Truckload of art
Terry Allen (on everything)
By Richard Skanse
In the summer of 1965, a 22-year-old art student from Lubbock, Texas, named Terry Allen walked into a Hollywood mansion, sat down at a piano and played his way into homes across the U.S.A. and into rock ’n’ roll history.
Every word of that is true. The take away, of course, is all in how you read it. Perspective is everything.
Allen and his wife, high-school sweetheart Jo Harvey, had been living in the Los Angeles area for the better part of three years, two kids out of West Texas California dreaming on an odd-jobs budget while he worked on his degree at the Chouinard Art Institute. One of those odd jobs found Allen doing construction at that home in the Hollywood Hills.
“These two guys had this big house that they were building, adding on a couple of rooms to this mansion, and I was just doing labor,” recalls Allen, now 69. “And I went up there after school one afternoon to get my check, and they had about five of us waiting in line for our checks in the living room while they were writing them in the kitchen. They had a piano in the living room, so I sat down and started playing, and one of the these guys came in and went, ‘Hey, you want to be on Shindig?’ And I went, ‘Yeah!’”
As happens in such stories, the guy turned out to be one of the directors of the weekly ABC variety show, which from September of 1964 through the fall of ’65 showcased a who’s who of teen-centric popular music acts from both sides of the Atlantic. Despite having never really given much thought to the idea of being a musician — let alone having ever played in public, outside of a somewhat controversial high school assembly — Allen was game for a shot of why-the-hell-not. A skinny dude from Lubbock with glasses, playing rock ’n’ roll? Stranger things had happened. “So they set up an audition, and I went down to some place on Western Avenue, some little rat hole, and played about the only two songs I knew: ‘Red Bird,’ and this song called ‘Freedom School,’” Allen continues. “And they went, ‘OK, you made it,’ and gave me a date to be on it.”
Allen’s performance aired on Aug. 4, 1965, as part of show no. 47 on Shindig! season one. You can find a DVD of the full episode with a little hunting online, or you can bypass the other performers — Marianne Faithfull, Billy Preston, the Dixie Cups, some dudes in kilts called the Great Scots, etc. — and jump right to Allen’s one-minute-and-44-second “Red Bird/Freedom School” medley via YouTube. It’s the clip with the black-and-white thumbnail of a very Buddy Holly-looking Allen seated at an upright piano that looks yanked out of a old Western saloon. Around his neck is a harmonica rack. Jammed into that rack is a kazoo. Click the link, and he springs to life, pounding the piano keys, stomping the foot pedal and singing loud, proud and Jagger-confidant over a shrieking chorus of screaming girls:
“Ho down down, ho down dee
Red bird dancin’ in a penitentiary
Goin’ down to New Orleans
Red bird dance, a red bird sing
I’ve been born an I’m gonna die
Blood red wing gonna make me fly
Goin’ in a red bird den
ain’t gonna come out again …”
Close your eyes when he picks up the tempo to segue into “Freedom School” with a kazoo solo, and you’d swear — based on the rising pitch of teenaged frenzy — that John, Paul, George and Ringo all walked out onstage to join him. All these years later, that part still tickles him.
“How many times have you heard someone play the kazoo with girls screaming behind it?” Allen asks incredulously. “Never!”
The Beatles may not have been in the building, but their manager was. “I remember Brian Epstein was in the audience, and he was telling Jo Harvey, ‘This is great, this is great, bla bla,’ and we just decided, ‘well yeah, we’ll be rich next week!’” Allen says. “So I borrowed $100 from someone and Jo Harvey and I went to Laguna Beach for the weekend, fully thinking that when we came back, I’d just be doing one TV show after another.”
“And of course, nothing happened.”
Nothing, and everything.
* * *
Pop stardom, even of the flash-in-the-pan variety, was not in the cards for Terry Allen. But nor was a mild retreat into mundane obscurity. Forty-seven years after his date with Shindig!, he is one of the most accomplished and acclaimed visual artists of his generation, having shown his works at premier galleries around the world and collected armloads of prestigious honors and awards (including both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships). In 2010, the University of Texas Press published a formidable coffee table book anthology — simply titled Terry Allen — documenting only some of his major pieces, ranging from multi-media installations and theater works to public bronze sculptures on proud display in parks, plazas, universities, and airports across the country. You don’t want to drop it on your foot.
Even when reduced to photos in a book, the epic scope of Allen’s work — both in range of creative expression and magnitude of message — is astounding. His drawings and sculptures convey perverse humor and startlingly complex social commentary. His bronze statues are uncannily lifelike, even when their heads are buried in stones, trees, or walls. His larger exhibits — be they stand-alone installations or epic, multi-chaptered “operas” (as critic Dave Hickey aptly calls them) — examine their subjects from every angle save for the expected, their themes reflected and bounced around a veritable funhouse hall of mirrors by use of everything from text, sketches, and film to room-sized constructs and staged productions that might incorporate actors (most notably his wife, writer and film/stage actress Jo Harvey), dancers, wrestlers, trained doves, and of course … music.
Going all the way back to the late-60s dawn of his first major project, Juarez, Allen has always used songwriting as but one of the many colors on his palette to manifest his big-picture vision. So from one perspective, it’s somewhat of a happy accident — not unlike the way he happened onto Shindig! all those years ago — that Allen has come to be regarded by many as not “just” a world-renowned visual artist who dabbles in music, but as a songwriter’s songwriter of the highest order. In the pantheon of maverick Texas tunesmiths, Allen earned his seat above the salt alongside such esteemed peers as Guy Clark and Joe Ely with his first two albums alone: 1975’s mysterious and blood-splattered Juarez and 1979’s sprawling Lubbock (on everything), the prodigal West Texan’s wickedly astute but disarmingly affectionate double-album hometown homage.
Later picked by Rolling Stone as one of the most essential records of the ’70s (writer Steve Pond describing it as “the fractured musings of a Texas-shitkicker-cum-serious artist”) and rightly lauded by AllMusic Guide critic Stewart Mason as “one of the finest country albums of all time, a progenitor of what would eventually be called alt-country,” Lubbock still holds up brilliantly as the perfect introduction to Allen’s musical oeuvre. Over the years, its songs have been recorded by the likes of Robert Earl Keen and Bobby Bare (both covering “Amarillo Highway” and “High Plains Jamboree”), Little Feet, Rick Nelson, and Charlie Robison (“New Delhi Freight Train”), Cracker (“Truckload of Art”), next-generation Flatlander Colin Gilmore (“The Beautiful Waitress”), and, most recently, Texas frat-country poster boy Josh Abbott (“FFA” and “Flatland Farmer”). The album also served as Allen’s introduction to fellow Lubbock luminary Lloyd Maines, marking the beginning of not only a long and mutually rewarding musical friendship, but Maines’ first foray into the world of record producing.
At the time, Maines had been engineering local country gospel and conjunto records at Lubbock’s Caldwell Studios — at least when he wasn’t otherwise occupied with his main gig, touring and recording as the pedal steel player in the Joe Ely Band. It was Ely fan Paul Milosevich, who’d drawn Ely’s portrait for his 1977 self-titled debut, who first told Maines about Allen, a fellow artist who had “a whole slew of songs” that he was looking to record for his second album. “I think Terry was originally thinking about doing it up in San Francisco with some musicians he’d found up there, but Milosevich convinced him to come to Lubbock and meet with me,” recalls Maines. “So we set up a meeting there at the studio, and we just hit it off from the get-go. Terry walked in with his snakeskin boots and a leather-bound book with all his songs in it, and he played 21 songs for me back to back. We started cutting them the next day, and we cut all of them in about, jeez, maybe a day and a half. We just blasted through them.
“All of those songs were jaw dropping,” Maines continues, “but when we were doing it, it didn’t cross my mind that it was going to grow legs and become this icon album. People are still discovering it nowadays. I’ve been in the studio the last couple of weeks with Sons of Fathers, and every day when they pull up to the studio, they’ve got Lubbock (on everything) blaring in their van.”
Since Lubbock (on everything), Allen has worked with Maines on all of his albums: from 1980’s rollicking Smokin’ the Dummy and ’83’s Bloodlines (featuring both Allen’s funniest song, the car-jacking Jesus anthem “Gimme a Ride to Heaven,” and his most sinister, “Our Land”), to ’87’s Amerasia (born out of Allen’s decade-spanning multi-media examination of the cross-cultural, psychological aftershocks of the Vietnam War, Youth in Asia) and ’96’s Human Remains and ’99’s Salivation. Maines was also a key component of Allen’s Panhandle Mystery Band, along with the late Jesse “Guitar” Taylor (his longtime foil in the Joe Ely Band), accordion player Ponty Bone (another Ely Band vet), gonzo fiddle player Richard Bowden and Maines’ brothers Kenny (bass) and Donnie (drums). Another famous musical Maines — Lloyd’s then elementary-school-aged daughter Natalie — made her recorded debut on the aforementioned Bloodlines, along with Allen’s sons Bukka and Bale Creek and a host of other Lubbock friends and family members, singing background vocals on “Bloodlines II.”
Family has long played an integral role in Allen’s life and art, both musical and otherwise. The life and courtship of his late parents — his father a retired baseball player, his mother a one-time nightclub piano player — formed the basis of Dugout, the first of two radically different gallery/theater pieces he’s unveiled in the last decade (the other being Ghost Ship Rodez, a harrowing but empathetic study on the madness-tortured life of French poet/artist Antonin Artaud). Allen was an only child, born rather late and most unexpectedly in his parents’ lives; as comically recounted by narrator Jo Harvey in Dugout’s theater component, Warboy and the Blackboard Blues, they thought of him as a mystery “Whatsit?” from outer space. “I never felt like either one of my folks didn’t love me, but the age thing did have a huge distance to it,” Terry explains. “One of the reasons I did Dugout was to find out more about what and who they were, because I was never a participant in their lives — I was born an outsider to their lives.” By contrast, Terry and Jo Harvey started their family young, right after he finished art school. Born in the late-60s, both Bukka and Bale grew up living and breathing all things art, music, theater and film. When the boys were in high school, the whole family even co-wrote and performed a play together, Do You Know What Your Children Are Tonight?
“For a long time, it just seemed like that was normal,” says Bukka, now an accomplished, Berklee-certified and road-tested musician and songwriter, of their art-saturated upbringing. “I didn’t really get a sense of how unique it was until I was in college and studying music myself. I went to a school that was basically trying to teach stuff that’s un-teachable, which is a common dilemma between institutions and creativity. I couldn’t help but find myself holding onto and embracing the environment I grew up with, because all that un-teachable stuff was at its core.”
Rebelling must have been hard for the boys growing up. “I used to ask my dad to draw tattoos on me that would scare me,” Bukka recalls with a smile. “And occasionally, he would draw something that was so scary, I couldn’t look at it and I’d have to go wash it off.” Younger brother Bale, a successful visual artist who’s also explored music (playing drums in various punk bands and sometimes with his dad), fondly remembers Saturday mornings when their dad would wake them up by throwing piles of albums he’d just bought at Tower Records on their bed. “Dad turned us on to so much cool rock ’n’ roll and really out-there shit … I remember him getting Los Angeles by X, which turned into one of my favorite records, and I wasn’t even in junior high yet,” Bale says. “And every Sunday, he would wake up in the morning and open the front door, and fucking crank all of his new albums. You could hear them a block away, literally. My friends would come over and be like, ‘What the fuck?’ It was the coolest thing ever.”
Another generation down the line, the apples still fall close to the tree. Bale’s 18-year-old son Sled is applying to music schools (having already played drums on the kid’s stage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival as part of his middle-school power trio, We Go to 11), and his 10-year-old, Calder, has taken after his uncle and grandfather by teaching himself piano. (“He refuses to take lessons because he thinks it will interfere with his creativity,” Bale says with a proud laugh.) Meanwhile, Bukka’s toddler son, Kru, is still too young to take up an instrument, but he already knows his grandfather’s new album, Bottom of the World, inside and out. And it’s not just his mother Sally’s background vocals drawing him in, either.
“I’ve been listening to this record in the car while taking him to school, and he literally has it memorized,” marvels Bukka. “And it’s hilarious. He’s 3 1/2, and he’s singing songs like ‘Emergency Human Blood Courier’ word for word. He’ll say things like, ‘Is that song about vampires?’ and ‘That sounds spooky!’ Then he’ll hear Sally and go ‘that’s Mama,’ but he’s also starting to identify the different instruments on the tracks. And of course he recognizes that’s his Papa Rat singing.”
Bukka’s all over Bottom of the World, too, having co-produced it with his father and Maines at Screen Door Studios, the Buda, Texas, studio he works out of with cellist Brian Standefer. Longtime family friend Richard Bowden completed the minimalist lineup, resulting in Allen’s sparest and most intimate-sounding recording since the bare-bones Juarez.
“There’s a rich history with everyone who played on the sessions. I grew up with these guys and that’s something that makes this record so special to me,” says Bukka. “There are huge, deep relationships on there, and you can’t go wrong when you create something with that kind of environment. And to be a part of that with my father — to have something that I can always go back to and that my kids can always go back to that will show and pass on such a beautiful moment — I can’t imagine anything feeling better.”
* * *
Bottom of the World — set for CD and digital release on Jan. 22, with a limited-edition vinyl and art-prints box set due later in the spring — is Allen’s first new album in a dozen years. It opens with a long look back, returning to Juarez’s bittersweet “Four Corners” on a mournful river of pedal-steel guitar, and closes on the reassuring grace note of “Covenant (for Jo Harvey),” the title track from a collaborative piece that Allen and his wife premiered in 2011 in California. In between are nine other Allen originals of varying vintage, with newly recorded selections from past theater productions like Chippy (“Angels of the Wind”), Dugout (“Hold On to the House”) and Ghost Ship Rodez (“Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven”) sequenced amidst brand new songs like “Emergency Human Blood Courier” and “Wake of the Red Witch” that are every bit as compelling — and prime Terry Allen — as their titles suggest. The pièce de résistance is “The Gift,” a bone-chilling mediation on the suicide of one Mark Madoff, son of Bernie.
And this, relatively speaking, is one of the man’s warmer records.
“There are elements of this record that are both sweet and vicious simultaneously, and that emotional swing is really interesting to me, because I don’t think you can have one without the other,” observes Bukka. “I also don’t think you’d ever hear songs like this on a younger person’s record. For me, these songs could only come from someone who has lived a remarkably curious, courageous and long, fulfilling life as an artist with an amazing handle on what he’s trying to express or convey. My mom’s the same way: They both live, and depending on your perspective, that can either intimidate or be the greatest of inspirations.”
Terry and Jo Harvey grew up in West Texas, raised their sons to adulthood in California and still travel frequently and widely, but since 1987 they’ve happily made their home in Santa Fe, N.M. The town offers charm and beauty and arts-friendly vibe in spades, but more than anything else, their home here affords them the perfect spot to both retreat and create. “It’s kind of like wherever we’ve lived, we’ve had to go someplace else to make a living — it’s just the nature of what we do,” Terry explains. “So we can live anywhere. It’s just nice to have a place that we really like working at, like leaving and like coming back to.”
It’s an awfully nice place to visit, too, should you find yourself on the receiving end of the couple’s extraordinary hospitality. What with all the glitz and celebrity out in California, you could probably procure (for a hefty price) a fancier place to stay the night in the Western United States than their guest bungalow — but good luck finding one more comfy, cool, and unmistakably, uniquely, well … Allen. Tucked between the main house and the pair of detached his-and-her’s studios on the couple’s five-acre, hill-top spread, the fun-sized adobe abode is a study in storybook warmth and whimsy. With its arched doorways, curved stucco walls, stonework floors, thatched ceiling, snuggly window nook, sunken shower (with plants), rustic furniture, port-hole window over the bed in the tiny loft, and second-story balcony overlooking a desert mountain range, it kind of feels like a Southwestern take on Bilbo Baggins’ cozy little home in The Hobbit. All of it, that is, except for the steep staircase leading up to the bedroom loft: even the hardiest of halflings would have a devil of a time navigating those 11 tricky steps.
“Did you notice,” Terry asks with mischievous pride, “that every step is different?”
When the guest house was built according to the Allens’ own designs, the contractor informed Jo Harvey that the stairs would never pass code, as someone was likely to fall down them and kill themselves. In response, she told him that if anyone was likely to die over the matter, it would surely be her husband — of an aneurysm or heart attack if anyone tried to tell him he couldn’t have his stairs exactly the way he wanted them.
It doesn’t occur to me to ask “why?” After having spent the better part of the last 24 hours in Allen’s company — and many more immersed in the man’s formidable and perversely uncompromising catalog of song, sculpture, art and theater – the fact that even his stairs would confound textbook sense is but par for his own wayward course. Terry Allen does not create within the narrow confines of code and conformity. That’s Lesson No. 1 in Understanding Terry Allen 101. All subsequent lessons point back to Lesson No. 1. Just ask his go-to producer. “We were rehearsing one time and I said, ‘You know, every time you play that part, you’re playing it different: sometimes you’re playing two measures, sometimes you’re playing three measures,” recalls Maines. “And Terry said, ‘Hey, this is music — it ain’t math!’”
Jo Harvey, Terry’s closest confidant, collaborator, and wife of 51 years, concedes with a smile that “if I tried to understand Terry’s mind, I’d go crazy.” She says this with the same sincere but playful affection as when she describes her husband — squirming in his chair right across from her over a lunch of green chile stew at Santa Fe’s Tesuque Village Market — as, above all else, “very generous” and “a really good guy.”
“That says a lot after 50 years together,” Jo Harvey adds with a laugh. Playing the curmudgeon with wry perfection, Terry counters with a flourish: “Well, that just shows how long people can misunderstand each other!”
Truth is, you’d be hard pressed to find a couple more in sync with each other, be it off the cuff or onstage. Or, going all the way back to their wild 20s in the ’60s, on the radio. From 1967 to 1970, the couple hosted a weekly Sunday morning show called Rawhide and Roses on Pasadena, Calif.’s KPPC AM/FM, the nation’s first underground rock station. “I had a job recording little 30-second or one-minute commercial spots for record albums, working for a record store,” Terry explains. “We’d produce the spots at the station, and I just got to be friends with all those guys. And they needed programing, so I told them we could do a radio show, and they gave us Sunday mornings.”
Terry helped program the music, but Jo Harvey did all the talking on the air, interviewing bands and telling stories and Texas tall tales. “I’d talk about all my crazy relatives back home in Lubbock,” she says. “No one had heard a woman do a show like that on the radio before, so it was really unique for that time.” It turned out to be rather popular, too — so much so that by the time the couple left L.A. to move back to Lubbock for a six-month spell before returning to California, the show was on on the brink of being picked up by Armed Services radio. The plan was to record Rawhide and Roses in Lubbock and send it out for syndication. “But someone heard a demo tape where I’d been telling stories about Lubbock being the wettest dry town in the country, and after that no one in Lubbock would let us use their studio,” Jo Harvey continues. “So, there went the radio show.”
Lubbock wasn’t a total wash, though, for it was during those six months back in the old hometown that Terry began work in earnest on the songs and drawings that coalesced into his first major project, Juarez. Thirty-eight years after its initial 1975 release (packaged as an LP with a series of art prints, much like the forthcoming limited edition of Bottom of the World), that so-called “simple story” of the tragic, four-way collision of a Juarez-born pachuco named Jabo, his L.A. girlfriend, Chic Blundie, and newlyweds “Sailor” (Texas-born Navy boy) and “Spanish Alice” (former Tijuana prostitute) in a Cortez, Colo., trailer park remains the most endlessly intriguing creation of Allen’s career.
“Juarez has always been this sort of odd haunting for me,” admits Allen. “All of those songs happened so mysteriously for me, because they came fast and I was putting them down along with all these images, and there was this weird coherence going on that was spooking me because I didn’t know where any of it was coming from. But once it came along, it set some kind of odd bar for me as far as what a song should be, what intention is, what passion is, what mystery is. Juarez was sort of the piece that started everything for me.”
That “everything” is a lot. But over the course of two lengthy interviews back at his studio, surrounded by pieces and drawings and tapes and bulging notebooks of works past, present, and future, Allen patiently obliges my attempt to scratch the surface and peek inside his mind. Early on in our conversation, I admit that, as familiar as I am with his music, I fear my grasp on fully understanding the “meaning” of some of his other works leaves a lot to be desired. He dismisses this handicap straightaway.
“I think a lot of people are put off just by that word, ‘art,’ or ‘artist,’ whatever, and it’s a shame, but it’s also perpetuated by the whole art community, with its sacred walls of the museum and elitist gatherings that are kind of above everybody,” Allen says. “But I’m not interested in any of that. I think when somebody looks at something that you’ve made and their take on it is so different from what your intention was when you made it, that’s almost a privilege — that somebody has responded in a way that’s so personal to them, even though it may be something that you never in a million years might have been thinking of. That’s extremely valuable.
“I think if art becomes a privileged kind of language that’s just for a few people,” he continues, “it’s just a pretentious crock of shit.”
* * *
I want to start out by asking you what you’re working on right now. Along with releasing Bottom of the World, how many other irons do you currently have in the fire?
Well, right now I’m working on a suite of prints that’s kind of a spin-off of the record. I sent the rough recordings to a guy in Austin who transcribed them to sheet music, and I had the sheet music blown up and I’m using those in my prints, as the element that I’m drawing on and altering. Like I just shot a hole through one of them, for “Queenie’s Song” [A song Allen wrote with Guy Clark about a beloved dog that he found dead of a gunshot wound one New Years Day], and the others all have their own images. They’re all going in a box with the LP and a CD, similar to what Juarez was initially.
So I’ve been dealing with that for awhile, and I’ve also just started working on this new body of work that I’m calling Futurism (in Reverse). I played in Italy last July, and I met a really wonderful violin player and war photographer, and we started talking about the possibility of doing something together. So I’ve been thinking a little bit about that, and it’s feeding into this Futurism thing, which was an Italian movement in the 20th century.
Can you describe what that is to an art neophyte? What’s the elevator pitch for Futurism (in Reverse)?
An image I keep thinking of is like in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, where that ape throws that bone up in the air and it becomes a spaceship? It’s just reversing that: where you have a spaceship and it comes down out of the air and becomes a bone. It’s taking historical situations or emotional situations and taking them backwards. I just like what those words, “Futurism” and, in parenthesis, “(in reverse),” make me think about. But I don’t know where it’s going yet; I don’t know if it’s going to be a theater piece or a bunch of drawings and songs or what.
I never know where something’s going to go once it starts piquing my curiosity. But you kind of follow it until it stops feeding you, or when it stops feeding itself, not you — you’re just a vehicle. Like Dugout, which really took a long period of time, it started with being asked to do a radio show for NPR. And I’d always wanted to do something with these stories that I’d heard growing up from my folks, but never knew exactly what I was going to do with them. But when I got invited to do this radio show, I just started writing them down and started pushing them into a narrative between a man and a woman. Because the story revolved around my mom, who was a piano player, and my dad, who was a baseball player in the early part of the 20th century. And so I made this radio show compiled out of all of these stories, but while I was doing that I started thinking of a lot of images and a lot of other text that I wanted to pursue. And so over a period of time that’s what I started doing, and eventually it became a whole body of drawings and sculpture, a video installation, and a theater piece. And the theater piece is where it kind of led to me going, “OK, I’ve told these stories about my folks, what about my stories, from when I was a kid growing up in Lubbock in the ‘50s with all of the bizarre bomb scares and science fiction and all of that kind of stuff that was kind of happening then?” So I built this video installation about that in the theater piece. And I wrote a lot of music for all of that, too. But I never know from the beginning where something’s going to go.
Speaking of going places, what led you to Santa Fe 25 years ago?
We were living in Fresno, and when Bukka and Bale graduated and went off to school, we were in that situation of where we wanted to get out of there. We kind of wanted to come back to Texas, so I actually booked a bunch of gigs in Texas just to get a look at different places — around Marfa and places like that, but also out in East Texas. But we stopped here along the way and saw this place. It wasn’t anything at the time really but the house; Jo Harvey’s studio was just a shell, and one little room here in my studio was framed in. But we really liked the house because it was so different, and we could see over the mountain range. And it had weather. In California, at least where we lived, you never saw a cloud hardly. I remember when we first moved here, I’d catch myself going out for an hour and a half, just looking at the clouds.
How long had you been living out in Fresno?
We were in Fresno from 1970 off and on until we moved here. I taught at Fresno State there for six and a half years and then I quit, but we were both involved in a lot of work by then and I had a really good studio there, and it was a great place for Bukka and Bale, so we stayed. I was doing a lot of stuff in California at the time, both in L.A. and in San Francisco … I had taught at Berkley in 1970 as a guest artist in the art department, and when that was up I got asked to come to Fresno for another guest artist deal. Evidently I was taking the place of another teacher who was on sabbatical, but then that person quit so they offered me the job and I took it.
Did you like teaching?
I didn’t like teaching in a school. Teaching I think is such a funny word when it comes to the arts. I like dealing with kids, young people, but I didn’t like the school. I’ve never thought that making art of any kind was an institutional act; if anything, it’s an anti-institutional act. So teaching art always seems like kind of an illicit pursuit to me. But it came at such a great time in our life, as far as needing money, that I can’t really bitch about it. I always thought of it as falling into a deep ditch with some money at the bottom. But as soon as I could see any possibility of making a living at what I was doing — showing my work and writing songs — I quit.
Bob Schneider has told the story about the time you came in as a guest speaker at one of his art classes at UTEP, and told everyone, “If you want to be an artist, you’re wasting your time here — get out and do it!”
[Laughs] Well, that’s kind of how it is, to make music or any kind of art. You can’t learn how to draw on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 to 12, and you can’t learn how to be a songwriter that way, either. I know when I was first asked to teach, I was thinking, “I can speak for maybe 30 minutes to an hour to tell people what I know, but I don’t need six months!” And so what you do, obviously, is try to get people to work, just to do stuff, and to talk about it. If you showed up and had any kind of curiosity, I said, “The worst grade you can get in this class is a C, which is just average. If you fail, you’re going back up the other way, because it’s about failure. It’s predicated on failure, over and over and over, because that’s the nature of it.” That didn’t really fit within the institutional guidelines as far as turning in grades went, though.
What was your own experience in art school like, as a student at the Chouinard Institute in L.A.? Did you graduate?
I did. I went four years, from 1962 to ’66. But to say it was like a college was kind of absurd, because it was the ’60s in L.A., when everything was kind of blowing up and coming apart. With all that great kind of positive and negative energy that was going on, the education you got was really just being in that place at that time. And the school itself was very open-ended, where you basically just had a studio and went in and worked, and different artists would come in and talk to you about what you were doing. And it was the first time that I was ever around people my own age that liked making a mark or painting or object or song that meant something; it was for real, it wasn’t like some kind of hobby. It was somewhere in that zone that I made a choice of how I wanted to live my life. That’s what I got from school, and it was huge. It was an incredible experience. Very different from Lubbock!
Did any of your teachers in high school ever encourage your artistic leanings?
No. Not for visual art, at least. Although I did have one teacher there — and in retrospect, this was big at the time — we were studying Shakespeare, and she was at the front of the class reading from the book and we were supposed to follow her. But I was writing some kind of beatnik poem — just gibberish — and she stopped the class and said, “Since you’re not paying attention, you stand up and read what you’re writing.” And I just thought, “fuck.” So I read this thing, this gibberish, and she kind of looked at me and said, “You keep doing that.” I was a sophomore, and it was the first time I can remember getting that kind of permission from someone saying, “It’s OK to do that.” But that’s the only positive thing I can really remember about high school!
Do you remember how you first became interested in art as a kid?
I think because I was an only child, I played a lot by myself. I had a lot of little soldiers and would build environments for them — just typical kid stuff, nothing unusual. But I do remember hating to go to school, and the only thing that really motivated me to get up and get ready for school in the morning was thinking about holding a pencil, and that great feeling of when it touched paper. So there was something there, some kind of need to make a mark, even from the time I was a little kid. But there was never any kind of visual reinforcement, because I mean, there was just nothing there — the only museum in town was full of farm implements! [Laughs] In high school, I drew porno pictures on kids notebooks for a quarter and stuff, and got in trouble for that. Then I went to Texas Tech for one semester and hated it, but there was a drawing class I had there, and I asked my drawing teacher if there was a school like that class, and he told me about that school in L.A. I was so ready to just get out of Lubbock that I was gone before I even sent my application in.
Did Jo Harvey go with you?
I went out there on my own and worked for about six months, going to school one night a week, and then proposed over the phone to Jo Harvey and went back and got her.
How long had you dated each other?
Well, we’ve known each other since we were 11 … but we didn’t screw until we were 12. [Laughs] That’s a line in the piece we just did together, Covenant. No, we knew each other and we were great friends all through school, but never really went together until we were seniors in high school.
You’ve talked about teachers. What about your parents? Were they supportive?
You know, there was a great lenience in my house. Both of my folks, they were never in any way inhibitive of any kind of creative act. But there just wasn’t that much there. My dad read the paper and he had a few books in the place, but not many. My mother played piano all the time, but it was usually when a party would break out in the house.
Did she teach you how to play piano?
Yeah. She taught me how to play “St. Louis Blues.” I was probably 11 or 12. Rock ’n’ roll had kind of hit, and I wanted to play an instrument, so I dogged her to teach me to play something, and she taught me “St. Louis Blues.” And basically said, “That’s it — you’re on your own!” [Laughs]
So everything else was self-taught?
Yeah. Totally self-taught.
Do you remember the first rock ’n’ roll song that knocked you on your ass?
There were several, but one of the first ones that knocked me on my ass was Bo Diddley. The first song I heard by Bo Diddley. That beat! And then “What I Say” by Ray Charles was a huge one, and “Blue Suede Shoes,” Carl Perkins’ version. Those were kind of the first three. But it’s funny, even though I loved them, I wasn’t knocked out so much by the piano players like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. I loved those songs, but it was the guitar players, that rhythm stuff that I wanted to sound like. I’ve always thought I played piano much more like a rhythm guitar. Because I never was overly curious to learn how to play these fast runs — I think probably because Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were both so phenomenal at it. But I loved Chuck Berry, I loved those grooves and rhythms, and Jimmy Reed … those were the people that when I thought about making music, I wished that I could make music that sounded like that. It was always guitar players, it was never a piano player.
Your dad had retired from baseball before you were born, but he later ran a venue in Lubbock, Sled Allen’s Arena, that hosted shows by a lot of those early rock ’n’ roll greats. Did any of those shows make a big impression on you?
Well, when all that really amazing music came through there — he brought in Elvis and Little Richard, and had the first cosmopolitan dance in Lubbock, which was pretty phenomenal considering the times — I was only 6, 7, 8 years old, so it was pretty much over my head. But the arena also had wrestling and boxing matches on a weekly basis, so I was raised around wrestling more than music, really. From the time I can barely remember I worked out at the wrestling shows, selling Cokes and stuff like that. But there were other shows that came to town later on … I remember Ray Charles playing the Civic Center, right after he had gotten busted for drugs in Chicago. They had it on the front page of the paper that he had been busted. So there were barely a 100 people in this big building, and he came out and the first thing he did was apologize for the incident and the bad press. And he said, “I appreciate you people coming so much, I would like all of you to come up onstage and sit up here, and we’ll perform for you.” So the entire audience went on this huge stage and sat around the front of it and Ray and his full band did the show. It was amazing. I was older then, probably 13 or something like that.
What did your dad think of your piano playing?
He never really lived to see me play. I was 15 when he died, so I hadn’t really started yet, apart from maybe dicking around in the house and stuff. So he didn’t have any idea that … well, I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing.
How old were you when your mother passed away?
She died in ’84.
By then you’d obviously been at it for a while. Did she appreciate what you were doing?
I think she did. She was an odd duck on her own, though. She was kind of a haunted person. There’s a story in an essay that David Byrne wrote in the book that came out about Dugout that’s my mother in a nutshell. We lived in this house in Amarillo when I was really little — I was born in Kansas but we moved to Amarillo when I was about three or four days old, and then we moved to Lubbock when I was 2. But my parents loved the house we had in Amarillo so much, they took the blueprints with them when they moved to Lubbock and when they had enough money, they built an exact replica of the house there. That was the house I grew up in. When my dad died, my mother stayed there for a while, then sold the house and eventually ended up going back to Amarillo and trying to buy back that original house. But the woman who owned it wouldn’t sell it, so my mother bought another house a couple of blocks away and waited for that woman to die so she could buy it. And she finally did. So when we would go back to visit her for holidays, it was going to the exact same house in Amarillo that I grew up in in Lubbock, because it was furnished the same way. She was a very sentimental person that way.
Did you have a band in high school?
I was never in a band until I got to California, but the first person I ever played music with was a guy in high school named David Box. When we were seniors, we tried out for a student assembly with a Bo Diddley song, but at the actual assembly instead of the Bo Diddley song, we played this song I’d written called “Roman Orgy.” Our peers loved it, but we were both expelled from school. I remember this basketball coach just slammed me against the wall and said, “Well, that girl [the president of the student body] might not know what a Roman orgy is, but I do! You’re out of here!” My first critic.
Do you remember how the song went? Could you still play it today?
Yeah, I could still do it. I have never performed it since though, and I probably never will!
It was only a few years later that you were on Shindig!, playing “Red Bird.” That song did stick around — you later recorded it on your Smokin’ the Dummy album. Do you remember writing that one?
Yeah. I don’t remember how long it took or why I wrote that, but I do remember thinking at the time, “This is the first real song that I’ve ever written.” Like, not an attempt to piss somebody off in high school or something like that, but a real song. I was a little amazed from that point of view. And I think it made me want to make more of those.
What was your first band in California?
I had a band when I was in art school called the Black Ball Blues Quartet. We mainly played Muddy Waters and Junior Wells songs, stuff like that. We had a Korean singer who played harmonica, a guy named Gary Wong, and I played keyboards and there was a bass player and a guitar player. And we played all the student dances and stuff like that, and opened up for some good groups, like Leaves and Love with Arthur Lee, when they were all kind of just getting started. So I played with them right up until I graduated. I had an old Volkswagen at the time, and one day about a week before graduation, we had all of the band’s equipment crammed into this little Bug when I had to run home real quick to do something, and when I came out, somebody had stolen all of it. And I had to pay everybody back for the equipment because of course nobody had ever heard of insurance in those days, so I was horrendously in debt right after I graduated with this art degree that wasn’t worth toilet paper. That was a pretty lean summer for us. I ended up teaching third grade for a year, as part of this special program that the U.S. Poverty Program set up after the first Watts riots in 1965 — they’d get young people just coming out of school to do kind of a crash two-week indoctrination and they’d give them a class in Watts. Having that job actually gave me a deferment from the draft, and then literally the day that job was up, Bukka was born.
Didn’t you end up signing a publishing deal somehow around that time, though?
That was later, like in ’70, after I quit teaching. I’d been writing songs and had met Lowell George [of Little Feet] through a bunch of guys that I’d gone to school with. They were just getting ready to put their first album out, kind of rehearsing and jamming in an old warehouse, and they asked me if I wanted to come play with them. I ended up doing that about three or four times, and Lowell always loved my song “New Delhi Freight Train.” And then he was approached by this guy who was the head of Clean Records, who asked him if he would produce a record of mine. This guy was interested in doing my first record, Juarez, because he’d heard me play some of those songs and liked them a lot, and I actually ended up signing a deal with Clean Records, which was a subsidiary of Atlantic. It was a horrible deal because I ended up signing away all of my publishing for like five years where I basically couldn’t do anything, because they never did do a record. I went to the studio one time, and they actually paid for this live recording at a place called Al’s Hotel, but nothing ever happened and it fell through. [Note: That live recording, Al’s Grand Hotel: Live May 7th, 1971, was finally issued as a very limited edition — 500 copies — vinyl LP last year.] But anyway, I ended up having to sit on my music for about five years. But Lowell was incredibly generous to me, because he waited until after my deal was up to record “New Delhi Freight Train,” so I could get the publishing on it. They ended up doing it on Time Loves a Hero.
Who did you finally end up putting Juarez out with?
That was totally independent. I did this box of prints to go with the LP with this group called Landfall Press. They’re in Santa Fe now, and they’re the same group that I’m doing the Bottom of the World prints with. But initially with Juarez, I played a gig with those songs along with a slide projection of some of these prints I’d made. And Jack Lemon, who ran Landfall, wanted me to do a suite of those prints for a boxed set. He came up with I think $500, and I came up with the rest of the money by trading prints and drawings to my cousin, who produced it. He happened to be the road manager for the Airplane and Starship. We had to record most of Juarez in the morning, because all the afternoons and nights in the studio were booked.
As spare as that recording is — just you on piano for the most part, with a little guitar on some songs — that whole concept album still holds up brilliantly today. But you’ve taken a lot of those songs and re-recorded them on later albums, right up to “Four Corners” on Bottom of the World. Were you not happy with how the original album came out?
It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy with it. It’s just that I was always curious what those songs would sound like with more instruments on them. I was so conscious of never having enough money to do what I wanted to do, just kind of having to do it fast and get out of there. So it always left a little hole in me as far as, “I could have tried this, tried that.” And you know, I’ve had the opportunity since then to do that. But I’m still very proud of that record, and still mystified by it. It’s like it came into my life like a flying saucer, and kind of changed everything for me.
I like to hear that you’re mystified by it yourself. Because as much as I love that record, as many times as I’ve listened to it, I still don’t think I fully understand it.
Well I don’t think it’s about understanding or about reaching some kind of conclusion. That’s one of the things that was so important to me about it; it was about opening up things, about opening up possibilities of what an image is, what an incident is, what motion is. It’s all about investigating things from different angles, because no one angle is really true.
It’s fascinating how you weave elements like Cortez the conquistador into an otherwise modern setting. How did you hit on that idea?
I always thought it was just about how there was a level of historical things happening at the same time as this other incident. It’s a brute, very simple murder story and road story, but it was touching on all these elements that paralleled history, whether with words or incident. So everything was being paralleled in kind of layers, whether it was happening 500 years ago or in a trailer park in Cortez, Colo. That’s what opened up for me: the fact that history and now are the same thing, or can be the same thing. The same doorways open into possibilities of what is real.
Did notions of good and evil factor at all into your thinking about the four main characters and the story? Or was nothing that cut and dried?
I never thought about good and evil. And I never thought about it having anything to do with morality. I never even saw the characters as people. I always saw them as embodying different climates — anger or love or sex or whatever — that were kind of in constant collision with one another. Sailor and Alice kind of embody a certain time of innocence, almost like the ’50s, and Jabo and Chic are very definitely ’60s kind of characters, and they all smash into each other. I also think all of them are displaced: the sailor’s out of water, the hooker’s always trying to get someplace else, Jabo “goes north to get south,” and Chic’s kind of the mystery factor, because she’s just along for the ride. But all of those things are in constant motion and constant collision with one another. Ginsberg had a quote about how in America, it’s the motion that’s holy, not the destination, and I remember thinking about that at the time. But there were so many surprises with Juarez, half the time I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to smash me in the head next!
What hit you next, musically at least, was Lubbock (on everything). Considering how you couldn’t wait to get out of Lubbock fast enough, did it surprise you to end up back there, recording an album full of so many songs that, in their own way, expressed a real fondness for the region?
Totally. And yeah, it was ironic, because all through the ’60s, I was so thrilled not to be in Lubbock. I think I used it as a scapegoat, like a lot of kids do when they’re leaving where they’re from. I’d go back constantly with Jo Harvey to visit our folks or whatever, but I was always resistant to it, because the Vietnam War was full-tilt and there were always those classic ’60s family arguments over God and religion and politics. I just had a real anger about Lubbock and all the conservatism and just being stuck in the mud in that place. And I probably still do, a little bit — I don’t think I’ll ever lose all of that resistance. But the irony was in finding out that there was this really good studio there, and going back and meeting this whole group of people like Lloyd and Ely and Jesse [Taylor] and Richard [Bowden] that I ended up becoming great friends with. And then after we cut that record, when we sat back in the studio and listened to the whole thing, that was really the first time that it dawned on me how much I cared about that place. How all of those songs were about affection; they were about deep affection for the people there, the humor, the whole what of it. And that was a real amazing lesson for me, as far as the way I function — just realizing how many different levels that I’m kidding myself on! Because I really did not like that place, and left there with a whole other attitude about it.
On the same album with all of these songs kind of paying tribute to your hometown, you also skewered the snobbier aspects of the art world, with “Truckload of Art” and “The Collector (and the Art Mob).” The former poked fun at the schism between the East Coast and the West Coast art scenes. How prevalent was that at the time?
I think as far as a climate, a mental climate, very much so. There was very much a self-consciousness in California about New York artists, because L.A. was just starting to kind of exert itself as an artistic community. So there was this weird kind of jealousy and paranoia coming from there, and an equally weird kind of arrogance on the East Coast. And you know, I think that’s been an on-going thing for probably the last 60 years.
I’ve always loved the line about how the smoke rising up from the crashed truckload of art can be seen from miles around …
“But nobody knows what it means!” [Laughs] Nor will they ever!
After Lubbock (on everything), you continued playing and recording with a lot of the Lubbock musicians from those sessions. Some of those guys also played together in the Joe Ely Band or the Maines Brothers, so it was natural that they’d have chemistry; but as the Panhandle Mystery Band, they really fit your music like a glove. I think that really comes across best on Smokin’ the Dummy — the playing on that record just … smokes.
Yeah, I love that record. We went out and played a lot. It was just a whole other segment for me, going out with that bunch. And I don’t know if it was a Lubbock thing or a Texas thing, but I can remember being in California and playing with other musicians, and it being just so fucked up trying to figure out what they were doing and what I was doing and trying to make it sound like music. But I just felt comfortable with those guys right from the start.
All of those early albums were later licensed to Sugar Hill for release on CD, but you originally put them out on your own label, Fate. That wasn’t as common a practice back in the ’70s and ’80s as it is today.
Well yeah, because you know, it’s like suicide! You’re putting them out, but where? They got some reaction — Juarez and Lubbock both got really good reviews — but I remember “The Great Joe Bob” (from Lubbock) was on the charts in England, and we couldn’t get records over there to them because we didn’t know how. They were playing the shit out of them on the radio, but nobody could buy them. I didn’t know how to distribute anything or how to find a distributor. I just sent them out, we’d mail them to people, gave them away. We did sell quite a few of them out of the trunk of the car, though.
By the time you got rolling with the Panhandle Mystery Band, you were well on your way to being pretty established with your art career, too, weren’t you?
Yeah, I was starting to do a lot of shows — gallery shows and stuff like that. And that was always kind of an issue of confusion, because it was odd doing a show in a museum and whatever, and people saying “What do you do that country music for?” It always seemed to be more of an issue for other people than it ever was with me, because I’ve never really made a big distinction between the two — art and music. Because they overlap with one another so much, they’ve informed one another so much and they’re part of one another so much that they’re really the same thing for me. I really don’t think I ever would have made art if I hadn’t made music, or vice versa. They totally feed one another. But I think that causes issues in a world that’s pretty label driven, in terms of, “If you’re going to be an artist, you should just be an artist; if you’re going to be a musician, you should just be a musician.” I don’t think that’s ever been true. I think if you’re going to be an artist, you can do anything you want to do. It’s that kind of freedom.
On the subject of artistic freedom … how much leeway do you have when it comes to doing public art pieces? When you’re commissioned for something, are you significantly more restricted than you are when you’re working on a project of your own, like Youth in Asia or Dugout, or making an album? Or is it more like, once someone hires you, they get whatever you feel like making?
That’s pretty much it. I usually present four or five ideas, all of them ones that I would be willing to do and would like to see. And I’ve been pretty lucky. But I mean, you can work with people to a degree. Like I’ve got a piece called “Wish” [a giant wishbone] that’s at D/FW. When I had my first meeting with them, it was right around 9/11, and 9/11 changed everything with public works, especially in airports. Before that, I did a piece in Houston called “Countree Music” that’s inside security, and people used to be able to go in and out of the terminals waiting for people. Well after 9/11, you can’t go in anymore, so the only people who actually see that piece now are people getting on a plane or off a plane. And there’s all kinds of other restrictions that have to do with security in airports. Like, the piece at D/FW is outside of security, so you have to deal with things like blast ratios, so if somebody sets a bomb off out by the ticket area, you have to make sure that wishbone is beefed up enough so that a certain megaton bomb isn’t going to blow the thing up into …
Right. Anyway, when I first started working on that piece, I had several ideas … One of them was a museum of confiscations, because they had just started that thing of taking pocket knives and everything conceivable out of people’s luggage and not letting them get on the plane with them. They had piles of this stuff, and I was wanting to put them into transparent blocks, and then build walls around the airport with these confiscated pocket knives and fingernail clippers and whatever. They didn’t like that idea at all. But one of my other ideas was a wishbone, and that made them nervous, but they liked it.
Why would that make them nervous?
Well, the idea that there is anxiety with flying: that the reality of getting on an airplane is, you just wish nothing bad happens. So bringing that to the forefront was anxious enough for them. Then the fact that it’s kind of counter-levered like that, so it’s really on one point, right before you break the wishbone. And the fact that people walk under it to get to security. So you never know what kind of issues they’re going to come up with, but I think it was the anxiety issue of the word “wish” associated with just getting on an airplane that made them nervous. But they went for it anyway.
Another one of your public pieces on display in Texas is your memorial bronze statue of C. B. “Stubb” Stubblefield (“Bar-B-Que Beyond the Grave”) in Lubbock, on the site of his original restaurant. Stubb was such a beloved personality, especially among musicians from that area. What did working on that piece mean to you?
It was very hard. I really felt good about doing it, but it was odd because I built the clay here in my studio, and to come in at night and to see that presence … it was very spooky. It was just hard to work on somebody who had died and who you had known and cared about. And I swore that I would never do that again. But I’m still real proud of that piece.
Stubb was just one of those people that you meet and who makes a real mark in your life. My favorite story about Stubb is … I did a drawing once called “The Heart & Soul of Lubbock, Texas.” When we did the record release for Lubbock (on everything), I had about 10 drawings I had done about Lubbock that were shown at a gallery there. Stubb came to the opening that afternoon, and then later that night we did the big blowout at Stubb’s place, and I gave him that one drawing and told him he could do whatever he wanted with it. And it hung in his studio in the cafe for a long time. But one night Stubb called me and said, “I really need money, would you mind if I sold that drawing you gave me to somebody?” And I said, “No, I don’t mind at all, Stubb — if you need the money, sell it.” And he said, “Well, will you buy it?” I said, “No! I made the piece, I’m not going to buy it!” Then he asked me if I could help him find somebody else to buy it, and I told him yeah, I knew somebody who might. And he said, “Well, you have to tell them, they can buy it, but they can’t have it. I get to keep it!” [Laughs] I said, “I don’t know Stubb, I’ll try …” And I actually did find a someone for him, a dealer in Kansas City that loved Stubb, and he bought it and let Stubb keep it. But I always loved that about Stubb. “Will you buy it?” I mean, people talk about what a bad businessman he was, but that was brilliant!
Has any other piece you’ve ever done been quite that hard on a emotional level, or “spooked” you like that?
No. That’s the most, I think. Dugout was a little strange, because it was dealing with my folks who had been gone for so long. But it was also really necessary; it was real cathartic to me to kind of deal with them in that way — to be that removed from them, and making up stories about them. And I also thought of it as being as close as Bukka and Bale are ever going to get to a family history of them. Even though a lot of it’s made up, it’s made up in a way that was based on so much stuff that I remember as being real. So made-up and real are the same thing. I feel that way about a lot of things: when something tells you it’s right, even if it’s fiction or whatever, then it’s in the domain of truth.
Along those lines, your next project, Ghost Ship Rodez, was a fictionalized biography of Antonin Artaud. I’ll admit that I know very little about him, but the CD of the radio play you and Jo Harvey recorded for that is one of the most unsettling and intense things I’ve ever heard. One thing that really intrigued me about Artaud when I started reading up on him was his concept of the “Theatre of Cruelty.” Did that influence you at all?
Well, the thing about “Theatre of Cruelty” is, it’s basically cruel to people who are boring. It’s taking ideas to their limit, whether it’s about God, family, country, art, music, death — whatever you’re dealing with — and you push it as far as you can take it. So it’s theater of jeopardy, in a sense. You know, Artaud himself could never even do the theater that he imagined, because I think he basically wanted to do theater that could drive people even to madness or suicide. Which is what was actually happening with him at the time. It’s about taking a concept and pushing that concept as far as you possibly can, and presenting it. So in a sense it defied all of the common courtesies and expectations. It’s a battle against expectations — classic avant-garde. But I just think it’s an avenue to see something else. And, it’s really about voices. It’s like how, once a writer finds the voice of whatever they’re writing, then they can move in that world. For me it’s been the same way: you try to find the voice of the thing you’re looking for, and once you find that, then you have the whole responsibility of trying to make that voice hold true to itself throughout the work that you’re making.
When that voice presents itself in a theater piece, invariably you turn to Jo Harvey to help you deliver it. She’s been an integral part of every piece you’ve ever written for the stage. Do you always write with her in mind?
She is such an incredible … she is incredible at doing voices and personas. The first time I really was aware of that was when I wrote this piece called “Anterabbit/Bleeder,” and Jo Harvey was the narrator. She tells this story of this guy who has hemophilia, and she tells his story from the point of view of his mother and from the point of view of three or four girlfriends and then just a friend. And as she told these stories, she performed these characters — when she talked about the mother, she became the mother, when she talked about a girlfriend, she became the girlfriend. And it was stunning. And so I’ve always been interested in that idea of multiple kind of personas inside each of us. So, with Dugout, she became the same kind of vehicle; she was the mother, she was the child, she was the man, she was the narrator. And that was carried out even further in Ghost Ship, where she did it probably more than she ever did before — she plays demons and she plays the people that the demons are haunting. And she literally got to that point where she could change characters in the middle of a sentence, and it was detectable onstage. I mean, she’s an actress — that’s what she does — but it’s still kind of mind boggling.
Have the two of you written much together?
You know, it’s funny … We wrote Chippy together [a 1994 play based on the diary of a West Texas hooker, featuring original music by Allen, Ely, Butch Hancock, Jo Carol Pierce, Wayne Hancock, and Robert Earl Keen], but Covenant was the first piece that we worked on like that where it wasn’t living hell to work with each other. We can work for each other — like, she’s a great person to direct, and I’ve written songs and built sets for her plays — but when we’ve worked together, it’s always just been collision time. [Laughs] But Covenant was the first one we did together where it just kind of happened. It’s really kind of a survey in a sense of different works we’ve both done over the years, with elements from her pieces and elements from my pieces as well as new stories that we both had written and some new songs of mine. It reminded Jo Harvey of two people laying in bed at night, telling and singing stories to each other.
Bottom of the World actually has several songs from different projects you’ve worked on in the past — along with some brand new ones. Do think of it as being a survey of sorts, too, like Covenant was?
I see it as one thing. I’ve always thought that a record needs to be sequenced in a way that made it one thing, but this one in particular, it’s just hard for me to think about pulling songs out and listening to it out of sequence. I relate things like images in the first song to images going on in the last song, and all the way through it are things that kind of connect with each other. Like I related the dead dog in “Queenie’s Song” to the dog and the kid in “The Gift.” There’s so many of those connections going on like that throughout the record that I feel like not only does the sequence go from beginning to end, but it’s constantly looping as these images inform one another and make a third thing.
Another thing is, when I started working on the record, I really wanted to approach writing songs in ways that I hadn’t tried before. Like with “Bottom of the World,” the focus of the song was having everything in it be “might” or “maybe,” and it’s really kind of the same melody over and over and over. I liked that repetition combined with those lyrics. The print I did for that song is just a chair with sheet music on it, and it reminds me of someone who is constantly thinking, “I might do this” and “maybe I should go there” and “maybe I’ll do that,” but none of it ever happens — he never goes to any of the places he talks about. But the irony for me was that all of the places mentioned in the lyrics are places that I actually had just been to, so there was that funny kind of collision for me when I was writing it. Now none of that has any bearing for anybody else that will listen to it, but for me, I had just never quite thought about a song in that way before. And a number of these songs were that way for me, just different in the way I approached them. Even the older songs like “Four Corners” … it was like taking the bastard songs out of different groups, the songs that were the most different in terms of how I remembered writing them, and putting them together.
I think “The Gift” really stands out as “different” in that it’s one of your first songs that I know of that’s directly about an incident that you might have read about or seen on the news — even though you don’t identify the subjects [incarcerated ponzi-schemer Bernard Madoff and his late son, Mark] by name.
Yeah. And to me it was like writing a Greek tragedy, with the chorus and the whole thing, because it was such a tragic event. Also, every account I read of that incident, there was an absence of the mother or the wife — it was always just the kid and the daddy — so I thought it was important for the chorus to have a woman [Bukka’s wife, Sally] sing those little fills. It’s like a movie to me, too. I always thought songs were like little movies.
“Wake of the Red Witch” is a song that’s actually about movies — specifaclly, the John Wayne movies that really made an impression on you growing up. Can you still disappear into movies the way you could as a kid?
I don’t know if I get the intensity of the escape that I did when I was a kid, but I still get lost in them. That song, it’s really about hiding. It’s about hiding and being frightened. That movie, The Wake of the Red Witch, always had an impact on me — I always remember that one image of John Wayne in a diving helmet, drowning, filling up the whole screen with his face filling up with water. And I always loved that title: “The Wake of the Red Witch.” It’s a real B-movie, if you ever see the movie, but the title goes so many different places if you really think about it. And that’s another example where I’ve never written a song like that before. Years ago I worked with a dance company on a piece called Rollback, and the dancers were trying to get a handle on what they were doing with their hands during this one part of the piece. And I said, “Well, you should go see The Searchers, with John Wayne, because there’s a scene where they’re riding through this canyon between these ridges, and on both sides of the canyon there’s Comanches riding beside them …” And they started thinking that they would do their hands like these Indians on the ridge — they developed this whole kind of language out of it. So that’s how the song started, with that image: “Modern dancers move their graceful hands like Comanche bands across the ridge in John Ford’s classic Western, The Searchers.” And then I would just go back and forth thinking about all these other movies. But it was really about that hiding, as a kid: hiding behind huge images.
Talk about “Emergency Human Blood Courier.” That’s another great, evocative title.
That came from, I was in Albuquerque on the freeway, and I saw a little car with that written on the side. I had never seen a sign like that on a vehicle. And it reminded me, kind of in retrospect, of “Human Remains” — you used to see coffins, or boxes even, that would come off of planes with that sticker on them. But especially in the context of what’s going on right now with all the violence down on the border, that was kind of an obvious thing that registered with me. It was just the words, really; I set up this pattern while I was driving, just saying “emergency human blood courier” over and over all the way back to Santa Fe. And when I started working on the song, I wanted that same pattern to go through all of the lyrics — which is why it doesn’t really have a chorus. And then Sally came in and sang on that one, too, and she brought something to it that was so strange and spooky and right. That was like the final touch that made the song work.
What’s it like for you, making a record with such a small group of people that are so close to you? You mentioned earlier that sitting down to write with Jo Harvey can sometimes feel like butting heads. Is there an element of that to contend with when you record with family and friends like Lloyd and Bowden who might as well be family?
Never. There’s nothing like that — it’s totally comfortable. Ever since Lubbock (on everything) … there’s never been once that I can remember any kind of friction or tension. That’s one of the reasons I love to record so much with those people, because it is like a family. I remember when Bukka graduated from high school, Lloyd had given him some studio time as a graduation gift, and Bukka wanted to record some songs he’d written to try and get a scholarship to music school. And it was amazing to me to sit in the studio and watch my kid dealing with these same guys that I had recorded all this stuff with and become great friends with — it was a funny connection, a rare connection, to be able to have that kind of closeness with musicians and friends at the same time. And then to have both my kids involved in it, too.
Bukka told me that you worked up a number of other new songs in the studio that didn’t make it on this record.
Yeah, we recorded quite a few things that I didn’t use, because they just didn’t work within the context of the other songs. But I’ll probably pull them all out and work with them for another record at some point.
So you think there definitely will be another record?
Before another 12 years goes by?
Well, possibly before I’m 80! But maybe not. Who knows?
Jo Harvey told me that she doesn’t think there’s ever been a day when you didn’t work. She said working every day is like a necessity for you. Do you ever just decompress and flush your mind out with things like sitcoms or the Three Stooges?
Well, I don’t know about the Stooges, but I don’t work all the time. I’m kind of 9-to-5 now. At 5 or 5:30, I’ll go in the house and watch TV, eat, and wait until 9 again. But even when I feel really driven and go into that zone, I don’t think you can sustain that all the time, or you’ll cancel yourself out. So there’s lots of times when I’ll come into the studio here, and I’ll just read or listen to music or watch a DVD or something. But I always remember that quote of Flannery O’Connor’s where she said, “I sit in front of that typewriter every day, because if something happens, I want to be there.” And I’ve always felt that same way about my studio. I can come out here maybe for four or five days a week and do nothing but look at books or read or whatever … but you want to be there when you start feeling it.
So really, it’s great, because now Jo Harvey has her own studio, I have mine, and we have a house that we meet at at the end of the day. And the kids are grown. So it’s a whole other kind of energy of thinking about things and working and anticipating than when we were younger. But no less productive, I don’t think. Just different.