Cat Power: A Good Woman by Elizabeth Goodman

Even at her worst, Cat Power is worthy of attention, a fact she has learned to respect. But it doesn't mean she wanted this book to be written.

Cat Power: A Good Woman

Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Length: 298 pages
Price: $13.95
Author: Elizabeth Goodman
Publication date: 2009-04

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.”


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.