The first time I heard Pal Shazar, a friend and I were shoplifting from a new wave boutique in Washington, DC's fashionable Georgetown neighborhood. An unfamiliar song jangled nervously through the speakers, seizing our ears from the first couplet: "Every night I dream a nightmare where I'm with you/It's my reaction to the fact that you depend on me." A male and a female voice nestled together uncomfortably, careening through abrupt tempo changes dictated by a weird, invisible logic. Who was this band? The clerk held up a stark black-and-white jacket (shot by Robert Mapplethorpe) featuring two faces and a name: Slow Children.
Slow Children—Shazar and partner Andrew Chinich—became essential listening for my small high school cabal. We memorized every line of their eponymous 1982 debut and its lone successor, Mad About Town, and imitated Pal's fractured lyrics in our own poetry. When I tell Shazar this today, she laughs happily. It was a similar sort of fanaticism that inspired her to become a musician.
"I didn't have any role models before Patti Smith," she admits. "After I discovered her, I never wore a dress again. I'd finally found a female that I could be like." Horses was Shazar's "Bible," and the first morning she woke up alongside her future husband, she slapped on Radio Ethiopia as a litmus test.
But while Smith's mix of rock and Rimbaud went down a storm in New York City, Slow Children's neurotic synthpop, distinguished by the duo's love of literature and cinema (the cover of their second LP is an homage to Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast), failed to connect with Los Angeles audiences. "We'd go see the Motels and the Plimsouls, and they'd be packing the room, while we couldn't get arrested." Although the duo scored a West Coast radio hit with "President Am I" (featured on Volume 11 of Rhino's Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the '80s), they soon split up, with Shazar landing in upstate New York after a spell in London.
Mercifully, her story doesn't end there. Her just-released fourth solo CD, Safe (Stylus Records), finds Shazar penning songs as winning and distinctive as anything by Slow Children. The chugging "Guilty" ticks off a list of self-flagellation techniques that give her a sense of purpose, while "Pacific Ocean" depicts an affecting scene of awkward adolescence ("Pale as a milk bottle/Unconvincing when I'd swear") by the seaside. Throughout the 10 tracks, the spotlight shines on Shazar's one-of-a-kind voice, her off-kilter delivery of wide-eyed innocence tinted with equal parts cynicism and wisdom.
"Do you like my voice?" she asks when the topic is broached. "Some people don't. I remember once a major A&R guy said 'Pal, you just don't sound like anyone.' And I answered 'Isn't that a good thing?'" Not if you want a major label contract, doll. Nowadays Shazar doesn't take such comments as criticism. "You can't help who you are. I don't know how to [sing] any other way."
Safe also features Shazar's ex-husband Jules Shear, who coproduced Slow Children alongside Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys) and remains a close friend. "He sings such great background vocals, and I am the worst. I have no talent for that." Regardless, she accepted an invitation to back up ex-Waterboys frontman Mike Scott (who appeared on Shazar's second CD, There's A Wild Thing in the House) a few years ago. "You know that famous Linda McCartney tape that floats around, the worst backing vocals in the history of the world? I'm sure I beat her out."
Shazar's had other dubious brushes with greatness. When she and Shear were still married, Television's Tom Verlaine once crashed at their pad. "That meant a lot to me, but it was weird. I'd had the same acoustic Yamaha guitar since I was 18. And I'd just gotten Jules to say 'We're gonna buy you a new one.' So Tom Verlaine's over, picking on my Yamaha, and he says 'This is really cool.' And I'm going 'Shhh! No!' because I thought he'd make Jules think we didn't need to buy me a new guitar!"
As for Pal's own profile, she's content making albums she's proud of and releasing them at an unhurried pace. What happens once they're in the public sphere doesn't enter her consciousness. "My head's not in the stars," she demurs. A few years ago, she landed a sizeable record deal overseas and toured with Giant Sand. "I didn't take it seriously. But then there was a very long article in a French music magazine, and they titled it 'Blonde on Blonde.' That made me feel wonderful, that people might think I'm in the tradition of Dylan. Would I prefer that to selling a million records? Beats me."