Cat Power: A Good Woman

January 01, 1970

 (Three Rivers Press)

 

www.threeriverspress.com

 

BY JAKE CLINE

 

Regardless of how you feel about Chan Marshall’s music, your
willingness to undertake Elizabeth Goodman’s unauthorized biography of the
singer, Cat Power: A Good Woman, may
depend entirely on your reaction to the following sentence: “When Chan started
writing songs as Cat Power, her deep connection to traditional music would
authenticate her as the female, indie-rock Robert Johnson, but as a teenager it
defined her as painfully unlike everyone else.” If the boldness of that statement
doesn’t send you scrambling to cue up “Hellhound on My Trail” or “Cross Road
Blues” in an attempt to exorcise it from your head, you either have a
tremendous resistance to hyperbole or are so ardent a Cat Power fan that you
are ready to overlook this and the many other exaggerations, simplifications
and mistakes that plague Goodman’s book. The rest of you would do well to ignore
the biography altogether.

 

As far as personalities go, Marshall could hardly be more compelling: a
tall, enigmatic Southerner with model-good looks, a deeply soulful voice and a
troubling – if somewhat embellished – family history, and who is as well-known
for her onstage meltdowns as she is for her stark, occasionally gorgeous music.
Goodman admittedly knew that writing a biography of a petulant and
uncooperative subject whose public persona appears at best to be a contrivance
and at worst the product of real mental illness would not be easy. And to
Goodman’s credit, when Marshall
sicced her lawyers on the author in an effort to scare her off the book, she
only became more determined to complete the project. “I wanted to call Chan on
her bullshit,” admits Goodman, a former Blender editor-at-large who has worked for Rolling Stone, Spin and other music publications.

 

In addition to playing a “weird game of mental warfare” with
Marshall, Goodman endured an ass-chewing phone call from the singer’s mother, a
mocking of her work by Nick Cave and the derision of the Atlanta-born
Marshall’s snooty, druggy friends from her hometown music scene. That Goodman,
an avowed “longtime fan of [Cat Power’s] music,” finished the book at all says
much about her tenacity as a journalist. Marshall
wouldn’t speak to Goodman, but the artist has opened up to scores of other writers,
and Goodman quotes extensively from these interviews. Marshall reportedly implored her family,
friends and colleagues also not to talk to Goodman, but many did, anyway,
including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Matador Records executive Gerard
Cosloy, and even Marshall’s father, stepfather and half-brother. If only Goodman
had expended this effort on a more-worthy subject, or at least one whose life
story and body of work weren’t so incomplete. Marshall is, after all, only 37 years old and
not nearly as famous or as influential as Goodman would like to think.

 

While Cat Power:  A Good Woman is no hagiography, and
Goodman interviews as many of Marshall’s detractors as fans, the book is
riddled with one groan-inducing claim after another: “[Marshall has] a real
influence now on music, of course, but also on fashion, on literature, on art
in general … . ” “Being associated with Cat Power gave [Dave Grohl and Eddie
Vedder] the sheen of contemporary relevance.” “Chan is a Gatsby.”

 

Goodman also gets tripped up by her own reporting errors and
inconsistencies. Some of these mistakes are relatively minor, such as when she
writes that Marshall
remade her own “American Flag” on the Jukebox album when she in fact remade “Metal Heart.” Other passages, however, are so
sloppy you wonder if the book was even copy-edited: Goodman reports that Cat
Power’s first show in New York “took place at
a warehouse in Brooklyn,” but on the very next
page, she writes that it “was held in a huge loft that doubled as the apartment
of the label head’s former bandmate Michael Pavlak.”

 

Less forgivable is the myopic, New Yorker’s-eye view Goodman
assumes whenever she attempts to describe the South in which Marshall has lived and worked. In 1997, Marshall moved with her then-boyfriend, Smog’s Bill Callahan,
to a small South Carolina
town called Prosperity. When Goodman’s reporting takes her to Prosperity, she
appears to believe she’s been transported to the pages of a John Grisham novel:
“There is a slow, sticky feel to the place that makes porch swinging and
iced-tea drinking seem like biological imperatives. In the parking lot of the
Piggly Wiggly just outside town, a buxom teenage blonde in a hot-pink John
Deere T-shirt makes out with a boy through the open window of his pickup
truck.” At the BP gas station on Main
Street, “teenagers congregate to drink soda pop,
crush aluminum cans, and watch the cars go by.” (Can you imagine?) Later, when
Goodman visits Tennessee, where Marshall recorded her 2006 album, The Greatest, the author decides that “June in Memphis is best spent sipping iced tea and
waiting for fall… ” Yup, we Southerners sure love us some iced tea.

 

 For all its
irritations and missteps, Cat Power:  A Good Woman attempts to back up the
assertion Goodman made in a letter to Marshall
near the beginning of her project: “… I think that you deserve a really
serious, thoughtful, respectful book dedicated to your work, and to your
story.” Perhaps she does, but not just yet, as this well-intentioned but deeply
flawed biography unintentionally suggests.

 

 

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