Michelle Shocked

The Peace of Her Mind

Music Features Michelle Shocked
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“Once I was blind, but now I see the light.”

The West Angeles Cathedral Church of God in Christ—one of L.A.’s largest African-American congregations—is home to its share of Tinseltown celebrities. Denzel Washington. Stevie Wonder. Michelle Shocked. OK, it’s doubtful fellow parishioners followed the early-’90s saga involving her suit against Mercury Records for breach of the 13th Amendment (you know, the one that abolished slavery). At least until sister Shocked showed up as the question to an answer on Jeopardy. But whether she’s sitting in the church’s V.I.P. section or just a standard-issue padded chair in the middle of the congregation where I’ve joined her this Sunday morning, she ?ts right in. On the stage, a young man dressed in a baggy white suit is leading everyone in singing “Jesus Loves Me.” Shocked sings along, eyes closed, embellishing the melody. “When I was little, I never wanted to sing in church,” says the East Texas native, “but now I want to sing with all the beauty that God’s given me.”

Because of Shocked’s legendary propensity to poke any hornet’s nest within reach, I’m a little surprised she’s found a home in a socially conservative, evangelical church. This is the same artist who recently launched JAMS magazine—containing articles like “Bush and the rise of Christian Fascism” and “The Progressive Government Institute Needs You!”—to distribute at shows. She campaigned for Dennis Kucinich and has a particular affinity for Code Pink, the women’s anti-war organization that recently infiltrated the Republican National Convention, stripping down to lingerie to give President Bush the literal “pink slip.” And yet here we are in church where a marine visiting from Iraq was just given a standing ovation.”

Well, it’s a fundamentalist congregation,” Shocked allows. “There’s a lot of accentuating the positive I have to endure for me to be here, but my patience paid off, because these services go out over armed forces radio. And about two months ago [Bishop Charles Blake] said very clearly, ‘This unconscionable war in Iraq, this waste of resources and life, the waste of life of the Iraqi people, the waste of life of our troops.’ We’ve got a president saying God told him to do all this, and that’s not even for people who go to church—he’s preaching it to the nation. So that was a real reward for my patience, ’cause for four years I just kept the faith. I’m like ‘God, why did you send me here? What am I doing here? Get me out of here!’ And then [the Bishop] comes out and speaks out against the war in Iraq. It was such a relief and my spirit just rejoiced.”

If Shocked has any fish-out-of-water feelings toward West Angeles because of her race or her politics, they’re certainly not evident this morning; when Bishop Blake asks if he can get a witness in here, she stands on her tiptoes like a school girl at a Maroon 5 show. Enthusiastic congregants smack tambourines in assent and Shocked is right with them, standing, clapping, shouting and singing.

It was the music—and the realization that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America—that first drew Shocked back to church in 1991 after rejecting what she calls the “racist doctrine” of her Mormon upbringing. These days you’ll find her in the West Angeles choir loft: “I went one too many Sundays. I went for the singing, and I stayed for the song.”

Music obviously holds powerful sway over Shocked. One particular Sunday, Bishop Blake said, “Oh! Stevie Wonder is here today! Stevie, come up and play us a song.” Wonder, who of course happened to have a harmonica in his pocket, came up on stage and sang, “Falling in love with Jesus is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“No, no,” recalls Shocked. “Songs in the Key of Life is the best thing you’ve ever done! ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ is the best thing you’ve ever … ‘Falling in Love with Jesus?!?’ If Stevie Wonder is singing that, I better listen. I better pay attention! Then he just plays this harmonica solo that melts your soul. And you’re going, ‘Yes, Lord, yes. I surrender. I’m a sinner. Please forgive me. Take me. Thank you, Jesus.’ So, you can deny its power or you can sing along. But a song can change the world.”

Shocked is currently preparing to unleash 31 new songs in a trio of albums due out in June—the eclectic rocker Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, her “divorce” record; Got No Strings, a collection of Disney songs given the Western-swing treatment; and Mexican Standoff, which splits its time between exploring her East Texas roots and more recent Latin surroundings.

“Now mama don’t you go and cry / I’ve got to try and live without a past.”

The woman born Michelle Johnston 43 years ago in Dallas, Texas—the result of an unwanted pregnancy—has the kind of history that provides plenty of material to fuel her prolific output. Her devout Mormon mother and atheist hippy father split when she was three, and her new father-in-law was the first elephant in the room she had the audacity to call out. “I told people for years I thought I had run away from home,” she says. “I was kicked out. But good parents don’t kick their children out; they just give them such onerous conditions that the kids are like, ‘Ah! I’m leaving!’”

After stints at a community college, the University of Texas and, finally, the Baylor Hospital psych ward (her stage name comes from the electroshock therapy she received there), she’d had enough of Texas. She hit the road and soon became a squatter in abandoned buildings in San Francisco, New York and Amsterdam, where she worked in a restaurant for meals and spent her spare time at a pirate radio station, writing songs to broadcast and barely understanding her Dutch cohorts.

When she returned to the States in 1986, she volunteered at the Kerrville folk festival, becoming what she calls, “perhaps the last American to receive the mixed blessing of being field recorded.” Pete Lawrence, an English producer and label owner with a Sony Walkman recorded Shocked and her acoustic guitar among the late-night gatherings and released the set of originals as The Texas Campfire Tapes back in the U.K. Shocked only became aware of the tapes when a friend brought a magazine back from Amsterdam with a flexi-disc inside of “Who Cares?” by Michelle Shocked. She didn’t even have a song called “Who Cares?,” but she put it on and heard her voice: “This is my most recent song and it’s called … oh, who cares?”

After debuting at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, she ended up signing a record deal with Mercury and put out her first trio of genre-hopping albums. Short Sharp Shocked (’88) was a folk record with a punk-rock heart, and Captain Swing (’89) mixed her blues roots with a big-band sound. But the last straw for Mercury was Arkansas Traveler, a tribute to blackfaced minstrelsy that enlisted the help of folks like Alison Krauss, Pops Staples, Doc Watson, Jay Farrar, Taj Mahal and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Mercury refused to release her follow-up to Arkansas Traveler, Kind Hearted Woman. A protracted battle resulted in her becoming the first major-label artist to own all her masters and re-release all three records on her own label, Mighty Sound.

“I’ve come a long way, come a long way, and never even left L.A.”

Johnny Cochran’s funeral was held last week in the West Angeles Cathedral, and today a vendor is selling commemorative T-shirts, encouraging the exodus of churchgoers to protect his memory. (“Don’t forget him. Don’t forget. Keep him in your hearts,” he says, thumping his chest.)

Shocked’s mid-city L.A. bungalow isn’t far from here, but it’s difficult keeping up with her little red Miata. Back home, Shocked’s lawn is well-kept, and the polished hardwoods and abundance of original art speak to her urban-hipster tendencies. Sitting in the front porch swing, we look across the street—we’re high enough to see over the tour bus parked out front.

With its wildly diverse ethnic makeup—Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Puerto Rican—her street may as well be a lower-rent version of Washington D.C’s Embassy Row. Behind us is all middle-class black, directly east is an El Salvadoran community, and on corners are a brothel and a Latin evangelical church, where the pastor likes to proselytize to the Buddhists, Catholics and atheists on his street via Spanish praise music and a really loud P.A.

Shocked admires her front lawn as we discuss the flight from her childhood home and subsequent nights in ramshackle tenements. “I love it here. Do you know how hard I work? Do you see how green my grass is? I fertilize it, I put the sprinklers in, I get the guy out here once a week to trim the grass, and see how there’s all those little sprouts—it’s ’cause I put in new grass seed and have a little patch there. I’m like the stupidest, suburban, house-proud, lawn-happy person—how did this happen? I just praise God, ’cause it’s not me. … This is such a humble, modest scale. And to 99 percent of the world, this is living large. I’m not too stupid to know that and appreciate it.

“I ran away from home when I was 16 and made everything as hard as I possibly could. And squatting is romantic, but honestly, once you take the romance away, it’s degrading, violent, ugly. You put a healthy coating of romance on it to make it tolerable, but I remember this one squat I lived at in New York—the roof leaked so bad that they had stapled plastic sheets across the roof, which then of course meant that the rain would just collect in pools in the plastic sheets. That wasn’t so bad, but then the rats would run across the plastic sheets. You’d be laying on your little mattress, looking up, all these rats running across over your head. Meanwhile, the walls had been stripped down to just the ply-board between the plaster. And next door were these two guys really abusing some 15-year-old—what did they have her on? Ecstasy?— she was whacked out of her mind, and you could basically hear them sexually assaulting her. It was like you were sleeping next door to a rape scene.”

We walk down the street to pick up some lunch from an El Salvadoran grille. A table full of Latinos has commandeered the jukebox and is singing along to Spanish ballads and ’80s American synth-pop. It’s this environment that led to songs like “La Cantina el Gato Negro” and “Picoesque” on Mexican Standoff. The first five tracks explore the Latin culture of her surroundings and benefit from the production assistance of Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin.

“We’ll import exotic Latin culture,” she says. “We’ll import Cuban music or Brazilian music or Spanish music. But the indigenous, vernacular Latin culture around us, we disdain, we despise, we devalue. We almost actively go out of our way to culturally destroy it because it’s a reminder of our roots, where we come from, and we’re way too modern for that. We want the exotic best, not the homegrown, grassroots familiar. So a lot of the tracks on the Spanglish section of the album are basically very ironic, tongue-in-cheek—I’m making fun of people, but I’d rather them not know that. I’d rather them just think it’s groovy, like salsa.”

Shocked didn’t have to go far to find inspiration for these songs on Mexican Standoff. “On any given holiday, out of your backyard you’ll hear this incredibly loud party going on next door, the stereo just blaring. And it just conjures up these images in your mind of hundreds of people. And there’s cerveza—it’s flowing. You wait ’til midnight, thinking surely they’ll turn it down, and they don’t! So around one or two you’re like, ‘I gotta see this for myself,’ and you go! And what you find is that sitting in their backyard they’ve lined up about 20 chairs, and sitting on the chairs is grandma and grandpa, aunt and uncle, and the little kids are running around, maybe. No one is dancing, and there’s like 20 or 30 people and—because it’s the fiesta culture—loud music and familia. Of course, there’s food, and you go over there, and they’re like, ‘Come in! Come in!’ They want you to eat a taco, so you eat a token taco. And then you go home and call the cops.

“One time they actually had a live band. It was so cool, and the horns get so sour, ’cause they’re high school kids and they’ll make them play for five hours in a set, you know? For probably 20 bucks! And they can’t play their saxophones good at all, but it’s soulful, man.”

On the second half of Mexican Standoff, Shocked digs back into her East Texas blues background—the sounds of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown that play like a soundtrack to summers with her father in Texas, away from whatever city her military step-dad had moved the family.

“The secret to a long life’s knowing when it’s time to go.”

Since releasing a stirring gospel set, Deep Natural, in 2002, Shocked has endured a tumultuous few years. In the quarter-century since her mother had her committed to a mental institution, the two hadn’t spoken. But last year she invited her mother to L.A. “She walked up these steps and came to that door, and I opened the door and I gave her a hug, and I said come in, and she burst into tears, and then we sat down and talked. … I could have lived the rest of my life never speaking to my mother again. It really had become just a reality, a truth to me. … But when God moves in your heart and your life, reconciliation is His spirit. So it didn’t cost me nothing to reconcile with her, and she deserved it, she needed it, and the whole time that I was with her, it was like an out-of-body experience. It was like watching God do this amazing, miraculous thing—25 years I hadn’t spoken to her, and I watched Him move my lips when I said things like, ‘Mom, you did the best you knew how,’ ‘Mom, you never gave me less than your best,’ ‘Mom, I love you.’ I’m like kinda watching myself say it, going ‘that’s a good daughter, that’s a good daughter. That’s not me, I’m not a good daughter. I don’t know who that is! That must be Jesus taking over my body like Invasion of the Body Snatchers!’”

Just before that reconciliation Shocked had finalized a divorce to her husband of 13 years. The now tee-totaling Shocked blames the couple’s split on his drinking. “I characterize it as a co-dependent marriage, which meant he would drink, and I would drink to tolerate his drinking. And my pitfall was that I thought drinking was glamorous. I thought it was sophisticated. I thought it was romantic. But because of my fundamentalist, puritan background, I was never a great drinker, you know? To be a great drinker you have to truly be a nihilist, and I’m not a nihilist; I’m an idealist. So I would play the role of an alcoholic, but I couldn’t really do it with conviction.”

After a fight at Shocked’s show in Manchester, England, she returned to L.A. She called the police to escort her to the house to get some stuff. “Nothing had happened, but when he saw me pull up with the cops, he ran out the back window and that was the last time I saw him. He went down to New Orleans. He filed for divorce down there; I filed for divorce up here. And it was over. And I hardly miss him.”

That final confrontation became the cornerstone of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—an 11-song cycle dealing primarily with the divorce. “I’m hardly gonna miss him, won’t notice he’s gone / You won’t catch me with the blues / Over some two-timing boozer, hard-luck loser … He’s gone, he’s gone, and I’ll tell you why / He don’t like to laugh and I don’t like to cry.”

She’s fallen back in love, and there’s a noticeable lack of bitterness or even wistfulness for a divorce record. The relief and resignation of songs like “Evacuation Route” and “Goodbye” overshadow the recrimination of “Elaborate Sabotage” and “Don’t Tell.” That only six of the 11 tracks deal with her divorce only reinforces the sense of moving on. Rather than a divorce record, it’s more like a divorce EP buried in her latest experiment in stylistic gymnastics. The album opens with the simple joys of two lovers on an “Early Morning Saturday” and ends with a tale of two unlikely friends in “Hi Skool” set to the fastest roadhouse romp she’s recorded to date.

“Soldiers play the game, but they call it war”

It’s five o’clock and we’re in Santa Monica. Shocked is playing an unusual venue tonight—the courtyard behind Polish restaurant Warszawa, where the women of Code Pink are having tea to raise funds for the organization’s anti-war efforts and to help keep three libraries open up north in Salinas (the organization contends that spending on the war has caused shortfalls in areas like education and the public-library system). It becomes immediately clear how the day’s emcee, Jodie Evans, could infiltrate the RNC faithful without raising an eyebrow. The Code Pink women look more like corporate lobbyists than bohemian radicals.

Shocked takes the stage in a borrowed pink hat and rose-colored glasses. She plays a song and then invites Miss Judah Slack, a friend from West Angeles, onstage to perform the one song she’s written. It’s not a bad first attempt, a sweeping tirade on the state of things—mostly the war in Iraq, but also selfishness and gay marriage—with a heartfelt plea, “God give us a miracle / We can’t do it without you.” When Slack finishes, Shocked tells the crowd, “even though all her politics don’t necessarily line up with ours, she’s singing from the heart.”

I realize that Shocked has taken it upon herself to not merely rattle cages and call attention to injustice, but to connect groups of people who might not always get along. She’s a white girl who grew up around racism and now attends a black church. She’s a left-wing anti-war activist whose yearning for social justice is only fueled by her belief in a God who cares about everyone. When she’s in church, she’s going to pray for her pastor to steer the congregation toward peace. And when she’s in Santa Monica at an anti-war rally, she’s going to end by leading the crowd in a version of “Come By Here, Lord,” asking for lines from the crowd. We sing, “Someone’s shouting, Lord,” “Someone’s lying, Lord,” “Someone’s dying, Lord.”

“Artists are told we’re supposed to be silent,” she tells her pastel-clad sisters. “If we speak out, we’re told we’re grandstanding. Two subjects we’re not supposed to talk about are politics and religion.”

Michelle Shocked never much cared for what she wasn’t supposed to do. And there’s no way in hell she’s remaining silent. Her rock will cry out.