MUSIC AS A VOLATILE ART FORM: Terry Allen Reissued
For a while now I’ve had a theory about a select group of artists who were making music in the 1960s and ’70s. These are musicians who seem related to their time only obliquely: they may have been marked by it, but they were not of it. Other artists’ greatness might lie in their perfectly embodying certain musical directions of the day—the Beatles, for example. These musicians, on the other hand, have inherent greatness; that it might have been expressed in the language of their day is instructive, but ultimately incidental—they were tapping a deeper vein.
These musicians evoke a term used for a few writers in German literature—Jean Paul, Hölderlin, Kleist—who pop up between the eras of Classicism and Romanticism but don’t fit neatly in either category: die großen Einzelnen, or “the great individuals.” These writers fall between both epochs and draw from each, but to understand them you ultimately have to take them on their own terms. Likewise, each of these few musicians is a category unto himself—if they are to be viewed collectively, it is by virtue of their shared idiosyncrasy. To the extent that it’s helpful, I’d like to label this group. For want of a better term, I’ll call them the Great White Weirdos.
Each Weirdo works, if not within the confines of, then at least alongside a given genre. Thus you’ve got blues and jazz Weirdos (Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa); country Weirdos (Leon Russell, Lee Hazlewood); and pop Weirdos (Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson). There’s no getting around the fact that these are all white men. In emphasizing their whiteness alongside their weirdness, I want to point out a certain self-awareness on their part, particularly when it comes to the use of rock, jazz, and blues—musical forms developed by black musicians. With these artists it is never a matter of simply appropriating and sanitizing these forms. Their genius, in part, lies in emphasizing the disconnect in the appropriation. Thus Randy Newman’s manager could jokingly call him “the greatest of the Jewish blues singers”; Captain Beefheart could take a lollipop doo-wop song like “I’m Glad” and suffuse it with grit and longing; and Harry Nilsson could play up his squeaky-clean veneer as a means of smuggling in all manner of innuendo, a seeming emissary to the straight world bent on scandalizing it. For all these artists, being white is not a negative quality, a means of disappearing—their whiteness is a part of what makes them stand out.
This all is meant to serve as preface to my recent discovery—and I’m way late to the party here—of Terry Allen. This past May saw the reissue, from the North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors, of Allen’s 1975 debut album Juarez; the label will reissue its 1979 follow-up, Lubbock (on Everything), in October. Hearing Juarez for the first time earlier this year was nothing short of a revelation. Here was another Weirdo to add to the list—which is to say, another great individual whose work demands close attention, and for whom there’s really no other frame of reference.
Dave Alvin, in his liner notes for an earlier CD reissue of Juarez, calls the record “one of the great ‘songwriter’ records […] it stands equal with other mandatory seventies songwriter classics like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys.” Other songwriters had achieved Juarez’s concept of album-as-story before: Harry Nilsson had come out with The Point in 1971, and Newman’s Good Old Boys, itself originally conceived as a story album, has a loose narrative arc. What sets Juarez apart is its unique conception and Allen’s work as an artist in several different media.
The record’s genesis dates back to 1968 with a series of drawings called Cowboy and the Stranger. As Allen explained in a phone interview, “I didn’t really start it as a record. It began as a series of drawings, and then I started making songs and kind of thinking about how a song worked with the drawing.” Allen tried different approaches, searching for a way to make the songs and drawings function together. He’d attach reel-to-reel tapes behind the drawings; he’d set up a piano on a wheeled platform and have himself moved from drawing to drawing as he played. “I didn’t want the drawings to illustrate the songs or the songs to illustrate the drawings,” Allen said. The goal was to have “two completely different sets of information with the same idea. It’s like the drawings were on one wall, the songs were on the other, you’re in the middle and that’s what the piece was about—kind of what happened to you in that middle ground.”
To that end, the original pressing of Juarez featured a set of six haunting lithographs, and that same year an exhibit was mounted at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, Texas that featured both drawings and music. The Juarez concept wasn’t finished there. The Paradise of Bachelors reissue includes a helpful timeline (set above a photo of Allen seated at the piano, looking not unlike Richard Brautigan with his wire-frame glasses and large mustache, Beefheart’s Safe as Milk propped up against the piano’s headboard) of the different forms the record would take on, such as a 1978 screenplay and a 1989 – 90 musical theater piece co-written with David Byrne (neither of them produced); a 1992 theatre piece, Juarez: A Work in Progress, featuring Allen’s wife, Jo Harvey Allen; a 1992 – 93 series of sculptures and video installations, A Simple Story (Juarez); and a 1992 radio play, also featuring Jo Harvey Allen, Reunion (A Return to Juarez).
The LP reissue contains a 12-x-12 booklet with essays by Paradise of Bachelors founder Brendan Greaves, Dave Hickey, and Dave Alvin, as well as reproductions of the lithographs from the original edition and additional drawings and photographs of later installations. It does an excellent job of illuminating the context surrounding the record’s initial release and documenting its continued life in other forms. Greaves’s essay in particular is exhaustive and enormously helpful, both for the context it gives and for Greaves’s interpretive acuity.
Though Juarez exists in these myriad forms, there is something definitive about the record itself, the “sonic artifact,” as Greaves calls it, over and above all others. What lends Juarez the album its sui generis quality is that Allen made it as an artist executing a vision—music just happens to be the medium. For Allen to make this record, despite the fact that making music was not his sole concern, speaks to a primacy that music held at the time—and that, I would offer, it really does not hold today. As Allen explained when we spoke, “When I went to LA in the ’60s, I was in art school, the war was going on […] Music was the most volatile form of expression […] and so everybody wanted to play music. Everybody wanted to be in a band.”
Juarez tells “a simple story” of four characters—Jabo, Chic Blundie, Spanish Alice, and Sailor—which moves non-chronologically between San Diego, Los Angeles, the town of Cortez, Colorado, and Juarez, Mexico. Early on, Allen gives the outline of the story, from start to finish, in a spoken-word narration. The songs themselves aren’t concerned so much with filling in the details as with expounding upon the characters’ moods, motivations; their mythical resonance. When Allen talks about the characters he doesn’t speak of them as actual people, but describes them as “climates.”
Mexico appears on the record from the U.S. perspective, and though perspective itself becomes complicated on the album, at first glance the country’s treatment is almost stereotypical. In our conversation, Allen discussed the romanticized picture of Mexico from his childhood: “In the ’50s […] it was freedom and escape, you crossed that line and everything was always more romantic, better. It was that kind of an image, every movie you saw, a guy robbed a bank and headed to Mexico.” But of course on the album, there is something much more subtle at play. A note scribbled on the border of one lithograph explains: “Juarez is an irresistable [sic] mirror, using America’s secret reflection of itself […] as bait.” What the characters are seeking in Juarez is nothing that they themselves haven’t brought to it.
The improbable narrative has characters crossing the border constantly in a way that blurs the clear division between the U.S. and Mexico. Randy Newman, on Good Old Boys, reveals the way that the southern white man relies on the subordinated black man to help form his own sense of self. Allen, on Juarez, shows how both the U.S. and Mexico don’t exist fully except as they exist in relation to one another. Greaves quotes Allen’s quip: “People tell me it’s country music, and I ask, ‘Which country?’”
After listening to Juarez a few times I noticed that some songs feature a steady, pounding quarter-note thud; aside from the maracas on “Cantina Carlotta,” this is the only percussion you hear. I wondered if this was just Allen stomping his foot, and when I spoke with him, he confirmed it. “That’s what it is, it’s me stomping the pedal” on the piano. “That’s the percussion of the record.”
He went on: “I used to stomp the pedal a lot, and I think it’s because I didn’t really play music with people that much, and I really loved rhythm, and so I stomped my foot—but I stomped pedals. I even, from solo gigs for a while, had a collection of pedals I’d actually broke off pianos and the name of where I broke it off and the date on it.”
Juarez is a sparse record: the only melodic instruments are Allen’s piano and occasional guitar and mandolin by Greg Douglas and Peter Kaukonen. In this context, Allen’s pedal-stomping is a forceful presence. On Lubbock (on Everything), Allen traded up for a fuller sound, with electric guitars, bass, drums, and pedal steel. But the pedal-stomping remained: “They put a mic on my foot and it was mixed right in like a percussion instrument.” It’s not a bad metaphor for the differences between the records. Juarez has a meandering structure, songs veering off in unlikely directions; sections sometimes repeat, sometimes don’t. Lubbock, by contrast, contains two LPs worth of more or less straight country songs.
Even with the more conventional structure, Allen’s weirdness shows. Allen sings on the opener, “Amarillo Highway,” “Well I don’t wear no Stetson / but I’m willing to bet, son / that I’m big a Texan as you are,” and coming after as cryptic a lyric as the one that precedes it in the first verse—“Well some call me high hand / and some call me low hand / but I’m holding what I am: the wheel”—this sounds less like a bid for inclusion than an explosion of the bounds of country music. Which country, indeed.