My drummer friend would often pick me up in the middle of the night so that we could drive around and chat while he delivered bundles of newspapers. Often I would come home nauseous and reeking of cigarette smoke, giddy with big ideas. The nausea was due to the fact that Drummer used the brake as a kick pedal to play along with whatever was pumping out of the speakers, and the giddiness was always because the twilight drive dictated that we pop Throwing Muses’ The Real Ramona into the dashboard deck and listen at top volume. Occasionally we would jump out of the truck, drop a bundle of papers in front of a local business, and briefly suck in the clean night air before settling back into the smoke-filled cab and flipping the tape to side two.
At the time, I considered myself, based upon my recent residency change, to be the Prince of Providence, and Drummer, after ten years on the precipice of regional musical fame, was known as the King of New England. Despite our delusions of grandeur, both of us were self-aware enough to realize we paled in comparison to Rhode Island’s true rock royalty, Newport’s Throwing Muses. The release of their fourth long-play album found the band altering our worlds and planting roots for what would soon become the seam-busting genre known as alternative rock. The Real Ramona found bandleader Kristin Hersh and her stepsister Tanya Donelly both reaching a new maturity in their singing, songwriting, and guitar playing. This growth translated into their most complete album, featuring a scintillating mixture of anthemic pop songs, ambient-sound collages, and fierce rockers.
While we both had fierce admiration for many opposing tracks, the one we could always agree on was “Two Step”; an anomaly within the Throwing Muses catalogue for the fact that it is the only song to receive a songwriting credit shared by the entire group. For proletarian liberal rock hangers-on like ourselves, this show of band unity was dizzying. Building off the guitar work and driving bass line of Tanya Donelly’s baby-doll serenade on “Honeychain,” this track utilizes a luscious whirlwind of intertwining guitar and vocal harmonies by Hersh and Donelly. Another key reason that Drummer and I loved this number was that, lyrically, this may be the most obtuse track on The Real Ramona. Kristin Hersh assumes lead vocal duties and her tone often feels subdued but not detached. There is a fluidity to the phrasing that is a perfect match to the tone of the accompanying music. As Donelly’s backing vocals float over Hersh proclaiming, “Two step, behind the rest / One fingertip too long / A hole / A hole in the box they carry / Spills sugar in the road,” Drummer and I spent too many hours driving through the night imparting our own subjective meaning to these simple words. After years of extrapolating some message about my life from these words, it is now my belief that just maybe it wasn’t all about me in that moment. As much as I wanted those words to define some hidden corner of my soul, my best guess is that Kristin Hersh was speaking about the fragile nature of the band she created years before with her high-school friend and stepsister. Looking back, this truth about the fragile nature of human relationships should have carried more weight.
Before the release of the next Throwing Muses album, Red Heaven, Donelly and Abong would leave the band and Hersh would commence work on her solo debut, Hips and Makers. Belly’s debut, Star, would go on to garner three Grammy nominations and Hersh’s Hips and Makers, anchored by her duet “Your Ghost” with Michael Stipe, would become the highest selling album of her career. My friend Drummer and I don’t talk much anymore. He still works in a local record store in our hometown and consistently recycles other small-town musicians into new band formations as he dreams about the ever-elusive record contract. We haven’t talked since my wedding two and a half years ago, but I think that if we did, we would both agree that The Real Ramona was a watershed album for us. In a moment when we were both searching for some greater understanding about life, music, and everything in between, The Real Ramona and, more specifically, “Two Step” provided some affirmation that, although we might not be headed in the same direction, we were not that far behind everyone else.