TERRY ALLEN: BREAK THINGS THAT ARE FIXED
illustration by bijou karman
The first few questions in this interview are about Man Ray, Captain Beefheart and Nancy Reagan because that’s how it works with Terry Allen—that’s art, music and America at its most bizarre and true, and that’s what you’ll find in Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything), two of his best albums and actually two of the best albums ever, really. His instrument of choice is the piano, but he’s really more of what they used to call a seer, in that he sees the things he sings about so perfectly and precisely, and if you don’t recognize someone (maybe yourself?) in a Terry Allen song, you might only need to clear the smear off your mirror. These are folk songs, in the sense that there are folks in them, and country songs, in the sense that they seem to take place mostly outside the big city, but really the murder-ballad-epic Juarez and the home-and-gone-again story Lubbock are albums made about and in and for the American west, where wide and lonely spaces exist within and without and where there’s always a chance to make a run for it. One day they’ll be considered literature, but for now, they’ve received welcome and lavish reissue on the Paradise of Bachelors label. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
There’s a photo of you talking to Nancy Reagan here in the luxurious liner notes—how did you end up in the same room with Nancy Reagan?
Terry Allen: The Nancy Reagan photo was taken at the first AVA—American Visual Arts—awards Exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. There were ten artists in the show and she spoke approximately three minutes with each one. Her presence was supposed to lend the exhibit credibility. The piece I showed was an hour and a half video I made called The Embrace Advanced to Fury, about the destruction of a marriage staged in a wrestling ring. I was trying to explain the one-and-a-half hour video in the three minutes allotted. When I finished, she said ‘I’m sorry I can’t see the whole thing.’ To which I replied, ‘Well, the show is up for three months—why don’t you come back when you have more time?’ She smiled with a look that said of all the things she would never do in her entire life, that was definitely one of them.
What about Captain Beefheart? Where did you get that bumper sticker for Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk that you used to have on your piano? Did you know him?
Terry Allen: In L.A. I worked for about a year writing and producing one-minute radio spots for different record companies. One of the spots was for Beefheart’s album Safe As Milk for Blue Thumb Records. I sat on my wife Jo Harvey’s stomach and tickled her. I recorded her laughing and gasping hysterically for one minute. At the end, in a phony announcer voice, I said, ‘Get this record, it’ll tickle you to death.’ Blue Thumb gave me a hundred dollars and the sticker you see on my piano.
And when you were at art school here in L.A., Marcel Duchamp did a Q&A with your class—do you remember what you asked him?
Terry Allen: I had an art teacher who was one of the first art teachers I had, and she had been a nun. She’d been in France in a cloister. And André Breton, who was part of the surrealist movement at that time…
And art pried her away from religion?
Terry Allen: Well, she actually met—through him—a bunch of those guys and dropped the cloth and moved back to L.A. and became a writer for the L.A. Examiner, which is defunct now, but it was a Times competitor at that time. She picked up extra money teaching art where I went to school. One of the first classes I remember, she said, ‘Today we’re going to talk about this French artist named Marcel Duchamp, and we’re fortunate enough to have Mr. Duchamp here with us to talk about his work.’ He showed slides of his stuff, he talked about it. None of us knew who the old fart was, you know. We just thought ‘this is an old French guy that’s real nice.’ And he was having a show at Pasadena Museum, which was his first museum show. He invited us as a class because we had been so courteous to him to come to the museum and see the show. And he was having a TV interview with I think one of those slicks—I think Jerry Dunphy was the name of the TV guy. They had a chess table set up for the interview, this simulated bullshit chess game they played while Dunphy interviewed him. After the interview, he came and shook each of our hands. Then that night … I don’t know if you’re familiar with this photograph, but there’s this famous photograph of Duchamp sitting at a chess table with a naked woman. And the woman was a writer named Eve Babitz. Eve was always hanging around school, but she posed for that with Duchamp that night after the Dunphy interview. Every time any of those guys came to L.A., she would invite them to come to the class. So there was a whole kind of stream of surrealists. And Man Ray at the time lived close by—Man Ray came to the school all of the time cuz he liked to shoot the shit with students at lunch, you know.
So Man Ray bellying up to the cafeteria table?
Terry Allen: No cafeteria—everybody was kicking the vending machines.
So you and Man Ray sharing a warm can of Coke.
Terry Allen: Sharing a Baby Ruth. [laughs]
Now that’s art.
Terry Allen: He was pretty amazing because he was very funny, and would say things like, ‘All of you must remember, it’s okay to be a bad artist because they don’t hurt anybody. It’s not like a bad lawyer, or a bad doctor, or a bad politician.’ But he also pushed that idea that all things were available. To an artist, you could do anything you wanted to. If you wanted to draw your dog, draw your dog. If you wanted to write a song, write a song. That’s kind of what was happening in the whole climate of L.A. at that time, too. The whole climate of the 60s where all of those structures and rules and other stuff prior to that was falling apart. Everybody was looking for new ways to function.
That makes me think of Lubbock’s ‘Beautiful Waitress,’ where she gives you the speech about how she loves drawing horses, even though they look like sausages. ‘No. They were horses.’ I think about that all the time.
Terry Allen: Now that conversation was almost verbatim with a waitress I had in Fresno. Pretty much straight ahead like that.
One of the great things about these albums is that they describe the people in them so completely. I know they aren’t always reporting—you didn’t always sit down to base them on certain people. But do you ever recognize the kind of people they are out in the world now? Like: ‘That’s my Lubbock woman.’
Terry Allen: I think it’s Joe Bob. I’ve got a drawer full of clippings people have sent me over the years of this high school hero football player gone bad. It’s almost an icon. I think that’s true with Lubbock woman. I think there’s certain iconic characteristics that these people have that aren’t restricted just to Lubbock or anywhere. I mean, those people are there. You fill in those blanks, you know. That’s what music does—it opens a door into yourself where you can make your own connections with what these things are, and who these people are and how things happen. And it’s not the same with all of us, you know? It’s okay. There isn’t one way to feel about something. When music is good, to me, it takes you on a new journey into yourself. It takes you out of the cliché zone. But sometimes it takes you into it. [laughs]
I’m from a small town, and growing up, the idea people could make music or make art wasn’t alien, but it seemed like something some people were born into and others weren’t. And we had a punk band in our town, and when I found out about them, it was like, ‘Oh, this IS possible.’
Terry Allen: I think that’s what happened to me. I was fortunate enough to be that generation with rock ‘n’ roll … you know, it was like the hydrogen bomb. Everybody started picking up guitars and wanting to play and instrument, wanting to make music. But it was also the first time where all these doors started opening up to the world—that you could actually do that. And people in your town did that—which in our case, it was Buddy Holly, even though not too many people at that time paid much attention to him until he was killed. Which is an old story. But, I do think that what rock ‘n’ roll did is that it was a double-sided coin. It was very expansive in being able to think in terms of other people in the world—that there was another world out there. But also that your world is fertile, and you could make music, or you could make something from your world. That’s what people took from that. It was a very personal and very impersonal at the same time.
So not only is there a world out there, but it’s something you can be part of. You don’t have to be a spectator—
Terry Allen: Yeah. And it was real acute where I grew up, which is on flat land, which has always made people think about a horizon. And we’re always conscious of what was happening on the other side of that thing. I’ve always thought artists have three basic ‘relatives’: children because they are innocent, criminals because they break rules, and the insane because they inhabit new worlds.
You’ve talked about one of the reasons that you really got into rock ‘n’ roll when you were younger is cuz you felt it was one of the first things that addressed you as a human and not like an institution. Is that what you try and do with these records? Just speak as a human?
Terry Allen: I think it’s just a need, you know? Some people just have a need stronger than others. Other people have their curiosity go in a different direction. For me, it was a need to do something outside myself. Whether it was a song, whether it was a drawing, whether it was just a mark on the ground—something to get away into the outside of myself. And that need grew into a necessity. That’s what happens to me. I get these urges and this necessity to make something. Maybe make a drawing or write something or whatever. It’s that kind of restlessness that happens in a person, you know?
I know you spent time in actual Cortez, Colorado, where Juarez climaxes. Didn’t your grandfather live out there?
Terry Allen: He was a shoemaker, a cobbler, in Cortez for a couple of years. I visited him as a child. That’s how I remember Cortez. I also remember being mystified kind of by that word: ‘Cortez,’ you know? It was a word that I had never heard before as a little kid, and then later of course, it’s reinforced, when you read the history of Mexico. Spaniards and all that. That was a devil kind of thing, too. The idea of a Cortez being a place, but also being a person. All those connections came up in Juarez, in the record, in the piece.
What about the first time you went to Juarez itself? Do you have the same physical connection with that place?
Terry Allen: My folks would go to El Paso. I have an uncle that when I was very young lived in El Paso, and my folks would drive down to El Paso and would spend a few days. And always I would go over to Juarez and it always had some tequila and I’d sit in a booth. But just walking through the streets … I think the thing as far as the whole Mexican feel for me is when I was a kid walking through … they used to have these migrant workers that would come in to pick cotton every year. They would park out at the fairgrounds and it was like a huge gypsy camp, you know? There’d be people living in trailers and camps. It was like a city. It was the first time I remember walking through groups of people who were cooking and eating and playing music and singing or whatever. It was that first kind of communion like that I remember. I’ve always associated that with Mexico.
Mexico has such a pull in Juarez. It’s always on someone’s mind.
Terry Allen: There’s actually very little that take place actually in Mexico. Most of it is in California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico.
But the idea of it looms large—it’s just over the horizon.
Terry Allen: Everybody’s trying to get somewhere else.
Sometimes people who’ve been in cities all their life don’t understand that the deserts are all different: Chihuahua’s different than Mojave, different from the Texas Panhandle … Do the different deserts feel different to you?
Terry Allen: ‘Deserts’ … those words are like climates that are inside of you. You can be in one kind of desert and thinking about the ocean, you know? It can be that kind of feeling. At least for me, it’s never been totally literal what’s out your windshield. The windshield always opens up to all these possibilities, kind of like a movie in that sense.
Like a movie screen?
Terry Allen: Yeah. Even these characters in Juarez, I never thought of as particularly as people as much as I thought of them as these climates moving through space. And I always thought of that music as… music is always coming in from somewhere and going somewhere else. It’s like a band on the road, you know? Just the idea of music is always about motion.
All music? Or just rock ‘n’ roll?
Terry Allen: All music. I’ve written a lot of songs while driving cars. Listened to even more.
You’ve said before you thought the three greatest American inventions were duct tape, hot glue, and putting radios in cars. Are two of those things used to fix things that are broken? Or are three?
Terry Allen: I think that they serve multiple purposes. They serve to fix things that are broken, but they also serve to break things that are fixed.
Is there a particular car you used to have that you miss now?
Terry Allen: I don’t think I think that way. I do miss dogs, you know. Cars are kind of like songs. They’re fit for what time that you had them, and they live in that particular time. A lot of times, their demise for you was as important for you as having the thing, you know? I’ve abandoned a couple of cars—that always makes a good story. I took the licence plates and kicked the hell out of the side of the doors of an old VW. bus and scratched all the ID stuff off of it—left it and walked home. Cuz I’d blown about the fourth engine in it.
That’s real commitment to abandonment.
Terry Allen: Actually, my kid wanted it. And I would have probably given it to him, except what he wanted to do was knock a hole in the wall of his room and open the sliding door and make a little studio out of his bus. Which I thought was a really good idea, but it went down before he had a chance to do that. I’ll tell you: my first car was a 1953 Chevy, and I’m doing a piece in Austin at the museum Laguna Gloria. It’s a 1953 Chevy that I’m casting in bronze and putting a sound system inside of it and inviting different people to do songs, stories, memories, things that they would like people to hear coming out of an old ghost car. It’s going be kind of abandoned in a swamp. It’s called Road Angel.
As you say in ‘Wolfman of Del Rio’: does this 1953 Chevrolet have that vinyl tuck ‘n’ roll?
Terry Allen: You’re not going to see it if it does, you know? But it did.
What about 1953 means something to you? That shows up in ‘Pink and Black Song.’ ‘Come with me back to 1953.’
Terry Allen: That’s probably because I had that first car, even though I didn’t get it until a couple of years later. I guess that was 16… It’s also in ‘Wolfman of Del Rio.’ ‘1953 green Chevrolet.’
What’s happening in the second half of Lubbock? To me, side A is Lubbock itself, and then on side B we go to Los Angeles. But then after the beautiful waitress in the diner, I get a little lost.