World Woes and Texas Terrors Give Balladeer Michelle Shocked Her Name, Game and (Unwanted) Fame
11/07/1988 at 01:00 AM EST
Skinny and pale, she wears the uniform of the defiant: close-cropped hair, black T-shirt and sweats, a British sailor's cap and black high-tops. Attitude? She can spread coyness over a knuckle sandwich. When asked how old she is, she snaps, "A smart woman finds an age and sticks with it; I am twenty f——-g five."
But when the lights go down and Michelle Shocked, the singer whose new album, Short Sharp Shocked, is rising on the pop charts (and who actually is about 25), picks up her acoustic guitar, it's another story. Out pour haunting lyrics about homelessness, heartache, and the pain of growing up different in a tiny east Texas town.
Likened to a young Bob Dylan and hailed enthusiastically by the Washington Post as "a full-scale Arrival," the angry young woman can't seem to stand the fuss. "I'm not impressed," she says. "I don't have much respect for people who try to be successful."
Shocked's fans have made her successful anyway. She has found her biggest following in Europe, where she now lives, but her roots and her songs' roots are deep in the Texas hills. The daughter of Bill Johnston, a part-time carny-ride operator, and his young wife, whose name Shocked won't reveal, little Michelle Johnston stayed with her mother after her parents' divorce in 1963. (Her nom de tune was adopted four years ago. "Says it all, doesn't it?" she says with a shrug.) Her mother, "a Tammy Bakker type," soon married a career Army man, and the family pulled duty in Maryland, Massachusetts and West Germany before settling in Gilmer, Texas, pop. 5,000.
As a teenager, Michelle cottoned neither to high school ("I had to teach my government teacher how to pronounce 'bourgeoisie' ") nor to the strict rules set by her converted Mormon mother and stepfather. So at 16, Michelle split to spend the summer with her "hippie atheist type" dad in Dallas. "Her mother wouldn't let her listen to anything but the Osmonds," says father Johnston. It was Papa who turned her on to blues and country and pushed her to buy a $75 Yamaha guitar from a corner pawnshop. "She took off and flew with it," he recalls, proudly. Michelle claims the whole change in life-style so alarmed her mother that she had Michelle hospitalized twice in mental institutions, for a total of five weeks. "I was in one in Dallas and one in San Francisco," Shocked says cryptically. "It was drugs. Lots of drugs. That's all I have to say about it." It isn't, quite. "They kept me till the insurance ran out," she adds. "I guess you can't be crazy without insurance."
Once out, Michelle raged onto the road. As a member of the War Chest Tour, a group of peace activists, she was arrested for public obscenity at the 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas and for conspiracy to block a roadway in San Francisco during a protest against a defense contractor. A photo of Shocked gripped by San Francisco cops graces her album cover.
During 1984 and 1985, Shocked says she camped out in empty New York City buildings and bummed around Europe, where, she says, she was raped in Italy. That trauma led her to the temporary haven of an Italian "women's separatist community," but "I didn't fit in there, either. I don't fit in anywhere." After returning to Texas in 1986, she was playing at the annual Kerrville Folk Festival when English producer Pete Lawrence used an old Walkman to make a crude recording of her songs—complete with trucks and chirping crickets in the background. The Texas Campfire Tapes, released in England by Lawrence, promptly hit No. 1 on the British independent charts and caught the ear of U.S. record execs. Shocked, who moved to London that year, signed a Polygram contract but accepted only $50,000 of the company's offer of a $130,000 advance. "I figured they could take the money and record some of the other people doing this music," she says. "I'm just one of thousands."
Try telling that to the crowds now making a hit of her 30-city U.S. tour. For Shocked, the pace of the road is like "being in the middle of a Far Side cartoon." Still "it gives me a chance to spit my two cents' worth of politics," which she does, on everything from the antimilitary "Hello Hopeville" to "Graffiti Limbo," an ode to New York graffitist Michael Stewart, who died while in police custody.
But that's about all she spits. She bristles at questions about love ("Who wants to know?") or her past ("What's the matter? Don't you believe me?"). What she does fess up to is a yearning to be back home—in London on a modest houseboat on the Thames. There, "I sit and think," she says wistfully. "And sometimes I just sit." At least until the road calls her again. "I'm going to just keep doing it full tilt," says Shocked. "Till I can't do it anymore."
—Susan Schindehette, and Ann Maier in Houston