Shocked and Awed

Michelle Shocked returns to Tucson for a KXCI benefit.

After a lengthy legal battle, Michelle Shocked finally owns the rights to her own music. She feels that she's been vindicated.

"I am being a little dramatic, but I have had my soul ripped out and stolen from me, and I had to wander across the wilderness without a soul," she says. "That's way too dramatic, but still it's very nice."

Shocked discusses--with good humor--her many battles with the theft of her music, specifically the nearly mythical mid-'80s release The Texas Campfire Tapes, which Shocked has recently re-issued as The Texas Campfire Takes on her own Mighty Sound label.

Originally released without her permission or knowledge from a recording made on a Sony Walkman, the album has been restored to its original state, re-mastered and slowed down. The album also restores the original song order and track list not presented in the unauthorized release.

Shocked recalls how as a young songwriter, she was duped by English producer Pete Lawrence.

"He asked if I would mind singing a few songs into his Walkman," she says. "Keep in mind he didn't say, 'Oh, by the way, I have a lawyer on retainer, and I just started a record label and I have one band and I'm thinking about signing you.' He didn't say any of that. What he said was, 'I'm a journalist and I'm here covering this festival for a magazine in England called Folk Root. Would you mind singing a few songs into my Walkman?'"

The album stands up with other stark field recordings, complete with crickets chirping, between-song banter and great songs, many of which would crop up later, fully fleshed out, on her trilogy of recordings for Polygram. The album is no-tech at its finest--before lo-fi was even a term.

We get Shocked, with her punky-folk style--just a voice and guitar singing stories that need nothing more that the crackle of fire and the occasional truck switching gears as accompaniment.

Shocked is not shy about comparing her legal struggles with those of Leadbelly or the myriad other artists robbed of their catalogue.

"Who ends up telling the story?" she asks. "The Lomaxes or the Leadbellys? Now it's the Leadbellys' turn."

Included in the boxed set is a great 52-page booklet of handwritten notes and journals chronicling Shocked's life from 1982-87, roughly grouped under the title "American Vagabond." This warts-and-all presentation, full of tumult and artistic awakening in Europe, is a riveting, at times painful glance into a young artist against the world.

"It's just kind of a subtitle to the Campfire Takes," Shocked says. "Michelle Shocked is an American Vagabond, and here are the journal notes to prove it. I'm really happy and satisfied to give people such and in depth insight. It's like trippin' in my own diary."

The boxed set and the booklet remind us that even though she was undiscovered at the time of the recording of the Campfire Tapes, she was far from a musical amateur.

On two consecutive pages in the notes, there are track lists for three albums. The first, entitled Storytelling, is a rough outline for her studio debut, Short Sharp Shocked. Another is entitled ShockSwing, which presaged Captain Swing, the album that no one in the industry saw coming. A third list rounds out the trilogy. The prescience of this literally starving artist is impressive.

This creative tenacity has also recently paid off with regard to her work for Polygram. When she signed with the label, she forfeited the advance money for her three albums in exchange for ownership of the recordings 10 year later. She owns the trilogy after a lengthy legal battle that saw Shocked literally sue for slavery; she's now preparing to release the work on her label. We can look forward to Short Sharp Shocked and Captain Swing in the fall and Arkansas Traveler next year, as well as re-issues of her independent recordings and possibly some new material.

Shocked comes to town--touring not so much to promote Campfire Takes as to celebrate her freedom and label ownership, she says--with a full band and some other surprises.

"Were doing a wonderful, wonderful conceit," she says. "It's called 'Operation Campfire, Shocked and Odd.' Peter Bergman from Firesign Theater is the host, and the conceit is that it's a USO show, entertaining the troops. So he's Bob Hopeless and his partner Maryedith Burrell will be Martha Ray of Light and we're just entertaining the troops fighting the gulf war. He's going to have a bag of golf clubs and a Hawaiian shirt. It's gonna be fun."

The show at the newly christened City Limits (formerly Backstage) kicks off the "Shocked and Odd" tour and serves as a benefit for community radio station KXCI.

The obvious jab in the tour name "Shocked and Odd" brings Shocked's political activism back to the fore.

"I have a loathing of George Bush that is akin to the antipathy I felt for Reagan," she says. "When it comes down to pure enmity, when the personality just grates on me and then he goes and does all these things in the name of my precious democracy and freedom that are oppressive and--eeek! Don't get me started."