Chan Marshall’s private problems became ensnared in her musical career several years ago as Cat Power’s shows turned into disheveled throwaways, more popular as spectacles than as unique renditions of songs. Fans and critics expressed frustration at the singer’s lack of respect, self-respect, and unrealized potential. After a dark few months, Marshall re-emerged in 2006 and, feeling she owed it to the fans, explained what had been going on: a breakup, a sense of hopelessness, depression, drinking, and ignorance of how much people actually cared. She released The Greatest and took it on a glowingly reviewed tour.
First and foremost, Elizabeth Goodman, the former editor-at-large of Blender, is a big fan of Cat Power. But Chan Marshall is many other things besides a singer and songwriter. She is, as Goodman does well to describe her, a generous friend and hostess, a quick study, an arbiter of personal style, a homebody, a beach lover, an impulse buyer, and a family person. She dreams of being even more, including a mother, a teacher, and a wife.
The book is an inspiring look at how a person with a turbulent childhood who was discouraged from playing her father’s instruments and didn’t touch a guitar until her early 20s nonetheless became one of the most powerful songwriters of her generation. It is also a meaningful look at a simpler truth: Chan Marshall—and every other person in the spotlight— is a person. Time spent on stage, in front of the camera, and in front of the reporter’s microphone is only a fraction of time spent in the world, but it can feel like a torturous eternity to someone who puts deep relationships and experiences before the shallow, confusing transactions that fame encourages. For fans, celebrities out of sight are out of mind—until the biography swoops in.
In the process of writing the book, Goodman grappled with a crisis of faith in herself, laid bare in the book’s introduction, which she decided to call “Chan Marshall does not want you to read this book”. She dashes off a few self-portrait brushstrokes in an effort to legitimize herself as Cat Power’s first biographer. But when she thanks Adderall in the acknowledgments and describes herself as “passing time drinking a latte and reading a blog post about Tyra Banks” after closing a Blender issue, it’s hard to sympathize with her insecurities. The book is riddled with little editorial blunders and peppered with dull observations, and within pages of the introduction it emerges that Marshall not only wanted no part of the book, but told nearly everyone she knew to ignore Goodman.
This is a letdown, and some readers may feel duped. But as the book builds from its first chapter, Marshall’s life story takes over and Goodman respectfully recedes into the background. The only traces she leaves are ignorable editorializing and the requisite attributions: “she has said” follows every Cat Power quote because they have all been taken out of context. As is the case with many a biography, this can make reading the book a distracting test of how well Goodman repurposes words. She works from dozens of interviews and profiles with the musician and weaves them through interviews she conducted with obliging people: producers and musicians who nurtured Marshall from the beginning; generously sharing family members; peers and mentors like Thurston Moore; and critics like the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff. All are valuable additions, but serious Cat Power fans may be nagged by the sense that a story endorsed by Marshall would be much more probing.
Goodman aptly conveys how Marshall’s lack of confidence, which beleaguered band members and disheartened fans, led to dismissive, impolite and embarrassing behavior. Marshall’s explanation of her stance makes perfect sense: “I didn’t understand this whole process of being interviewed, having my photo taken, just for art, just for a song. I thought, The song is there, I gave you the song. It’s on a CD. You can have it. Thank you for giving me the present of being able to have a CD. It’s an honor.” But being in the spotlight was inevitable because Cat Power was an engrossing talent. “It’s all very tricky,” Matador’s Gerard Cosloy told Goodman, “because our actual job description involves exploiting people. I mean, it says in the contract, ‘Exploitation of your likeness, exploitation of your masters.’ Exploitation, that’s really what it’s all about.”
Marshall says that “everyone’s more responsible for my music than I am”. But while she would prefer to see herself as lucky, the truth is that she is a warm, charismatic person who attracted the generosity of others. With talent alone, some people would have given up on her, and a few did, as Goodman points out. But even at her worst, Cat Power was worthy of attention, a fact she has since learned to respect, even if she didn’t go so far as to greenlight Goodman’s book. It’s reasonable to want control over what is said about you, how, and where. It’s also impossible.
The Times’ Ben Ratliff was perfectly at liberty to skip coverage of Cat Power’s most infamous onstage meltdown at the Bowery Ballroom in 1999. He “didn’t want to be complicit in any way with the fundamental bullshittiness of it, you know?” he told Goodman. “And yet it wasn’t something that I felt like just cancelling the review and saying, ‘It was a waste of time. Let’s not deal with it.’ Clearly there was something there that she had and nobody else had that was unique and special.” Marshall’s understanding of the human condition was undeniable, and fans wanted more than just to hear it on a CD. Even when she failed to deliver, she had the songs and an aura to back her up. “Who does she remind me of?” guitarist and songwriter Teenie Hodges said to Goodman. “I say, ‘She reminds me of Chan.’ Nobody else. That’s just her. She’s original.”