Juarez – Terry Allen
Sugar Hill Records 1077
Before I begin, let me apologize. This review is being published belatedly, probably a year or so past its intended deadline. I take full responsibility for this egregious display of procrastination. I don't really like working. I am prone to fits of laziness, and the odd soporific genuflection to eschew honest work.
But in my defense, Sugar Hill probably isn't too mad, and I can imagine the reading public isn't either. Because whomever would listen to this album, and while I would love to act naive here, has either known of its reissue or they know Terry Allen personally. There wasn't a ton of pomp which accompanied this release. No party. No speeches, and little PR fanfare.
All of which Juarez genuinely deserves.
Now to the excuses. I could come up with a long list, something longwinded and fairly obtuse. Maybe even sarcastic. But the real reason is I didn't understand Juarez. I knew it was brilliant. I knew the album far exceeded the typical music I received, on an unuttered intellectual level. More importantly, I knew the music was special because other than a Texas drawl, it immediately sounded like a Randy Newman album. Only if Newman had some of Allen’s special qualities; if he could spin a yarn the way Allen could.
But I don't think I got it until two things happened to me; neither of which could be considered scandalous or tectonic plate shifting, but important for the sake of this review.
First: I discovered John Prine. Not, "I liked the song Bonnie Raitt did," but rather I began to understand Prine. Where Dylan was DYLAN, was in how he cloaked his songs in ambiguity via metaphor. He left things wide open by allowing the listener to ascribe personal emotions to certain phrases, imparting suggestions only through allusions, which themselves could slip slide, rich with historical significance. Appealing, certainly, but I think it explains why a song like "Visions of Johanna" or, shit, even "Meet me in the Morning" can move people in different ways. Dylan's modus operandi: interpretation as unique from which understanding and thus comprehension springs.
Which is what my friend Tom Russell does, but I digress, even if I plan on getting to the important Llano Estacado references and a place which should use "Gallo de Cielo," the greatest cock fight song ever written, as its national anthem.
What Prine does, and what bristles me to comparisons to Dylan, is write clear stories of personal people. "Angel from Montgomery" is a story of loneliness and alienation, simple and effective. The protagonist wants a "poster of an old rodeo/just give me one thing I can hold on to" because, fuck, that's what everyone wants. We hit walls in our lives where upon personal reflection we realize how far from ourselves we have ventured. We want to find something from our childhood to bring us back to those simple moments in our lives. We really want Dorothy's red slippers, but she has pawned them for a shotgun to blow the brains out of the wicked witch who stole Toto.
Likewise songs like "Grandpa was a Carpenter" and "Sam Stone" are people, dusty and irreverent, which we don't know, but somehow do by the song's conclusion. Prine's satire keeps it light, not in a Jerry Jeff Walker manner (that would be almost slapstick by comparison), but just enough to not drown us in these characters' desperation. When Prine sings "Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard," the character comes through in a wide screen cinematic format, but to me like an old western; not some spaghetti travesty either for the Film majors in the peanut gallery. When I listen to Prine, I guess I can't help thinking of a porch, in black in white, off in the distance, fading in the sunlight, all transpiring under the direction of John Ford.
Second: I had fallen into an Ambrose Bierce obsession, who I can best describe as an old school Spillane with gothic and satanic tendencies. My interest went wild when Tom Russell told me about Pancho Villa and Bierce trying to meet in Marfa. The story goes that Bierce, his writing career floundering, traveled to Marfa, a town named after a Dostoevsky character. He thought if he could seal an interview with Villa, he might find himself atop the writing world. Instead he died. His body was never found.
To this day, Mexicans claim seeing the devil in the outskirts of Marfa, along the Mexican border where Bierce supposedly succumbed to Mexican shotgun blasts. Apparently the dictator of perdition has taken up shop out there, overseeing the latest drug trafficking and underage marriages. He probably gloats at the incessant debauchery, proud of a small victory in an ongoing ideological slugfest. Rumor has it he uses Bierce as his personal gofer; or so I have been told.
Fast forward to the first time I met Peter Rowan. Rowan would go through these cleansing periods, locking himself in his hill country home, eating only organic food and drinking water. Without a TV, clock or phone, he would have a friend come by the house after about a month, and tell him to "come out and play." When done with his "cleansing" the first song he played, at least with me there, was "Texican Badman."
Rowan strummed the chords, often with a flailing, claw-hammer banjo style reminding me of Hobart Smith. I don't remember all of the lyrics, a travesty given how brief the song is, but the lines I do remember, "Gonna take her out/ And dine her on a tortilla," was like a destitute Marty Robbins line. It told me a story of love, but the idea of a dinner comprised of tortilla was, well, sort of like being forced to live solely on water and bread. Which doesn't sound very uplifting, or in general provide a resounding decency to the love being described.
So went my first encounter with Terry Allen. It is the first track on Juarez. It sets the story’s stage setting and mood. Go figure Rowan would, ironies of ironies, commence the tale. When I heard the song, as to this day hear "Texican Badman," I couldn’t shake the image of the sparse country nestled between Big Bend and Fort Stockton. Barren high desert, where wind turbines generate energy for the great state of Texas. Where Bierce died. Where Donald Judd moved to find a worldly representation of his "minimalism." Where Russell, as I fell into drunken bliss, told me "the dead, the undead, and the insane brush up against each other dancing to the devil’s quaint ditty."
Allen's Juarez is just that: a story, replete with double murder, hookers and illegal aliens; tapping themes like dissolution, cultural estrangement, and the arduous task of accepting change. Like a great Prine song, these characters are rich and full. Alice’s life is lucid, the whore she may be. Jabo’s temperamental behavior, and machismo attitude is outlined and understood. The murder’s brutality described through Allen’s sparse piano pounding. It sounds like a 50 minute, 17 song version of Tom Waits’ "Burma Shave." All of the characters want excitement, acceptance, and social improvement, and you get the feeling the United States as a cultural phenomenon could care less.
Or maybe its Allen's approach, almost in a lounge act way, where high art meets the green velvet of a cheesy smoke ridden dive that implies this attitude.
Nevertheless, the way Allen frames the murder, the way in which the "radio" announcement comes across matter-of-factly, and with a satirical prism illumination, reveals such an insouciance. Our country doesn't take kindly to the creepy, the carnies, and freaks that hide from the light in any available umbra. We speak of them, mentioning them in hushed tones and verbally talking about "taboos." Our actions are trapped in our nation's puritanical undercurrent, us as the Sailor Allen talks about finding love in the whore. Those are the things which give us experience. Which makes us unique. Which can make some of us Lonestar swigging cowboys fighting in a long gone Wild West the US has long turned its back on.
Yet Juarez remains relevant, despite its anachronistic leanings. Of living in a world filled with crack fiends, the tortured faces of meth addicts, all bumping into the OC’s narcissistic neophytes caught puking up cosmos in the Derby’s toilet. Photos by the paparazzi will grace tomorrow’s papers. Allen foresaw this, his tale reminiscent of a Tarantino film, where the characters, even the "good boy" Sailor, comes shrouded in such darkness that good and evil can’t be fully honed in on. It moves and sways, to the point where the murder becomes a reflected question like "did the good guys win, really, in the end?"
This has always piqued my philosophical antennae. Not that the good win, or that the bad win, but the possibility that neither does. More important, that HUMANITY does prevail. I loved movies where we actually felt something for the bad guy which can be construed as sincerely good. Where we feel sympathy for Clyde's impotence. We feel for DeNiro's relationship with the art student in "Heat." We feel for the Indians in "The Searchers" because what comes first, and the impetus for good or bad is never clearly realized; that only history books make such demarcations. I again can't help thinking of Waits and this time a "Postcard to a Hooker in Minneapolis," as the seediest of character's can also be fragile and considerate in a way reserved for our visualizations of Mother Theresa.
But Juarez makes me think about numerous things. If given the time, I could probably start getting into the Minutemen, the proposed fence along the Mexican and American border. How the moments of Wild West-ness, those described by Allen, are trying to be obviated all together. How, like his downward piano melodies and his cigarette suffused croak, are being choked under the constraints of neo-colonialism.
However, that's another story.