Cat Power Is Playing Tonight, But I Won't Be Going To See Her

Let’s look on the bright side for a moment and watch this video that director Aaron Rose made for the song “Nothin But Time” from Cat Power’s recent album, Sun. (Well, actually, Rose is calling this a “trailer” for a longer “short film” he will set to the entire 11 minutes of the song as it appears on the album. That will be good because we’ll then get to hear Iggy Pop’s wonderful cameo at the end of the song.) The video stars Jade and Hazel Altheide, teenage sisters who live near Albuquerque, New Mexico and ride BMX bikes in sun dresses.

It’s very beautiful. (We know that it’s nice to watch kids ride bikes in the American southwest from E.T. and from Awl pal Tim Sutton’s Pavilion.) And, man, that song is just excellent. Sun is my favorite Cat Power album since The Covers Record came out 12 years ago. Cat Power has not made an album that I do not like. But that’s where the bright side ends, unfortunately. Thinking about Cat Power these days makes me sad.

I used to go see Cat Power every time she played in New York. This was in the 90s, around the time she was making her first great string of albums, What Would the Community Think, Moon Pix, and The Covers Record. Some of her concerts were terrific—one of the very greatest live performances I’ve ever seen was Cat Power singing “The Colors and the Kids” on a little toy piano in the community garden at 6th Street and Avenue B, while pictures taken by the photographer Michael Ackerman were projected on a movie screen above her. That’s my favorite song of hers, “The Colors and the Kids.” It is one of the saddest songs I know.

Sometimes, that night being one, Cat Power would send her voice to a place that I’d never heard anyone’s voice go before. Just soaring, keening, transcendently beautiful. But other times, her shows would fall apart. She’d fall apart. She’d stop her songs in the middle, and talk about how she sounded terrible and looked ugly, and nothing was right. She’d crouch down on the floor, or curl up in a fetal position. She often looked scared, and anguished and deeply, deeply disturbed. It was not fun to watch. She became as famous for this, at a certain point, for being a human train wreck, as she was for her music. And it was a mystery: She could be so great, so riveting and gorgeous, why did she so often crumple?

We learned some of what had been going on a few years later. She was a big drinker, she told the Times‘ Winter Miller. A fifth a day. But she knocked it off. And continued to make great albums—though with a very different sound, more traditional southern soul music, with a band led by the great Teenie Hodges, who had played guitar for Al Green. They were not as great, I didn’t think, but still great. And her live performances were much better. The two times I’ve seen her since, she sounded gorgeous and smooth, if a bit restrained and measured, and she seemed calm and confident. She seemed happy.

Then, earlier this year, she released Sun. It sounds more like the old stuff: weirder, more jagged, fractured. Less restrained. And excellent. Like I said, I like it better than anything she’s done in twelve years. But it worried me to read, in August, in Amanda Petrusich’s profile at Pitchfork, that Cat Power was drinking tequila and whiskey. Steve Kandell’s piece in Spin was more explicit: she was wasted. It worried me more to learn, late last month, that she’d been hospitalized in Miami for undisclosed medical reasons.

Her concerts have been falling apart again, too. Two weeks ago, the Miami New Times‘ David Von Bader described a show at Grand Central Miami:

With a golden beam of light shrouding her silhouette, the songstress rallied and got through the song, swaying and itching a bit in what could only be described as a mime’s imaginary box, set in the corner of the stage.

On Monday, in Toronto, she was described as seeming “scattered and frail.”

Here’s a video of “3,6,9” from the Miami show.

Ugh. I don’t think that she is feeling fine. Or, if she is, I don’t think that she’ll be feeling that way for very much longer. The connection between musical genius and drug and alcohol addiction will not be news to anybody, but this instance is striking me as particularly depressing. Here I am, enjoying one of my favorite artist’s new music, celebrating its return to a level of brilliance previously achieved—quite possibly at the expense of that artist’s well-being. The knowledge that she has in fact fallen back into self-damaging behavior doesn’t sit well with the enjoyment. I mean, it doesn’t cancel the enjoyment, it doesn’t ruin it. Great music comes into the world in lots of different ways, and I think people should enjoy it regardless of genesis.

But, disturbing: I apparently like the music Chan Marshall makes when she’s in a less healthy state than the music she makes in a healthier state. I like it when she feels like she would like to be a different person, a better person, than the person she is. I like the expression of pain. I like it because it reminds me of times I’ve been sad myself, and times when I’ve wished I could different and better. I find it comforting, like a sympathy in the purest form of the word. Rendering those feelings is a wonderful gift an artist can give to the world. But how much is it worth to the world? Is it worth the pain an artist suffers? How much pain would we be willing to have our favorite artists suffer in order for them to be able to make our favorite art? Would I want Cat Power to kill herself if in so doing she made the best record she’s ever made? I would not. And yet, I’m like the fans that Mick Jagger sings about in “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll”: teenage lust unsatisfied even as he sticks a knife in his heart and bleeds on the stage.

Cat Power is playing at Hammerstein Ballroom tonight. Tickets are still available. Maybe it’ll be great. I hope it is. Let me know.