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The woman sitting across from me in an irritatingly cacophonic hotel restaurant seems average. Average height, average build, average looks. You would not lift your eyes twice were you to meet her in a mini market or a parkade. She is dressed, almost predictably, in black. Black pants, a black sweater over a black T-shirt. Interesting socks and happy trainers. Average. And yet. When she excuses herself to go to the "catbox," she moves with an exquisite feline grace. A muscular grace. At this moment contained, but liable to burst forth with very little provocation. You can feel it. And then there are those eyes. The same wide and piercing blue eyes that smoldered out from album covers in the 1970s and 80s when, as half of the early punk duo Rough Trade, Carole Pope was breaking taboos and laying a path where no band had gone before.
Of course, the use of "wide" in conjunction with "eyes" brings forth an analogy to innocence, something that has never been part of Carole Pope's shtick. In her autobiography, Anti Diva, Pope reports that, in the early days, there was often a police presence at Rough Trade concerts, anxiously waiting for the band to go over the line. Pope made a reputation as a goddess of sexual raunch and innuendo, performing in bondage gear and see-through plastic pants while Madonna was still in short pants, Rough Trade did songs whose heavy sexual overtones often guaranteed sparse airplay.
That was then. Rough Trade broke up in 1986 and Pope has been working ever since. Recording, gigging and, most recently, writing. First the autobiography and next, she promises, a work of fiction.
But the autobiography is remarkable, on several fronts. In the first place, it jumped straight from the press onto the Canadian bestseller charts, according to Pope, fairly flying out of stores at such a pace that a second printing was required just weeks after publication. Pope's candor in Anti Diva is startling: from her "stinkin' childhood" to the large quantities of drugs that fueled the earliest explorations of Rough Trade, loads and loads of sex as well as memorable relationships and friendships. David Bowie, Robert Mapplethorpe, U2, Brian Eno, Sandra Bernhard, Gilda Radner and literally hundreds of prominent others make appearances.
Pope writes candidly about her relationship with legendary British diva Dusty Springfield, who died in 1999. With characteristic irony, Pope writes that, "Among other things, we shared a mutual fear of celery."
Her relationship with Springfield emerges from Anti Diva as the most significant in Pope's life to date. According to Anti Diva, much of the time the two women spent together -- including a period in the early 1980s when they lived together in Toronto ("There's a joke," writes Pope, "what do lesbians do on their second date? Bring a U-Haul.") -- was marked by Springfield's substance abuse.
Despite the ugliness that is engendered by the pain that resulted from Springfield's self-abuse, the chapter devoted to Pope's relationship with Springfield is a little sonnet to the late singer. Springfield emerges beautiful and flawed, deeply talented and utterly human.
Now living in Los Angeles, Pope is preparing to start work on a novel and a new album.
I'm about to ask you the stupidest question you're going to get on this tour.
How does your fear of celery manifest itself in your life?
I love that question. But, I don't know. I just don't like it in food. It's kind of like cruddy white trash food isn't it, as far as I'm concerned. [Laughs]
So it's not like an actual fear. You don't run screaming at the sight of a Caesar?
No. It's OK in a Caesar. I just hate the taste of [celery]. I just don't get it. It's a really boring vegetable. Oh yeah: because I do say: Our mutual fear of celery in the book. But we were both pretty much frightened of it. And I remember [that I thought] it was very funny, so I put it in.
There's a lot of pain in Diva. You really exposed yourself. Was that difficult?
Yes, it was. It was difficult reliving a lot of my life and the deaths of my brother and mother and I've known so many people who have died of AIDs and other things. But [writing the book] was very cathartic.
And you've been very candid. Like very candid. There's people who could hate how candid you've been.
I know, they could but I'm mostly talking about 20 to 25 years ago. And I'm honest and I'm writing about my life and -- yeah -- I did some soul-searching, but then I just said: Yeah, I'm gonna go for it. But it is the tip of the iceberg. There's much more that I didn't say.
Is that for the second book?
The second book? No. I'm going to write fiction for the second book, because then I can write really lurid sex scenes. [Laughs]
Are you being ironic, or are you really thinking about writing fiction?
I'm going to write fiction. Yeah.
Because I was going to say that I like your style in Anti Diva very much. And you said in the introduction that you thought it would be like writing a song and then it wasn't. But I think that, in a way, you certainly approached it with that sensibility.
Well, because I'm not a writer so it was just kind of stream of consciousness and, yeah, I don't understand commas or anything like that. That's all weird territory to me. [Laughs] I'm the worst speller in the world, I don't get commas but, yeah, it was very stream of consciousness writing and that's the way I write songs and that's when the good stuff comes out. I just kept redoing it and redoing it -- because that's what I do with songs -- only it took two years to do [Anti-Diva].
Do you have an album out?
I have a single out and I'm trying to get the money to do an album with this guy who's like a big deal producer. He's kind of an indie producer so we want to hook something up and I'm still trying to get the funding.
Who is it?
His name is Alain Johannes and he has this band called Eleven with his wife Natasha Shneider. He engineered the No Doubt album and they co-produced the Chris Cornell album. They've actually toured with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and they've had like a million record deals and I relate to them because they're remind me of Kevan and I.
So, yeah: I have this single, World of One that you can get on my Web site which is where I sell all my crap. [Laughs]
Tell me about your music now. I haven't heard anything recent, but I know you've been touring and stuff and you have a kind of new listenership kind of going on.
I don't know. I think I'm a better singer now. The songs are still sexual and political but I actually write the music [as well as] the lyrics now. What else can I say about them? It's so hard to talk about what I'm doing. I mean, yeah: people seem to like them. People really like the stuff when I perform live. Because I'm such a bad guitar player and I kind of learned to play in the 60s, there's that influence.
You say you stuff is very sexual and political but that's not so very different from a lot of current music. Your music is sexual and political, but you're probably a little more direct.
And a lot of current stuff is couched in euphemisms. And sort of bland and watered down.
Well, yeah, superficial. Mine is, you know, I still write dark lyrics. I'm trying to write love songs. I'm trying to get back to that innocence that I once had. [Laughs] I might be too bitter. Because this single, World of One, the lyrics are really bitter but I said to Alain: Let's make the music funny because that's what Rough Trade used to do. That's what kind of made it work. The music was kind of up and happy and there's me being bitter on top of it.
Are you still living in Los Angeles?
Does it still feel otherworldly to you [as you mentioned in the book]?
It is otherworldly. [Laughs] I love living in America. I don't think I'm going to live in L.A. forever, but I love the whole American thing. The Americans are very amazing, don't you find? It's just so surreal there. And a great place to write a book. I was writing the book and, like, taking a dip in the swimming pool every once in a while. That's the way you should be writing a book! [Laughs]
Although it's not really away from distractions. Well, it can be.
It is. It is. Because socially you really have to seek out the various scenes. There's a great art scene. There's a great music scene. I tend to hang out with all these gay boys and that's fun, because then I get to go to great parties. So yeah: all of that is fun. I like California.
Has anything come out of the book for you since it came out? Anything weird or surprising happen?
I'm surprised at the great reviews. I'm surprised that it's so successful. And I'm surprised [I've come to be] a writer. I mean, I guess I should take a writing course, but I think I kind of learned to write in the middle of the book and towards the end I was happier with it. But apparently everyone that I've spoken to who has written an autobiography is not happy and you want to just keep rewriting it forever.
And well, you can: because there's still going to be more to write.
What interested me too was that, well you did start at the beginning, but you didn't just tell your story chronologically and after a while the chapters get thematic. Which was a wonderful way to tell it. There's the whole Second City [SCTV] thing in one chapter and the chapter the focuses on your relationship with Dusty and so on.
Well initially I just wanted to write a series of essays about my life but Random House wanted an autobiography. Because I didn't want to write about my stinkin' childhood or anything but they made me. [Laughs]
They really made you?
Well, they wanted a, you know, an autobiography. But in the end I said I'm going to do a chapter where I just wank off [laughs]. So I did. And I kind of got all of what I wanted out of the book.
In terms of "wanking off." You have some strong opinions on your industry and, in that last chapter, you articulated them very well. It's stuff that you obviously care very deeply about.
Well, being a woman in the music business and being in a band that was ahead of its time and kind of watching to see what makes it and what doesn't make it and blah, blah, blah. So yes: I'm very opinionated about that and about being an entertainer and the sort of bizarre life that is. And it also drives me nuts that people don't know, I mean, Rough Trade broke up in 1986 and I've been doing solo stuff since then. But so many people don't know and they're like: Where have you been? But I've worked everywhere [Laughs]. It's bizarre. And people keep asking me: What's happening now. Like they want me to continue the book. What's going on now? Are you seeing anybody? What kind of girls do you like? Those kind of questions.
And how do you reply?
I don't know. It just depends on what I feel like that day.
I guess part of it is because people feel that, since you've opened yourself up this much it makes a kind of connection. Like, having read the book, I feel I know you in a way I can't possibly know you because of the stuff you've told me, and yet you haven't. [Laughs]
Well yeah. I think that's what a lot of people feel. But I think it's good to be honest.
Any backlash from people you've been honest about in the book?
A little bit. You know, it's my version of what happened and it's my life and I have the right to write about it. But really, there hasn't been much. Actually I ran into Paul Shaffer in the airport in Toronto. That was very weird. He said: Carole, I've heard all about the book. Am I in it? And I went: Yeah, of course.
But all of it is my truth. And if I'm writing about a relationship it's the part of the relationship that impacted on me. It may not be the whole picture.
Are you working on anything now?
Well, I'm trying to write the outline for the next book and trying to get an album together and I want to just get out there and do gigs because, you know, I didn't get to do that much during the last couple of years.
Because of the book?
Yeah. That wacky book thang! [Laughs]
Has it been a sad time, reliving all of this stuff? I mean, everyone has asked you about Dusty and...
It's pretty heavy duty. It hasn't been a laugh a minute, I'll tell you that much. I'm very psyched about the response, but I have felt out of my element doing [a book tour]. Though I must be a pro by now. There was one review that was actually pretty good, but said something like: And she doesn't know she's a has-been rock star. I was like: Eeww! You know, I am like over Rough Trade, but everybody else isn't. And I've moved on since it was 1986. I'm playing music and making music because I like doing that and it makes me feel alive. And I don't think I'm a big rock star. So there, whoever the hell you were! [Laughs]
Some reviews were like that. And others were: Well, Carole Pope can't write, but I'm going to quote all these lines that she wrote in the book. So what does that mean?
Musicians are fascinating. Musicians are just as delusional as divas and I think that we do all suffer from the Peter Pan syndrome, but also the death of you as a musician is when the ego takes over. I think that's really the death of any artist, but musicians think they're it and they can't learn anything. When they get complacent and make three albums that are the same [that's death].
One of the things I found refreshing in Anti Diva was your unapologetic tone. No: I was so bad then and now I've found the Lord, or anything like that. [Laughs]
No, I'm not apologetic. [Laughs] I'm not apologetic about the drug use, because people keep asking about that: Carole, how did you live through that? And I keep wanting to scream at them: Oh, like you weren't doing blow in the bathroom next to me? Get off of that. I certainly don't condone drug use, but I'm not apologetic about dropping acid because it was pure then. It really actually helped me. [Laughs] And therapists used to use it in the 40s, because I know Cary Grant dropped it.
But, you know, it's funny that way. People say: How did you stop using drugs? And I keep going: I'm not an addictive personality. I just get bored. [Laughs]
And it sounds like you had lots of fun, too. And met lots of interesting people.
I did have lots of fun. And, you know, I was a bit of an asshole in the 80s, but who wasn't?
It was the "me decade."
It was the "me decade" and I can't imagine being that self-indulgent and I really have to talk myself into wanting stuff now. You know: stuff. Except maybe shoes. I love shoes. But I don't really need a lot of stuff. I mean, you don't. We never really made that much money and I was so bad with it. I should have bought a house, like Kevan. So I regret that. But maybe I will buy a house.
I know that the Dusty fans are happy with my chapter [on Dusty Springfield]. Because there's thing called Dusty Mail where people obsess about Dusty.
Your chapter on Dusty is affectionate.
Yeah. And I make her sound like a human being. I mean, she just had a horrible illness.
Your book is filled not only with your life, but also so many of the amazing people that touched it.
I know. And since I stopped writing the book, there's been even more. I'm like: My God! How am I able to meet these people? But it's just from going to Hollywood parties. But I really like the freaky people.
What are you listening to?
Björk. St. Germain. The Dandy Warhols. Coldplay. The new Radiohead. That's all I can think of at the moment. So, yeah: stuff. Oh yeah: I just saw Rufus Wainwright. I kinda made friends with him a year ago.
At this point, how would you define your music, if you were forced to do so?
Oh, I don't know. Not much different than Rough Trade. [Laughs] Someone wrote a review: Dark, pensive, humorous, often caustic, but you can dance to it. That's what someone said in L.A. I like that. That's a really good review of my music.
You mentioned in the book that you were somewhat annoyed at not being invited to Lilith Fair. You said also that you felt it was somewhat about segregation, something I always thought myself.
I mean, it's sad that we have to do that, is what I think. I mean, I liked being at Michigan [Womyn's Festival] and all of that, but it is sad that we have to do it. I would like to see the Anti-Lilith with whoever. I don't care as long as Björk is the headliner.
Tell me about the book's title: why Anti Diva.
It sounds good.
But you are a diva.
I am a diva! But I also can step back and make fun of divas, because we're all nuts. And the diva word is so overused now. I talked about the diva show that I did and that was before the diva word was widely used. Then CBC wanted to do a special with me and it never happened. But now it's just like everybody's a diva.
But the last decade brought us a lot of divas: prominent women singers.
Yeah: lots of caterwauling chicks who I don't particularly like. I mean, I don't like Mariah Carey or Celine Dion. I don't mind Barbra Streisand. I love Tina, but I'm not knocked out by all those scary white women who are singing like black women. | January 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.