Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Come a Long Way by Michelle Shocked

Written and performed by Michelle Shocked. The song originally appeared on the album Arkansas Traveler. You can listen to the studio version here in a funky video. You can buy the song from iTunes here and the album here.

Floating on an irresistible melody and a pulsing rhythm section, “Come a Long Way” uses a Los Angeles travelogue to tell the story of a girl falling in so far in love that’s she’s afraid of losing herself.  That helpless feeling of love moprhs into anger as she storms away from her man and kick starts the tale:

Kicked in his door at 5 AM
“I’ve come for my bike,” I told the repo man
My 920’s gonna take me far today

She had the bike taken away – thus the repo man – but now wants it back, wants to reclaim her freedom. She takes flight through the barrios and sparkling neighborhoods of L.A., running from a love that she can’t deny. And what joy she finds in her journey.

I drive by the Plaza where the gay boys pose
Stand in their windows wearing no clothes
I heard the screams of the dying dark
Through the sweet green icing of MacArthur Park
And then I crossed the river into East L.A.
Pescado mojado me encontre
And I’ve given up on rock ‘n roll
And I’m saving up for norteno
The river she runs by the railroad tracks
I swear I’ll never take it back
A train, she cries on the midnight hour
All along the Watts Tower
Ohhhhhhhhhhh

Shocked does more than name check the sights, does more than experience them, she conveys the sheer excitement of life teeming in the city that opens before her. Think Whitman and his visions of America or Galway Kinnell on the avenue bearing Christ’s initial. What fun she has? Of course she references Jimmy Webb’s song when sailing past MacArthur Park (is the sweet green icing the cake left out in the rain?). She’s willing to leave behind what was hers – rock roll – to play the Mexican music (norteno) she hears in the street. Yet no matter how far she travels through Los Angeles – which may as well be the whole wide world – she can’t get away from the love that she fears.

 I gunned it down to San Pedro Bay
Watched my ship sail in, watched her sail away
The sun was sinking into the sea
But a ball of fire inside of me
Was burning my motor and driving me hard
Past the big hair on the Boulevard
And up Mulholland where I made the scene
Like the one that took little Jimmy Dean
And then I shimmied up Wilshire like a little silk worm
Past the rodeo and the pachyderm
And then I stopped for coffee at an art cafe
I saw the repo man and made my getaway
Doing the Eagle Rock
Heading for the hills
Oh try to let my engines cool
And it is not my fault that this town shakes
I saw the falling rock and I hit my brakes 

The love burns inside her (“burning my motor and driving me hard”) and later she heads for the hills to “try to let my engines cool.” Whole loves pass on her now epic journey (“Watched my ship sail in, watched her sail away”). She discovers that this whole world rocks with the love she’s fleeing. It’s not her fault the town shakes and the rocks come tumbling down.

 She reaches the end of her journey when our heroine accepts the love and is willing to give up the bike.

 Now you tow it to the repo man’s front door
And you give him these keys, I don’t need them no more
You tow it to the repo man’s front door
And you give him these keys, I don’t need them no more 

She’s explored all of L.A. and found it’s big enough for the whole world, big enough for all that lives inside her, big enough to hold her love.

 I’ve come along way
And never even left L.A.

There is no defeat here, no resignation. She sings those lines with great gusto, relishing the world that vibrates with love. It’s not an either or choice, not a choice between love and self. She’s not giving up Los Angeles or the world. There is no choice: she’s falling in love and the world doesn’t collapse, it shimmers.

I’ve got a soft spot for Michelle Shocked going back to the first time I saw her perform. It was probably 1988, just before Shocked released her first album, Short Sharp Shocked. My bride and I trucked down to CBGB’s to catch the Mekons (now that’s a rock and roll band) and got there early enough to hear some of the opening acts. Out steps Michelle Shocked, the perfect embodiment of a punk-folk queen, telling tales of East Texas and stunning us with “Anchorage” (another song sailing on a melody and unabashed enthusiasm).  She closed that night with a performance of Steve Goodman’s “Ballad of Penny Evans,” which even in memory’s hearing leaves me with chills.

 Ani DiFranco rightfully earns kudos for her blaze of energy and productivity, but Michelle Shocked deserves similar praise for the breadth and depth of her songs and performances. She takes risks and keeps trailing her muse. It’s a trail worth following. You can catch up with the latest from Michelle Shocked at her website.

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