#431: PJ Harvey, "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea" (2000)

As a young girl, my life was full of firecrackers, flickering television screens, stolen lipstick, and whiskey. It was full of boiling Irish blood, broken bones, and grudges, full of smoke and poker and cutting dresses out of magazines, slick shaven legs and dirty feet. My sense of self rested somewhere between flowery chalk drawings in the driveway and late-night basketball games, between period blood and motorcycle grease. My family was full of vocal men and silenced women and I never wanted either for myself and I never understood why it had to be that way…How could that happen? How could that happen again?

*

I am fifteen years old, in the car on a road trip to my grandparents’ house in Illinois. I have been listening to Pixies, Nick Cave, the Cramps, and know all the words, but I’m sick of women blurred in the background. At this point in my life, I don’t know how to articulate any of this, but I do know I want to see myself more in the things I love, want to see a young woman with her head up, smiling, but don’t know where to look.

I put my older sister’s burned copy of PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea in my portable CD player. I don’t know what to expect because I only know the name. I press play. The disc spins under the plastic. I hear the frantic power of a woman’s guitar, a woman’s song.

*

When I started playing guitar, I was eleven. I played and sang the songs I knew best from childhood and any songs I was taught. Country songs about men in love. Folk songs about women dying beautifully. I’m watching from the wall. I sang the male experience, soaked it all up as the only kind of experience worth putting into words. One day there’ll be a place for us.

*

I hear a woman’s song and it is as if the words were meant for me. It is the year after my father left home. Things I once thought unbelievable in my life have all taken place. I saw it coming, but I am still heartbroken. All around me people bleed. We are no longer speaking. This world all gone to war. I lean my head against the car window’s cold glass, and listen with all my heart.

  Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

*

This is the year I write my first song. Keep the walls from falling on me. And learn every PJ Harvey song I can. Just give me something I can believe. The year I learn to growl like a woman. I was in need of help. I am in need of articulation. It will take years and the help of many more women for me to be able to say I only need myself, and mean it.  

*

This is the year I meet my first love. We act like lovers. Speak to me about your inner charm, and how you’ll keep me safe from harm—I don’t think so. We hold hands and kiss—speak to me—he tells me he loves me—the language of love—so I write him into my songs—the language of violence—where I know my voice can dominate. I tell him they are all fiction.

*

When I write my first song, I feel connected to her and every other girl picking her guitar up to play, every other girl learning, for the first time, to use her voice—to speak for herself.

I start wearing leather with my lace, playing power chords. I show my first boyfriend the music video for “This is Love” on a school computer. He says she has a mouth like a ripped pocket. Sometimes I can see for miles. I start exploring the dark places of a woman in love with a man.

*

When I was fifteen, I heard a woman singing like I have never heard a woman sing before. Her voice, strained but powerful. Her P’s popped. Her H’s hissed. I learned her melodies and words by heart, and kept them close. Set myself free again.

When I think of her now, what she meant to my girlhood, I think of a stomping heeled shoe, the honesty of her womanliness in flux, her rough edges—feminine grit. It was for me. My small life, growing. Guitar strings and calloused fingers, and PJ Harvey in my headphones.

—Amanda Bausch