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WRITTEN BY STUART ESKENAZI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
|The Bohemian Girl
She sang in the church's folk chorale and tried to ignore the popularity game that seemed to reward kids who had more money or were better at sports. But none of that helped, either.
Every group of kids finds someone to pick on, and tag! Ann Powers was it. The frizzy-headed girl with buck teeth and a few extra pounds was the geek, the freak.
In the comfort of her bedroom, she withdrew from the hurtful teases of her classmates, keeping company instead with the late-'70s rockers who lived inside the record albums she played over and over, louder and louder. Bruce Springsteen. The Cars. The Psychedelic Furs. Rock 'n' roll always has been a sanctuary for the terminally awkward. Powers' parents didn't understand the appeal of all that racket, but were gratified it gave their daughter somewhere to belong.
Powers would find another haven in a place built for a World's Fair that gazed fancifully into the future: the Seattle Center. Inside the Center House Food Circus, at one of its weirdly generic clutch of eateries, she and her friend Nora served sausages to tourists, teens and lollygagging locals. For legions of Seattle adolescents whose baptism in the job market was at the Food Circus, the place steamed with the brew of hot oil and raging hormones. Powers surprised herself at the interest she had in the bad boys who worked at the burger-and-fish joint and offered her drugs. She eyed shadowy Danny at the Orange Julius stand, and found him strangely sexy. He must have been at least 20, and had another job as an exterminator.
She mined her love for rock 'n' roll at the Center, too. At the Northwest Rooms, a succession of partitioned halls better suited for book readings than rock concerts, Seattle's primitive New Wave and punk-rock scenes found an anomalous venue. New Wave bands like The Heaters and The Frazz took the stage, and Powers delighted in their energy and eyeliner. She also admired the fury of local punk bands like Student Nurse and Mental Mannequin. They seemed so radical back then.
She bonded with her cousin, Greg Powers, an artsy-type who painted himself gold while playing in a punk band named Fred, after Mister Rogers. She enjoyed the impromptu jam sessions of those who gathered in the University of Washington's underground parking lot late at night. Starting at Blanchet High School and continuing at the UW, Powers wrote record reviews and stories for The Rocket, a weekly newspaper covering Seattle's rock scene. When the phone rang in the kitchen of the Magnolia house, it was David Bowie on the line, responding to her request for an interview.
Just as Powers was trying to find her place in the world, so was her city. Its threshold for success was low, its attitude toward status relatively indifferent. Seattle was so, so simple. How many times could you get excited over another Seafair hydro race or a fish being tossed by a Pike Place Market hawker? Powers longed to meet people on a different intellectual plane.
So in 1984, at age 20, Ann Powers left the parochial and puerile world of the Seattle art-punk underground to find her scene and herself in San Francisco, a city of seekers where it was easier to find brainy boys she could sit up with all night, drinking red wine and discussing post-modernism.
She wanted to be a poet. She settled on journalism. Rock 'n' roll remained her constant companion. The music comforted her, challenged her and focused her. Ultimately, it would catapult her.
Seventeen years after deserting Seattle, Powers returned to her hometown last fall, leaving her position as pop-music critic for The New York Times to take a job as senior curator at Experience Music Project. In New York, she had interviewed Madonna, hung out with KISS and been on guest lists for invitation-only shows by the likes of Bob Dylan, Prince and Dolly Parton. The move to Seattle mystified many of her colleagues and friends, who couldn't figure out why she would give up one of the coolest jobs in the industry writing for one of the best newspapers in the country in one of the most amazing cities in the world.
POP MUSICIAN David Garza is playing an acoustic show for a packed house at The Green Room, an intimate, basement-level venue on First Avenue. It's an impressive crowd for Garza, whose following reaches barely beyond Austin, Texas, where his Latin-tinged brand of peppy love songs and forlorn ballads has charmed college audiences for more than a decade. Some here are seeing him, if not hearing him, for the first time.
Garza begins his set and the crowd reacts with characteristic indie-rock coolness, nodding their heads, tapping their feet and clapping politely when he finishes a song. But as Garza strums the opening guitar notes to his song "Soul Custody," someone in the audience shrieks: "This is my favorite song!"
Art critics have reputations of being snooty, if not jaded. But Powers has never lost her schoolgirl crush on rock 'n' roll. Her writing about rock reveals how grateful she is to the music that rescued her from an adolescence of insecurities.
"I think that comes a lot from where she found her relationships when she was a kid," Pat Powers says. "When she'd listen to a Roches record in her room, it was like having her friends over. I think what makes her such a great writer is that she looks beyond how the music affects her to how it affects others."
Jon Pareles, the New York Times' chief rock critic who recruited Powers twice, first in 1992 and again in 1997, says one of her greatest virtues as a writer is her understanding of the emotions that pop music stirs in fans. "She is always asking herself why someone would fall in love with that band. As a result, she has done some great writing on bands that other critics might dismiss as annoying."
Take the Backstreet Boys, for instance.
"I looove the Backstreet Boys," Powers admits without shame. "Well, sort of. I mean, I got over it but I did go through my phase. Brian. He's the cutest."
"The Backstreet Boys phenomenon emanates from that invisible space . . . For all its sparkle and dramatic vigor, the Backstreet Boys' show exemplified a strange and compelling loneliness, one so many of us feel when we touch fame's transparent wall."
Powers' husband, pop-music journalist Eric Weisbard, says his wife writes in the intelligent affirmative instead of the corrosive negative. Powers says the greatest compliment she has ever received came from a former colleague who once introduced her as "My favorite writer about love."
"It's a privilege to be around any fans who are opening their hearts," Powers says. "I am not a fan of the band Limp Bizkit, but to stand there at their concert and watch a teenaged girl holding her fist in the air with her eyes closed, singing along, that's emotional."
IT WASN'T that long ago Powers was lying by the pool at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in Los Angeles, eating a salad and waiting for Courtney Love to call. It was a curious spot to be in for someone who wrote a book fondly declaring the resurrection of an American bohemia and her rank within it.
Powers' book, "Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America," tracks the lives and interprets the counterculture values of numerous people she knew, mostly in San Francisco. But at its core, the book is Powers' memoir, a confessional of self-doubt. As she was finishing it, Pareles called to encourage her return to The Times, a newspaper so proper that shock-rocker Marilyn Manson becomes "Mr. Manson" on second reference. She had lasted only four months there the first time around. Her respect for the ethic of alternative journalism too much of a pull, she jumped to the Village Voice, at the time considered the flagship of bohemian values.
New York's status-driven, competitive lifestyle amplified Powers' workaholic tendencies and revived insecurities that rock 'n' roll helped her shed as a teen. She felt as if she could never relax and that nothing she did was ever enough. Powers' social life in New York was defined by her work. The only people she knew were writers, musicians or college chums of her husband, who grew up in Queens. Her weekends didn't include rubbing shoulders with the stars, although they could have.
"Celebrities would rather be with their friends than with a bunch of journalists," Powers says. "They are on display, like a trick dog. It's not fun for them, and it doesn't translate as fun for you. I really think the people who are into that, they are deluding themselves as to what their interaction means."
As she wrote about the trends of popular music, Seattle had become the epicenter of a movement swathed in flannel and angst and as momentous as any the generation had experienced. Editors, aware of her Seattle roots, sought out Powers to write stories about a grunge scene that, frankly, was foreign to her.
"I knew everybody's references I had eaten at the Dog House, I knew the clubs but I didn't know any of these guys," Powers says. Under her nose yet beyond her grasp, Seattle's rock music scene had become sophisticated.
In February 2000, Powers returned to Seattle on a promotional tour for "Weird Like Us." As a teen, she loved loitering in The Elliott Bay Book Company's downstairs cafe, where she would devour books and chocolate mousse. At her tour stop inside the same cafe, she read a passage about arriving home to attend Pat's wedding. Her brother and parents sat in the audience as she read: "Who were all these young men in tuxes, these former high-school teammates, Coast Guard comrades, college pals? They were Patrick's best friends, the surrogate family he made while I was busy making one of my own. As for me, who was I? I was his sister, and prized for that. But what I wanted to be, watching him grin and slap his buddies on the back, was his friend."
Patrick tried to convince his sister she wasn't on the outside, looking in.
"I felt bad that she felt that way," he says. "I was proud of her and I was touched she would select a passage that personal. I don't think she did that just to make me and my parents feel good. I think she did it because she was back in her hometown. She felt comfortable again."
POWERS AND Weisbard were recently shopping for a stereo at Magnolia Hi-Fi when the salesman asked, "Hey, aren't you Ann Powers?" Such a question is not unusual. Regular appearances as an expert commentator on the cable-TV music channel VH1 have made her a bit of a celebrity. But the stereo salesman didn't recognize Powers from TV; he knew her from Our Lady of Fatima grammar school in Magnolia, where they were classmates.
Ann Powers is back home. She and Weisbard have bought a house on the western edge of Fremont and she is immersing herself in the city's cultural scene: a literary event at Richard Hugo House on Capitol Hill, a Vaudeville-style variety show at The Green Room, hosted by Sean Nelson of the Seattle-based alternative rock band Harvey Danger.
At 38, Powers is now more comfortable with discomfort, and with the town she once fled. "Here, you can be ambitious in different ways," Powers says. "Your ambition can be having the nicest backyard on your block, and that's perfectly OK."
She works long hours at EMP, where she coordinated special events in March featuring women's contributions to popular music. She also is curating an exhibit called (Un)Common Objects, debuting next month, that will display items worn or owned by pop-music icons. And she continues to write as a freelancer, which EMP has given her the freedom to do.
On a recent Friday night inside EMP's cavernous Sky Church, waves of young people gently bobbed to the guitar-driven beat of two rock bands, Death Cab for Cutie and Dismemberment Plan. Twenty years ago, Powers might have been wedged near the front of the stage as one of the inscrutable, insecure kids in the audience. On this night, however, she attended the show as "senior staffer on site." Wired into other staffers through a headset, she snaked through the tightly-packed crowd, her job to make sure the show proceeded smoothly and the kids remained safe.
She was the grown-up.
Powers says EMP is a cool place to work. She is surrounded by co-workers who get her sly reference to being a fake redhead "just like Tori Amos" and grasp that the pair of red-white-and-blue-striped slacks she bought at a thrift store in a Midwest college town was a total find. But there's no getting around the fact that EMP is a museum. In spite of its interactive elements, rock music is tendered static; the remains of youthful rebellion entombed in plate-glass crypts.
The symbolism isn't lost on Powers. She recently wrote an essay as part of a 60th-birthday gift to Robert Christgau, the longtime rock critic for the Village Voice and one of her mentors. In it, she considers the grace by which rockers and rock critics grow old:
"Lately, I'm wondering if growing older makes all of us who've given our lives to rock, artists and fans alike, go through a strangely healthy kind of death. . . . The healthy death is, for me, the demise of the assumptions I've nurtured so fiercely for so long: that rock-and-roll would always make me feel strong and vital and sure. I still say proudly that my life was saved by rock-and-roll. But now I'm almost ready to stop being saved, and instead to confront the awkwardness of getting older as a person who was never supposed to, to give up on cool and anti-cool both and to just try to listen to the moment I'm stuck in, painfully unresolved and possibly magical as it is."
Others may not understand why Ann Powers moved back home. But she's figured it out.
Stuart Eskenazi is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then|