2. Throwing Muses

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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.

7 thoughts on “2. Throwing Muses

  1. This is just what I needed, Chris. I love the early Muses an awful lot, and this piece highlights what was great about them (and led me to a bunch of rarities I hadn’t heard!). Great to have them recognized like this. I’m dismayed they aren’t more highly regarded, especially by the guitar establishment, but I suppose that’s a losing game. (I’m also dismayed by virtually all the music any of the members did after the Real Ramona, but oh well.)

    I first heard the band via severely fuzzwarbled “Fish” and “Counting Backwards” on an xth-generation dub of the unoffical 4AD compilation Tunnels Cross in Random Fashion … I had no idea who any of the bands were until years later; an important formative mystery box for me.

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    1. I had a very similar experience — I had a very lo-fi cassette recording I made of what turned out to be a 4AD show on a college radio fundraising marathon. I had no idea who any of the groups were, but was utterly fascinated. It took me quite awhile to learn most of them (some I never figured out). But “Fish” was a stand-out and I had to hear more. Throwing Muses used to tour through Richmond, VA often (it seemed like) and we’d drive over from Charlottesville to see them many times.

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  2. What a wonderfully thorough piece on Throwing Muses! I still remember buying Hunkpapa at the mall after hearing Dizzy on college radio, sitting in my sweltering and tiny bedroom, following along with the lyric sheet, and beginning a long and satisfying relationship with their music. Thanks for all the research and writing about them!

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  3. Funny – I set my speakers up in a new location the other day and put on the Real Ramona to test them out. The drums and guitars sounded massive! I thought this was due to the new speaker placement, but it probably was largely the production. Thank for this one too Chris – always a treat. I’ll be a Patreon member soon – you are supplying a significant amount of my reading material these days!

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  4. Wow, this is truly great. Throwing Muses has burrowed into my psyche like few other bands, and I still marvel at their beautiful catalog of songs, especially with the first self-titled album, Chains Changed, House Tornado, the Fat Skier, and Hunkpapa. I remember seeing them for the 1st time in Texas in ’86 but unable to locate a copy of the debut for a long time because it was an import. And the version of ‘Fish’ on ‘Lonely Is an Eyesore’ compilation (a version which, alas, was not the one that tracked the video) remains one of the most transcendent pieces of pop made in the ’80s — it distilled the power of the Muses so perfectly: utterly unconventional in terms of form and shape — without chroruses or verses, yet, every subsequent bar in the song seemed completely logical and inevitable. Who could dream up that stuff? Anyway, this is literally the best thing I’ve read on the Muses.

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