|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
Terry Allen is a great storyteller. You hear it in his conversation, and in the 10 or so albums of haunting, sardonic “alternative country music” he’s released since the mid-’70s. You hear it in the radio plays he’s put together for NPR and in the theatrical productions he’s collaborated on with David Byrne. But these are just fragments of a larger vision. If, as drummer Davis McLarty has claimed, Allen is a “chicken-fried renaissance man,” then his true medium is the chicken-fried Gesamtkunstwerk — a homespun total artwork that embraces all technologies of expression without succumbing to Wagnerian pompousness or shucks-ma’am hillbillyisms.
Allen, who was raised in Lubbock, Texas, moved to L.A. in 1962 to attend Chouinard, the school that eventually evolved into CalArts — but before that was the breeding ground for the Ferus Gallery artists who became the first internationally recognized generation of West Coast artists. It’s easy to spot the influences of the ’60s L.A. art world (particularly Ed Ruscha) in Allen’s text-driven, often humorous, stubbornly pictorial artworks, but he has a deep idiosyncratic streak of archetypal American restlessness and a complete lack of prejudice about using different materials or entire genres that is uniquely his own. Allen has lived in Santa Fe since the late ’80s, but he lived and worked in Fresno for the previous two decades, lured initially by a teaching gig. “I sort of fell into teaching like a hole with a little money at the bottom,” he says. Since excavating himself from that situation, he’s managed to get by as a working artist, producing numerous public art pieces. The first of these included the bronze businessman with his head embedded in the Citicorp building downtown, and a grove of trees at UC San Diego, some of which are fake and house storytelling soundtracks.
Still, it isn’t often that Allen gets to stretch out and fill a large gallery with one of his trademark rambling narrative-based installations, which run the gamut from painting, sculpture and drawing to video projections, taxidermy, neon and performance. His last such show in L.A. was 1990’s Youth in Asia, but Allen is back with a vengeance with Dugout, occupying both L.A. Louver in Venice and the Santa Monica Museum of Art at Bergamot Station, plus several nights of workshop readings of a new theater piece at the Skirball Center. He will also participate in a LACMA Institute of Art and Cultures panel discussion with his wife and collaborator Jo Harvey Allen and longtime booster Dave Hickey. I spoke with the very busy artist over coffee about halfway through the installation of the SMMoA exhibit.
L.A. WEEKLY: Dugout is a project that spans decades both in its storyline and the amount of time you’ve spent on it. How does it break down?
TERRY ALLEN: It started 10 years ago as a radio play for NPR, but I guess it really started when I was born. My dad was 60 and my mom was 40, and I was a big surprise. My dad had played pro baseball and my mom was thrown out of Southern Methodist University for playing jazz music and sitting in with a black band. They weren’t doing those things anymore by the time I got here, but there were always a lot of old ballplayers and musicians coming by and telling stories. I don’t know if it had something to do with my age, but about 10 years ago I started thinking about them. My mom was born in a dugout — a building made from a hole in the side of a hill — in Oklahoma, and my dad like I said was a baseball player, so the word “dugout” became this pivotal idea that I built a radio play around.
Part III came next, and it’s a theater piece that starts with the same couple, but their lives are disrupted by this alien adolescent Warboy that lands in their back yard, who is sort of me. We’re doing five performances here, and it’s going to be edited for an NPR show, and that will then be the soundtrack for the piece we’re installing now, which is Part II — sort of a bridge between the two.
A lot of your work deals with the human scale of war, and Dugout has a thematic current about it as well. There’s a line repeated in both versions: “America as usual is at war.”
That’s kind of when they meet each other. I did a bunch of drawings — of Stalin and McCarthy — and Stalin looks like Saddam Hussein and McCarthy looks like Dean! And Audie Murphy looks like Edwards! It just never changes. One of the main props in the theater piece is a picnic table where a lot of things happen, but at one point it gets turned over and becomes a bunker for playing war. I think Dugout is constantly addressing this fantasy of playing war — with the commies coming out of the bushes, or in terms of emotional problems.
Dugout can also make you think of the trenches from World War II and World War I and earlier. There’s one long discussion about what happens to one character’s father in the Civil War, where he’s dogging his dad to tell him. Finally, his mother grabs him and takes him out to a field and tells him what happened, how [his father] had come back and everyone was dead except him. He told her what had happened and says he’ll never tell it again.
It’s really not about my folks in the sense of any autobiographical thing. It’s about climates that those stories evoked. I’ve always thought of Juarez and [its] characters as not really being people but climates, emotional climates — all of them displaced and trying to get someplace else and colliding as they go. And Dugout is kind of the same way, except it’s a little more . . . calm.
The Juarez that Allen refers to is his first self-released album from 1975, the spare, dark, funny and complex country concept album that has only now been reissued on CD by Sugar Hill Records. In an odd side effect of his cross-disciplinary tendencies (Juarez actually came about as a byproduct of a printmaking edition, and eventually spawned installations and theater pieces of its own), Allen probably has a larger sheer number of fans in the music world than he does in the art world, although in terms of relative fame, it’s the other way around. Still, he’s one of those “musician’s musicians.” His follow-up double LP, Lubbock (On Everything), cemented his reputation with such classics as “New Delhi Freight Train,” “The Beautiful Waitress” and the art-school-heavy rotator “Truckload of Art” (“Yeah, a truckload of art is burnin’ on the highway, precious objects are scattered all over the ground, and it’s a terrible sight if a person were to see it, but there weren’t nobody around”). David Byrne became a fan during the making of his quirky Texas movie True Stories. As the careers of Allen’s high-school buddies Jimmie Ray Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely (a.k.a. the Flatlanders — and not to mention the Legendary Stardust Cowboy) have taken off, Allen’s finally getting some collateral recognition for his songwriting genius.
Is there something in the water in Lubbock?
Poison. [Allen laughs.] No, everybody used to chase the DDT truck, so it’s a mutation deal. Everybody’s got their theory, y’know, but it’s really boredom. Epic boredom is the mother of invention.
Did you ever see Buddy Holly play?
I saw him: He played at roller rinks and he played some gigs but, you know, I never paid as much attention to Buddy Holly and his music as I did to Chuck Berry or Little Richard. Carl Perkins was the first person that knocked me out — “Blue Suede Shoes.” You know, it was about my shoes. I loved Bo Diddley. And part of it was Wolfman Jack, who was such a mystery at that time, had a radio show out of Del Rio, the border station. That was the first real exposure anybody in that part of the country had to rhythm and blues, to black recorded music.
After my dad played ball, he became a local sports promoter and threw rock & roll shows and some of the first dances in Lubbock, so I grew up on Friday-night all-black dances. And on Saturday nights it’d be all white — it was heavily segregated. I used to sell “setups,” which were just buckets of ice and some lemon and stuff. Thinking back, that was pretty remarkable, because everyone had a touring band then — Muddy Waters, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker. All of those incredible people came through and played dances, and the same with the country stuff: Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells. You kind of took it for granted — that’s just who came through. But God, thinking back, it was so rich.
Sounds like your parents were pretty hip.
They’d kind of been through the bullshit and were on “cruise” with each other. I upset it a little bit, y’know. They weren’t well educated, but both of them, to me, were real brave. Leaving home to be a musician when you’re a woman and starting a band is pretty nervy in the late 1920s, and for a kid to run away from home to play baseball — of course, that was probably a little bit easier, because he didn’t want to be a farmer really bad. I’ve always regarded them as people that were pretty much at peace with themselves as far as what their lives had been and what their lives were about.
Do you think you were genetically predisposed to run away and hit the road?
Maybe. Yeah. I grew up [in a home] where transience was pretty much the accepted way of life, even though they weren’t that transient after I came. Dave Hickey asked me years ago what I thought the definition of art was, and I immediately said, “To get out of town.” And I kind of think that’s true, on all the different levels that “getting out of town” means. The nature of making art is that a year from now I can find myself in a world I never anticipated being in, or just working with a material I never thought I would. That’s one of the things that continually keeps you going.
Has that changed for you through working with this material? Do you feel you’ve come to the same place your parents reached?
No. No. No, I mean I’m real satisfied with my family. But that’s it, y’know? I mean that’s really it. I don’t think making art is about a profession. I think it’s a choice. Somewhere you make a choice about how you’re going to confront your life, and you’re gonna do that no matter how broke you are, whatever your circumstances. Making work is just a necessity. And I think then everything just happens based on that. So I don’t think it’s ever about satisfaction. Every time you confront a blank — a nothing that you’re trying to make something out of — for me it’s no different than when I was in school looking at an empty sheet of paper or an empty canvas. It’s just as frightening and just as spooky, and maybe even more so, because now you have so much baggage — habits that you always have to get through. Because if you rely on those same old habits you just bore yourself, you go back to Lubbock again. You’re back into flat nothing again.
DUGOUT II (HOLD ON TO THE HOUSE) | At the SANTA MONICA MUSEUM OF ART, 2525 Michigan Ave. (Bergamot Station), Building G, Santa Monica | February 28 through May 15
DUGOUT III: WARBOY (AND THE BACKBOARD BLUES) | Presented by L.A. Theater Works at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles | March 3, 4, 5 at 8 p.m. and March 7 at 4 and 7:30 p.m.
DUGOUT I | At L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice | March 4 through April 10
DUGOUT CONVERSATION, featuring Terry Allen, actor Jo Harvey Allen, and writer and critic Dave Hickey | At LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles | March 8, 7:30 p.m.