first heard Cat Power in a place that I first heard so much good music, the attic of 143 Main Street in New Paltz, New York. It was the house I moved into with friends my junior year of college at SUNY New Paltz. It was owned by a church, some plain little church with a weasel of a pastor, and I’m not sure why they let us live there. Three of us rented rooms. Two friends who had dropped out of school settled in the attic, stringing the rafters with Christmas lights and setting found objects up on makeshift shelves. A stereo was propped up off to the side of the hatch door. Most of our nights were spent up there, listening to music or making music, smoking cigarettes until the ashtrays looked like a satellite image of something chaotic, drinking wine, not thinking about the future. On one such night, I heard What Would the Community Think, played for me by my genius friend Josh. I was twenty. I was all Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and Tom Waits and Nick Cave until then, but I’d started to discover—thanks to my musician pals and two solid record stores in town—stuff on smaller indie labels like Matador and Merge and Drag City. Stuff like Palace Brothers, Silver Jews, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Cat Power. When Chan Marshall’s voice came through those tinny attic speakers that drunken night, I folded into it and never looked back.
The next day, I was at Rhino Records up the street from our dive of a house to get whatever Cat Power CDs they had. This was late 1998. I didn’t know anything about Cat Power—were there other people in the band? Was it a solo act? I didn’t know the name Chan Marshall. I knew the raw, sad voice I’d heard the night before, and I knew the lines from “Nude as the News” and “Water & Air” that were still reeling in my mind: “I still have a flame gun / For the cute ones / To burn out all your tricks” and “Oh, to be at the bottom of a river / Below the dark water / The devil all around.” They had What Would the Community Think and her most recent release, Moon Pix. I bought them both with crinkly tens and fives and went to class, stuffing them in my backpack. Later, I trudged to my dishwashing gig. On the walk home, I bought beer and cigarettes at a gas station and holed up in my room with my boom box and the Cat Power CDs. I remember feeling particularly lonely that night, or outside of things in some way that felt inescapable, and I didn’t want to engage with anyone in a meaningful way. I just wanted to sit in my room, drinking and smoking, the volume knob turned up. As I listened, going first through What Would the Community Think again and then switching to Moon Pix, I felt the loneliness leave me. I watched it dance in front of me, saw it swimming against the light from the music. I didn’t sleep. I listened to both records four times each. The next morning, I skipped classes. I called in sick to work. I stayed in my room with the songs.
Here I am now, twenty years later, at forty, living far away from that place, celebrating the release of a new Cat Power record, Wanderer, in much the same way. Holing up with it. Sitting in front of my record player, just listening, not allowing myself to get distracted by anything else, taking refuge. I can’t help but think of how Cat Power records have carried me through my adult life—those early years of communion with What Would the Community Think and Moon Pix always in my headphones or booming from my ramshackle car speakers; going back to the early stuff, Dear Sir and Myra Lee; the dark comfort of The Covers Record; You Are Free, which felt like a lifesaver at twenty-five; the soul-lifting swagger of The Greatest; tangling with Jukebox and Sun, straying a bit in those years, but always coming back to light a candle at least. And now there’s Wanderer, a true gift in this complicated American moment.
As more bad news broke this past Friday, I lingered in the confines of Wanderer, the album providing a wall of protection, listening itself seeming like an act of grace. I could hear my children in the other room, laughing, their glow about something else but perfectly suited to the scene. “Woman,” with accompanying vocals by Lana Del Rey, beckoned me back again and again that day. I dropped the needle on the fourth groove, listened, started again. Like the best songs, I immediately wanted to live inside of it, in the risings and fallings of their twinned voices. “I’m a woman of my word / Now you have heard / My word’s the only thing I truly need,” Marshall sings, Del Rey’s voice edging around hers. Marshall had performed the song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert a couple of nights before, and it was one of those performances, marked by vulnerability, that makes clear why her work is so genuine and special.
Truly, the whole record feels like a healing gesture at a time when we need more healing gestures. In the liner notes, Marshall writes: This record is dedicated to the truth & those in the struggle. There’s a sweet sincerity and generosity in that dedication, and I find it deeply hopeful. When I was twenty, the future was a void. I felt like I was sinking, but I didn’t know what sinking was. I’m thankful for all these devoted years of listening, thankful I’ve had these records as guides, and I’m thankful now for Wanderer, this balm, this loving and raging gift. It’s a privilege to be able to get lost in listening.
“The Accompaniment of Trashcans and Ashtrays” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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