Spotlit and seated in the center of a small stage, Elizabeth Wurtzel and Kristin Hersh are at the Hell’s Kitchen performance space The Tank to discuss writing and rock music and depression and babies, before an intimate audience of readers and fans.
Wurtzel is the author of, among several later titles, the iconic young-and-depressed memoir Prozac Nation. Hersh plays in the Eighties-famous alt-rock bands Throwing Muses and 50FOOTWAVE, and is the author of the memoir Rat Girl (Penguin, Aug 2010).
There are seemingly enough common denominators between the two to sustain cogent conversation – book deals, depression – but it becomes obvious early on that the two-hour dialogue will be anything but.
Observing a conversation between Elizabeth Wurtzel and Kristin Hersh is a lot like sipping from your water glass, and swallowing gin.
“So,” Wurtzel begins, “you have a lot of babies.”
“Do I? I’ve had four,” Hersh says. “Is that a lot? I guess it is.”
“Well… Yes, it is. Compared to those women who haven’t had any.”
“I love babies,” Hersh replies. “I just love them; I probably could have had ten.”
“Well, I mean, you still could,” says Wurtzel. “You’re not… You’re not dead.”
There is nervous laughter and a lull, and Wurtzel takes this opportunity to bring up the book, Rat Girl – the promotion of which is the main reason for the event.
“Why this book, now?” she asks.
Hersh gives a long-winded response, and explains that “five different journalists” had come to her, all at the same time, “asking me if they could write my memoir.”
“I guess some article had just been written about me – I didn’t know, I didn’t read it – and they seemed to think I was someone important [enough] to write about.” Saying this, she comes across as over-modest and shy.
Hersh decided she’d write the memoir herself – she doesn’t like fiction, nor any story that you know is just “something the author has made-up” – and
based the book on the diary she kept from 1985-’86; the year in which, as a 19-year-old, she signed her first record deal (fun!), and learned she was bipolar and pregnant (not fun!).
Hersh keeps slinking the conversation back to a well-oiled rant about the dumbed-down, packaged-up, assembly-line music industry of the ‘90s. She speaks of her earlier music-making days with a mixture of rapture and exhaustion.
She tells Wurtzel a story about going to a hotel room for a photo-shoot some years ago, “I walk in, and there are five Italian women – who looked like men, really – and they want me to put on these white, cotton underwear that say BRIDE in rhinestones, on the crotch.”
The audience laughs at this, possibly because it’s an odd wardrobe choice for the ripped-jeans and oxford shoes-wearing author before them, but probably because the whole scene sounds just so utterly oddball and imagined.
Wurtzel appears equally amused.
“And they wanted me to marry Jon Stewart.” Hersh says. “They put me in these cotton underwear with BRIDE on the crotch, and they wanted me to marry Jon Stewart.”
Here, Wurtzel – incredulous as if she’d just heard Hersh confess to dabbling “into” witchcraft with some dude from a coven – stops her and asks, “Jon Stewart?”
“Yes,” the singer says. “They wanted me to marry Jon Stewart! … I don’t know?!”
Wurtzel turns away from her conversation-partner, and looks straight into the audience: “OK?”
We share a moment of mutual whatthefuck?.
Having hit an odd stride in the conversation, Wurtzel asks if Hersh will play one of her songs*.
Your compass lead you to the edge of a lake
You’ll singe your nuts down there if you take
Such bad advice from the love gods of hate
You’ll get cold / You get burned, you get cold
Hersh is a mesmerizing performer, singing with an unexpected vigor and venom, and playing effortless guitar. Her affect is that of someone under a temporary, tune-induced trance; the words coming out all hard and high and hysteric.
The audience, which is comprised mainly of readers and writers and publishing people – sitting behind me is the author and Gawker-alum Emily Gould, who was dubbed the ‘Elizabeth Wurtzel of Gen Y’ around the publication date of her essay collection And the Heart Says Whatever (Free Press, May 2010) – is silent and still. They are either staring straight ahead to the performance on stage, or they are darting their eyes about, uncomfortable in the thrall of the suddenly shrieking Hersh.
Wurtzel, seated only inches away, keeps her eyes cast down toward her lap, fiddles with her fingers and their many rings, and only occasionally turns to look, wide-eyed, at the explosion of music to her left.
I keep forgetting to breathe.
When the song is done, Hersh turns off the amp and explains that after injuring her head in a car accident, she began to hear music in everyday noises: garbage trucks, heavy traffic, playgrounds, and like that.
“The songs, they come to me. I hear them in my head…and put them down, and if I don’t share them with the world, they’ll… They need to be shared!”
She speaks of her song-writing process as Noah did the plans for his ark, frequently referring to herself as merely a conduit for the music.
There was, however, a two-year period in which the music was gone. The lyrics didn’t come. The melodies were silent. It was almost as if she’d forgotten about music altogether – a comparison is made to the way a person who’s lost her sense of smell will forget to miss smelling nice things – and it wasn’t until one morning, sitting with her husband in a diner for breakfast, that the music miraculously returned.
“I just stood there, crying, saying ‘I can hear the music, I can hear the music!'” she recalls.
“There were two Native American men at a table behind us, and they were burning incense over a man’s guitar.” Hersh’s husband walked over to their table and asked them ‘What have you done to my wife?'” The Native Americans had been blessing the third man’s music, but Hersh figures the good vibes went straight into her, instead.
Wurtzel asks, point blank, “Why are there always Native Americans in these stories?” Which, being an astute, if off-track, observation, stops Hersh short.
Having strayed rather far off-course, they return to the topic of Rat Girl.
“My best friend in college was the great, old movie-star Betty Hutton,” Hersh says, prefacing a story that is perhaps the closest iteration of Harold and Maude on this side of the silver screen.
She had started taking college classes at Rhode Island’s Salve Regina University “when I was very young,” she explains, and Betty, who had been 60 at the time, was there taking classes there, too. Somehow, the vast age difference – forty-five years, as Hersh had been fifteen when she enrolled – worked to their advantage, bringing together these two least likely of friends.
Apparently, Betty Hutton attended many of Hersh’s early Throwing Muses shows – sometimes bringing her priest along, as if a late-in-life movie-star sitting front row at a rockshow wasn’t an odd-enough image, already.
Wurtzel confesses that is wasn’t until fairly late in the book that she realized ‘Betty Hutton’ was, indeed, Betty Hutton. “I thought maybe she was this person you saw as being like Betty Hutton.”
“For a while, I really didn’t know who she was, either,” says Hersh. “I thought she could have been just this older woman who’d dreamt of being a old-Hollywood legend, who spoke about it ‘as if’ … But I loved that; I loved not knowing whether her story had been made-up … She was just Betty.”
Perhaps the glaring contradiction of Hersh’s closing statement is besides the point; after all, much of the evening’s discourse was either preposterous, far-fetched, or just downright incomprehensible. But considering the event was billed as a conversation about “the intricacies of writing about a topic as subjective and personal as mental illness,” it is curious that the author, who only hours earlier had expressed a vehement distaste for fiction, would then predicate her affection for bizarre Betty on a starry-eyed enchantment with the screen-star’s larger-than-life legend.
Did she believe in Betty, or did she not care? Did Native Americans truly treat her tin-ear for tunes? And how about getting a comment from her would-be beau, Jon Stewart?
It doesn’t really matter; Wurtzel’s arch amusement with the whole wacky affair is palpable and utterly on point.
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