Southern Discomfort

Hello Rock Star and other salutations that may never reach the ears of the seriously talented but lamentably underappreciated singer-songwriter Marlee MacLeod

Another Saturday night in Fort Payne, Ala. Somewhere in the town, teenagers are doing whatever it is they do on a Saturday night at the very end of the 1970s: playing Pong; trolling the streets in American cars with big tires; drinking in parking lots. The drunker ones might be lolling in a park, screwing in the heat.

Marlee MacLeod, 13 years old and by her own description "fucked up," is sitting in her parent's rec room watching Saturday Night Live, looking for a glimpse of the world outside Fort Payne (pop. 12,000)--beyond the video androids and the big tires and the parking lots. That's when it happens. The B-52's come on the TV, and everything changes.

Diana Watters

Imagine, if you will, what goes through the mind of Li'l Marl--a tall, red-headed tomboy--as she comes into contact with this Southern-fried gay soul answer to NY disco (if ever such a thing could be). Two bouffanted Betty Boops on acid and a queered-out diva named Fred on the mic. "Rock Lobster"--three minutes of mutant surf-psych-space-dance-pop--sounds like the beginning and the end of everything to a girl whose only other guides to mass culture are TV Guide and One Day at a Time. Little does she know that this band from Athens, Ga., are practically her cultural kissin' cousins. Or that, in just over a decade, she'll be living in their hometown, playing the same clubs they first did.

Today, MacLeod can analyze her original sense of wonderment, approach it academically, as is now her wont. "I'm really interested in the influence of the mass media on teenagers, and especially teenagers in the South," she says. "I mean, I remember reading in TV Guide that cocaine wasn't addictive--cocaine in TV Guide. The '70s mindset filtered down to kids like me,

who immediately turned around and grew up in a completely different atmosphere. I tended to take TV at its word, whatever I took that word to be. I thought what I saw on TV was the world. And to a certain extent that was true. It was stuff we hadn't figured out yet."

What the B-52's had figured out was how to finesse the oxymoron that is the term popular artist: how to be in the world, but not of it. MacLeod seems to have taken the lesson to heart. "In high school I wanted to fit in," she explains. "But I wanted to be as different as I could."

Marlee MacLeod grew up half right. A pissed-off church-going drinker in a dry county. A sorority girl who did just enough acid and college radio to experience the University of Alabama at Tuskaloosa as if it were some sort of Left Bank below the Mason-Dixon line. A recovering graduate student in American Studies with a strong voice and sharp pen. A songwriter whose recordings sport major-league potential, yet who, through the whims of alt-pop fate, may remain a journeyman outfielder in Triple A.

The venues of the minor leagues of music are a varied lot. For every packed bar with good sound and intimate lighting, there is a place like Java Z. in St. Cloud, where MacLeod is plying her craft on a balmy Friday night in early September. Java Z. used to be a garage. In fact, it still is a garage--only the cars have been replaced by couches and coffee, and the drone of power tools has given way to the roar of an espresso maker. The floor is concrete, there's no PA system, and the distance between stage and audience is large enough that they should offer opera glasses. The room is anti-intimate.

But MacLeod, whose plangent, at times harsh singing voice and bare-naked confessional writing make her exceptional coffee-shop fare, goes at the audience like she's trying to convince them that there are worse places to be on Friday than here. Maybe she's trying to convince herself. And so MacLeod leaps into her acoustic set. Intoning carefully--and at times in gigantic swoops--she projects huge, hoping her raw material can make up for the lack of second guitar and drums--which she's left at home for a date like this. Sitting there in her Mid-American singer-songwriter uniform--the denim shirt, the blue jeans, the sensible brown shoes--she makes her play for her audience's ears. She is, as they say, working the room.

And after the last chord has sounded, she sticks to the job, settling onto a chair offstage to conduct the evening's real business--selling enough copies of her latest CD, Vertigo, to make the drive worth her while. She puts on the pop-poet's poker face to meet her potential fans. There's some bald guy--a songwriter himself--who wants to exchange CDs; an old fellow in the back of the room who bawled uncontrollably for no apparent reason at two different points during her two sets and is seemingly either a drip, a sad sack, or a lithium case; and more than one new fan who resembles the new femme-folk connoisseur--a member of the McLachlan Group.

"You remind me of an alto Indigo Girl," chirps one such convert. MacLeod nods graciously. She rebuffs the bloke who wants to swap product, but gives him some sound advice. She even mollifies Mr. Lachrymose. As a night's work goes, it beats sucking an exhaust pipe. Then again, it ain't free dope in the greenroom by a fair stretch.

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