Carrie Brownstein is friends with Eddy Vedder. Her punk band, Slater-Kinney, opened for Pearl Jam for crissake. In moments like this, my almost single-minded devotion to literature is a disadvantage. Where was I while this musical magic happened over the airwaves and on stages across the country? Probably reading a book.
True, for much of the Riot Grrrl movement I was just a girl myself, watching my friends lip sync to Spice Girls while I loudly protested pop music in the corner (attempting to borrow my older brother’s coolness). I grew up listening to The Beatles and Billie Holiday on vinyl (thank you, Dad). As a ballerina, I danced to Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” and “Nutcracker Suites,” to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and Motzart’s symphonies. My brother gave me my first Nirvana album, and passed on an unexpected love of Johnny Cash. Later, I fell for Cake, and One Line Drawing. But when I discovered Pearl Jam, I discovered my angst.
I’ve seen Pearl Jam live twice, most recently in 2013 at Portland’s Moda Center. The first time, in 2006 at the Bill Graham auditorium in San Francisco, I was fresh out of boarding school and itching to collect life moments. I didn’t know that in just a few short weeks Vedder would help close out Sleater-Kinney’s final show, and thus say goodbye to an epoch in Brownstein’s life (and in the punk world). My best friend went with me to the concert, not out of a love of the band, but out of a love for me. The music wasn’t the point, but experiencing the music together was.
While Brownstein’s memoir is largely about being a musician, the music is secondary to her experiences as a human, experiences she shares with a seeming fierce fearlessness, a frankness simultaneously jarring and comforting. Listening to the audio version of her memoir feels a little like that concert—sharing the experience is the most important part.
I identify with some of Brownstein’s stories—as a young child I too had “very little desire to be present, only to be representational, or to pretend.” True, I didn’t host murder mystery parties that I took too seriously (although I did take life too seriously…and have a strong desire to host one now). I didn’t rope the neighborhood kids into starting a lip-syncing cover band using homemade instruments and a neighbor’s porch as a stage. I didn’t have a Misfits bumper sticker on my car (not actually getting my license until I was 17), or recognize a leather jacket as an homage to Marlon Brando (as I was more likely to recall “The Outsiders”). To Brownstein “these symbols intimated a belief system, a way of thinking not just about music and school and friends and politics and society. It was a way to separate yourself, to feel bold or try on boldness without yet possessing it.”
These symbols can take the forms of stickers and jackets; but, for me, these symbols took the form of authors. I carried a worn copy of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” I kept, folded in my pocket, a poem by Emily Dickinson torn out of a library book. I scribbled quotes from my favorite books on my army-green messenger bag. Through these talismans Brownstein understands and captures something real and true about the need to belong, and to choose the people and places to which we identify. Her writing gets at the very heart of what being human, alive and creative and contributing, means.
The litany of bands mentioned throughout the book could serve as a roadmap to my own uncoolness (Sunny Day Real Estate, Bikini Kill, the Clash, Ramones, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy), but Brownstein doesn’t make me feel uncool. She doesn’t even seem certain of her own (in my opinion, undeniable) coolness. If anything, she is deeply invested in her own mythology as a gawky adolescent. The books she mentions however—the books make me really feel like I have met a kindred spirit. (Her father’s announcement that he plans to take in boarders prompts an image inspired by Somerset Maugham’s doily-covered tea services. She likens Olympia’s music scene to the Bloomsbury group.)
Brownstein read a lot while touring. “Books grounded me, helped me to feel less alone.” Willa Cather kept her company through Nebraska, she read Joseph Mitchell essays about the Bowery, and James Baldwin’s tales of Harlem before landing in New York City. When traveling in the South she read Truman Capote’s “Other Voices Other Rooms,” and Joan Didion and Wallace Stegner carried her into the West. Amistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” accompanied her while touring for her second album.
In an interview following the book recording on the audio book, Brownstein reveals her penchant for literary crushes, and shares an anecdote about scaring novelist Lorrie Moore while in an elevator in a New York hotel. The books she loved last year—”The Argonauts,” and “The Fates and Furies“—are books I loved last year and continually recommend as a bookseller. She is just as cool unscripted as she is reading aloud from an edited and published manuscript: she is consistently herself.
I’m discovering a love of certain audio books, the type that’s read by the author, who is also a musician and performer, who is self-effacing and bad-ass and an accidental feminist icon. I enjoy being spoken to, comforted by stories, held in the warm cup of their voice and lulled to a place of deeper understanding about myself or the world, the way my parents’ voices cradled me at bedtime and told me stories that made the world make sense (or embraced the nonsensical by equal measure).
I recommend the audio version for several reasons. First, is hearing Brownstein sing the signature song from her first all-girl band, Born Naked. (Hearing Brownstein sing “You Annoy Me” is one of those life experiences we don’t know is on our bucket list until we’re checking the box.) The interview is another reason. Not only do listeners hear extra content, but we hear another layer of Brownstein. She writes about her ecstatic fandom as a child, and the ways she remembers musicians she admired treating her. The generous, gentle way Brownstein treats the young woman interviewer, whose voice fills with awe, reflects a deep empathy. Finally, Brownstein’s voice, her timing as a musician and comedian, her very presence in our ears, our heads and hearts, is a gift.
Brownstein combines complex language with the distilled wisdom of a poet (or lyricist in a punk band). Her story is part personal narrative about growing up in the Pacific Northwest during a seminal movement in the music scene, and part chronicle of the punk band Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein’s journey of finding herself as a human and musician is a powerful exploration of the creative self.
“We were never trying to deny our femaleness,” she writes of attempting to shake off the female punk band label. “We wanted to expand the notion of what it means to be female.” What I really wanted when I finished listening was a mixtape and book list from Brownstein. This is an incredible memoir, regardless if readers are familiar with Brownstein as a musician and/or comedian.