Michelle Leon was the bass player for the influential punk band Babes in Toyland from 1987 to 1992, and again in 1997. In her new memoir, I Live Inside: Memoirs of a Babe in Toyland, she takes readers on the roller coaster ride of the rock-and-roll lifestyle and her own journey of self-discovery.
Meet Michelle on Thursday, May 26, at Moon Palace Books. I Live Inside is their Rock n Roll Book Club pick for May!
We asked Michelle to tell us more about how and why she came to write I Live Inside.
I Live Inside documents the five years you spent in Babes in Toyland, but also flashes back to your childhood. Why did you decide to incorporate these vignettes from your youth?
I wrote the book very non-linearly. I was all over the place, creating scenes as they came to me, bouncing from childhood to the present day and back to the Babes days. As I looked through the pieces later, there were so many parallels—family road trips in a station wagon and touring in a van with the band; feeling out of place as a kid and again later as a young adult; moments of loss. So it was very fun to play with that, refining the scenes so they were even more echoing and reflective of each other.
Your prose is so sensitive and sensory and your style poetic. What were your literary influences?
Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Tennessee Williams, Lydia Davis, Mark Doty, Joan Didion, Amy Hempel. I love the Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement; her style of writing in vignettes was something my adviser at Goddard, Douglas Martin, showed me when he saw how I was writing my book, and it gave me confidence working in that style. Patti Smith, Eileen Myles. Darcey Steinke’s new book Sister Golden Hair is killer; she was also an adviser at Goddard. Anything Maggie Nelson, but especially Bluets—more vignettes. Half a Life by Darin Strauss is another. The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison. Mary Karr’s Cherry. I read tons of memoirs preparing for this book. I definitely have a literary comfort zone—I should branch out.
Why did you want to share your story?
I didn’t want to share it at first. I was very protective and defensive about the subject for a long time; I felt a lot of sadness and loss. I didn’t want my identity to revolve around being the former bass player in Babes in Toyland. But people always asked me what it was like being in the band. I never had the answer they wanted, like I was supposed to tell stories about trashing dressing rooms and throwing TVs out hotel windows and hanging out with Bono. What I had was a very complicated and intense relationship with two other women that was like a marriage, while running a business together, living together, creating art together, experiencing the highest of highs and navigating horrific loss together. Loving each other like a family, driving each other crazy with our weird habits and egos, the unique bond of making and playing music together; these beautiful and singular life experiences we shared, and it still not being enough to keep us together. The day came when I HAD to write this story as a way to understand it all.
What do you miss most about being in the band?
I miss the energy of playing music onstage, the elation in that, the freedom; not knowing what town you are in when you are touring, not brushing your hair or going to Target for toilet paper. Living in that weird alternative universe. I miss co-writing songs and drinking beer at practice, having inside jokes and laughing my ass off with my band. I miss going to music stores and trying out new distortion pedals and strings and guitars. I miss having a job where a pair of American flag bell-bottoms is the perfect thing to wear. I miss traveling to places I never dreamed in my life I would see. I miss making new friends and seeing old friends out on the road.
But I am someone who loves home, loves staying in and being quiet; being in a touring band is very challenging for me. I don’t like being away from my family, friends, pets, kitchen, bed, bathtub, garden, neighborhood, and lovely old home, even though there are so many things I love about being in a band.
Do you still play the bass?
A little bit. My step-kid, Jae, goes to a performing arts high school, and I just went to the school and played with Jae’s classmates. We played “Smoke on the Water” together and it was awesome. Jae plays my old bass—a 1975 Fender Jazz we call “Lionheart,” a combination of our last names—and that makes me very proud.
What is your relationship with the band like now?
We have always remained close friends through so many different phases of life. Not that it was always easy. There was a lot of healing that occurred over the years. Still, I was really scared about how they were going to react to the book. It is such a personal story and a serious invasion of their privacy. So I have been overwhelmed and moved by their support. Lori was amazing at helping me remember details; she has an incredible memory. I’d text her questions like, “Have I ever been to Belgium?” And she’d know the answer. The experience of writing this text has brought us closer, which was a beautiful surprise.
What have you been up to since your departure from the band?
Everything! I worked at a flower shop, owned a flower shop, lived for almost a decade in New Orleans, where I renovated old houses and worked as a real estate agent, stayed for a year after Katrina. I finished college and grad school, then also earned my teaching license. I work as an elementary school special education teacher, with an emphasis on autism spectrum disorders. I married an amazing man a few years ago, gave birth to our son River the week after my forty-sixth birthday, and help co-parent Jae. We have three crazy, sweet dogs—two are therapy-certified and come to school with me. I am very blessed in this life. I am ready for more.