Terry Allen

TrackAlbum
Cortez SailJuarez
La Despedida (The Parting)Juarez
New Delhi Freight TrainLubbock (On Everything)
Lubbock WomanLubbock (On Everything)
Gimme A Ride To Heaven BoyBloodlines
Back To BlackHuman Remains
SalivationSalivation
Billy The BoySalivation
Give Me The FlowersSalivation
Do They Dream Of Hell In HeavenBottom Of The World

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Contributor: Dave Stephens

Song writer and performer. Communicates via plenty of other channels including painting and sculpture plus teaching/lecturing, theatre and writing. Represented in the New York Museum Of Modern Art and other such respected institutions.

Highly distinctive voice and piano technique. It’s rare that you can’t identify comparable voices for a singer but that’s the case with Mr Allen. I’ve seen Randy Newman’s name but that doesn’t get close, and is probably only dragged in because of the caustic wit on display in both artists’ songs (and Newman also plays piano of course). That voice isn’t a thing of beauty in a conventional sense but it’s marvellously expressive. Intense, sardonic, anger-packed, nasal, cracked, full of Texan twang though he can do tender when he wants to. Humour is rarely far from the surface, black or otherwise. His tickling of ivories gets less of a mention in reviews but it shouldn’t be ignored. A combination of certain quite uncommon note combinations plus regular violence committed on keyboards plus an unusually high usage of 3/4 time in his songs plus I’m not quite sure what else, manage to create an Allen sound that’s clearly recognisable.

Logically I should start with selection(s) from Juarez, Terry’s first album, released in 1975. But I listened through it again and wasn’t able to disassociate individual tracks from the overall piece. I should explain that it’s a connected song cycle. Some might term it a rock opera but it’s not really opera or rock. It’s a story told by a series of songs plus some wry descriptive monologue. It’s about two couples, Sailor and Alice, Jabo and Chic. Each pair make their way from Southern California to Cortez, Colorado, where they meet and fight, leaving two dead. The survivors flee to Juarez, Mexico. That’s not quite it because Allen drops in other stories. The plot is as simple or complex as you want to make it. Even though several of the songs have already appeared on later albums complete with much more adornment than the stripped back Juarez originals, I still relate strongly with the blueprint versions and the overall structure they combined to create.

I decided to circle round. Go for a (hopefully) easier target and come back to Juarez with a clearer mind.

New Delhi Freight Train is one of two shitkicking stormers on the second album Lubbock (On Everything). The other is Amarillo Highway. Giving it that categorisation doesn’t necessarily imply it’s mindless driving music. As is almost invariably the case with Terry the lyrics pack a punch:

Yeah I’m a country boy without angels
Ahhh just a country boy without gold
An’ I been to silver cities load of rainbows
Where I pillaged and I killed and I stole

Yup, our man is in getaway mode (on a freight train?) but he tells us “I welcomed the run from what I’d done”. Little Feat came up with a version of the song and put it on 1977’s Time Loves A Hero which actually predated Lubbock (On Everything). Lowell George and Terry Allen had become buddies during the latter’s long California sojourn, hence the song coming available. Notwithstanding the implied compliment of the Little Feat take, Allen’s ‘original’ was more gutsy – Terry himself obviously relished the support from guys like Lloyd Maines, Ponty Bone etc. who’d cut their teeth on sessions for better known members of the Lubbock Mafia like Joe Ely (and yes, that was Joe on harmonica).

In contrast Lubbock Woman kicks off like a good old fashioned Texas Two Step. It’s one of a whole host of delicious character studies which occupy the bulk of Lubbock (On Everything). This little lady who’s seen better days, is …

… out to win
But she’s destined to lose
Too much rouge
Too much booze

And there’s more. Sounds desolate but affection eventually takes over – “She ain’t so good lookin’ but she can make love with the best” – and Terry salutes her with a long rock based fade – “An’ she has a good heart”.

Gimme A Ride To Heaven Boy from 1983’s Bloodlines finds Terry sharpening his knife on the subject of religion. This wasn’t his first such effort; he’d already had a go with Whatever Happened To Jesus And Maybellene (yes, that’s the full title) on his previous outing, Smokin’ The Dummy. However, this one has a sharper edge. Terry’s out motoring “like a bat outta hell” when he espies someone hitching a lift “With his thumb out in the wilderness and a halo in his hair” and this apparition said:

‘Gimme a ride to heaven boy
I’ll show you paradise
Yeah gimme a ride to heaven boy
My name is Jesus Christ’

No spoiler but let’s just say that there’s not a mutually satisfactory ending.

1996’s Human Remains contained two duets with Lucinda Williams. One was Back To Black, the most country inclined track in the set (including splendid fiddle), and a song that has as its subject, one of the most popular topics of country numbers, love that has gone wrong, or into the black to use Terry’s terminology. Beautifully written, agonisingly performed.

Every night the same light shines
From your eyes and back to mine
With a vision of the love
We thought was true
But the darkness of the world out there
Surrounds the love we thought we shared
And it all fades back to black
‘Tween me and you

From as early as 1980 with Whatever Happened To Jesus And Maybellene – see above – Terry had displayed an interest in, nay, fascination with, religion. That came to a head on 1999’s Salivation with five of the eleven songs coming at the subject in different ways. As David Bowman put it in his review of the album in The Observer, “Mr. Allen seems determined to piss God off any way he can”. The opening number, which just happens to be the title track, hits you with all guns blazing. A coruscating guitar/drums attack from the very versatile Lloyd Maines (joint producer) and Davis McLarty is matched by a torrent of near rap from Allen, or is it the Southern preacher in him taking over?

Real estate and junkies
Cancers and art
Homos and heteros
Together and apart
Computers and skinheads
Life after death
Hold on to the good book
But don’t hold your breath
Yeah it’s already over
The end’s just begun
Ah the big boy’s a comin’
Better bust ’em up and run

Three tracks into Salivation and there’s something rather different. A slow eerie sounding instrument opens the song. It’s a clavinova played gently by Terry and sounding something like a cross between vibes and a piano. He uses it quite a lot on the album but it assumes a more prominent role on this one. The number is Billy The Boy, a five part song cycle, not unlike Juarez but without that album’s density of allegory. The story is based on that of a real steel guitar man called Wayne Gayley (or Gailey), who played all around Texas and New Mexico in the sixties and seventies. He was one of the first to play steel in a rock band. He died in Reno in 1977 from an overdose. According to Terry himself, he also had Billy The Kid in mind when writing the song(s). The cycle was originally put together to accompany a dance piece and it first appeared in record/CD format as Pedal Steal in 1985 where it occupied the entire album. On this performance, Lloyd Maines fills the title role, superbly as per usual and Mexican touches are provided by accordion courtesy of Terry’s son, Bukka (who appears elsewhere on the album on a range of instruments).

My final selection from Salivation is the album’s closing track, Give Me The Flowers (while I’m living). Most unusually for Terry this isn’t a self-composed number. It was written by Elvin Bigger, Louise Certain and Gladys Stacey Flatt (wife of Lester) in 1957, and recorded, not surprisingly, by Flatt and Scruggs. The song bears a strong resemblance to the Carter Family’s Give Me Some Roses While I Live. Both numbers address the level of hypocrisy frequently seen at funerals. Terry plays the song totally straight and it comes across as a slice of old time America with adornment from some delightful dobro and mandolin. In contrast to the opener, it’s a sober note with which to bring the album to a close.

There was a gap of fourteen years until 2013’s Bottom Of The World and initial listening prompted the thought that Terry might have grown more contemplative with advancing years. Reviewers have referred back to the near unplugged Juarez and one even mentioned Leonard Cohen. I can see what they were getting at. There’s no percussion on this set, like Juarez, but on that one our man compensated by stamping his foot on the piano pedal. There’s a lot more air this time and, on most tracks, a feeling of warm intimacy. If I was looking for a comparison I’d suggest Salivation‘s Billy The Boy, which, at the time, rather stood apart from the rest of the album. My selection Do They Dream Of Hell In Heaven illustrates this rather calmer approach plus the fact that lyrically he’s not lost any of his bite (which is very apparent elsewhere in the set – one track could be described as a horror story). The interplay between Lloyd Maines’ steel and Richard Bowden’s fiddle is absolutely delicious- two not-so-young gents really having fun on their instruments.

A sad piano. Waltz time. Leaving L.A. in weather that sounds more British than Californian, Jabo is going home. To Juarez, Mexico via Colorado. He had to get away, for reasons that become clearer in a later song.

I’m listening to Cortez Sail from Juarez. A song that I keep going back to. “Ah, but see how the lightning makes cracks in your air, tearing the clouds, then closing the tear”. About a third of the way in, the key changes and the rhythm becomes more ominous. Cortés with a “Spanish Christ alive on his lip” and his galleons packed with cannons and conquistadors is drawing near to the Mexican coast. To Jabo’s homeland. Four hundred years ago. The song reverts to the more flowing opening style and the “you’re going home, yeah to paradise” ending isn’t entirely empty. Haunting melody and lines with sticking power. And that broken phrasing. Like this. Or. This. The first big song on that album after The Juarez Device which sets the scene.

And the last big song on Juarez? The original closer La Despedida (The Parting) wherein Jabo is sitting in “Melodyland – a club – to sit – and talk – and drink – and dance – and long for L.A.”

There’s an old Spanish lady
Singing in a microphone
An’ her old voice is shakey
But she’s singing one hell of a song

But it’s a Terry Allen song so there’s black in there too …

‘Cause I’m sittin’ here in darkness all alone
There’s a pistol in the drawer …

An’ there ain’t no God at all
Just some jukebox down the hall … playin’ the blues
An’ trying to lay you low

This song is worth the price of admission all by itself. In 3/4 time of course with some wonderful mandolin picking (from Peter Kaukonen) plus rare backing singing to Allen’s lead, from a lady called Diane Harris, and she ain’t shakey.

And can there be a better song to follow La Despedida, than El Camino (Instrumental) which is the final track on the 2003 version of Juarez? Heartbreaking violin from Richard Bowden:

Which would have been a fitting ending to this piece but it does allow me to quite neatly segue to those songs which didn’t quite make my Top Ten.

There Oughta Be A Law Against Sunny Southern California from Juarez – oughta get in on title alone – closest thing to a rocker in the set – in which we learn a bit more about Jabo’s departure from East L.A.

Cantina Carlotta from Juarez – in which a business executive from El Paso, drives south, falls in love and gets slung into Juarez drunk tank.

Cocktails For Three from Lubbock (On Everything) – Terry does lounge – shouldn’t it be cocktails for two? – but this is an Allen story.

The Beautiful Waitress from Lubbock (On Everything) – the shortest love affair ever, or is it? – cracker crunch – and, is that an art lesson coming up? Unfortunately the art lesson is omitted from the live clip below but as compensation we get Richard Bowden’s fiddle.

Pink And Black from Lubbock (On Everything) – kicks off like Sun or Smash era Charlie Rich but with much more fun (which was rarely Charlie’s thing) – then a minute or so in, a slow doo wop progression takes over and we’re into nostalgiaville but nostalgiaville that works – pink and black is coming back, indeed – I really don’t know how this one didn’t make my main list.

The Thirty Years War Waltz (For Jo Harvey) from Lubbock (On Everything) – in which the nostalgia suddenly becomes real (it’s positioned just after Pink And Black) – a love story, warts and all.

Feelin’ Easy from Smokin’ The Dummy – could this be Terry’s Okie From Muskogee? – “hair’s a little greasy but it’s slicked back under control.”

Wilderness Of This World from Human Remains – “There’s an old shoe, out on the highway, that tells us of the wilderness of this world” – one of those country melodies to die for but threaded through with a playful latin rhythm – pedal steel and maracas.

Peggy Legg from Human Remains – Peggy’s one leg is so pretty she don’t need no more – fun again but there’s an undercurrent.

Ain’t No Top 40 Song from Salivation – she’s dead in a ditch – there’s blood on the car seats – ain’t no top 40 song.

Wake Of The Red Witch from Bottom Of The World – semi spoken delivery – his movie song – John Wayne’s dead.

Covenant from Bottom Of The World – there’s both sadness and gentleness permeating this set – the final track is the shortest by far, and it’s a gem – “Gonna find you babe and take you home.”

That should be it but I’ve left so much out:

The Tom Lehrer view without that man’s tongue-in-cheek stance which takes over Terry at times – try The Gift from Bottom Of The World.

Those art related songs which occupy the middle of Lubbock (On Everything) and rarely ever get mentioned in reviews.

His occasional liaisons with or tributes to other Texan artists which serve as a reminder of his attitude to the state and its people: check out Queenie’s Song on Bottom Of The World co-written with Guy Clark, and I’m Not That Kat Any More on the Doug Sahm 2009 tribute set Keep Your Soul. ((Here’s Guy’s Toppermost and here’s Doug’s Toppermost.)

As an extension of the last remark, his contribution to the musical Chippy, available in CD format as Songs For Chippy (but expensive in the UK) – see Footnotes.

His soundtrack music – see also Footnotes.

The relatively recently released live set from the start of Terry’s career entitled Live At Al’s Grand Hotel. Recorded May 7, 1971. But I can rectify that:

And I’ve hardly scratched the surface of Juarez. But there’s plenty already written. Explore, or better still, listen.

 

QUOTES

“When it was announced recently that the late Texan Troubadour Guy Clark had specified in his will that his ashes be given to one Terry Allen for incorporation into a sculpture, many Clark fans must have wondered two things: Why? And who the hell is Terry Allen?” Garth Cartwright in his review of Juarez in The Guardian

“Inevitably, Allen has been called ‘the godfather of alt-country’ but he’s never been interested in being labelled.” Garth Cartwright from that same review

“I like Terry. He’s a funny son of a bitch.” Guy Clark

“There is just one person whose art has been seen in highbrow museums around the country and is an inductee of the Buddy Holly Walk of Fame in Lubbock, TX. He is Terry Allen, [and] he favors a style you might call Old West Psychedelic.” Ken Johnson, New York Times

“… a true modern day renaissance man … renowned for his effortless command and outrageous combination of disparate genres and media, according to the task at hand.” Dave Hickey, Los Angeles Times

“I don’t know why Terry’s records aren’t more popular because I think they’re the greatest. Terry writes really good lyrics, very direct and funny and moving, but his songs fall between the cracks of all established formats. His music isn’t quite country and it’s not quite rock, but the themes he deals with – family, love, religion, violence – are so universal it seems like anybody could relate to them.” David Byrne

“But on the new album, Allen goes apocalyptic. The tone of Salivation, he says, was inspired by the growing hysteria over the coming end of the millennium, as well as ‘the incredible hypocritical baloney coming out of Washington, D.C.'” No Depression on Salivation

“Is Juarez a commentary on the history of the Wild West, the conquest and colonisation of the Americas, the alienation and dislocation of modern American life or all of the above or none?” Dave Alvin in the sleeve notes for the 2003 release of the album

“People tell me it’s country music, and I ask, ‘Which country?'” Terry Allen

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Terry was born in Lubbock, Texas, and went to Monterey High School . He was two years older than Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, also Monterey attendees, who, in turn, were two years older than Joe Ely. The last three named subsequently worked together as the Flatlanders (and also solo of course). Informally, they are often referred to as the Lubbock Mafia, with or without, Terry, his wife Jo Harvey Allen and Jo Carol Pierce. The two ladies also went to Monterey High.

2. He didn’t get together with the Flatlander guys musically whilst at school and, as soon as school finished he headed out of Lubbock as fast as he could, in his first car, in the direction of Southern California. He didn’t actually meet Joe Ely until the return to Texas for the recording of Lubbock (On Everything). (Here’s Joe’s Toppermost.)

3. The Allen discography isn’t lengthy so I thought it worth including:
Juarez (1975)
Lubbock (On Everything) (1979)
Smokin’ The Dummy (1980)
Bloodlines (1983)
Pedal Steal (1985)
Amerasia (1987)
The soundtrack to a film by European documentary maker Wolf-Eckart Buhler. It’s about American soldiers who stayed in S.E. Asia after the Vietnam War. Some of the accompaniment is from Thai band Caravan (not to be confused with the 60’s/70’s Canterbury group); on others Allen uses his Panhandle Band i.e. Lloyd Maines etc.
The Silent Majority (Terry Allen’s Greatest Missed Hits) (1992)
Outtakes and other material that had not otherwise appeared in CD format
Songs From Chippy (1995)
Chippy was/is a play written by Terry and his wife, based on the extensive diaries of a Texas Panhandle prostitute. The songs were written and performed by Terry and Jo Harvey plus members of the Lubbock Mafia together with roped in extras inc. Robert Earl Keen and Wayne Hancock (no relation to Butch).
Human Remains (1996)
Salivation (1999)
Live At Al’s Grand Hotel: Recorded May 7, 1971 (2012)
Bottom Of The World (2013)

4. Juarez was originally conceived by Allen as a series of paintings but somewhere along the way music came into it and between ’67 and ’75, he wrote the songs that comprise the work as we know it. According to Allen the work also became a theatre piece and film script. Recording sessions were arranged by Terry’s cousin who just happened to be Jefferson Airplane’s road manager, and the first release of the album – 50 copies only initially containing a set of LP sized prints, then 1000 copies later – was made on Fate Records, a label set up by Allen himself. Subsequently Sugar Hill Records, an outfit that specialised in Americana, made Juarez available to a wider audience. The suite broke down into an Introduction, a California section, a Cortez section and a Juarez section. The 2004 release saw the addition of an Epilogue which consisted of two newly recorded songs, El Camino (Instrumental) and El Camino. It should be noted that the original album was very stripped back, most numbers featuring Allen himself and his trusty piano, with or without added guitar or mandolin from Greg Douglas or Peter Kaukonen plus vocals on the final number (prior to the additions), from Kaukonen and Diane Harris. And, yes, Peter Kaukonen is related to Jorma; he’s his younger brother and has appeared on Airplane/Starship records and made some of his own.

The 2016 release of Juarez (on the Paradise Of Bachelors label) removed the two song Epilogue, presumably with the approval of Allen. However one could argue that it over compensated in other ways. The package included replicas of the original lithographs, more photos and more essays – the 2004 release only contained one such, but it was from Dave Alvin though, and was excellent. (Here’s Dave’s Toppermost.)

5. Out of curiosity I looked up whether there was/is a place called New Delhi in Texas. There isn’t, though there is one such city/town in Illinois. However, there is a Delhi in Texas, south east of Austin. I suspect that’s the reference and the ‘New’ merely indicates that, at some time, the freight train service was actually new.

6. Pink And Black is one of the few songs that confirm that Terry had a background in R&B and fifties rock and roll in addition to country music. His father rented a disused gospel church and put on wrestling and boxing matches during the week, and music for dances on the weekends. Friday night was for then segregated black audiences, and they attracted artists of the calibre of B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed. Saturday night was whites only with the likes of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Little Jimmie Dickens. From the age of six Terry worked in the church and sold soft drinks and ice to go with the harder stuff which was under-the-table. Lubbock was officially dry at the time.

7. Those with long memories might think that the title Human Remains comes from the term used in the UK when Human Resources replaced Personnel. (I assume that the then new term came from the US but whether Human Remains had any currency there I don’t know). It didn’t. According to Terry.

Human Remains was built out of this sticker that I saw at the airport. A sticker that they put on coffins when they’re hauling a body through the air from one place to another. It said “human remains – handle with extreme care. Destination – (blank)”. I really liked the idea of those two words, “human”, “remains”. The idea that it’s the end of a life, the debris left over but it can also mean that there’s something left, a human that remains. I liked that double edge in the title. I started writing the songs that I was working on thinking about that.”

8. I owe thanks to David Bowman in his review of Salivation for his explanation of those weird sounds at the end of the album’s title track which are ostensibly Donald Duck’s philosophical comments on the Second Coming – “And heaven is just an adjustment / That moves on down the road”. Apparently Allen has/had a mild obsession with a Disney documentary from 1960 that made the bears at Yellowstone Park seem so cute, children were later mauled trying to pet them.

9. The 1986 film True Stories which was very much the brainchild of David Byrne, “features Byrne as an unnamed, cowboy-hat-wearing stranger who visits the fictional Texas town of Virgil, where he observes the citizens as they prepare for the Celebration of Special-ness to mark the sesquicentennial (i.e. 150th) anniversary of the founding of the town and Texas independence from Mexico” (source, Wikipedia). Allen’s wife Jo Harvey Allen had a minor part in the film, and the music for it included a number from Terry and the Panhandle Mystery Band entitled Cocktail Desperado, co-written by Terry and David. Reportedly, Byrne had been listening to a lot of Terry Allen’s music at the time. The pair first met while the film was being made but then became good friends. The song is present on The Silent Majority (Terry Allen’s Greatest Missed Hits) but unfortunately isn’t on YouTube.

 

Terry Allen: Artist/Songwriter (official website)

Terry Allen on Paradise of Bachelors Records

Interview with Texas Monthly (2016)

Terry Allen biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #590

3 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Jan 20, 2017

    Oddly, I never really latched on to Terry until Bottom of the World.. and it was Emergency Human Blood Courier that made me sit up and finally take notice. I still don’t play any of the old stuff quite as much as the new album.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jan 21, 2017

    Dave, thanks for this great list. Have been meaning to dig deeper into Terry’s work since seeing The Flatlanders do an excellent live version of ‘Gimme A Ride To Heaven Boy’ at a concert in Dublin in 2009. They also gave a very effusive name check to him before singing it. Will use this fine introduction as a starting point from which to explore his work further.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jan 21, 2017

      Keith, pleased to hear you’re listening to Terry even if it’s only one album at the moment. Andrew, get hold of Lubbock On Everything. It might be repetitive to say it, but it’s the best starter. And thanks for your kind comment.

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