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In our 'Re:View' section, in which we look back at albums from the past, Kimberly Bright examines Terry Allen's 1975 concept album 'Juarez' which has been recently re-released
Paradise of Bachelor’s impressive reissue of Terry Allen’s 1975 legendary underground folk-country album 'Juarez' perfectly displays why the long mythic record influenced a generation of alt-country songwriters and turned Allen into a cult favorite.
Terry Allen was a little known country artist in the mid-70s, coming out of the art world rather than Nashville or Austin. Rather than a musician who turned to painting later in life, the Lubbock, Texas native started out as a successful painter, sculptor, and conceptual artist before turning to music. He has taught art at the university level at University of California at Berkeley and UC Fresno. His work is included in the collections of museums such as MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and LACMA as well as in private collections. His public sculptures can be found in San Francisco, San Diego and Kansas City. For all his eagerness to get out of Lubbock and head to Los Angeles to attend art school, he was haunted by doomed fictional characters on the Texas-Mexico border, all of which came to him in a fever dream. The song cycle was originally intended to be part of a broader multimedia art installation.
'Juarez', initially privately pressed by Allen as a limited edition of 1050 (50 with his original illustrative artwork, 1000 without), was one of the first country concept albums, the very first being Willie Nelson’s 'Phases & Stages' and 'Red Headed Stranger'. The album was recorded in a few hours at Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco with the help of Allen’s cousin-in-law, who happened to be Jefferson Airplane’s road manager. The arrangements are quite stark, the antithesis of bombastic Billy Sherrill country arrangements, with Allen accompanied by a sole guitar, mandolin, or piano. The reason for this was simple: he couldn’t afford to hire many session musicians.
The album’s song cycle is more of a traditional Mexican border corrido than outlaw country, but the “simple story”’s frustratingly non-linear, surreal Brechtian bongwater plot interweaving the lives of two couples could easily become a telenovela. Allen is a wry songwriter and storyteller in the same vein as Randy Newman and Nick Lowe who was obviously influenced by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. As a plot, it’s full of holes the listener has to fill in, and there’s no real resolution to all the tension; the story just ends. The album’s opening song 'The Juarez Device (Texican Badman)' quickly makes a reference to a gun, so you know straight off that things aren’t going to end well.
Sailor is a 23-year-old drunken randy sailor who picks up a prostitute, Spanish Alice, in a Tijuana bar while on leave. Alice has had a rough ten years, being forced into prostitution when still a child, and is desperate to get to the United States. After one night of debauchery in a dingy motel, the couple fall madly in love and get married immediately. Sailor goes AWOL from the Navy and takes Alice to Cortez, Colorado, where they spend their short honeymoon in a mountain trailer. The songs from this section, particularly 'What of Alicia' and 'Honeymoon in Cortez', are delicate but powerful, with unexpectedly romantic lines like: “Ah we love one another in the dark/While a sweet breeze she blows/Through the trailer park/And the TV glows in between our toes.”
The other couple consists of Jabo, a “Mexican-born pachuco” living in Los Angeles who wants to go back home to Juarez, Mexico, and his witchy girlfriend, Chic Blundie, a mysterious character who leaves her mark by writing on rocks across the US., even on a cliff in the middle of a Gulf Coast hurricane. She has the mystical ability to control the elements with her rock-writing. Chic, who might not even exist outside Jabo’s imagination, still remains a mystery at the end of the album, when she reinvents herself as Carlotta. Pachuco is a term for a the Mexican-American youth culture of dandyish zoot suit-wearing gangsters from the ‘30s to the ‘50s in southern California and border towns like El Paso, Texas. Gustavo Arellano defines pachucos as “nothing more than Mexican hep cats: guys and gals who dressed in zoot suits and other fine tacuches, liked to neck, spoke a unique argot called caló and engaged in the occasional knife fight.” (http://www.cityweekly.net/utah/ask-a-mexican-mexican-donkeys-pachucos-and-over-wrapped-infants/Content?oid=2127718)
With a flourish of casual violence Jabo hotwires a car and robs a liquor store on his way to pick up Chic in East LA. “Yeah I leave a few people dead/But I got open road ahead.” They plan to stop first in Cortez, Colorado before heading to Juarez. In Cortez they cross paths with Sailor and Spanish Alice and for reasons that are never explained, Jabo (and possibly Chic) murder them. It’s not even clear whether or not Jabo and Chic knew the victims or how they all end up in the same room in the first place; the newlyweds are simply found dead in the trailer. Jabo and Chic run away to Juarez in Sailor’s stolen car (“probably a Buick”) and promptly break up.
There are dark humorous lines spoken in Allen’s droll west Texan accent during the ride to Mexico, including the juxtaposition between Jabo’s and Chic’s thoughts as they travel in silence through the desert as news bulletins about the two of them are read on the radio: she is brooding over what just happened, preparing to dispose of the victims’ belongings in the desert, and he is fantasizing about various sexual positions they can try in the solitude, including what may well be the first-ever reference to anal sex in country music.
The tensions that existed on the border and are touched upon in the lyrics still exist today. Jabo’s flight to Juarez – until recently the murder capital of the world - parallels the journey of Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortez, who is named in both 'Cortez Sails' about his brutal defeat of the Aztec empire, and the use of Cortez, Colorado as the location where the story’s denouement takes place.
The ending is neither a happy nor unhappy one as the couple parts ways, except for the fact that the two weren’t caught and tried for double homicide before they made it to Mexico. Jabo is last seen drinking alone in a motel room, with his gun in a drawer. Chic changes her name to Carlotta, dons a red dress and green platform shoes, and hangs around bars in Juarez, seducing a visiting uptight American executive who then wakes up in the drunk tank the next morning. If indeed Chic/Carlotta is the alter-ego Jabo, the story ends with a nice twist.
This reissue of Juarez contains Allen’s previously rare colourful, bizarre, allegorical artwork illustrating the story, with visual references to Mexican folk art. The limitations of having the art reduced to fit a CD booklet is necessary but disappointing, as it makes the writing on the lithographs difficult to read. The booklet contains a brilliant essay by singer-songwriter Dave Alvin as well as in-depth analyses by Brandon Greaves and Dave Hickey.
Allen’s follow-up to 'Juarez', 'Lubbock' (on everything), will be released by Paradise of Bachelors later this year.
The artwork in this article is of the 'Juarez Suite', a lithograph by Terry Allen accompanying the original 1975 LP boxed edition. It was pulled by Jack Lemon at Landfall Press, 1975-1976.
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