Terry Allen’s Avant-C&W Masterwork, Juarez
This is real life. —Terry Allen, “Real Life and the Radio”
Innovative art that matters—Louis Armstrong’s trumpet-playing, Charlie Parker’s bebop John Cage’s 4’33”, Jimi Hendrix’s electric blues, Citizen Kane and 8 1/2, Waiting for Godot, V., Borges’s fictions, Pale Fire, Ulysses, the collaborations of Brecht and Weil, “The Waste Land,” Picasso’s Guernica, Warhol’s soup cans, Duchamp’s ready-mades, Pollock’s splattered canvases—always manages to alter fundamentally our notions of what a given art form is, can do, what it might do. One of the subsets of innovation especially attuned to postmodernism’s spirit of intertextuality, collaboration, and the dismantling of distinctions between high art and popular culture has been the exploration by “serious” artists of genres long considered to be trivial and insignificant. These sorts of artistic leaps often have an especially broad impact precisely because the artist is working with, and extended, codes, themes, and motifs that mass audiences are already familiar with. When an artist confounds our expectations by exploring, exploding, and extending the boundaries of a popular genre—the way Hammett did with detective fiction in Red Harvest, or Kubrick with science fiction in 2001, or what Dylan and the Beatles did to rock in Bringing It All Back Home and Sgt. Pepper’s—the reverberations for the audience and other artists alike seem larger and more intimate simply because more people are in touch with (and hence can appreciate) the nature of the transformations involved.
Although much less well-known than the examples already cited, a work which deserves to be recognized as having made an equally significant contribution to its field is Terry Allen’s astonishing debut album, Juarez (1975, Fate Records), a work whose ambitious range of musical and poetic achievements has the effect of instantly redefining the parameters of country and western music in much the way that John Ford’s Stagecoach did for the western film fifty years ago. Postmodernism’s tendency towards free play, genre breakdowns, and the collapsing of categories has been nowhere more evident than in the field of popular music, where artists like John Zorn, Michael Nyman, Carla Bley, Brian Eno, Tom Waits, Kip Hanrahan, Laurie Anderson, the Kronos Quartet, David Byrne, and even Bruce Springsteen have been steadily dismantling all sorts of music barriers for over twenty five years now.
On the other hand, even people who pride themselves on the catholicity of their artistic tastes—the sort who can, for example, speak appreciatively of the serious artistry of George Romero’s and David Cronenberg’s gore-and-splatter movies, of Ann Rice’s and Stephen King’s fictive treatments of horror, of William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s cyberpunk fiction, and of Carl Stalling’s musical compositions for Warner Brother’s cartoons—seem to have a difficult time making the gestalt adjustments required for them to cue up a country and western album. And Terry Allen is no city slicker dipping momentarily into C&W to see what “primitive” sounds or motifs can be grafted onto more sophisticated musical structures—although in the albums that immediately followed Juarez (Lubbock on Everything [a double album, 1978], Smoking the Dummy , and Bloodlines ), Allen pushes the structures and rhythms of his compositions into surprising new directions and occasionally parodies and otherwise employs the features of rock, salsa, and other musical idioms.
No, if anything Allen—a Lubbock native who escaped from Texas with a vengeance that’s continually fueled his art—has produced C&W music that is, for all its eccentric genius, too “authentic” to be hip. Certainly Juarez in particular is an album whose power, beauty, and complexity derive from precisely those features that are probably responsible for its obscurity: the simple, raw elegance of its production sound and Allen’s minimalist-piano playing; its disquietingly empathetic presentations—reminiscent of what one finds in Springsteen’s Nebraska and the stories of Flannery O’Conner and Raymond Carver—of twisted longings, inconsolable losses; the sheer brute ugliness and allure of the confused passions and savage violence motivating its central characters; Allen’s raunchy humor, obscenity, and quirky (but remarkably expressive) vocal mannerisms, with their exaggerated, SW Texas inflections, soaring yodels, and hillbilly falsettos. In short, in Juarez Allen has created a master work that puts its audience directly in touch with the disturbing passions and violence that have always been at the heart of the real Wild West. And that’s probably too close for most listeners’ comfort. Juarez is the kind of album that sounds best on one of those late night alcoholic glows, when the four walls and the dark are closing in but you don’t give a fuck because right now you want to taste it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly, when you’re feeling a bit like Juarez‘s Sailor, who’s says of the two dollar whore he’s just met and decided to marry:
Yeah I can feel my skinny body
Slip like a knife into her perfume
And I can hear her red mouth whisper
Leaking from down the hall
Yeah I can feel her dry hips blister
Rubbin’ noises against the wall
Then like a scream she says she wants it “tough”
An suddenly I got nobody but that’s enough.
Admittedly, referring to Juarez’s transcendence of its C&W origins is a bit of a red herring because it is rooted so distinctly in imagery and musical textures that are more western than country and western (it would make as much sense to refer to Red River or The Searchers as “C&W cinema” or to call the works of Larry McMurtry and Thomas McGuane “C&W novels”). Just as Bruce Springsteen’s early albums aim at expressing a mythic vision of ordinary experience by means of idioms, symbols and sounds that emerged naturally from the street scenes and bars along the Jersey shoreline where he grew up, Terry Allen’s songs about universal passions and primal longings are tied to a geographical place: the West, with its code of violence and loneliness, its big skies and dramatic sense of space which create such an overwhelming sense of one’s vulnerability and insignificance—and which produce such a primal need to somehow make one’s mark in all this vast, inhuman expanse.
This isn’t to ignore Allen’s considerable debt to the traditions of C&W music, as that form has evolved over the past sixty or eighty years. But those earlier artists who had the biggest impact in shaping the sound and central thematic and symbolic preoccupations of C&W—Jimmy Rodgers, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, and (in a different way) Elvis Presley—were, with the exception of Wills, more southern and rural than “western”; and their chief influence, in turn—white ballads and hillbilly music, Dixieland jazz, the blues, gospel music—were similarly southern in orientation. Allen’s work has inevitably been influenced to an extent by this traditional brand of C&W: one can hear the scratchy echoes of the sad country blues of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, for example, with their chilling intensity, evocation of private demons, and their obsessions with alcohol, guns, lost women, and rootlessness. But Allen is a transplanted Texan who spent years living in California (including an extended period teaching in the Art Department at San Jose State University), where C&W has been thriving and mutating since the Okie invasion during the thirties; and the venerable tradition of California-based singers and bands with a C&W flavor extends from Buck Owens and The Maddox Brothers and Rose in the 30s, through Merle Haggard, the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and Graham Parsons, right up to Dwight Yokum, Dave and Phil Alvin, X, The Beat Farmers, and probably California’s premier band of the 1970s, Little Feat, which covered Allen’s “New Delhi Freight Train” in their Time Loves A Hero album. (Allen subsequently included a dedication to the late founder of Little Feat in his “The Heart of California (for Lowell George)” in Smoking the Dummy). It’s also significant that C&W in the West has naturally been flavored by its proximity to Mexico—a border context that Allen explores, musically and thematically, in various ways in Juarez.
The narrative thread linking all the songs in Juarez is, as Allen puts it in the spoken introduction to the album, “A simple story,” of dreams, lust, escape, mayhem, despair. It’s the story of characters and events which seem as real and unpredictable as those one might encounter on a daily basis in the L.A. ghetto or on the teeming border streets of Tijuana and Juarez; it also traces a highly abstract trajectory of movement that unfolds with tragic, almost geometrical precision as Allen sets his characters moving along different trajectories which intersect with all the power of a head-on collision. Thus, Juarez‘s storyline propels the two sets of characters (the Abilene-born Sailor and Spanish Alice, the Juarez-born pachuco Jabo and his mysterious lover, Chic Blundy) on a joy-ride from southern California back to their Tex-Mex “homes” across a landscape charged with a rich variety of symbolic implications. Thus, when Jabo makes his departure from L.A. “on a cloudy day/Pushing the crowd away,” he encounters a projection of his own inner turmoil and longings:
Tearing the clouds, then closing the tear
Ahhhh but you’re not surprised anymore . . .
You’re going home ahhhh . . . to Paradise
This fusion of inner, psychological drama with the outer landscape is, of course, a common device in western films and fiction—and Allen handles it throughout Juarez with great intuitive assurance, as natural symbols (the rain, the moon, clouds, the winds, trees, mountains) both loom over and interact with these human figures and their artifacts (the highway, guns, maps, neon signs, and jukeboxes) producing resonances that emerge only after repeated listenings. The kinds of juxtapositions, dramatic tensions, and poetic associations Allen achieves in Juarez are possible, of course, only in a work whose progression is tied to narrative (the phrase “opera” has real applications here), and in this regard Juarez ranks with only a handful of other popular albums that have successfully combined music and story (I would regard only The Who’s Quadrophenia and perhaps The Kinks' Soap Opera as achieving any nearly comparable effects with this form).
As might be expected, the most elaborately developed motif in Juarez is "the border," a symbol that Allen presents in a variety of contexts beginning with the album’s opening song, "The Juarez Device":
I am a Texican badman
An I got a pistol in my hand
An I'm gonna go
Across that Rio Grande ... eeee
Where the women are willing
An the life there is thrillin’
Gonna make me a killing in Juarez
These simple but suggestive images imply much about what will follow: figures of deeply complex divisions (a 'Texican"), powerful dissatisfactions and longings combined with the sense that some kind of primal borderline has been blocking excitement and fulfillment, a gleeful acceptance of the role of violence in crossing that border.
Like Ethan Edwards (the obsessive, revenge-crazed protagonist in John Ford's brilliant film, The Searchers), Allen’s Jabo is a figure whose dualities are very much part of the western mythology‑and of the larger mythology of America itself. Like Ford's quintessential hero, Jabo is a man whose tormented capacity for great feeling and for brutality is responsible for the charged intensity associated with so man western heroes. In "Dogwood Tree," a mournful ballad of great beauty and power, Allen exposes the raw nerves of Jabo’s tormented soul in a few deft Biblical lines:
"I feel just like a dogwood tree
Yeah somebody come and carved a cross out of me
Then they carried me down to Jerusalem
An the people there give me to the carpenter's son
Well he carried my weight up to Golgotha plain
And the skies turned black, Lord it started to rain
Then police with their hammers drove his white hands into me
An they make him a part of a dogwood tree."
This volatile mixture of holy‑roller‑fervor‑gone-wrong and sense of victimization is, of course, something Americans have encountered a lot recently in figures as seemingly diverse as Oliver North, Saddam Hussein, and those wild‑eyed, gun‑waving mass-murderer celebrity figures who show up in our newspaper headlines every Christmas‑season. Such people represent the dark side of the western hero—and the dark side, as well, of America’s ongoing love affair with macho violence as a response to being wronged. Thus, as Jabo races through the grooves of Juarez toward his rendezvous with sex and death in Cortez (a name specifically linked in with the earlier bloody mayhem made in the name of religion and gold in “Cortez Sail”), we are once again encountering a disturbingly familiar figure: a man with a gun and a map and a sense of having been wronged; a man who is now thrilled with his sense of power, his sense of being finally alive and in control now magnified insanely. In the foot-stomping, fuel-injected rocker, “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny S. California,” Jabo’s description of an earlier joy-ride becomes the scariest and most exhilarating moment in the album:
Well I wired up a car In East Fontana
I was headed for San Berdo
Yeah my midnight oil
It was on the boil
An boy I was barreling through
... Then I stopped on off
At the liquor store
I made everybody lay down on the floor
Then I took their whiskey
An I took their bread
Then I shot out the lights
Just before I fled
Yeah I leave a few people dead
But I got open road dead ahead
As so many Vietnam veterans have testified, for sheer excitement nothing can come close to matching the high of killing people ‑ which is one reason the myth of the West, with its archetypal face-offs amidst inhumanly vast natural backgrounds, has such a universal appeal. What is frightening about Jabo (and about his victim/double, Sailor), then, is what we applaud in Oliver North and what the brainwashing of basic training is specifically designed to instill in 18 and 19‑year‑old infantrymen: the ability to murder brutally and even joyfully.
What is perhaps most unsettling about Allen’s portrayal of these characters is his unsentimental refusal to either forgive or condemn them. Throughout Juarez Allen finds a series of musical and lyrical means to express the idea that the border between anger and love, beauty and ugliness, pain and joy is a razor’s edge indeed. And if Allen puts us inside the scary exuberance that emerges from their anger and passions, he is also capable‑as in the album’s final song, “La Despedida” (“The Parting”), of starkly rendering the inevitable, solitary destination of all our joyrides. Accompanied by the bittersweet strain of a mandolin plucking some melody out of a Mexican cantina, Allen plays his simple honky-tonk piano and in a few resonant images creates a haunting tableau of Jabo--now across that border at last, but alone and spent—who must now face an inconsolable despair:
An it's four o’clock in the morning
An I feel like I in prison
Cause I’m sitting here in darkness all alone
An there’s a pistol in die drawer
The bed it’s still made up
I’m drinking whiskey from a bottle on floor
An there’s a lonely neon flashing
Crashing through my window
Making darkness all the worse between the glow
An there ain’t no God at all
Just some jukebox down the hall playing the blues
An trying to lay me low.
The point being, I suppose, that when all is said and done, no matter how much hell you've raised and how many people you’ve fucked, all the guns and the whiskey and memories you've got don’t mean a damn thing now because, as the song concludes, "it’s all gonna leave you/Just singing a song." If there’s a more starkly moving emblem in popular music of the beauty and despair of our shared solitary condition, I sure don’t know about it. At any rate, it is finally Allen’s ability to find in the C&W music and idiom such a terrifying and wondrous expression of what drives men like this that is Juarez’s greatest triumph.
APPENDIX A: Some Background Information about Terry Allen and Juarez.
Terry Allen was born in 1943 in Wichita, Kansas and spent his childhood and high-school years in Lubbock, Texas, a town perched on the edge of the Texas Panhandle with a long history of producing eccentric musical figures who brewed up a volatile mixture of country, hard driving, rockabilly, swing, and the blues (Lubbock alumni include Buddy Holly and Joe Ely, the latter having appeared on Allen’s Lubbock on Everything and collaborated with Allen on Chippy). His father, Sled Allen, played major league baseball (he was a catcher for the St. Louis Browns) while his mother, Pauline Roosevelt Piers Allen, was a professional jazz and barrel house piano player. After graduating from high school, Allen left Lubbock for California with his wife, actress and performance artist Jo Harvey Allen, where he received his BGA from Chovinard Art Institute. During the 1960s and 70s, Allen’s creative energies spilled over into several different forms: sculpture and video (the two forms he probably remains best known for in the U.S., particularly for Youth in Asia, a body of visual and audio pieces dealing with the aftermath of America’s war in Vietnam), drawings, environments, theater, installations, performance art, music, and numerous unclassifiable, mixed-media works. Occasionally returning home to Lubbock for extended periods of time, Allen also had an extended (and apparently unhappy) stint as a member of the Art Department at San Jose State University ( he had earlier turned down an offer to teach art at Berkeley). During the 1980s, Allen’s work in the fine arts began attracting increasing attention, both in the U.S. and abroad, particularly Germany. In 1986 he received a Guggenheim fellowship for the visual arts (1986), and recorded a soundtrack album, Amerasia, for the film of the same name by German director Wolf-Eckhart Buhler. In addition to doing the soundtrack sets and costumes for Pedal Steel, a dance piece choreographed by Margaret Jenkins which premiered at the BAM Next Wave Festival in 1985, for which he received the Isodora Duncan-Award and Bessie Smith Award. has participated in numerous national and international exhibitions, including Documenta VIII (in Kassel, W. Germany). Allen returned to the SW in the early 90s, establishing a residence in Sante Fe where he currently lives.
Juarez has had a long and complex gestation period, and has periodically gone through major transformations in different modes. It found its start in 1969 as a series of drawings and songs, the earliest of which came about in Allen’s first Lubbock studio. But Juarez continued to expand, spilling over into a variety of forms, as it continues to do so to this day. The audio recording of Juarez was done in San Francisco and featured musicians who would become the core of Allen’s “Panhandle Mystery Band” which would accompany Allen on most of his later studio albums. A screenplay based on Juarez followed in 1978, followed by a performance adaptation by Jo Harvey. By 1980, the piece had changed into “A Simple Story”—an installation piece of three units, incorporating aspects of song, image, word, space, and form. A recent incarnation is a stage script co-written by Allen and his friend, David Byrne, who used several Allen songs on the soundtrack to his first feature film, True Stories. Allen hopes to have this script eventually staged as a kind of “horse opera” at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music.
APPENDIX B: CREDITS AND DISCOGRAPHY:
Juarez. Fate Records, 1975. All songs written by Terry Allen. Musicians: Terry Allen (piano and all lead vocals); Greg Douglas (guitar); Peter Kaukonen (guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, backup vocals), Greg Douglas (guitar and acoustic guitar); Diane Morris (backup vocals). Produced by Jimmy (AKA Jamie) Howell. Engineered by Ken Hopkins and Jeff Husband. Mastered by Ken Hopkins. Recorded at Wally Heider Studio, San Francisco. Album design and concept by Terry Allen. Cover photo by Jo Harvey Allen.
Lubbock on Everything (double album). Fate Records, 1978.
Smoking the Dummy., Fate Records, 1980.
Bloodlines. Fate Records, 1975.
Pedal Steel. Fate Records, 1985.
Amerasia. Fate Records, 1987.
Rollback. Fate Records, 1987.
Silent Majority. Sugar Hill Records, 1993.
Human Remains. Sugar Hill Records, 1996.
Chippy (with Joe Ely). Sugar Hill Records, 1994.
Salivation. Sugar Hill Records, 1999.
 For an overview of Allen’s career and a summary of the evolution of Juarez into a number of different forms, see appendix A at the conclusion of this essay.
 This spoken text, “DIALOGUE: THE CHARACTERS/A SIMPLE STORY,” goes as follows:
Juarez: THE CHARACTERS: Sailor, a Texas-boy just returned from duty with the Navy in the Pacific is on leave in the port of San Diego ; Spanish Alice—a Mexican prostitute working the bars in Tijuana and looking for ways into the USA.; Jabo—a Mexican-born pachuco living in Los Angeles decides to go home by way of a joyride up into southern Colorado; Chick Blundy, Jabo’s L.A. girlfriend, an enigma, rock rider, and occasionally, Jabo himself.
A Simple Story.
Sailor meets Alice in a Tijuana bar. They get drunk, fuck, cry to believe together, and get married. They cross the border and travel by car, probably a Buick, from San Diego to Cortez Colorado. They honeymoon in a small mountain trailer and exactly at the same time, Jabo appeals to and persuades Chick to leave L.A for Juarez by way of Cortez. They go north to get south.
 Cf. The following stanzas:
Four hundred years ago . . . down in Mexico
The Spanish galleons drew near
Ah the Aztec warriors watched from their mountains sides
Ahhh the fear in their eyes . . . as clear as their end it was near
Yeah Cortez he comes with his men and his guns
And a Spanish Christ alive on his lip
But as soon as he touched ground . . . well his men wanted to turn around
But he burned down their turnaround ships
Well he crossed all that water with the canon and fodder
If need to be to slaughter . . . for Gods and for gold
An he wouldn’t let no man talk him in to being anything other
Than Conquistador bold . . . ahhh Pachuco to Paradise . . . yeah to Paradise
 Readers are mostly likely to remember Joe Harvey as “The Lying Lady” in David Byrne’s feature film, True Stories.