Terry Allen – Crash course
“Collision” is a word Terry Allen often uses in talking about the ideas behind his music and art. To those familiar with Allen’s music, that might be disturbing, considering that some of his best-known songs are about speeding down the highway, desperate to get somewhere or desperate to get away from something.
Asked to describe his new album Salivation, Allen says, “It’s about the collision of the need to damn and the need not to be damned….Basically it’s gospel [music] with a limp and a lurch. It deals with human needs slamming up against spiritual needs.”
The cover of the CD, which is due out in March on Sugar Hill Records, is a picture of Jesus that was found in a “junk store,” he says. “I think it’s supposed to be Jesus. It looks like his mouth is full of snuff.”
Unlike his pals and fellow Lubbock natives Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Allen got out of Texas at an early age. (He and his wife of well over 30 years, actress and writer Jo Harvey Allen, have lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the past decade.)
But, it seems, at least since his seminal 1979 album Lubbock (On Everything), Allen usually returns to Texas to record. Salivation was recorded in November 1998 at Cedar Creek Studios in Austin. As usual, Allen’s Panhandle Mystery Band includes a star-studded roster of Texas pickers, including longtime associate Lloyd Maines on guitar and steel; fiddler Richard Bowden (of the Austin Lounge Lizards); guitarists Will Sexton and Ian Moore (whose own band includes Allen’s son Bukka); Glen Fukunaga on electric bass; and the Bad Livers’ Mark Rubin on upright bass and tuba. Gospel music with a limp and a lurch, indeed.
In his 20-plus years of recording, Allen has limped and lurched many times before around religious and spiritual themes that have collided with him since his boyhood in Lubbock. On his 1980 album Smokin’ The Dummy, there was “Whatever Happened To Jesus (And Maybelline)?”, a not-so-reverent religious musing that melts into a Panhandle Mystery jam on the old Chuck Berry car-chase song. On the 1983 album Bloodlines, there was “Gimme A Ride To Heaven Boy”, in which the hitchhiking Jesus of urban legend turns out to be a carjacker. And there was the title song of Bloodlines, which sounds like a gospel tune with pagan lyrics (“Oh my mother/She is a mountain/And her breast/It touch the sky…”)
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.”
A couple of songs on the album — the title track and “Southern Comfort” — deal with the end of the world. (In the latter tune, Jesus comes to the rescue.) But Allen doesn’t wear ashes and sackcloth on every song. Some tunes deal with human-scale apocalypses, such as “Ain’t No Top 40 Song”, which is about a couple who end up killing each other. Texas R&B queen Marcia Ball sings the woman’s part.
“Red Leg Boy” is about his late father, Fletcher Manson “Sled” Allen. “My grandson, whose name is Sled, introduces the song,” Allen says. “My sons Bukka and Bale both play on it. So, including my dad, it’s like we have four generations there.”
Salivation also contains some new versions of vintage Terry Allen tunes from rare early albums. “Cortez Sail” is a re-recording of a tune from his long-out-of-print first album, Juarez, from 1975. Juarez songs have crept onto other Allen records, including “What Of Alicia” on 1996’s Human Remains and “Cantina Carlotta” and “There Oughta Be A Law Against Sunny Southern California” on Bloodlines.
Then there’s “Billy The Boy”, a long medley of songs from a 1985 spoken-word-and-music piece called Pedal Steal which was based on the life of steel guitarist Wayne Gayley, who toured in bands around Texas and New Mexico and died of a drug overdose in the late ’70s. Pedal Steal was commissioned as a soundtrack by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company of San Francisco and premiered at the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 1985. (Three years later, Allen did Rollback, another soundtrack for a Margaret Jenkins dance piece.)
Salivation ends with another song from Pedal Steal, “Give Me The Flowers”, an old song once recorded by Flatt & Scruggs. Identical in theme to the Carter Family’s “Give Me The Roses While I Live”, the song is a sweet and humanistic reminder to keep your eyes on the here and now and don’t worry so much about the hereafter — a nice antidote for Millennium Madness.
Despite his acclaim as a musician, Allen probably is better-known as a visual artist. “The paintings and sculpture and the music always feed off each other,” Allen says. “If I’m working on a sculpture, I always go to the piano and mess around.”
He has been working on a huge sculpture at the Houston airport, a 3,000-square-foot circular map of the world with a 25-foot bronze tree growing out of the center and a speaker over each continent. Out of these speakers come sounds on instruments indigenous to the respective continent, playing tunes composed by Allen, Ely and David Byrne (a friend of Allen’s since 1986, when Jo Harvey played “The Lying Woman” in Byrne’s’ movie True Stories.)