Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Good Woman

Elizabeth Goodman's biography of Chan Marshall(a.k.a Cat Power) - Cat Power: A Good Woman - opens with "Chan Marshall does not want you to read this book." Being the huge admirer of Cat Power's music that I am, I recoiled as soon as I laid eyes upon that sentence thinking that the rest of the book would be some sort of sensationalist piece of gossipy trash that the author could hang her hat on at cocktail parties as being the first to expose the "fraud" that she believes Cat Power to be. I am unapologetically biased towards this artist, so the chips on my shoulder were already starting to build barely a page into the book.

The Cat Power that I and countless others have come to love writes some of the most heartbreaking songs ever recorded and though she plays both guitar and piano, her greatest instrument, in my opinion, is that smokey, fragile voice of hers - a fragility that has often spilled over into her live performances. Ben Ratliff of the New York Times had this to say about one such concert he attended in 1999:

There were a couple of places where Ms. Marshall's concentration held through an entire number. Stepping off the stage and settling down on the floor, she made it through her song ''Cross Bones Style'' with her nose pressed to the ground, while fans patted her on the back to comfort her; later she sang Dimitri Tiomkin's ''Wild Is the Wind,'' achieving the sad, serene state that admirers of her records came to revel in. But for the most part they were watching a train wreck.

Ms. Marshall gave almost every song at least one false start, visibly exasperating her musicians, which she seemed both afraid of doing and consciously trying to do. At one point she asked the crowd, enigmatically, if anyone in the audience had ever felt as if he were walking through a door knowing that a machete was going to fall upon him on the other side. After a silence, she motioned to her band and added, in a trembling voice, ''These guys hate me.''

She forgot lyrics, let the simplest strumming patterns crumble and fall apart, and by the end of her endless set arrived at abject contrition. ''It's not cool,'' she said, berating herself. ''It's not funny. I'm sorry.'' And then she walked off, leaving the crowd in disbelief. Her guitar player strolled to center stage. ''Turn the lights on,'' he instructed. ''It's over.''

This behavior continued for years until she finally hit the wall in 2006 and had to be hospitalized for alcoholism, thus canceling the tour to promote her album - The Greatest. Her inner demons that many considered "calculated" performance art had finally caught up with her and, yet, as the author delves into her poverty-stricken upbringing in the South to a schizophrenic mother and unreliable father, it's really not that difficult to ultimately grasp, to the author's credit, the roots of Chan Marshall's insecurities and self-destruction. She is now seemingly sober and content and has yet to follow up The Greatest with an original album of newly written songs. How the "new" Cat Power will sound is anyone's guess, but even if the "happy" Chan Marshall loses her core fans, at least she's alive to tell the tale.

Nothing in this book could have negatively changed my view of Cat Power. In my opinion, she is this generation's Nick Drake. The author did, however, give me new insight into the world of Cat Power that left me with even more respect for this artist which leads me to conclude that Chan Marshall should absolutely want you to read this book.

No comments: