It's a Wonderful Life. Kinda.
Laurie Lindeen's memoir is subtitled "A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story," but that glass slipper doesn't really fit. Lindeen's Prince Charming, as it were, was Paul Westerberg of the notoriously regal Replacements. But he didn't escort her into a land of decent record reviews and viable tour plans. He met her there—Lindeen was the guitarist and primary songwriter for Minneapolis's punkish trio Zuzu's Petals—and he escorted her out of it, into an ordinary life as a mother and homemaker.
Yet after a long vacation from the stage, Lindeen is ready to rock. Or, rather, she's got an appointment to rock, in between a pedicure and the family dinner hour. This smart-yet-eclectically dressed writing instructor in her 40s is getting the all-female band back together to play a book-release party for her new memoir, Petal Pusher. First, she's meeting me for margaritas in a high-tax-bracket suburb just an inch southwest of Minneapolis city limits: "I have to get my mom stuff done first," she warned me when we planned our sit-down.
Lindeen's appointment to rock is with college friend and Petals bassist Coleen Elwood. "The first time was so horrible, like being back on Co's futon," she says of their first practice this millennium. "We hadn't changed our strings in 12 years."
"There's no Cinderella story," Lindeen says dismissively when I ask her about that kooky phrase on the cover. (Apparently, the idea that women's stories should be embroidered with a familiar Disney edge is a common one—as Lindeen points out, "The subtitle for Jen Trynin's book [Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be] was 'A Rock and Roll Fairy Tale.'") But there is a small link to Lindeen's real history: "I once wrote a song called 'Cinderella's Daydream.'"
Through a complete fluke, I'd seen the original music video for "Cinderella's Daydream" the night before, at a Bryant-Lake Bowl screening of old Minneapolis scene footage. It was the first time I got a proper look at Lindeen in her glory days with the band. (The book cheats rock-memoir lovers out of black-and-whites, an omission that feels particularly cruel after Lindeen has piqued the reader's interest with comical descriptions of press photos.) With floppy '40s curls and a sweet doll face (she looked like a fairer, underground version of Raggedy Ann), Lindeen belts into the microphone, theatrical in attitude and punk in spirit.
When Petal Pusher begins, Lindeen is suffering from early-20s aimlessness. Her father has recently abandoned her mother for his receptionist, breaking up her family of six. College, where Lindeen was put on academic probation four times, has proved to be a bust.
One night, while walking with her friends to a Replacements show, half of Lindeen's body goes numb. Her entire left side is paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, and she requires days of steroid treatment followed by long months of physical therapy. After a friend gives her a guitar to fool around with during the tedious isolation of her recovery, she finds a renewed sense of purpose in life: She'll move to Minneapolis and start an all-girl band.
"We were supposed to kiss the guys, and that was it," Lindeen tells me, reflecting on a woman's place in the Minneapolis alt-rock scene of the early '90s. After Lindeen and her two bandmates toil in dead-end jobs during the day, they spend nights at band practice and out at shows that are capturing the whole country's attention. The names will be familiar to anyone old enough to remember when Walter Mondale was veep. The Jayhawks' Mark Olson is "my grill partner Mark" at the West Bank's Global Cafe. Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner is "Dave, a cute blond stoner," the live-in beau of a friend from college. Producer Butch Vig, Lindeen's onetime flatmate, is "my former boyfriend's brother in Madison."
Least charitably, Winona Ryder is "the actress who publicly lusts after him [Westerberg] and sends him gifts in the mail."
When Lindeen catches It's a Wonderful Life on late-night TV, she finds a name for her project: Zuzu's Petals, a symbol for getting a second chance to appreciate your life.
Not long after a few singles and self-booked tours, Lindeen starts dating a man embarking on his own second life—Paul Westerberg, fresh out of the Replacements and living a rewardingly square life of bicycle rides and 10:00 p.m. bedtimes. Years before, the two had a fleeting encounter at a 'Mats show in Madison. But by the summer of 1992, she has so many doubts "about the viability of having a rock star boyfriend" that, at first, she doesn't even bother to end things with her previous lover.
When No One's Looking, the Petals' first album, receives favorable reviews both in America and England, and the band embarks on years of touring. But the nights spent playing filthy clubs in front of strangers and then crashing in shabby shared lodgings begin to feel less like dues-paying and more like abuse. It's hard for the band to know whom to trust. "There was a time when we didn't take control at a very crucial career point—we turned it over to father figures, and they fucked it up," she tells me regretfully.
"It's not a rock bio," Lindeen says, seeming frustrated by the way her story has been packaged. "We were never stars, we never really made it." Indeed, it's painfully demoralizing for the Petals to watch one opening act after another sign to a major label while their own indie company loses interest in promoting them. But Westerberg keeps writing to her, and the relationship between them seems increasingly like a better investment of her time than the Petals' road to nowhere.
Lindeen's romance with Westerberg may have made her the envy of many, but no woman would envy experiences like having an audience member at your own show collar you to ask, "What's it like going out with God?" (It turns out that while God might help you rewrite your guitar solos, He will not record a harmonica part for your album.) Lindeen is in awe of his healthy routine of disciplined creative work followed by leisure time spent exercising, reading, and cooking, and she benefits from the financial boost he can give her out of subsistence-level living. In short, Westerberg has as much to recommend him as the average single engineer at 3M.
Lindeen stirs the ice cubes in her near-empty glass as she remembers her single-minded devotion to the band. "I was gonna go for it, giving everything. But I didn't have any concept about what 'everything' would mean—personal space, protection." After four years spent touring with the Petals, "it turns out I was ill-suited for the work," she says candidly.
"In the end, it was a jumping block to becoming a writer. The song was becoming too small a container," she explains. Her collection of notebook journals, travelogues, poetry, and short stories gave her the raw material she needed when she enrolled at a master's program in writing at the University of Minnesota. "I already had my voice; it was almost as if I had too much a voice. I was there to learn discipline, structure," she says of her formal education.
Now married to Westerberg and living with him and their elementary-aged son, she's already working on a second book—a sequel that picks up where Petal Pusher leaves off (around 1995). One gets the idea that Lindeen could still find herself surprised by where her life's course leaves her.
Looking both wary and amused, she confesses before leaving the suburban cantina, "I think I've seen too many Marilyn Monroe movies, where it ends with her looking into the camera with an expression like, 'This is good, right?'"
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