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Juliana Hatfield: Brave girl, good memoir, the songs? not so much

Please let me help Juliana Hatfield a little and explain to her what her problem as a musician is: she doesn’t write very good songs. She can write good songs mind, and lotsa lousy ones, but she seldom writes truly brilliant rocks songs and so her career imploded.

Please let me help Juliana as a memoirist. She is a liar. Well, that’s a little harsh but the only time I was on hand and can absolutely verify or not her recollections, she gets it COMPLETELY WRONG. In discussing her sold out Roseland concert in which Jeff Buckley opened for her she writes that the hall was packed for buckley. It was not. It was empty. And she says he killed. He didn’t: Buckley was very good but he didn’t kill. Hatfield killed, killed, killed that night. Wasn’t she there? Did she miss it?

Or is she so blinded by misery in “When I Grow Up” she is forgetting her life? “When I Grow Up” isn’t well written but it is excellent any way (much like Hatfield’s career as a whole), from a unique perspective -a next big thing rapidly losing her audience- she takes us on tour so we can live with her the myriad humiliations of a band on the road. Roches in the bed, foul smells in the room, riders that don’t appear, strange fans she can’ t help and can’t comfort and often creep her our. Writing songs keeps her alive, singing em kills her.

So she goes to a Jungian psychologist and comes to terms with her insecurities, quits the road and gets her aneroxia (did I forget to mention that?) under control and writes a real good album.

Interesting story: lets look closer. As a child Juliana was very, very sensitive. She slept with the light on and believed the house was haunting till her father told her that she herself was haunted. Juliana was so sensitive that when she found a lump on her head she was scared a lump on her head was a cancerous tumor until she asked her dad th doctor who instead of telling her, what would be obvious to anybody, let alone a phd, that if she had a brain tumor it would be inside not out.

Juliana’s mother and brothers on the other hand barely appear in the book and as she moves from a sullen, friendless teen in High School to a sullen, friendless teen in college it is obvious she had the wrong family for the sort of girl she was. Her father pines for a lost love, her father snides and shrugs his shoulder, and she jumps at her shadow, falls in love with rock bands, and learns the guitar.

At college she is befriended by a couple and forms the resolutely boring Blake Babies, a band lucky to have a grungy guitar based sound much in vogue at the time. When a producer decided to sign em to a major and set em up with a producer able to give the songs a bit of spit and polish the couple balked at selling out but Juliana Hatfield headed out by herself.

Let’s take a peek at her first few solo albums.

Hey Babe
“Ugly” (“with a capital u…” -did I mention her low self-image? Weirdly so for such a pretty girl) doesn’t stand up but “Everybody Loves me But You,” “Nirvana,” (yes, that Nirvana) “I See You” and a handful of others do and the sound is so at odds with itself -Juliana’s high pitched voice against the grunge pop guitars, it makes for a real unique sound. I think I saw her play Summerstage (I know I saw her play somewhere) around this time and she was very good. Grade: “B+”

“Become What You Are”
This is the one and “Spin the Bottle” is the song and Hatfield is never even close to being as illuminating as to her art as when she explains how she came to write it. This as well as the pretty and ordinary (and very succesful) “My Sister” is how she came to the worlds attention. “President Garfield” is the most Hatfieldly of Hatfield songs -a strange meander through female sexuality to a coda which leaves her (and us) confused as to her motives. Grade: “A-“

Only Everything
Gee, that was fast. Her last major label attempt is a fine little rocker with one too many soft spots and no obvious hit plus it was out of fashion. Some really good songs though, “What A Life” for one, “Dying Proof” for another. Lyrics becoming blander. Grade: “B+”.

I bought this on CD when it came out but I haven’t bothered to download. I remember it as being a little harsh and with pretty awful lyric. Grade: “C”

Which just about tells the story, her last album 2008’s “How To Walk Away” was pretty good and in the ten years or so inbetween there have always been something worth listening to, “Get In Line” off “In Exile Deo” is all distorted guitars and harsh admonishments, but barely enough to maintain a career.

Which leads me back to the memoir. JH keeps on missing the point to her life and we keep on reacting to her poorly, even wrongly. The brave girl believes in her songs but somewhere or other she is believing in the wrong stuff. What if the reason she isn’t selling well is not because she tours poorly but because the songs lack consistently. What if she needs somebody to write with? Or, I dunno, another way to think about herself?

If you love rock you love Hatfield, you can’t help it, she is such a mess and such a straight arrow, and so just plain bizarre. Whether she is worrying about whether showing her bellybutton is a act of sexual provocation or the concerns of a guy she doesn’t know who walks past her at a photo shoot, her worries are completely off base.

By the end of the book she has given up touring, recorded what may be her last album, and knocked off her addiction to cute, thin, troubled rock and roll boys.

Has she grown up?

I dunno but “When I grow Up” is so honest it’s embarrassing and still not really revealing because I don’t think she knows herself. From break ups to break downs she is chasing an image of herself,
worrying about stuff beyond her control, and with determination that is at the very least impressive, pursuing her dream single handedly and against all odds.

This determination, her determination, to express herself artistically against all odds, is the brave and fascinating backbone of this book. The music is OK but the woman is more than that, drifting from album to album, tour to tour, boy to boy, she perseveres

Finally if you are interested in the mechanism of rock: how its function as an art form and its function as a business intercede and cannibalise each other you must read this: it is more revealing than “Hitmen“.

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