Pat MacDonald – Chords of fame
Thirty-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 his parents, 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 resolved 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,” she says — about $5 million and counting, according to Weber, who manages MacDonald’s business. “But many of those same people know deep down music sales are abused by corporations.”
MacDonald himself is less pragmatic. “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.”
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. And some of the best wordplay in American music.
MacDonald’s words ignite the dark space between the lines of our lives. “Thanks Man”, the album’s closing track, is classic sleight of hand, a big bite of poison dusted with sugar. MacDonald gives bitter thanks to the man who took his wife away:
Thanks, man. Thanks for showing us how much you care.
Thanks, man. Thanks for seeing some potential there.
Thanks, man. Thanks for being such a listener.
Thanks, man. Thanks for being so nice to her.
“Someone said a good song reveals stuff you don’t want others to know about you,” MacDonald says over afternoon eggs at the Pudgy Seagull in downtown Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. “A great song,” he adds, “reveals stuff you don’t want to know about yourself.”
It’s a gorgeous late fall day. Winter comes to the shores of Lake Michigan as fast as you can drink a glass of water; a day like this lifts the spirits inside the Seagull, and outside, too, on North Third Street, where Chicago tourists in pastel sweaters dart into shops for late-season bargains.
No place is what it seems, though. When I excuse myself to use the restroom, I overhear the pretty teenage cashier whisper to the busboy about a friend who’s in trouble. Something about police finding the guns in their classmate’s car. It’s looking bad.
It occurs to me that I’m smack in the middle of a Pat MacDonald song. Dapper smiling rich tourists on the outside, frightened teenagers with guns on the inside.
Back at the table, my eggs have chilled. MacDonald’s long fingers stab at the toasted stacks of his turkey club. He played a bar just down the street last night. In an hour he’ll head down Highway 43 to Sheboygan Falls for tonight’s show.
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. Longtime 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.”