As a child, Terry Allen hid out in movie theaters. He knew every one of ’em in Lubbock in the 1950s: the Clifton, the Lindsey, the State, the Lyric, the Plaza. They were houses of refuge, safe havens where a boy on a bike could “disappear” from the flashes of alcohol-fueled turbulence at home.
“I hid in all of ’em. I’d go to movie after movie after movie,” says Allen, one of the great artists and songwriters of the American Southwest. “Sometimes my folks would call the cops; they didn’t know what had happened to me. But (in time), they kind of figured it out.
“There was safety in the dark,” he recalls. Safety, and the chance to immerse in image and story. As Allen sings on his new album: “Hide in a movie and you can’t tell / if you’re on the Earth or in a diving bell.” The specific movie wasn’t so important to him. What mattered most was finding a new home, in the dark, “where you had a little more control over your world — even though it wasn’t a ‘real’ world.”
In a sense, Terry Allen has been running away and coming home for the past 50 or 60 years. The twin themes of flight and homecoming are central to his life, his art, and his music. What’s more: The lessons of the movie house have never left him. Allen still believes an artist must seek out a “mystery zone, a mysterious place” — a theater of imagination, beyond one’s own tired habits — “where things happen.”
Allen, who fled Lubbock in the early 1960s and now lives with his wife (writer and actress) Jo Harvey Allen in Santa Fe, N.M., is a nationally renowned musician, visual artist, sculptor, painter and writer who often blends all forms into museum-theater artworks that reference his Texas roots. Exhibit A: His autobiographical multimedia exhibit “Dugout” — involving baseball, jazz, alcohol, loneliness, his mother and his father, and growing up in the Atomic Age — which debuted at the Austin Museum of Art in 2003.
Recommended for you
Recommended for you
Recommended for you
Allen has recorded a dozen albums of original music — true “art albums” in the sense that they accentuate language, connect with higher ideas and reflect a devil-may-care attitude to commercial tastes or suburban manners. Exhibit B: His tune “Gimme a Ride to Heaven,” in which a driver pulls off the highway to pick up a hitchhiking Jesus Christ. Not the kind of musical fare one might expect to hear, say, at halftime of the Super Bowl.
“Terry manages to take themes of Woody Guthrie, the road and the hitchhiker in ‘Gimme a Ride to Heaven’ — and take it to a different place, where it becomes a very spiritual song,” says singer-songwriter Joe Ely, who has covered the tune in his live sets for three decades. “So many songs today are built around a cliché. (But) Terry puts the knife in and twists. He has no time for surface stuff.
“Terry has a knack for looking at things from the inside out. His songs are like that. His paintings are like that. When you look at a painting of his, you’re seeing what someone is thinking inside.” It’s not the sweat on the subject’s face that you see, but the feeling beyond it.
Allen’s first album, the cult masterpiece “Juarez” — conceived in the late 1960s and first issued in 1975 — deals with running away, crossing a border, taking flight, and finding a way home. His latest album, a spare beauty titled “Bottom of the World,” touches those themes as well, in different climates. “I’ve read some awful things things about Cuernavaca,” he sings on the title cut. “Sounds like a place to go.”
There’s even a song about a movie theater …
“I’ve been in the dark all of my life, waiting for ‘The Wake of Red Witch,’” he sings on the record. It’s a about a boy, anticipating the start of a John Wayne film. And true to Terry Allen, it’s about more than that: It’s about the beauty of immersion, the death of icons and the conflicted sensation of waiting … and waiting … for anything.
Insecurity and mystery
During their courtship, Terry Allen would appear at Jo Harvey’s door in Lubbock with a sly grin and a mock sense of urgency. “Hurry up!” he’d implore her. “They’re after us!” They would dash to the car, peel out of the neighborhood and take flight from the make-believe demons intent on chasing them down.
All in the name of play.
On their wedding day, however, Terry and Jo Harvey ran away from Lubbock for real — and drove all the way to California. In Los Angeles, Terry Allen found refuge and true identity as an artist at the Chouinard Art Institute.
“Man Ray, the artist, the American surrealist … was one of the artists who came to the school to talk with us,” says Allen. “I remember him saying that the great thing about being an artist is that you can do anything you want to do. You can make a painting. You can take a photograph. You can teach your dog a trick. You can eat such-and-such food. You can do anything as an artist because you’re free. But always, with that, comes the responsibility to the thing you’re doing.
“He also said: You know, it’s OK to be a really bad artist. Because bad artists don’t hurt anybody. Not like a bad doctor. Or a bad lawyer.”
Allen shares this reminiscence with a sense of cordial, good-hearted joy. He’s a tall and slender man, broad-shouldered, with a full head of hair at 69 and a hippy gait that makes him look a little bit like an art cowboy. He drives a black pickup truck, favors black shirts and black shades and black cowboy boots. But for a guy whose artwork belongs to some of the most prestigious museums in the world, there’s nothing standoffish about him. Allen is as authentic as the old hand who waves “howdy” from the window of his truck on a country highway.
Over a lunch of tacos at a sunny South Austin restaurant, Allen jokes that coming to a life in art involved coming face to face with his own insecurity. “That propels a lot of things, you know,” he says. “It pushes you: The realization that whatever you make, whatever you do, you would like for people to like it. You would like for people to buy it. But if you expect it? You’re a fool. You know?”
In the late 1960s, Allen committed to “Juarez” in this very spirit. At first, he didn’t know what it would become. A movie? A soundtrack? A record? He drew sketches, created songs, gave his voice over to the dream of it. The album — produced on a budget, with a spareness of instrumentation that makes it feel like a demo tape — was barely noticed upon its release in 1975. Yet as the songwriter Dave Alvin observed in recent liner notes: “Juarez” stands as one of the great songwriter records of all time.
“Juarez” aspires to a high literary standard. It’s a concept album, a story record, about four strangers on the road who meet in the Four Corners region of Colorado. The album is coarse, violent, direct. Yet it’s also poetic, nuanced, mysterious. In the opening minutes of the album, Allen speaks to the listener directly and offers a skeleton synopsis of his record-play. Then the songs riff around it, spinning forward and backward in time.
The lead character in the drama, Jabo, sings early on, “I’m gonna make me a killing in Juarez,” only to engage in killing of a different sort. This tendency toward double meaning, a kind of literary mirroring, becomes the artistic signature of “Juarez.” For example, Cortez is a town in the drama — and it’s also the Conquistador Ghost who drives so much of the action.
“Juarez made itself. I never pushed it into a story. It just became,” says Allen, who still thinks of the piece as alive and evolving, 44 years after its creation. “It came out of nowhere. And it came fast. Fast, with drawings, and I drew as fast as I could. I’m still not sure what it is — or if it’s necessary to know. It’s a presence I totally accept as being unexplained.
“I’ve said this before about ‘Juarez’: I’ve never really thought of (the characters) as people. I’ve always thought about them as these entitites, these climates, moving and colliding and and altering and becoming one another. I’ve encountered this before, trying to deal with it as a film several times. Or as a theater piece. And making them people. It’s always uncomfortable for me — and it always has been.”
Queenie vanished one day in Santa Fe and never came home. She was Terry Allen’s dog, a blue heeler, only three years old. Allen and his family searched for her in the woods near their house for weeks. Then, one day, they found her dead, with a bullet hole in her forehead.
The songwriter Guy Clark was visiting when Allen, and his son Bale, devastated, brought Queenie home for the last time. He remarked to Terry: “Why not write a song about it?” So together, they stepped into darkness of their creative imagination and did:
“Queenie’s gettin’ buried, it’s time to dig the hole / New Year’s Day in Santa Fe broke mean, and it broke cold.”
“Queenie’s Song,” featured on “Bottom of the World,” accentuates Allen’s penchant for directness. He curses at the mystery dog-killer in his song, vows to track him down. But there’s plain-spoken poetry here, too, when the gravediggers acknowledge meanness and mortality upon finishing their job.
“Ah, Brother Death and Father Time, they’re almost loaded up / headed for the borderline in a stolen pickup truck.”
Allen has long favored strong thematic unity on his albums. For example: “Lubbock (on Everything)” played like a collection of West Texas short stories. “Amerasia” was a musical and social mediation on the impact of the American incursion into Vietnam. “Pedal Steel” is a play, set to music. “Salivation” is a barbed, satirical take on Western values and religion.
“Bottom of the World,” Allen’s first album in 13 years, is quiet, uncluttered, spare, with gentle, marimba-style keyboard lines that give it a liquid quality. There’s some great writing in it:
“Why do angels have wings if they can’t fly away / from the way that things are to the way they should be?” he sings on “Angels of the Wind,” originally written for a character in his 1994 stage play, “Chippy.” “Why do angels have wings / if they never fly free?
The idea of “the deep” rolls freely through the “Bottom of the World” album: the depth of grief; the depth of conscience; a humorous take on hell, as viewed from heaven; the dark unknown; the diving bell. At the end: a love song, “Covenant,” in which Allen professes the depth of his love for Jo Harvey.
As always, Allen’s song structures are varied, daring. On past albums, he’s utilized the character of a talking duck, indented individual songs into chapters by changing time and tempo, interwoven spoken word with singing. But this album, co-produced by Lloyd Maines and Allen’s son Bukka, is most distinctive for its tone; the quietness holds you.
“I’ve never been interested in style. Ever,” says Allen, considering how intent influences his music and his albums. “Instead, I’ve always thought that your curiosity takes you to a place … takes you into those mysteries … and then style takes care of itself.”
In the darkness of the Cactus Café, Terry Allen and his band — driven by the organic sounds of cello, accordion, fiddle, mandolin — steer away from his new material and launch into the jagged terrain of “Juarez.” It’s early in the second set.
Seated at his electric keyboard, Allen does not introduce the songs. He does not explain them. He does not play them in order. Instead: Allen immerses himself in the music and lets the spirit of the playing speak for itself.
On stage, Allen “becomes” Juarez, dipping his right shoulder, pounding the keyboard harder and harder. His eyes narrow. He becomes the lightning, the urgent highway, rain on the windshield, gunshots, rage, the first glimpse of Cortez, a vacant sea, a vacancy, and the broken soul of Spanish Alice. Everyone on stage is dressed in black, which pulls even more attention to the music. At the quietest moment of the night, Allen’s son Bukka — on accordion — bows his head and mouths the word to “Dogwood,” a song he’s known since infancy, as his father sings it to the house.
Later, Terry Allen will confess he lost all sensation of audience at this point in the show. “I just disappear into these songs,” he’ll say, shaking his head. But right now, he’s deep in the dark, racing and running in his imagination, flying toward home between the bars of a song.