At first, Michelle Leon’s book wasn’t going to be about her old band. She instead planned to write a memoir from post-Katrina New Orleans, which similarly involved tragedy and perseverance and both kinds of dirty laundry.
“I even got defensive about the idea, like, ‘That band is not the most interesting thing about me,’ ” she said.
Ultimately, though, the bassist-turned-author realized that even telling her more recent experiences required retelling her five-year stint in Babes in Toyland, the Minneapolis punk trio that blew away crowds and sexist attitudes during rock’s early ’90s underground heyday. So she compromised by writing a different kind of rock tome.
The end result is “I Live Inside: Memoir of a Babe in Toyland,” a very personal account of Leon’s rock ’n’ roll experiences, newly published by Minnesota Historical Society Press.
In it, Leon intertwines detailed vignettes from her time in the band with stories from her remarkably normal Hopkins upbringing, her full-bore flight from the nest after high school and her wayfaring life after Babes in Toyland.
At the center of the book lies an uncommonly traumatic experience for a woman in her mid-20s: the murder of her boyfriend, Joe Cole. A roadie for Black Flag and Sonic Youth, Cole was shot in a robbery outside his friend Henry Rollins’ house in California. The tragedy instigated Leon’s exit from Babes in Toyland in 1992.
“I consciously avoided writing the kind of book where it’s like, ‘And then my band threw a TV out the window,’ ” said Leon, who will promote her memoir Wednesday night at the Electric Fetus in south Minneapolis.
“We had our share of crazy incidents, but those aren’t really what I took out of the experience. More of what I remember was the constant traveling and monotony of being on the road, the quiet moments and confused moments, the times we were driving each other crazy, and the times we were most like a family.”
New chapter, old stories
Leon’s new family — her IT-specialist husband Steve Neuharth, their two dogs and 1-year-old son, River — was in full bloom last week when she sat for an interview about the book at her two-story house in St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.
Actually, Leon didn’t sit much. With big-eyed River strapped to her chest in a Baby Björn, she walked around to keep him happily cooing. A bass-for-baby trading analogy would be cliché, but there was a similar rock-star performance quality to her multi-tasking. She had also just returned from her job as a special-ed teacher for St. Paul Public Schools.
Leon, 46, enrolled in writing classes at St. Paul’s Metropolitan State University and then Vermont’s Goddard College after she returned to the Twin Cities from New Orleans in 2007, then still licking the wounds of a divorce and Hurricane Katrina.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian but couldn’t pass chemistry,” she sheepishly recounted. “My writing teachers said, ‘Maybe you should try this.’ ”
Writing “I Live Inside” took six years. It was only after she landed a book deal that former bandmates drummer Lori Barbero and singer/guitarist Kat Bjelland announced Babes in Toyland’s first tour in 18 years last year. Leon said she’s fine with not being invited along.
“Kat and Lori still live and breathe that music, but I don’t,” she said. “Or at least I’m not passionate enough to spend eight months on the road again.”
She was uneasy writing about the sex and drugs part of her band’s rock ’n’ roll life, so she made sure to include as much dirt on herself as her bandmates. The hardest part, though, was revisiting Cole’s murder. “I had to go all the way there to understand it, talking to his family,” she said. “There was something cathartic about it, but it’s not like, ‘OK, it’s all better now.’ ”
Her relationship with Bjelland and Barbero did get better over the years. Both have been supportive of the book and invited Leon to their show with new bassist Clara Salyer at First Avenue in Minneapolis in January.
“Lori and I have talked about it, and we wish we had the maturity we have now,” she said. “Things can be hard to work out when you’re young, trying to navigate a tragic loss.”
Thus, she feels like “I Live Inside” closes the book on her Babes experiences in more ways than one. So now it’s about time she got around to writing that New Orleans memoir, right?