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Review: Girl to City: A Memoir

Southern Domestic, £12.99

Review by Keith Bruce

BY the time I discovered the music of Amy Rigby – at the start of the present century via an album released by Teenage Fanclub drummer and composer Francis Macdonald – the life she records in meticulous detail in her new memoir had already been lived.

Girl to City joins a bookshelf-full of very fine recent writing by women who made careers in the music business at the end of the 20th century, with the work of Britain’s Tracey Thorn and Viv Albertine a more apt comparison with this book than the autobiographies of her fellow Americans Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry.

It begins with Rigby’s childhood in Pittsburgh but is mostly concerned with her teens and early adult life in New York, through her first bands, Last Roundup and The Shams, to the release of her solo debut, Diary of a Mod Housewife. If you have heard of none of these, don’t let that put you off. As those who do know her as a witty, personal songwriter and between-song raconteur are aware, Rigby is a superb storyteller who demonstrates acute observational and confessional skills.

Perhaps that last attribute comes from her Catholic upbringing. Her family provide much of her material, whether it is in the fluctuating dynamic between her father and adored mother, whose vivacity was destroyed by a car-accident just after Amy had her own daughter, or the crucial part her brother Michael played in her early musical career. Rigby’s daughter Hazel is the dedicatee of the book, with her young adult life providing its framework in the opening and closing pages, and if Rigby is talking to anyone, it is to her first of all.

Hazel’s first husband was Will Rigby, drummer with post-punk New York group The dBs. In these frank revelations of a young woman’s sex life he comes out fine; the author is fairly self-lacerating about her own role in their break-up. An earlier paramour, identified only as The Manager, is the cad of the book. It is following him that brings young Amy Rigby to the UK for the first time, even after she has learned that she is not the only woman in his life.

Her Anglophilia goes back a lot further than that, however, with the joy of winning a radio competition for tickets to see Elton John in Pittsburgh kicking off the narrative, and her nascent musical obsession focussing on British rock stars before she moved to art college in New York in the mid-1970s and found herself in the midst of the punk and new wave scene. The warts-and-all picture that emerges of a Bohemian life in edgy downtown Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s (before a post-wedding move to, inevitably, Williamsburg) is at the heart of this memoir, and the part that will entice most readers.

She may have been making her own way in the company of more famous and ultimately commercially successful players, but Rigby’s picture of these years has the texture of sharply-recalled authenticity, and loads of natural wit.

What emerges most strongly from the book is Rigby’s genuine love for music and music-making. There is lots of detail about that too, with lyrics and even some geeky technical stuff, though at no time is Rigby ever dull muso company,

That 2003 album I still have was recorded in New York, Nashville and – listen up – East Kilbride Arts Centre (with David Scott and Jim Gash), and Rigby is now married to Wreckless Eric (Goulden), who was beginning his own career on London’s Stiff Records around the same time as she was first playing gigs.

Yes, Amy Rigby has lived a whole other life since Diary of a Mod Housewife came out, so perhaps we can look forward to a second volume of marvellous memoir. I sure do.