Terry Allen, the artist, musician, storyteller, painter, and sculptor, remembers sitting in the bathroom of the club his retired-ballplayer dad owned in Lubbock, Tex., as a kid, listening to music and looking at the porno drawings people did on the walls. “A very early influence,” Allen says, “hearing music, looking at pictures.”
Taking in Allen can feel similarly illicit and enveloping. Switching off, over a 50-year career, between painting, sculptures, installations, and music, Allen’s work has stayed equal parts free and exacting across those mediums. As a recording artist and painter, Allen’s cut 14 full-lengths, been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and an NEA grant, seen his songs covered by David Byrne and Guy Clark, and had his work end up in collections at the MoMA and the Met. He’s someone either ahead of his time, or apart from it: a multihyphenate literate giant whose catalog stretches out into just about everything.
People who dig Terry Allen don’t dabble, but believe. They convert friends to his first album Juarez, go see his plays and his shows, buy his out-of-print books, try to spot the connections. But his output remains a poorly kept secret. Taken together, it can feel like a lot. His career— careers, really—seems impossible to exist. Just like a pitcher shouldn’t be able to reliably hit, Allen, who’s only one man, can’t possibly have that much there.
Reining in everything Allen has done is a process. There are more than two parts. There’s Allen the musician, buoyed lately by reissues of his first two LPs, from the ’70s, which may have set down the template for alt-country. There’s Allen the visual artist—gouache, plexiglass, Polaroids, ink, pastels—who took off after those records, and who became one of Bob Dylan’s favorites. There’s Allen the set dresser, for plays like Hally Lou, performed by his wife, Jo Harvey Allen, and Allen the dramatist, whose occurrence, The Embrace...Advanced to Fury, spiraled out of an art show and evolved into a video piece. Add to that Allen the radio guy—plays, produced with Jo Harvey, and radio shows, in L.A. in the ’60s, available, once again, online—and Allen the public artist and sculptor, whose works—a controversial statue near Kansas City police headquarters, others dotting Denver, the University of Cincinnati, and L.A.—led his career in the ’90s, and it feels like two lives, if not three.
Which, taken without context, is genuinely surprising, and also a little confusing. Art has its polymaths—da Vinci, if we can go that far back, or Robert Venturi—and there’s a short list for music: John Lurie, David Byrne, probably Harry Bertoia. There’s a pull to wondering where Allen fits in: as a Lubbock musician, an L.A. grad, a Santa Fe resident, a Texan. But it’s better to just look at his work.
Most CREEM readers likely know Allen best from his music. His first two LPs, Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything), from ’75 and ’79, exceed their superlatives and defy categorization, and, having been properly reissued a few years ago, are his most available works. (Smokin’ and Bloodlines, his subsequent albums, are due for reissue this year.)
In a word, the music is country, but in most ways it isn't. His records, sonically, flirt with that genre—and kiss it, almost with reverence: Songs focus on Texas, the road, bad-luck characters, desolate places. There’s lots of lap steel. But repeated listens reveal some embellishments: spoken-word passages, Latin syncopation, allusions to New York and L.A., ambient narrators, long, droning segues. "People ask if it’s country music,” Allen says, “and I ask, ’Well, what country?”’
Allen’s first record, Juarez, may be his best known, and his strangest. A minimal, opera-esque concept record, it’s made up of piano, Allen’s voice and guitar, and maracas. The concept follows four characters—Jabo, Chic, Sailor, and Alice—across the country, where a shotgun wedding devolves into a murderous spree. Over the course of an hour, Jabo & Co. commit crimes, fall in love, betray each other, confess, and spend lots of time in their cars. (Probably a Buick.) Allen calls them “emotional climates: colliding with each other, merging with each other,” that are “always in some kind of motion.” Between movements, Allen appears as a narrator, sometimes inhabiting characters, sometimes discussing himself. Spare and eerie, there’s enough space and ambiguity on Juarez to get lost in. Allen, for his part, is "haunted” by it: “Every time I turn around, it’s kicking my ass.”
It also keeps showing up. Lubbock (On Everything) turned out more traditionally country, thanks to a full band—with Lloyd Maines, the steel-guitar whiz, and Joe Ely, the songwriter—that veers Allen’s gauzy tales closer to home and fleshes them out. (Allen's most popular songs are on Lubbock.) Smokin’, Allen’s second go-round with Maines and Ely—a.k.a. the Phantom Mystery Band—is smooth, loose, and vivid, and settles in both West Texas and California. Both records attach Allen’s wavy stories to earthier characters and exact situations: a doomed football prospect, a diffident waitress, a war between New York and L.A.’s gallery scenes, a broke drunk in Montana. Bloodlines is even more varied. “It’s the first record I did, ” Allen says, “that was cut at different times, and had different ideas.” Its songs are held together more through story than sound. A drone starts it off, then the theme to Jo Harvey’s play, Hally Lou, another song for a different play, some originals—about America, Manhattan—and a couple of Juarez rerecordings that feel less like updates than complete departures. If Allen’s records are country, then its borders keep changing, veering closer to the other types of art he was doing.
If Allen’s records are country, then its borders keep changing, veering closer to the other types of art he was doing.
“When I first went to L.A.,” Allen says, “I drove straight past [town] to the Pacific Ocean and walked across the sand, right into the water.... That’s how far away I wanted to get from Lubbock. ” Allen, who had mostly played and ingested music growing up—his mom was a pianist and taught him his first song; Little Richard, Hank Williams, and Elvis performed at his dad's club—showed up there in the early 60s for art school. At Chouinard, Allen found his teachers pushing second-gen abstract expressionism, trying to get their students closer to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and to “smoke a cigar, paint really big, be really tough, and all of this bullshit." Allen tried big works for a while, but found himself drawn more by what was going on in L.A., which wasn’t constricted to traditional painting. “Everything was collapsing,” says Allen. “All of the isms were falling apart.”
Allen stayed in L.A., for the most part, through the decade, interning for Man Ray, rubbing shoulders with Ed Ruscha and Allen Ruppersberg, and setting down a rough foundation for what he'd do with the rest of his life. Music was always there—Allen, through a construction job, played a couple of songs on a TV show—as were dramatics, and performance. The Living Theatre left an impression on him, as did Allan Kaprow’s “happenings”: installations that might combine visual art and dancing, and audience participation. Juarez was still a few years away, but Allen started really making art then, an early set of what he calls Bible drawings, almost cartoonish, rejecting abstract expressionism, with a set of jagged, psychedelic cartoony paintings—“paper listening movies”—in which he wrote a song, paired it to a painting, and put it in a player behind the canvas, so whoever was looking at it could listen. Allen mostly went to L.A. to escape Lubbock, but “everything became available” there, he says, and “everything became a possibility in terms of making work.”
Movement is key in Allen’s work, and explains just about everything. Art shifts from one medium to another, paintings become installations, songs veer into illustration, music accompanies sculptures, and things speak to each other. Allen, who goes to his Santa Fe studio every day, estimates about three-quarters of his songs have been written in cars: The “motion and the rhythm of the tires and the monotony of driving” feed the ideas. Nothing is static.
Allen himself does the same thing: Songs from Bloodlines originally on Juarez are redone to the hilt, and are foreign, and that record itself is a processional jump from the paper listening movies, Allen’s first instance of synthesizing visuals and sound. (The four climates/characters also show up in a series of paintings from between 1969 and 1975, also called Juarez.)
In 1976, a year after Juarez, Allen debuted Ring, a series of works full of wrestling metaphors about the decay of two alcoholic writers’ marriage, which he exhibited over the course of several years. (Allen’s dad showed wrestling too, every Wednesday at his club, along with concerts.) First expressed as a story, “The Evening Gorgeous George Died,” Ring began as a set of minimal tableaux, exhibited in L.A., accompanied by sound and video, different, aesthetically, from the LP or his earlier paintings.
Later, around the time Lubbock got tracked, Ring evolved into a book, and a script for a play, The Embrace. Embrace, which showed in Houston, was a Kaprowtinged performance piece, taken out from L.A. and to somewhere quite darker. Music was piped into a wrestling ring, along with visual slides, and actors read lines, wore shabby suits and wrestling outfits, creating an almost Bloodlines-like reinterpretation of the unhappy Gorgeous George nuptials. That play was then shot as a video and projected in a wrestling ring, this time a sculpture. After that, Allen evolved it again, removing the words from the script but keeping the sound effects—“glass breaking, a car passing by, maybe a bird”—morphing a play about writers into something nearly entirely visual. Throughout,
“Everything of value really happens in the dark.”
Ring was accompanied by a body of drawings, called Fighters of the Darkness, that Allen based on what was said between the play’s lines. These drawings are hard to track down, but are among the most vivid collages from the past 45 years.
If Juarez is Allen’s most recognizable work, Ring is his most emblematic: From a small jumping-off point, Allen does “everything you could to see what happens with it.” Like Juarez, the work stretches out over itself, its directions decided, Allen says, by “where it came from and where it’s going, and the possibilities there.” The main characters drift from two married writers into emotional climates, fodder for images, and become expressed in just sound. It’s a pure encapsulation of one thing, which might not be a real thing, into a handful of mediums.
As process goes, Allen doesn’t seem to distinguish between the way stories are told: “I'll be playing music and I’ll think about an image, and I’ll draw it,” and things just end up happening, creatively, depending on mood. Allen, in his studio, will wind up either at a piano or drawing, working on whatever is due, or whatever he’s feeling. “It’s all kind of the same: One informs or feeds the other.” Songs come slower now, he says, no longer being written in the car, and as a result of his attacking old habits. Allen, if he notices himself hitting one chord first at the piano, or starting at one point on the canvas, will zig the other way and allow himself to get lost. “Everything of value,” Allen says, “really happens in the dark. ”
It’s easier to understand Allen’s works if we think of them as different ways to tell varying, connected stories. In radio plays, paintings, songs, and even sculptures, the characters change, and are mobile, and transition from one thing to another—even from defined ways of being. People back home are no different, emotionally, from folks in New York or in L.A. Some have both feet in the art world, some are closer to Lubbock. But both seem to be made up mostly of feelings. Allen’s public works—a big metal tree, or leaf, a downtrodden, headless businessman—also seem like apparitions: Where is the song about them? Allen’s stories don’t get retold, but keep starting again, at different places, on different notes. Sometimes these changes are best expressed on a record; sometimes it’s a painting, or a piece of bronze in plain sight.
The shock isn't actually in how much work Allen has made, but that it’s all out in the world quite separately. Juarez, the record and paintings, and Ring, as a collected series of works, seem most comparable to singular works that do a few things at once. Atlas, the opera, is one such example: Meredith Monk’s vague, rich, wordless visual story, evolved over years, about a young girl trying to grow up into an explorer, is easier to accept than Ring because it’s all just one thing.
Or another one: Aren’t Sailor and Alice as close to the nameless possessed ghouls in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker as they are to Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty? (How different is an emotional drive through New Mexico from a haunted walk through an unearthly Russian forest?) We seem to digest work a little easier when it’s synthesized; when characters are explicitly set in one multimedia work made up of music and images, it’s palatable. When they’re broken up over time, like Ring, or across different mediums, like Juarez, it’s a little more work.
Allen, when asked about turning Juarez into a movie, rebuffs the idea. “I’ve never seen those people as people,” he says. “It’s always been an atmosphere or condition, and I don’t know how you film that.” He’s probably right, since other people have turned his works into movies, with different details but the same vague emotional landscapes. The draw of the road shows up in work by Wim Wenders, and the locations in revisionist Westerns. Each thread of Sailor and Alice’s love-murder affairs could be spooled off to a different part of Wong Kar Wai’s Love Trilogy. Allen does a few different things; everyone else does them together.
Still, Allen’s not a director, and he doesn’t have many contemporaries. The closest one might be Byrne, who went on, after Talking Heads, to compose for films, direct them, write plays, and design. It’s a mutual admiration society. Byrne, Allen says, “writes songs totally different than I do, but the possibilities of a song—what it might do, where it might go, how it might be used—we’re on the same page with.” Allen describes him as “one of the few people that has no prejudices where things can go,” and who doesn't distinguish between visuals, a play, a dance, or a song.
“People ask if it’s country music and I ask ‘well, what country?’”
Byrne, for his part, is effusive. He describes Lubbock, in a reflection on the record, as “art that uses a popular form, hijacks that accessibility and familiarity, and says things you’d never expect those forms to say.” Byrne, whose work and themes are more urbanized, is consequently a little more understood. He’s this talented artist, maybe a musician, who does all these things: scores ballets and Bertolucci films, builds bike racks. Those things are closer to art’s power centers than records with West Texas accents and installations about folks who can shoe horses.
But framing Allen’s work in terms of geography, or a musical genre, sells it short. And it’s not enough, either, just to call him a storyteller, or a clinician. Sure, a good story, told right with emotion, is the thread of his work: It might soundtrack dirty bathroom graffiti, or paint a picture of a desolate road trip, or shake someone out of their shoes in a New York museum. But images and sound, no matter which way they come in, end up being felt.