Do iPhones Dream of Boxcars? Joe Ely and Sci-Fi Country

In 1983, road-weary Texan Joe Ely hovers over gadgets and wires, entering a brave new world of technology. Is he creating science-fiction country music?
Joe Ely
B4 84
South Central

To think of Joe Ely is to think of dust and trains, rivers and the open road. And the wind blowing across wide expanses of land in Texas. He was born in Amarillo, Texas; grew up in Lubbock. He was one of the founders of a band named the Flatlanders. He has albums called Honky Tonk Masquerade and Twistin’ in the Wind; songs with titles like “Ranches and Rivers”, “Boxcars” and “Highways and Heartaches”. He wrote a book called Bonfire of Roadmaps. He tells stories of picking up Townes Van Zandt hitchhiking.

The last time I saw Ely play, it was in a bar next to train tracks; trains would roll past, occasionally drowning out the sound of his voice. Each time it made him crack a smile. Come to think of it, the first time I saw him play was in the parking lot of a train station, albeit one that had been repurposed as a shopping mall.

But wait… here’s another image of Joe Ely. Picture him in 1983, sitting with futuristic thingamajigs — a personal computer, one of the very first, plus synthesizers and drum machines — to record his new album. Fresh off a few years of straight touring, including tours of the UK opening for the Clash, and exhausted from it, Ely threw himself into the new world of digital recording.

In Ely’s own words: “I had recently built a makeshift studio at my home in Texas. It consisted of a four-track TEAC recorder, a few microphones, a Roland 808 drum machine and a strange contraption called a personal computer. It was the early Apple 2+ Computer with the very first sequencer card called an Alpha Centauri … This new era had reached up and bit me on the ass.”

That’s from the liner notes to B484, Ely’s 2014 ‘director’s cut’ (so to speak) of his 1984 album Hi-Res, the album he made with this equipment, with an early PC. It’s the only Ely album never to be released on CD; B484 offers the explanation that Ely was not satisfied with the original album, because the label had made him rework too many of the original recordings. B484 presents what Ely has described as the original recordings that became Hi-Res, before any record-label tomfoolery.

According to JoeEly.com, Hi-Res was “originally conceived as a soundtrack to a LP length video about a cowboy hobo transported to the digital age.” You can hear that, on both Hi-Res and B484.The future is represented in a very 1980s way — through synth sounds and drum machines, and through an album cover consisting of a digitized, “computer art” portrait of Ely.

In many ways, Hi-Res has always struck me as one of the lone examples of a sci-fi country album. Yet the songs aren’t really science fiction in any way. They’re Joe Ely songs, not that different in content from the rest of his discography. They’re songs about Texas, about cars and motorcycles, about young lust and restlessness.

Hi-Res opens with synthesizers, yes, but also rock guitars, on a song that’s not a peek into outerspace, more like a rebel’s night-life come-on to a tattooed lady in leather high-heel shoes. He tells off the bossman, gets his engine revved up and looks to the open road: “I smell the diesel in the border town.”

The album overall follows this path, with songs that Ely has seamlessly inserted into his setlists with his others (two appeared on 1990’s Live at Liberty Lunch; another became the title track for 1995’s Tex-Mex classic, Letter to Laredo). There’s electricity, yes, but also lovelorn and word-weary people living in a rock ‘n’ roll world, populating Texas border towns and New Orleans’ bourbon-soaked alleyways.

Thematically, the closest Ely gets to the future are some musings about a “Dream Camera” on the song of the same name; with it she captures her dreams, while sleepwalking with “one foot on the curb, and the other in the gutter”. The song has the sway of a leather-jacketed teen idol performing in Twin Peaks’ roadhouse, at least until the horn-like synths blast in and the steel guitar rings out.

While containing 60 percent the same material, albeit in different mixes, B484 somehow accentuates both the science-fiction/futuristic angle and the teenage rebels in Texas angle to a clearer extent than Hi-Res. (“Dream Camera” is one of the four Hi-Res tracks that’s not on B484, even.)