Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

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.

10 Comments / Post A Comment

Yeah but if she sees a half empty floor, she'll freak out and drink even more!

But that does make me sad, a few years ago, she proclaimed at a show how proud she was to be sober. Then she said her Matador rep was in the audience and half joked, "Back to work bitch."

joshc (#442)

I've only seen her live a few times, generally at times when people were claiming that she was "doing well". These made be recoil in horror as I imagined what "not doing well" shows must have been like. I don't think I've ever felt worse about myself for being complicit in enabling or promoting someone else's palpable and extreme onstage discomfort.

SkinnyNerd (#224,784)

The connection between musical genius and drug and alcohol addiction will not be news to anybody,
Oh, please. The Awl, be less stupid.

Dave Bry (#422)

Always trying, @SkinnyNerd. Please elaborate.

skahammer (#587)

@Dave Bry I think SkinnyNerd's point might be that despite the series of events that the esteemed writer describes in this excellent article — there still isn't enough reason here to assume Ms. Marshall's performance peaks require self-destructive behavior. The fact that the two things occur simultaneously might still be a coincidence. Or at least coincidence can't yet be ruled out as the primary explanation.

In a situation like, this, assuming that there's a causal relationship is sometimes a fallacy. A romantic fallacy, true — which might in fact be Mr. Bry's ultimate point. But I'm still sympathetic to the notion that anyone who's really trying to be less stupid might express a little more skepticism about the purported casual relationship here.

Although I'll happily support anyone who decides not to take The Awl's motto quite this literally. I wonder if at some point The Awl might wind up revisiting that choice of motto.

zpace (#238,901)

"The knowledge that she has in fact fallen back into self-damaging behavior" — knowledge? Try speculation. Where in the SPIN article is it "explicit" that she was wasted? And to use that trashy, poor excuse for journalism from the Miami New Times as evidence is seriously pathetic and lowbrow. She was sober as a judge last night, and her voice was transcendent as ever. She's still figuring out how to play these new songs live, and she's getting better and better with each show–you can watch that progress on youtube, even if the videos are low quality recordings on iphones. Give her a break, people–she recorded all the vocals and instrumentation on SUN–it's impossible to dilute that sound to one singer and four musicians on stage. When she sang older songs–I Don't Blame You, The Greatest, Angelitos Negros, Ramblin' Woman–she was pitch fucking perfect, and everyone in the audience swooned. David Bry, you missed an extraordinarily moving performance last night because of your haughty (not to mention utterly false) preconception.

Dave Bry (#422)

Oh, bummer then. And also, and more so: hooray!

I am glad the show was good last night. Seriously and honestly. I hope she's doing great and continues to do great.

I guess maybe "knowledge" is too strong a word there? (When are we ever a hundred percent sure of what's going on inside someone's else's head chemicals? Or, really, anything?) But I don't really think so. Living in the world as we find it, taking the evidence as it's presented to us, we learn things and gain "knowledge." I think your point is parsing semantics a little too finely.

But again, this is something I'd be very happy to be wrong about.

Thanks for reading and writing.

GailPink (#9,712)

I interviewed Chan Marshall for a print cover story about ten years ago, in a diner across the street from Peter Luger. She did not appear to be drunk or wasted. She was extremely sweet and interesting but quite clearly living in an alternate reality.

LHOOQ (#18,226)

The only time I saw her in concert was about 7 years ago, which was a bad time for her personally by all accounts, and it was kind of a disaster. I haven't wanted to risk a repeat.

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