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“… if you’re timid and looking for mercy, stay on the road that leads to a more compassionate world. ‘Cause this one I know will eat you up alive, brother. I mean, alive!”
—recitation by Hank Ballard, from James Brown’s Get on the Good Foot LP, 1972
Growing up in New England, Juliana Hatfield was a fixture of my music diet. While I was living there, I took it for granted that, in between her regular tours, I could catch her playing the odd solo show here or there, testing out new material that would often show up on an album sooner or later. Indeed, it was a Juliana Hatfield show that initiated my regular ritual of patronizing my favorite artists at small rock clubs. Prior to that first club show in early ’94, the only live music environments I really knew were venues with a seating capacity of at least 3,000-ish.
In 2004, I moved to San Francisco, and lucky me – Juliana was playing a show at a charming local venue called CafÃ© du Nord not too long after I touched down. It was an appropriate musical start to my new life in a new city.
But after that ’04 show, one of the two or three best Hatfield performances I had witnessed, she dropped off my radar. It wasn’t for lack of paying attention – she didn’t even make it to San Francisco on her tour in support of 2005’s Made in China, and she was pretty much off the road after that for all I knew, in spite of having released three more records after Made in China. What was up with that?
Well, turns out Juliana was contemplating her future in music, seemingly having had enough of the endless irritations and frustrations that accompany the life of a once-rising-star who’s operating well below most indie-pop loving fans’ radars, and writing what became “When I Grow Up: A Memoir.”
Now, anyone who knows even a little bit of Juliana’s music (or even just her most popular tune, 1993’s iconic alt-rock hit “My Sister”) probably already knows that she can be pretty blunt and personally revealing in her lyrics. Between her well-known bouts with eating disorders and the pitfalls of the music industry, anyone expecting the floodgates to open won’t be disappointed. Well, maybe those still clinging to the notion of Hatfield and the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando ever having been a serious couple will be. But everyone else will find more than enough to chew on here.
And by more than enough, I mean, did we really need to know about the tactics she resorted to when faced with the dilemma of having to pee minutes before show-time when the only bathroom anywhere near the backstage area can’t be accessed without plowing through a crowd of anticipatory fans?
This, my friends, is the pragmatist’s version of the rock n’ roll lifestyle.
The aforementioned lack-of-bathroom episode is part of the book’s main thread – a travelogue of Juliana’s 2003 tour, in which she, drummer Freda Smith and guitarist Heidi Gluck were billed as Some Girls. The book’s chapters roughly alternate between these ’03 road stories and Juliana’s past, stretching back to her early childhood and dysfunctional family life. How dysfunctional, you ask? I point to exhibit A, the story Juliana chose to read aloud to the small but attentive audience present for her first ever book reading, at Book Passage in San Francisco: her journalist mother was in love with another man (original Mountain bassist and Disraeli Gears producer Felix Pappalardi, believe it or not) the entire time she was married to Juliana’s radiologist father. You can imagine what kinds of awkward stories could come out of that situation, but I certainly never would have envisioned the father of this gentle, gifted musician smashing a present he had given to his wife with an axe over a visit she made to the doomed Mountain bassist. Mind you, Juliana saw this happen with her own eyes. For all she knew, it was mom who was about to get axed.
The road stories, meanwhile, are not so harrowing when put into that perspective. No rider at one club? No biggie. Nickled and dimed over drinks at the bar? Whatever, it’s cool. In fact, as Juliana is all too eager to point out, there’s little glamour in traveling from town to town, playing small clubs with scant amenities when you’re already over the thrill of the fight to be heard that passed with your 20s. She comes across as somewhat bitter about the experience, but only slightly so. There are plenty of expressions of gratitude for being able to at least live off of her music without holding a “real” job on the side (and if she needs to be reminded of how good she has it, she can talk to any writer for Popdose – we love this little online home to pieces, but if we didn’t have other jobs, we’d be, like, homeless).
Between the painful personal revelations about her anorexia, depression, and awkward social interactions, and her string of drug addict boyfriends (and again, Evan Dando was not one of them!), the book can feel like a real downer for some stretches – especially when she contemplates walking away from music entirely (hence the title of her latest album, How to Walk Away), which she openly pondered on her blog this year. But in the end, “When I Grow Up” is bundled with more hope than meets the eye. For one, she demonstrates that, if anything, she “grew up” long before any of her ex-boyfriends ever did (if they have), especially when it comes to staying financially solvent on a limited, unpredictable budget, and maintaining a relatively healthy lifestyle (no, I wasn’t kidding when I said she presents a pragmatist’s vision of rock n’ roll – I mean, no excessive drinking and no red meat? For shame!) in the face of endless temptation. Like most artists, she’s very self-critical. Yet she’s still realistically self-aware, and unless she plans on checking out sometime soon, her story is far from over.
Odds are, this book served mostly as a catharsis, rather than a pre-emptive goodbye to the world of music (after all, she is never able to answer the question, “what do I do if I’m not making music?”). I expect to see another album in no less than two years, since everyone knows that a born musician will ultimately come around to the notion that, as Ozzy Osbourne put it, “retirement sucks!”
But seriously, what Hank Ballard said about the music industry eating people alive is all too true. It nearly ate up Juliana Hatfield, and earlier than you might think. You gotta be extremely strong-willed if you’re going to make it in music. She may be small and quiet, but if her will could be translated to physical strength, Juliana Hatfield could easily knock down your block.
And Juliana, if you see this – get Frank Smith back for your next record! There’s nothing better than to hear you so caught up in what you’re doing, and you hadn’t sounded so naturally at ease as you did on the Sittin’ in a Tree EP you recorded with them in ’07.
And thanks for the music.