It is now over a quester of a century since I first encountered Michelle Shocked, an event that changed my life. The first meeting – or series of meetings, over the course of a week at Kerrville Folk Festival, East Texas – sticks in my mind more than most. The festival, a three week epic showcasing of that much-maligned breed, the singer-songwriter, had been recommended to me by maverick wordsmith and sculptor Terry Allen, best known for his collaborations with David Byrne and ‘New Delhi Freight Train’ which was recorded by Little Feat. After a thirty-hour journey trekking down through the Deep South by Greyhound bus from North Carolina I felt like I had arrived in a parallel universe, never mind a different world, on what was the first of many visits Stateside.
Inhabited by bear-hugging bearded banjo pickers and up and coming hopefuls (my tent was next to one of them, a certain Mary Chapin-Carpenter) Kerrville is unique, at least viewed in the context of European music festivals. Run by a man called Rod Kennedy on his own Quiet Valley Ranch in the greenest hill region of east Texas, two hours’ drive from San Antonio, it seemed like a kind of songwriters’ and storytellers’ convention. The weekends revolved around main stage concerts by Texan artists like Nanci Griffith, and its night time hours during the week days (when the weekenders had returned to the city) centred around numerous campfires. They attracted some of the finest folk and country instrumentalists and storytellers, each moving from session to session as they circulated between the campfires in search of the ultimate jam. I had not seen this sort of campfire culture before and my first night was a revelation.
It must have been around four in the morning, with twilight in the air, that a waifish woman in ripped jeans with jet-black hair and a violin appeared around a communal campfire and started joining in. No one seemed to give her much time or recognition, and talking to others around the site about her over the next few days my enthusiasms were met with, at best, the sort of elusive nonchalance that could only suggest that “she isn’t one of us”. But it was her unique presence, attitude and voice that stood her apart from the long haired, booted Texans, a sharp punk arrogance and a slightly unhinged energy about her. I strongly suspected on first meeting that she was trouble, but despite that, I persisted.
The next few days turned into a quest to find her in full musical stride – something that was likely to happen at any time, anywhere on the site. I learned that her name was Michelle Shocked and caught her playing another two times, including one single song performance as someone’s guest on the main stage in front of a hundred or so people. I became transfixed. On my final night there, I decided it was time to make conversation. She was walking across the site and I caught up with her and engaged her in some stilted conversation for ten minutes or so. I realised then that troubled waters were no stranger to her – a broken home; housing problems; the fact that her demo to the festival had been conveniently “lost in the post”; the contradictions in her own sexuality; the LSD use; the political activism. It was as if she immediately opened up her heart, but did so with a warning: “what you’ll see ain’t necessarily pretty”. It was as if, for her, every situation was a political challenge. Every word, every action, was analysed. Woe betide if you put a foot wrong. Michelle seemed to fall out with pretty much everyone she worked with and seemed very single-minded about getting her own way.
It was the third and final week of a very eventful trip around the States. I had been recording a travelogue tape for my own reference on an old Sony Corder, kindly lent to me by my friend Dave Roberts, which his father, as it was surplus to secretarial requirements, had in turn given him. It was a precursor to the newly arrived and much slicker Sony Walkman which I couldn’t yet afford, so I used this and the crap standard issue grey plastic microphone it came with on my travels to capture some live performances. I showed Michelle the machine, which made her laugh, and then asked her if I could record a couple of her songs. She seemed quite flattered by this, and we agreed to meet later on that evening.
That meeting and the subsequent recording was one of those watershed moments that no one could have scripted. Its significance only really became apparent in years to come, with much water under the bridge, and not inconsiderable heartache surrounding its impact. The two of us decided to go and find a quiet corner of the site for the recording, eventually settling on the dying embers of a campfire location that I hadn’t yet discovered during my stay on the ranch. I dumped the recorder on a log that had been used as a table, pressed record and took advantage of a nearby hammock to relax as I listened. Michelle played a couple of songs – ‘5am in Amsterdam’ and ‘The Secret Admirer’ – and then just carried on. The only breaks were when a car ventured down the lane next to where we were and reversed, causing her to lose momentum, and then to turn the cassette tape over after 45 minutes. I swayed in the hammock; listening intently to what was the most personal performance I’d ever had the pleasure of receiving. The embers of the campfire crackled and the cicadas chirped rhythmically in unison in the balmy Texan night. After an hour or so, she finished off with a Paul Simon tune and one by Leadbelly, and then made her excuses and left. I packed away the tape in my rucksack and went back to my tent to get set for moving on to Luckenbach and Austin the next day.
My 'kit' for the campfire recording. A clunky secretarial cast-off called a Sony Corder, a standard issue microphone and a Maxell C90
It wasn’t until a week or so after returning to the UK that I listened to the cassette. My good friends Stuart and Celia Todd – the couple who had given me a £10,000 loan to start Cooking Vinyl – had moved up to the Hebridean island of Islay and invited Andy Kershaw and myself up to DJ in a local village hall as part of the summer festival for which Stuart had been a major organiser. Stuart had already spoken to Andy and gone ahead and booked our air tickets from London to Glasgow, with a Thursday shuttle across to Islay. It was only on the week of our trip that Andy realised that he wouldn’t be able to go on Thursday as he had to do his radio show live, so the tickets were duly changed. At 11pm on the Thursday, when we originally we were scheduled to be in transit, I had a call at home from Andy from the BBC, mid-show. He had just heard the news on the network: the light aircraft flying from Glasgow to Islay had hit a mountain and crashed. That was the plane we had originally been booked on. I later heard that most of the passengers had survived without injury, but the pilot had sadly been decapitated.
The trip up there the next day involved Andy and I trying our level best to keep this news from Anna, his girlfriend at the time, who was a very nervous flyer. I had to stand between her and many Scots at Glasgow airport reading the front-page news with interest. When we eventually touched down at the small island airport, teeming with police, the truth was finally told.
It was a relief to get there safe and sound, and the night was a roaring success. I remember many high-spirited islanders forming a very long conga dance, and moving in and out of the hall and around the back to some soukous track that Andy had put on. But it was over breakfast eggs the next morning that circumstances truly intervened. The music on the system finished and Stuart asked if either of us had something to play. Andy looked at me and I thought of the cassette, which I still hadn’t played or unpacked from my rucksack. I put it on. I was immediately transported back into the Texan night ambience: the sound of the cicadas was vivid and the perfect backdrop for an intimate encounter with Michelle, who sounded as if she was almost whispering her songs, with cheery introductions to the tracks. That first playback was a revelation – not just for me, but clearly for Andy, Stuart and Celia too. Andy was silent for a few minutes and then said, “Pete, I’d like to put this out as a session on my programme.”
So upon my return to the drab flat I was renting in London N4's Haringey Ladder, I managed, by coincidence and chance, to track down Shocked (aka Michelle Karen Johnston) to a squat in Manhattan and she readily agreed to give permission. A few weeks later, the four-track session went out live and Andy called me mid-programme to say that he’d never had such an overwhelmingly positive and immediate response. He was the one who convinced me to release the tapes as an album. My new partner at the label had come on board the night before I left for the States – his name was Martin Goldschmidt, a London agent and small label owner (Forward Sounds) – but he was lukewarm about the tapes’ prospects, seeing it as a “nice little side project”. In November 1986, after a minimal two hours of editing and cleaning up the cassette recording just around the corner from my house with Tony Engle at Topic Studios on Stroud Green Road, it was released as a no-frills, vinyl-only album called ‘The Texas Campfire Tapes’ on Cooking Vinyl COOK 002.
The above is an extract from my forthcoming book. Not for reproduction without permission >>>
Michelle and I at The Town and Country Club, Kentish Town, London. English Roots Against Apartheid benefit, January 1987