City Paper is not for tourists
Initiated into the hopped-up and carefree ways of country-tinged rock ’n’ roll back in the “magical time” and place that was early-’70s Nashville, singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman was an also-ran who ran with a colorful crowd. She was friends with Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, Norro Wilson and Harlan Howard, Guy Clark and John Prine. She partied with Mason Williams and dropped acid with “Cowboy” Jack Clement. Later, she opened for Jerry Lee Lewis and filled in for Reba McEntire when friend and sometime collaborator Jimmy Buffett guest-hosted Nashville Now. She exulted when her songs were recorded by Crystal Gayle (“A Woman’s Heart (Is a Handy Place to Be)”) and Sawyer Brown (“Betty’s Bein’ Bad”), and she bolted from the theater when she discovered that her lyrics had been altered to fit Urban Cowboy.
Although Chapman describes her early career arc as “Gidget goes to Nashville and gets a record deal,” she proved to be a quick study. From the late ’70s to the mid-’90s, she cut eight albums for labels ranging from Epic to Rounder to Buffett’s own Margaritaville and hit the highway with backing bands dubbed Jaded Virgin, the Road Scholars, and the Love Slaves. She won her first contract by auditioning for Billy Sherrill while on Thorazine. Back when oral sex was still illegal in Tennessee, she got the attention of the press at a CBS showcase with a ditty about wanting to have her pussy eaten. She toured for a year and a half with a U-Haul her manager had stolen, before the authorities caught up with her in Cleveland, a day after she’d lunched at the White House with Hamilton Jordan. But in the end, though she came to make a nice living for herself as a songwriter, she put her wild days behind her. In Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, she looks back on a life that has taken her from a privileged Spartanburg, S.C., childhood to a cozily domestic Nashville middle age by anything but the usual route.
A natural yarn-spinner who seems to have lived her life in whatever way would make for the best story, Chapman has crafted a fond and fast crazy-quilt memoir loosely keyed to a dozen of her songs. The daughter of a textile-mill owner, she knew that her upbringing wasn’t exactly the stuff of country-music legend, so she installed her own wanderlust in the blue-collar feminist at the center of “Somewhere South of Macon,” singing, “My folks they feel forsaken, Lord/But me, I’m feelin’ free.” Schooled at Salem Academy in North Carolina and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, Chapman told her real folks she would take a couple of years to do the Nashville thing, then return home if it didn’t work out. She did—but she didn’t stay home. And if she couldn’t go back to the seedy house with the front-yard vegetable garden where she’d once passed out topless after bingeing on moonshine (because the neighborhood had fallen to Vanderbilt’s wrecking ball), she’d hightail it to Boston and busk with a volatile friend who was studying for his doctorate at M.I.T.
Though she never was in danger of having to “spend [her] life as a mill man’s wife,” as “Somewhere South of Macon” puts it, the prospect of a good marriage followed by decades of playing hostess was enough to drive her back to the road and into the arms of any number of questionable boyfriends. Whatever grief they brought her, their exploits do make for some juicy reading—and some solid counsel:
Now, don’t get me wrong. Speed freaks can be very lovable. But if you are contemplating falling in love with one, here’s my advice: It’s okay to live in the same apartment complex, but never, ever share the same apartment. This is very important. Also, you will need to keep a list of important numbers taped on the wall next to your phone. This list should include a sympathetic doctor, the nearest emergency room, a friendly bail bondsman, his next of kin, and [BMI bigwig] Frances Preston’s private line. You will also need an updated version of the Physician’s Desk Reference on hand at all times. And, if you are not on speed yourself, then you will need a lot of energy to keep up with him, so it helps to be young. If you are over thirty-five, forget it.
An unnamed character designated Speed Freak Boyfriend #2 was the impetus behind at least a couple of songs. “The Perfect Partner,” a downtempo plea for Chapman’s beloved tweaker to slow down and notice her, appears on the book’s separately sold companion disc. “Go On ’Bout Your Bidness” doesn’t make the CD, but its lyrics recount a litany of cranked-up misbehavior: “Well you wrecked my car/Then you tried to hide it/Put an ax to my door/Because you got excited/Cut the cord to my cable TV/Said you were paranoid.”
However inspirational SFB #2 proved to be, it was SFB #1 that first drew me to the book. In his 1995 Art issues. piece “The Little Church of Perry Mason,” Dave Hickey coyly left it to his readers to imagine the road-dog past he invoked when remarking on the affinity of the day-job-less for the black-and-white TV lawyer. But when he revised the piece for the 1997 collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, he spelled out his connection: “Miss Marshall Chapman, my ex-paramour and rock-and-roll co-conspirator…”
Anybody whose stints editing Art in America and teaching art criticism and theory in Las Vegas were separated by a Nashville staff songwriting gig is bound to have a story or two in his pocket, and Chapman, God bless her, tries her best to do right by Hickey. (The two are still on speaking terms, after all.) But she knows her portrait doesn’t quite measure up. “To tell everything would require the combined writing skills of Marcel Proust and Charles Bukowski,” she explains, in a confession that’s also something of a boast. (She did, after all, have the sound judgment to throw herself at him.) Alas, although she memorably celebrates Hickey’s very un-Nashville Beatle boots and recites a list of his enthusiasms that runs from Fat Albert to Tackle Scrabble, she does little better than reduce his redoubtable wordsmithing to a collection of bumper-sticker beat witticisms: “Don’t let life ruin your day,” “Save the truth for fiction,” “Give me Librium or give me Meth.”
In general, Chapman’s not all that good with the pithy stuff, tending to overrate not only other people’s bons mots but her own as well—which suggests that maybe the reason she attracted high-profile pals and partners wasn’t that she’s a great songwriter (which she isn’t) but that she’s a kick to have around. Chapman herself says that “the best thing about co-writing, for me, is that it’s a good excuse to hang out with my songwriting buddies…” Both Hickey and Emmylou Harris speak of “adventure” in connection with their recollections of her. More than once she cites not knowing what a friend would do next as chief among his assets. In her foreword, short-story writer Lee Smith says the same of her pal Marshall.
Such tastes are naturally liable to get a gal in trouble. There was more than one nutjob Chapman all but ran screaming from, and by 1986, the then-37-year-old realized she “just couldn’t figure out how to be happy. I was still laboring under the false assumption that something outside of me could do the trick—the right boyfriend, the right pill, the right record deal, the right vacation, the right whatever.”
If that sounds like the therapy talking, well, you’ve got that right. The latter part of Chapman’s catalog—and, consequently, this book—is filled with lines from the self-help shelf: “It’s never too late/To have a happy childhood,” “Men who hate women/The women that love ’em,” and, most horribly, “She found a place down by the sea/The place was called Serenity.” It was at AA that she found sobriety and true love (“[b]ut first, I had to give up my career of dating criminals”). Contentment could scarcely have come cloaked in more symbolic garb and still taken the form of a real, live, flesh-and-blood man: Chris Fletcher was a physician who worked in prisons and had seen his father shoot his mother to death. His opening move was an invitation to a concert, not Willie Nelson or the Rolling Stones, but the Boston Camarata. He soon shared the high-rise condo Chapman called the Sky Palace.
Within a few years, she was tempted back down to earth and entered a “June Cleaver homemaking phase” that has only recently “started to lose its luster,” leading to the writing of these memoirs. Chapman remains a homebody, and she seems genuinely satisfied with her lot. She takes pains to point out that she’s still a little loony, but her life is now one of which her parents would approve.
It stands to reason that Chapman would eventually come full circle. Despite her diligence in pursuing the hard-livin’ honky-tonk life, the pose never really gelled. On record, she always came off as someone who strove to play the part. When she sang that the hell-raising heroine of “Alabama Bad” is “trash, but you love her,” you could hear envy dripping from every word. Chapman may want you to believe she was a natural rebel, loosed upon the world the day the maid escorted her bad, bad 7-year-old charge to an Elvis show, but you suspect that it was as much the liberating idea of rock ’n’ roll as any natural facility for it that took hold of her imagination.
Underneath it all, Chapman remains a proper lady of the South, respectful of her parents (she may have joined ACOA, but she will not spell it out), forgiving of past slights, and courteous to the point of evasiveness. Many of the actors in her drama receive pseudonyms. She isn’t out to write a tell-all; a tell-most will suffice. But now that a bad reputation doesn’t cause anybody (particularly anybody in showbiz) any harm, her reluctance to name names seems positively antique, dating the book before its time.
But tact isn’t what derails the book; temperance is. Nobody who stays sober really ever recovers from recovery, of course. And so the rough patches in Chapman’s psyche are now smoothed over with snappy slogans and off-the-rack quips. (She even trots out the wince-inducing warhorse, “Cleopatra had nothing on me. I was the undisputed Queen of Denial.”) However pleased you should be for her turnaround, Chapman couldn’t have done without the voluble, dissipated charmer who guided you through the bulk of Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller. The twinge you feel over her disappearance points up the fact that the best reason for not becoming a full-blown drunk is not that you may rot your liver or squash somebody with your automobile. No, the best reason for not becoming a drunk is that you may eventually find it necessary to become a tiresome, wistful ex-drunk. Despite the promise of “a whole nother story” yet to come, you can’t help wondering at book’s end whether this wayward Southern belle, once dented and damaged but now polished up for show, isn’t all rung out. CP