Chris Shillock: an anarchist in action


Ain’t many beatnik poets left. Chris Shillock is one. As in true, old-school spoken word. Before even The Last Poets there was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and the rest of that bunch from the early 1960s. They pioneered the spoken-word part of avant-garde theater, preceding the likes of Amiri Baraka (when he was LeRoi Jones), Sonja Sanchez, Miguel Pinero and such contemporary icons as Sekou Sundiata and Rhodessa Jones. These days, in the Twin Cities, we’ve got premier proponents J. Otis Powell, Louis Alemayehu and Shillock sustaining the genre.

John Christopher Shillock, as he calls himself after he finishes a poem or a book, profoundly impresses—with bleak stuff that is brilliant as hell.

His books include “The Revolutionary’s Creed,” “Testament of Fear,” “Millenium City” and “Irregular Conjugations.” And he has read at a slew of open mics, including venues in Duluth, Tucson, Chicago, New York and Mexico. In the Twin Cities, he’s all over the place— Minnesota Spoken Word Association, Minnesota Fringe Festival, S.A.S.E.: the Write Place, Powderhorn Arts Festival, Hopkins Center for the Arts, with Michael Quinn and the Virgin Suicides at Terminal Bar and so on. And he has appeared on Minneapolis community access television shows “Art Temple,” “Pulse-TV” (no relation to this publication), “Cheap Theater” and, slated for early Dec., “Spectator.” On air appearances include guesting on KFAI’s “Write On Radio!” and on the pirate station, Radio Free Twin Cites.

He now has a pair of releases that stand to ratchet his career up a notch. “An Invitation to the Terrorists’ Ball” offers, in a deluxe DVD package, live readings at a funky space called Skindog Productions. Shillock’s richly emotive, baritone delivery of poems and translations is complemented by artful footage that punches up the immediacy of his writing. While watching the performance, you can, if you’re so inclined, pull out the booklet and read along to such verse as the title cut’s “Throw away your parachute. This is free fall. This is war. Leave your lovers standing there at the corner, where they sold you out so long ago.” To boot, it is tightly directed by Ian Shillock, Chris’ son.

For Invisible Jazz, Chris Shillock partners with vocalist-composer Tabatha Predovich to head up a deft ensemble. Sparse bedrock (David Gullickson, drums; Tom Zosel, tenor sax; Rich Patterson, guitar/composer; Lynette Reini-Grandell, violin) underscores fluid, expert imagery. Textures range from old-style folk rock (the Marty Balin-Paul Kantner flavored “Ballade”) to tasty jazz (the title cut) to an eerie ballad of love and war (“Blue Nile”). Shillock is in fine form with lines like “Invisible jazz in the city, invisible hands pounding on steel. Machinery pulse deep underground. The city shakes on the skin of a drum. You can catch the vibe throbbing in panes of cool glass, high in your lofty window.” Predovich’s voice is tailor-made for this material. Her dramatic, barebones style puts the right notes in the right places, bringing out the best in each cut, rather than falling into the trap of trying to be artsy.

Shillock brought in two singers before Predovich, writing lyrics and spoken word verse for them to perform. They were, he recalls, “very serious about their musical careers and figured out that this wasn’t going to make them particularly rich or famous.” Then, Tabatha Predovich answered his classified ad. Shillock initially says he went with her because “I needed a singer. Nobody else would do it. Everybody else quit.” With some pressing, he acknowledges that it wasn’t at all a case of settling for whomever he could get. “She’s got a great voice. Every time I [perform] with her, I’m astounded that this [artist] is working with me. She’s got feeling. She takes my words and makes them her own, basically. I can sit and write this stuff and she gets inside the words. She gets inside myself.”

One reason Pedrovtich worked out is that she does a bit more than sing—she’s a fine spoken-word interpreter with attendant acting chops. She started out in Minneapolis in 1990, creating Velvet Rat — an improv outfit unit accompanied by a rotating line-up of musicians. In 1993, she was recruited by the English band Elysium, and relocated to London. There she wrote, recorded and toured until 1996, over time bringing the band into techno, a still-flowering genre that already showcases the likes of phenomenal Twin Cities songbird Bobbi Miller. Predovich came back to the States, specifically Detroit, Mich., working with the band Radium on a sound culled from goth and punk. Didn’t quite work out. So, in 2002, she and musician/songwriter husband, Rich Patterson, put together another band, Uzza. They plan to eventually put it back together in the Twin Cities.

Chris Shillock was born in Lisbon, Portugal and grew up in South America and Europe where his parents served in the U.S. Foreign Service. He’s got a B.A. in Spanish from Haverford College in Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in philosophy from the City University of New York. In 1972, he left the Big Apple to attend the University of Minnesota. During the ’80s he got active in several communist and anarchist groups. Since then, he has adopted the working hypothesis that “the creative life is itself a radical act in a world dedicated to ignorance and exploitation.” Along the way, he also dedicated himself to raising a family. He’s no longer married but does have three sons and as many grandchildren.

Hard as it is to figure for one of with sterling output, the man’s been doing poetry only the past 10 years. Before that, he says, sitting at the desk in his book-filled, downtown Minneapolis apartment, “I was trying to overthrow the government, abolish property, make everyone the same.” Usually, when I hear somebody talking like that it’s cause they’re homely as a mud fence or mad as a hatter and, either way, can’t get laid, much less get a life. So, they fill the void with some nobly maniacal manifesto. Shillock’s handsome enough. And is not crazy (apparently, at least, any more than most creative types). He is, though, as I can see in his perfectly lucid stare, absolutely serious. It also turns out he isn’t talking about just the government, he’s talking about any and all government, period. OK, why? “Because, it makes sense. They’re no good. They’re all rich. They keep themselves in power. Everybody would be better off if the goods were distributed evenly to the people that actually do the work, that deserve it.” Very well, he is a real, live anarchist. “Any government is a form of oppression. We are perfectly capable of governing ourselves. Certainly the distribution of property is inequitable. Those of us [who] create the property, that do the work, don’t get it. It all goes to a handful of people that don’t do anything. Except own the means of production. Everybody would be better off if there were actually no property. Then, everybody would have more rather than a few people having a whole lot and most of us having almost none.” He has never used the Freedom of Information Act to see what FBI file or files exist on him. He did, however, include the message on his answering machine from FBI Task Force Agent Robert Wagner (St. Paul branch) as an audio track on his DVD.

What prompted this freewheeling enemy of the state to become a poet? “I’ve always done some writing. I did a lot of political writing. [But] I got kicked out of every [political] group I was in. So, I’m thinking, ‘What can I do?’ I met this guy, Scott Vetsch, at a bookstore in Dinkytown. He invited me to a party. They were nice people. And they were having a reading [at] one the bars downtown. Why don’t you come on? I went. I saw it and I figured, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ And so I did. Not that he was filled with a world of self-confidence. “People I respected said I was [good]. I don’t have that feeling within myself certainly. I look at my stuff and there’s stuff there that makes me cringe. I really don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the times when I’m writing. I just sit there and keep at it until somehow it comes out right. I don’t really know, a lot of times, until I perform. When I’m on stage. That’s where I get the feeling, I guess. A lot more than sitting and trying to sound it out in my head.”

Modest to a proverbial fault, he was pretty surprised when I told him Pulse had assigned a story on him. Though it didn’t catch him completely out of the blue. The publisher’s long been an admirer. “Every time I go in there, Ed [Felien] has me take my shirt off.” That’s so Felien can admire a tattoo on Shillock’s left shoulder, an image of French anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon above the legend, “La propriete, c’est le vol” (“Property is theft”). “For some reason, Ed thinks I haven’t sold out. Of course, I have. You don’t get our age without selling out.” Shillock’s 65. Felien’s not talking. I spoke with Emily Carter, a good friend of Chris Shillock and probably the baddest white woman in Twin Cities lit. She corroborates that his modesty is misplaced. “Two things about Chris’ work stand out for me,” Carter states. “One is the training and discipline that his background in the classics [St. John of the Cross, Ezra Pound, Leonard Cohen] and knowledge of language gives his poems. The other is their integrity. Of course, quality plus integrity often add up to obscurity and that may be why Chris hasn’t been able to quit his day job. Or retire. After a life of hard work and dedication to his craft.” She disagrees, though, with that business about his having sold out. “Chris is practical, of course. He’s managed to live la vie boheme (the bohemian life) long past the point when most of us either started out for the suburbs, went crazy or died.”

On the cover of Invisible Jazz, Chris Shillock looks meaner than hell. Glowering beneath a black, gunslinger brim, clad in Johnny Cash-black, he reminds you of, say, John Huston, with that weathered, wizened thing. Beyond the requisite poet’s mystique, though, the guy’s a pussycat. A grizzled old kitten. “People,” he acknowledges, “always say I’m a nice guy.” Then, he adds, “But nice finishes last. I want people to see the dark side [of me].”

It’s Nov. 18 at the ever eclectic and eccentric Patrick’s Cabaret. The billing is Christopher Shillock/Tabatha Predovich. And things are not off to what seems a promising start. Less than a half-hour to showtime the sound check is done, but exactly three people have walked in the door. I dread the prospect of a talent like Shillock having to perform in front of maybe a polite handful of patrons in one of those awkward, dead houses, where the applause is self-conscious pitter-patter, embarrassing everyone there—performer and audience alike. Ten minutes later, I look up from scribbling notes. There is traffic, after all. Seats fill. In the lobby, a knot here, a knot there and, by a quarter of, it’s a crowd. Hell, J. Otis Powell is in the house (the lone black face in the place besides mine). There’s smiling, chatting, the touching of one another on the arm: all the makings of a nice, warm get-together. I spot, in the background, taking money, serving tea, coffee and fancy water, Patrick Scully, a soft unassuming presence tall as a tree, looking for all the world like a kinder, gentler Clint Eastwood.

It doesn’t take long to reveal that Shillock may just be onto something hot with this ensemble. There is, straight off, the image—like it or not, given the choice between art and art with compelling stage presence, audiences will eat up art with compelling stage presence every time. Without his practically ever-present hat (someday he’s going to find it missing and a ransom note in its place), wearing glasses, he looks like a lecturing professor—who happens to not have any color in his closet except black. Tabatha Predovich, on the slim side, in black jeans and a black blouse, with straight, two-toned (red & black) hair, has a model’s face and a stark gaze that would choke a pimp’s best line off, dead in his throat. With these two in front, you’ve got the crowd’s interest before anyone says or sings a word. As the set starts off, I look around at some fascinated folk: all very white, very earnest and much impressed, enjoying the hell out of some authentic bohemia.

Good thing: Tonight, the sound isn’t particularly well-mixed. The first number, “Dark Night,” works because it’s pretty much all Shillock, voicing lines like, “It was an Edward Hopper evening in our hotel room downtown. Light dredged in through the curtains. It tangled in our clothes. It set our garments glowing in the dark and polished woods.We draped ourselves in twilight for our furtive little waltz, our bodies hid in marble, that was veined with alcohol.” When the drums, sax and guitar kick in for the second number, “Invisible Jazz,” Predovich’s vocal vies with the sax. Shillock is drowned out. Things work out better for “Orgy Song,” ribald humor for the erudite, that has Shillock and Predovich trading rich one-liners to depict a horny couple imagining hot enough sex between them to satiate a roomful of Old-World Romans. With “Blue Nile,” the sound finally balances out. Shillock gives a reflective read, Predovich ringing clear in ironic counterpoint. The brief set is over. The crowd’s happy. And I’m hoping (in vain, it turns out) that I can make it back tomorrow night, when the sound problems should be fixed and violinist Lynette Reini-Grandell is scheduled to sit in.

Up next for Christopher Shillock/ Tabatha Predovich is a show on Dec. 11 at Acadia Café in South Minneapolis, for which Shillock has engineered a strong bill: His band, Desdamona and David Daniels & the Talkin’ Roots Crew.

Hip-hop star Desdamona, is about a break this side of going national. She bagged a fourth Minnesota Music Award with her CD, The Ledge, and is gearing up to go in the studio for the follow-up, projected for early next year. David Daniels, ganja guru to the counterculture set, uses spoken-word to lens American life through Rastafarian sensibilities. His concept CD, Talkin’ Roots, sold out before he had time to even think about financing a second printing.

Shillock picked this lineup for a reason aside from the mere sight of watching poetry fans, hip-hoppers and stoners sitting around giving one another funny looks. He believes in breaking down boundaries between spoken-word genres. Desdamona’s looking forward to it for the same reason. “I like being a part of an eclectic bill and hearing what other people are doing,” she says. “It gets stifling and uninspiring to be around artists that are making similar kinds of musical expression. It feels like there is no expansion and we get caught up in our style or the way we think we’re supposed to do it. It gets too comfortable. I like to be uncomfortable. You can feel yourself changing in the moment.” As for Daniels, “I know from my own experience with hippie stoners that they are very reluctant to support artists who are not fellow hippie stoners. One of the reasons I invited Chris to be part of David Daniels & Friends at Surcumcorda (in 2001) is that I wanted to inspire hippies to explore good work outside of that realm, following the spirit of The Grateful Dead who once brought Miles Davis to open for them.”

Ultimately, Chris Shillock’s performing and writing is driven, he attests, by “the same [thing] that drives my politics. I want to restore poetry to its preeminence as a popular art form. Also to use it to make people feel and think. And, then, to act.”