It Looks a Little Rough (But It Runs Good Anyway)

Ani DiFranco’s long-awaited memoir debuts May 7. But is it 20 years too late?

Ani DiFranco’s long-awaited memoir debuts May 7, 2019. Courtesy photo

I shaved my head in high school, impulsively, at a friend of a friend’s house one night. It was 2000, and I carried Ani DiFranco CDs everywhere in my Jansport backpack, which was covered in lyrics from her songs Sharpie-d onto the canvas. I’d like to say the decision to shave my head was a rejection of outdated beauty standards and a nod to my emerging queerness, but in truth it was because of one single song lyric.

“From the shape of your shaved head, I recognized your silhouette,” DiFranco crooned on “Little Plastic Castle,” released in 1998. I listened to that album so many times the CD scratched and I had to get a friend to burn me a new one.

Back then, the internet was small and full of neon-lettered comic sans fan pages, which I perused near-obsessively to find out anything I could about this brave and eloquent folk singer. But aside from the occasional interview in Spin or Bitch, most of what we all could deduce about DiFranco’s identity came from her songs. I got older, started dating women, and grew my hair out, my scratched CDs replaced by mp3s. And then an early edition of her memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, landed on my desk.

The cover itself is a blast from the past: DiFranco is pictured in a plaid dress with shorts underneath, posed in the iconic position immortalized by her recording company Righteous Babe Records, an image any woman who grew up in the 1990s will immediately recognize. But I was worried. Could a memoir from my former hero hold up under the scrutiny of a now-34-year-old? Is it better to stay ignorant about our superheroes?

That’s a question each DiFranco fan will have to answer for themselves. No Walls and the Recurring Dream is not a disappointment, exactly. It’s an honest, no-frills exposé of DiFranco’s journey to musical stardom, told in a straight line. It starts with her childhood in Buffalo, N.Y., slides neatly into her young 20s in New York City and through each of her relationships, to her headlining the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Festival, into a marriage, and along European tours.

It is the book I lusted after as a teenager. But as an adult, it’s easier to be more critical. The introduction is strong; DiFranco describes the cringeworthy moments she’s had on stage, immediately breaking down her persona as a fierce and righteous babe to expose her humanity, like the time her guitar kept pulling her dress up, or when she was booed at an award ceremony “for not being queer enough.” It could be intentional: “I am flawed and scared too,” she seems to say, before welcoming us into her life story.

Her familiar poetry is present within the pages, though it’s mixed with phrases so silly it’s hard to take much of the book seriously. “Scot was the height, dimension, and color of a redwood tree with a formerly majestic mane of hair that was quickly receding,” she writes about her manager. “In the absence of my hair, my antenna started picking up a distant message beaming-in to me from society,” she states later, describing the act of shaving her head.

But the relentlessly linear storytelling and occasional ridiculousness of her descriptions are eclipsed by her unique story itself — and if nothing else, her memoir proves that her achingly powerful lyrics came from real, lived experiences. There is no fraud in DiFranco’s work; everything is immensely raw and personal, and that, combined with her unmatched skill in rapid-fire fingerpicking, was key to her success.

DiFranco still tours. I see her every fall when she returns to the Fillmore. The crowd is well over 30, we all know the words to everything, and many of us cry. Her performance is just as strong as it was when I first saw her 15 years ago in Northampton, Mass., and she’s still putting out new albums. She didn’t need to write this book, to bare her life story to the now-older and more-critical eyes of her die-hards. But perhaps her relentless vulnerability is addictive, or, she finally wanted to set the record straight. “Imagine you’re a girl just trying to finally come clean,” she once wrote, “knowing full well they’d prefer you were dirty and smiling.”

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