Terry Allen: you better keep it on your mind.
It helps, again, to have heard the accent of the people who grow up there, which, like the landscape that produces it, is flat, open, and dry. A good Panhandle voice is nonetheless enormously expressive, and can jump from a drawl to a snarl to a friendly croon to a yodel and back again in about a word.
The third thing about Lubbock--and it's a natural consequence of the first two--is that they make singers there: Buddy Holly, of course, who watches over North Texas music like an amiable spirit; and Waylon Jennings, who played bass for Holly when he was in high school; and there was a trio of unusual country singers and songwriters who started out as the Flatlanders in the early '70s and eventually dissolved into Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely, still legendary performers down around Austin. And then there is Terry Allen, a buddy of Ely's who left Lubbock for a Los Angeles art school in 1962, moved more or less accidentally up to Fresno in the early '70s, and eventually wound up in Santa Fe--becoming, along the way, a kind of one-man border-town Brecht/Weill.
It's difficult to write about Allen's music separately from the rest of his art, especially since much of it was composed to go along with the mixed-media projects that have occupied him for the past 20 or so years: the bleak,
desperate-love stories of a simple story (Juarez), 1972-92, and the even bleaker, and angrier, Vietnam-vet tales of Youth in Asia, 1982-92. But there are some records he made just for listening--of which Lubbock (on everything) remains the best--and you can also get the songspiele on tape, and listen to them as albums.
Because Allen makes songs that stand as songs. In fact little official country music is as good, now that most of Nashville has cleaned itself up for the pages of Entertainment Weekly; Allen is still pumping away at a barely tuned piano, and singing like a man who just loves to sing. The music cranks and lopes along, stops and starts again; there are a lot of holes in it, a high-plains silence that always waits behind the music, as if to tempt Allen into shutting up again.
A simple story (Juarez) concerns two different pairs of lovers, one of which has hooked up in the eponymous border-town of cantinas and whorehouses. The story takes them all as far north as California, as far east as Colorado; they skid in and out of each other's lives; one pair murders the other, then makes a run for Juarez. In "Blue Asian Reds," on Lubbock, a woman loses her lover in Vietnam, cries for a year, then drugs herself into oblivion. Other songs talk about lonely men and women in little towns, adulterers, car thieves and killers, high school football stars gone bad: homegrown MacHeaths.
In between the bad-luck ballads there are love songs, sweet barroom waltzes, and the occasional novelty number. Such is the way with country music--Hank Williams wrote them too--but Allen isn't peddling cheap cliches. Handmade American music, country, blues, jazz, rockabilly, is smart as hell; few other forms of songwriting are better for telling stories, or have better stories to tell. Allen's use of country is no more naive than Weill's use of music-hall melodies. Anyway, he's not playing dumb, or denying his esthetic concerns. He's just found an unusual way to convey them, manifesting as much affinity with John Baldessari as with Buck Owens in his story of a beautiful waitress who, upon discovering that Allen is an artist, laments her inability to draw horses: "She could do the body okay, but never get the head, tail, or legs. I told her she was drawing sausages ... not horses. She said no ... they were horses." And the song ends, as the songwriter, who was just "passing through," moves on.
As I say, someone is always moving on. "I leave a few people dead/But I got open road ... ahead," sings a petty crook heading back to his girlfriend in East L.A. "Well I'm goin' back/Goin' home again/Yeah I'm goin' back/To my hometown/The one that put me out/The one that laid me down." Like most of Allen's songs, that one (it's called "There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California") dilutes its romanticism with a certain bitterness. The mythology of America, after all, is as impossible to live up to as it is to live down; the image of the drifter is just one more stupid thing to get stuck in.
Lubbock is dedicated, in memoriam, thus: "Stanley McPherson (fuck vietnam), Peter Duel (fuck hollywood), Danny Parrish (fuck bad blood)." All three sentiments strike me as incontrovertible, but the last, most of all, extends over the whole of the album. I gather that by "bad blood" Allen means something literal, a virus that took a friend. But there's some figurative sense of bad blood that resonates with the music--bad decisions, bad timing, bad luck--and the effort, which never quite works and never quite fails, to make them better. As I was listening to Lubbock I kept thinking of a line from W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939," which he wrote first as "We must love one another or die," then changed to "We must love one another and die." And then, still not convinced he'd gotten it right, he cut the poem out of his Collected Poems altogether.
I don't suppose there are a lot of honky-tonk fans among Artforum's readers--though I know for a fact there are a few. So I suspect a lot of you might be inclined to dismiss this music, because it's a little corny, and a little melodramatic. But I would ask you to consider listening anyway, because it's a little corny, and a little melodramatic, and that's the way we live today.
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|Title Annotation:||Terry Allen's country songs|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1993|
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