If Michael Hurley were just a little crazier, he'd be huge. If he wore a funny hat like Sun Ra, and was obsessed with, say, lawnmowers or parakeets, maybe more people would pay attention. Had he recorded 1964's FirstSongs, followed that seven years later with the perfect Armchair Boogie and then vanished like Gary Higgins, Vashti Bunyan or Karen Dalton, Hurley's upcoming show at McCabe's would be much more ballyhoed than it perhaps is.
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Hurley's music is a little freaky, and a little folky, but hardly “freak folk.”
As it stands, though, the aged songwriter's back story, while fascinating, hasn't captured the public's attention to a degree equal to his amazing output. An American original of the highest order, Hurley's little handcrafted songs about nature both human and Mother are simple and honest, played on guitar, piano and, occasionally, violin or mouth trumpet (purse lips tight, blow). His is a decidedly low-key aesthetic: He designs his own CD covers, and they usually feature a cartoonish wolf named Snock, which is Hurley's nickname. His best records have been recorded at his home, the evidence being the occasional giggle or perfectly placed dog bark that pops up from time to time between songs. A Michael Hurley album is a modest affair, but is one of the most calming and enjoyable 40 minutes you'll have all week. His best album, the recently reissued (digitally) Armchair Boogie, features a drawing of Snock chilling in a recliner, the perfect image for a wonderfully lackadaisical record.
Mention Michael Hurley to your average Silver Lake hipster folkie and you'll be met with a blank stare; explain that Devendra Banhart digs him so much that he released Snock's recent, wonderful Ancestral Songs and maybe if you're lucky you'll get a couple eyebrow-cocks of curiosity. If they want to know more, tell 'em this: First Songs, the story goes, was recorded in 1964, a few days after Michael Hurley was released from the psychiatric wing of Bellevue Hospital in NYC. The music was captured on the same equipment used to record Leadbelly's deep, forboding Last Sessions. If any gear could be said to be infused with the dirt of history, it's that old Folkways stuff, and though it'd be a stretch to suggest that First Songs takes off where Last Sessions ends, Hurley most certainly has the fucking blues, and on his debut release he plays them on his acoustic guitar, stomps his foot and sings in defiantly flat tones (think Dock Boggs or Roscoe Holcomb) about wine, the diesel train (“bring it back; I'll ride it every day up and down the track”), tea (as a euphemism for weed), great white whales and, most important, the Werewolf, a creature close to Hurley's heart. His signature tune first appears on First Songs as “The Werewolf Song,” though he's recorded newer versions called “Werewolf.” Best known because of Cat Power's lethargically touching cover, the song's a sympathetic ode to the most tragic of all the monsters, he who is not evil per se but merely at the mercy of the moon cycle.
Cryin' nobody knows, nobody knows, body knows
How I love the maiden, as I tear off her clothes
Cryin' nobody know, nobody knows my pain
When I see that it's risen, that full moon again
“The werewolf was a gentleman who was a helpful influence,” recalled Hurley in a 1996 interview with Boston fanzine Popwatch. “He showed me that there were others who would never fit in. It seemed that once the snout and facial hair and pointed ears appeared, there wasn't really a realistic chance that the guy would ever be able to have a lovely wife and a good home.” (A later version of the song swaps in the line, “How I love the meat as I tear it off the bones.”)
By the time Armchair Boogie was released in 1971, on Jesse Colin Young's Raccoon imprint (via Warner Brothers), Hurley had found a band to accompany him and graduated to singing about swallows, penguins, English noblemen, a heart that feels like a mustard seed and, most often, depression. “Troubled waters are creeping around my soul/they're way beyond control,” he sings on “Troubled Waters,” continuing in a voice soft with pain and sorrow: “Lord, am I to blame?/Must I hang my head in shame?/ People go around scandalizing my name/I'm going to drown down in those troubled waters.” Songs of loneliness and despair rub up against others about mediocre biscuits (as evidence of a cuckolding wife — Hurley's Achilles' heel is his patriarchal bent; he complains often in song about women who won't do the chores), and they combine to create a sound that wades in that swamp where American folk, country and blues swim freely. You can even hear a trace of ancestral British folk in there.
A second album for Raccoon, Hi-Fi Snock Uptown, was equally inspired, though neither sold well enough. Hurley disappeared for the next half decade (he apparently spent time traveling America via boxcar). In 1976, he teamed up with Greenwich Village folksters the Holy Modal Rounders (the original freak folkers) to record the brilliant Have Moicy, one of the great unsung albums of the 1970s. Since then, the singer has sporadically released humble little records, now totaling 20, seldom earth shattering but often life affirming.
At this point Michael Hurley is an old man. He looks like a Grandpa Jones from Hee Haw, wears a train conductor's cap and overalls and sings for the door and gas money. A few months ago he played at the Bordello to about a hundred people, many of whom felt lucky to see him, but just as many of whom squawked like disrespectful crows as he attempted to convey in gentle tones the quality and quantity of his soul. He played a few songs from the new Ancestral Swamp, which offers conclusive evidence that after 40 years of recording Hurley is still lonely, the proof being the heartbreaking “When I Get Back Home.” In the song, he imagines what life will be like after his return from an unspecified journey. He hopes that he won't have to resort to talking to the walls again, but instead will be talking to his sweetheart. He doesn't seem convinced, though. He simply “reckons” he'll be talking to her the same way he reckons that the creek behind his house will contain “talking catfish and a tributary of pure wine.” He continues, finally admitting: “When I get back home, I don't know how I'll feel.” As the song progresses, his desperation becomes apparent. He imagines himself living in “Dismal Hollow 'neath the old pine tree.” Finally, he confesses, “When I get back home, I don't know who I'll call.” It's not the stuff that most Americans want to think about, apparently, the real existential stuff, which is perhaps why Michael Hurley isn't a household name. His music travels to deep, dark recesses — dangerous, spooky places teeming with danger and unbidden emotions.
Michael Hurley performs with Alela Diane and Matteah Baim (see Music Pick) at McCabe's Guitar Shop on Sun., Feb. 10.