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Columbus was wrong. When you come from the Texas Panhandle, the world is flat, flat, flat -- a blank expanse of nothing but dust and the wind that carries it. Terry Allen, a heavy hitter in both high art and country music circles, has been mapping his hometown of Lubbock for years, using songs, stories, drawings, sculptures -- whatever's lying around his considerably jampacked head. For all his singularity, his maps chart the same four corners we all worry about: truth and beauty, sex and death. It's just that Lubbock sits smack dab in the middle of it all, less a destination than a launch pad. Like a lot of nowheresvilles, you get the feeling it's a good place to be from.
Since back before the Day the Music Died, the town has produced a litter of notable singers: Buddy Holly; Flatlanders Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock; and two wonderfully wise-ass women named Jo -- late-breaking songstress Jo Carol Pierce and Allen's high-school-sweetheart wife, Jo Harvey, an actress and performance artist. When asked just what is it about the place that sends folks crooning, Allen replies, "Lubbock's really isolated and very conservative. It was such a harsh geographical place to be raised because it's dead flat. To save yourself, you had to exert your imagination. Because every force was trying to thwart that. When rock 'n' roll came along, it gave people avenues of escape and salvation. I know that was true of Jo [Harvey]. It was certainly true of me."
After a short breath he adds, "Butch Hancock says it's because nobody requires a hand brake in their car." But pondering that theory's connection between musical riches and topographical poverty can take a few Texas-size hours -- hours better spent listening to Allen's powerful output of recordings. That is, if you can find them. While his best album, the deeply rough and regional Lubbock (on everything) was thankfully re-released last year by Sugar Hill, others, such as the rip-roaring Smokin' the Dummy, remain hard to find. Luckily, he's out and about, plugging his latest effort, Human Remains, and stops at the Great American Music Hall this Sunday. Apart from a music gig at a museum some years ago, the not-to-be-missed show will be his first Bay Area appearance.
Allen connects his spacious worldview to an omnipresent horizon: "I just want to be over there." Meaning anywhere but here. In fact, when his longtime art-critic buddy Dave Hickey once asked him for a definition of art, he replied, "To get out of town." Pressed to elaborate, he asserts, "I think it propels you out of your habits. Literally, it takes you to different places."
His works are populated with characters on the move. In songs like "The Wolfman of Del Rio," he describes big American automobiles like Fords and Chevys, equipped with AM radios and back seats big enough for you-know-what. A 15-year-old boy behind the wheel finds his "first release on a highway" because "deep down in his soul/ He just wanted to go."
Allen himself has been burning up the road for decades now. Art school in Los Angeles sent him west right after high school in 1962. ("When I left Lubbock the first time," he remembers, "I drove the car straight to the ocean and walked straight into the water. I would have kept going if I'd had a boat.") He spent most of the '70s and a good part of the '80s teaching art at Fresno state. Since 1987, he's called Santa Fe home, but still, he notes, "I went back to Lubbock a billion times a year."
Allen has been known to trace an idea or anecdote through any number of forms -- from theater and radio dramas to ballads and paintings. As a bona fide art star, he's had solo exhibitions at swank venues like Columbus' Wexner Center for the Visual Arts (a performance art/installation extravaganza called Juarez) and Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (including a sculpture called The Nelson, the title of which references both the gallery and teen idol Ricky). So you might say that Allen divides his time between art and music. But he doesn't see it that way: "I've never differentiated between the two. It's just never been an issue. When I first started showing work, a lot of times I'd play. Because the pieces were directly connected to songs." Discussing distinctions between media bores him: "I've never had any kind of specific interest in materials. I'm a product of the '60s when everything was kind of suddenly made available -- when the hardware store became as important as an art store."
Actually, it's a surprise that Allen's never covered that certain Texas troubadour classic in which Ernest Tubb drawls, "There's a little bit of everything in Texas/ And a whole lot of Texas in me." A list of the pieces and parts used in the Juarez installation includes music, art supplies such as colored pencils and oil pastels, and also things like condoms, bobby pins, and human hair. A good phrase to describe all this detritus, the seemingly meaningless remnants of living which Allen collects in his net of tunes and pictures, is Human Remains, the unsmiling title of his new album.
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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