There are before-and-after moments in life; discovering Terry Allen was one of those for me. As someone who considers himself decently well-versed in the Texas music canon, especially the country-fried variety, it pains me to admit that I came to his work relatively late. I was working at a record store in San Marcos in my mid-twenties, and at the time I had a foggy sense of Allen’s stature in the Lubbock scene, knowing him only as the originator of “Amarillo Highway.” A couple of my colleagues, offended by my ignorance, demanded I go home and listen to Juarez, his 1975 debut album. So I did. I dropped the vinyl on my turntable, put on headphones, and proceeded to have the door of my mind blown off its hinges. There should be a word that describes such experiences (there probably is one in German): the pleasure of having a piece of art enter your orbit accompanied by the indignation of not having known it sooner. “This is Art with a capital A,” I thought, “and it was created by a West Texas yahoo shitkicker like me.”
Over the next few months, I burned through the rest of Allen’s music catalog. His songs are populated by football stars gone bad, blasé waitresses, and a sailor from Abilene who weds a Mexican prostitute and collides in bloodshed with an L.A. pachuco in Colorado. Some songs slip through layers of time, one moment ripping across the American Southwest on a motorcycle and the next sailing with Cortés’s conquistadors “for God and for gold.” Others sashay between tongues: Spanish, English, French, or Navajo. All of them tell a story. Propelled by beatnik rhythms, the narratives often bring to mind Sam Shepard or David Lynch. One of Allen’s most enduring and enigmatic lines, “Today’s rainbow is tomorrow’s tamale,” sounds like something Beckett might’ve written if he’d hung out with goat ropers and dipped snuff.
Allen’s work as a songwriter (and stompin’ madman piano player) is inextricable from his work as a visual artist. In his art installations, a statue of Buddha evolves into a mass of chewed bubble gum. Snow White and the seven dwarves stand around neon signs that say things like “There It Is,” Army slang for “death” used during the Vietnam War. Smiley faces are imposed over hammered-metal swastikas. The same themes running through his music—lost innocence, mortality, sex, capitalism, violence—are reiterated in paint, bronze, and twisted depictions of Americana iconography. Visual pieces might lead to songs, and song cycles might lead to a theater piece that might be reworked into sculpture. “Not only are there are no happy endings,” the art critic Dave Hickey once said of Allen’s work, “there are no endings.”
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In the five or so years since my introduction, I’ve learned that you don’t just listen to or look at Allen’s art. You experience it. Many of his installations are meant to be walked through, interacted with, touched. While there are some songs that would be at home on your #BANGERZ playlist, most of Allen’s music resists being treated as one-off singles. His albums should be consumed whole and with attention, best served with a stretch of dark highway in a vaguely foreboding place. His forthcoming release is no exception.
Out on March 22, Pedal Steal + Four Corners collects all five of the longform narrative audio works Allen produced between 1985 and 1993. The handsome release features one LP, three CDs, and a comprehensive 33,000-word booklet, all meticulously curated by the Allen aficionados at Paradise of Bachelors, the North Carolina–based label that recently reissued definitive editions of Allen’s first two studio albums. The CDs include the Four Corners suite, comprising Torso Hell (1986), Bleeder (1990), Reunion (A Return to Juarez) (1992), and Dugout (1993). All four radio plays were broadcast on NPR, but none had been previously released. Remastered from the original tapes, the pieces range from a spoken B-movie horror treatment about a quadriplegic Vietnam vet (Torso Hell) to a loosely biographical work about Allen’s father, a professional baseball player, and his mother, who played barrelhouse piano in Panhandle honky-tonks (Dugout).
Pressed to wax for the first time is Pedal Steal (1985), a “desert drama” following the peyote-fueled exploits of a fictional character named Billy the Boy, a mash-up of Billy the Kid and steel-guitar player Wayne Gailey. The story features a cast of characters voiced by Lloyd Maines, Butch Hancock, and Jo Harvey Allen, among others. For those of us hearing these pieces for the first time, it is a welcome addition to the Terry Allen oeuvre and confirms that the radio is yet another willing canvas for Allen’s wild artistic vision.
Below is the Texas Monthly premiere of the fourth and final chapter of Pedal Steal. (You can listen to the first three chapters here.) To learn more about the new collection, read the Q&A with Allen after the video.
A week before the release of Pedal Steal, Texas Monthly spoke with Allen from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Texas Monthly: I read in your “Self-Interview” (1994) that radio has always been a big part of your life. I’d like to know a little bit more about your relationship with radio and your decision to write these radio plays.
Terry Allen: First of all, I think radio as a form of theater or telling stories is pretty much a dinosaur now. There’s just not that much of it out there. But when I was a kid in the late forties and early fifties, before television, radio was a huge thing in your life. You’d actually sit down for certain programs at certain times of day and people would “watch” the radio like they were anticipating the invention of television. They’d sit down and listen to these stories. And I think what that did was activate your imagination: you invented images in your head while listening to these stories. I think that influenced me and has followed me the rest of my life.
In the eighties, when New American Radio asked me to do these shows, I jumped on it because I’ve always loved storytelling, and radio seemed like the perfect format to tell them, especially stories in motion. Whoever is listening to these shows is probably going to hear it late at night (because they wouldn’t play ’em any other time), and they’d be driving their car. So this medium combined two huge elements of freedom for me: an automobile and a radio. For my generation, there are very few things of any importance that didn’t happen in a car with a song or something playing on the radio. But it’s more than nostalgia; it really is a structure that you can use to tell stories. And that’s really what it’s all about for me—and I think most artists.
TM: You said that radio has kind of become a dinosaur. Have you jumped on the podcast trend at all?
TA: That’s the next step, it seems like. It’s a natural byproduct of the next wave of hearing stories, a wide-open kind of structure. I think that going back to the caves, there’s a deep necessity in people to have stories told. And so it makes sense that no matter what technology does, there’s going to be some device for that to happen. Something comes along and podcasts are a really good example of that.
One of the big differences between the kind of prefabricated images on television or in movies and with radio is that with audio, the densest moron can invent an image of what they’re listening to. So radio is a very visual medium in that way, especially for people like me who grew up in rural areas that had very little visual stimulation. Your mind just went kind of rampant with it, you know.
TM: I understand what you’re saying. I grew up in Andrews, just south of Lubbock, and I remember turning on the radio late at night, and I could barely get the station out of Maljamar, New Mexico. It came in kind of scrambled, but it was so transportive. When I read your “Self-Interview,” I was surprised because you’re the only other person I’ve heard talk about going to a pasture—for us it was the oil patch—and everyone parking their trucks in a circle then turning our radios to the same station.
TA: And everybody would dance. When I was at that age, the songs we were scrambling to find on the radio were rock and roll. Until I was about the seventh grade, there was no local radio station [in Lubbock] that would play that satanic music. So we were fishing for Wolfman Jack or whatever we could find—some kind of staticky, near-Martian kind of sound, you know. But it was a portal, for sure, into the outside world.
TM: Let’s talk a little about Pedal Steal. You’ve said it’s loosely based on a real pedal-steel player, Wayne Gailey.
TA: Yeah, that’s what kicked the whole thing off. When I was in Lubbock recording Lubbock (On Everything) in 1978, the first day we went to record, Lloyd Maines told me that he had just heard that this steel player he really admired had OD’ed. I think it was in Reno or Vegas or somewhere out on the road. I heard the name and kind of filed that away. Then I had a good friend named Roxy Gordon who was from New Mexico that I’d crossed tracks with in Texas, and Roxy started telling me stories about Gailey—these incredible outlaw stories about this radical steel player playing with these little kind-of-shit country bands. Real transient, always moving around. Roxy told me how Gailey would be playing some real traditional country waltz in some old bar up in the mountains and some pretty girls would walk in, and he would suddenly just take off on this song, almost Hendrix-esque, you know.
I heard all these stories, and they sided right along with this other project I was working on—I had started to work on these songs about Billy the Kid, but as a musician. The two ideas gelled together, so pedal steel became the instrument, and I just built it from that.
Pedal Steal is telling the story of this guy through songs, but it’s also a bunch of different narrations by different people telling his story from different angles—little incidents of his life described like they would be talking about a movie. Stories that other people told about him in a landscape that encompasses southern New Mexico and West Texas, which is where he roamed around. I’ll never know if it’s true or bullshit or what it is. It’s almost a mythology that starts to happen around this character.
TM: Another piece in the collection, Torso Hell [about a quadriplegic vet who returns from Vietnam and summons his missing limbs to get revenge on his tormentors], is essentially a horror story.
TA: It’s a movie treatment, told verbally, of a horror story, so that’s exactly right. It deals with the Vietnam War. From 1981 to the early nineties, I was involved with a body of work called Youth in Asia that dealt with the aftermath of that war. Torso Hell came out of the state of mind I was in during that period of time. It came really fast. I got the idea for the story and just wrote it flat out. It’s actually in an art piece, a large assembly that I did with drawings that has the story typed and placed inside of it.
After that, I was asked to do this radio show by [American artist] Jacki Apple at New American Radio. There was this radio station run by an alt-magazine called High Performance in the early eighties, and Jacki had a radio show where she played music and audio-performance pieces. She called and asked me if I’d do something, so I jumped on it.
We recorded Torso Hell live. I wrote the piece, timed it, read it, and played all of the music on an emulator in Lubbock. And then we just hoped it fell in sync with the songs. It’s a little bit erratic, but it holds up pretty good. It’s funny—right after it aired, the movie producer and director, a horror-movie guy named Roger Corman, called me and asked if I would option Torso Hell for a movie. And I said, “Absolutely not.” It’s bad enough just to think about it, much less you actually had to look at it. That was probably kind of idiotic on my part, but I’m still glad I didn’t do it.
TM: Have you learned anything about the nature of violence by exploring it in your work all these years?
TA: Just that it’s prevalent and changes forms all the time. But it’s kind of like I was saying about storytelling: it’s a constant presence in some form or another, whether it’s an internal violence or an external violence or whatever. Texas is a violent environment to be raised in, especially when I was growing up. There was a lot of overt racism and bullyism and misogyny and all those words that we have now, but it was a climate then—a climate aimed at music, a climate aimed at any kind of freethinking or different-thinking. A lot of that feeling propelled me out of there. I loved encountering language—the beatniks and then Sam Shepard, all those early writers who started addressing those issues. Again, I think it’s about motion. It’s about things constantly moving in flux and changing.
TM: Paradise of Bachelors recently released a Spotify playlist based on a mixtape you made of border music. The border is something you’ve approached in your art before. In 1994 you worked on a project where you had a van parked on both sides of the border fence right at a marker celebrating U.S.-Mexico friendship. [Each van had a platform that allowed someone standing on it to see over the fence and a sound system so anyone who came by could speak to folks on the other side.] That was 25 years ago. Do you have thoughts about the border wall today?
TA: My thoughts aren’t really different from what they were then: it’s an obscenity. I was stunned when I saw that wall coming up out of the ocean and going some 35 miles in. At the time, people were still very conscious of the Berlin Wall. The idea of building a wall to keep people in or keep people out is moronic. That’s not to say there aren’t issues with the border, because there are, but it seems like there’s a lot of other ways to solve them because there ain’t a wall that you can’t go under or over or through. I always thought if you’re going to build a wall, build it so high that birds can’t fly over it.
TM: Your wife, Jo Harvey, is all over this new collection. The two of you have collaborated so much over the years, which you don’t see very often in artistic couples.
TA: It’s been invaluable working together. We actually work for one another: When she’s doing pieces, I’ll write songs or do text or visual things or whatever; when I do something, her role is usually as an actor. But when we collaborate, it’s living hell. We’re both so brutally honest with one another that we’re just pissed off most of the time while we’re doing it. But we get through it.
CHW: There’s a couplet from Dugout [a piece loosely based on Allen’s father, who played baseball, and his mother, a barrelhouse piano player] that goes: “That’s the only way the game is played / With heart and for blood.” That could describe the way you approach art.
TA: That’s almost a direct quote from my dad. He was a big fan of Ty Cobb. Most baseball players hated Cobb’s guts, but my dad had seen him take out some guy sliding into second base. Blood all over the infield. Afterward, I remember my dad saying that or something very close to it. “That’s the way you play the game. You play it to win. You play it for blood.” I think that’s the way you approach everything that you believe in.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.