The Single Greatest Concept Album of All Time, Brecht-Style.
I am going on record here: Terry Allen‘s Juarez, a country-rock album recorded in 1975, is the best concept album ever recorded. That’s right: better than Tommy (eesh) and Quadrophenia (which I love) and The Who Sell Out (which used to be my favorite); better than Willie’s Red Headed Stranger (slightly overrated) and Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim (massively underrated); better than De La Soul Is Dead or A Prince Among Thieves or Under Construction or Imitation Real Life Gazette or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or anything else you can name.
I say this knowing full well you won’t believe me, because you haven’t heard Juarez. In fact, only about 1,050 people ever owned this record, because that’s how many copies were printed. Terry Allen was known mostly as an artist in the 1970s, when he was known at all, and he wrote these songs and recorded them and did some drawings to go along with them, printed up 50 in this version and then another thousand without the art, and that was that. An underground legend was born.
Until Sugar Hill re-released this record, that’s all it ever was: a legend. And that’s all it really is even when you hear it. In fact, as an actual narrative event, Juarez stalls out about halfway, shows-not-tells, chokes on the central defining event, and in general just throws away all of its dramatic tension. Unlike all those albums listed above, the listener is completely unable to sympathize or identify with any of the characters in Juarez, and is left having to fill in gaps and think about the themes and ideas brought up instead of being caught up in the music and the lyrics.
And that’s precisely what I love about it.
The mood is set early by the opener, “The Juarez Device (a.k.a. ‘Texican Badman’)”. This gangsta waltz is led, as are all the songs here, by Allen’s piano and rough cowboy voice; sometimes Greg Douglas will play guitar (as he does here, beautifully), and sometimes Peter Kaukonen will play guitar or mandolin. Its foreshadowing is scary (“I am a Texican Badman/ And I’ve got a pistol in my hand”) but it has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
Which story is then told to us by Terry Allen, straight up, no music. We meet our couples: Sailor, a sailor, and Spanish Alice, a prostitute, who leave from San Diego in what is “probably a Buick”, and Jabo, a Mexican-born Pachuco, and Chic Blundie, who take off from Los Angeles, “probably by motorcycle”. We learn exactly what is going to happen: the two couples travel independently to Cortez, Colorado, where one of the couples murders the other couple. Then the murderers flee to Juarez, Mexico, where they break up.
Allen tells us this to lessen the natural tendency to worry about “suspense”, about “surprise”, and ultimately against identifying with any of the characters. He doesn’t really want us to. If we do, we fall into the trap. This is the ultimate Brechtianism: don’t let your audience get caught up in “What Happens Next”, it just obscures the larger issue.
What the issue is, are the songs, which are epic and stark. “Cortez Sail” starts out like something about Jabo wanting to leave Los Angeles, a long multi-part epic about “leaving L.A. on a cloudy day”, simple enough until it morphs into an examination of the crimes committed centuries ago: “Cortez he comes with his men and his guns/ And a Spanish Christ alive on his lip.” So then suddenly we are in the realm of history, Jabo has turned from a tough cool Mexican dude into Mexico itself. By the end of the song, we are actually seeing Jabo and Chic Blundie fleeing Cortez Colorado with guns on their laps and bulletins about them on the radio. It’s only confusing if you’re perusing the lyric booklet, trying to follow the narrative triangle; if you just let it go and listen, you’re forced to come to terms with the idea of Mexico as opposed to its image—the same image that is presented in “Texican Badman”, by the way.
Allen does not seem interested in character development, whatever that means. There are a couple songs that develop Sailor’s point of view, but they don’t add up to much of a psychological portrait; we learn that he’s a horny bastard in “Border Palace” (“There just ain’t enough of that tight-white-cotton/ To hide her evil from my boom”), and we get hints that his relationship with Spanish Alice might be more than just pure mutual exploitation. Alice’s life is briefly essayed in “What of Alicia”, a sad commentary on the life of a child prostitute, and of Mexico itself. In fact, it seems pretty clear that Alice is supposed to represent Mexico sometimes. But not always. Maybe I’m wrong. The ambiguity is what it’s all about.
We get a real sense of Jabo, at least, who is presented as a true badass in “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California”: “I leave a few people dead/ But I got open road ahead.” He also has a major league Jesus complex, as evidenced in the first half of “Dogwood”—this turns, later, into an appeal to Chic Blundie to come with him to Colorado and then Mexico. But of Blundie herself we learn nothing, although this isn’t really a surprise as she is introduced to us as “an enigma, rock writer, and, occasionally, Jabo himself”. So… she doesn’t really exist. None of these characters do. Mysticism is a beautiful thing.
So yeah, Reality Vs. Illusion is the other huge theme here. This is brought home in “The Radio… and Real Life”, a song attributed to nobody; the opening is a quaint little country waltz (most of this record seems to be in 3/4 time) about how “you have to open your soul like a door,” oh it’s so adorable! Then there is an audible click, Allen growls, “This is real life,” and then it changes to a 4/4 stomp where Allen tells us what it’s all about: “Ah baby you better be open wide/ ‘Cause when I get there and down inside/ I’m gonna touch you like you never been touched before.” Human nature is presented as just as base and self-interested as it can be, and country and pop music are clearly just the camouflage so that people can get laid.
You would expect these potent themes (radio/illusion vs. real life, Mexico vs. “America”, drama vs. intellectualism) to all come to a head with the murder of Sailor and Spanish Alice, but they don’t—this murder is represented by a brief breaking of glass, and there is very little explanation later, just some hints that Jabo either raped Alice or maybe turned into some kind of avenging spirit of Aztec glory, or both, or neither, ambiguity, confusion, you know the drill by now. There may be some casual Texan racism in the characterization of Jabo (the killing machine) and Spanish Alice (the exploited whore, described as “greasy”), or it may be Allen calling our attention to these stereotypes, I dunno. Doesn’t matter, though: Sailor and Alice are dead, Jabo and Blundie (who, remember, is just Jabo anyway) are on the run.
“The Run South”, as Allen calls it, isn’t about the drama of the moment. In fact, Allen just tells us that they break up in an interlude—it appears to be Jabo’s fault for making nasty sex talk or something. At any rate, we learn that Chic (Jabo?) changes her (his?) name to Carlotta, which is convenient for “Cantina Carlotta”, where she seduces and then abandons an American businessman. By the time we get to “La Despedida (The Parting)”, we no longer know who it is that is “sittin’ here in darkness… all alone/ There’s a pistol in the drawer/ The bed’s still made-up”. It’s probably Jabo, but it doesn’t matter.
I don’t think they needed the final pieces from 2003—they don’t really add anything except the mantra “El camino / Mi corazón” (“The highway / My heart”). They should have just left it the way it was: a frustrating edifying multi-faceted crazy concept album with more idea than plot, with more to say about the world than it actually says. Juarez trusts us enough to give us the outline of a discussion and then to let us discuss it on our own, inside our own heads or with friends over many many long-neck beers.
That’s my plan, anyway.