Rock and Roll Book Club: Ani DiFranco's 'No Walls and the Recurring Dream'

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Ani DiFranco's 'No Walls and the Recurring Dream.'
Ani DiFranco's 'No Walls and the Recurring Dream.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

It's telling that one of the best-regarded music memoirs ever written, Bob Dylan's Chronicles Volume One (2004), is also one of the most famously incomplete. Dylan describes a handful of distinct periods in his life, leaving yawning gaps among them. He refers to his wife in different sections, and doesn't even bother to explain that he's writing about two different wives.

Ani DiFranco's new memoir No Walls and the Recurring Dream is more straightforward and comprehensive than Chronicles, but it's just as much the product of an author who's decided precisely what she will and will not get into. One thing she does get into is Bob Dylan. She's met him, toured with him, admires him...and still, DiFranco can't keep from resenting him.

In a chapter on Pete Seeger, a man she found vastly more personally simpatico, the author explains the nub of her Dylan issue.

Bob felt like a man who lived in fear that someone would discover and expose him as a fraud. On the contrary, I believe his art to be a great gift. I'm just saying there is a difference between open and closed. The man forced to guard his legend carefully in order that he always have something to hide behind, no matter how brilliant he is, is not as powerful to me as the man who stands out in the open, naked and unarmed.

A subject DiFranco doesn't get into? Her songs. In a few short chapters she touches on different aspects of her songwriting, but she writes that she generally hates digging into any specifics of her songs: she prefers to maintain a certain mystery, seemingly for herself as much as for her audience. People want to know what events or individuals songs are about, she writes, when the reality is that they're about the spaces between things.

She does make some connections between her songs and her life by reprinting the lyrics to a dozen or so of her songs in spots where they relate to the narrative. "The Slant" appears after her chapter on reproductive freedom. "Grand Canyon" comes after her memory of playing a show in Battery Park in 1998, thinking about the Twin Towers and the weight of American history. "Grey" appears after she writes about the end of her marriage.

DiFranco doesn't reprint the lyrics to "Untouchable Face," but she does mention that it was inspired by an unrequited love for a man named Goat. She hired Goat to run her sound after years of frustrating encounters with front-of-house staff who couldn't or wouldn't accommodate the needs of her distinctive style. She fell for Goat hard, and reader, they married.

The artist's life, we learn, unfolded more or less along the lines you might imagine. If you don't know a lot about DiFranco's background, you won't be shocked to learn that she grew up in a house overlooking Lake Erie, where the only walls were the exterior ones. There was also an enclosed interior bathroom, where her parents would go to have the fights that led to their eventual separation.

As a teenager in the '80s, DiFranco was precocious, independent, and torn between two parents who lived separately. By age 16, she was a high school graduate who rented her own apartment with the social-security money her dad garnered for being her custodian, and dating an adult man — not the healthiest relationship, but "I never met a boy my own age who could return my gaze."

Before long DiFranco was off to the big city, but she would return to Buffalo. It became the home base of her label, Righteous Babe Records. She seems to live in dread that she'll go down in posterity for having a label rather than for the music she actually released on that label, but of course what makes her independence impressive is the success she achieved without signing to anyone but herself.

DiFranco cites one nonsensical magazine blurb that praised her for making more profit per CD than Hootie and the Blowfish...but of course, any independent artist can claim that distinction. She never sold as many CDs as "Hootster" (as she put it in a letter to the editor), but she sold hundreds of thousands: enough to demonstrate that the potential upside for doing it yourself wasn't just artistic.

DiFranco did ultimately have to cave and sell merch, she writes, even though she initially saw even that as capitulating to the industry machine. To finance Goat's hire, she remembers, she agreed to tour with t-shirts...she just told her team that she didn't want to have her face on them. Or her name.

One funny-in-retrospect misadventure from the DIY trenches came when DiFranco performed on MTV, reaching a vast national audience. The network helpfully provided the Righteous Babe toll-free number: 1-800-ON-HER-OWN. Everybody called, no one ordered records, and Righteous Babe landed a phone bill the size of the phone book. "After some long negotiations with the phone company and a reduced payment plan," DiFranco writes, "we chalked it all up to a lesson in the power of television."

About that music, though. While DiFranco doesn't analyze specific songs or even detail many recording sessions, she does offer some insights on wrestling with the pristine aesthetic of '80s recording, where every channel was meant to be perfectly isolated and it was hard to capture the energy of a truly live performance. She's pithy about how that approach evolved into the '90s.

The nineties aesthetic of recording that took over from the eighties synthesizers involved adding compression and distortion to each one of these pristine, isolated tracks. The mastering goal then became to make every single thing as loud as it can be all the time.

DiFranco's response was to cultivate "an uncompressed, unpolished, whisper-to-a-scream, warts-and-all aesthetic for my own records." Her unique style, plainspoken and percussive, developed in early solo gigs, when she learned that dynamic contrasts grabbed people's attention — as did making eye contact. She even writes about an early gig in Minneapolis, at an unnamed spot on the West Bank. After the first set, the staff told her to stop being so riveting: "This is not really a music venue."

She also writes at length about her 1999 encounter with Prince. The two were longtime mutual admirers, both for musical and for non-musical reasons: these were the Artist Formerly Known As years, and DiFranco decided that if it came up, she'd just call him "Artie." It didn't come up, but Prince did stay to see her show with tourmate Maceo Parker at Midway Stadium (Saints co-owner Bill Murray was also there, DiFranco remembers), and invited the two back to Paisley Park to collaborate the next day.

DiFranco wiped away tears of frustration as she tried to play guitar over a voice-and-piano recording of "Eye Love U, But Eye Don't Trust U Anymore." Despite her frustration, Prince did end up using the part on the track, for his album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. He'd later go on to appear on a song of hers as well.

So we've covered "no walls"...what's the recurring dream? It's a dream, DiFranco reveals, where she's alone on stage with a single ghost light, after the audience has left. "I smile faintly in this dream now," she writes, "knowing that I had the honor of standing in for the lightbulb just for a little while. I turn and continue to the stage door, out into the alleyway, and onward to the unknown."

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