Juliana Hatfield memoir

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I got around to reading the Juliana Hatfield memoir When I Grow Up.  I read the Dean Wareham one recently (Black Postcards) too. The two books feel like they constitute a minor wave of memoirs of 1990s semi/almost rock stardom.  Wareham (of Galaxie 500 and Luna) and Hatfield both had comparable experiences as indie stars of the late 1980s plucked out for mainstream success which never quite came, leaving them struggling for diminishing returns throughout the 1990s and beyond.

I know/used to know Juliana a bit, from back in the late 1980s in Cambridge.  I played tennis with her a couple times under circumstances I can’t entirely recall (when I was home on college vacations).  She always seemed like a somewhat painfully shy, and sweet, person.  I found the memoir to be a good read, smart and sometimes moving in the recounting of her ongoing depression, struggles with anorexia, and feelings of hopelessness.

I liked this description of her realization that she is not suited to the rock and roll life (one focus of the book concerns her wrestling with the question of whether she should give up music altogether and try to find some other line of work):

At heart, I am not a rock and roller.  At heart I am a librarian, a bird-watcher, a transcendentalist, a gardener, a spinster, a monk…. I don’t want loud noise and fame and scandal and drugs and late nights and flashing lights; I want peace and quiet and order; solitude, privacy, and space for contemplation  I want to awake at dawn and listen to the birds, and drink a cup of tea.  I need to face facts.

The book, like  Wareham’s, wrestles with a formal/stylistic dilemma having to do with the attempt to narrate and describe the tedium and monotony of life on the road in a touring rock band.  Life on tour, playing over and over at the same kinds of dingy/crummy clubs, is mind-numbingly repetitive, marked by bad food, the ordeal of driving and lugging equipment, & depressing cheap hotels (and also occasional bursts of inspiration and the pleasure of performance).  So, how can you turn this mostly-tedious material into a story someone would want to read?  Juliana takes a somewhat literalist approach by narrating one entire long tour (around 2004 I think?) from start to finish: this constitutes one strand of the memoir which is also interspersed with a more chronological tale of her career from the early Blake Babies days through her solo career, getting a $400,000 advance from Atlantic in the 1990s, later getting dropped from the label and continuing to struggle on.   I’ll confess that I thought parts of the tour diary, with all its detailed accounts of the travails of a rock and roll vegan stuck in on the fast food highway, could have been compressed or edited out, but then, it does really give you a sometimes-excruciatingly vivid sense of what that experience is like.  (Part of the point seems to be demystification, for the sake of anyone who imagines that it’s a glamorous life to be in a band.)

The memoir ends with her climbing her way out of her depression and seeming to make peace with her status as a former/has-been pop star — deciding to stop punishing herself for failing to become the kind of pop success she was never destined to be. Juliana really suffered, it seems, from the weight of the burden of being a kind of token female alt-rocker, which wasn’t a very good identity match with her propensities towards shyness, depression, and anorexia.  It’s good to see that she seems relatively happy and together these days.

Reading the memoir also inspired me to download (legally! through emusic) her latest album, How to Walk Away, which works well as a companion piece to the book.  Some of the songs function both as relationship breakup songs and also as meditations on the possibility of “breakup” or walking away from the vocation of singer/artist.  In my view (this would probably piss her off) her solo records have sometimes suffered from an overvaluation of “rawness,” and I like the comparatively polished, careful pop production on this one.

She’s been doing some painting lately, sometimes with a Red Sox/baseball theme.  Here’s one:

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2 thoughts on “Juliana Hatfield memoir”

  1. Well written article. I didn’t know she was extremely depressed, but when I saw a show back in the late 90s/early 00s she sure didn’t seem to be enjoying herself. Cool paintings…

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