into faded-out oblivion.

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Commissioned for Stax’s spring 1969 sales conference, as if to show Stax could produce MOR as well as any label, The Booker T. Set was almost all covers of contemporary pop and rock (“Michelle,” “Love Child,” “This Guy’s In Love With You,” “Sing a Simple Song”). Dunn’s in good form, taking a solo on “The Horse” and playing a crafty line on “Mrs. Robinson.” But much of it’s embalming fluid music, the sort of thing heard in a Playboy Club in Des Moines at four in the afternoon.

Jones saw a future of drowning in session work and churning out Herb Alpert-lite albums to a timetable (the cream of this period were B-sides— “Meditation” and “Sunday Sermon.“) So he quit Stax, moved to California, wanted the band to follow him. Cropper eventually did, leaving Stax in 1970. Jackson and Dunn stayed in Memphis, though Jackson was more often found a few blocks over from Stax, working at Royal Studios with Hi Records’ rising star Al Green, for whom Jackson co-wrote “Let’s Stay Together,” “You Ought To Be With Me” and “Look What You’ve Done For Me,” and alternated on drums with his disciple Willie Grimes.

East on McLemore

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Cover shot: Joel Brodsky. Google Street View of E. McLemore today, with the rebuilt Stax on left

For a time, Jones kept recording at Stax, on his terms. First his soundtrack for Uptight, Jules Dassin’s remake of John Ford’s The Informer, set in Cleveland with a mostly black cast. Taking notes from Quincy Jones, whom he met out in California (they were in the hospital at the same time), Jones crafted an understated score with the MG’s—you can hear him process through interests like Antonio Carlos Jobim. At last, he got vocals on his tracks, both his (“Johnny I Love You”) and Judy Clay’s (“Children Don’t Get Weary”). Though it had a hit single (“Time Is Tight,” used in the film’s climactic sequence), Uptight is greatly overlooked today.

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“We would love to record with Booker T. and the MG’s.” John Lennon, Beatles press conference, Memphis, 19 August 1966.

In late 1969, Jones made a four-movement symphony of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, tethering the “Golden Slumbers—The End” sequence to “Here Comes the Sun” (the latter two songs align in key, both in A major) and “Come Together.” He made “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” the closer of the “Sun King”—“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” sequence (another harmonic choice, with Jones matching an A major piece with an A minor one, though you could also read the sequence as someone becoming obsessed with the woman who came in through their bathroom window).

Their most inspired take was on “Something,” where after moving the bridge to follow the first verse, the MG’s run through solo chorus after solo chorus—Cropper first playing George Harrison’s lead lines, then doing variations on them, working against Jones’ piano, Jones soloing against him—until they break Harrison’s song into pieces.

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McLemore Avenue was an ironic title, as it’s the first MG’s album not entirely recorded at Stax. As Cropper was working in New York when the rest of the band cut backing tracks in Memphis, he did his guitar overdubs with Jones in California—he’d never heard Abbey Road before he sat down to play.

“It was a tenacious struggle to get that music recorded,” Jones said of the album. “Stax had become more corporate and they didn’t see the need.” He’d seen in the Beatles a convex mirror image of his band. “‘I Saw Her Standing There’ was very soulful. That’s an R&B melody. Eventually, they might be the R&B group and we’ll be the pop group,” he said to Hit Parader in 1967. And the Beatles were equal admirers, so taken with “Booker Table and the Maitre’ds,” in a Lennonism, that they cut a clunking would-be “Green Onions” during the Rubber Soul sessions and wanted to make Revolver at Stax until, per a 1966 George Harrison letter, “too many people get insane with money ideas at the mention of the word ‘Beatles’, so it fell through.”

Booker T. and the MG’s remake the Beatles in their image, a set of fearsome line editors. There’s little of Lennon’s abrasive rhythm guitar in Cropper’s work; Jackson’s forever straightening Ringo Starr lines—see the needle-precise tom fills on “Something” or his lightning-strike of a solo on “The End” (“Al could actually play anything … but he couldn’t play it raggedy,” Willie Mitchell once said); Dunn makes quick work of McCartney’s showy bass fills on “I Want You,” then gets on with things.

Sunny Monday

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For another year, Booker T. and the MG’s held together, mostly existing as a live act, touring at times with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Jones now refused to record at Stax. Per usual, their next album, Melting Pot, was cut on stolen time—afternoons or evenings between gigs, mostly in New York.

“The actual album was cut over a period of a year,” Cropper told Blues & Soul in 1971. “The melodies are very different though the rhythm creations are still basically the MG’s but because we wrote it, it’s more exciting to us. We don’t have to follow a rhythm or melody that someone else has set down. The music on it is much freer and we’re not so restricted. You know, when we’re cutting a Top 40 tune, we usually do two verses of the melody with Booker playing, then they’ll say: ‘O.K., Cropper, you’ve got an eight-bar solo,’ and it has to fit in with the context of the song. On this album, though, I played when I felt it was right and Booker did the same.”

They’d started some songs years before, pieces Stax hadn’t considered commercial. The eight-minute-plus title track is up there with “Hip-Hug-Her” in its group dynamics—a dramatic shift hinges on Jackson’s move from a shuffle pattern to playing straight fours. What’s new is the time and freedom they have, no longer feeling the pressure to pack in every single bar. You can play “Melting Pot” four times in a row and focus each time on a different player—Dunn playing one of his all-time basslines, Cropper’s hard funk rhythm lines, Jackson’s subtle changes at the kit, Jones moving against all of them at once.

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Melting Pot was the finest Booker T. & the MG’s album, particularly its first side, which has “Back Home,” with its mid-song blues piano breakdown, the temple-of-riffs “Fuquawi,” and “Chicken Pox,” where Cropper serves up a riff as if he’s in a tennis match while Dunn plays a wild, tenth-spanning bassline. The second side is lesser only because, as Robert Christgau aptly described it, there’s “a Vegas-jazz boop-de-doo chorus” on two tracks—the Pepper Singers, a Memphis group who did ad jingles.

The closer was “Sunny Monday.” Cropper starts with an acoustic guitar figure that sounds as if he’d recently played Forever Changes, while Jackson keeps a constant pulse on his cymbals; Jones harmonizes Cropper’s riff on piano. Apart from a 16-bar bridge, much of the track is devoted to wrapping itself around the guitar figure, with strings as another harmony. But for the fade, “Sunny Monday” could keep moving outward, shedding skins, bringing in more players, twisting into new shapes. It’s the sound of a future, one they weren’t allotted.

“We’d like to go out cool instead of dying slowly,” Al Jackson had said in 1969.

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Ca. 1970 (David Redfern)

They had another album in the works. Half was cut already, or they were waiting on Booker, depending on who reporters spoke to. Years passed. Jones produced Bill Withers, Dunn and Jackson did a half-MG’s record. Then in 1975, Cropper, Jones, Dunn, and Jackson decided to settle some obligations, then devote solid months to an album. No more cutting tracks between gigs or on other people’s time. They’d move towards where Melting Pot had pointed.

On 30 September 1975, Jackson was in Memphis. He was supposed to fly to Detroit that night but stuck around to watch the Ali/Frazier fight, then went home. There, he was shot five times in the back, point-blank. His wife Barbara, who was there that night, told the police that he’d walked in on a robbery. It remains an open case. Jackson was brutally murdered in his house and forty-five years later, no one knows, or will say, who did it (Barbara Jackson had shot Al in the chest that summer during an argument; another possible suspect was killed by a policeman in Seattle in 1976—Andria Lisle’s 1997 piece for Grand Royal is a thorough account of a murky story).

Jones, visiting his father that night, walked into the house and saw the name of his band on the TV news. “That’s how I learned Al had been killed.”

Stax was gone, too. Deep in litigation with its former partners, distributors, and lenders, the label was forced into involuntary bankruptcy at the end of 1975. The studio was padlocked and sold for ten dollars to a church, who tore it down in 1989.

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(Dennis Keeley, promo for That’s the Way It Should Be, 1994).

The bereft MG’s made a reunion record in 1977, with Willie Hall—it was minor (Dunn’s expression in its NSFW photo shoot says it all). A final album, 1994’s That’s the Way It Should Be, mostly lived up to its name. When the three of them played together, they usually were the backing band again: at Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert, or with Neil Young on tour in 1993.

Dunn, touring in a Stax Revue in May 2012, went to bed after a double show at the Blue Note in Tokyo and died in his sleep. He was 70. (Steinberg died at age 82, in 2016.) Left is the original pair, the kids from Messick and Booker T. Washington High. Cropper, always happy to be in the band, as he says. Jones, still restless and curious (he’s taken on “Hey Ya!” and Gnarls Barkley on recent solo LPs, and worked with the Drive-By Truckers), a gracious, reserved presence in interviews. His memoir is coming out later this year.

Oakland Coliseum, CA; 31 January 1970.

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In January 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival throws a homecoming at the Oakland Coliseum, and asks Booker T. and the MG’s to make a guest spot.

“The best that the MG’s ever played, as far as I can remember,” Jones told the East Bay Express in 2015, “was in Oakland, at the Coliseum. We had been rehearsing with Creedence Clearwater. And we went on stage to play “Time Is Tight.” Cropper started that song, and it’s the best that he, and I think the whole band, ever played the song… I don’t know, I guess because we were trying to impress [CCR] or something—we had spent the week with them, we had become really good friends—it was inspirational. It’s still inspirational.”

He’d written “Time Is Tight” in Paris, in May 1968 (he’d left one convulsing city for another). Its structure was free-flowing, a series of tensions and releases. “For so many years, all of our melodies had been eight bars or twelve bars,” he told Bowman. “I wanted something that was six bars or ten bars, just so the melody changed on a different bar of the sequence.”

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In Oakland, Jones plays the opening strain of “Time Is Tight,” his chords drifting like nighttime clouds. Everyone watches him: Jackson, standing before his kit as if planning to auction it off; CCR’s Doug Clifford and John Fogerty, beaming from the wings.

Cropper takes his turn, slowly pulling the melody from his strings. A breath and a nod and he digs into a riff, doubled by Dunn’s bass (Dunn’s stage right, genial and looking a bit high, but he’s right there when they need him). Cropper grips his guitar as if he’s reeling in a fish—at times, he seems to be standing at a forty-five degree angle.

On stage, the band tended to increase their tempos—“Green Onions” could be breakneck. But here, “Time is Tight” moves slower than its studio take and feels even looser: there’s a welcoming yet fragile groove—a pact that any one of them could choose to break.

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A pattern establishes—Cropper and Dunn doubling a bassline, Jackson conducting with his cymbal hand, Jones with his funk church chords, pounding the swell pedals. Cropper solos, Jones filling nooks between Cropper’s notes with his own. Jones moves rightward on his upper keyboard, sounding higher and higher notes, answered by Cropper, who looks like his nerves have been tightened by a peg. Dunn is a happy gravity field, Jackson sings along to his drum fills. It builds and builds and then it breaks. Jackson stands up in one quick motion, striding away from his drums.

Jones is alone again, musing aloud, but right as he sweeps across the keyboard to sound a great intoning chord, Dunn and Jackson are back with him. Cropper’s swept up, wrangling out rhythm lines, swerving and swaying. The beat becomes a stampede, with Jackson a percussion orchestra, Dunn dodging around him. It builds, it breaks again, and it ends.

It’s a dedication to the present, to these few minutes on stage—there’s a devotion in their playing, as if they knew they didn’t have much longer to go. This night, this song, this break, this refrain, this chord here—this is what they have to stake themselves. A joy flashes and flares among the four of them, like a lightning storm at sea.

“We pushed each other to stay true to our own formula, our own simple formula,” Jones recalled a decade ago. “To stay funky, to stay straight ahead. That was our only sort of unspoken creed.” They’re so straight and they communicate, and there’s been nothing quite like them ever since.