Mon, Sep 25, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Cat Power lands on her feet

Earlier this year indie rocker Chan Marshall was holed up in her apartment, chasing `bad spirits' with a lighter. Now she's sober and riding a wave of critical and commercial success

By Winter Miller  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , NEW YORK

Cat Power, AKA Chan Marshall, during a concert at New York's Town Hall in June. Famous for erratic onstage behavior and aborted concerts, Marshall has played 47 concerts since her release from psychiatric treatment in January.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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 anti-anxiety drug Xanax.

By the time she would weave onstage, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, 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.

That was the old Chan Marshall.

The new Chan Marshall is, by most accounts, significantly improved, as critics have widely noted this year. Reviewing one of Cat Power's performances at Town Hall in June, Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote, "To see her so comfortable onstage was no small surprise to her longtime fans," and Time Out New York called the shows "triumphant, in the classic show-biz sense."

Of the New York audiences, Marshall said: "I never noticed they really liked me before. Man, these people stuck with me."

Performing at Irving Plaza in Manhattan last week, she playfully plucked and strutted with a sly grin, as if to say, "I see you seeing me, and I like what we see." Sure, audiences saw trademark kooky behavior, some awkward fidgeting, but she made it through her set, words and music intact.

Afterward Marshall (whose first name is pronounced shawn) spoke at length for the first time about her hospitalization and recovery. In jeans and a black tank top, wearing large, round copper earrings, she smoked Parliaments and sipped green tea in her room at the Mercer Hotel in SoHo. She said she was sober and happy. She qualified the term sober: She owned up to having had seven drinks in seven months.

Seven months out of the hospital, and with 47 gigs under her belt in that time, Marshall said that she took Seroquel to calm her enough to sleep, and the antidepressant Effexor, and that she made a concerted effort to eat healthfully. As a result, she said, she is feeling better.

Her drinking began when she was young, she said. Very young. As Marshall tells it, her mother gave her beer in a baby bottle and she grew up spending time in bars. As a teenager she drank and got stoned, which led to other drugs. She pinpointed her nonstop touring in 1998 as the catalyst for her descent into life-altering, chronic substance abuse.

By 2003 the downward spiral had accelerated. "Even playing all my shows I was always intoxicated, always kind of not there, which led to the depression," Marshall said. "It was more about the uncomfortableness with just being in my own skin, and that's why the alcohol was always with me."

With bizarre stage antics and aborted concerts, her erratic reputation was firmly established. Reviewing a show in the New York Times in 1999, the critic Ben Ratliff described her set as "staggering for its inversion of standard rock performance ethics," adding, "Gone was the idea of exultation, or of showing what one can do; in its place was outrageously passive-aggressive behavior and nonmusicianship."

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