The Short Version: Carrie Brownstein takes us on a whirlwind journey from her adolescence to the reunion of Sleater-Kinney, charting the course of a life that was saved by music – and then nearly lost to music, too.
The Review: Confession: I didn’t listen to Sleater-Kinney until after they’d split. I was in college, a sophomore I think, when somebody first played “Jumpers” and I clocked it. The rawness of the sound, the vitality and potency of the vocals, that slightly-mysterious thing that I’d only later discover was two guitars tuned a step and a half down instead of a guitar and a bass… I was curious. And then promptly forgot about them.
Years later, I knew Carrie Brownstein through her other band, Wild Flag, and of course her sketch show with Fred Armisen, Portlandia. And then I heard a song that blew my mind: “Price Tag”. The return of Sleater-Kinney filled a void that I didn’t even know existed and that record, “No Cities to Love”, is one of the best records of the last decade. Naturally, I got hooked and dove into their back catalog. I saw them in a horrifically moderated New Yorker Festival panel. And I picked up Carrie’s book the day it came out.
The thing about rock memoirs is that they’re sometimes a little too self-important. Keith Richards did some crazy shit, did you know that? He wants to tell you about it. Did you know that the Motley Crue guys did [CENSORED] to [REDACTED]? RAWK! It is surprisingly rare, then, to find a rock memoir that talks about not just the creation of the music but the realities of it – that finds the person in the midst of the sound. It is not surprising, though, that Brownstein’s book does exactly that.
She’s always been a strange kind of rock star (introspective, fighting with and against the sound at the same time) and her wide-ranging interests serve her well as a writer: this book goes down like a good drink, like a song you want to hear over and over again. It opens with the requisite background and early life stuff – including a few raw moments about her mother’s battle with anorexia – but you can feel the adolescent Carrie’s urge for getting out in the pace of the book: there are other things she needs to do, other places she needs to go (both then and now). Music propels her forward, her desire to play and be a part of something, and the rush of her college years feels like just that. It’s a swirling set of scenes that loop through time and that establishes a writerly trick that she’ll use throughout: briefly mentioning something, then circling back to explain it further, then leapfrogging ahead again. In the hands of a less-talented writer, it could be disastrous – but Brownstein makes it feel like she’s just your friend telling you a story.
It’s also interesting, speaking of story, to see what bits she self-selects to include and exclude. Personal details are not expounded upon but, instead, delivered in single moments through which you can see the entirety. The best example of this might be a touching, short moment where Carrie mentions breaking up with Corin Tucker (the other singer/guitarist in Sleater-Kinney) on a hike. We didn’t need to see the whole of their romantic relationship and it’s clear that Brownstein doesn’t want us to – but that moment was important and she’s a gifted enough writer to show us so much in the space of just a few paragraphs.
But this isn’t a memoir about personal details of life; this is a memoir about music. I don’t think I’ve ever read a musician’s book that deals so directly with the music but in such a personal way. There isn’t any gearhead stuff in here (it shocked me a little, as a musician, to hear that most of the S-K records were recorded with the amps all staying on the same settings and just blasting through – these songs often sound different, despite nothing changing, and that’s a tremendous testament to their musical abilities) but there is a sense of the raw power of music. It’s hard to explain, I think, to anybody who hasn’t ever been in a band or had that true desire to play onstage with people, but Brownstein accomplishes it. This is the sort of book that, even if you never dreamed of picking up a guitar or sitting down behind a drum kit, can make you at least dream about such things – because how could you not want to feel that escape? That joyous, dangerous crash of energy that is music?
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and party times. In hilariously self-deprecating terms, Brownstein illustrates how truly unglamorous the rockstar life can be. Her attempts at tour hookups are the stuff of indie sitcoms and when TIME Magazine called them the greatest rock band in America, they were still loading the tour van themselves. Hell, they were still touring in a van. There is no aspiration to stardom in these three, just a passion for making music and connecting it to other people who might need to be saved too.
And Brownstein’s complex relationship with that dynamic is what leads to S-K’s eventual breakup and her own late-quarter-life crisis. It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that Brownstein is only in her twenties for most of Sleater-Kinney’s life – she couldn’t even legally drink when they recorded their first record. And the back section of the book deals with the sort of growing up that we all do in our twenties, when we realize that maybe we want to do more things than we thought when we were teenagers. It’s often said that people get stuck at the age when they get famous (hence why so many pop stars these days are the way they are…) but Brownstein avoids this by course-correcting in a big way. Physical ailments and mental ones too make it plain, to us as readers and I think even to the band at the time, that they couldn’t go on. It’s more heartbreaking than any romantic breakup and it was interesting to see that Brownstein glides through her near-decade of the S-K hiatus in pretty short time in the book. There’s a tragic story of some pets she’d adopted and a single brief reference to Portlandia – but, if it wasn’t already, it becomes clear to the reader that this is a book about Carrie Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney, not unlike how Patti Smith’s Just Kids was very specifically about Patti and Robert.
Maybe that means we’ll get another book from Carrie, talking about something else entirely. Whatever it is, I sure hope so – she’s too good of a writer to let this be our only taste.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A rock memoir that transcends the trappings of the genre, detailing one person’s love of music – and the dangers that such a love can bring into your life. It’s a hard road to devote yourself to music and Brownstein’s book shows both the rewards and the pains of such a journey without ever falling into cliché or self-adulation/self-pity. It is, even at its lowest points, a joyous book and every page shows Brownstein’s gratitude for the life she’s led and her awe at having been a part of something so amazing as Sleater-Kinney. It’s a gift, to music-lovers and lovers of a good story alike.