It’s a big season for music memoirs. But will they be as good as Amy Rigby’s?
Songwriter and author Amy Rigby plays the Haverford Music Festival, and Oct. 8, she'll tell you her life story
It’s a big season for music memoirs, particularly by women.
Along with Liz Phair, Tegan and Sara and Debbie Harry (who reads at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Oct. 8), who all have books coming in the next month, young songwriters Margo Price and Michelle Zauner (of Philadelphia band Japanese Breakfast) are working on life stories that have no pub dates yet.
The question is: Will any of them turn out to be as good as Girl to City: A Memoir, by Amy Rigby?
If they are, they’ll have to be really good. Rigby doesn’t have the name recognition of the aforementioned authors, but she does have one extremely important thing going for her: She can really write.
On Saturday afternoon, Rigby will perform at the Haverford Music Festival, which is actually located at Eagle and Darby Roads in Havertown, in Delaware County.
The festival is one of the better-kept secrets of the Philadelphia-area music calendar. It’s free. Thirty bands play on four stages. Music starts at noon, and the last act is Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, featuring the longtime Bob Dylan guitarist and his vocalist wife, at 7:30 p.m.
Others of note include songwriter Teddy Thompson, scion of one of the foremost British folk-rock families; Villanova alum songwriter Ryan Montbleau; New York country-soul singer Emily Duff (whose group includes E Street Band organist Charles Giordano); and jazz trumpeter Emmanuel Ohemeng III.
Rigby will play at 4:30, backed by a band that includes drummer Doug Wygal and her husband, Wreckless Eric on bass. (Yes, that Wreckless Eric — the British punk-era songwriter who penned the immortal 1977 anthem “Whole Wide World.”)
Talking from her home in the Hudson Valley in New York, Rigby said the idea for a book dates to Diary of a Mod Housewife, her 1996 debut album.
An astutely observed, catchy chronicle of the life of a single mom in her mid-30s — the songwriter had by then split up with her first husband, drummer Will Rigby of the dBs — Mod Housewife was a critical success that resonated with fans of real-life rock-and-roll.
As she writes, “I hung up laundry or waved a duster in dozens of photos taken by photographers on assignment from magazines and newspapers. Aproned, curler-bedecked, with my daughter in tow, I leaned against a sink of soapy dishes or ironed a guitar.”
A book agent suggested she put together a proposal. Twenty years ago, she did, and also started keeping an online diary telling stories about the musician’s life in an era before the word blog was widely known.
Bringing the book to fruition turned out to be an arduous process requiring learning how to write compelling prose, a different task than cutting, clever song lyrics of adult-oriented songs like “Are We Ever Going to Have Sex Again?” from 2003’s Till the Wheels Fall Off: “I looked for your id today, seemed like it had gone away ... What happened to babe and stud? Too much KFC and Bud.”
Rigby started buckling down a decade ago while working at a bookstore and putting her recording career on hold. Last year’s excellent The Old Guys — which ties in with Girl to City with songs like “Bob,” about a boyfriend who taught her about black jeans and Lou Reed — was her first new set since 2005’s Little Fugitive.
Rigby found motivation while toiling in the self-awareness that “they will write you out of history, if you don’t write yourself in. That’s what I felt. I felt like I mattered.
"If I don’t grab my own place, I’m not going to show up in ‘The Greatest Most Influential 50 Women’ even of the ‘90s. If that was written by a woman in her 20s or 30s, they probably wouldn’t have heard of me.
“And I want them to. I just wanted to say: ‘I mattered, and I still do.’ I want to claim that place in history for myself. So partly that, and partly I think I’m a pretty good writer. I think I write in a way that people can relate to ... I think even if I’m writing about the specifics of my own life they can see themselves in it, and that’s valuable.”
Girl to City begins in Pittsburgh when Rigby was Amy McMahon, the only girl of five children, who gets pulled into a life of rock-and-roll as a teenage Elton John fan (he also has a memoir coming out soon).
She goes off to New York City in 1976, an art student at Parsons School of Design, arriving as punk begins. Her portrait of grimy late-‘70s Manhattan is sharp, as she and her younger brother Michael have CBGBs adventures.
What compelled her to write, though, was hearing Merle Haggard and George Jones singing the metaphysical love song “I Think I Found a Way to Live Without You.”
That leads to Rigby’s 1980s cowpunk band, The Last Round Up, and The Shams, her 1990s vocal trio. Along the way, intriguing luminaries Chrissie Hynde, Lenny Kaye, and Nash Kato of Urge Overkill show up, but it’s Rigby’s own honest, funny, self-reflective story that keeps pages turning.
Throughout Girl to City — which comes out Oct. 8, is self-published, and available (along with more than two dozen unreleased songs) at amyrigby.com — Rigby writes about music as “the one place I knew I existed.”
“When I think about growing up, I see myself in this house, surrounded by boys, making a lot of noise,” she says. “And music was the place where I would go either to listen on headphones or to my record player.
“And I think I felt that way in New York City, too. With that connection to music, I have that place to be, where I felt like a fully formed person that wasn’t trying to figure out where I fit in. Just to be a person that existed on their own.”
The Haverford Music Festival
Noon Saturday, Darby and Eagle Road, Havertown, free, haverfordmusicfestival.org