How Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, Survived Herself–and Became the Indie Rock Queen.
Chan Marshall’s stark lyrics, minimal arrangements,and wounded, smoky vocals, were an instant indie hit in the nineties–but her mental instability nearly derailed her career. How this sensitive but headstrong Georgian daughter of an unstable mother and a relatively unknown musician father–managed to make it big, burn out, and rise up again to become not only the darling of the indie music scene but also a fashion and Hollywood icon is the fabric of this irresistible story.
Covering her musical beginnings in the south and her booze-soaked rise to fame in New York City to her eventual breakdown and subsequent reclamation of herself and her music, Cat Power delves into the soul of this fragile but ferociously gifted young talent. With seven albums behind her, the hottest designers clamoring to dress her, and perpetually sold-out venues, Marshall is at the height of her career–a perfect vantage point from which to look at her notorious and intriguing history.
From interviews with her family, musicians such as Thurston Moore, Nick Cave, Dave Grohl, and Jack White, past loves like Bill Callahan and Vincent Gallo, and current friends such as Karl Lagerfeld and Wong Kar-Wai, Elizabeth Goodman gives us the real Chan Marshall–the little girl, the woman, the artist.
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About the Author
ELIZABETH GOODMAN is the editor at large at Blender magazine and has written for Rolling Stone, Spin, and Nylon.
Read an Excerpt
June 9, Town Hall in New York City. Cat Power’s sold-out engagement at the prestigious, eighty-six-year-old venue where Leonard Bernstein and Miles Davis once performed featured the Memphis Rhythm Band, a full Southern soul orchestra. They were all onstage. Chan Marshall was not, and people were starting to worry. This show was originally scheduled for February, but had been canceled for what were then referred to as “health reasons.” By now everybody in the venue knew what that really meant. Chan had suffered one of the most highly publicized mental and physical flameouts in the modern rock era, with the New York Times reporting on the details of her institutionalization and one million fans all over the world wondering if her return to the stage would bring the same vulnerable beguiling presence they’d come to cherish and rely on. Chan Marshall had been long gone all winter, and almost for good. Would she be back with the spring? And if so, how damaged would she be?
After nearly an hour, the singer finally took the stage barefoot, wearing a strapless beaded Chanel couture dress carrying a hot-pink commuter mug filled with what she kept triumphantly insisting was chamomile tea, not single malt scotch, or wine, or beer, the preferred onstage beverages for most of her career. So invested in Chan’s well- being were many of the fans in the audience that this revelation itself drew applause. The gown’s pale, creamy tone showed off her deep tan and lithe frame, achieved during winter months spent trading booze and dark hotel rooms for the Miami sunshine, novels read by the pool, and Pilates. She looked happy, which, for anyone who knew her personally or had followed the evolution of her career, was stunning to witness: the mental-hygiene equivalent of onstage pyro.
She was tentative as she led the band, who were clearly pulling for her as well, through the first few songs, relying on weirdly equine galloping dance steps to neutralize the tension.
During the minimalist ballad “Where Is My Love” she left the stage for a while, prompting the background singer to add a wry tone to the lyric. It seemed like Chan was gone too long and a sense of here-she- goes-again nervous energy permeated the crowd. Her eventual return drew another wave of relieved whoops and applause. She flashed a huge grin, cantered over to her piano, and proceeded to sing with such smoky, lived-in authority that it was as if she finally knew her lines after fifteen years of tense rehearsal. It was the best Cat Power show I’ve ever seen.
Delayed gratification has always been Chan’s signature stage move. During her earliest shows she would often stand feet away from the mike so that the audience could hear exactly enough to know what they were missing in not being able to hear more. This sort of vocal titillation was defiant, as if she resented being onstage and wanted to taunt her listeners. When Chan reappeared at Town Hall that night, beckoned by the increasingly insistent “Where is my love?” refrain sung by her backup vocalist, that sense of performance as being punitive was gone. In its place was unadulterated joy.
Onstage at Town Hall that night, the contrasting sides of Chan Marshall, which had been struggling vigorously against each other for most of her then thirty-four years, united for a brief two hours of fragile perfection. She was both shy and confident, glamorous in her gown and tomboyish in her ponytail and bare feet, nervous but happy when she played the piano alone, and forceful like a blues diva when she led her band through songs off her recently released album, The Greatest. Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who was in attendance, wrote on his blog that the show was one of the best he’d ever seen. “This combination of Memphis rhythm section and her hesitant...phrasing was...a very strange idea,” Byrne wrote. “The result is somewhere in the middle of two worlds. Some new thing came into being that had elements of both worlds but that was neither.”
Those who are familiar with Chan know two main things about her: She has the voice of a damaged angel, and she’s probably crazy. Beginning very early in her career but reaching an apex during 1998 and 1999 when Chan toured in support of her fourth album, Moon Pix, Cat Power played a series of shows during which Chan would regularly self- destruct onstage. These displays were so gory—a combination of genuinely alarming psychosis and weirdly compelling performance art— that the singer soon became as famous for her eccentricity and mental instability as she was for her music. In the following years Cat Power released three more albums (2000’s The Covers Record, 2003’s You Are Free, and 2006’s The Greatest), each of which earned her increasing amounts of mainstream media coverage. She used her access to the press to speak with disturbing candor about the history of mental illness in her family, the scary household she grew up in, and the paralyzing sense of worthlessness she felt every time she stepped onstage, walked outside, or took a breath.
When Chan opened her mouth to sing, fans and critics heard generations of poor Southerners crippled by a sense of inescapable illegitimacy. We longed to hear that voice really open up, to surpass the limitations imposed on it by Chan’s evident self-loathing and insecurity. Every implosive Cat Power performance carried a sense of rooting for the underdog. We the fans knew what she had, what she was, what she was worth, and we longed to make her know, to make her see. If she saw and heard what we saw and heard perhaps she could get onstage and sing with strength, confidence, and freedom the way she did when she was just a little girl, singing hymns in church.
Chan has been struggling since birth. She was raised in a wild and unstable home, exposed to drugs and alcohol as a kid, endured her parents’ divorce, attended countless different schools before dropping out of high school at seventeen to work in a pizza parlor, and by the age of twenty she was pregnant. If Chan Marshall had amounted to nothing, it would have surprised no one, especially not herself. And yet just as consistently as she has been underestimated, she has also defied expectations. Chan learned from her parents’ mistakes and stayed clean while many of her friends became casualties of the nineties heroin scene. When she got pregnant at a young age by the wrong guy, she had an abortion, collected the money she’d wisely saved, and moved to New York City, becoming the first person in her family to leave the South for good.
When Chan first started playing her unusual breed of dour blues rock, she was marginalized by many as a cute girl with a dark past and an indie record deal. But Chan propelled Cat Power to international fame and her artistic potency went well past the sell-by date of most of her contemporaries. When success didn’t exorcize the demons she’d been running from since childhood, Chan experienced a psychological breakdown and public tour cancellation that could have signaled the end of Cat Power. Instead, her return marked the most triumphant moment in her career and heralded the most spectacular critical and commercial success Cat Power has ever had.
“God shined on her,” Spin editor Charles Aaron says of the Greatest shows with the Memphis Rhythm Band, a collection of extremely venerable bluesmen with decades of experience. “It made her realize she’s not existing in this whole indie-rock world where whether you can or cannot sing is viewed as an interpretive thing. It’s like, ‘Okay, either perform to the very best of my ability, or I will be humiliated onstage. They’ll be nice. They’re perfect gentlemen, but in their hearts of hearts they’ll be like, ‘Who is this child? Who is this white girl that we have to do this with? Whatever. Pay me.’ But she stepped it up.”
Before Chan was hospitalized in the winter of 2006, her shows were fearful. In the fall of 2006, after the Greatest tour ended and Chan stopped playing with the Memphis Rhythm Band she performed with sterile professionalism. But for a short, precious time between the spring of 2006 and the fall of that same year, Chan reached her potential. She got there. Onstage she was wounded and healed and sane and insane and young and old and feminine and masculine all at once, and it was magic. Then, like her best songs, the moment passed, disintegrated into the ether, and we were left, as was she, to wait for its return.
Even though Atlanta is now an urban center, congested with labyrinthine freeways and tract housing, much of the city still embodies the feeling of traditional Southern life. Downtown, locals leisurely stroll the streets and chat naturally with each other at the grocery store or gas station, and at dusk it’s not uncommon to see Atlantans gathering for a predinner cocktail out on the porch or stoop or backyard. Even where signs of a more sterile suburban life exist, the old ways persist. In the middle of a Thursday in July, at the Starbucks in Peachtree Center, you can find an Emory prelaw student passionately arguing politics for hours with a dreadlocked African American Vietnam veteran he met that day. Two hours and several cups of coffee later, they exchange e-mails, then part ways, the student off to his campus apartment, the veteran off to the shelter where he sleeps. This Atlanta—the one defined by a happy contradiction between traditional values and progressive liberal thought—is Chan’s Atlanta.
The singer hasn’t lived in the South full-time since she was twenty, but no matter what’s going on in her life—whether she’s caught up in one of Cat Power’s epic European tours or enjoying a minibreak at Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld’s country home—Chan always finds time to come home for hush puppies and barbecue. And even though she’ll help bake the sweet-potato pie at Christmas in North Carolina or gallivant around her old Atlanta stomping grounds with friends from high school, compared to the rest of her family, Chan is practically a Yankee. She’s the first person in her family to move north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Chan’s mother and father still live down South (her mom in Greensboro, North Carolina, her dad in Atlanta), as does every other living blood relative from her sister, Miranda; stepfather, Leamon; half brother, Lenny; niece, Audrey; nephew, Ian; brother-in- law, Mike; grandmother, Lillian; grandfather, Richard; and half sister, Ivy, to innumerable best friends whom this genteel but feisty Southern girl considers family.
Chan Marshall has friends everywhere from Barcelona to Montreal to Melbourne, but in her parents’ sixty-some years on earth, neither of them has spent much time outside of the southern United States. Her father graduated from high school and briefly experimented with the idea of college, but found the pull of a rock ’n’ roll life to be too strong and soon dropped out. Chan has indicated that Myra never finished high school. And yet these two young people, roots deeply planted in red clay soil, started out with dreams of living a kind of life that is not so different from the one Chan now leads. The identities of both Chan’s parents were forged at a time when the rebel spirit of the sixties was alive and thriving. The young couple was musically inclined and naturally drawn to the artists lifestyle, which during the time was directly aligned with social and political revolution.
Charles Marshall was born Charles Fowler in 1947 in Talladega, then a small mill town in central Alabama. Today Talladega is known for being home to the longest and fastest superspeedway in stock-car racing, but the track wasn’t built until the 1960s. In the 1950s, when Charlie and his younger brother, Jerry, were growing up, the place was a one- stoplight town in which you had to make your own fun. From a very early age, Charlie learned the three pillars of amusement: girls, liquor, and rock ’n’ roll.
As a young boy, Charlie lived with his aunt and uncle. Then, when he was about ten years old, his mother, Lena Faye, remarried and Charlie went to live with her and her new husband. William Herman Marshall, who went by the name Benny, adopted Charlie when he was a teenager and Charlie changed his name from Charles Fowler to Charlie Marshall.
“We didn’t have a lot of money,” Charlie remembers. “At Christmastime, when I was a tiny boy, my mom would come visit. We’d sit around the fire and we’d sing Christmas songs. ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ was my aunt Ruby’s favorite song. We would just sing.”
As a child, Charlie quickly learned that he could use his natural charm to command the attention of whichever adults happened to be around, a skill he would pass on to Chan. Charlie’s early knack for performance is something both he and Chan are proud of.
“My first professional gig—I always tell people this,” Charlie begins, excited to relay one of his many favorite personal narratives. “In Talladega, music was everywhere. I remember there was one old couple, and if I’d walk by ’em just right they’d say, ‘Sing for us, Charlie.’ So I would do ‘Hey Good Lookin’.’ They’d give me a quarter.” Chan often proudly tells this story as well.
Just as it would be in Chan’s life, music was the one consistent presence in her father’s world. Mom and Dad were inconsistent, but the music would always be there. Soon Charlie was playing in the most popular local band, the Turks, and enjoying the spoils of small-town fame. “All of the sudden, to all of the girls who didn’t pay any attention to me—I was like top cat!” he remembers, laughing. “I said, ‘I like this!’ I was bit immediately.” Between the electrifying feel of playing before a crowd and the collection of snug-bell-bottom- wearing female admirers who lined up to bat their eyes at him after the show, Charlie quickly realized the rock ’n’ roll life was for him— and just as quickly concluded that the Turks were not the band to get him out of Talladega. He decided to go to technical college down in Childersburg, Alabama, where he joined a new band and started traveling on the local college-to-college circuit, playing frat parties for gas money and free beer. “All of the sudden I wasn’t just small-town Charlie Marshall in Talladega, Alabama,” he remembers. “I realized that you could actually travel and make money doing this.”
Several bands later, Charlie and his friend Mike Lewis headed to Tuscaloosa, where Chan’s father enrolled as a part-time student and the pair formed a new band called the Brick Wall. Mike Lewis went on to have an impressive career in the music business. He played with the Standells (of “Dirty Water” fame), was on two Quicksilver Messenger Service albums, and later became a disco producer. The Brick Wall was a long way from that kind of success, but they were aiming high. Relentless ambition brought tough times. Charlie remembers living on a single peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich a day during most of that fall before the band started to get some attention. They made it through the winter, and in early 1968 they recorded their first real single, the bluesy “Poor Mary Has Drowned,” which Capitol Records released. Nearly thirty years before Matador Records signed Cat Power, a member of the Marshall family already had a record deal.