It Came From Lubbock

Terry Allen on remains, human and otherwise

Asked if he thinks that it's a pretty bleak name, Allen doesn't flinch: "That's just the way things are." He says that the phrase first caught his eye at the Austin airport where he saw a coffin in transit. It was plastered with a sticker marked "HUMAN REMAINS. HANDLE WITH EXTREME CARE. FINAL DESTINATION ...." But the destination was blank. "Once I saw that," he contends, "it became set in my head, because it's two-sided." You got your "body parts left over from dead people," as well as "something that somebody's left behind."

There's a dry grit to his voice (both speaking and singing) that isn't afraid to face up to life's dim little corners. His dark humor might be his most interesting characteristic and it crops up out of nowhere. Talking about the importance of radio in his childhood, he says, "Radio was the whole world. The first disaster I heard was on radio, and so was the first music." Disaster? "Yeah, there was a tornado which interrupted the program. They were pleading for blankets and canned goods."

Human Remains bubbles over with the kind of real-life tragedy (minor and otherwise) that you might expect from a man who links his first taste of music with his first inkling of senseless destruction. But as Julian Barnes once wrote, depicting catastrophe is what art is for. From faded love to the death of a child, a killer train to Vietnam, the songs might be full of made-up anecdotes, but they sound like lived-out personal histories. If, for instance, there's no such dead child as the one called "Little Sandy," there have been millions mourned before their time. Allen himself dispenses with the split between fact and fiction in the same way he waves off the differences between art and music. He says, "I have a tendency to believe that any story that moves you is true."

Terry Allen plays with Gillian Welch Sunday, June 23, at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, S.F.; call 885-0750.

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