NEW YORK — It’s 1:30 a.m., and Michelle Shocked rocks a Rick Owens jacket while spellbound at the foot of a rinky-dink stage in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Texas drag artist Christeene Vale, who recently collaborated with Owens for a music video so sexually provocative it’d make Madonna blush, plows through a wicked performance that violates every measure of decorum.
Shocked, the Dallas-born Grammy winner and three-time nominee, inhales every NSFW gesture.
But when Christeene (a.k.a. Paul Soileau) notices a field of glowing mobile touchscreens recording her show, Christeene becomes incensed and screams at her audience, “Turn! Off! Your! Phones! [gay slur]!”
For a split-second, Shocked is stunned.
It’s as if Christeene’s snarling demand was dropped from the heavens — like an homage to a well-publicized incident in Shocked’s own past.
Shocked pumps her fist, belts out a mighty, “Whoop!” and smiles with vindication.
Shocked, 55, has not played Dallas for more than five years. That changes Sunday night, when she will face her hometown fans for the first time since the incident.
On St. Patrick’s Day 2013, Shocked’s career suffered a harsh, almost unrecoverable nosedive when she performed at Yoshi’s, a San Francisco jazz club.
Her gig was framed in two neatly titled sets: “Truth” followed by “Reality.”
During the “Reality” portion, things got real.
Using Twitter, Shocked skimmed her audience’s song requests. One tweet suggested gospel music, which inspired Shocked to deliver a brief sermon about her Christian faith.
And then Shocked deliberately launched what she now calls her “epic exploit.”
Shocked said, “God hates [a gay slur].”
She describes her “exploit” as exaggerated satire.
Did people laugh?
“Yes!” she insists.
But after that verbal bomb, Shocked admits that she overestimated the audience’s ability for understanding. “I mean, I knew it would work. I just didn’t realize that it would work so well.”
It worked so extraordinarily well that, before you could say “hate speech,” Shocked’s remaining tour dates collapsed.
However, hardly anyone noticed how Shocked teed up that slur.
Most of the report on the Yoshi’s show referenced a 2008 interview when Shocked unhappily confessed that her new-found Christianity defined same-sex love as immoral.
Shocked accepted a Piers Morgan CNN interview invitation to explain her contradictory actions. In hindsight, a nine-minute televised segment wasn’t Shocked’s best damage-control solution.
During the rocky exchange, Shocked sincerely expressed that she’s not homophobic and said the Yoshi’s slur was “a mistake.” But she also told Morgan that her show “was supposed to be live — not recorded.”
As Morgan attempted to wrap the interview, Shocked recited an obscure couplet:
The apple tree’s got some strange fruit / Even Adam would not try
But human nature is living proof / Beauty is in the beholder’s eye
Unless it’s an inauguration, live television is a cruel venue for poetry. Shocked left viewers with an impression that was stranger than her “strange fruit” reference.
That televised confrontation was a low point, especially compared to her previous on-camera high, the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards, when Shocked was nominated alongside both Madonna and Sinéad O’Connor for “On the Greener Side,” Shocked’s dynamically clever feminist spoof of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video.
Shocked’s work often made statements. Her 2002 song “Peachfuzz” is a down-home funky jam about a gay childhood pal who makes out with another boy at a nightclub. In the song’s second stanza, Shocked cleverly couches the British slang usage of “fags” (cigarettes) between other references to cigarettes and playing with matches.
Coincidentally, the “strange fruit” lines recited on CNN are the last lyrics to “Peachfuzz.”
Shocked was born at Baylor Hospital, but grew up “dirt poor” in Gilmer, Texas. (She would later make up the stage name and insists, contrary to myth, it is not a nod to her receiving electro-convulsive therapy.)
Her family lived in a vacant Mormon facility that had a ceiling tall enough to safely accommodate an indoor trampoline.
“That trampoline was awesome,” Shocked remembers.
When Shocked hears the question, “What does the word ‘gracious’ mean?” her face lights up — like she just enjoyed an awesome trampoline bounce.
Before casting any stones, Shocked believes her entire controversial quote from that infamous night in San Francisco should be examined.
Like “manufactured reality” — now associated with genres of so-called unscripted TV — in lieu of simply saying the slur, Shocked instead baits her audience to tweet the inflammatory remark.
“If someone would be so gracious as to please tweet out, ‘Michelle Shocked just said from stage, ‘God hates [gay slur],’ Would you do it now?”
“I said ‘gracious’ with every ounce of snide insincerity I could muster,” she explains now.
She re-enacts the entire quote with her arms pompously raised to her sternum while her hands are clasped in a yin-yang gesture.
Did she lift that hammy pose from a bygone operetta?
“It’s from The Little Rascals, man,” Shocked laughs. “From the ‘Arbor Day’ episode.”
What a silly gesture to accompany so-called hate speech.
“By the way,” she says over a plate of poached octopus at a tapas bar around the corner from her Chelsea apartment, ” ‘Grace’ means ‘God’s unmerited favor.'”
So why did Shocked deliberately implode her career by hurling a hateful slur?
First, she was certain that the show was being pirated, which it was.
Second, because she was livid over the now-common practice of “smartphone zombies” recording and uploading her live shows without consent.
Shocked intensely believes that digital-song services are why recording careers now go largely unpaid.
“I’m not sacrificing myself to the gods of the freemium-entertainment altar,” she vows.
Shocked says she is credited as the only artist who owns their entire major-label catalog. Achieving that honor harkens back to 1986, at Texas’ Kerrville Folk Festival.
Kerrville didn’t invite Shocked to perform.
“I volunteered for trash duty. And I got fired,” she shrugs. “Volunteers were fed and we camped in tents. For me, Kerrville wasn’t about main-stage performances. I went for the late-night campfire picking sessions.”
With a lo-fi recorder, British journalist Pete Lawrence was an audience of one who captured Shocked’s guitar virtuosity, twangy troubadour expressiveness and vivid, Woody Guthrie-like lyricism.
That field recording — or “bootleg,” as Shocked describes it — was released in Europe as The Texas Campfire Tapes, which climbed the alternative charts.
Shocked insists she never consented to the album’s release.
“They made sure to send me a standard cover-their-butts letter,” she remembers.
Overnight, she became a hit-making folk heroine. AndShocked says, that’s when the major label “sharks began circling.”
But the Kerrville field recordings made her wise.
She learned that most music-publishing careers (such as those of Alan Lomax, former director of the Library of Congress, and Ralph Peer of RCA-Victor) were built on regional recordings engineered in rural areas. And when it came to copyrights — from sheet music to phonographs to entire musical catalogs — Lomax and Peer reaped the advantages from unsuspecting artists who were either black or considered hillbillies.
While Shocked rose through the chanteuse ranks, Lone Star songstress Nanci Griffith issued her some savvy “take that to the bank” wisdom.
“Nanci said, ‘Keep your publishing rights,'” Shocked remembers. “After considering it, I wanted everything.”
“Everything” meant also controlling ownership of her master tapes, which Shocked negotiated — along with a three-album Mercury Records contract.
Smartphone technology and file-sharing have eroded what Shocked so intensely fought to preserve: control of her “tapes.”
Shocked maintains a reputation for impressively engaging live shows. But her smartphone-armed audiences couldn’t resist posting bootlegs. And Shocked says her YouTube infringement claims achieve erratic and infuriating results.
Shocked laughs when teased that she could out-argue a Supreme Court justice over intellectual property protections and how Google often violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
She also passionately describes how cultural content has now fostered a moblike mentality — especially on Twitter and Facebook.
Online commenters — Shocked calls them “gnats” — make harsh accusations that her Christian faith combined with her handsome, almost androgynous beauty have somehow destined her into being an ashamed closet case who’s too weak to face the truth.
Shocked is no wimp.
She’s a single divorcée. Her lyrics often reflect a die-hard romantic who’s nursing a broken heart. And while sizing up new companions, she mentions that a willing dance partner would be an ideal boyfriend.
At times, she possesses a tough-as-a-tomboy demeanor but insists she isn’t a closeted lesbian.
She is, however, a risk-taker who says David and Goliath is her favorite biblical narrative.
By the time the Yoshi’s gig rolled around, Shocked wanted to challenge the online mob’s tipping point. Like yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, she baited her Yoshi’s audience into a perfect storm, deliberately hatching a viral-media rebellion in America’s most progressive gay-affirming capital.
Did it work?
The 23-minute Yoshi’s bootleg was uploaded to SoundCloud, courtesy of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. It is an electrifying performance that contains Shocked speaking and performing two original songs. The clip is also on YouTube.
Shocked shares a decision issued to her in May by the YouTube Legal Support Team. The decision states that Shocked’s complaint regarding the unauthorized recordings of her original compositions “is not valid” and will remain on YouTube.
“This means war,” Shocked vows and promises that her David-like battle against Google and YouTube is far from over.
The Yoshi’s incident resulted in Shocked being blacklisted. Venues weren’t ready to put her name on a marquee — until this year.
On Monday, she inaugurated a three-month, four-city (New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Nashville) residency with City Winery, a respected dinner-and-drinks chain known for showcasing intimate concerts with musical legends.
However, Shocked is not performing solo.
She has reunited with Pete Anderson, the six-string guitar god who produced and helped define not only Shocked’s recording career but also Dwight Yoakam’s superstar success.
Shocked and Anderson’s band make a stop in Texas Sunday night at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff.
What should Dallas expect?
In some ways, a return to her musical roots. Shocked recently came across video of her first national TV appearance, which was aired on Late Night with David Letterman. Shocked and Anderson jammed with Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band.
That performance of If Love Was a Train is so in-the-pocket solid — part Elvis and all blues — that it began a lengthy friendship between Letterman and Shocked. She appeared on Letterman — both on NBC and CBS — “at least a dozen times,” she remembers.
Her Kessler gig means that she’ll be close to her family.
“And we’re planning to blow Dallas’ hair back,” she says.
Shocked has always forged her own path. And she refuses to apologize for overestimating her audiences’ ability to comprehend her “epic exploit” regarding pirating her shows.
She sees someone else who misjudged her audience’s reaction: Kathy Griffin, in that recent predicament where the comedian held up a Donald Trump-style mask styled to look like the decapitated, bloody head of the president.
“In the making-of video, Kathy jokes to the photographer, ‘You know, we’re going to move to Mexico because they’re going to put me in jail,’ ” Shocked says.
In the Yoshi’s bootleg, after Shocked drops that bomb, she performs her song “Wanted Man” — about a guy she meets in Mexico and discovers he’s on the lam to avoid a court date.
Will she perform “Wanted Man” in Dallas?
“You know what?” Shocked says. “I just might.”
Editor’s note: Daniel Kusner is a freelance writer based in Dallas and New York.