pat mAcdonald stays true to his musical vision


By Marc Eisen

Oh, he’s lost a few things during 40-plus years of living the Bohemian life of a musician. For instance:

— That Mussehl & Westphal musical saw, the renowned Cadillac of musical saws. The young Pat MacDonald bought it in 1974 in Fort Atkinson from Clarence J. Mussehl himself, then a nonagenarian and long-ago vaudevillian, who tossed in a free lesson.

— That autographed album the great country tunesmith Billy Joe Shaver gave him in Nashville in 1973 after hearing MacDonald’s demo songs at singer Bobby Bare’s music offices: “To my friend Pat MacDonald: the last of the great songwriters.”

This scrawny long-haired troublemaker from Green Bay was all of 20 at the time, knocking around Madison, making music to survive after an unsuccessful try at drug dealing. His future was not yet clear.

At some point in the intervening decades of countless moves — including his 1984 journey from Madison to Austin with wife and musical partner Barbara Kooyman in their soon-to-be celebrated band Timbuk3, and later his sojourn in Barcelona, to lick his wounds, after their marriage and band broke up — he lost the damn saw and his records.

But not much else, it turns out. “I’m kind of a pack-rat,” mAcdonald says over coffee recently in Sturgeon Bay, in picturesque Door County on Lake Michigan. “Who could throw out a Christmas card that was sent with love?” We’re at his 18-unit retro cool Holiday Music Motel, an improbable but genius choice as a base camp for a cultural shaman like him. And, yes, note the typography of his moniker. Tired of the habitual misspelling of his last name as “McDonald,” he now labels himself pat mAcdonald.

Who’s to argue with this single-minded artist? Especially when in the space of 24 hours I meet three musicians who, trusting their instincts, packed up from good lives in San Francisco, New York City and Madison to be part of mAcdonald’s creative circle in this out-of-the-way port city.

These artists — and a whole bunch more from across the country — will be front and center at the Steel Bridge Songfest June 8-11 that mAcdonald puts on annually in Sturgeon Bay. (For details see page 18.)

“This place is like a dream incubator,” bassist and longtime Madison blues stalwart Tony Menzer tells me. It’s late night, and he’s packing up after backing a powerful blues singer named Cathy Grier at the Stone Harbor Bar across the street from the motel. Menzer put in 10 years with Clyde Stubblefield and 15 years with the Westside Andy-Mel Ford Band. Three years ago, at mAcdonald’s invitation, Menzer bailed from Madtown and moved his music equipment business from a Madison storage facility to a rambling warehouse showroom that mAcdonald and his investors own next to the motel. But I digress....

It’s legacy that weighs on pat mAcdonald’s mind, and we eventually get around to the spook in the breakfast nook. It’s not just that he turns 65 in August, but that 2016 found him confronting Stage 4 cancer — non-Hodgkins large B-cell lymphoma — and 10 months of on-and-off chemotherapy that exacted its own toll on his body. He’s now in remission and getting stronger.

That face-off with cancer — “It’s hell going through that shit,” he says matter of factly — has compelled him to not just put his creative work in order but to advance it, while there’s time.

Shaver’s outsized praise of the young songwriter’s gifts proved prophetic. mAcdonald has written more than a thousand songs — “maybe a hundred good ones,” he says. Hardly a name brand, save for Timbuk3’s unexpected 1986 break-out hit “The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades),” mAcdonald remains a cult favorite operating in the shadows of the music industry.

Not that he cares. While mAcdonald has licensed his music for movies like Chris Farley’s Tommy Boy, he’s turned down millions for commercials, according to various news accounts. This includes $900,000 for “Future” from a telecom and $450,000 from Clairol for the upbeat “Hairstyles and Attitudes.” Other big offers came from Ford, McDonald’s, the U.S. Army and, of course, Ray-Ban.

Note that mAcdonald and his musical and romantic partner melaniejane (yep, she’s lowercase too) share the modest manager’s quarters of the motel. Anything but a rock star’s crib. “It was just a vow I had made,” he says. It upset him to see one of his heroes, Lou Reed, hawking Honda scooters in the 1980s while “Walk On The Wild Side” played. “I knew I would never do that, because I knew how it made me feel as a young fan.”

Miles Copeland, head of his old label IRS, was never happy with mAcdonald’s attitude. “He needs $100 for groceries, and I tell him, ‘Do one commercial, and you buy a damn house and live happily ever after,’” he groused in 1998.

But artistic integrity — and his commitment to helping other musicians — are key reasons why mAcdonald has inspired such intense loyalty. When I went up to Sturgeon Bay to see the creative community he’s nurtured in this old shipbuilding city, I found a busy man who works late into the night and has his morning coffee around noon or 1 p.m.

He has a new tribute album in the works — Begging His Graces: The Songs and Sins of pat mAcdonald, Vol. 3 — performed by Steel Bridge artists and produced by admirers, and he’s launched a series of “Lock Box Babies” albums, plumbing his unreleased recordings dating to the 1970s, including Madison-era material.

“I have accumulated all these songs in an utter state of chaos,” he confessed to Third Story podcast interviewer Leo Sidran last summer. “Yeah, I’ve got a lot of unfinished creative business,” including beer crates full of old notebooks to be sorted out.

What he doesn’t play up is making new music, though the Steel Bridge schedule shows him pairing with his buddy Eric McFadden, who’s toured with Parliament/Funkadelic and Eric Burdon, in their provocative side project, The Legendary Sons of Crack Daniels.

The index finger on mAcdonald’s right hand has weirdly lost tensile strength in one joint, probably a consequence of chemotherapy. “It’s gonna be difficult to play guitar for a while,” he tells me. The surprise is that he doesn’t seem all that bothered.

“I’m not thinking so much about self-expression anymore,” he says. “I feel more comfortable sometimes being submerged in the motel’s music projects.” This submersion includes producing 12 volumes of annual Steel Bridge songs — a huge legacy by itself.

mAcdonald’s recent history is rich with the intangibles of collaboration and stewardship. He returned to Wisconsin in 2004 for his second wife to tend to a family matter. The marriage, in shaky condition, shattered. “I needed to do something that made me feel good,” he recalls.

So he threw himself into a political campaign led by his sister Christie Weber to save the 1931 steel drawbridge that carries traffic over the canal that connects Lake Michigan with Green Bay. In 2005, he organized a benefit concert starring his friend Jackson Browne. He also debuted two new songs he had written about the bridge — and was blown away by the crowd’s embrace.

“The songs were giving people in Sturgeon Bay a sense of place,” he says.

The import of this hit him with the force of a revelation. By the time summer rolled around in 2006 he had revamped the benefit into a weeklong collaborative songwriting festival. The 25 musicians he invited were put up in a rented motel, randomly assembled into three-person teams via the spinning of a Jameson whiskey bottle, and asked to write “bridge” songs. (We non-poets need to be reminded that “bridge” is a word ripe for many metaphors.) The freshly minted songs were quickly recorded and publicly debuted the closing weekend of the festival. Whew!

“The songwriters felt it was a life-changing experience,” mAcdonald says. A young San Francisco songwriter named Anna Sacks grabbed him after the finale and said the magic words: “Why don’t we buy a motel and do this year round?” Six weeks later, Sacks had moved to Sturgeon Bay.

By the following summer, after mAcdonald and Sacks had devised a business plan and assembled a team of investors (it helped that Browne was one), the old fading Holiday Motel was now the hip Holiday Music Motel, and the annual Steel Bridge Songfest was institutionalized. Two other smaller songwriting festivals — Love On Holiday, around Valentine’s Day, and Dark Songs, around Halloween — were launched.

And, oh, yeah, the Steel Bridge itself was saved, placed on the National Register of Historic Places and refurbished. mAcdonald is now among the insurgents battling a proposed mega-hotel that would sprawl across the waterfront on public land.

Leo Sidran, the Brooklyn-based musician/podcaster son of Madison jazzman Ben Sidran, tells a quintessential story of experiencing mAcdonald’s music. He was a college student in Spain in the late 1990s when he came across the singer in a tiny Barcelona bar playing acoustic guitar and using his trademark stomp board for percussion. “The room was dark, but the music was way darker,” Sidran told his podcast audience. “I was stunned. I was pinned to the wall by the haunted sound of his voice and the sharp painful brilliance of his words. That was a moment for me.”

I’ve had my own moments with mAcdonald in Madison. I casually knew his music back in the ‘70s when he did an upbeat R&B thing with Pat MacDonald and the Essentials and channeled the glorious Gram Parsons country vibe with his bands Harmony Grits and Harmony Grits Country Jamboree. Thirty years pass. I heard him again performing as Purgatory Hill with melaniejane on keyboard, percussion and amplified cello at the Harmony Bar and the always-edgy Mr. Robert’s. It’s a freakin’ knockout! mAcdonald was leaner, meaner and darker than before. I was gobsmacked. How could he sustain that hard punk edge after all those years?

This was ferocious music. He was playing (mostly) a four-string cigar box guitar made by Johnny Lowebow of Memphis. It sounded like a high-powered boat motor exploding when the bow hits a rock pile. And the songs — about whiskey, fast cars, suicidal temptations and bitchy women — were equally incendiary. “Shut Up” may be the most poisonous break-up song ever written. (Guess what the refrain is.)

I kept thinking: This guy is channeling the dark id of the American male. I was also guessing he was “no day at the beach” to be around, as was once said of the troubled comedian Richard Pryor. But now, after interviewing mAcdonald and visiting his Sturgeon Bay domain, I realize I had made a chump mistake — confusing the artist with the art.

“Pat is the nicest guy,” says Sacks. “But he isn’t afraid to share his emotions, even the ones that don’t make him look good. He lays it all out. That’s what make him unique.”

Madison was pat mAcdonald’s proving ground. He arrived here in 1970 at the age of 18. He spent 13 years here, interrupted by a year’s stay in Nashville. He came as a high school dropout interested in busking, fingerpicking guitar and old timey tunes, and he left as a cutting-edge artist who merged hip-hop and punk sensibilities with oh-so observant lyrics.

Along the way, as mAcdonald tells it, he fell in with a group of older radical filmmakers who were living in a cabin between Black Earth and Blue Mounds. They were on the road promoting revolution, and he had plenty of time to draw and listen to their massive record collection. And occasionally wander the hills tripping on acid.

His move to Madison put him in a house with a bunch of drug dealers. This was not good. The cops busted them and he was holding. mAcdonald says he was charged with three felonies and wound up serving a month in the Dane County jail. He had his own Merle Haggard moment: He was not even 20 and behind bars.

This provided an important life lesson: No more drug dealing. mAcdonald doubled down on music. Got a regular gig at Millard’s when it evolved into O’Cayz Corral, the new music haven. Harmony Grits Country Jamboree became so popular it sold out Great Hall in the Memorial Union. Another of his groups, Jukebox Lunch, became the house band of the CC Riders motorcycle gang at the old Wisconsin Inn. (Certain anecdotes will not be repeated here.) And his group Pat MacDonald and the Essentials, with their shiny new locally produced album, seemed a good bet to break big.

Never happened.

Ben Sidran, who was so taken with mAcdonald’s songwriting that he recorded four mAcdonald demos to pitch to record companies, couldn’t land him a major label contract. In the end, mAcdonald figured it out himself: He bought a boom box fit for a rapper, recorded a bass and drum machine rhythm section for his songs and headed to Austin where he and Kooyman became a two-person band.

Two years later, “The Future’s So Bright” was the coolest thing on radio. The great irony — and there’s always irony with pat mAcdonald’s music — was how so many people got the song exactly wrong. It wasn’t a celebration of Reagan-era optimism, but a satire of its delusional thinking.

He’s never had another hit.

“I don’t breed well in captivity.” That’s what mAcdonald told his label boss Miles Copeland in the early ‘90s when the music mogul kept pressuring him to attend the exclusive songwriting retreats he ran at The Castle, a fortified 14th-century chateau Copeland owned in France. mAcdonald says he relented in return for a new publishing deal. The surprise was that as controlling as he was about his own music, mAcdonald found he could turn the page and collaborate with songwriting companions, including Cher and Peter Frampton, as well as various A-list pop writers.

The Castle became the inspiration for the motel’s songwriting festivals, minus the music royalty and Cordon Bleu chef. While melaniejane is the master of operations, mAcdonald does creative. He issues songwriter invitations (balance is important, but young artists from northern Wisconsin get special treatment) and curates songs and approves recordings.

“Pat collects real good people,” says his friend McFadden in a telephone interview. “I mean, not just for their musical talents but for the quality of their character.” The San Francisco guitarist has missed only one Steel Bridge festival. “It’s beyond most things I’ve experienced in music, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he says.

“All these songwriters under one roof collaborating for one week — man, you make some serious bonds.”

He gets no argument from Josh Harty, a Madison singer-songwriter who was one of 54 Steel Bridge artists last year. “Fucking awesome!” he says in a booth at the Weary Traveler, where he occasionally bartends. “It makes you work in a way you’ve probably never experienced before. You retreat to a motel room with your team, and you start pitching out ideas. You get shot down a whole bunch, and you pitch out more. And finally the three of you land on something, and you build on it. It’s fantastic!”

Harty says mAcdonald warned them last year that illness would keep him away. “You know what? pat was around until 5 a.m. every night. He just needs to be part of it. He’ll come in the room, listen to your song and say, ‘It’s great except for that one line in the middle — let’s work on that.’ Or he’ll suggest a tiny little change that seems like a real pain in the ass after you’ve already spent hours on a song. But then you do it — and it makes all the difference.”

Three weeks later, after my chat with Harty, I’m hearing the same story — with the same notes of awe — as I stand in the Stone Harbor Bar at closing time, drinking mezcal. Blues singer Cathy Grier is packing up her gear, talking about her first Steel Bridge festival last year. She was a busker out of New York who spent almost 20 years singing in the subways and periodically hitting the road with her two standard poodles.

“My very first song at Steel Bridge last year — I was scared,” she says. “I was worried pat would come in and tell us how to write the song. He had just come out of fighting a horrific cancer. He was in the middle of chemotherapy and he was very weak. Yet he was so strong.

“He sat down. He listened to the tune, and he said, ‘Now what in the third verse is not serving your song?’ He knew there was a problem, but he let us figure it out.”

Grier, who matches a great gritty voice with sharp, restrained guitar playing, says she was taken aback when McFadden, as one of her songwriting partners, casually announced he had to leave early the next day to fly to Los Angeles to play at a Bernie Sanders benefit. “By 3 in the morning we were done. We had written and recorded the song,” she says, still amazed at their burst of creativity.

She took that as a signal.

Within a week, Grier bought a house in Sturgeon Bay and gave up on New York. “I was looking for a place where I could have an impact on my community,” she says. New York was just too big for that. Now she hosts the motel’s Thursday night “Writers’ Night” open mic and is producing a July 29 Steel Bridge artists’ tribute to mAcdonald at the Door County Auditorium in Fish Creek.

“It’s all about cohesiveness, partnering and opening yourself up,” Grier says of mAcdonald’s creative circle, as she wraps up the microphone cord.

By the time I walked out of the bar (after one last shot of mezcal), I knew that mAcdonald’s legacy was secure. It’s not just all those great songs, but in the artists he’s encouraged and in the community he helps build. 

(This story first appeared in Isthmus, an urban weekly in Madison WI.)