© Terry Allen. All rights
|My first radio was at night sometime during the late
40s in Lubbock Texas...and this terrible storm was raging outside and
my parents and several neighbors were hovering around a big blond cabinet
model Philco, and I was sitting on my mother's lap and everyone stared
at the green dials like television would be there any minute...and all
the programs had been interrupted.
A tornado had devastated Waco. No telling how many were dead and a statewide plea was out for blankets and canned goods. Later my mother set me on the supper table while she emptied the kitchen cabinets of anything she thought wasn't essential...including half our plates and glasses, and boxed them up for the emergency in East Texas. I think they took all these boxes and stuff to some church...
Um, but I remember watching her and hearing this broadcast, kinda crackle in from the living room, and outside the wind moaned through the weather stripping, and ah, I guess it sounded like ghosts trying to get inside the house. But that same wind seems to be in every radio show I've made, and ...in a way, being raised where I was raised, you can't hear a radio without it.
Then, I guess another thing I always remember is waking up real early in the morning as a kid, just right around when the sun comes up, and you could smell breakfast cooking and hear people kinda messing around. There was always a radio in the background. There was something incredibly comforting or right about starting a day with that sound -- all those senses acting at once. So in a sense radio is the background, the backbeat of everything, behind my growing up. The sound of a ball game on the radio is the most comforting sound you can hear. It's totally unique. It's almost like a soft bed thinking about it.
I guess I think there's three great American inventions -- one is duct tape, one is hot glue, and the other one's putting radios in cars. I have this song called The Wolfman of Del Rio that I play, and it's...I usually introduce the song by saying -- "My first memory was my first car, because in West Texas there's really no reason to have a memory until you get your first car...and usually when you get that car and take it out on a highway, just a flat farm road at night, and you drive it as fast as it will go, and you turn the radio up as loud as it will go... and one of the voices I remember during my adolescence -- it was like the first kind of outside voice -- was Wolfman Jack who was in a little radio station in Del Rio, Texas called XERB...and ah...he had an amazing voice. Everyone knows who he is now, but in those days it was just this gravely voice that came out of the wilderness, and ah,...you didn't know if it was a black guy, you didn't know if it was a woman, a Mexican...Reason I say woman, there was a comedian called Moms Mabley around that time with a very gravely voice kinda like the Wolfman...But another thing that he did was real haunting...was he would play these songs you never heard -- a lotta Delta blues, a lot of Chicago stuff. Some of the first times I'd been exposed to deep southern rural music, also eastern and Midwestern blues...But in the middle of some song, always in the appropriate place, he would play these wolves howling...and it's one of those memories that you have that's just kind of etched in everything you think about kind of in your childhood...whatever...So radio is completely linked with automobiles and with music for me, and I suppose probably for my generation.
I know that there was another radio station later on when I was in high school, out of Oklahoma City. It was KOMA and they had a radio contest that kind of beamed out as far as their station beamed, and I can't remember the nature of the contest but if you won you got two weeks completely paid round trip tickets, all expenses paid, anywhere you wanted to go in the world. So this was a huge contest. And I remember that when they announced the winner -- the guy that won was somewhere in Oklahoma I think -- he wanted to go to Salt Lake City!
I also remember -- and this is god's truth! -- after Wolfman Jack there was a preacher that came on, I can't remember his name, but he sold ah...in this kind of staggered version... starting with Bible place markers through all kinds of little gadgets and doodads and holy articles, starting out with like a quarter right up to a fifty dollar gold embossed red letter edition Bible. But he actually advertised selling autographed pictures of Jesus Christ that were direct from the Holy Land, and he told the story that one of his congregation was in the Holy Land and had in this holy spot come across this stack of 8 x 10 glossies with Jesus's signature on them, and had brought them back and had asked them to be (sold). There was a note evidently with the photographs asking the photographs to be sold over the air to raise money for the spreading of the Lord's word.
Another radio memory I have was on New Year's Eve. There was a popular disc jockey who evidently did not want to work on New Year's Eve, and barricaded himself in KFCAL radio station in Lubbock and began to play everything he wanted to play and ah...and profusely curse on the air, and it kinda spread like wildfire all through the town. Everybody said, "You HAVE to listen to KFCAL. So an so has flipped!" So everybody tuned in to KFCAL and sure enough here was this guy just screaming and cussing, and ah...I don't know if this was before the FF whatever...that's getting into everything now..the FFC...Anyway it took the cops about an hour to attack the station, break through the barricade and drag the disc jockey out. And I remember one of the songs he kept plain over and over was Blue Suede Shoes by Carl Perkins. This song had a major impact on me when I first heard it because it was one of the first songs I was conscious of that did not address your parents, your church, your school, any institutions. It addressed you directly. And, ah...since it was the first rock 'n roll song I ever heard.
Another thing we did during that period of time was to...a lot of us would, maybe ten to fifteen people would go out into a cotton patch in our cars and park 'em in a circle with the headlights facing in. Everybody would tune to the same radio station. We would turn on our headlights and turn up the radios and DANCE in this circle of cars with the headlights on.
So my interest in radio is very much attached to my own history and my own memories. Later after I went to L.A. I had the opportunity to do a radio show with Jo Harvey who was the on-air voice. She was the DJ and I programmed the shows. The show was called "Rawhide and Roses". We wrote a little theme song for the piece and basically what Jo Harvey would do is, -- I would program these songs and she would tell stories about her grandmother, about her aunts and uncles, about growing up in West Texas. We'd do theme shows. Like one week we'd do all songs about animals, all stories that we could think of about our pets. Then we'd do stories about America, and a lot of American songs and talk about being an American, and so forth. Birds. We did a whole show on birds. We did a show on tractors, I think. You get the idea.....I know I did a show, two shows...the first new music composer I ever met in L.A. was a guy who'd just gotten out of San Quentin who -- I don't know what he was in for, but he'd been in a long time -- somehow, he had managed to get hold of a tape recorder and work with radio, record stuff off the radio, and then build his own soundtracks and his own pieces out of these radio parts. His name was Bud Hassick. He called his work the Magic Theater. This was about 1967, same time we'd just started Rawhide and Roses and it was on the radio station KPPC which was one of the first FM underground rock stations. It was actually in Pasadena in the basement of this church -- the PPC meant Pasadena Presbyterian Church. I know I approached the station about doing another show one day a week with the Magic Theater. Our scheme at the time was to invite a lot of people who had never really been involved with radio and give these people an hour to do anything they wanted with it. We only got one to one and a half shows. We invited Orsen Welles to come and do our opening show, talk about War of the Worlds and maybe even do a little opening piece or something. He couldn't do it, but Bud played some of his music and the next night we got a poet named Jim Brody who brought a William Burroughs tape that he had reading Naked Lunch, and we got about ten minutes into the show playing this...The FFC shut us down fast and that pretty much ended the Magic Theater.
It's a cliche, but radio is still probably the best storytelling medium. It's not just a series of pictures you forget to remember afterwards like television. It's the invention of your own pictures in your own mind as it happens, and as you listen. And your not nearly as likely to forget your own pictures, if you're so inclined. I really never understood why television hasn't made radio a lot more popular and a lot more interesting, instead of the reverse. Television puts your imagination on hold. You don't participate. You're participated against. You are always outside it. Radio pulls you inside...like listening to bedtime stories with your eyes closed......I always think of it, kind of like the voice of emptiness. Maybe it's growing up on this immense flat ground, and ah, where everything is so much bigger than you are -- the weather, the distances between where you are and where you'd like to be...And the only legs you had to get across this emptiness really were car tires, automobiles...against that stark flat ominous blankness of the plains... I always think of radio as kind of this one light, this one kind of sound that would cross all that territory and spoke to you, helped you speak to yourself. I suppose a good story, a pleasing voice, good music, and nice effects -- that's the secret of radio.... But I guess it's anything that goes out from one spot and goes into wherever their life happens to be. There's always a mysterious wonder to it to me. A lot of time I think of my own shows and I think of some salesman, or a trucker, out in the middle of the highway just tuning into the middle of something like Bleeder and wondering what kind of thing is going through this person's mind when they hear something like that. And ah, to hear anything different is productive as long as it doesn't cause a car wreck or something.
My thoughts on narrative.....
I don't have any thoughts on narrative. I think it's a word that has been entirely overused, made into...a kind of pretentious label...and an excuse for lots of people to tell stories who, in a sense, don't have any stories to tell.
Personal histories and fictional biography I find to be exactly the same thing. The only time I suppose that it's, to me, not fictional is the absolute instant it happens...because presentiment towards the thing that happens and the telling of it later can never be the thing that happens. It's like remembering a car wreck you've been in with other people, and someone lecturing you about driving beforehand, and then sure enough there it goes, and then later you're trying to tell a story. It's three entirely different planets almost.
As for history, politics, culture, and art -- I think if you make things it's about trying to find a voice. It's trying to find the matter, the thing that you're dealing with, and then trying to find the heart of the matter, then trying to find a voice that can speak the heart of that matter. So it's...it's telling the truth as best you can tell about the thing that you're dealing with...and I think if you do that, whatever your subject is, or whatever you're trying to express, I think...history, politics, culture and art just kind of take care of themselves.
Radio as a form in relation to all this -- a performance space, a distribution system, an art medium?
I don't have any particular preferences or prejudices about materials or about how things should be used, where they should be used -- whether it's sound, visual, live action, or whatever. It goes back to that idea of what it is you are trying to do, and choosing the things that can best say that and get it across. In terms of radio. . . . just take sound and the Reunion piece -- I was really happy dealing with a subject I've been involved with for nearly twenty years - the Juarez project - and being able to present it in an entirely different manner and then stripping that to pieces in terms of the tracks and using those separate tracks in terms of installations -- all kind of happened at once. I think everything you do is loaded with stuff you don't understand, or stuff that's kind of waiting to happen in some other way. For example, the DugOut piece - I'm already thinking in terms of doing DugOut 2 and possibly DugOut 3, and doing a kind of installation theater piece but incorporating video, whatever.
Radio especially is really about images for me. It's not about language per se, or theoretical musings. It's really about making an image happen that gets into your brain....I think it is about cinema. I think you see it. If you listen to it you don't have any choice but to see it.
Storytelling as a kind of cultural portraiture: You function from what you know. To me it's always been people and places. I don't think you make a cultural portrait. Maybe that's what happens. Again, you write about character. You're trying to get at something you don't really know about that character, so that you can get it out, so you can really listen to it, you can really look at it, you can really think about it... and maybe it just becomes a portrait. Maybe that's what every portrait is. I know there's a thing in Bleeder I don't totally believe about the biography reading...It's (biography's) just a powdered up form of necrophilia. I think a lot of times when we deal with historical characters, it's fuckin with the dead. Every time you make something you're making a life, you're not making a death. You might use that subject, but it's about an open door, not a closed door. Each thing you make, each story you tell has to open up a door in somebody else to a lot of other things - whether it's visual art, music, radio...which I have a very difficult time distinguishing between any of those three things because they all seem to be going on in everything I do. 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.
There's something made me crazy babe
maybe something's made you crazy too.
There's something made me crazy babe,
maybe something's made you crazy too.
I'm just sailing on the ocean babe,
trying to find America, with you.
Yo ho, yo ho ho, here we go,
Yo ho ho.