erasing clouds

Book Review: Kate Schatz, Rid of Me: A Story (33 1/3 Series)

reviewed by dave heaton

"Songs are there for people, to be used by people, in any way they want to use them," PJ Harvey said once. Kate Schatz's 33 1/3 Series book about Harvey's Rid of Me album uses that quote as an epigraph, with an additional sentence to it where Harvey expresses her joy at seeing the varied ways people can interpret a song. That idea that we all experience an album differently, that we each create our own version of the album through listening, is a driving force behind the book, which has an appropriate letter a in the full title (Rid of Me: A Story). But Schatz obviously didn't need Harvey's approval to interpret the album. That is, whether an artist likes the fact that listeners interpret songs in their own ways or not ("But this is what the song means, damn it!", I imagine some self-satisfied star proclaiming in disgust), it happens. It's a fact of listening.

In Rid of Me: A Story Schatz takes the story she hears in the album and spells it out, writes it into being. This book is "not about Rid of Me - it's because of it," she writes in the prologue. And it is a testament to how full, how realized, the stories are that we create around other people's albums. She doesn't just take a certain general feeling or mood from the album, she hears a whole story, with a distinct setting, with characters who have their own complicated lives and personalities. Or at least she tells it that way, taking her impressions about the album and writing them into one mysterious, wrenching story.

That story involves two young women, Kathleen and Mary, who each live near the edge of a vast, dark forest. At a bar late one night, one woman kidnaps the other and takes her inside the forest. And the story continues from there, Schatz slowly revealing who these women are, how they've been affected by their respective pasts, and what they want from each other. It's a story of pain, of inner struggle, of escape and healing. Of getting beyond the past, getting beyond society, getting beyond patriarchy.

She tells this story in chapters named after the original album's song titles, with fragments of Harvey's lyrics working their way in. (The first time I noticed this it took my breath away, after a few more times it started to feel like a gimmick, or at least a restraint.) She tells this story with words that captivate, with memorably descriptive, visceral writing. Take, for example, this section where Kathleen wakes up disoriented, in pain, after being taken captive: "I inhale through my nose moss, pine, rot, sweat sharp pain shoots through me, something in my head, stabbing in my head, from nostrils to my forehead. My forehead beats like a heart."

That physical, almost vicious language matches the tone of Harvey's music: stark and loud, scarred and scarring. It's the main aspect of the music that I see in the book. My Rid of Me is not hers. When I hear the album I don't think of a forest, I think of a city. I think of darkness. Of bodies. Of highways. But that's exactly the beauty of a project like this. It's a personal expression, a personal reading. It shines light on one of the most inspiring aspects of music: how open-ended something as limited as a four-minute pop song truly is. And as she offers her own interpretation of Rid of Me, she also gives us a new interpretation of what it means to write "a book about an album." The 33 1/3 Series has had a few different approaches to the project, besides the obvious music critical/biographical one: memoir, memoir-like fiction, a "field guide", a book-length interview. But with one quick, solid blow, Schatz has expanded the format anew, clearing the way for more, and more interesting, approaches in the future.


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