Jessie Lynn

Jessie Lynn McMains is the girl Cometbus, the Debbie Harry of poetry, and the Poet Laureate of Racine, Wisconsin. She's an aging punk rocker, but she loves pretty much every other kind of music, too.

The Way The Human Heart Works: Eric Bachmann’s Self-Titled Release

This is the thawing season, and it hurts. My heart, frozen all winter, is melting, and my tears choke me and bang at the back of my eyes. And this album sounds like almost-spring, like tears hanging heavy in your throat, like thawing. “Belong To You” starts with a long, lonesome piano lilt and then a steel guitar, so sad, comes in. It stretches out like the long evenings of late winter. I had a dream, Eric Bachmann sings, to one long-lost. One of those loves that still feels so strong and real that in dreams you think they’ve returned to you, only to wake and find out they have not. I woke at the break of dawn to the silence of the boats on the bay, as I reached out for you—but you were long gone. Do the long evenings bring relief? Do they ease your thawing, aching heart? If they do, even a little, it is a merciful thing. “Mercy,” with the bright jangle of the cymbals and the doo-wop backup vocals, sounds like ‘60s pop, almost too sweet, until you listen to the words. I don’t believe in armageddon, heaven, hell, or time regretting. I’m gonna love you like we’re all each other have. Sometimes it feels like armageddon is the only thing left to believe in, but maybe sometimes there’s still something else to hold onto, when you can love someone—or many someones—like you’re all each other have.

“Masters of the Deal” is about injustice, about the South and its false promises, about violence and racism. It’s a political song, which surprised me a little. I read an interview with Eric Bachmann, oh, a decade ago, wherein he said something along the lines of: “I find the way the human heart works a much more interesting topic than how much Bush sucks.” But then, “Masters of the Deal” isn’t a straightforward political song. This is no didactic punk band shouting at you that this sucks and if you don’t agree you’re wrong, it’s a story that’s as much about the way the human heart works as it is about anything else. How can the human heart allow us to commit such violence against each other? Speaking of the human heart—sometimes it needs chemicals to allay its ache, as in “Modern Drugs.” The sweet swing of the piano and the percussive brush sound like New York City to me, and I recognize the characters in this song. They’re older versions of characters from previous Crooked Fingers albums. They’re older versions of characters from my own life. Straight life is such a bore, says the refrain, and though I don’t touch modern drugs anymore, I still feel that way sometimes. The heart still longs for what used to take the edge off. And there is “Dreaming.” The opening piano reminds me of “Moonlight Sonata,” that saddest, most beautiful sound. In the yellow pines, I hear the wild bird singing the sweetest lullaby that set my mind to dreaming, Eric sings. Oooooh, ooooh, croon the backup singers, a chorus of dreaming ghosts. Then: Hey love, don’t turn on me now. I was gonna fight for you. A plea, repeated four times. My throat thickening with tears. Hey love, don’t turn on me now. I was gonna fight for you. I was gonna fight for you.

“Separation Fright,” “Small Talk,” and “Carolina,” while all good tunes, are the most forgettable songs on the album. They are not anthems or ballads, not for me; they don’t make me smile with sweetness or cause the tears to well up in my eyes, in my throat. My thawing heart does not long to hear them. The rest of the songs would be stronger if Eric had cut these three tracks and released this as an EP rather than a full-length album. Again, it’s not that I dislike them, it’s just… The first time I listened to the album I spent the entirety of it waiting for a moment I wasn’t sure would come. I was waiting for a moment of recognition, of revelation. See, Eric Bachmann has written a lot of songs, a lot of albums that hit so close to home for me it was as though he’d ripped the stories from the pages of my diary. (Most notably his 2006 solo album, To The Races, and the 2005 Crooked Fingers album Dignity and Shame.) And I hoped beyond hope that this album would have at least one song like that, one song that would make me say: “Get out of my head, god damn it.” When I got to the second-to-last track and hadn’t heard it yet, I doubted it was there at all. But then the final track played, and yes, yes, there it was.

“The Old Temptation.” It is the longest track on the album, it feels endless and I don’t want it to ever end. For all the love you leave along the wildly winding way you choose to go, there’s never any meaning. The way the city lights all shine and glow as you approach, but you don’t know. It makes you feel so alone, so alone. And yes, and yes, get out of my head, god damn it. It just seems I was always leaving, and this song knows that feeling. Halfway through, the lyrics end and there’s this beautiful instrumental bit with ambient noise in the background that sounds like an AM dial flicking between frequencies. Like you’re on the road, in the middle of nowhere, trying to find a song to sing along to. And look, here comes a voice faintly through the static, a voice from some distant station. You can barely hear what he’s saying, but the words you do catch make you cry: evenings. Old photographs. Never to be seen again. The end of the track brings me back home, with a bird chirping like the springtime birds outside my window.

I don’t love this whole album, but “Belong to You,” “Mercy,” “Masters of the Deal,” “Modern Drugs,” “Dreaming,” and most especially “The Old Temptation” make it well worth repeat listens. And it does my very human, thawing heart good to hear songs by someone like Eric Bachmann—someone who is wearied by the world but still holds onto a clutch of hope. Maybe there’s hope for me, if I can just get out into that springtime and find some new temptations.

Eric Bachmann is out on Merge Records. More information and purchase information is available via Merge.

TRUST YR STUPID FUCKING HEART (a playlist)

  1. Lizzo – En Love
  2. M.I.A. – Fire Fire
  3. Little Esther – I’m a Bad, Bad Girl
  4. The Last Shadow Puppets – Bad Habits
  5. Rilo Kiley – Portions for Foxes
  6. Worriers – Unwritten
  7. Colleen Green – Whatever I Want
  8. The I Don’t Cares – Just a Phase
  9. Thurston Moore – Psychic Hearts
  10. The Kills – Fuck the People
  11. Pixies – Holiday Song
  12. Dum Dum Girls – There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
  13. EL VY – Need a Friend
  14. The Cars – Dangerous Type
  15. The Make-Up – White Belts
  16. The Mo-Dettes – White Mice
  17. Thee Headcoatees – Ça Plane Pour Moi
  18. Huggy Bear – Pansy Twist
  19. Bikini Kill – I Like Fucking
  20. Mika Miko – Sex
  21. Dresden Dolls – Dirty Business
  22. Screaming Females – Triumph

(+ a bonus track that isn’t on the playlist: Jolie Holland – Springtime Can Kill You)

(listen to it at 8tracks)

It is springtime, and springtime can kill you (just like it did poor me). The light is clearer and hangs on longer in the sky each day, the birds are all singing riotous songs in the treetops. A few days ago, it was seventy degrees; I drank iced coffee and resisted the urge to cut the sleeves off all my t-shirts. It is springtime, and I am so damn restless I’m about ready to tear my skin off. I can’t focus on anything. I pick up a book, read a few pages, put it down again. I start a poem, write a few lines, quit. My notebooks are full of Jenny Holzer-esque truisms that I write in all caps. YOU WILL GET SO TIRED OF WEIGHING THE POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES. SOMETIMES YOU WILL BE READY TO SAY “FUCK IT” AND FOLLOW YR HEART. BE A DRUNKEN SLUT. STOP THINKING. IT’S SO TIRING. TRUST YR STUPID FUCKING HEART.

I just want to trust my stupid fucking heart. Or maybe I just want something that makes my stupid heart beat faster.

I am so tired of weighing the potential consequences. When I was younger, I usually leapt into things without caring what the result would be. (And now I can’t believe I didn’t put that Shivvers song on this playlist: when I was younger, when I was younger, when I was younger.) I went for what felt good, or even bad, as long as I was feeling something. As long as it made me feel alive. But there were enough adverse consequences that I began to grow afraid. I was often on the verge of eviction, because I did things like spending my rent money on road trips. I hurt people. I disappointed people. Friends and family started telling me that I was wasting my life.

…some might say that you and I have wasted our lives so far. Yes, we have had our hearts broken more than most. (We’ve broken some hearts, too.) We’ve had brushes with the law; and we’ve dealt with pregnancy scares and unemployment and spent many mornings too hungover to even move. But we have also experienced so much poetry, seen so much beauty, received so much love. We have had more fun in our short lives than most people ever get to have; so how could we ever consider it a waste?

-from something I wrote in 2006

Maybe I still want to waste my life, if wasting my life is what it takes to feel alive. To paraphrase Dazed & Confused, a movie I watched over and over when I felt those first reckless, restless stirrings in my teenage body: I need some good old, worthwhile, visceral experience. I want to go out into the wild, twisting night, want to take drugs, get laid, maybe get in a fight. Except I don’t do drugs anymore and I don’t get in fights anymore and no, I won’t spend all my rent money on a road trip. There are certain things I’m not willing to risk, and that’s for the best. But I am tired of worrying about what other people think; tired of not doing what I want to do because it might hurt or disappoint someone in my life. I don’t want to hurt anyone, of course not, but it’s my life and it’s springtime and my heart is saying go. I want to fuck. I want to dance. I want to smash it up. I want sudden intense connections with interesting strangers. I want to take long drives in search of coffee and trouble. (Remembering that spring so long ago when I drove the seven hours from Chicago to St. Louis just to get coffee at a Waffle House.) I want to rip my tights, walk along the train tracks, get my boots all covered in good mud. I want, I want, I want. No, I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I am tired of not being myself. And I’m bad news, baby, I’m bad news.

I’m just a traveling girl with a wild mane of wavy red hair, holes in my tights, all my clothes smelling of smoke. I can roll a cigarette while driving down the freeway at eighty miles an hour. I can get drunk as shit and get two hours of sleep and drive from one town to another, then do it all again the next night. I can find my way anywhere. I can get lost anywhere.

-from something I wrote in 2007

I dye my hair red again every spring. No matter what other colors I might dye it the rest of the year, in spring I metamorphose back into a redhead. I was born with red hair but it faded to a drab brown when I hit puberty, some shitty twist of fate, so I became a bottle redhead. Red hair is fiery, brazen, witchy. (Redheads used to be burnt at the stake as witches, because it was believed they had magic powers.) Red is the color of anger and lust, love and rage. The color of blood and lipstick and my stupid, wildly beating heart. Girls like me are meant to have red hair.

It’s springtime, and I’m a wild redheaded girl for life. So take me out tonight. Take me anywhere, I don’t care, I don’t care. Take me to where the rough edges of the night meet the back alleys. Take me to the rooftops and fire escapes of your town. Take me to all-nite diners, where we can get coffee-buzzed and plot to take over the world. Let’s walk around. Let’s drive too fast on backroads. I don’t need your love, I just need a friend.

I still want all the same old dumb shit I’ve always wanted. Spontaneous adventures, crushes, mix tapes. Music I can feel in my guts, in my bones, whether it’s hip-hop or the punk rocks. Sneaky eyes and sleeveless t-shirts. Sex and danger. In the immortal words of Henry Rollins: I want to fuck on the floor and break shit. Yeah, I like fucking. I’m always restless, and next to wandering, sex is one of the few things that eases my restlessness. And I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe. I do, I do, I do.

I’ve lost some friends because I’ve failed to grow up properly. These friends used to be just like me (you fuckers used to be just like me), but they went straight. I don’t mean straight as in heterosexual, I mean straight as in normal. They became capital-G Grown Ups. They got advanced degrees and nine-to-fives and stopped making zines and got their tattoos removed. I’m an adult, too. I have a kid, and a writing career; I pay my bills instead of going on ill-advised road trips, I don’t go on benders or do drugs anymore. But I also haven’t given up crushes or adventure or art or punk; I’m still making zines and giving myself stick ’n’ poke tattoos. I’ve still got that steel-toed spark and that teenage j.d. twitch. Maybe they’re bitter because they thought growing up meant giving all that up.

We can have all of it! We can be mamas and healers and have love and morals and sweetness and good things in our lives, but we don’t have to give up the rest—we can also be wild punk rock goddesses of destruction and fuck and fight and drink and smoke and swear and make mad art, goddamnit!

-from something I wrote in 2013

I should’ve known something was up the last time I saw M.—before she decided she hated me, when I still thought we’d be friends for life—when she said: “I’m over Amanda Palmer. It’s not cute to tell young girls that it’s okay to be fucked-up.” That stunned me, because she was once a fucked-up girl, just like me. She and I used to listen to Dresden Dolls albums and talk about how eerily close to our own lives they were, how it was like AFP had looked into our souls and made songs out of them. But maybe that’s the other thing. It’s not just that M. and the others gave up their former passions. They also regret that they ever lived that way. They regret the days of chronic unemployment and ill-advised road trips, the crazy-mad love affairs, the all-nite diner marathons, the epic meals we made from what we found in dumpsters. And I don’t. No matter how I’ve changed, or how many of those things I don’t want anymore, I could never ever regret those days. They made me who I am, and they gave me so many stories to tell. To all the ones who thought they knew me best, a test to prove your prowess. Who was mine in ’99? I want last names, and current status.

No, I don’t want to wind up on the verge of eviction, or have my electricity shut off. I don’t want to hurt anyone. But it is springtime, and I am so tired of weighing the potential consequences. And I’m just a redheaded restless punk rock goddess of destruction for life, and I still want all that shit that makes my stupid, reckless heart beat faster. Loud music, caffeine, adventure, sex. If you’re like me, you’re feeling the same way. So:

WHO CARES WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK. STOP THINKING. IT’S SO TIRING. TRUST YR STUPID FUCKING HEART.

Get out, get out of your house.

“Peel back the skin, see what’s there”: Carrie Brownstein’s HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL

That’s why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better—it’s that we were listening to them with our friends, drunk for the first time on liqueurs, touching sweaty palms, staring for hours at a poster on the wall, not grossed out by carpet or dirt or crumpled, oily bedsheets. These songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia recasts it now.
-Carrie Brownstein, from Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl [pg. 3]

0903fe1eHalfway through reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, I had a dream about Carrie Brownstein. Yes, it was a sort of sexy dream; no, I am not going to go into detail. I woke up smiling – not only because it was a sweet dream, but also because it made me realize how everything has come full circle. I first dreamt about Carrie twenty years ago, when, at age fourteen, I read about Sleater-Kinney in a fanzine and saw the picture of the band that ran alongside it. This makes Carrie my longest-running musician crush. She wasn’t my first – Billy Idol and Michael Steele (bassist of The Bangles) share that title – but she’s the only musician I had a crush on as a teen that I’m still crushing on. The other thing that has circled me back to my origins is my relationship to Sleater-Kinney’s music. I saw Sleater-Kinney on their Dig Me Out tour, at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, in May 1997. That show was my first non-local punk/rock show. That show made me know I wanted, needed, all that in my life forever. Punk, rock’n’roll, dark clubs, words, and guitar. I knew I’d find a way to always be a part of it, whether by making music myself or writing about it, and when I got home from Minneapolis I wrote about Sleater-Kinney (and my crush on Carrie) for my own fanzine. And here I am, nineteen years later, writing about Carrie’s memoir for a music website.

————

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a tender artifact. Carrie pokes at her memories like they’re a sore spot in her mouth, like when you bite the inside of your cheek and you can’t stop your tongue from pressing against the tiny wound, even though you know you should leave it alone. I don’t mean that it’s too confessional. It’s not. Carrie makes it clear that she will not give everything away on the page. She writes about some personal, painful things, but there are some things that aren’t for the public eye. It’s a topic she touches on in the book – how women are reviled for being too confessional (keep your messy feelings to yourself), but at the same time people are uncomfortable when a woman is not being confessional, when she’s using a persona or holding something back. She also mentions that the times she has felt most herself have been when she was on stage, playing music: and that even when she was singing about personal things, she was still in her rock’n’roll persona. She felt most herself when “not (her)self.” To quote my favorite, Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” That goes for woman, too.

Carrie’s memoir is not overly confessional, but it is real. She doesn’t tell us everything, but she tells us the things that matter. As I said, it’s tender. By turns heartbreaking and joyful, but it’s all oh, so human. Everything she shares is honest and unglamorous. Even when she’s writing about longing for the old songs and the old days, she does it in a way that doesn’t make them sparkle with the glamoured light of nostalgia. In Hunger…, Carrie is open about the people and situations that have hurt her, but she doesn’t portray herself as a victim. She owns up to her own less-than-pretty moments, too. About the only complaint I have with the writing is that she sometimes uses words that disrupt the otherwise conversational tone of the book. She uses words like parsimonious when she could have said stingy; perspicacious when perceptive would have worked just as well. But maybe that’s one way she holds part of herself back from us. Her choice of words and phrasing means that it doesn’t read like a diary, sloppy and emotional. She selected her words as carefully as she selected which pieces of her life to share. Even in the conversational moments, there is a remove: it’s not a conversation like you’d have late at night with your best girlfriend after a few bottles of wine, it’s a conversation like you’d have with someone interviewing you for a magazine. She shows us, once again, that not everything is for public consumption.

————

To reiterate: she may not share everything, but she shares the things that matter. One of the reasons I love this book is because there are so many echoes of my own life in it. I relate, in a visceral way, to her teenage longing to be cool and sophisticated and failing at it. I know what it feels like to be an outsider in your own family, and in the world at large. And I especially relate to turning to music, both the playing of it and the listening to it, as an escape from all that. When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere, you find yourself in the sound and the scene. She also writes with candor about how the ethos and insularity of the punk and indie scenes can become their own kind of trap; how you turn to the underground so you don’t have to play by mainstream society’s rules, but then find that you’ve got a whole new set of rules that you’re supposed to follow.

My favorite moment in the book comes when she describes hearing Bikini Kill for the first time:

It was the first time someone put into words my sense of alienation, the feeling that all these institutions and stories we’d been taught to hold as sacred often had very little to do with my own lived experiences. I had already been listening to punk and had related to storytellers like Joe Strummer and Paul Weller, but hearing Bikini Kill was like having someone illuminate my world for the first time. Here was a narrative that I could place myself inside, that I could share with other people to help explain how I felt, especially at a time when I was a shy and fairly inarticulate teen. I could turn the volume up on their songs and that loudness matched all my panic and fear, anger and emotions that seemed up until that point to be uncontrollable, even amorphous. [pg. 55]

I felt that way when I first heard Bikini Kill, too, but I felt even more that way when I first heard Sleater-Kinney. I loved Bikini Kill, but Sleater-Kinney felt closer to my own reality. Bikini Kill had a toughness that sometimes kept me at a distance. I wasn’t tough as a teen. Everything felt like a disaster, I was oversensitive to the world, and I cried constantly. It felt like Sleater-Kinney got that. Their songs could be just as angry and loud and tough-sounding, but I also sensed a vulnerability that I never got from Bikini Kill.

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Before I read Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, I read an interview with Carrie Brownstein, conducted by Ana Marie Cox for the New York Times Magazine. In it, Ana says, “You wrote that in college you ‘wanted to be someone who has the power to drift in and out of people’s imaginations, who could be bigger than mere human form, a surface upon which others could project their longings.’ It’s rare to see someone aligned with indie rock be so frank about seeking fame.” Carrie’s response was: I don’t want to be famous. I wanted to be that solidity for someone else, in the same way that when I was young, I was able to project my desires and insecurities and uncertainties and need for belonging onto someone else.

Carrie, you were that for me. From the moment I first heard you sing Peel back the skin, see what’s there / I’ll never show you what’s in here, from the moment I saw you jumping around like a rock star in that dark club in Minneapolis, you were someone I wanted to be with and also be like. Your words (and guitar) helped me navigate my own awkward, painful adolescence. And two decades later, it still means so much.