Memoir Rock and Roll
The Writer Within
A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story
By Laurie Lindeen
Atria. 320 pp. $24
Having crisscrossed the Midwest and East Coast in a rickety van in the indie-rock 1980s and early '90s with my own all-female punk outfit, I'm surprised I never crossed paths with Laurie Lindeen and her all-female trio, Zuzu's Petals. No matter. Reading Lindeen's coming-of-age band memoir of that era, Petal Pusher, I was hit by the shock of recognition on nearly every page.
It's all here, in real time, correct as it happened: the dive bars, the booze, the barfing, the thrift-shopping across the country, the synchronous menstruation, the bad gigs with three people in attendance, the amp malfunctions, the sleazy promoters, the rehearsal spaces that ranged from dank basements to abandoned boxcars. There's even this vivid archetype that will resonate with any female musician of that time who attempted to rock in a man's world: the condescending, mullet-haired, male music store clerk in a pukka-shell choker explaining, "You need a pick, it's used to strum your guitar."
Oh, those really were the days. Lindeen gets them right, in all their pre-MySpace, pre-cellphone, ragged, clumsy glory. And most of all, Lindeen's whip-smart mind and massive heart make them shine. You don't have to have lived this story to be moved by her unsparingly honest -- and wickedly funny -- recollection of a young artist in search of herself.
Lindeen's tale kicks off in 1984, when she's a 24-year-old college drop-out in Madison, Wis. Dreaming of starting an all-girl band, she moves to Minneapolis, home of indie-rock anti-heroes the Replacements and Soul Asylum.
With her pals Co and Phyll, she forms Zuzu's Petals. The dream is strong, the reality tough. Lindeen slings hash in diners for a living. The band weathers lineup changes and evolves from outright amateurishness to genuine ability. The Petals hit the road, guided by punk's great hallmark: the do-it-yourself, or DIY, aesthetic.
But as any punk-rocker who has slopped her way through a music career can tell you, DIY can also serve as a rather heroic euphemism for SOTPI (seat-of-the-pantsing-it). Lindeen is brutally up front about her whacked-out career trajectory. Zuzu's Petals recorded two albums but never made it big. Perhaps, Lindeen surmises, it wasn't the smartest idea to cancel a showcase at the tastemaking music industry festival South by Southwest in favor of an opening gig on the "comeback" tour of her college idol, washed-up new-waver Adam Ant.
Lindeen doesn't flinch when it comes to revealing the somber aspects of her life. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis ("a harsh toke at twenty-four"), she pursues her rock dream beneath this ever-present shadow. Her band memoir is also interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood, adolescence and college years, with an emphasis on the fallout from her parents' divorce.
But the most riveting aspects of the book are her band days, which lasted until the '90s. She takes up with Paul Westerberg, her future husband and former front man for the critically acclaimed Replacements. Early in their courtship, Lindeen corresponds with him from the road. Responding to the depth of her letters, Westerberg encourages her: "You're a writer, you should write."
Despite his support, Lindeen quickly discovers it's not easy being an aspiring female musician hooked up with a legend. As she walks off stage after a triumphant gig, she's accosted by a Westerberg fanatic who demands to know, "What's it like going out with God?"
Pretty normal, as it turns out. Lindeen, then at the height of her on-the-road, party-till-you-drop phase, finds the former alt-rock wildman to be a newly sober stay-at-home. A serious songwriter with a rigorous work ethic, Westerberg eats fruit in the morning, bikes around the lake and dons pajamas, robe and slippers at night. The increasingly road-weary Lindeen finds herself deeply attracted to Westerberg's healthy domesticity and begins to question the draining reality of the rock-and-roll dream she has pursued with such fervor.
In this memoir of indie-rock youthquake, Lindeen tries to make you laugh out loud. To paraphrase the title of a Wilco song, she is also trying to break your heart. She succeeds on both counts. As it turns out, God -- or was it Westerberg? -- was right all those punk days ago: Lindeen is a writer. ·
Chrissie Dickinson is a writer, musician and songwriter based in Chicago.