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October 9, 2007

On not making it big: A report from the rock 'n' roll trenches

Jennifer A. Smith

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?

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at October 9, 2007 7:00 AM

COMMENTS

Thank you for bring Lindeen's book to my attention. I, too, am a survivor of the rock and roll dream. Countless stories of bad gigs, no pay, no sleep, and no money for the other areas of my life. I loved writing music and performing, but not the 2am loadouts on Wednesday nights, among numerous rock and roll 'perks'.

Creative people are often creative across domains. Is someone obligated to remain a rocker for the rest of my life? I didn't, and I'm now in a racket with better hours and a steady paycheck.

Posted by: Margaret Weigel at October 10, 2007 10:13 AM

The only people who should be professional artists in whatever realms are the ones who couldn't live or at least live with themselves if they didn't do the art (exceptions made for incandescent flares of genius who turn into burnouts). The odds against a given rock performer making a career of it playing original songs are almost as bad as the odds of winning the lottery. And luck is more of a factor than talent.
The sane way for talented musicians to rock out is to go semi-pro. Be content to be a local or regional hero, playing the weekend gigs, releasing new recordings in DIY fashion, having a compatible day job that pays the bills (and, one hopes, includes benefits), and feeling good about being able to have a few hundred or a few thousand loyal fans who really get it. That's exponentially more than most of us can hope to acquire.
Rock n' roll's a loser's game, as Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople sang way back in the early 1970s. Without venturing an opinion on a book I haven't read, I'll say that I've seen Lindeen's scenario played out scores of times, and the smalltime touring grind has been chronicled often, by Henry Rollins and others (see especially the hilarious/poignant "Another State of Mind," a 1983 documentary chronicling the maiden tour of Southern California punk bands Social Distortion (which did become a solid-selling, but hardly wealthy band that's still grinding 25 years on because the guys in it are rock lifers who burned any other bridges long ago, if they ever had any to burn)and Youth Brigade (composers of the immortal, at least in select punk circles, "We'll Sink With California").

Would Lindeen's book be getting attention without the Westerberg connection (which should be good for a few thousand sales off the bat from collectors who'll buy anything Replacements-related)? Or are we seeing celebrity uber alles, yet again? I don't blame Lindeen for playing every card she's got as she tries to establish herself as a writer; it's just that the trials of a touring band is such an oft-told tale, and, all other things being equal, I'd rather hear it told by lifers. Being a wife and mom with MS -- that's for life, and I'd be interested to know whether Lindeen has an interesting take on that in her memoir, or will in some future writing.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at October 10, 2007 10:52 PM

Hello Mike: It does sound like Lindeen is working on a follow-up book on life after the breakup of her band, which is where this book leaves off (although she does let the reader know in an epilogue that she eventually married Westerberg and had a son with him). She also has a third book in the works, according to the piece in Isthmus.

It will be interesting to see what her writing's like when she's not chronicling her own life; that will be perhaps the truest test to see if her writing career has legs.

As for the uncomfortable-but-valid Westerberg question you raise ("Would Lindeen's book be getting attention without the Westerberg connection?"), I'm sure there is some truth to that, but there is also a regional angle to this book (as there is to the CA punk stuff you mention). If you lived in Minneapolis or the Upper Midwest around that time, it's a fun chance to look back at bands/places you remember and see them from a side you didn't at the time. (I certainly didn't read this out of some sort of Replacements fanaticism; while I liked them and saw them once in about 1988, I did not keep up with Westerberg's solo career after the split of the Replacements). Also, if Lindeen just wanted to play the "rock wife" card, she needn't have earned an MFA in writing.

I think there is room for all sorts of rock books: those who made it big, those who didn't but kept going anyway (some of the examples you cite); and those who walked away and spent their creative energies on something else (like writing nonfiction instead of three-minute songs, though it looks like Lindeen did go on to release some solo music).

You mentioned "Being a wife and mom with MS -- that's for life, and I'd be interested to know whether Lindeen has an interesting take on that in her [next] memoir." Fair enough, but just as there are plenty of rock books, there are also plenty of books about living with some type of disease or disability (I can already think of one that happens to be written by a musician -- "Patient" by Ben Watt, a wonderful book).

I guess I'm not that interested, ultimately, in whether or not a certain type of story has already been told by others. As a reader, my reaction to any book like this is, Did it entertain me? Was it worth my time? While I think Lindeen has room to improve as a writer (as do we all), I was entertained by what she had to say and it gave me some worthwhile things to ponder. That's good enough for me.

One final bit on the Westerberg connection: the Isthmus article notes that "Early on, Lindeen's editor said that Westerberg either had to be developed more as a character or dropped altogether, 'and that wasn't going to happen,' she says, with him too much a part of the story to omit." Even so, if you do read the book, you might be surprised by how little there is about Westerberg (or other people she knew who went on to greater fame, such as members of Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks). This is not a tell-all book; she seems pretty circumspect in what she'll say about about her bandmates or husband. The focus, warts and all, is mostly on herself.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at October 11, 2007 9:13 AM

At the risk of sounding snarky, I must raise the "uncomfortable-but-valid" point that Zuzu's Petals was a weak band that didn't have much of a future in any decade. Of course they are one of countless bands that fail to chart and break up after years of trying to succeed. Would she have landed a book deal without the Westerberg connection is also a valid question. Alas, becoming a successful songwriter is on par with becoming a successful writer: Talent is everything & an MFA is no guarantee. I don't mean to be overly critical, but sometimes the truth can be harsh. It will be interesting to read what Laurie Lindeen writes next, but it won't be surprising. Reportedly it will be titled "Rock-n-Roll Housewife." I wish her luck with her career & MS.

Posted by: winfieldbrooks at October 15, 2007 5:01 AM

The question is does Lindeen have a corking good tale to tell that's all her own? Or will her book claim a slice of the public's attention only because of her proximity to fame? I agree with Jennifer that no subject matter should be retired simply because it's commonplace, but the author deserves to be judged on the distinctiveness of her own telling. Is there something about the book's style and insights, or the characters who inhabit it, that makes familiar scenarios seem fresh? Or is it just formula that might keep the interest of novices, but will not stand up to comparisons with other works on the subject? One more thing: as winfieldbrooks suggests, a book about a rock band becomes automatically suspect if the music-making under discussion lacks vitality and staying power. The struggles, triumphs, pratfalls and ultimate surrender of an artist are only interesting in light of what got created along the way. There's probably a wonderful memoir of the Minneapolis alterna-rock scene to be written, but it would focus on the important bands there in the '80s, when things were so vital (far superior creatively, by my reckoning, to the commercially bankable Seattle scene that came later). Zuzu's Petals seem to be latecomers to a party that no longer was widely seen as dynamic and influential. Lindeen has a right to take her best shot, but again, unless there's something really special about her style and point of view, a rock fan can't help but think she's a sideshow to the main event, which would be an authoritative, freewheeling account of the 80s Minneapolis rock scene.

Posted by: Anonymous at October 15, 2007 3:01 PM

Based on Mike's comment above, I've popped "Another State of Mind" into my Netflix queue. Thanks for the suggestion.

And speaking of music-related docs, I was reminded of the excellent "Shut Up and Sing" about the Dixie Chicks. While I liked them already, I liked them even more after Barbara Kopple's excellent film.

But getting back to Ms. Lindeen: I think there's been some misunderstanding among people who haven't read the book yet (or don't plan to read it) that it is strictly some sort of "I was there at the creation" rock bio. As Lindeen said in that City Pages article, "It's not a rock bio... We were never stars, we never really made it." And while some Replacements/Westerberg fans will read it only because she's Westerberg's wife, I think that just as many may avoid it assuming she's some sort of spousal hanger-on. As some of the commenters here have said, her book deserves to sink or swim on its own merits, and I think Lindeen herself would agree.

I did chat with Lindeen a bit after her Wisconsin Book Festival appearance and she did confirm that her follow-up book is in the works, but it will be fictionalized (not straightforward memoir, as this is). Her third book, also in progress, will be a collection of essays.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at October 15, 2007 6:54 PM

I do agree that Laurie Lindeen's book deserves to "sink or swim on its own merits" but like critics have pointed out, the attention paid to it, for the most part, is due to the author's association with Paul Westerberg. I do not think this is a disrespectful observation, but a valid one. To paraphrase a previous comment: Would this author be published if not for "her proximity to fame?" I raise the question only because I happened to read "Petal Pusher"; I may actually enjoy her next book "Rock-n-Roll Housewife", but I was surprised by the writer's lack of voice throughout her first book.
I recall reading that Laurie would prefer "Petal Pusher: A Rock-n-Roll Cinderella Story" to be removed from the Rock section of book stores & instead be placed next to Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle" & "Angela's Ashes", since she considers it a memoir on American life during the 70's, more than a book about not making it in a band.
I ask readers, taking out the rock-n-roll element, what do you think of it?

Posted by: winfieldbrooks at October 16, 2007 12:47 PM

Why would a writer pen a memoir on her life in rock and then get pissed that it's in the rock section of bookstores? Cut the whining I say and be grateful your book was even published...Loads of talented writers out there who never get their shot at being published...I'll bet they wouldn't mind their books being placed between John Lennon and Marilyn Manson. Oh and if you take out the rock angle in PP?...You got nothing. I enjoy these comments but I keep waiting for someone to cut to the chase regarding this book.

Posted by: Rob Grantham at October 19, 2007 2:02 PM