The year of the Cat

‘What do you think an evolutionary reason for stage-fright might be?’ I asked my friend M., as you do while sitting on a beach without a care in the world. I was thinking about Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, who I was going to see play the following night. I hadn’t seen her play but it seemed like everyone I knew had. Some had seen her in brilliance; others had seen her brought down by stage fright. A friend described as ‘terrible’ the concert she’d seen and acted out Cat Power hiding and skittering around the stage (this was, admittedly, funny, in a hand-over-mouth kind of way). Another said she would never go to another Cat Power concert because the one she’d seen had been so brief. People’s opinions about these meltdowns varied wildly, from ‘Why doesn’t she just get it together?’ to ‘I liked it. It was real.’

As one who’s brought a plate to the table of entertainment, I’m familiar with stage-fright. Hearing those stories, I’d feel the slightest tinge of nausea in empathy and wonder at the mind’s goddamn waywardness; that the thing that was an effortless song in rehearsal can transform, under lights, into a tangle of words and chords. Stage-fright is visceral and not easy to rationalise away; at least from my humble experience, you’ve just got to surf that fight-or-flight adrenalin wave. Still, what IS the use of it (apart from bringing the snap and crackle to a performance, and making scotch at the end of a gig taste so good)?

The worst time: I was singing in a duo with my then-partner, a guitarist who was studying music at Melbourne University. His teacher had invited us to do a set before the classical guitarists’ end-of-year concert. The gig was to be unplugged because it was at the Conservatorium’s Melba Hall, which has pristine acoustics, befitting the diva soprano Dame Nellie Melba after whom it’s named.  So this gig is not intimidating at all for a fledgling singer. As we were warming up backstage, I got the most outrageous hiccups. Operatic and persistent. With less than ten minutes ‘til show time I was whooping like a hyena. ‘Boo!’ said D., in a blithe attempt to ‘scare’ me as he practiced arpeggios. ‘Just (hick!) kill (hick!) me.’ This did nothing for singers’ reputation for histrionics, or for the hiccups. I took myself off to another room and while breathing slowly and deeply, gave myself what I call ‘The Aunty’s Talk’. It’s basically ‘Get over yourself’ couched in nicer terms.

‘Hmmm…OK,’ M. said. ‘Prey. When you’re in the spotlight, you’re exposed to predators. Being in the spotlight unconsciously brings out the fear that you’ll be preyed upon.’ Performing also sets you apart from the wider group, which used to be a risky business way back on the savannah. I wondered whether I’d never been to see Cat Power because an empathy overload would mean spending the entire concert peeping through the sweaty fingers clamped over my eyes.

I didn’t need to worry. Cat Power, from her superb opener, a cover of ‘Satisfaction’, performed for two hours with only a hint of stage nerves – an inexplicable restart on ‘Don’t Explain’ and some lyrics cheat sheets.  But in listening to fans talk about the object of their devotion, I did get more insight into why a performer might fear being set apart from the group, up there in the spotlight and subject to scrutiny.

While waiting for the band to start, I got chatting with a guy who’d seen Cat Power perform a year and a half ago. ‘There seemed to be some weird thing going on between her and the bass player,’ he said. ‘She seemed to keep looking over at him and he was just ignoring her.’ ‘Did he play double bass or electric?’ I asked. (Come on, who’d obsess over an electric bass player?) ‘I’m not sure. I didn’t notice.’ This seemed strange until the band came on stage and I realized that Chan Marshall is so riveting she eclipses her band mates, despite their individual hefty reputations (Jim White from The Dirty Three; Judah Bauer from the Blues Explosion etc.).

It was Chan Marshall’s birthday and the fans knew it. When she arrived on stage, they shouted ‘Happy birthday!’ and offered her flowers, eventually starting up a ragged chorus of the birthday song. I heard a young woman say to her boyfriend: ‘You know she’s 39? She looks 25…Actually, no, I’m 25 and I look a thousand times better than her.’ ‘We should start a rumour that she’s pregnant,’ my friend said when Cat Power joked she could name her baby ‘Melbourne’. For the first few songs, it seemed that everyone was vigilant, including her band, scanning for signs of the messed-up Cat Power. Will there be a walk-off, a lie-down, a curling-up-into-a-foetal-ball? We’ve read about her alcohol abuse, depression, hospitalisation and how she’s not drinking anymore/ feeling better about herself. We know so much about her frailty and failings – and she knows we know. And here she is, under lights. Exhibit A.

Peering out from her long fringe, Cat Power sometimes walked to the side of the stage and stood, looking as if she had no idea why she’d gone there. Sometimes she’d flick her fringe, nod to the music in double-time, beam a flash of a smile, her idiosyncratic way with her body suggesting that being on stage is still no easy thing. Yet it’s the same idiosyncrasies that fuel her young fans’ adoration. It’s not that they forgive Cat Power her erratic performance standard; they love her because of it. How else would they know she’s a Tortured Artist?

Like those other difficult divas, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, Cat Power’s a dab hand at phrasing and brings this talent to covers to make them anew. She’s also got on her side a roughhouse humour that’s anything but fragile. After performing a new song, she commented with obvious approval: ‘We’ve never done that one outside of sound check.’ And after the next: ‘Now that one wasn’t a virgin. It just wasn’t fucked right.’ This comment drew out the only full-band grin of the night.

But it’s in Cat Power’s voice – her gorgeous, golden-brown, Marlboro-tempered voice – that her resilience shines. When her voice wraps around you, you know that she’s fully cognisant of her strength. At the end of the show, the rest of the band had left the stage, leaving a ringing feedback and Cat Power alone with her blissed-out brethren, to smile, blow kisses and accept more birthday flowers. Thirty nine and done the time.

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