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

Michelle Shocked Horizontal - H 2013
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Michelle Shocked Horizontal - H 2013

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?

It was Piers Morgan who landed Michelle Shocked for a broadcast interview (set to take place live tonight at 9 p.m. ET). But it was Howard Stern who might have wanted her most.

“Sounds like someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” Stern said March 25 as he played bizarre excerpts from a recording of the embattled folk-rock singer’s gay-themed meltdown on a San Francisco stage. “She’s a weirdo. Imagine being filled with that much hate? ... Let’s have her on the show. She sounds whacked out of her skull! She’d be a great guest.”

That, in a nutshell, is Shocked’s paradoxical lot at the moment. Shocked so effectively Dixie Chick-ed herself when she delivered a rambling, risible speech about God and gays on March 17 that virtually all her tour dates were canceled within 24 hours. But she can get a booking on a CNN talk show that reaches millions, though there may not be a 150-seat club in the country that would touch her right now.

It's a lesson in how, in the social media age, you no longer need to be a huge star to have your meltdown make national headlines. Shocked's career had never been a model of commercial glory, but she broke through in a sizable enough way with the Short Sharp Shocked album in 1988, accompanied by a sweet ballad, "Anchorage," that was an alt-rock radio hit. She was popular enough to once be invited to give the keynote address at South by Southwest in 1992 -- although its unusual theme, a defense of blackface, left the SXSW audience legendarily puzzled, in a harbinger of things to come. Even given her reputation for sometimes inexplicable quirks, Shocked's smart material, depth of stylistic prowess and emotionally rich politics made her a favorite among singer/songwriter aficionados for a solid quarter-century.

So how did Shocked go from beloved leftist heroine to hated “homophobe” in the span of a few minutes on stage, when she asked the crowd to tweet that she’d said “God hates faggots”… and got her wish? Is she the misunderstood victim of a mob’s rush to judgment, truly anti-gay, or perhaps, as many would suggest, just anti-meds?

Jill Sobule, a fellow singer-songwriter, seems to be leaning toward the latter view. “I know that she’s had mental challenges. And listening to the tape of that evening, more than anything, it strikes me as strangely incoherent and crazy. You’re hoping that it’s some sort of Andy Kaufman performance-art piece, but it isn’t. Still, I save the anger for people that can actually have an effect on other people, like a Rick Santorum or a Focus On Your Own Damn Family. Michelle Shocked fans are old lesbians like me.”

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Sobule feels Shocked fans’ pain, anyway. “I have a song called ‘Heroes’ that’s about being disappointed by your heroes. I was such a Dylan fan, but every time I watch ‘Don’t Look Back’ and he’s mean to Donovan, I think, what a big dick. But I mostly feel bad for her. We are such a forgiving people, so when people are saying she’s through -- who knows? If she got the right medication. I’d be certainly open to hearing new Michelle Shocked stuff.”

But Shocked has musician friends who insist -- or hope -- that her meltdown at Yoshi’s in San Francisco was only a momentary lapse in logic. “I've always known her to have poor impulse control, which is usually a good thing for an artist,” says pal Bryson Jones. “But this flies in the face of her usual political and moral positions, so I don't give it much weight as far as representing her truth.”

Whatever the case may be, almost everyone could agree she’s been making it worse with a series of defiant statements and actions ever since she issued an apologetic open letter that might’ve soothed a few nerves. The first thing she did the day after her S.F. debacle was call one of her best friends, Austin-based film producer Elizabeth Neubauer (“Bush’s Brain”), to handle her PR. A little over 48 hours later, both the old friendship and new professional relationship had been put on pause.

“My sister runs PR for a $4 billion corporation,” Neubauer tells The Hollywood Reporter, “and she was my first phone call. Her response was, ‘You’ve got three choices: You can claim she was taken over by aliens, you can claim she got a big bump on her head right before went on stage, or you can come out with an apology that is so unbelievably sincere that it may get 25 percent of her fans back.’ I opted for the last one. I told Michelle, ‘Lay off Twitter for 24 hours and let the statement do its work.’ And she didn’t. She’s tweeting things that I, as one of her best friends, don’t understand, starting with a ‘truth vs. reality’ countdown, and I’m sitting there banging my head, going, ‘I’m pretty smart, and I know you really well, and I don’t get this.’”

A couple hundred patrons at Yoshi’s were pretty sure they got it when Shocked suddenly blurted, “If someone would be so gracious to tweet out, “’Michelle Shocked just said from stage, ‘God hates faggots’,’ would you do it now?” -- a request the stunned crowd inevitably fulfilled. The statement can be understood as bitterly ironic, in a clueless-as-to-impact way. But what Shocked hasn’t bothered to address in the two weeks since the show is some of the equally provocative quotes that led into that. She’d just finished characterizing her fellow churchgoers as being alarmed that a court decision allowing marriage between “ho-mo-sexuals” would lead to pastors having to perform gay weddings at gunpoint, helping bring on biblically prophesied end times. Not only did she never distance herself from those beliefs, but she even prefaced the apocalyptic paranoia by saying, “I really shouldn’t say ‘their’ (vantage point), because it’s mine.”

In the backlash that followed, fellow artists lined up, not with support but chagrin. “F--- Michelle Shocked,” Garbage’s Shirley Manson said onstage in New York not long after the initial news broke. “F--- her!”

Americana singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet tweeted, “What do people expect from Michelle Shocked? She's always been crazy.” And this joke: “Somewhere someone is developing a software to remove Michelle Shocked’s ‘Anchorage’ from their 1989 dorm room cassette mix tapes.”

Fellow folk singer Erin McKeown wrote, “As a fan, mentee & having worked intimately w/ ?#MichelleShocked, this is no surprise and not the 1st time. There is no excuse for hate. NONE. But I have compassion for another person’s obvious inner pain and self-hate.” (Reached by THR, McKeown declined to elaborate about her encounters with Shocked on the record.)

Comedian Margaret Cho wrote about the betrayal she felt in  essays for Huffington Post and Jane.com. “I cried again when I heard that Michelle Shocked hates gays,” she wrote. “I thought I was safe with her. ‘Anchorage’ really got to me, as I took it to be a song about a gay girl and a straight girl who were once in love and then went their own ways… There are girls I dreamed about singing that song to, and now I can’t, and I never will. Of course I am projecting, and maybe that song is not about that, but she still made me feel safe, and now she doesn’t. That is a lot to lose.”

Losing the support of her peers so visibly might’ve made a lesser soul quake, but if anything, Shocked grew cockier as the backlash went global. She negated the effects of a semi-apologetic open letter with scores of sarcastic and defiant tweets, in which she kept a running “truth vs. reality” scorecard that few comprehended. “I regret teaching Michelle how to use Twitter,” wrote Cheryl Renee, who quit as Shocked’s publicist in February due to a rift she declines to go into. “How does Michelle expect people to decode her cryptic way of communicating?”

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Maybe it wasn’t meant to be decrypted. In an interview with Spin.com the day after the S.F. concert, in which Shocked rebuffed a sympathetic interviewer’s repeated attempts to have her state plainly what her comments really meant, she at least cleared up some of the reasons for her obfuscation. Namely making it plain that, by refusing to give straight answers, she was taking her cues in crisis PR from no less a figure than Christ.

“Pilate tried putting Him in the hot seat, and He refused to say anything,” Shocked told writer Rob Trucks. Elizabeth Neubauer, her publicist at that moment, says she read that quote and did a mental face-palm. “There’s a difference between following Jesus Christ and deciding you’re going to behave like he behaved at trial,” Neubauer says.

More alarming was how the Spin.com interview wrapped with a moment of apparent paranoia. At her request, the Q&A was being conducted on iPhones via FaceTime, until she told Trucks that she could no longer hear his end of the conversation. “Mysteriously, your FaceTime has just gone silent,” Shocked informed him, “but I'm likely to believe that that's not an accident… I see your lips moving, but I know that they can easily dub in anything that they want.” (Trucks sounded shaken by the interview experience and would not discuss it on the record.)

The suspicion that technology could and would be used against her didn’t end there. Shocked agreed to be interviewed by old friend and progressive talk show host Nicole Sandler, but when the appointed hour arrived, Shocked said she wanted to listen to Sandler ask the questions over the air and she would tweet the answers back. With no one to talk with, Sandler began playing excerpts from the S.F. show, which enraged the singer. Eventually, Shocked tweeted that she would only do the interview if there were no delay -- and called up and counted to 20 seconds before she heard her voice returning over her computer, as if to prove the dialogue could be censored or manipulated in the interim. At the end of the hour, she called in again, briefly, to accuse her old pal of being a traitor. “You are exposed,” she sputtered.

The online radio personality is still trying to make sense of it all. “I feel sorry for her because I don’t think she meant the things she said, but she’s making it worse,” Sandler tells THR. “I tried to give her the opportunity, and instead she says, ‘I’m very busy. I’m creating content on Twitter.’ Seriously? No, you’re showing that there’s something off in your brain on Twitter. It’s hard to sit by and watch this because this woman is unraveling. I really think we’re seeing a complete mental breakdown.”

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Sandler said that even before the latest development, which found Shocked showing up at a canceled gig. She’d threatened to do a “speaking appearance” outside a darkened club in Santa Monica but changed plans on that one at the last minute and sang gospel for homeless people at a rescue mission in downtown L.A. instead. But Saturday, she made good on her vow to drive up to Moe’s in Santa Cruz. She entered the club through a side door during a sound check for one of the LGBT-centric bands booked to replace her. The club owner eventually ushered her outside, where their confrontation was filmed and put up on YouTube.

That YouTube footage is essentially a silent movie, since Shocked was communicating only via writing, having taken a three-day vow of silence to protest her First Amendment rights supposedly being revoked. She was obscured head to toe by a white jumpsuit, full-facial ski mask with tape reading “Silenced By Fear” over the mouth hole, and sunglasses. Most of the audience entering the club didn’t even recognize the controversial figure as she strummed her guitar outside the front door or notice the handwritten signs she’s put up bearing messages including: "Does speech scare you that much?" “Is it possible Michelle Shocked was a target of fear-mongering in the name of a protection racket?” “Is Michelle Shocked obligated to publicly state her personal view about Prop 8?” And the one sign the owner of Moe’s made her take down: “Scabs at work.”

Despite having had Shocked wave a “scabs” sign in his face inside the club, Vnes, a member of the band Frootie Flavors, came away with respect for Shocked. “I really thought her protest was great art. … I can’t relate to her views, but her stance was impressive. As a band that’s all about including everyone, it was sad that she was sitting all alone outside, excluded from the fantastic party within. A sweet moment was when Stu from Frootie Flavors brought her a bottle of water. And we all felt very protective of her and kept an eye out for anyone who might try to harass her [no one did]. You can’t fight hate with hate.”

Her guerrilla sit-in at Moe’s convinced plenty more people that she “needs help,” to use the two-word phrase most often invoked in opinions about Shocked right now. But the Santa Cruz stunt could just as easily be said to prove she’s really crazy like a fox -- for redirecting focus from her far-right religious beliefs toward performance-art-style antics, perhaps with the goal of rehabilitating her image as a self-described “radical skateboard punk-rock anarchist.”

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Shocked’s views on homosexuality and Christianity have been a source of intrigue and confusion among fans for years. In the week after the San Francisco show, amid all the non-answers, Shocked did respond to one fan with a surprising bit of clarification: “I'm neither against a woman's right to choose nor gay marriage. Am a fundamentalist tho.”

Among her other telling and/or confounding tweets over the last week (most of them since deleted): “I really really really really really really really really really really really love fags, so help me God.”… “I spoke my true feelings about gays and God. No amount of oppression will silence me!”… “My support for the gay community has never wavered.”… “Are you asking me to publicly declaim my personal, private decisions?”… “God loves gay people because Jesus did. God is Holy, but Jesus offered to atone for our sins.”…  “I meant that I was marketed and sold to an audience that was too narrow to contain my artistic ambitions.”… “Wish I understood better who I was marketed to and why. I wasn't included in those decisions.”… “The truth'll set you free. Can't remember him saying he hated anyone, certainly not fags.”…“I don't make it easy. Thanks for trying to understand.”… “I want my old job back!!!”

Understanding what Shocked meant to convey in San Francisco is next to impossible from these bon mots. The charitable view among some of her liberal fans is that Shocked hoped to preach a message of tolerance for her fellow evangelicals to largely gay audience… and that, as the audience began to bristle and rebel during her incendiary set-up, she became too confused to realize she never got to the peaceful punchline.

The less charitable view among former fans is that the embrace of old-time religion has driven one of their favorite singers batty. And however much she “loves fags,” Shocked has gone on record for years as saying homosexuality is sinful in the eyes of her urban Pentecostal church -- the predominantly black West Angeles Church of Christ in God, famous as a “church to the stars” like Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson, Stevie Wonder, and Angela Bassett. Last week, a fellow parishioner tweeted a message to Shocked encouraging her to keep focused on what their pastor said about, “Don't hate the homosexual, hate the sin.”

Her views have proven controversial in mainline and progressive Christian communities. A liberally oriented Christian website, Religion Dispatches, was on the scene when Shocked appeared in 2011 at North Carolina’s Wild Goose Festival, described as “an LGBT-friendly Christian cultural event.” The reporter described Shocked as “incensed” when an audience member asked for her stance on homosexuality. “Who drafted me as a gay icon? You are looking at the world’s greatest homophobe. Ask God what He thinks,” she reportedly said, before adding, off-microphone, “There is always someone who wants to catch me.”

In a 2007 interview with a Canadian Christian site, Shocked went into depth with her life story and current views. ““I’m a songwriter’s songwriter, but I’m not really a Christian’s Christian. And so to have stands, or points of view, or politics…it’s really not wise on my part,” she said, prophetically. The article described a recent “change of heart” when it came to her former criticism of traditional Christian views on homosexuality.

“When I first went to this church I heard [a visiting Evangelist] literally stand up there in the pulpit and say ‘In the Bible it says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ And no one laughed,” she told Canadianchristianity.com in 2008. “And I was like, ‘You’re joking, right? This is like a comedy sketch. You’re trying to show us how narrow-minded and bigoted people can be. You’re an African-American church. You know how people can be.’ And at that moment I had to make a decision; is this kind of thinking going to drive me away from my salvation… And so, eventually I approached my own Pastor with the question; ‘So, what about the gays?’ As a Pastor he said that he was obligated to preach what God says about it...

“That same Pastor did not shy away from pointing out my sin… The comfort that I have found now is that, as I’ve read the scriptures, it’s no greater of a sin to be a homosexual than to be a fornicator. It’s pretty clear that they’re both pretty much violations of what God’s vision for our lives are. So, what I do now is, I continue to fornicate, and pray feverishly.” Ultimately, Shocked said then, she would have to eventually marry her boyfriend to get right with God. “I don’t know where that leaves homosexuals, but I know for us fornicators, I’m working it out.”

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If this sounds like a recipe for Shocked to go into Christian music, where these views wouldn’t be out of place, keep in mind that she’s the kind of Pete Seeger-worshipping activist who got arrested at an Occupy rally not long ago. As a self-described anarchist whose sexual politics lean toward celibacy outside of marriage, Shocked may feel that all her convictions are of one piece, but she might have trouble finding any one constituency willing to accept all of them.

Some fellow performers believe that trying to reconcile these secular and religious beliefs finally drove Shocked to have a breakdown on stage. At the same time, the neck-craning curiosity is hard to deny.

“I have to say, with horror, that it’s fascinating to watch,” Sobule confesses. “You have to give it up that it’s a little entertaining! But in the end, beyond our fascination and entertainment, I hope she gets well.”

Brian Koppelman discovered Tracy Chapman when he did A&R for Elektra Records in the ‘80s; now he’s a writer-director whose screenplay credits include Ocean’s Eleven. After Shocked issued her open letter, he tweeted support for her. But because of what she’s said and done since, he wants to take back that forgiving statement.

“When I read her (initial) apology,” says Koppelman, “it echoed the artist who was always on the side of the disenfranchised, and as somebody who loved her music 20 years ago, I was hopeful the apology was genuine and she was misunderstood. I don’t feel that way now. I don’t think any of it was genuine. I think she’s mentally unstable and it’s very sad. All I am is a disillusioned and disheartened fan. I guess people forget crazy and brilliant are not mutually exclusive.”

Anyone thinking that Shocked needs to merely get on medication for mental health issues may have a long wait -- even though a representative for MusiCares was looking for contacts for the singer in the midst of all this to see if she needed the “help” some are suggesting. In the past Shocked has been an activist for NARPA, an organization dedicated to exposing abuses in psychiatry. She even wrote a lengthy autobiographical piece for their newsletter in 2004 about how she’d been institutionalized in her early 20s and misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. That experience, she wrote, left scars that she tried to deal with via alcohol before finding God in the late ‘90s.

Neubauer, her best friend until two weeks ago, thinks Shocked is troubled and in denial about what’s happening to her career but is not actually mentally ill. “She's an open tinfoil hat wearer. She will completely admit that, with glee,” she says. “People have crazy phobias and odd thoughts and dark sides. I mean, I have another friend who has a phobia about being in a room with melted cheese. So I'm past judging. She has some serious paranoia, and I've spent much time ‘talking her out off tree,’ which is what she and I have always called it. My husband calls me the Shocked Whisperer.”

Still, Neubauer defends her friend’s ultimate sanity. “[Michelle] has image control issues and distrust that resulted from her view of what happened with her first release. That clearly has overshadowed how she proceeded with her entire career… Paranoid? Yes. Denial? Yes. And desperate? She's just publicly lost her job in a way she thinks was completely unjust. Wouldn't you be? But she's not crazy. She's eccentric. She's spontaneous. She sees the world through her own glasses. But crazy? No. I do not like folks jumping to the mentally ill conclusion. It seems to try to absolve her of responsibility.”

Typically when artists get called “nuts,” it’s outsiders to the musical community making that judgment call, but in Shocked’s case, there are some fellow singer-songwriters willing to make it.

“I think she’s mentally ill,” says Laura Love, another folk singer-songwriter. “I’ve run into her a few times over the years, and every time she seems a little bit more lightly tethered to this earth. … I think of her as I would a sick friend or relative. You just love them and hope that they can find the light.”

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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