Michelle Shocked: Amid a Meltdown, Jesus Is Her Crisis PR Consultant

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Howard Stern says she's "whacked out of her skull." Friends and fellow musicians insist she's sick. Observers muse it's only art. As the born again, formerly gay singer-songwriter puzzles all with a homophobic rant, will the real Michelle Shocked please stand up?

Love, a lesbian, says she knew her to have a steady girlfriend more than 20 years ago, as Shocked herself acknowledged in a past interview, so her attitude toward homosexuality has been perplexing. But Love was more disturbed by the tenor of a puzzling encounter with Shocked last year when they both performed at a Pasadena political rally dubbed Occupy the Rose Bowl.

“She was soliciting people to sing and play with her, and I said sure. Then she got on-site seeming disheveled and frazzled. On stage, she was wearing a full face mask and sunglasses, and she sang this really disjointed, syncopated, non-rhyming, not-very-melodic song [about Occupy] that nobody could really follow -- and she asked everybody to sing along. She alternated between being encouraging to the crowd and telling them they were doing a horrible job. She started glaring at me as if was supposed to help them in the sing-along, and I tried to, then she leaned over and told me to ‘Shut up.’ Which I did. I handed the sound guy my microphone and watched from the crowd. There had been probably 300, 400 people at the beginning of her set, but as she started to yell at everybody, it got down to about 20. She went from manic to depressive really quickly."

Industry blogger Bob Lefsetz wrote a column to that effect, starting with the blunt statement, “She’s mentally ill.” But he makes it clear she’s hardly alone in that among major talents. “That's what they don't tell you about so many of your heroes, the rock stars of yore, their hold on reality is very tenuous. I'm not saying that Shocked should be forgiven, that her comments were either valid or the right thing to say, but you must look at them through the prism of the person … Actually, I'll posit the greater the artist, the looser their grip on reality … At this point in her career, the handlers have evaporated. It's just her against the world. … As for her comments … Inexcusable. But she deserves another chance. And help.”

A musician who toured with Shocked -- who asked not to be cited by name -- says, “
She was a time bomb. You never knew if you'd get the nice Michelle or the just-about-to-explode Michelle. We jumped every time she barked at us. I seriously felt like an abused dog. On stage, she gave us looks like, ‘I'm going to kill you when this gig is over.’ And let me be clear, considering she didn't want to spend much time rehearsing, we sounded pretty damn good. … I think she's at a crossroads between what she thinks politically and what she now believes religiously. It's not homophobia. It's fear and concern for souls.”

But some musicians who’ve worked with her for a longer period of time -- in a couple of cases, for a quarter-century -- take the general view of artist eccentricities and aren’t particularly alarmed by what they think was probably an overhyped case of an artist misspeaking in the spotlight.

A producer and player who worked with Shocked from the late ‘80s through the present, Dusty Wakeman, says, “I haven’t talked to her since this all went down, but I hope she’s OK. She sounds a little disjointed. But she’s always been abrasive, always one to stir things up -- and always been on the right side of things up to this point, in my opinion. So I don’t know if she’s having a mental problem or what. I’ve worked with a lot of artists, and she’s not atypical, let’s say. Michelle is a rabble-rouser in the tradition of Pete Seeger and all her heroes, and I know she has nothing but love in her heart, especially for anybody who’s oppressed.”

Pete Anderson, a stalwart of the L.A. music scene, first worked with Shocked in the late ‘80s on her breakout Short Sharp Shocked album. “I’ve known her since she was 20 or 22, and she’s like a family member to me, and even I don’t understand what she’s saying!” he admits with a laugh. On the more serious topic of born again bigotry, he adds: “I’ve never seen one iota of homophobic words or actions. How can you judge someone’s whole life based on four minutes [on stage]? Let’s dissect her songs and find something hateful; nope, ain’t there. Let’s look at her life; nope, ain’t there! Maybe she needs a pass on this one. I know it might be hard to get,” he sighs.

Even as one of Shocked’s best friends (or former best friends, before Shocked told her two weeks ago, “Our trust is at a pause”), Neubauer still has an easier time posing questions than answers. “Did she mean what she said? Was it a social media experiment? Is it mental illness? Is she a martyr? A genius? Is she Norma Desmond? Is she Chance the gardener from Being There, and we’re all trying to read too much into this stream of consciousness that she’s making up as she goes along? I love her, but this is killing me.”

Tonight on Piers Morgan’s program, depending on which Shocked shows up, it could be the beginning of a beautiful healing, or she could be short-sharp-SOOL.

It’s worth remembering, anyway, that even as Howard Stern refers to Shocked as being “whacked out of her skull,” no less a figure than the late Levon Helm once had a more generous description of the difficulties she can pose to herself.

Talking with the writer Barney Hoskyns in 1998, Helm, the legendary singer for The Band, spoke of the concept of “the burden of greatness,” then recalled someone he’d briefly worked with who had inspired a song on that very subject. “’Member when we wrote that tune ’bout ol’ Michelle Shocked?” he said. “‘The Burden of the Greatness in You’? Man, weren’t she a piece ’a work?” Tell us about it, Levon.

Twitter: @chriswillman

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