BY Dan Fox in Profiles | 22 SEP 16
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Issue 182

The Re-issue of Two Country Music Albums by Conceptual Artist and Musician Terry Allen

‘Allen can take the listener from a tender meditation on the meaning of home to a stomping history lesson about Spanish conquistadors invading Mexico, and then flip right back’

BY Dan Fox in Profiles | 22 SEP 16

You could argue that Terry Allen’s album Juarez, first released in 1975 by the print workshop Landfall Press, is a singular moment in the history of country music. You could also make a persuasive case that his Juarez is one of the most singular and underrated works in the history of US conceptual art. But it’s best to leave the question of how we define Juarez to Allen himself: ‘People tell me it’s country music, and I ask: “Which country?”’

Which country indeed. Simply described, Juarez – re-issued in May, followed this month by Allen’s second album Lubbock (on everything) (1979), named after his hometown in Texas – is a story about US and Mexican border crossings. A Texan named Sailor meets his lover, Spanish Alice, in a Tijuana bar. They travel north to the US and stop in the town of Cortez, Colorado. There, they run afoul of Jabo, a pachuco (a 1940s Mexican-American gangster), and his girlfriend, Chic Blundie, who likes to graffiti rocks. Jabo and Blundie are on their way from Los Angeles to Juarez, taking the long route by way of Cortez. (‘They go north to go south,’ as Allen’s narrative puts it.) The two couples fight. Sailor and Alice are murdered and the pachuco and rock-writer go on the lam. Having successfully escaped into Mexico, Jabo and Blundie part. End of story.

Juarez is arranged as sparsely as the high plains desert that Allen comes from. (He says Lubbock is ‘so flat […] that on a clear day, if you stare really intently, you can see the back of your own head’.) The recording, made over a couple of days in San Francisco, captures solo piano, a dusting of guitar and mandolin, and the sound of a foot stomping the floor to keep time. Allen’s tenor sits front and centre, punctuating the songs with spoken-­word roadstops. His voice can darken to a drawl then switch to a lupine howl when evoking Jabo’s menace, or summon a startlingly clear tone, like the cold desert air at night, to describe the tragedy of Sailor and Alice’s fate.

Terry Allen at his piano, Los Angeles, late 1960s. Courtesy: the artist, T.G. Caraway and Paradise of Bachelors 

Borders, and the act of ignoring them, are important to Allen. In 1994, he made Cross the Razor: two stages facing each other through the chain-link fence on a short stretch of the US/Mexico line between Tijuana and San Diego. Each stage had a sound-system and Allen invited local musicians on both sides to turn up, play and talk about the frontier. It’s a rejoinder to chauvinists who think that ‘American’ music means ‘US’ music. (The threat of Trumpian racism super-charges any listening of Juarez today.) Tejano, a style of 1950s US country music fusing rock’n’roll with Mexican música norteño (northern music), is an abiding influence on Lubbock (on everything) and the songs on Juarez echo the corrido, a narrative ballad widespread across Mexico. Within the space of one song – the powerful ‘Cortez Sail’ on Juarez, for instance – Allen can take the listener from a tender meditation on the meaning of home to a stomping history lesson about Spanish conquistadors invading Mexico, and then flip right back.

Juarez straddles other terrains, too: that of alt-country music and conceptual art. Allen is widely regarded as an influence on alt-country bands such as Uncle Tupelo, whose 1993 album, Anodyne, features Lloyd Maines, also the guitarist on Lubbock (on everything). But the genre designation runs much deeper than generational inspiration. Despite the Tejano swing of the Lubbock (on everything) songs and outlaw narratives of love, murder and fugitive life on Juarez, you could scarcely imagine the violent tale of Sailor, Alice, Jabo and Blundie performed at the Grand Ole Opry. The Juarez narrative is unresolved – there is no moral to learn at the end, the only sense being the senseless drift of people’s lives. Allen once admitted of his characters that he ‘couldn’t see their faces. I always thought of them as climates, moving across geography, crashing into one another.’

Critic Jonathan Crary has described Allen’s work as ‘a Buñuelian vision of red neck, Bible Belt, cowboy country and the languages and textures of those zones […] the America of tent-meeting revivalism, truck-driver wisdom, trailerpark life and circus sideshows.’ Juarez is a work of landscape art, reminiscent – if not in form then in spirit – of Robert Ashley’s ‘TV opera’ Perfect Lives (1981), another story of love and law-breaking that fuses avant-garde techniques with US vernacular speech and song. The tracks on Juarez are underscored by the sound effects of thunderstorms and breaking glass, giving it the character, at certain points, of a radio play. You could almost say that these effects prefigure the album’s own future. Over the years, Juarez has taken the form of a one-woman stage play and a NPR radio dramatization starring Allen’s wife, Jo Harvey Allen – Juarez: A Work in Progress (1992) and Reunion (A Return to Juarez) (2001), respectively – and a major installation at the Wexner Center, Columbus: a simple story (Juarez) (1992). The work has further inspired a theatre play written in collaboration with David Byrne, on whose 1986 film True Stories Allen’s songs also appear. Incidentally, the only time Allen performed the suite live in its entirety was for H.C. Westermann’s 2001 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Westermann (who died in 1981), was another unique figure in US art and an enormous fan of Juarez.

This year's re-issues are poignant and witty sorties against dominant New York-centric narratives of US art history.

These songs began life as companion pieces to drawings, performed during Allen’s solo exhibition ‘Cowboy and the Stranger’ at Michael Walls Gallery, San Francisco, in 1968, and Juarez cannot fully be appreciated without studying the dreamlike series of lithographs that he made to accompany the first edition of the album. The images are surrounded by explanatory notes and quotes from the lyrics. One print depicts a green mountain range at night, the peaks inscribed with the names of all the album’s locations. A giant pillow is wedged into a narrow valley between slopes labelled ‘Tijuana’ and ‘San Diego’. Another image shows the interior of the trailer in which Sailor and Alice are murdered. The bed is a recurring theme: a place of sex, dreams and death. Allen imagines it dotted with rocks, floating above a grey ocean; in another, it is stained with blood and embedded with a shovel. The only consistent elements in these drawings are furniture, weather and trailer interiors: the people are just climatic variations.

When once asked what art was for, Allen’s answer was: ‘To get out of town.’ This year’s re-issues, beautifully packaged by the Paradise of Bachelors label, are poignant and witty sorties against dominant New York-centric narratives of US art history. As a young man, Allen couldn’t wait to leave Texas, escaping to Los Angeles to study at the Chouinard Art Institute (later incorporated into CalArts). Recorded in California with a full band – drums, bass, piano, guitar and pedal steel – the 21 tracks on Lubbock (on everything) are rear-view mirror songs, describing from a distance Allen’s hometown and how it formed him. From the opening track ‘Amarillo Highway’ (dedicated to art critic Dave Hickey) to the album closer – the rueful ‘I Just Left Myself’ – the mood is raucous, funny, closer in tone to the southern satire of Randy Newman. Lubbock (on everything) evokes local characters, love affairs, landscapes and life on the road. Yet, as writer Brendan Greaves puts it in the album’s accompanying booklet: ‘Rather than frantically covering ground like Juarez, with its map-happy, burnt-rubber pursuits and escapes, it instead digs down and burrows inward.’

Lubbock (on everything) showcases a number of wry reflections on Allen’s relationship to the art world’s class contortions and geographical snobberies. ‘Truckload of Art’ tells the story of a group of New York artists who, inflated with self-importance, drive to California in order to ‘chide, cajole, humble and humiliate’ their West Coast counterparts. Unfortunately, along the way, their vehicle, heavy with artworks, spins off the road leaving the ‘truckload of art, burning on the highway’. (A version of the song can be heard on the soundtrack to Monte Hellman’s existential 1971 road movie Two Lane Blacktop.) ‘Oui (A French Song)’ tells of Allen giving up ‘all my sculpturin’ ‘cos my life had gone all sad’, to take work on a factory assembly line. (‘It weren’t art, but it weren’t wrong.’) ‘Some say it’s pathetic / when you give up your aesthetic / for a blue-collar job in a factory / But all that exhibitin’ / is just too damn inhibitin’ / for a beer-drinkin’ regular guy like me.’ (Eight years later, in 1987, Allen was included in Documenta 8, so the factory work can’t have suited him either.)

Lubbock (on everything) and Juarez are restless travelogues, songs of feeling out of place and in search of home. Time changes everything, they suggest. But, once again, Allen puts it best when he deadpans halfway through Juarez: ‘Today’s rainbow is tomorrow’s tamale.’

Terry Allen’s Juarez and Lubbock (on everything) were re-issued this year by Paradise of Bachelors. Lead image: Terry Allen, Pillow in the Mountains (Juarez suite), 1975. Courtesy: the artist, Landfall Press and Paradise of Bachelors

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).