City Paper is not for tourists
Raphael terms the book’s interviews “monologues” because they are not presented in a traditional Q&A format; she provides introductory comments on each artist, but thereafter her subjects’ remarks appear without authorial interruption. This gambit is not an unqualified success; almost all of the monologues are longer than they are interesting. The incidental details are the book’s greatest assets. Björk recalls listening exclusively to the Swans while pregnant; Ellyott Dragon of Sister George admits worshiping Roseanne’s Sara Gilbert; Kim Gordon audaciously claims that her line of X-Girl fashions compliments “a wide range of figures.”
Many of Raphael’s subjects distrust the very notion of “women in rock.” The author quotes Chrissie Hynde’s dismissive “As long as you’re getting paid and can vote, what’s the problem?” (Hynde doesn’t appear in the book.) “That female thing bored me to death,” says Björk. Gina Birch of the Raincoats points out that women are often “compared to the point that it divides you.” Tanya Donelly is the most adamant of all. “I hate talking about women’s issues these days,” she declares. “My vagina doesn’t come into my guitar playing or my singing.”
Another commonality among many of Raphael’s Grrrls is the influence of hippie parents. A surprising number acknowledge suffering the travails of a bohemian childhood. When Courtney Love was young, she remembers, “we were living in a teepee and I always smelt like piss.” Björk grew up in a commune, as did Kristin Hersh (“I guess we all lived in a barn,” she hazards). Veruca Salt’s Nina Gordon recalls early exposure to Donovan’s Barabajagal. Donelly says of going to school: “That was the longest I’d ever had to wear clothes.”
In her introduction, Raphael poses the question, “If Bono had been a woman, what would have happened to U2?” The query suggests that egomaniacal buffoonery is not tolerated in female rock stars, a contention that is proven fabulously untrue by Love, the book’s first subject. Grrrls devotes too much space to indulging Love’s propensity for quasi-intellectual blather; she’s only entertaining when she’s badmouthing her peers. (“Liz Phair,” she says, “reminds me of a potato.”) Despite her reputation for inflammatory dialogue, Love’s most debatable claim here is that This Mortal Coil and Mazzy Star are “really good to fuck to.”
It’s difficult to talk uninterruptedly about oneself without becoming insufferable; some Grrrls carry it off better than others. The members of Huggy Bear, for instance, contribute a pretentious and disjointed entry remarkable only for its uninhibited self-indulgence. (Even Raphael admits as much, noting that the band was “reluctant to acknowledge the importance of clarity and context.”) Hersh is the only interviewee whose observations are unfailingly provocative; the language and tone of her discourse is almost novelistic.
Short on surprises and overfilled with homogeneous biographical detail (everyone recites the obligatory “I bought my first 45 when I was 9, I got my first guitar when I was 12, I joined my first band when I was 18” statistics), Grrrls would almost certainly have benefited from the give-and-take of the interview process. But as Björk points out, “You don’t really talk about your past like this unless it’s your best friend or you’re drunk.”