Weeds Like Us (Fathead Records)
“I am compelled by the idea that in some way, my telling of these experiences might help someone else survive their own struggles with their lives and histories,” L.A.-based blues artist Janiva Magness writes in the author’s notes accompanying this memoir. “Mental illness, major dysfunction, tragedy, and violence: I’m comforted if the telling helps someone else. I’m comforted, too, because the telling helps me make better sense of my own chaotic history.”
Those familiar with Magness’ work might be surprised by some of the chaos that is revealed within the pages of this autobiography, hinted at in that quote. She is, after all, a badass on stage. A strong woman with a beaming smile, charisma for days and a voice that soars. She can hold a huge crowd in the palm of her hand and gleefully toy with it. As is the case with all of us, there’s far more to her than the surface reveals.
The book starts pretty much at the beginning: a 4-year-old “pixie girl” bouncing from Michigan to Nebraska in the care of parents that drank. By page 20, she tackles her first suicide attempt (“I remember feeling terribly and painfully alone”). Her childhood was essentially ruined by physical and sexual abuse, and then her mother’s suicide.
Her teen years were no less of an endurance test; her father also committed suicide, and drink and drugs numbed the pain as she went through a string of bad relationships. Through no fault of her own, Magness’ life was off to a rough start. And it got rougher before it got better, but it sure did get better.
We meet the characters that shaped who Magness would become, from the self-explanatory Mr. Bad (obviously a fake name to protect the guilty) and “Carrie.” Magness takes us on a journey that sees her grow and heal, as she experiences an Otis Rush show and a whole new world of blues opens up to her.
We get to relive her career with her, as she discovers her own talents, right up to her work with the great Dave Darling over the past decade. It’s a ride that is both thrilling and heart-breaking. But the spoiler is, we know-how it ends because we know that Magness is still producing incredible music. And she’s still a badass.