In their memoirs, written to extend their brands into the publishing market, most rock celebrities serve up choice facts — which drugs, whose belly they snorted the drugs off, the parties they attended that inspired them to snort drugs off bellies — designed to delight the ever-famished buzzfeed.
But only a rare few choose to try to translate their souls onto the page, knowing that attempt will be picked over and most likely misunderstood — not just by strangers but by family and friends as well. Carrie Brownstein is one of those rare few with “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl,” her look at her life in rock ’n’ roll, first as a fan growing up outside Seattle and then as one of three forces in the band Sleater-Kinney. She gives us a sharp, unromanticized portrait of her restless soul, one for whom “home” is an elusive psychic state. Titled after a rich line in the Sleater-Kinney song “Modern Girl,” the book is perceptive, unblinking, and intelligently written.
Many people have come to know Brownstein in recent years through “Portlandia,” the hipster-spoof TV series she created with Fred Armisen, and through her role on Amazon’s “Transparent.” “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” barely references those projects; Brownstein keeps her focus on music, and the book ends with Sleater-Kinney’s last show in 2006 after 12 years and seven albums. (In an epilogue, she describes reviving Sleater-Kinney with bandmates Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, to whom the book is dedicated; they released a killer album and toured this year.) That’s not to say “Portlandia” fans have no business here. Anyone interested in the role of music and culture in our lives — the ways they can provide self-definition — will likely find much to enjoy.
While the bulk of the book is about her Sleater-Kinney years, Brownstein spends a few chapters on her youth in a family marked by intellectual detachment. Her mother had anorexia (a fact that adds more layers to the book title) and left home for treatment when Carrie was 14, “seeking a cure for herself but leaving another form of sickness and longing behind.” Brownstein’s soft-spoken father, who later came out as gay, acted as though he “was just a sidekick in his own life.”
There aren’t a lot of particulars regarding her family life, and the chronology is blurry, but that’s part of the appeal of Brownstein’s writing. Her style is one of exclusion, of sculpting away, to keep her narrative focused on her larger points of personal development. At moments she mentions girlfriends in passing, unnamed, refusing to let dish trump her inner journey.
Brownstein nicely captures the 1990s indie-rock subculture of the Pacific Northwest, with all of the punk and Riot Grrrl quirks that she embraced but, with her temperamental resistance to being categorized, worked to avoid being defined by. Ultimately, she left hip Olympia, Wash., for Portland, Ore.: “These self-aware scenes are as cool as a secret handshake and a sly shared gesture of recognition,” she writes, “but at some point I was done living inside the town equivalent of a wink.”
She is also insightful as she describes the intuitive musical bond she formed with Weiss and especially Tucker in their first years together, the way they dodged choruses and the way she and Tucker let their guitars both augment and counteract each other. Brownstein touches on her romance with Tucker, a relationship that has become part of the Sleater-Kinney legend, but she doesn’t lapse into soap opera.
There is almost nothing in “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” that comes off as self-aggrandizing or humble-braggy, which is lovely. Brownstein is committed to her warts-and-all approach, with stories about her coldness to Tucker’s new boyfriend and later husband Lance Bangs and about how she sabotaged a possible Sleater-Kinney record deal with Matador Records. Late to the meeting with Matador, she was sullen and distant, a “raincloud freakshow.” She also describes the breakdown in health and mind on tour that found her literally punching herself in the face and that ultimately led to the end of Sleater-Kinney. It’s a compelling vignette, but it’s not flattering.
In her refusal to sentimentalize, Brownstein makes the touring life sound like a circle of hell. Onstage, she is a bouncing entity of edgy energy, but the hours and days between the shows become her undoing. There are a few make-out sessions and drunken nights on the road, but there are no days-long parties, no groupies, no orgies. In this rock memoir, conspicuously and most interestingly, no one is seen at parties snorting drugs off bellies.
HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL
By Carrie Brownstein
244 pp., illustrated, $27.95
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.