Book review – Cat Power: A Good Woman by Elizabeth Goodman
– by Jenn Laidlaw
Introduction to Cat Power
I was first introduced to Cat Power (real name Chan Marshall) by an intern in a former work environment. Said intern was obsessed. She had the bangs, the clothes, the pouty I’m-pretending-to-be-shy-and-unassuming-but-am-really-obsessed-with-myself-and-my-greatness type attitude and the general allure of someone who knows how to drive you crazy and get away with it.
It took me a while to decide whether or not I liked Cat Power’s tunes. I listened to her songs “Good Woman”, “The Greatest”, “Fool”, “He War”, “Maybe Not”, “Yesterday is Here” and her various covers. Admittedly, it probably took me a couple years of listening to her off and on before I really got hooked. I think one of the reasons I was so hot-and-cold was due to the rumours of Marshall’s performance “breakdowns” and dramatic fits. Some people probably liked her more for the intrigue, but I just couldn’t be bothered.
The Good Woman
That is, until I picked up Elizabeth Goodman’s biography of the singer. The cover is an alluring side profile of the artist which matches the appeal of her voice, which Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters/Nirvana/Them Crooked Vultures fame refers to in the book as being “the most satisfying orgasm I could imagine.”
Written by Goodman, a seasoned editor and writer for Blender, Rolling Stone, Spin and Nylon magazines, Cat Power: A Good Woman (Three Rivers Press, 2009) balances truth and intrigue into Chan’s life in a way that only someone who is an honest fan and a credited journalist could do. The very first line of the book is an obvious hook: “Chan Marshall does not want you to read this book.” I couldn’t put it down.
Goodman takes you through Marshall’s troubled childhood, relationships, name changes and self-discovery, naming of the band, first albums, alcoholic meltdowns and collaborations. The reader flips back and forth through varying opinions of her – pity, disgust, admiration, respect, comic relief, tragedy – creating a read that is a schizophrenic as the singer seems.
Chan Marshall fled her messed-up childhood in Georgia for the southern music scene of Nashville and then on to New York City. With little encouragement from her family, Marshall took the long route to a career in music.
Goodman interviews her mother, brother, step-father, band mates, collaborators, editors, friends and lovers to get through the layers of this mysteriously emotional woman and pieces together the key events and people that led her to the stage.
Despite her supposed lack of self-confidence (she reportedly has an irritating tic where she repeatedly asks people if they are mad at her) Chan Marshall has made fans out of almost everyone she has ever met, including Grohl and Eddie Vedder (both who appear on her album You Are Free), and designer Karl Lagerfeld. And, somewhere along the line this girl with the sleepy, sexy voice that started work serving up slices of pizza now lounges across spreads for Chanel.
The two faces of Chan Marshall
“Those who are familiar with Chan know two main things about her: She has a voice of a damaged angel, and she is probably crazy.” – Elizabeth Goodman in A Good Woman
Goodman is brilliant at setting the stage for Marshall’s life in such a way that by the time she reaches the psychotic episodes that would become synonymous with Cat Power performances, you don’t know whether to feel sorry for her, applaud her or book her for an exorcism.
The good news is, Marshall seems to be on the mend. Bad news is, she seems to have flung herself in the opposite direction at recent shows. Calm, quiet and near-invisible, if it weren’t for that damn voice, she would be just another girl in a band.
A good read
If you have ever liked, listened to… or even shuddered at the sound of Cat Power – read A Good Woman. It is a story of a whimsical, sorrowed protagonist, who is so astounding in her self-destruction she could be mistaken for a fiction of Goodman’s imagination or a female Cobain.
Vancouver’s very own Mike Usinger is referenced in the back of the book from a Georgia Straight article printed in 2006.