Thu, Jul 29, 2004 - Page 16 News List

The voice

Michelle Shocked will be performing at Formoz Festival in Taipei tomorrow

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

The last time I saw Michelle Shocked in concert, George Bush was president and the US had just gone to war with Iraq. Months earlier, when Desert Shield turned to Desert Storm, I had packed into a Chevette with four friends and drove all night to Washington to protest. Between us we had a carton of cigarettes, barely enough money for gas and two cassettes: Short Sharp Shocked and Texas Campfire Tapes.

Those albums served as the soundtrack to a generation of peaceniks and political activists. Shocked was the pied piper for kids in their 20s, raised in the 80s, who daydreamed about the '60s. We played her songs on our Walkmans while we canvassed neighborhoods for Greenpeace and on the boom box while writing letters for Amnesty International.


She was cool because she sounded real and because she didn't sound anything like Michael Jackson. The cover of Short Sharp Shocked (Mercury, 1989) had a picture of her being dragged away screaming by riot police at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. That was cool. And at the end of all the folksy numbers on the album she included a punk rock track. That was cool, too, even if nobody liked it.

Her ability to change skin would be her undoing on her third album, Captain Swing (Mercury, 1989), which had her backed by a brass section and crooning jazz tunes. It met with a collective "Hunh?" from the set that slurped Celestial Seasonings teas. "Where did Michelle the folk `artivist' go?" they wanted to know. "And why is she aping Robert Palmer videos?"

The Shocked they knew was one who was born poor, pulled herself up by her bootstraps then hit the road. She saw more of the world by the time she was a teen than most of her fellow Texans have seen yet or likely will. She was a true east Texas rambler who trod the same pine floorboards as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Moon Mullican and Lightnin' Hopkins.

She rambled farther than the lot of them and lived a squatter's life in San Francisco, New York and the bergs and villes of Europe. Her mom had her committed to a psychiatric hospital when she was a teen and still named Johnston. A doctor said she was paranoid schizophrenic and wired electrodes to her. She stayed until the insurance money ran out and, when it was over, Michelle was Shocked.

She moved to Amsterdam, away from the Ronald Reagan-ization of the US political scene. While in England in 1986, a "journalist" convinced her to sing into his recorder. He was the owner of Cooking Music record label. When she returned to the US and a squatter settlement in New York, she discovered that the recording had been released as the Texas Campfire Tapes and was itself squatting at the top of the British music charts.

Her first album wasn't hers but she'd become the "dahling" of folk music in Britain. It would take a seven-year legal battle for her to win the rights to her music or see a dime from its sales. That was the first battle.

The folks at Mercury Records, however, gave a listen and called up offering Shocked a US$130,000 advance on her next record. She famously pocketed just US$50,000 and suggested that the remainder be used to sign up other "alternative" artists.

slave to the rhythm

But her relationship with Mercury was in trouble when she wanted to release a gospel album and they wanted none of it. In 1993 she'd take them to court, too, saying she was being held in a virtual state of slavery, citing a post-Civil War law. Mercury settled out of court and Shocked got her master reels back.

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