Sometime in 1994, I read a quote in Sassy magazine that changed my life. It was from Courtney Love, saying “I moved to Minneapolis to date Dave Pirner. But the real Dave Pirner, in the flesh, was a little disappointing. So I decided to be Dave Pirner, and that’s so much more fun!” (Whoever edited the Dave Pirner entry on this website appears to have read the same Sassy as me. I can’t find the quote anywhere else on the internet but it’s exactly as I remember it.) (Dave Pirner is the guy from Soul Asylum for those who you had better stuff to do in the 90s than to learn the name of the guy who sang Runaway Train.) As an excruciatingly self-conscious middle schooler who wanted nothing more than to be in a band, but could figure out no way to access the blithe confidence of all the boys who were inflicting all their shitty musical incompetence at every opportunity, this quote said to me- ‘you might think that you can access that thing you are trying to get to if you go out with a boy who seems to have it, but that will never work and it will definitely not be any fun for you if you try.’ Unfortunately, self-consciousness and shame at my musical inabilities won out, and instead of just being in bad bands until I got better and started being in good bands, I did end up trying, again and again, to go out with Dave Pirner instead of being Dave Pirner.
But at least I had the luck to be born toward the end of the 20th century, instead of the end of the 19th. I listened to Rosemary Hill read her review of a new collection of letters written by Ida John, first wife of father-of-many painter Augustus John, yesterday morning while I washed the dishes. I did and still do struggle with some infernal combination of inner voice and outer expectation of ‘be perfect or hide yourself forever,’ or ‘maybe it would just be easier to be a muse,’ but I’ve also got feminism and birth control and the ability to support myself. Ida Nettleship, on the other hand, married her Dave Pirner, gave up her painting practice to care for the children he constantly impregnated her with, tolerated his new beguiling mistress as a constant presence her life, before dying at the age of 30 from childbirth-related infection. Christ. If only she had stayed a single bohemian lady, wandering the streets of Paris… if only that were a path open to her.
That the voice of Ida, painted out of the portrait, unmentioned in her husband’s memoirs, unremembered by her own five children, rises now in a book, a hundred and ten years after her death, is astounding.
‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to be free … just be a beautiful mind growing from outward impressions. I think self-consciousness is like gin – it stops the growth.’
‘I think to live with a girlfriend & have lovers would be almost perfect. Whatever are we all training for that we have to shape ourselves & compromise with things all our lives? It’s eternally fitting a square peg into a round hole & squeezing up one’s eyes to make it look a better fit – isn’t it?’