Rob Trucks’s “Possibly 4th Street” expositions, in which he invites big-shot musicians to perform live and impromptu somewhere in New York City, run frequently here at the Voice music blog. This week’s Michelle Shocked piece also ran in the print version of this here fine publication; part one also appears over here.
photo by Tina Zimmer
Volume I, Issue Seven (Part One)
Words by Rob Trucks
Once upon a time—say, a little more than 20 years ago—Michelle Shocked was known as Michelle Johnston. And after graduating from the University of Texas, the young woman headed west with musical instruments in tow, and performed in a street band up and down the coast of California. “When I used to play with them, I had a little, teeny-tiny voice,” she says. “And now, between singing in a rock band and singing with a gospel choir, I was louder than that police siren. Did you hear that?”
Yes. Yes, I did.
Beside Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo (a/k/a the giant rotating cube near Astor Place), Michelle and Michael Sullivan (a/k/a Reverend Busker, a Shocked friend and street-corner accomplice) perform for nearly an hour. The set list includes Michelle’s “Fogtown” and “Cement Lament,” Michael’s “Becky’s Tune,” Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya,” and Randy Newman’s “Baltimore,” among others. Change accumulates in Michael’s guitar case, and with every turn in the traffic light, a new round of boot jockeys and busses—the M1, M2, M3, M8, and M14A—rumble by.
“In those days,” she says of her California years, “I wasn’t on a career track. I was a romantic poet, but I considered myself a political activist. And there was so much compatibility. It was a sustainable way to be a political activist.” That is, until a man named Pete Lawrence had the audacity to field-record the post-feminist folk singer somewhere near Kerrville, Texas, (hello, 1986 debut The Texas Campfire Tapes) and make Michelle Shocked an indie sensation in Great Britain (hello, “international star”) before she even knew she had a record out.
Shocked’s accidental career now stands at a dozen albums (count the live gospel ToHeavenURide as the latest) and more than a few memorable tunes, like “When I Grow Up,” which manages to somehow summon an acoustic breath of grounded whimsy appropriate for a young woman looking west while her feet are planted in Texas. And then there’s “Street Corner Ambassador,” the one song from 1996’s Mercury Poise disc (call it an early greatest-hits collection) that makes its way into Michelle’s Astor Place set.
For this, the guitars are laid down, Reverend Busker stands to the side, and Michelle does the solo thing a ca-fucking-ppella. She hits (hits, I say) the chorus, hard, then does so again:
And it’s toss into the old tin cup
A shiny copper penny
Sing along that old refrain
Can you spare a little change, man?
Can you spare just a little change?
Police sirens don’t stand a chance. And when she’s done singing with a voice now oh-so-much more than “teeny-tiny,” Michelle Shocked unabashedly works the line of her concrete congregation, hat in proffered hand. It’s something she hasn’t done in years. It’s something she likely won’t do again. “Once you’re Michelle Shocked,” she says, “the context is entirely different. I’m very self-conscious now. The context has changed so much that you can’t go back. You can’t go back to that.”
Michelle plays the Highline Ballroom December 9, highlineballroom.com
Michelle Shocked and Michael Sullivan, a/k/a Reverend Busker
Michelle and Michael’s last collaboration before this one:
A recording of Michael’s song “Becky’s Tune” for Give US Your Poor, a compilation, according to the disc’s liner notes, aimed at creating “public awareness” of “the rising crisis of homelessness.” The CD also includes performances by Madeleine Peyroux, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, among others.
A Michelle/Michael collaboration from much further back:
They played together in a street band up and down the coast of California.
How Michael and Michelle met:
Through Neti, a classically trained violinist and friend of Michelle’s from Texas who Michael later dated.
photo by Cami D
A short Neti story (told by Michelle):
“Neti was living in a closet in exchange for doing this gal’s dishes, and it seemed like a good deal, but it wasn’t because that gal made more dirty dishes than anybody I have ever seen. It was a mountain of dishes. No closet was worth that.”
What Austin was like when Michelle left for California:
“Cowboys would pull up and park their pick-up trucks on Sixth Street, take the tailgate down, sit in the back of the pick-up truck and play music. And then you would walk up and down Sixth Street and basically it was just like a big jam session.
“It was a very nurturing environment. It was like you could really suck there and still be given encouragement. So I remembered when I left Austin thinking, Wow, if it’s this good here, imagine what I’ll find elsewhere. And then you discover that Austin was a little Petri dish. It was very unique in that respect.”
When Michelle and Michael played in New York City:
A little after 4 p.m., Thursday, September 27th
Within spitting distance of Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo (a/k/a the giant rotating cube near Astor Place).
Where the three of us had dinner (Michelle’s suggestion, Michelle’s treat) afterwards:
A completely out of context quote from Michelle at that dinner:
“And that’s when I saw the UFO.”
Something Michelle has done once and one time only:
“I dressed as the Popemobile in a Mardi Gras parade. It was for that year before Katrina where they had predicted the hurricane was going to hit, but it didn’t. But everyone had packed up and they called it Premature Evacuation, so we were all dressed up like cars and I chose the Popemobile.”
A movie she’s seen at least three times:
“Harold and Maude, and I’ve seen it like a hundred times. I watch that the way some people watch Rocky Horror.”
The album Michelle Shocked has listened to more than any other in her life:
“It was when I worked in the summers for my dad, and it was Guy Clark’s Old No. 1.”
If you had to live the rest of your life in a foreign country, what country would it be?
“I think Italy.
Do you own a rake?
“Yes I do.”
photo by Cami D
Did you expect to be recognized when you played on the street?
“I assumed that people wouldn’t (recognize me). And part of that is because I try to live my life like people aren’t going to recognize me. Now there is, I’ve noticed, like you do the Letterman show and for like a week afterwards you can’t get in the elevator. You can’t take out the trash. Nothing. But it has a half-life, and almost literally each week it’s half as famous. But to have been this under the radar for as long as I have been, I’m basically an insider hipster underground thing now. I enjoy living my life like nobody’s going to recognize me, and then what’s cool is the people who do recognize me are cool people.
“I think the truth is I didn’t care. I really didn’t care. If people recognized me, that was fine and if they didn’t recognize me I was having fun.”
photo by Cami D