Tag Archives: The Real Ramona

Moon Over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Tanya Donelly is one of my favourite musicians. The step-sister of Kristin Hersh – leader of Boston-area art-punk band Throwing Muses since the mid-1980s – Donelly was the group’s lead guitarist, harmony singer and occasional singer-songwriter for their first four albums, between 1983 when they formed and 1991 when she left after The Real Ramona (which is one of the Muses’ very best records, right up there with the debut). Donelly was also a founding member of the Breeders, and Pod bears heavy traces of her involvement; the group were never quite as interesting to me after she stepped aside to focus on her post-Muses band, Belly.

Unlike Throwing Muses, who continued their honourable labours without ever catching a break, Belly were immediately successful: top-five album chart success in both the US and the UK, top-20 singles, heavy rotation on MTV and radio, and Grammy nominations. Donelly was an inspiration to anyone who’d ever been a second fiddle but harboured ambitions of succeeding on their own terms, and she did it making music that was shiny and inviting, but with a disconcerting aura of strangeness and spookiness, a sound I’ve described elsewhere as like something bad going down in Toytown. Belly were quite a thing.

Alas Belly’s success didn’t last, and the group unravelled after recording a wonderful second album that didn’t strike the same chord with the public that their first had. Donelly took a year or two to come back with her first solo record, Lovesongs for Underdogs, and it was a slightly odd mix, blending the shiniest hooks of her career (Pretty Deep is an alterna-world smash) with some of the disquieting obliqueness that had marked Belly out as something special on tracks such as Swoon, as well as occasional straitforward ballads like Manna, which Donelly had never really engaged in before. The production, though, was pure AAA, which didn’t suit the more idiosyncratic material, but didn’t quite elevate the poppier songs either.

While the Lovesongs era didn’t succeed in making Donelly a solo star the way it seemed designed to, it did produce an enduring favourite of mine. Moon Over Boston was the B-side to the album’s second single, The Bright Light. To my knowledge, it’s the only proper recording of the song, which was written by Gary “Skeggie” Kendall, a guitarist, promoter and Boston scenester from the 1980s and ’90s, formerly of the bands Tackle Box and the Toughskin. Probably cut live with the full band, like a proper jazz side, it’s a spot-on recreation – produced by Kendall and long-time Boston hero Gary Smith – of a certain type of small-band jazz record, with exactly the right kind of warm saxophone sound and all the proper passing chords; it’s even got the old-school, free-time intro. It’s a beautiful record, and Donelly’s voice is surprisingly adept at this sort of tune, sounded not unlike Blossom Dearie. I’m convinced it could become a standard if someone were to make a romantic comedy called Moon Over Boston and feature this as the title track. Maybe I should get to work on a screenplay.

Donelly stepped away from music in the mid-noughties, and trained as a post-partum doula. However over the last year or so, she’s recently put out a sequence of EPs, the Swan Song series, a title which she says doesn’t indicate imminent retirement. Hersh, meanwhile, powers on. The most driven musician I can think of (see here for some of her backstory), Hersh will make music as long as she’s got two working hands and a voice. Next month, I’m going to get to see Throwing Muses play in London with Donelly guesting. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to that one.

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Mania – Throwing Muses

 

I was flying, flying through the air, thinking, So this is what this feels like.

As the pavement came up toward me […] a thought occurred. You’re about to hit your head harder than you’ve ever hit it before, so maybe you should… you know… go limp.

I lay in the street, feeling the brand new sensation of a lot of blood leaving my body, then tried to unfold myself. Lifting my left leg, I noticed there was no longer a foot at the end of it.

Then a woman appeared from nowhere and leaned over me. She was wearing mirrored sunglasses. What I saw in her glasses was bizarre: I had no face. The front of my head was hamburger and blood with two blue eyes staring out.

When I turned away to look for my missing foot, the woman grabbed what used to be my face and turned it toward her. ‘You were hit by a car!’ She spoke loudly and slowly, carefully articulating each word. ‘You’re gonna be fine!’

Why is she talking to me like I’m foreign?

 

Kristin Hersh, Paradoxical Undressing, 2010

 

In 1985 in Providence, Rhode Island, an eighteen-year-old Kristin Hersh was knocked off her bicycle by a well-known local oddball, referred to in her book only as ‘the crazy witch’, who drove off without stopping. In hospital, Hersh realised she was hearing things that other people were not. Loud, abstract sounds, a bit like heavy machinery. Slowly these metal noises became tonal and organised. She was experiencing auditory hallucinations, and progressed to hallucinating whole songs. Strange songs, fragmentary songs, songs with funny out-of-key chords, jarring tempo changes and tunes that took a while to decipher.

Hersh began presenting these songs to her band Throwing Muses, already together for four years and a fixture on the local punk scene. But her behaviour was getting strange: she couldn’t sleep so spent most of her nights breaking into swimming pools and doing lengths until she was too exhausted to stay awake any more. She had boundless energy, so much so that her bandmates were concerned about her inability to slow down, let alone stop. She wanted to know everything, see everything, live everywhere. Eventually she was informed that this was classic manic behaviour and was diagnosed as bi-polar, a diagnosis she struggled to accept. She was given a cocktail of powerful drugs and electro-convulsive therapy. She stopped taking the drugs when she fell pregnant a few months later.

The song Mania, then, was written by a woman who knew whereof she spoke. Fast and unrelenting (unlike many early Muses songs, it barrels along at the same tempo for its whole duration), Mania was her most vivid, if not her most lucid, musical reflection of her mental state. It’s not easy listening – at this remove it’s hard for me to recall how hard I had to work as a 16-year-old hearing Hersh for the first time to get inside this music and make sense of it. I had no reference for it, knew of no one else who sang songs like this, this thing, with its frenetic country-polka rhythm in the verses, crazed Subterranean Homesick Blues-style vocal delivery, and unsettling breakdowns where Hersh declares ‘shocking is therapy’, before screaming ‘electrify your head’. Hersh is unique, a one-off, undervalued and inevitably taken for granted.

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Throwing Muses have breakfast, 1989: l-r, Leslie Langston (bass), Tanya Donelly (guitar, vocals), Kristin Hersh (vocals, guitar), David Narcizo (drums)

The early Throwing Muses records (their eponymous debut, second album House Tornado and third album Hunkpapa) are the best documents of this frantic and unsettling period in Hersh’s artistic career. 1990’s The Real Ramona was a transition, a more considered, conventional record with pop hooks and more ABAB song structures. Nevertheless it retains enough of Hersh’s spiky originality to be compelling in the way a proper Muses record is.

After Ramona, Hersh’s stepsister Tanya Donelly left the band, making a record with Kim Deal as the Breeders (Pod, a classic) before forming her own group, Belly. With their more approachable but pleasantly strange sound – like something bad going down in Toytown – Belly achieved instant commercial success in its first year, the photogenic Donelly even being approached to appear in a Gap ad. Star reached number 2 in the UK album charts and sold 800,000 copies in the US, and Feed the Tree was a number-one Modern Rock hit single. These were indeed heady times for semi-popular indie rock artists.

But surprisingly Hersh’s commercial peaks were ahead of her too. The bombastic and rather hollow Red Heaven from 1992 reached number 13 in the UK album charts, and 1994’s University peaked at number 10 (in the US it fared less well and Sire dropped them). Most impressively, Hersh’s solo album Hips and Makers reached number 7 in the UK album charts, which for an entirely acoustic mood record with some pretty unconventional songwriting seems scarcely believable today.

For me, Hersh hasn’t recaptured the greatness of her work between 1986 and 1994. That her voice has become ever hoarser and throatier doesn’t help, and nowadays she frequently writes compelling tunes she can’t adequately sing. But apart from that, something that I essentially can’t define is missing from her work since the late 1990s. I’m trying to work out what it is at the moment by reacquainting myself with the early Muses stuff and Hips and Makers, before moving on to her output since 2000, all of which I have but none of which has ever really connected with me. I’ve got tickets to see the Muses in Islington later this year, which I’m looking forward to hugely, but I wish I could have seen them in their pomp 25 years ago at the Town & Country. That would have been quite a thing.

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Throwing Muses on the beach, 1990: l-r, Narcizo, Hersh, Fred Abong, Donelly