Articles and Commentary
NEWS and WORLD REPORT:: (5/25/98)
Record company boss Miles Copeland recently invited nearly 100 songwriters to his chateau in the South of France for two weeks of music, foie gras, and fellowship.
When songwriter pat mAcdonald showed up for the annual event, he was asked the same old question: Why in the name of Elvis Presley won’t he let his songs be used in television commercials?
DEPRESSION MAG, ARTICLE:
Twenty-odd years and a thousand songs ago pat mAcdonald got the shit kicked out of him by members of the Green Bay West High School football team. mAcdonald wore his hair long and in those days, particularly within three miles of the hallowed ground that is Lambeau Field, that just didn't fly. The football coach himself, soon to be principal, ordered the hit on the rangy, teenaged musician.
The attack happened just as mAcdonald was getting expelled for his hair. Long haired rockers were getting beat up all over the country in 1969. What makes mAcdonald's whupping different is that Bob and Elaine MacDonald sued the Green Bay Public Schools, holding them liable for the coach's instructions and the players' actions, and took their case all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The phone started ringing almost immediately after the lawsuit was filed. You just didn't target the high school football coach in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Neighbors, former friends, and strangers called to let them know it.
Smilin' Bob MacDonald, a loyal member of the community and journeyman engineer at the Charmin paper mill, became a pariah overnight. mAcdonald vs. the Green Bay Board of Education was settled before the high court ruled. Attorneys drafted a settlement awarding the family a million dollars. Bob MacDonald turned it down. Instead, he asked for $1,500, a sum sufficient to cover his legal expenses and travel. And he asked that his son be allowed back in school."They didn't want people to think they did it for the money," remembers Christie MacDonald Weber, pat's sister."They were saying, in their own way, 'we won't sell out.'"
Today Weber believes their parents' actions are directly tied to her brother's reputation for turning away millions of commercial dollars for his songs, including Timbuk3's camera ready 1986 hit "The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)"."So many musicians write pat off as a whack job for turning his back on those millions," says Weber. "But many of those same people know deep down music sales are abused by corporations."
These days the troubadour of stomped is the Troubadour Of Stomp, the name of his new solo CD, a dozen brazen new songs packed with mAcdonald's lusty, low-end guitars, stormy harmonica and falsetto singing. Oh. And some of the best word play in American music. " Someone said a good song reveals stuff you don't want others to know about you," mAcdonald says over afternoon eggs last October, 2006 at the Pudgy Seagull in downtown Sturgeon Bay,Wisconsin.
mAcdonald writes like a trickster, and he looks like one, too. As we talk his craggy face appears briefly and then dashes behind a curtain of auburn hair. He looks at you like you're an idea, albeit a good one, rather than a person sharing a late lunch.
And then there's his speech pattern. Talking with mAcdonald is like dialing in a signal on a ham radio. The listener has to resist the urge to reach across the table and bang the radio on the head to establish transmission. Long time mAcdonald friend and collaborator Jackson Browne described this phenomenon best: "You have to actually slow down and sort of get on his wavelength and time. He starts. He starts over again. He repeats part of what he said and then, 'yeah, uht, uht, uht...'' and then he lunges headlong into this amazing thought. In that regard he's like a jazz soloist. He plays with words. He's always playing."
And he's always writing. mAcdonald figures he's written a thousand songs. "These days I get better and better at rejecting songs that aren't working, which is good because lots of them are crappy." He sips his juice and shoots a mischievous smile. "A miscarriage of poetic justice."
The day we met, mAcdonald loaded his one-man rock band into the side door of the Osthelder Saloon, a shotgun tavern in the heart of downtown Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. Live, mAcdonald gets a maximum sound with a minimalist setup, and this crowd of 40 was about to get their ears waxed.
Troubadour Of Stomp is driven, and driven hard by mAcdonald's left foot. Clad in a custom made black Spanish boot, the musician stomps a quarter-inch piece of plywood with a kick-drum mike for a pick-up. When he first explained it to me I thought of John Hartford's kick board. But that's like comparing a Ford Taurus to an Alpha Romeo. "I always stomped anyway," mAcdonald says. "The stomp board turns something that once disturbed the downstairs neighbors into something that anchors and drives my music."
He first experimented with stomp in Spain during his expatriate post-Austin years in the 1990s. He had broken up with first wife and Timbuk3 partner Barbara K. Heck, he'd broken up with the whole city of Austin. Jackson Browne loaned him the use of his Barcelona apartment where another songwriting binge commenced. I asked him what a musician could do in Barcelona that he couldn't in Austin or Madison. "Date Spanish girls," he told me.
"Aside from being one of the great lyricists in the English language, he is a totally unique voice," Browne said, calling from LA."I saw him play a little gig in a Spanish bar in the Pyrenees. These people had no way of knowing how good the lyrics were because they didn't speak any English at all. He got going with his stomp board and playing his guitar and it was just so hip. It was so driving that they just turned on the strobe light and started dancing."
It's been a long trip home from the Pyrenees to the Osthelder Saloon in Sheboygan. But here he is. It's hard to overstate the influence family has had on mAcdonald because it's not clear if pat sees the connections himself. He does admit, however, that he's back in Wisconsin partly because "I've finally grown used to my family."
When he was growing up, his mother played guitar and sang harmony on Hank Williams songs with his dad. They didn't sing much after the '69 lawsuit. It caused the MacDonalds to take flight from Green Bay. Bob and Elaine bought the Bayside Inn, a tavern in Fish Creek, just up the highway from Sturgeon Bay, and are barkeeps there to this day.
mAcdonald ran away from home twice before he was out of high school. First to Colorado, then to Nebraska, where he gave police a false name, lied about his age and was thrown in jail for vagrancy. Elaine MacDonald not only tracked him down, but guessed the name he used as an alias in order to verify his lockup and post bail.
Then came Madison. The city fit mAcdonald to a tee. You could find Pat MacDonald & the Essentials in Madison in the late '70s every weekend and never see the same show twice. Madison was his muse, a fertile base for a prolific songwriting stretch. It was here, too, that he met a UW student named Barbara Kooyman. She took up the violin and began performing with pAt. The two fell in love with the music they were making and then with each other.
The couple moved to Austin, where their literate songs with the wag-ass beat granted them instant scenester status. Timbuk3 used a boombox on stage long before samples, loops and beatboxes appeared.
Alas, "The Future's So Bright" was ironically named. The wave of attention that came with it was a wave that swept Timbuk3 from the dingy floor of Austin's Hole in the Wall club and lifted them to the stage of television's Austin City Limits and Saturday Night Live. The intensity of that much success, that quickly, changes things. It was the end of mAcdonald and Barbara K.
While he takes his explosive solo shows to clubs all over the country, it's the paradox of pat mAcdonald that most of his post-Timbuk3 recordings remain unavailable in the U.S. I had to obtain two relatively recent pat mAcdonald discs from mAcdonald himself. Both produced by John Parish (yes, PJ Harvey's collaborator) and built in Spain, 2001's Degrees Of Gone, which features lush orchestral support from the Inchtabokatables, and 1999's Begging Her Graces. (Not to mention an entire album of Depeche Mode covers called Strange Love - PM Does DM.).
In the meantime, mAcdonald will continue to play small clubs and write. He'll also continue to turn away commercial offers for his music. Though "The Future" is now in the past, the raw nerve of mAcdonald's indifference to commercial success is still just below the surface for people like Miles Copeland who managed Timbuk3 in its Austin City Limits/Saturday Night Live-playing hey day.
"I turned down almost $3-million on his wishes to not 'sell out,' even though I had the legal right to license the song," Copeland told me. "pat was always one of the nicest people I worked with and he did have integrity to match his talent. But he was an 'art monster' in the full meaning of the word which would have been fine had we all been making a living from all our efforts."
Even Copeland still carries deep respect for him."I could always count on pat to write great lyrics, and in fact I'm considering hiring him again to put English words to some great Arab melodies I have. Hopefully he will be up for it."
I asked pat what his view of fame was. "From what I've seen of it, it means people treat you special, which means you get the kind of respect and consideration everyone deserves but so few get. Everybody wants to be known and loved in their community. Life is better that way. Anonymity is only a luxury to those who can afford to not give a shit."
Excerpt From Innerviews - A Chat With pat
Tell me about Space Kitty Blues, the novel you’re working on.
You’ve followed a staunchly uncommercial path, yet you’ve written songs for some of the most commercial artists around like Cher, Night Ranger and Peter Frampton. How do you reconcile that?
Given your dissatisfying experiences with Miles Copeland during the Timbuk3 days, why did you choose to release your first solo album (Pat Macdonald Sleeps With His Guitar) on his Ark21 label?
CLICK HERE to read an April, 2007 Guitar Player magazine article about pAt by Anil Prasad