Terry Allen, painter, sculptor, writer and musician, was once asked his definition of art. He thought a moment and replied, “To get out of town.”
Though Lubbock, Texas, where he grew up, was home to Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings, Allen still couldn’t wait to get the hell out. Inspired by “On the Road” and rock & roll, he hit the highway, attending art school in L.A., then teaching at Berkeley and in Fresno. But wherever he roamed, he just couldn’t get the High Plains of Texas off his mind.
He was “haunted,” as he has often said, by a small group of tragic characters that grew in his imagination. He made art about them, wrote songs about them. Given the opportunity, he cut an album by the seat of his pants about them. The first edition numbered 50. It was 1974.
More than 40 year later, Allen is still haunted by Sailor, Spanish Alice, Jabo and Chic, the star-crossed couples of Juarez, a concept album that has often been called an outlaw classic. To Allen, it’s nothing more than a bunch of strange saloon songs, and nothing less than the centerpiece of his life’s work. Juarez is being reissued this week in a deluxe set, with reprinted paintings and photos and insightful essays (including one by Dave Hickey), on the Paradise of Bachelors label. [Hear the full album below.]
When Allen first wrote his story in a fever dream, he had no idea it would live on for most of his own lifetime. The record, in and out of print, has inspired a stage show, a radio play, collaborations with David Byrne and more.
“It kind of snuck out of the ooze,” Allen says with a laugh. When the proprietor of a small press in Chicago offered to package a set of Allen’s lithographs with an LP, he lined up a few mornings of studio time at Wally Heider’s in San Francisco. His cousin was road manager at the time for Jefferson Airplane, who kept space in the studio.
“We stayed up all night so we wouldn’t feel like we’d just woken up,” Allen says of the cheap, unwanted times he booked. He put up $500, and the Chicago publisher matched it.
One thing the Juarez story stood little chance of becoming, surprisingly enough, was a movie, he says. That’s because he could never envision the characters as people.
“I couldn’t see their faces. I always thought of them as climates, moving across geography, crashing into one another. They were just like these ghosts moving through space.”
Allen has recorded several more records since the 1979 release of his second classic, the double album Lubbock (on everything), which Paradise of Bachelors will reissue later this year. As an artist, his work is featured in the collections of MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, LACMA and other prestigious institutions. As a sculptor, he has installed public (and sometimes controversial) art in San Francisco, San Diego and Kansas City, to name a few. Inevitably, though, he’ll always return to Juarez.
Allen has lived for years in Santa Fe with his wife, actress Jo Harvey Allen (who played the Lying Woman in Byrne’s film True Stories, claiming she wrote most of Elvis’s songs). They recently took a second home in Austin, where their two sons live. One’s a musician, the other’s an artist: “Epic double fuck-up,” Allen says, laughing.
For a time he and Jo Harvey owned an old whorehouse in Marfa, Texas, but the drive from Santa Fe proved too grueling.
“We’d sit on the porch and say, ‘We’ll never get rid of this place,'” says Allen. “Then halfway back to Santa Fe we’d say, ‘We’ve got to get rid of that place.'”