My roommate had an odd look on his face. It was an unsettling mixture of trepidation and something close to embarrassment. I thought either someone was dead or I’d won a lottery I didn’t know I’d entered.
“You have a voice mail,” he told me, “from Kathleen Hanna.”
Kathleen Hanna had called me because I’d emailed her about doing an interview for the zine I had just started. I named it Jes Grew, after a “disease” in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, a novel about race and the influence and spread of black culture into the mainstream. Said novel was one of my many obsessions and a driving influence behind Record Ignite!, the band I’d formed a while ago. But that band was no more, and so this zine was where I thought I should channel my creative energy.
I’d emailed Kathleen at a generic info-type address on her website, so I didn’t have a huge expectation I’d actually hear from her. It felt like asking for a million dollars–this probably won’t work, but it’d be awesome if it did. When I’d formed my now defunct band, there were a select few groups in my pantheon of what I wanted it to be, and Bikini Kill was one of them. I admired their commitment to doing something that was genuinely dangerous, and was also sympathetic to their brand of feminism, though I realize now my understanding of exactly what feminism entailed was rudimentary at best. (Now that I have a daughter, I feel like I understand feminism better than I ever did before, but that’s another post entirely.)
In other words, getting a call from Kathleen Hanna was an enormous deal in my universe. My roommate left the room so I could listen to the voice mail, sensing that this was something he should allow me to enjoy by myself. Hearing a recording of her voice address me was enthralling and terrifying all at once. She sounds just like she did on that Mike Watt album!
I eventually reached her on the phone in person, which was even more terrifying, and we arranged to meet at a coffee shop in Soho for the interview. The day we met was a gorgeous late fall afternoon, just the faintest chill in the air, summer stubbornly hanging on. At this point in my life, my only interviewing experience came as part of a group affair when Jello Biafra came to speak at NYU. Me and another editor at the school’s humor magazine lobbed questions at him along with 20 other “reporters,” one of whom took a good 10 minutes to ask Jello if he would lend his time to something called the Million Marijuana March.
I did plenty of advance work to prepare for this interview, and yet was still frightened beyond comprehension before it began, afraid that I’d say or do something unspeakably wrong. That feeling faded quickly once I actually met Kathleen, because she was unbelievably warm and engaging, completely putting me at ease about talking to someone I considered a hero. (I imagine she had extensive experience doing this.)
We talked for 2 hours, in large part about her new artistic direction, since her first solo album Julie Ruin had just come out and was quite a musical departure from Bikini Kill. But we also covered the gamut of politics and feminism and music, and I somehow managed to sound coherent on these subjects while cognizant of the fact that I was discussing them with Kathleen Fucking Hanna.
Before we parted, I gave Kathleen a bunch of 7 inches from the label my friends upstate had started, including my old band’s sole release (seen to your left). I can’t say why I did this. Perhaps because I felt I should offer some kind of token of appreciation for taking the time to talk to me, and I had nothing else to offer. I think my rationale was, We all love you, so here’s something you, in essence, helped make. She demonstrated far more thankfulness than she needed to, and left. I hadn’t the slightest idea, really, of what I’d just done.
I practically ran home to transcribe the interview. I don’t normally toot my own horn, but in this case I searched for any excuse to tell everyone that I’d just interviewed Kathleen Hanna, you know, no big deal. The hardest part was waiting to publish the interview, since I’d just released my zine’s first issue. Had I known this was going to happen, I obviously would have held out and saved her interview for Issue #1. Foresight has never been a strong suit of mine.
By the time I could reasonably work on the next issue of my zine, I’d graduated from college, which meant I no longer had access to free computer labs with design software (oops). So I quietly assembled the issue at the local newspaper where I had a part-time job proofing ad copy and typing legal notices. Then, I just as quietly printed the zine out on huge color printers at another Major Magazine where I interned two days a week.
The zine, sadly, went nowhere. The effort to make it on the cheap/sly became daunting–I was essentially sneaking around to do it, which might be fun for certain endeavors but not for publishing. The cash to make the zine in legit fashion was nonexistent. Added to this was the inherent difficulty of getting the zine into stores, made more difficult by the fact that I lacked even the most rudimentary hustle skills. (Your guess is as good as mine as to why this fact had not occurred to me before I started making the zine.) Not to mention that the idea of a print zine seemed to have fallen by the wayside altogether with the emergence of the internet. This site you’re reading right now, in fact, grew from an attempt to do something zine-like online, before the term blog had been coined.
However, I did produce an issue featuring the Kathleen Hanna interview and send several copies to her. She sent back an effusive handwritten note thanking me, which made the effort more than worthwhile. We exchanged a few letters shortly thereafter. In one of them, she told me she’d formed a new group, Le Tigre, which was more in line with the electronic music she’d done for Julie Ruin, and was very excited about it. That sounds rad, I probably said.
In the next year-plus after our interview, I would run into Kathleen on occasion, usually at a show. It never ceased to amaze me that, far more often than not, she would go out of her way to say hi to me. Especially imprinted in my memory is the time I saw her–or rather, she saw me–at the premiere of Instrument, the Fugazi documentary. I was already feeling bowled over by the experience of watching that film, which to me was a quasi-religious experience. Adding to this was the odd spectrum of musical celebrities who showed up for the event. I wound up sitting near Sean Lennon, and almost tripped over Michael Stipe on my way out of the theater. It all seemed like a fever dream. At the time, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t one.
After the movie, I was standing outside the theater, chatting with friends, when I heard Kathleen’s voice out of the corner of my ear, saying “hi!” Saying “hi!” to me. For a moment, I honestly thought she mistook me for someone else. I can’t remember exactly what we talked about; the movie, presumably. I do know that I looked over toward some of my friends, thinking I should call them over and introduce them, but they looked shy, almost scared, as if I had crossed into hallowed ground they dared not tread.
Time marched on. I lost a girlfriend and a job and felt an abnormal amount of self-pity about My Place in the World, as if I as the first person to go through losses like these. I hadn’t seen Kathleen for a while when, out of the blue, I received an email from her with the subject line “Parting Wishes.” Her name in my inbox was eye catching enough, but the subject line immediately put me in mind of the title of one of my old band’s songs.
That, it seemed, was the point. Kathleen’s email said she was working on songs for the next Le Tigre album. She really enjoyed my old band’s 7 inch, so much so she’d taken a sample from our song “Parting Wishes” to use in “Keep on Living,” a song she’d written about/for survivors of incest. She thought the new song sounded great and was really psyched by the idea of putting it on the next album, but didn’t want to proceed any further without getting a thumbs up from me.
I sat at my keyboard, almost paralyzed by the mere thought of what I was being asked, and by whom. The thought of saying no was not an option–not that I wanted to–and the thought of asking for any kind of compensation seemed uncouth. Kathleen had been a primary influence on my old band. Allowing her to sample one of our songs seemed a pittance to repay that debt.
When I could finally muster the strength to write back, I told her of course she could sample our song, playing it as cool as I possibly could. I still have that email, and looking back on it, I see my words suffused with semi-detached joking and irony, but beneath them, I can also see the trembling in my fingers as I typed it. At a time when I was struggling to stay afloat financially and emotionally, this gave me a lift that was beyond my ability, even now, to describe in words.
My band had never discussed anything as venal as publishing rights. I’d always thought of it as “my” band, but that wasn’t 100 percent true, and therefore it wasn’t entirely my call to give the thumbs up. But I went ahead and did that anyway, informing ex-bandmates after the fact, which I knew even then was a cowardly thing to do. Luckily for me, they did not question my judgment. They were, in fact, just as blown as away by what was happening as I was, maybe more so. One of them, remembering that “Parting Wishes” opened side two of our 7 inch, marveled at her choice of song thusly: “That means she listened to both sides!”
Thus began an interminable wait until I could hear exactly how my old song had been used for something new. In retrospect, I probably could have asked to hear a sneak peek, or simply asked for a description of what exactly would be sampled. But I was still so overwhelmed by the idea that This Was Happening, it simply didn’t occur to me that I could demand any of these things. Maybe I thought if I asked for details, it would all come apart, like Elmer Fudd noticing he has walked beyond the edge of a cliff. Then and only then does he fall.
Months passed. My employment situation did not improve in the slightest–if anything, it got worse–to the point where I honestly thought I might never work again. I’d spent a good chunk of the savings I’d accumulated in the previous two years, and the terrifying specter of moving back in with my parents began to raise its head. I’ve lived through worse patches of my life, but none as profoundly lonely as this one. The knowledge that something I made was appreciated and sampled by one of my heroes, that she thought what I made was worthy of praise, was honestly one of the few thoughts that got me through my days and nights.
The new Le Tigre album (Feminist Sweepstakes) came out in the fall, when I’d been unemployed almost a year. I spotted it in Kim’s Music on St. Mark’s, a full day (at least) before it was supposed to be on the shelves. Though I’d been promised a free copy, and though I didn’t have much cash to spare, the idea of waiting one more second to hear it was far more daunting than poverty. So I bought it and raced home with it, screaming in my mind at the L and G trains to move faster. “Keep on Living” was the last track. A place of importance. The liner notes mentioned our band, and all our names. It was official.
I sincerely wanted to listen to the whole album and see how “our” song fit into the thing as a whole, but of course I wasn’t that strong. So I popped it into my CD player, skipped to the last track, and…I hadn’t the slightest idea how to feel.
Part of me heard Kathleen’s voice over the beat from my song and felt validated. See? I told all you dummies my band was awesome! But another part of me felt oddly detached from what I was hearing. This was me coming through the speakers–but it wasn’t really me, not anymore.
I emailed Kathleen to let her know I loved it. And I did. Except for the part of me that didn’t. It could have just been the detachment of the digital age, the sensation of feeling divorced from yourself. It could have been the sense of having lost something I once owned. It could have just been the residual depression from a really tough year-and-change bearing down on me. I couldn’t quite put my hands on what it was I felt, or why. I just knew it felt strange, and wrong. I felt awful and ungrateful to feel this way, particularly since Kathleen had never been anything but amazing to me. But I felt this way all the same.
Le Tigre was going to play a show at Warsaw in Greenpoint, their first in NY after the album had been released. Kathleen emailed me about putting all of us on the guest list, and yes of course I said yes please do, all the while dreading what I might feel once I got there. I tried to do what I normally do in situations like this: Push my way through it, pretend everything’s okay. It didn’t work.
I didn’t enjoy myself throughout the vast majority of the show. Not because I felt bad, but because I was afraid I was going to feel bad. That I was going to hear “my” song and feel weird and uncomfortable beyond reckoning, while surrounded by people who couldn’t possibly understand what I was feeling, or why. It was like bracing yourself to be punched.
That dread stretched out for what seemed like forever, because Le Tigre made “Keep On Living” their closer. Kathleen gave it a lengthy intro, explaining its significance and how important its message was to her. Waiting for the song to start, I felt like my skin was going to run away from me.
Then, the beat kicked in, and the room erupted. I’ve been to a billion shows, but none felt intense as Warsaw did that moment, several hundred people screaming along at every side of me. And in that split-second, all those terrible feelings washed away. Not just the fear of this moment, but the fear of the last year-plus of joblessness and doubt and pain. Because everything seemed to come into focus–about this song, and about Everything.
I remembered that I wrote “Parting Wishes” about the relationship of Onstage Star to Audience Member, and vice versa, and how fame wasn’t the thing to aspire to, but some sense of contentment and peace that can only come when you realize how idiotic it is to want to lust after admiration.
When I wrote these words, I hadn’t come close to fame of any kind, even the third-hand reflective kind of being sampled in someone else’s song. So these words hadn’t truly meant anything until this moment, when I experienced hearing this song in a room full of people who were going absolutely bonkers for it.
Now I realized that the reason I’d felt so weird and awful about this song is because part of me wanted to receive the glory for having made it. And if I was honest with myself, that was the same reason I started the band in the first place: So people would think it, and therefore I, was awesome. Well, someone did think it was awesome, so awesome they sampled it in a song that was very important to them. And that someone was one of my heroes.
And look: Here I was in the middle of this great sea of people, undulating at every compass point radiating out from me, ecstatic, buoyant, singing, alive, and I had a part in making it happen. The fact that they weren’t doing all of this “at” me didn’t matter as much as the fact that I could see I had helped them to do it, that I had helped to make other people happy.
This was a tiny sliver of time, but it would be forever. It could never be spent or drained or beaten out of me, no matter how alone or broke I was. I could close my eyes and see this scene of joy I’d made, from now to the grave.
After the show, I hung back, waiting for the big crowds to clear out, waiting for Kathleen. She reemerged near the stage and had to meet and greet a few folks, but made her way in my direction before long.
“What did you think?” she asked. She smiled but looked expectant, almost nervous. I didn’t ask, but I sensed she needed met to tell her everything was okay, that maybe she suspected the weird, dumb feelings I’d been struggling with for weeks.
So we hugged, and I told her it was truly awesome, and I could mean it.