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Anti Diva: An Autobiography By Carole Pope Random House Canada, 254 pages, $32.95 REVIEWED BY

'In other words," writes Charles Mingus at the beginning of his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, "I am three." He is the man who mistrusts and fears, he is the artist who is generous and overaccommodating, and he is the observer who watches them both.

Mingus's book is a monumental piece of work, crazy and frustrating, and rare in the field of autobiography. In collaborating with Nel King ("the only white person who could have done it"), the great jazzman produced not just a story, but a new work of art.

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It's more common, especially in the realm of popular music, that artists sit down to write about their lives with results that are the equivalent of the Grade 3 How I Spent My Summer report: We went to the studio. We snorted some coke. I'm sorry I forgot my kids in the car for 12 hours.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached Carole Pope's memoir, Anti Diva.(Unless you have sacrificed troops of brain cells in reading Marilyn Manson's memoir, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, you can't possibly understand.)

For the past couple of decades, Pope has been a singular figure on the Canadian music scene. In the 1980s, her band Rough Trade gave hope to anyone who felt like a freak in a country where Rush was considered avant garde and a trannie was something found under the hood of a car.

For those too young to remember, Pope, the daughter of English immigrants, was one-half of the raunchy cabaret act known as Rough Trade (her musical partner was Kevan Staples). She wore leather and fondled herself on stage and sang "she makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way." She was a proud bitch before that became a cliché.

All right, no more teasing (although teasing is almost entirely what Rough Trade was about). Anti Diva is deeply enjoyable, nasty without apology, and unexpectedly deft. Pope may lean toward the occasional, unfortunate "pushing the envelope," but she's also capable of observing, "The penis has serious design flaws . . . like whoever designed it couldn't wait to use it."

It's not quite Beneath the Underdog, perhaps because Pope didn't have the misfortune of living in race-baiting, mid-century America, and because being a pioneer in satirical gender-messing New Wave bands is not the same as changing the way people listen to the bass. However, Pope and Mingus had something in common -- the word "diva" comes to mind.

It's obvious that Pope is a little miffed at the way "diva" has been stolen from her talons by those VH1 trolls who think that any chanteuse sausage-packed into a sequinned sheath deserves the honour. (This might explain her choice of title, which is not explored anywhere in the book.) Pope, in a career that began in the hippie enclaves of Yorkville, has encountered true divas: Divine, that tubby transvestite; David Bowie, too glamorous to gaze upon; and, especially, the luminous empress diva, Dusty Springfield.

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Springfield and Pope bonded over a shared suspicion about Helen Reddy's sexuality and "a mutual fear of celery." Alas, it was not a relationship built to last. They met in the early 1980s, a decade that would see Rough Trade succeed with its louche numbers like Fashion Victim and All Touch. At the time, Springfield, of course, was already a huge star, a British singer who sounded as soulful as Aretha Franklin. Their time together was apparently a mad carnival of tawdriness and tardiness, stalkers, Grand Marnier and sex. In the end, Pope was undone by Springfield's drinking and her unrelenting diva-ness, which may be amusing from a safe distance but not, necessarily, in the boudoir or recording studio.

The Springfield chapter is the one place where Pope wears her heart on her leather sleeve. Otherwise, she's suspicious of too much self-reflection, at one point saying, "I'm so over me, I don't want to write about me." There are hints of deeper turmoil -- the deaths of her mother and brother, an emotionally absent father, lost loves -- but it's all lightly skated over. A deeper introspection would have produced a different book, however. The fact that Pope is saucy and willing to say just about anything more than compensates. Of the pompous U2, who would hold prayer meetings before going on stage, she writes: "They were Irish and the English part of me didn't trust them."

"Unrepentant" is the word that best applies. Pope sold weed to make money at the beginning of her career, and once "contemplated a glittering Mount Everest of pink rock cocaine across a table from Clive Davis, the president of Arista Records."

Refreshingly, Pope does not feel the need to apologize in any way for this behaviour, or to seek forgiveness. There is no closure, no reckoning, no teary epiphanies on mountaintops or Costa Rican yoga retreats. The only evidence that Pope has bowed to the rules of polite society comes at various places in my galley copy where the text is blacked out by a fat old magic marker, undoubtedly wielded by someone with LLB in her title. Such as a long blacked-out passage, followed by the phrase "kind of a sexual food-chain."

I spent long moments trying to determine what had been scratched out. Those black caterpillars will have vanished by the time the book is published, and the folks at home won't have to suffer the torment I did.

Still, blessed are the light-handed lawyers: Enough and more of the good stuff got in. Elizabeth Renzetti lives in Los Angeles, which is, in Carole Pope's words, "a mecca of bad taste."

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Related Reading

Dancing with Demons: The Authorised Biography of Dusty Springfield, by Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham, Hodder & Stoughton, 306 pages, $39.95 Despite all her wishing and hoping and planning and dreaming, Dusty Springfield, one of the great pop divas of the 1960s, led a sad and difficult life. British music writer Penny Valentine and Springfield's manager, Vicki Wickham, have combined to produce a loving though unsentimental portrait of a woman haunted by parents who liked to food-fight, by a strict Catholic upbringing that clashed with her lesbian inclinations, by drink and drugs and self-abuse. As for her liaison with Carole Pope, there's not much here, but for a period, it seems, I Only Want to Be With You would have been an appropriate theme song. By the time she died, in 1999, Springfield had achieved cult status and come to terms with her demons. We learn of her humour, loyalty and professionalism, and miss her talent all the more for that.

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