MacDonald conquered Madison with the Essentials.
Thirty-nine 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 had committed the crime of wearing his hair long, and in those days, particularly within three miles of the sanctuary called 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 being expelled for his hair.
Long-haired rockers were getting jumped all over the country in 1969. What makes MacDonald's beating different is the case his parents made out of it. A case they took all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Bob and Elaine MacDonald sued the Green Bay Public Schools, holding the district liable for the coach's instructions and the players' actions.
As they waited for their day in court, the family was peppered with threats. You just didn't target the high school football coach in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Neighbors, former friends and strangers called and let them know it. Smilin' Bob MacDonald, a loyal member of the community and journeyman at the Kimberly Clark paper mill, became a pariah overnight.
MacDonald vs. the Green Bay Board of Education was settled before the high court ruled. The MacDonalds won. Attorneys drafted a settlement awarding the family $1 million. Elaine MacDonald turned it down. Instead, she asked for $1,500, a sum sufficient to cover the family's legal expenses and travel. And she asked that her son be admitted back in school.
"They didn't want people in Green Bay 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 her parents' actions are directly tied to her brother's infamous 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)."
MacDonald has his own ideas on the subject. "Everyone has to find their comfort zone," he told performermag.com. "The meshing of commercialism and music is not the death of art. Music adds a bit of magic to a product being sold, but for me it robs some of the magic from the music. I made a promise to myself a long time ago. It's good to keep promises to yourself."
You could say that MacDonald's bright future started in Madison. This was his first formal stop in a musical career that has taken him all over the world. It was the early '70s, and the antiwar smoke had just cleared over Bascom Hill. It was a good environment to hatch his art-for-art's sake take on life. And from the second he landed here it was clear in every possible way that Madison was a million miles away from the Green Bay he fled.
MacDonald left town for Austin, Texas, in the 1980s, hit it big with Timbuk3, lived the gypsy life after the band faded, and finally moved back to Wisconsin. He's now living in Sturgeon Bay and regularly playing in Madison again. On June 12-15, he'll host his annual Steel Bridge SongFest, which brings in national and regional musicians to benefit a local landmark in Sturgeon Bay.
After all these years, it seems, we can finally call Pat MacDonald our own again.
Sometimes down but never out, the troubadour of stomped is now the Troubadour of Stomp, the name of his latest solo CD project. A dozen brazen new songs packed with MacDonald's lusty, low-end guitars, stormy harmonica and falsetto singing. And some of the best wordplay in American music.
MacDonald's songs weave together fun, sarcasm, innuendo, and double meanings. Big bites of poison dusted with sugar.
"Someone said a good song reveals stuff you don't want others to know about you," MacDonald told me over afternoon eggs at the Pudgy Seagull in downtown Sturgeon Bay. "A great song," he adds, "reveals stuff you don't want to know about yourself."
MacDonald writes like a trickster, and he looks like one, too. As we talked his craggy face appeared briefly and then dashed 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. Longtime MacDonald friend and collaborator Jackson Browne described this phenomenon best to me.
"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. Live, MacDonald gets a maximum sound with a minimalist setup, and this crowd of 40 was about to get their ears waxed.
Troubador 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 pickup.
"I always stomped anyway," says MacDonald. "The stomp board turns something that once disturbed the downstairs neighbors into something that anchors and drives my music."
MacDonald 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. Jackson Browne loaned him the use of his Barcelona apartment.
"Aside from being one of the great lyricists in the English language, he is a totally unique voice," Browne told me in a phone interview from L.A. "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.
MacDonald left Austin for Spain, 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.
On stage that night at the Osthelder MacDonald tore through a single set of nearly four hours of music. "I Never Will" pulled a rope of tension straight through the room. The small crowd looked slack-jawed over their bottles of Miller Lite.
MacDonald says he wants his audience members "to feel sexy and intelligent." However among a few fellow musicians in Madison, he's garnered a reputation as being careless and self-immersed. Those players criticize him for marathon sound checks and extended sets that push the start time of other acts well into the night.
For me, artists being victimized by artists is a nonstarter. While I've seen how much time - lots of it - MacDonald takes to set up, it's the venue's responsibility to keep a multi-act bill moving forward. This happens so rarely in Madison that it's created an environment where artists blame artists.
The truth is that MacDonald is as excited about other musicians' work as he is his own. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Sturgeon Bay's Steel Bridge SongFest.
The festival raises funds and awareness to maintain the 77-year-old, 12-span Michigan Street Bridge. It's one of the busiest drawbridges in Wisconsin. Songwriters gather for a week at the funky old Holiday Motel on the water's edge. MacDonald is now part owner of the motel, and the place has been remodeled to include recording studios, with guests even set up to record in their individual rooms.
Festival performers hunker down in the Holiday, write new songs and at the end of the week take them into the bars and eventually to the Steel Bridge stage. Browne played the festival last year and will return to perform June 12-14. So will others like Willy Porter and Freedy Johnston.
The festival and the work that goes into producing it (which MacDonald shares with many, including his sister Christie) is time consuming. Still, MacDonald continues to play small clubs and write. He also continues 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 L.A.-based Miles Copeland, who managed Timbuk3 in its heyday and is brother to Police drummer Stuart Copeland.
"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 been making a living from all our efforts."
But there's a difference between making a living, and living. The latter is what MacDonald chooses. He chooses it with his community project for Sturgeon Bay's steel bridge. He chooses it at the Osthelder Saloon, where he poured his heart out to an audience of 40. Not long ago I asked him what his view of fame was.
"From what I've seen of it, it means that 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. Otherwise you're treated like shit. Anonymity is only a luxury to those who can afford to not give a shit."
Whether MacDonald gives a shit or not, 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."
A version of this story was first published in No Depression magazine.