At first the prospect of a Chan Marshall biography at this stage of her career would seem a little premature. Despite the critical praise that has followed her the last 14 years and a growing pop culture presence that has placed her music in commercials and her face in movies, Chan still has failed to achieve mainstream commercial success. By no means are Chan Marshall or Cat Power household names. However looking at the crossroads that her career is at— last year’s Jukebox was her highest charting album, and she’s reportedly saner than she has ever been— now would be as good a time as any to look back at the tribulations and personal demons that Chan has encountered in her live.
That was the task that Elizabeth Goodman volunteered for in writing her first book Cat Power: A Good Woman. Goodman, a former editor for the now defunct Blender magazine, had the job of revealing an artist that always dissentingly choose what parts of her life she shared with others. If this book stands as the all-in-all end result of those efforts, then that job must have been an arduous one.
For the Cat Power enthusiast Goodman is able to shed light on a few areas that have seldom been talked about, including Chan’s upbringing in Atlanta, her mother’s battle with schizophrenia, and her parent's divorce. The book also does some work in clearing up what Chan herself has said about those years, because evidently she likes to exaggerate about things (her parents' drinking may not have been as severe as she makes it out to be). We get to see how a high school dropout ended up on her own in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown working at a pizza joint and planting the seeds for the band Cat Power.
From there is where A Good Woman falters a bit. As Chan Marshall moves to New York, Goodman is reduced to gathering third party accounts and rehashing information that can be found in any of the hundreds of articles written about Cat Power. The author does state in the introduction that Chan was very resistant to the writing of the book and even went as far as telling her family and friends, even her record label Matador, to not participate in Goodman’s research. The book clearly suffers from this with Goodman merely chronicling Chan from recording album to album. There are even a few odd chapters that focus more on the rise of Matador Records than putting it in the context of Chan’s evolution.
The biggest disappointment comes from the failure to explore the parts of her life that intrigue her fans because of their continued secrecy. Her early relationship with screenwriter/actor Vincent Gallo is virtually left untouched. Chan’s relationship with the man she calls "the love of her life" Bill Callahan is also treated more as a side note. Goodman can only speculate about the relationship between the two by reviewing the albums they each made directly after their breakup, Cat Power’s Moon Pix and Smog’s Knock Knock.
Despite those missteps, A Good Woman by no means is a bad book. It is a actually a rather enjoyable read. The most talked about aspects of Chan’s life are definitely in there; i.e. the infamous ’99 Bowery Ballroom show that ended with the songstress huddled in the fetus position while asking the crowd what it would feel like to be decapitated, and her hospitalization in a psychiatric ward days before she was to embark on her “breakout” tour for The Greatest. Goodman was able to get some great words from longtime friends and collaborators such as Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and David Grohl.
More for the novice than the dedicated fan, Cat Power: A Good Woman does put Chan Marshall’s life in prospective and leaves the reader open at the end to continue on the journey that is still being written. A proper biography will no doubt be published one day. Hopefully it will come when Chan is more open and honest about the events of her life and is no longer afraid to let her vulnerabilities show.