Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story by Laurie Lindeen
While I'd never listened to Zuzu's Petals before reading this book, I knew who they were for two reasons. First, because I knew that their lead singer (our author) was married to Paul Westerberg. Second, because I lived in Madison for a time, and everyone over the age of 30 who lives in Madison has a lot of good Minneapolis music scene stories*, some of them involving Zuzu's Petals.
Madison is a small city, but to hear it told, it experienced a sort of musical golden age in the 1990s. One of the first things anyone told me when I moved there was, "It's too bad you didn't get here when O'Cayz was still around." As the logical first or last stop on any Minneapolis band's tour itinerary, the good people of Madison, Wisconsin were bound to get the show where the band was fresh-faced and excited, or the one where they were unwashed, strung-out, and liable to go at any time. These are easily the two best shows on any tour.
Lindeen was a Madison townie who wound up at the University of Wisconsin because her school's guidance counselor had no idea how to send a student anywhere else. She flunked out several times, and left for Minneapolis without a degree, but with the burning desire in her heart to start an all-girl rock and roll band. Never mind that she didn't play the guitar, and her only musical experience involved singing second alto in the school choir.
She enlisted her college buddy, Colleen, to play bass, and the two set about finding a drummer. However, before Lindeen's band materialized, she was diagnosed with MS, which left her legally blind in one eye and largely immobile on her left side. While waiting for the disease's manifestations to go into remission, a friend brought her an electric guitar to help with the boredom of rehab and convalescence. This was, Lindeen writes, a sign.
Gradually, the stars aligned for the band. They found a drummer and a practice space and, courtesy of It's a Wonderful Life, a name. From here, Lindeen's narrative follows the gruesome and undertold story of a nobody band paying their dues**. Disasterous tours, lechy sound guys, indifferent audiences, and booking types who view all-girl acts as a novelty, or during this height of the Riot Grrrl movement, some shock rock divas liable to whip out tampons onstage or punch out the club owner. But Zuzu's Petals was not that kind of band. They were Midwestern girls with manners, a beer and pot band in a heroin age.
While I didn't always like the time-hopping narrative structure of the book, I started it last night and finished it this morning even though I had other things I desperately needed to be doing. Lindeen had me from the first chapter, where Carly Simon picks her up hitchhiking on Martha's Vineyard right through to the last shows when it officially Isn't Fun Anymore, Can We Go Home, Please.
Despite being the narrator of the story, Lindeen is very often unlikable in the book, surly when her bandmates are friendly and sweet; drunk when her boyfriends are sober. It's an unusual and sometimes off-putting choice, and yet I understood it. I have been the bad band member who complains on the road and makes everyone's life miserable. It can happen to anyone, and tomorrow, it will probably be the drummer. Rocking is great, but it does not necessarily bring out the best in people.
For Petal Pusher, I will haul out the book-describing phrase I like to use judiciously because it has become a victim of overuse -- compulsively readable. Seriously, I defy you to put it down unless you have to pee or something.
If you like...: horror stories about bands on the road like Blake Nelson's Rock Star SuperStar, Goodnight, Steve McQueen, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, or that awesome VH1 show from the golden summer of 2001, Bands on the Run, this book is for you.
* Like, I knew a guy who was once hired to "keep an eye on" Tommy Stinson before a show.
** You might say, "That story's not undertold, it's in every band biography I read." But bear in mind that those band biographies usually end with sold-out shows and Jonathan Demme making a movie about you. This is more like the Bull Durham of rock and roll biographies.