Written By: Jeff Schaller
Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad’s famous survey of the American underground scene in the 1980’s, came out 15 years ago. I didn’t get around to reading it until 2006 or so but, since its release, there seems to’ve been an outgrowth of nonfiction on semi-obscure, late 20th century post/punk/noise/rock. Some of this is entirely nostalgic—inane anecdotes and famous names, existing only to remind that “you weren’t there” (see: American Hardcore). Others, like I Live Inside, the new memoir by former Babes in Toyland bassist Michelle Leon, are actually good. This Minnesota native is a talented writer with an extensive resume and here, it shows.
Structurally, I Live Inside is a series of vignettes. Chronological, but in a recollective sense, the order happens more like memories than dates. For example, after a chapter on journalists asking Babes in Toyland shrewd and insightful (not really) questions about gender, there’s a scene of teenage Leon and a friend drinking in the woods with local stoner boys—Pink Floyd fans with “long hair, hint of a mustache, line from a chew tin worn into the back pockets of their Levi’s.” Most of these flashbacks are written in second-person, a stylistic choice I really enjoyed. It’s intimate and impressionistic, lending her memories the feel of your own. Most importantly, she doesn’t over-do it.
Unlike your average rock book, I Live Inside rarely comments on the music industry. Leon clearly wasn’t interested in writing a schmaltzy tell-all. There is no mention of the influence the internet, downloading, and streaming has had on “the scene.” I am so happy she did not do this because those conversations are almost always boring. Also, despite the current hipness of buzzy 90’s guitar stylings, Leon makes no connections between her work and today’s bands. I Live Inside is about her life in a strict sense. At no point does she try to convince you that she’s interesting.
Thus, when Leon does say something about the industry, one gets the distinct impression she’s not rambling about garbage. Her thoughts are inextricable from her identity. On quitting Babes in Toyland, she writes: “thriving in a profession where people applaud and yell your name each night might provide a clue to what needs were being met, while also indicating the place where my development started to whither.” Subtly and without complaint, Leon hits on exactly how fulfillment and defeat can feed into each other and draw a person apart. And in so few words. Probably the best single-sentence takedown of conventional, outward success I’ve ever read.
Though she never indulges in name-dropping for its own sake, I Live Inside has a reasonable amount of interesting episodes involving notable musicians. There’s some unrequited flirting between Leon and Jesus Lizard drummer Mac McNeilly. J Mascis brings a cake to soundcheck on her birthday. Babes in Toyland open for Skinny Puppy (?) and hilarity ensues. The author reflects on the deep strangeness of eating brunch with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. There are also terrifying and/or humorous stories of life in a van on the road, some of which are in a chapter called “Pensis I Never Wanted to See.” Such are hallmarks of rock memoir, but Leon’s skill ensures that they’re in service of the broader narrative point: learning to live through positives and negatives of art, exploration, and loss—finding a way to fill the place inside.