Good luck pigeonholing hardcore troubadour Michelle Shocked. “I’m in a position to defeat stereotypes,” says the woman whose image has been described as “part Emma Goldman, part Betty Grable, dancing militant, and partisan pinup.” Shocked—whose name is a play on the term “shell-shocked”—considers herself a party crasher to Jack Kerouac’s male-centric and mythologized Open Road: “I know I’m here unwelcome and I’m going to rewrite this history so I can be a part of it.” Lucky for area residents, that work-in-progress brings her to a concert sponsored by Unison Arts at SUNY’s Studley Theater in New Paltz on Saturday May 12. For the Studley show, Shocked will be backed by Uncle Moon, a band likened to "Kurt Weill at the Grand Ole Opry."
There is no new CD to promote, although 2005’s Threesome is a characteristically ambitious three-volume series recorded in a blaze of mad productivity and released to critical praise, leaving listeners quite a lot on which to chew. Available individually or as a set, also called Threesome, the triptych is one-third eclectic break-up ode (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell), one-third Spanglish-gospel-Texas blues travelogue (Mexican Standoff), and one third playful and very Texas swing-inflected interpretations of tunes from Walt Disney films (Got No Strings). After taking a well-deserved breather, Shocked’s reemergence to the performing stage is certainly enticing.
Michelle Shocked’s story has all the makings of a compelling road movie. A child of divorce, she grew up poor in East Texas, spending summers with her atheist father, who introduced her to the likes of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Willie Nelson—songwriters she soon would emulate. Enamored of punk rock and aching for independence, she left her mother’s fundamentalist Mormon home at 16 and put herself through college, where she majored in oral interpretation of literature. “It was the careerist `80s,” she says, “and that seemed like the least practical thing I could pursue.”
After graduation and a brief stay in a mental hospital (she was committed by her mother), Shocked rambled the world, busking in Madrid, squatting in Paris, attending an anti-cruise missile peace camp in Sicily, and living by her estimable wits.
Introduced to the world via The Texas Campfire Tapes—a quasi-bootleg recording of Shocked playing around a campfire at the 1986 Kerrville Folk Festival—Shocked signed to Mercury and released 1988’s Short, Sharp, Shocked, which featured a controversial cover photo of the singer in the chokehold of a San Francisco Police officer, taken at a demonstration at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Of joining the majors she says, “It was as if I’d fallen into a new job at the circus getting shot out of a cannon.”
After a series of dramatic David-and-Goliath-style battles, Shocked and Mercury parted ways and she wrested control of her catalog from the label, re-releasing everything on her own imprint, Mighty Sound.
The road that opened up before her at that Texas folk festival campfire has been illuminated by a series of stellar releases of music at once earthy, punky, danceable, playful, and connected by an unusually strong thread of passion. To be a part of that same road, look no further than SUNY New Paltz’s Studley Theater on May 12 at 8pm. (845) 255-1559; www.unisonarts.org.
—Robert Burke Warren