Denial, the River in Egypt: Cat Marnell, George Jones

February 01, 2019

A review of memoir by Cat Marnell and a biography of George Jones "How to Murder Your Life: A Memoir"
By Cat Marnell

"The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones"
By Rich Kienzle

The unspoken social contract for addiction memoirs is that we get to enjoy the downfall as long as there is redemption in the end. Shenanigans are exhilarating but the reckonings must invariably follow. But sometimes, lives do not go down this rutted pathway, as two otherwise widely-divergent life accountings attest: A memoir from Cat Marnell and a biography of legendary country music singer George Jones.

These two individuals could not be any different from one another, and yet neither entirely succumbed to swearing off their demons entirely. Jones started young and continued his drinking, at least to "moderate" levels, late into life. And on the other side of a pretty treacherous ride through substance abuse, Marnell confesses to enjoying a nibble of Adderall before hitting the treadmill.

After some saucy preliminaries about D.C. latchkey upbringing (interesting dirt on the party habits of rich D.C. kids), Marnell focuses on her post-college years working as a fashion/beauty editor for the Conde Naste magazine publishing giant during the day, and getting wrecked at night.

“The more amphetamine I took, the more fun being by myself was, actually. Speed was like magic. Lonely magic," she wrote. she learned tricks such as breaking open time-release capsules open to make them work faster. This part of the story is enjoyable in the usual young-woman-coming-of-age-in-NYC way. Marnell's prose is punchy, clever, and very conscious of keeping the reader entertained--a carryover in part from the skills of forced brevity that one obtains from magazine writing.

But it's Marnell's second act that flaunted the indestructibility of youth. After finally being ejected by the New York magazine publishing world for being too extra, she does a few unfruitful turns in rehab. "Before I arrived, I thought rehab was like, I don't even know, a place where a party girl could recharge her batteries, you know, before she could return all refreshed and healthy feeling,” she wrote, before concluding. “I’ve had tanning bed experiences that were more transformative." She also despised all the "spoiled, shit-talking, adult children" that tended to inhabit these places.

Eventually, she returns to NYC to work in what was then a burgeoning world of first person-driven media blogs, all bent on deconstructing the staid world of old-school magazine journalism with ballsy unconventionality. Those were the days where you could do anything with a basic blog platform and some social media pimping. Gawker was the required daily reading to get you through the dreary day at the desk, and everyone had friends who worked at Vice, even though the pay was shit.

Jane Pratt's frank XOJane was on this edge, and used the fullest of Marnell's talents. Focusing the glossy magazine skills on her knowledge of the late night party life, she produced a friendly, raw, savvy, and at times legit helpful service journalism for the street.

“That’s how you come down from angel dust," she wrote in the book. "You pound whole milk. Weird, right? Don’t ask me how it works, but it does.” (Boy I wish someone would compile her writing from this period into a book.)

Naturally, the drug use crept back into her life as well, given that the clean living in Connecticut didn't match the speed of NYC, which, she felt, required stimulants to keep pace for the city. Heroin and angel dust crept back into the mix as well. The nights of dancing gave away to snorting tiny piles of off-white heroin at home through the night. Her relationships weren't too healthy either. “Unhealthy people attract other unhealthy people," she wrote. "And girls on drugs attract bad guys like a wounded baby deer attracts vultures.”

The New York Post's Page Six gossip column called her the "Hunter S. Thompson of the beauty beat." Here's my testimonial to Marnell's mad service journalism skills: I once Tweeted a quote from the book, along with an Amazon link back to the book. A few weeks later I got a tidy little $3 royalty from Amazon, from someone who bought the book from this link, and then a variety of beauty-care products. Marnell doesn't even try, and she brings the dollars.

But then, New York is filled with such folks, people for whom being a genius is the least of their worries.

“I’ve been stuck in a gnarly cycle of performance-enhancing drug abuse, followed by completely falling apart ever since," she wrote. "As my addiction has continued to progress, I’ve stopped trusting my brain to do anything on its own.”

Joe's Drive-In

Someone else who had talent to burn was country music singer George Jones, who recorded nearly 1,000 songs, a surprisingly large portion of which are about denial, of one sort or another: Denial about being in love, denial about drinking too hard, denial about carrying bad 1970s fashion choices into the next decade, and, most of her, denial about her never coming back. He lived until 81, despite never having completely given up, entirely, his love for the bottle.

My interest in George Jones was piqued by a comment made by Tyler Mahan Coe (of the excellent "Cocaine and Rhinestones" podcast) about who he thought the best country music singer was. It was George Jones ("Whoever else you'd pick would also say George Jones"). Both Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett respected Jones as a singer, and yet he remained a country singer, and only a country singer, for his entire career. Through the decades, Jones "evolved into a stylist capable of conveying levels of meaning that explored and defined a lyric at the level even the composer may not have thought possible," Rich Kienzle wrote in "The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones."

Jones had a fluid vocal range, one able to move between "high lonesome," as Kienzle put it, and low baritone. "I'd try to live the story of that song in my mind, my heart, and my feelings," Jones once said. Perhaps because of Jones' rough childhood, such inspiration required alcohol, however. Each album or live performance he needed to find that balance between the point where a nice buzz would loosen him, but not so much that he'd get sloppy.

George Jones ("Glenn" to his childhood friends and family) grew up in the thickets of Saratoga Texas, an impoverished place where a man was expected to provide for his family, and a woman was to care for the brood and put up with her man, whatever the cost. An occasional moonshiner, George's father, drank hard as well, and when he'd get home drunk, he'd called for George and his sister, to sing for him, else get a whipping by the belt. George had taken from music pretty much from birth, a child prodigy of sorts, but it was always a mixed blessing for him psychologically.

Naturally, he got out of the house as soon as he could. He found that busking in Jasper, a town not too far from Beaumont, got him $24. By that time, his parents moved to Beaumont, to take part of the booming war work. His sister had married her boyfriend, a farmer, in order to get out of the house, and George would visit them as well.

Joe's Drive-In

His early years after leaving home were full of trouble and all about playing music. He'd play the circuit in Beaumont, including a shipyard bar off the Neches River as well as at a drive-in beer joint on Highway 90 where he'd play inside and people would listen via speakers outside in their cars, with car-hops going car to car delivering beer.

His friends noticed he never seemed to have a home, but just drifted from staying at one person's house to another, even borrowing his guitars. When his father would com round, the old man would be drunk, asking for money.

Later in his career, he missed so many gigs from drunkenness, he got tagged with the nickname "No Show Jones." That his fans stuck with is a testament to his power as a singer.

"I think about the dates that I missed, and I'll see those mamas and daddies and some grandkids walking down the old country dirt road ... walking to town maybe a mile, and they've been saving their money for a couple months just to get there and to be let down ... I guess that hurts me worse than anything else," he once told an interviewer.

Jones got arrested a lot for public drunkenness. He was ornery. He once threw a coffee table through a plate glass window. In fact, he'd wreck hotel rooms on the regular. In their early touring days, fellow act Johnny Cash would accurately estimate, down to the dollar, how much Jones would get charged by the hotel for all the damage he did in some drunken rampage. He once got so fed up that his tour bus -- nicknamed "The Old Brown Bomber" -- didn't have air conditioning, he shot holes in the floor with his gun, not realizing that the holes would just let in the exhaust.

And he had lived through many attempts to stop drinking. The most famous story from this period was how he drove his lawn mower eight miles into Beaumont to get some liquor because his wife, the second of four , took away his car keys to stop him from drinking. Other stories were less amusing, such as the destroyed furniture, automobiles, and marital abuse and his hands.

As with any celebrity, enablement was a big problem. One apocryphal tale has it that Jones was arrested driving drunk late one night on some country back road by a junior police officer, who, when he pulled Jones over for driving erratically, found liquor, a young drunken woman in backseat, and a unidentified white powder. Jones spent the night in the local jail, and the next morning, the judge, seeing the famous country singer's name on the docket, immediately let him go, apologizing for the county taking up his time.