By WALLACE BAINE
For a woman who named herself “Shocked,” and who has, for more than 25 years, used rebellion and confrontation as her artistic muse, what happened last night at Moe’s Alley should not come as a shock.
Still, Michelle Shocked’s impromptu artistic protest outside Moe’s was one of the strangest things to happen on the local live music scene in years. Two weeks ago, Shocked brought down the ire of millions on herself with inflammatory anti-gay sentiments uttered
on stage at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. When Moe’s Alley later cancelled her appearance there — as many clubs did — she decided to show up anyway on Thursday night.
What followed was an unsettling and provocative form of performance art that became a national news story.
Vnes Ely, a performer who calls herself Vnes of Santa Cruz, was at the center of the storm on Thursday night. After cancelling Shocked, Moe’s booked two gay-friendly bands — Eager Beaver and Frootie Flavors — and Vnes served as emcee, as well as playing in Frootie Flavors. The show was called “Short, Sharp and Proud,” a play on Shocked’s most popular album, the 1998 hit “Short, Sharp and Shocked.”
“It was pretty amazing,” said Vnes (pronounced “Venus”) of the events leading up to the show. She was loading into the back area at Moe’s about two hours before showtime. Someone had confirmed that Shocked was in town — earlier, she had Tweeted that she would come to Santa Cruz.
“And suddenly she’s coming in the side door, and she’s on stage,” said Vnes. Shocked was wearing a thin white cover-all suit with a head covering, tape over her mouth and sunglasses. “She was waving this tablet around and she wanted to communicate. You could tell she was kind of frustrated.”
Vnes, Moe’s owner Bill Welch and co-producer Michael Horne of Pulse Productions were discussing how they might respond if Shocked showed when she quietly walked in the side.
“We were talking,” said Horne, “about how we could make this a positive thing, how we could push forward the dialogue, considering all that was happening with Prop. 8 and the Supreme Court. There was an openness at the beginning of engaging her in some way, as a way to elevate the situation.”
While Shocked’s appearance at Moe’s wasn’t a big surprise, her presentation certainly was. “It was kind of creepy,” said Horne, who has booked Shocked in local venues going back 15 years or more. “She was just writing frantically, trying to communication, jumping up and down. It really caught us off guard.”
Shocked had Tweeted that she was taking a vow of silence. In light of the bizarre performance art, Welch, who has known Shocked for years, let it be known to her that she would not be performing and ushered her outside. To the performers, Shocked held up her tablet and wrote on it “Leader?,” asking to speak of the leader of the band, and also “Compromise?”
“I just silently shook my head,” said Vnes, “and you could tell she was getting really exasperated. She wanted people to draw or write on her suit with a Sharpie, but she wasn’t quite getting that across. We were all completely stunned.”
Shocked then camped out in front of Moe’s for the next couple of hours, strumming chords on her guitar and putting up cryptically worded signs protesting the cancellation of her show. Many who showed up for the “Short, Sharp and Proud” show did not realize that the disguised person sitting on the ground playing guitar outside was, in fact, Michelle Shocked.
“People just thought, ‘Oh just another Santa Cruz weirdo,’”said Vnes, who said that her band had planned to do a Michelle Shocked song, but scrapped it when she showed up.
“Once inside,” said Horne, “then people sort of figured it out, and they would go meander out to see her. Some sat down and talked to her.”
Shocked did not break her verbal silence. Shortly before the second band began to play, somewhere around 9 p.m., she quietly packed up and slipped away. On Twitter, she has indicated that she’ll go Friday to the Hopmunk Tavern in Novato, a club that also cancelled a scheduled concert.
Vnes is one of the Santa Cruz queer community’s most visible personalities and activists and thus was logically a target of Shocked’s anti-gay screed. But, she said, she had compassion for the spot Shocked had put herself in, and respect for her artistic integrity.
“Look, I’m a fan of her music. I really enjoyed listening her play those songs that I love. (Shocked’s protest) was really brilliant in its own twisted way. I was impressed. Her creative genius cannot be denied. I just found the whole situation very sad, the way it has caused the disintegration of her career. I wish her well.”
Shocked had done something similar before in Santa Cruz. In the late 1990s, a local show of hers was cancelled because of a dispute with a club. Shocked showed up the night of the cancelled show and performed on Pacific Avenue as a busker.
Michael Horne has been producing shows and bringing in national-name artists for 30 years. “This was definitely one of the most twisted things I’ve seen,” he said.
Still, he said, if she had approached them differently, Shocked might have been able to have her performance piece and make headway toward communication and reconciliation with her shattered fan base.
“I kind of view it as a lost opportunity,” said Horne. “If she had come to us and said, ‘Hey, I want to do this performance-art piece,’ we would have been open to that and things might have turned out differently. But as it was, it was just weird and creepy.”