Why Cat Power covered the most infamous live album in rock history

Cat Power
"Bob [Dylan]'s lyrics taught me how to have critical thinking, because I was always trying to figure out what he was talking about," says Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power. (Daniel Prakopcyk / For The Times)

When Chan Marshall ends a romantic relationship for one reason or another — “They’ve gone with someone else,” she offers by way of example, “or they die or they become insane” — she typically cuts her long hair short.

“It’s always a love movement,” says the 51-year-old singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist and former Chanel model better known as Cat Power. “And it’s about every 10 years. Then I’ll open my heart again and make the stupid mistake of falling in love with someone.”

These days she wears a choppy shag with bangs that swoop down toward her eyes. Sitting by the pool at the Chateau Marmont on a recent afternoon, she twirls a brown strand in her fingers as she smokes a cigarette and sips iced tea sweetened with Splenda.

So she’s not in love right now?

“I could be very easily — it could happen in five minutes,” she answers with a raspy laugh. “I’d love this article to be an ‘I’m single’ debut.”

Marshall, whose soft Southern drawl points to her upbringing in Georgia, is in town from Miami to promote her beguiling new live album, “Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert," on which she looks back at the beginning of the "revolution" sparked by the man she calls "God Dylan." Marshall used to live in Los Angeles in the early 2010s, after she’d established herself as indie rock’s most soulful and haunting balladeer with records like 1998’s “Moon Pix” and 2006’s “The Greatest” — gorgeous if disarmingly vulnerable meditations on depression, heartbreak and substance abuse.

“But I don’t like to talk about that part of my life,” she says of her L.A. phase, which coincided with her relationship with actor Giovanni Ribisi. “It wasn’t a healthy time.”

Does that make it hard to come back here?

“Hell no,” she says. “Now it’s mine again.”

A close-up black-and-white portrait of a woman with short hair
(Daniel Prakopcyk / For The Times)

Indeed, Marshall seems entirely at home at the Chateau, flirting with a handsome waiter (“You’d be a great assassin,” she tells him) and collecting abandoned ping-pong balls from beneath a nearby hedge (“F—ing teenagers — no respect for other people,” she half-jokes). At one point in the afternoon, the Americana star Jason Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, happen by; Marshall, who got a set of gold fronts after losing a tooth during the pandemic, eagerly chats them up about Isbell’s shiny new veneers and about his role in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“You were so creepy,” Marshall tells him, her eyes twinkling.

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Recorded last November at London’s Royal Albert Hall, “Cat Power Sings Dylan” documents Marshall’s song-by-song re-creation of a storied gig Bob Dylan played at age 24 on May 17, 1966 — the performance where he so scandalized an audience of British folk purists that one of them called him Judas for having committed the sin of going electric.

“It’s one of the great moments in rock ’n' roll history,” Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz says of the concert, which actually took place at the Manchester Free Trade Hall but became known as the Royal Albert Hall concert due to a mislabeled bootleg. “And not just in the heads of Dylan freaks. This was really a time when something shifted in the culture.”

Wilentz, whose books include “Bob Dylan in America,” notes that Dylan — then touring Europe with the Hawks (later known as the Band) between the release of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” — met the “vehemence of the left-wing folkies” with his own righteous indignation. “I don’t believe you,” Dylan famously replied to the cry of “Judas,” adding, “You’re a liar,” before turning to his band and telling the musicians, “Play it f—ing loud!”

“This was him saying, ‘I’m doing what I want to do,’” Wilentz says — an artistic assertion that crystallized rock’s arrival as a poetic force connected but not beholden to its roots in protest music (as in Dylan’s case) or in boy-band sex appeal (as in the case of, say, the Beatles, who were about to drop the wigged-out “Revolver”).

“But it’s not just the confrontation” that immortalized Dylan’s so-called Royal Albert Hall show, according to Wilentz: “It’s that these were amazing performances of extraordinary songs.”

Those songs are what Marshall, who'd been booked at the historic London venue, wanted to showcase by replicating the legendary concert, which divided 15 now-classic Dylan tunes — including “Visions of Johanna,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and all 10 verses of “Desolation Row” — into halves: the first acoustic folk, the second electric rock. That she'd be doing it in the location where the original happened only in myth provided an appropriately Dylanesque layer of obfuscation.

“Bob’s lyrics taught me how to have critical thinking, because I was always trying to figure out what the f— he was talking about,” says Marshall, dressed by the pool in black jeans, black clogs and a black top stylishly ripped at the shoulder. Several necklaces loop around her neck, including a gold one with a pendant of the letter B for her 8-year-old son, Boaz.

“Great art,” she adds, “helps you use your own mind.”

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Beyond her songwriting, with its raw emotions and stark images, Marshall is widely admired for her radical interpretations of songs such as the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason,” Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” in which she treats the originals as mere starting points for her marvelously husky singing voice.

“Chan has a rare talent of managing to turn almost any song she covers wholly into her own,” says Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, who toured this summer with Cat Power. “There are few songs — and I’m not exaggerating — that I’ve listened to as many times as her cover of Dylan’s ‘Paths of Victory,’” Brock continues, referring to the stripped-down voice-and-piano take she cut for 2000’s “The Covers Record.” “I found the song after my brother was killed in an avalanche, and it just ended up on repeat for a very, very, very long time.”

Yet “Cat Power Sings Dylan” stays remarkably faithful to the performances captured in 1966, which after decades of circulating among fans were officially released in the late ’90s as an installment in Dylan’s popular Bootleg Series. So too does Marshall — known early in her career as an erratic live act prone to onstage meltdowns — stick closely to Dylan’s arrangements in a sold-out gig at the Troubadour, where she and a six-piece band play the album front to back a few days after our encounter at the Chateau for an audience that includes Isbell, Shires, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro. (Cat Power will take the Dylan show on the road next year, with a March 7 stop at downtown L.A.’s Theatre at Ace Hotel.)

The result, though it highlights Marshall’s distinctive phrasing and her subtle sense of irony, feels something like an incantation — a shrewd live offering at a moment when Dylan himself couldn’t seem less interested in rehashing his past glories.

Has Marshall ever felt boxed in à la Dylan by the expectations of her audience?

“It’s always been that way for me,” she says, not least in regards to her messy reputation — an idea she contends was cemented in 1999 when a stalker turned up at New York’s Bowery Ballroom and threatened her shortly before she was due onstage for a performance the New York Times described as "a train wreck.” (Today she says stalkers remain a problem for her, which is why she checks into hotels under an alias.)

Though she’s worked with members of Sonic Youth and Dirty Three, Marshall says she’s never fit into the snobbish, male-dominated world of indie rock; the sense of unbelonging only intensified after she had her son in 2015, she says, “and everyone kind of went away because I was a mom.” She feels more comfortable among visual artists like Tracey Emin and fashionistas like Karl Lagerfeld, who made her the face of Chanel’s jewelry, according to Marshall, after he spied her smoking a cigarette outside New York’s Mercer Hotel.

In fact, she adds, it was Lagerfeld who gave her the $100,000 she used as a down payment for the “very secure” condo where she and Boaz live in Miami.

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The twists and turns of Marshall’s career have put her in a funny position: accustomed to luxury yet almost completely broke. By the pool, she dials up room service to order a small feast of carpaccio, hummus and calamari; she asks for two beers, as well, though those aren’t for her. “I’ll be 200 days next week,” she says of her latest run at sobriety. Minutes later, she mentions that before she flew to L.A. a couple of days earlier, she had 80 bucks to her name — “which is the most I’ve had the past three times I’ve been on tour.” (Her record label, she notes, is footing her bill at the Chateau.)

“Chan is a true bohemian,” says Shirley Manson of Garbage, who toured with Cat Power in 2021 and remembers “nights where we’d roll into our hotel at 3 a.m. and there she’d be outside, smoking a cigarette, holding a tequila, talking to a homeless person. We’d say, ‘Everything OK, Chan? We’re going to bed,’ and she’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m cool.’”

Watching her set nightly from the side of the stage, Manson was “transfixed by the uncertainty of her performance,” she says. “It was flawed, it was delicate, it felt like it was gonna fly off the rails at any moment. Yet she always managed to hold it all together.”

Cat Power sits poolside, smoking a cigarette.
(Daniel Prakopcyk / For The Times)

At the Troubadour, Marshall is particularly dialed in, steadied perhaps by the Dylan material. And she’s a deeply engaging conversationalist — if also a bit of a conspiracy theorist regarding topics as far-flung as commercial genealogical services (“They’re using your DNA to grow little armies in warehouses,” she says) and the supposed death by suicide of Cleopatra (“You think that badass bitch was gonna kill herself?”).

When the waiter brings our food, his clingy shirt and white tennis shorts remind Marshall of the athletes she’s dated. “They’re great because they get all their testosterone out in their training, so when you’re hanging out with them, it’s just 100% a dude who’s chill,” she says. “Whereas it builds up in the writers and the musicians and the poets — you know, the angry scriptwriter locked away in his room.”

Speaking of which: Does she think Dylan has heard her tribute to him?

“I’m sure he has,” she says. "He's very conscious of the world we live in."

And would she care to hear his opinion?

“Of course. But I didn’t do it for his blessing. I did it out of love and honor — to offer some preservation to the original moment in time.” She takes a drag from her cigarette. “His blessing is a whole other chapter that I can’t even think about.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.