If you've read Caitlin Moran's 2011 memoir, How to Be a Woman, you might recognize the girl at the center of her new novel. This rollicking and rather autobiographical book follows young Johanna Morrigan, who's growing up poor but imaginative in the depressed English city of Wolverhampton. After nervously humiliating herself while reading a prize-winning poem on live television, Johanna decides the only way out is to completely reinvent herself, to build a new girl: Dolly Wilde, hard-drinking, man-crazy music critic in a top hat and thick eyeliner. In this excerpt, Johanna-now-Dolly's drunken father has driven her to an important assignment: covering an early Smashing Pumpkins gig. How to Build a Girl will be published Sept. 23.
10:11 P.M. WELL. THIS is all turning out to be a bit confusing. I've managed to hold my position in front of Billy Corgan's mic stand — but under duress. For as I'm rapidly learning, there's this really weird thing that Smashing Pumpkins fans do: a kind of intense, pushing, leaping dance to the band's songs.
At first I thought it was just a tradition they had for the opening song — you know, like when "Oops Upside Your Head" comes on at a wedding and everyone rows across the floor. I presumed everyone would stop mucking around after the first song and settle down, and basically stop jumping on my head.
But Smashing Pumpkins are now three songs in, and it's clear this leaping around is no mere one-song tradition. Instead there is a constant thrashing up against each other, as if everyone's trying to start a fire by rubbing themselves together — using Tad T-shirts as kindling.
Writing my important on-the-spot impressions of the gig — "Corgan looks v serious! D'Arcy has drink of water" — is becoming increasingly difficult, as most of the time I'm having to hold my notepad in my mouth whilst using my hands to keep my top hat on my head. This audience is no respecter of someone wearing a bold chapeau.
As the opening chords of the fourth song start, there is a particularly energized shove from the back, and I lose both my hat and my notepad.
"Jesus Christ!" I shout. "This is deranged!"
I kneel to retrieve my hat, and then fight my way out of the crowd, to observe from the side. These people are mental. To think! I've always been scared of raves, because I thought they'd be too loud and sweaty. This is, surely, loads worse.
I stand at the side. I've decided I will be an onlooker of youth culture tonight. Besides, can I really analyze what's going on if I'm taking part in it? I'm a rock critic, not an animal. My place is to stand at the side, watching.
THE GIG GOES ON for what seems like forever. I'm very tired — it's past eleven, and I'm usually in bed listening to the Beacon Radio phone-in by now. Every Friday they do one on the supernatural. It's always very interesting. There's a woman in Whitmore Reans who's got a ghost in her hallway, and she always rings in to tell us what he's doing.
"Harry" — that's the ghost's name, Harry — "had a right cob-on this week. Knocking all my telephone directories off the table."
I don't know any of the songs the Smashing Pumpkins have played — I'd stolen 20p to order Gish from the library, but it hadn't arrived in time; a lad in Brewood borrowed it before me, apparently. Bastard — but you can tell which are most famous, because everyone goes particularly mad when they start. Some people crowd-surf, which I'd always presumed was just something that happened in America, and seems a bit weird to see in Birmingham — as if everyone here had started referring to petrol as "gasoline" and were fretting over going to Junior Prom.
"This is not your culture!" I feel like telling them. "You should be dancing like how people dance to 'Tiger Feet' by Mudd on Top of the Pops! Or doing the Lambeth Walk! That is the British way!"
During a boring — slow — bit in the set, I go to the back and see how my dad's doing. He's found a drinking buddy, and is pretty wankered.
"This is Pat," he says, introducing me to a man who is also drunk. "Because I'm Pat too! We're two Pats! He's a Protestant," he adds in a stagy whisper, "but we've sorted it all out."
He makes it sound like they've actually resolved the entire Northern Ireland conflict — and that once they've made a phone call from a phone box, after the gig, there will be peace between our two nations once more.
"Are you okay to drive?" I ask him.
"Never better," he says, trying to put his glass on the bar and missing slightly.
"I've got to go backstage afterward — say hello to the band," I say. I don't know why I presume this. I think maybe this is like a party that the Smashing Pumpkins have thrown, and that it would be rude not to introduce myself and thank them before leaving.
I give Dadda my hat and my notepad, and go back down the front for the last two songs. Even though I don't really like Smashing Pumpkins — I find them a bit dirgey — I cannot pass up this opportunity to fully experience my first gig. Awkwardly, and grudgingly at first, I do as the others do. I stiffly bounce on the spot, carefully — as if warming up for PE.
Rock music needs very supportive bras, I note, holding onto my bosoms as I leap up and down, doggedly. This is something the music press had never mentioned. They have so little guidance for girls.
On a chorus, people behind me push against me, and so I push back — I am rubbing up against boys, which, I note with glee, is my most sexual experience so far.
"I am roughly seven percent less virgin now!" I think as I feel a skinny boy's ribs xylophone on my back.
In less than ten minutes, I get soaked to the skin in a heady cocktail of my sweat, and the sweat of others. Clouds of steam rise off the mosh pit and mingle with the dry ice.
When I finally stagger away — the band's last chord ringing out in infinite feedback — my hair is as wet as Hairwash Day, and I am partially, thrillingly deaf. This is like that one time I did a cross-country run, and got some adrenaline — but without someone shouting "Faster, Morrigan!" at me. I can see the appeal.
IT'S SURPRISINGLY EASY TO blag my way backstage. Indeed, in future years, I never find it quite this easy again, no matter how many passes and laminates I have. I think it might be that the security at Birmingham Edwards No. 8 are utterly unused to small, fat, wet, over-adrenalized girls going up to them and saying, "I'm a journalist! I'm here to see the band!" very loudly, because their hearing's shot.
As a rule of thumb, you know a band's security has failed quite spectacularly when a sixteen-year-old girl in a top hat — holding a shredded notepad that she finally found kicked out by the speaker stack, and her drunken father, and her drunken father's friend, Pat — manage to get into the band's dressing room.
The band are sitting around — slumped, sweaty, exhausted. The atmosphere in the room is tense — in later years, reading about their career, I find that around this time guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy Wretzky are in the middle of a messy breakup, drummer Jimmy Chamberlain is starting to dabble in what turns into a considerable heroin addiction, and Billy Corgan is entering into a depressive phase — partly triggered by the fact that he's currently so broke he's living in a garage.
"Hiya!" I say to this room.
I don't really know how to talk to bands — I don't really know how to talk to people — and for some reason I presume that the key thing to do is be "a bit sorry" for them. The Pumpkins are obviously exuding a fairly "down" vibe, and I surmise that this is because they have come from America — land of big cars, Dynasty, and Elvis — to Birmingham, and are sad about this. Obviously, I don't know about Billy Corgan's garage at the time. I presume all Americans have huge houses. I mean, even in Roseanne they have a massive house, with a porch — and Roseanne just works in a hairdressers, sweeping up hair.
I sit down next to D'arcy, because she's a girl, and do my sym- pathetic face.
"Long day, huh?" I say. "You probably really want a brew. Like a cup of tea. That's what we call tea here. 'A brew.' Not, like, a brewski. Beer. Not that."
D'Arcy looks up, confused.
"You look knackered," I continue.
She looks even more disconsolate and confused.
"But you rocked!" I add, quickly. "You were amazing! Oh my God! I've never seen a gig like that before!"
This is quite true. I have never seen a gig like that before. I have never seen a gig before.
"How's the tour going?" I ask. "Is it exciting?"
"Oh, you know ..." she says. She has an American accent. It's the first one I've ever interacted with. Previously, American accents have only ever come out of the television. "It's kinda mind-blowing to come to Europe, and there be people who've heard of us."
She says Europe, "Yuuuuurp." It's very exciting. Genuinely foreign. But she's still staring down at the floor. There's an awkward pause. The whole band are glassy-eyed, seemingly borderline traumatized by the gig they've just played. I don't have a clue what to say next. A voice suddenly comes from the doorway.
"Tell ya what — yorra a tight little unit!"
It's my dad. He is speaking with great authority. Everyone turns to look at him. He's leaning in the doorway, still holding his pint of Guinness.
"A tight. Little. Unit," he reiterates. "Your drummer's good, mate," he says to Billy Corgan, hero of grunge. "Got a bit of a jazzer's air to him. And your bird — "he gestures to D'arcy Wretzky, hero of grunge — "your bird is fucking fit."
Everyone stares at my dad.
"Lads, lads!" Pat, Dad's friend, chirps up. "You were fine — fine — but do you not know any party songs? Or 'Protestant Boys'? That's a hell of a song. It always gets a room lively. 'The Protestant Boys / Are loyal and true / Stout-hearted in battle / And stout-handed too ...' "
I decide it's time to away, to pastures new. We have probably met enough Smashing Pumpkins now.
WHEN THE REVIEW RUNS, it contains every single superlative word I can think of — partly as my way of making up to the band for having had to meet my father and Pat, and partly because, as soon as I get back into my dad's van and have him drive back to Wolvo, pissed, I just want to go back into that room and have that massive sound come up inside me again.
Now I know what happens at a gig, I will be ready for it, next time — I will come in just a T-shirt and shorts and boots, and fight my way to the front, like a quietly determined soldier, and then let the band take my head off. I want to walk into rooms like that every night, with a sense of something happening.
A gig, I realize now, is a place where people come together and give permission for anything to happen. Things can be said and shouted and sung; people get pissed; people get kissed — there is a communal agenda of joyous wilding. These are the boardroom meetings of young people, where we establish our vibe.
By way of contrast, everything else I am doing is just sitting, and waiting.
God, I want to go out again.
Excerpted from How to Build a Girl, copyright 2014 by Casa Bevron, Ltd. Excerpt courtesy of HarperCollins.