Open Door To The Galaxy: The Radio Plays of Jo Harvey and Terry Allen

“Radio is a living visceral thing of the heart, blood, and bone and should be confronted with courage and respect. It is a true voice and like all such voices it is riddled with lies and ignorance. A medium of humans.” – Terry Allen,  “A Self-Interview” (1994)

A “true voice,” Terry Allen conjures bodies of work in which the borders between medium and material are blurred and bloodied, stained with memories and stoked by the throttling of life through time. His practice encompasses music, sculpture, video, painting, and theater, resulting in hybrid works that escape familiar categorization. It is the radio, however, that provides the soundtrack to Allen’s mythic Southwest, a wide open imaginary landscape haunted by denizens he describes as “climates” rather than characters. A handful of these fated souls are profiled in Pedal Steal + Four Corners, a handsome collection of Terry’s longform audio works by Paradise of Bachelors that spans an LP, CDs, and a book rich in lore and photographic documentation of Terry’s more visually oriented expressions. 

Each of these “radio plays” (if that’s what we resort to call them) depict a thread of hardscrabble Americana that unravels into a state of psychic dislocation, a sensory trip between heaven and hell, real and remembered. Three of the Four Corners suite—Torso Hell (1986), Bleeder (1990), and Reunion (a return to Juarez) (1992)—were commissioned by New American Radio, a vanguard outlet for experimental work over the terrestrial airwaves, and Dugout (1993) found its way onto many NPR affiliates. Pedal Steal, on the other hand, was conceived as a soundtrack to a performance by the Bay Area’s Margaret Jenkins Dance Co. Regardless, each piece deserves an experience in which one’s attention is divided only by the body in motion, perhaps on a long walk or, preferably, a drive in the dark.

The lagniappe of this release is a trove of Rawhide and Roses, Terry and Jo Harvey Allen’s themed radio show from the late 1960s, (re)presented via a quintet of Soundcloud assemblages.  Originally broadcast from the underground FM station in the basement of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church (KPPC), Rawhide and Roses’ associative playlists are charismatically navigated by Jo Harvey who, in an ebullient Lubbock drawl, effortlessly extemporized on each show’s theme with an evocative, detailed set of memories. The husband and wife share a transfixing quality in their speech—not necessarily because they hail from the same corner of the world but because they are both master storytellers, wranglers of language who quickly make themselves at home in one’s imagination. 

Terry spoke to Aquarium Drunkard from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“In America it is motion that is holy, not the destination. Speed blood dreams love and hell. The highway is the heartbeat through everything.” – Reunion (a return to Juarez)

Aquarium Drunkard: Talk to me about making Rawhide and Roses with Jo Harvey.

Terry Allen: A radio station offered Jo Harvey and I every Sunday morning and we had this three-hour show. We’d stay up all night putting it together and then go do the show and right after ours there was a Bernie Pearl blues show. Bernie Peal was Ed Pearl who had the old Ash Grove in L.A., so all these great blues people would come in, and then we’d all sit around and wait for the Fireside Theater that afternoon. So it was like every Sunday was kind of just this Story pile. When we did Rawhide and Roses, I would pretty much program the show, then Jo Harvey just kind of free-associated with these songs. We did theme shows—we’d do a show about dogs, we’d do a show about illicit love, truckers, whatever. But they always had a theme. She usually just ended up talking about some crazy relative of hers, so… it was very different. It’s much more extemporaneous than the radio shows when New American Radio asked me to actually make a radio play. So it was a completely different way of thinking, at least for me. We thought of it just like Jo Harvey was a DJ and I was pickin’ the records and stuff

AD: In one episode, Jo Harveys describes the special relationship between truck drivers and country music:  “They can really get close to that music and it means an awful lot to them.” This notion of getting close to something by experiencing it in a liminal space—being in the cabin of a vehicle in transit between origin and destination—has an almost mystical quality.  

Terry Allen: It’s the monotony too, the monotony of tires and that sound, then looking through the windshield like it’s a movie screen almost. That feeling for Jo Harvey and I comes from being raised where we were raised, in that incredible immense flat land that you moved across and listened to the radio. We were of that generation where a car with a radio was like an open door to the entire planet, to the galaxy, and I think there were very few things in our life of importance that wasn’t in motion at one point or another and with a song playing. In a vehicle with a song playing. That’s kind of the generation that we came from, and radio always sparked an imagination—if you have an imagination—it always sparked the curiosity of like, where are you going, where are you coming from, where are you going right now, and there’s a song playing that addresses all of that, so it changes constantly. 

AD: That notion of constant change seems so different in the contemporary listening landscape of unlimited, on-demand access to a practically complete—and thus un-changing—record of all music. An inversion has occurred. Radio is no longer this feature of the environment. Instead of tuning in and receiving information, you’re constantly and actively selecting and trying to find the hot new track or uncover that rare old song.

Terry Allen: I think the whole digital thing has just blown the hell out of that. But I also think there’s a longing that’s happened with that loss, and maybe that’s the reason that albums are coming back, even cassettes, even though there’s a nostalgia factor that’s in there. And lack of tactile is a huge one for me, because you used to make an album, you’d cut and splice tape just like you would make a sculpture you know? Everything, especially those radio shows we made, we’d record snippets and number ‘em and lay ‘em all over the studio and put ’em back together like you would a sculpture. Now you don’t have that facility of touch, you just hit a button and it does it. But like with those radio shows, I have no idea really how people will respond to these, because they were made to be listened to like shows. Like a whole story. And I kinda made them thinking about listening to ‘em in a car, you know, driving at night. That was kind of the sub premise that I had for all of those. Maybe I had that for all of my audio pieces or songs or whatever.

AD: “Longing” and “loss” are, to me, part of the DNA of country music. There is something addictive or nostalgic about it, like a trap where you get stuck putting dime after dime into the jukebox hoping your love is going to come who never does.

Terry Allen: I don’t ever think in terms of making country music or making any specific type of music or making a specific type of story. You follow your necessity or your curiosity into whatever stories and ideas that you’re thinking about. But I do think it goes back to stories. I read somewhere we tell our lives like stories, and ‘course there are also piles of memories that we have that shift and change with different tellings depending on certain circumstances. But to me, it’s always in a state of this immense flux that you have to draw upon, and it can come out as a song, it can come out as a picture, it can come out as an album. Whatever way it manifests itself is the way you choose to work. So I’ve never been bogged down particularly by that terminology. I’ve been called every kind of artist, I’ve been called every kind of musician… I don’t relate to any of them. So I just kind of go ahead and do what I do.

AD: There is a particularly pithy line at the beginning of Bleeder: “History exists temporarily and people take place. Events are carried away to different directions through the mind as images. Images dissolve across the passage of years into memory. Stories are told, songs are sung, hearts become rooms set aside, and hallucination begins.”

Terry Allen: And then later on in the piece, that same thing is repeated but the words bleed through it. It’s about the bleeding of a text, as well as this story that is going on specifically about a person that bleeds.

AD: The bleeding of the text—that’s such a material phenomenon. Text doesn’t bleed on your computer screen.

Terry Allen: No, but it does in your head, you know, whether you’re looking at a computer screen or a text or hearing it on the radio. 

AD: Have you ever heard about or seen pictures of these books written in blood?

Terry Allen: No. It has never interested me in writing a book in my own blood. [Laughs] But I’ll tell you what, I did a piece called “The Secret” which is a big bronze huge book-fountain that has no words on it and it’s at an angle and the water comes out of the top and it washes over the pages. It’s in a pond. But the idea came from the Quran. I read somewhere that the most sacred copy was written in water instead of ink, so it’s invisible and somehow, that’s kind of like talking about blood as well to me.

AD: It’s funny you bring up the Quran because one of the most infamous books to be written in blood is Saddam Hussein’s “Blood Quran.” 

Terry Allen: Whoa I didn’t know that.

AD: Well it’s such an unholy act, especially when considering an invisible Quran written in water, gesturing toward the ineffable. That’s where truth lies. Whereas blood-ink is visceral and marks one’s existence as a finite being on this earth.

Terry Allen: But it can go beyond just that physical thing. Just the idea of blood and the idea that it’s in every living thing… that kind of blood. I don’t know what Saddam Hussein’s motives were particularly any more than I would know if Dick Cheney decided to write something in blood. But I think the power of it, the power of the metaphor or just the word “blood” and what it means to people, it’s kind of an instant bundle of contradictions and possibilities that you could use to make something. It’s also like tattoos: you bleed when you put an image on the flesh, and that’s a whole other way of thinking about losing something to get something. It’s that life kind of force… but it’s also a death force.

AD: Your work frequently points at both the gravely serious and uncannily ridiculous. When I think about Torso Hell, the conceit is so grotesque—that this quad amputee war veteran would be treated so inhumanely. Yet you talk about characters as being more like “essences” than individual people. This notion of not being able to touch or move, where you’re just confined to being a viewer feels very relevant.

Terry Allen: Well Torso Hell really came out of a period, too, a body of work I was just getting going at which was called Youth In Asia which I worked on for about a decade. My working climate and what I was reading, everything I seemed to be concerned with was with the body of work. Torso Hell came out of it. I read that book Johnny Got His Gun and I got really interested in that idea of being trapped. Being trapped in your own kind of circumstance. So in a way, it’s like a parable for the war, but it’s exactly what you’re saying, it’s a big cartoon, it’s a big overblown horror movie. It’s kind of whatever you want it to be. Right after it aired, Roger Corman, the great B horror movie director and producer called me up and wanted to make a movie out of it, and I told him it was ridiculous. ‘Cause it was about what happens in your head when you listen to it, not the idea of having somebody putting that on the screen. That’s a big difference in radio and television or movies. You really do use your imagination and invent what you’re listening to and invent the story that you’re hearing and make those images happen. I think that’s much more powerful to have it as an idea that’s left inside your head than an image that somebody else has put in front of you.

AD: How did you become aware of Wayne Gailey?  When I googled Wayne Gailey, the only identifiable picture was posted to the pedal steel guitar forum of him playing steel guitar in Vietnam dated Christmas, 1967.

Terry Allen: Oh really? I think it’s really interesting that you have a picture of him playing in Vietnam because I was so buried in also that body of work at that time. It’s funny; I never knew him or anything. It’s like he kind of cropped up in weird ways. The day we started recording Lubbock On Everything, Lloyd Maines, who’s a great steel player, said that Wayne, this guy that he had admired as a steel player, had just OD’d. That was the first time I heard the name Wayne Gailey, and somewhere it just settled in my head. Years later, a really good friend of mine, Roxy Gordon, came to Fresno where I was living at the time and working on Pedal Steal. Roxy was a writer, a Native American guy, who had lived in Albuquerque for a long time, and was David Alan Coe’s first road manager. He was a really good friend of Wayne Gailey and started telling me these stories, and I got really interested because I’d been working on this clutch of songs about Billy the Boy, Billy the Kid, and a steel player outlaw. Through these discussions with Roxy, that’s where Pedal Steal really came out. One story Roxy told me about Gailey was that he would be playing at some little mountain bar up somewhere, playing a straight-ahead country song with whatever band he was playing with, and a couple of girls would walk in, and he would immediately take off into this Hendrix riff, this complete psychedelic Hendrix riff! And, you know, that same thing is very true about Lloyd. 

AD: Could you talk about the sound of the pedal steel? How do you characterize it and how does it make you feel? 

Terry Allen: There is an underlying tension in that instrument that is so mysterious. I think for me it always connects with an immense amount of space and conjures all kinds of feelings, memories… like being a kid laying in a windstorm–which was just about every day and night–hearing a pyracantha bush scratch the glass, the thorns of it, and hearing the wind go through the weather stripping in the house and it had this eerie moan to it. I always told Jimmy Dale Gilmore that his voice reminded me of that wind going through the weather stripping in the house. But I think there’s that eerie quality to pedal steel that opens up all kinds of possibilities of things to think about. And in Pedal Steal, there are a lot of different angles of how that instrument is used—I was thinking about that when we made that record, and Lloyd and I have talked about it a lot, too. 

AD: Could you speak to your use of Navajo for the chants in Pedal Steal?

Terry Allen: Well, like Youth in Asia, one of the main themes was about the aftermath of the war. It had to do with Southeast Asia kind of slamming up against the Southwest part of the United States and like… there’s a piece called “China Night” that’s on the cover of this new release, and “China Night” was an installation I did, but you notice that China is actually the word “kachina” in neon, and the K and the A are burnt out. Thinking about that idea of people coming across the Bering Strait into North and South America and settling it as what we now call the Native Americans, but then years later being called back by Uncle Sam to go back and visit their home country in that war. The desolation from that and the aftermath of that war is more evident than anywhere than in some of these poor villages and towns in New Mexico. It’s just a climate that has never left. That was always a presence. In “China Night” the sound system is all the ’60s radio stuff, but there’s also Vietnamese chants and Navajo chants and… so it’s kind of a conglomerate of cultures slamming against one another

AD: Words have extra power when they are chanted.

Terry Allen: Yeah I think so too, and it’s just that repetition that takes you—it’s kind of like tires on a highway you know, it takes you to some other place, you know.

AD: I think of you emphatically singing “Mexico” many times throughout Juarez, or Jo Harvey frequently leaning into “this is a really good song” during Rawhide and Roses set breaks, and in both instances, these really pedestrian words accumulate momentum, rhythm…

Terry Allen: Well, everything’s got a pedestrian nature that’s got a doorway in it to hell or a doorway into horror or a doorway into wonder. I think that’s what artists do—they look for those openings in this most normal pedestrian kind of languages or images, cultures or whatever. I think that’s the restlessness in the making of something.

AD: What are your memories of performing Pedal Steal with Margaret Jenkins Dance Co.? Do you recall what that movement looked like? How do you imagine those bodies felt?

Terry Allen: It was very alien to me, you know, but that was doubly interesting. Because it was so alien from what I would have thought of to make people move. Margaret has a method that she kind of brings to things and I couldn’t get that in my head how that method would be forced upon this kind of wide open piece of music that I’d just done. So there was a little conflict there, but I think it was a conflict of just working habits and perceptions of what work is. I did a set which was a drive-in movie screen with a stage in front and a stage behind and it was a double projection so you could actually have live dancers on it with images projected behind ‘em or on them, or you could have silhouettes behind them or you could, you know…so like totally flexible. Everything was very flexible, and they utilized that. For the costumes, I said to imagine it’s about 1970 and you’re in Clovis, New Mexico in a Denny’s at 2 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night, and you just go in and take everybody’s clothes off of them. That’s how we’re going to costume this thing.

AD: Well what happened to all the naked people at the Denny’s?

Terry Allen: Uh, yeah, well I guess they went on to do Hair. Later, I did a piece with them called Rollback. Bruce Nauman did a film and I wrote the music for it, and it was a little easier. We referenced The Searchers and these scenes of Comanches walking in line on the mesas, and the dances kind of duplicated some of those motions with hand gestures in that piece. That kind of started to make sense.

AD: Jo Harvey worked with Yvonne Rainer at one point, right?

Terry Allen: Yep. Yvonne Rainer was one of her first great mentors, you know? It was funny because we got her to go to Fresno and no one went to her guest artist classes except Jo Harvey. So she had like a private six-week course with Yvonne Rainer and they totally hit it off. And that’s when kind of Yvonne she was getting more and more interested in films. It’s funny how you listen to Rawhide and Roses and you think about Yvonne Rainer and it’s, you know, it’s a long distance you think, but it’s not. 

AD: Are you a good dancer, Terry?

Terry Allen: I used to be a good dancer. I don’t dance a whole lot anymore, but I used to be when I was in high school. Jo Harvey and I used to love to dance. We still do once and a while. words/a spoto

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