Librarian’s Choice: Women in Music

This blog is from Allison, an Assistant Community Librarian based in the west of Leeds.

As the music festivals are now in full swing, I thought a few good music related reads were in order. To narrow it down, women in music took my interest. There are plenty of good books to choose from at Leeds Libraries. Here’s a starter selection that you can read in the comfort of your own home without mud, queues for porta-loos and overpriced food and drinks. Although, if you are getting out to a festival, happy camping!

Allison M TrainM Train by Patti Smith

I anticipated this would be an emotional read. I picked it up a few times before finally straying from the first chapter. I wondered how deep it would be and if it would feel too intrusive. Autobiographies don’t shove things under the carpet; they take hold of the carpet at one end, waft it in the air and let the ‘dirt’ fly where it may. I also knew this was going to be a read that would make me repeatedly pause and search the influential figures in her life. I am not sure now why I saw any of this as reasons to delay reading the book.
My predictions weren’t wrong. Not even half way in and the words became misty for me as she shared simple but moving memories of her deceased father. But the real hits came from the one liners that she deals about her late husband; her ‘angel with the lank brown hair and eyes the colour of water’. When she commands him to come back because he’s been ‘gone long enough now’ it makes me want to have been there to offer comfort on that long flight to Tokyo.
Of course, my mind was kept from wandering to the maudlin side too much by my desire to research the historical characters of fiction and nonfiction that have inspired Ms. Smith. She spoke so poetically about the scientist Wegener that I just had to know more. I knew this would happen but it is not in any way a bad thing; she herself rightly describes books as ’portals to the world’. What I didn’t expect is that I would be checking travel advising sites for ‘small favoured’ hotels in London and that my heart would fill up as she talks about ITV3 detective shows, ironically meeting Robbie Coltrane and elderberry water with popcorn. How did she do this; turn even small details into emotional gems? Her dialogue with statues and table ‘thieves’ is intellectual clowning at its best and her devotion to coffee is commendable. I smiled as my own imagination took over by picturing fictional coffee fanatic Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks being the one sat in her spot in her favourite cafe.
While I won’t rank any of the other books in order of preference, M Train comes out as my absolute favourite. I lingered before embarking but once on board, the ride was both comfortable and thrilling. I read the book in one day; one scorching, humid day off from work. It was Frida Kahlo’s birthday and here I was reading about Patti Smith visiting the artist’s home in Mexico. Every detail in this book became even more poignant. I did also get quite star struck when she mentioned travelling to Leeds. Patti Smith, THE Patti Smith, wandering around in my hometown; although I just know she would have blended right in to the places and the crowds without any fuss. She came through Leeds on her way to visit Sylvia Plath’s grave; adamant that she’s wasn’t leaving her best pen there! As I get to the end chapters it is here she describes losing her husband and her brother within a month of each other. By now it doesn’t feel intrusive. I know exactly why she is telling us and I am thankful.
Throughout the book, Ms. Smith is led by her dreams (and coffee) and we follow her. Her words are as beautiful as ever, elegiac yet uplifting and lyrical. I could hear her music; I’d like to imagine it being all around her as she travels the world. By the end of the book, I had the lines from a nursery rhyme in my head: ‘see a fine lady upon a white horse, with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, she shall have music wherever she goes’. I now know that I must seek out her 2010 offering, Just Kids; without hesitation.

Allison Girl in a BandGirl in a Band-A Memoir by Kim Gordon

Kim Gordon writes with a broken heart; the opening chapter describes Sonic Youth’s last gig intertwined with the end of her marriage to Thurston Moore. Throughout, she scatters seeds of information that we can peck at to discover reasons for the breakdown of the relationship. However, I prefer to graze on more fulfilling morsels that she throws out to us. I wouldn’t read this book for marital gossip but instead for an insight into insightfulness. She knows her stuff. She knows music, she knows about people and she knows herself…without always realising it.
“I’m not a musician” she tells us. Thankfully, under any self-doubt was a heap of fearlessness that helped her share her talents with the world. Kim Gordon seems the type of person I would be happy being friends with, simply because she is just so cool. And what makes her cool is that she hates cool; that’s quite cool. What captures me more is her perceptiveness about people. Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Karen Carpenter, Henry Rollins and her own family, she has looked them all up and down. She then deduces their personalities and without appearing a tell-tale she explains, we listen and we nod because we recognise that what she is telling us is probably correct. There seems an innate bluntness to her deductions.
For all fans of her music, this book also goes deep into the writing, the recording and performing. It also skims the art world and she takes us with her as she wanders in and out of her childhood. In the final chapters she reflects on rock and roll parenthood:
“…even if they were in their forties or fifties, they still had a banked fire in them, raised finger, a sneer, hidden under years of living.”
Swoon. I am available for a chat and a pint anytime you are, Kim Gordon. I promise not to ask what it’s like to be a girl in a band; I just know how much you hate that.

Allison Clothes Music BoysClothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys- A Memoir by Viv Albertine.

All the names are here: Vicious, Jones, Levene, Lydon, Letts, Hynde, Harry, Sioux and so on. The places and the stories we’ve heard are all transmitted to us first hand. We remember so much in our own little time pockets. This is a book, however, that requires you to leave your preconceived notions at the door before you step inside. If you think you know punk (which everyone over a certain age thinks they do), if you think you know women in punk or if you just think you know women please note the advice that I whispered to myself- ‘shut your gob’ and read it. It wasn’t the punk paradise of tales that captured me; I got drawn in more when her life inevitably moves on. Domesticity often spat on her worse than any punk crowd yet it’s her honest vulnerability and resilience that made it raw to read.
Nice quick chapters. She gives you a guide to skip to the subjects you want to read about, easy. Even if you just want to know about The Slits; it’s all here with warts and all, easy. However the content doesn’t always make for an easy read. But, come on, what did you expect? A Bunuel quote that Ms. Albertine uses pretty much sums it up:
“l’m not here to entertain you, I’m here to make you feel uncomfortable”.
She did make me feel uncomfortable but I needed to be in order to relate. She also mesmerised me, made me cry, laugh and cringe at times. Most importantly, her words made me think. So here’s to all those who may not have ‘aspired to be musicians’ but thankfully became ‘warriors’. Give it a read, you won’t get the feeling you’ve been cheated.

Allison Here she comesHere She Comes Now: Women in Music that have Changed our Lives edited by Jeff Gordinier and Marc Weingarten

First, I must say that I am duly impressed that one of the editors managed to compare the feeling he got when seeing Gloria Gaynor’s live performance of ‘I will survive’ to emotions felt by Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I love that book and for him to somehow squeeze that in so effortlessly made me smile. An over the top comparison? Not really, not when you realise that he wants to move away from the predictable stories about women in music. The book’s contributors are relaying to us how much music has enriched their lives and in some cases, saved them. They are all novelists, bloggers and poets who are writing about the ‘voice to listener’ experience. The editor starts the book with an apology for the many influential names that had to be left out but we understand; how big that book would be if they included them all, right? So, the writers do the cherry picking and what we get is a wonderfully eclectic crop of stories.
Allison Clock does not mince words as she declares her thoughts on those who hate Dolly Parton. She isn’t wrong in my view; I wouldn’t trust anyone who disses our Dolly. Sandy Denny’s life and tragic, untimely death is seen through the eyes of another writer. Rosie Schaap captures her ‘ghost friend’ Sandy with deep eloquence. Ian Daly writes a letter to PJ Harvey and we could almost feel intrusive reading it as it is so personal and profound. This book is for people who feel the same way about music as the writers. That is why I could relate to it. From a young age, I realised the power music had in my life; music will always be my sword and my shield.

Allison Black by designBlack by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir by Pauline Black

I remember seeing Pauline Black in music videos and magazines for the first time when I was barely sixteen. I feel so lucky that my era had such amazing female role models in music. I wanted to dress like her, dance like her and wished I could sing like her. She looked confident, cool and beautiful. I didn’t think of her as trying to be like the men of the group or the men of 2-tone; she was just being herself. 2-tone never seemed to bow down to the usual media selling tactic of ‘girl in a band’. Pauline Black always looked like she was soundly aware of any elephants in the room and that she wasn’t afraid to bring down to size anyone who pointed them out. After reading her book, I now know how that strength of character was built and why it shines through.
Black by Design is beautifully written with honest words. There were times that I could literally not put the book because my fingers were holding on so tightly in horror as certain childhood traumas were revealed. Most of her childhood milestones were met with challenges; these are my understating words. You will need to read her own account as my frustration and anger from looking in would not do any justice. She lets us be a part of it all as she seeks to unravel the threads:
“So, why did my mother chose a black child if she had so much antipathy towards black people? Didn’t it occur to her that my ‘colour’ was going to be a future issue, which couldn’t be swept under the carpet…”
“I cannot say that I wasn’t loved. I know I was. But I grew up feeling like a cuckoo in someone else’s nest.”
Pauline Black reads, she grows, she reads some more. As she reaches her teens her reading material becomes more radical; she thanks the Librarian of Romford Town Library for ordering books that provided her with the information she ‘required at sixteen’. She doesn’t stop reading; she studies and becomes a hospital radiographer.
Naturally, the meetings and formation of The Selecter then dominate with pictures that capture the essence of the time. One story comes from good old Leeds again and the infamous F club where she states: “In Leeds, everything came together, the harmonies, the Selecter sound, the songs, Gap’s dance routines, my stage persona and cockney patter.”
The rest is Sta-Prest history and the Queen of Ska occupies her throne. Without giving any spoilers, the reunions that dominate the last chapters will in no doubt take centre stage. I have seen Pauline Black in recent interviews and it is hard to believe that she is in her sixties. She is ‘not for resigning’ and she is still giving us goals to aspire to.