Throwing Muses formed in 1981 when Kristin Hersh and her step-sister Tanya Donelly were 15 years old. Tanya is three weeks older. They had been friends for a while, and around this time, Tanya’s dad married Kristin’s mom. They were just a little local Newport, Rhode Island band, and they weren’t even old enough to enter the clubs where they were playing shows. They tooled around there for a while until they backed into a contract with 4AD Records, becoming the first American band to sign with the prestigious UK indie label.
If you have ever met me in real life or if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that Throwing Muses is in my top one favorite bands. Read the linked posts for more than you ever wanted to know about the Muses, about Kristin, and about Tanya. Also, read Kristin’s memoirs. In the United States, her book is called Rat Girl, while in the rest of the world it’s called Paradoxical Undressing. You’ll learn more than you wanted to know about what it’s like to be a pregnant teenager living with bipolar disorder. If you’re a fan of the band, you’ll learn some good insight about some of the older songs.
One of the band’s older songs, and certainly the longest-living song is “The Letter”, which mentions the date September 29, 1984. Today, I’m going to introduce you to three different versions of that magnificent song to show how it has evolved over the years. One from 1985, one from 1994, and one from 2011.
The first is from a legendary (among hardcore Muses fans) bootleg tape made from a show that Throwing Muses played on January 26, 1985 in Providence Rhode Island for the Rhode Island University campus radio station WRIU. Before Al Gore invented the internet, a bootlegged cassette recording of the show was circulating in the old-fashioned hand-to-hand method. A few years later, in the early days of the internet, when we were using dial-up to get on Prodigy just to go to a chat room, this thing started to pass through the mail. It was a low quality recording to begin with, and people were making third-, fourth-, twelfth-, twentieth-generation cassette copies before they passed it along. Naturally, the quality kept getting more and more compromised. By the time I got my hands on a fiftieth-generation copy, it was barely audible. Even when technology allowed us to make CD copies of things, it was too late for that bootleg. What exists now is a digital copy of what may or may not be an original recording. Even with digital enhancement, it’s still pretty low quality sound. Still, I think it’s really important to hear this song in its infant state. This is that song.
“The Letter” and “The Party” by Throwing Muses (1.26.1985 — WRIU)
Note the sparsity of the drums. This was back when David Narcizo’s kit had no cymbals. I’m not even sure that it had a snare drum. To this day, he still relies much heavier on mount toms and much less on snare than most drummers. The recording is pretty bad, so the guitar bits sound almost like keyboard, and for some reason, I find that to be appealing. It makes the song darker and creepier, I think. There are also some lyrics that were omitted from later versions. For example:
Just remember there are pictures
Very special to me
Swimming in my head
Can someone tell me what people do for life
There’s an answer in your sweater
And I’m drawing you a picture
Here’s the line I made before
It’s in your face
Can someone tell me what people do for love?
This digital file also includes an early song called “The Party”, which I like a lot, but which was never turned into anything else.
Nine years later, Kristin Hersh launched a solo career, which started off as a mostly acoustic gig, and she included a lovely version of “The Letter” on her debut —Hips and Makers. Obviously, it was done in a fancy recording studio with real recording equipment, so there’s no point in comparing the production values, but it’s also really clear that Kristin had learned a lot over the years. She learned to play her guitar a lot better. She learned to sing like a star. She learned that there are more emotions other than anger.
It really is a magnificent song in this solo acoustic format:
“The Letter” by Kristin Hersh
I don’t think you can listen to that song and not be in love with Kristin’s guitar playing. It never mattered that the lyrics are nonsense, or that they’re what Kristin herself would call “psychobabble”. It’s about her voice and her guitar. And it feels like ice.
Starting in the autumn of 2010 and going through summer of 2011, Kristin released a “new” EP through her website on the first day of each season. They were meant for her hardcore fans, and they were offered as free downloads. The digital EPs consisted of new treatments of older Throwing Muses songs. Some were from the very early days, some were from the later (read: late 1990s) years. Either way, they were all sort of meant to accompany the Rat Girl/Paradoxical Undressing book.
“The Letter” appeared on the Spring Sessions EP, which (along with the other three Season Sessions) is available for free here. Kristin is 100% listener funded, through the Creative Commons, the tip jar, and mostly through her Strange Angels. We sign up to give her a certain amount of dough each quarter, and we know that we’re making it possible for her to make records. She knows that people are going to steal and share things anyway, so she just makes it “free”, and she knows that she can count on her hardcore fans to keep sending the checks.
Anyway, here’s that 2011 version:
“The Letter” by Throwing Muses (2011, The Season Sessions)
As always, the guitar is exquisite. I think there’s a second guitar bit in there somewhere, and I really love the simple, delicate bass line. I also love that the drums mimic the way they were way back when. It was probably awfully tempting for David Narcizo to write a new, complex, heavy drum line to this song for a full kit, but he chose to keep it real, and play it just the way he played it in 1985.
Out of those, I still like the Kristin solo version best. No matter which version, though, I’ve always loved the lines:
Don’t kill the god of sadness,
Just don’t let her get you down
See, the man inside this book I read
Can’t handle his own head
So what the hell am I supposed to do?
I’d like to know how he died
My hands are shaking
Don’t you love me anymore?
I also love how the song is bookended by this set of lines:
Gather me up
Because I’m lost
Or I’m back where I started from
I’m crawling on the floor
Rolling on the ground
The cycle of life.
It’s been one of my favorite songs by my favorite band for a long time now, and of course I had to bring it out on September 29.