If the songs of The Roches have a unifying theme, it is the idea of leaving home. Again and again, the women at their centers take courageous and possibly ill-advised plunges, sometimes landing on their feet and others on their knees, begging to be taken back. Is the message of “Hammond Song” really so ambiguous? Of course she has to go down there. If it turns out to be a mistake, it will be one that she’s made for herself.
It’s easy to see the reflections of the sisters’ own paths through life. Despite the hype around their debut, the Roches were never a huge commercial success: The Roches, their biggest-selling album, peaked at No. 58 on the Billboard albums chart. “We have a career, and that is a gift. I guess I want things to be easy, but that’s not the way it is,” Maggie told The Los Angeles Times in 1995. But you never get the sense that they regretted hitting the road as teenagers, or getting up and trying again after the record industry failed them the first time.
Terre’s song “Runs in the Family,” a devastating ballad, suggests that boldness is part of the Roche temperament, and that it isn’t always easy to live with:
One by one we left home
We went so far out there
Everybody got scared
My uncle did it; my daddy did it
I’m beginning to think that it runs in the family
She keeps saying that—“I’m beginning to think that it runs in the family”—without ever quite saying what it is. It echoes my favorite lyric in “Hammond Song,” another one of those lines that jumps out and rearranges your feelings about everything in the story. The protagonist addresses her sisters: “I ain’t the only one who’s got this disease.” What disease? Later in “Runs in the Family,” a fight between partners leads, with a chilling lack of explanation, to a pregnancy. Who knows what sort of passion erupted in that negative space? The Roches, singing as one, seem sure that the child will be afflicted too: “Oh no, kid/You’re gonna run in the family.”
Maybe the disease is simply the urge to take a stand for yourself, and it’s only pathological because it risks being rejected, or worse, misunderstood. “Pretty and High,” the album’s elliptical closer, concerns a circus performer whose adoring public becomes convinced that she’s hiding something after she rebuffs a powerful man’s advances. They call her a liar, and claim that “if she takes off her dress/The sky will fall down.” It certainly sounds like a parable about the dangers of making art as a woman, for an audience that may turn on you as soon as you confound their expectations about womanhood.
“Call the eccentricity something else—more calculated than real, with an ingenuousness that is less than genuine,” wrote Alexander Austin and Steve Erickson in an L.A. Weekly review of a 1979 Roches performance. Women being so bold, so free, so funny—surely, they are trying to pull one over on us. They must be hiding something under their dresses.