On not making it big: A report from the rock 'n' roll trenches
With the start of the sixth annual Wisconsin Book Festival just a day away, I've been getting prepped by reading "Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story" by Laurie Lindeen, who will appear Saturday night along with Janet Fitch at Madison's Café Montmartre.
I first became aware of Lindeen's memoir from an article in Isthmus, Madison's alt weekly (and the paper to which I contribute). Lindeen grew up here and bounced in and out of the UW as an undergraduate. That gave "Petal Pusher" a bit of local interest for me, compounded by the fact that Lindeen's all-women rock band, Zuzu's Petals, was active in Minneapolis during the few years I lived there post-college (early to mid-'90s, before I came to Madison). Though, regrettably, I never saw Zuzu's Petals play, I remember that time in Minneapolis when they were struggling to gain a foothold.
And how they struggled: Lindeen's first-person account as Zuzu's Petals' lead vocalist and songwriter is a tale of self-booked tours, scraping for every gig and bit of media attention, playing run-down venues and having little privacy (separate hotel rooms--or hotel rooms, period--were a luxury the band often couldn't afford). While those years produced some artistic highs and a well-received first album, after a while, the wear and tear became too much for Lindeen, who shifted her focus to writing. During all of this, Lindeen dealt with multiple sclerosis, the dissolution of her parents' marriage and a string of relationships that ultimately led to her marriage to Replacements' leader Paul Westerberg.
While I wish Lindeen's writing were a little punchier and more polished, her story is worth reading partly because it's a side we don't see often enough: what happens when you don't make it big, and when you realize the dream you've been chasing is perhaps no longer what you want anyway. Her writing is honest and self-aware.
The other book that springs to mind in terms of would-be rock stardom is Neil McCormick's "Killing Bono: I Was Bono's Doppelganger" (silly title, fun book). McCormick had the misfortune to go to school with one Paul Hewson, who achieved superstardom while McCormick's dreams fizzled. Ultimately, though, he found a successful career as a U.K. rock journalist.
What books like this give us is an inside look at the creative life and its immense ups and downs--something that those of us who spend more time writing about art than making it would do well to remember. (Yes, I believe intelligent arts criticism is a craft in its own right, but it is by definition a secondary or reactive one.) What Lindeen talks about is relevant not just for women in a punk trio, but for artists of all stripes.
As I often do, once I finished the book, I searched the Web for others' reactions to the book. I came across an interview with Lindeen in City Pages, Minneapolis' alt weekly, that raises a few good points but also seems to have fundamentally missed one of the poignant underlying themes of the book. And while I don't want to make assumptions or stereotype according to age, I couldn't help but imagine that the writer of the article must be considerably younger than the fortysomething Lindeen. Here's the beginning of the second paragraph: "[A]fter a long vacation from the stage, Lindeen is ready to rock. Or, rather, she's got an appointment to rock, in between a pedicure and the family dinner hour." Ouch! The cattiness continues with "[Lindeen's] meeting me for margaritas in a high-tax-bracket suburb just an inch southwest of Minneapolis city limits..." The article also implies that Westerberg was responsible for dragging Lindeen out of the rock world and into "an ordinary life as a mother and homemaker."
This struck me as unnecessarily judgmental and ignorant of the ways in which life can lead you down some blind alleys. Things don't always turn out like you hope, especially in an unstable business like rock and roll. If you've never had something major in your life refuse to pan out as anticipated, I'd say that: a) you're fantastically lucky, or b) you just haven't been around the block enough yet. Sarah Askari's snarkily-titled article, "It's a Wonderful Life. Kinda" skirts dangerously close to implying that Lindeen is a sellout, a failure, or both. With an MFA in creative writing and a first book out, I'd call her an author.
One final thought: one wonders how, if Zuzu's Petals were starting up today, the Internet would have affected their chances for success. Touring in the final few pre-Net years, they still needed to put out singles and beg for radio airplay. With a chance to better control their own marketing and reach fans directly, would they have fared better?
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