The Soul of Michelle Shocked

By: Nancy Dunham

Michelle Shocked
Michelle Shocked wasn't born in the right year.

At least, that seems the metaphoric reason that she hasn't received the warm societal embrace enjoyed by so many activist musicians – Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan - that came of age or at least prominence in the 1960s.

The problem arguably is not the passion, musical chops or intelligence Shocked brings to the battle against society's injustices, but the year of her birth – 1962 – which put her squarely in the 1970s "Me" decade as coined by writer Tom Wolfe. While other radical musicians that battled injustice through song as part of the 1960s hippie movement found audiences that embraced the concept of "all things community," the Me generation was - by definition - more concerned about self. So, as Shocked began to sing about injustice, many of her contemporaries kept their sights on tight leather pants, long hair and various products to smoke and sniff.

Even as the '70s melted into the Reagan era '80s - complete with yuppies, the near deification of Michael Jackson and plentiful cocaine - Shocked kept shouting. Perhaps that's most evident in the front cover photo of her album Short Sharp Shocked, which shows a San Francisco police officer holding her in a chokehold during a 1984 protest during the Democratic National Convention. The photograph - published in The San Francisco Examiner – almost became her calling card. That incident also marked the time when the woman born Karen Michelle Johnston took the name "Michelle Shocked." As many music lovers know, she chose the name as a play on the term "Shell Shocked," to indicate her feelings during the protest and subsequent police intervention.

"By nature I am a spiritual person," says Shock, who was raised in a Mormon-based home and spent much of her youth moving with her family to different U.S. Army bases. "I was a rebellious youth. I ran away from home and was attracted to political activism and a commitment to social justice. My rebellion wasn't nihilism where I'd get wasted out of my mind. I never had that focus. Instead, it was the time of a spiritual path. As maturity sets in, that is a real integration with youthful idealism."

Michelle Shocked by Sigmund
What's shocking – if you will excuse the expression – is that she could keep that idealism after her mother had her committed to a psychiatric hospital, then living very transiently for many years, and capped by a marriage that rapidly soured but didn't come to an end for more than a decade.

Through all this her music remained pure and lovely as evidenced on The Texas Campfire Tapes, Shocked's first "album," which was recorded as she played at the Kerrville Folk Festival. The music sparked interest even before its 1986 release. It was only two years before Short Sharp Shocked was released and she was on her way to big-time musical fame.

The road has had plenty of bumps including the well-publicized and ugly break with Mercury Records after her album Arkansas Traveler was released in 1992. Although she's never been out of the public eye, Shocked has made a major splash in the past several years.

The first was with the 2007 release ToHeavenURide - a gospel album digitally recorded at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival (despite Shocked having a "No Recording" clause in her contract).

Now, we have her 13th album Soul of My Soul (released May 12 on Mighty Sound), which might well mark a second phase of life for this musician who was divorced in 2004 and soon found love with fine artist David Willardson.

This album's music is equal parts love songs and reminders of some of her civil outrage, most squarely placed at the door of the last Presidential administration but also moving beyond that.

"A lot of the love songs with David were quite natural," says Shocked. "The ones that took more labor were the opinions over the direction that we are going in this country. This is a call for action. The job didn't end on November 12; it started then."

Michelle Shocked
Shocked is well aware of the weariness some feel after eight years of what she describes as fear and angst over the policies and actions of the Bush Administration. Still, President Barak Obama – offering "exactly the same rhetoric as LBJ or FDR" – also needs to hear from the people.

"In a democracy likes ours you can't vote for a President and expect you have a champion and a hero," says Shocked. "Certainly you don't have to expect the ugliness of the last eight years to act. If people lead, others will follow. Hold his feet to the fire and deescalate in Afghanistan."

But isn't it tiresome, exhausting even, to continue a fight against policies after enduring an administration to which she was vehemently opposed for so long?

"That's why I balanced the album with personal love. In a healthy, romantic relationship, genuinely, the world goes away," she says. "The world can be with you on one hand but then you can take the immediate little vacation with your sweetheart."

Shocked and Willardson are working on a series, combining music and fine art, about indelible women who are often known just by their first names – think Amelia, Georgia, Ella - who have and will continue to inspire.

Shocked talks a bit about artist Georgia O'Keefe, who left New York to continue her work in the desert. Such escape may sound tempting, but for Shocked her creativity and lust for life comes more from balance.

While just as passionate as ever, the external Shocked seems very different – more balanced perhaps – than the Shocked of the 1990s.

"Maybe like every divorcee, I wish I could have left at the romance stage" says Shocked speaking of her former marriage and perhaps her activism. "But then you come to the older and wiser stage. If that is what it took to get me here, I wouldn't change a thing."

Michelle Shocked tour dates available here.

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[Published on: 6/11/09]

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