I hope I don’t sound like too much of a jerk for what I’m about to say. Let me just point out at the very beginning that I have all the sympathy in the world for what Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) is going through right now and what she’s gone through in the past. But in order to say what I want about David Wagner’s article in the Atlantic Wire regarding her financial problems last week, I’m going to have to cast her in something of a negative light. I just want to point out that I’m not extending blame—either for what’s happened in her past or what’s going on in her present. But the article, which tries to use her situation as an example of how hard it is to make a living as an indie musician, seems to me to make false connections between Marshall and other musicians, and at the same time ignores what may be the most likely reason that Marshall is experiencing her current financial difficulties: the simple fact that for a large part of her career, and for most of her life until she went into rehab in 2006, Chan Marshall was drunk.
This is not a secret; Marshall has talked about it often and in detail, especially in an article that ran in the New York Times in September of 2006.
Another day, another fifth of Scotch.
And that wasn’t all. Chan Marshall said her mornings began with a minibar’s worth of Jack Daniel’s, Glenlivet and Crown Royal. Mini bottles depleted, this indie singer-songwriter, known as Cat Power, would nurse a bottle of Scotch over the course of the day. On nights she performed, she took the antianxiety drug Xanax.
By the time she would weave onstage, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, Ms. Marshall, 34, was wasted. And it showed. It would seem that every fan has a Cat Power concert story: the time she mooned the audience, cursed out techies, talked to a squirrel (outdoors), played three chords and changed her mind (song after song) or played fragments of a few songs and then told everyone to get out, even encouraging fans to sue her.
Any guesses as to how much this effected Marshall’s financial stability? Aside from her daily habits (emptying a hotel minibar on a regular basis is probably the most expensive way of being an alcoholic), think how many opportunities she must have missed or avoided, how many fans, and potential fans, she alienated by being drunk and rude on stage, how much money must have been wasted, not just on booze, but on all the after effects and collateral damage that go along with being an alcoholic.
Wagner’s article suggests, however, that all of Marshall’s financial problems are due to the lack of money in indie music and her more recently diagnosed health problems. Even though he mentions her time in rehab as part of a list of her stays at Miami’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center, he never suggests that her financial instability could be based in her past alcoholism. History, and not just musical history, is full of stories of people who, while still functioning professionally, destroyed their finances through drinking and other forms of substance abuse. George Jones, who drank his way into bankruptcy while still one of the biggest names in country music and making some of his greatest records, is a perfect example.
The story of Jones is even more important when you consider the comparison Wagner makes between Marshall’s situation and that of Grizzly Bear, as outlined in an article by Nitsuh Abebe that ran in New York magazine. The problem with the comparison (besides the fact that they’re a band, and need to split whatever money they make four ways), is that Grizzly Bear has been successful in a time when the entire music industry, not just the indie sector, has been suffering (their first record came out just about the time the industry was going into freefall). Marshall, on the other hand, achieved her first success in the mid-90s, when the music industry was drowning in money, and when alternative and indie acts were doing especially well (at least compared to the 80s, not to mention now). She was never a huge star, but she had, and has, a devoted following and a strong relationship with her record label; many of her fans stuck with her even as she fell apart before their eyes. It’s hard to believe she didn’t make more than a decent living, certainly a better one than the members of Grizzly Bear make now. And she had no one to spend it on but herself—herself and her alcoholism, that is.
Again, I’m not trying to pin blame on Marshall for her difficulties—no one becomes an alcoholic by choice—but to use her as an example of how difficult it is to make a living as a musician, even a moderately successful one, strikes me as ridiculous. Yes, things are worse for musicians than they used to be, but they’re worse for everybody than they used to be. It’s never been easy to make a living as a musician, and as the members of Grizzly Bear admit, they’re lucky to be able to do so, even if they can’t afford health insurance or to move out of their tiny apartments. But there’s a long history of musicians who have made things even harder for themselves, and whose difficulties had little or nothing to do with the state of the industry. The current music biz may make it harder for Marshall to pull out of her current situation—and I hope she does—but it didn’t cause it.