Terry Allen’s musical compositions suggest that the Southwestern desert landscape is made up equally of wavering guitar lines, a broken television set, mad women, pounding drums, Indian chants, buzzing insects, and of course rodents and birds of all variety. It doesn’t make any sense. But it does in associative ways too complex to explain. Suffice it to say this is art, goddamn it, and where it leads no one really knows but the journey provides the essential information from which an observer can learn the secrets of life.
The description above pertains to the 35-plus-minute opening piece from Allen’s new collection of his two and half hours of cinematic songs, stories, and sound collages in English, Spanish, and Navajo, Pedal Steal + Four Corners. “Pedal Steal” was originally recorded in 1985 and works as an experimental radio program and originally composed as a soundtrack to a dance performance. Although at times it can be rhythmic, sometimes the opposite is true thanks to silent spaces and asymmetrical sound effects like the ringing of a telephone. Allen’s narrative voice tells the story of New Mexican pedal steel guitarist Wayne Gailey and infamous outlaw Billy the Kid transformed into a haunted composite character called Billy the Boy. Texan Lloyd Maines handles the steel guitar playing, while Terry’s wife Jo Harvey Allen, Flatlander Butch Hancock, and Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys add to the mix. This is the first time the material has been released on vinyl and CD.
Allen claims to have a method to his madness. That may be true. It possesses what used to be called Acid Logic, that combination of hallucination and psychedelic reasoning that shows how everything is connected and all is one from the most mundane to the highest spirituality. Amen. “Pedal Steal” offers a cosmic experience that may not always be pleasant but reveals the value of the mad and broken world in which one lives.
The “Four Corners Suite” included in the package are radio plays originally broadcast on National Public Radio but never before released. “Torso Hell” (1986) concerns a quadriplegic Vietnam veteran’s pain and absurd fantasies of revenge in the guise of a midnight horror movie. Allen spoofs on war, Hollywood, the American dream, and the lying words uttered to glorify violence. Allen’s lessons seem even more pertinent today than they did 30 years ago.
“Bleeder” (1990) ostensibly relates the tale of a childhood friend who was a hemophiliac and morphs into a mix of biography, history, religion, storytelling, and song. The soundscape combines everything from Hawaiian slack key guitar to rockabilly piano to jazz sax to create a mythological world where staying up late and having bad sex can contribute to dying young.
“Reunion” (1992) returns Allen back to Juarez, a place he has explored in the past. Allen retells the tale as a radio play and as the soundtrack for the sculptural installation), exhibited at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center. It was originally conceived as stage set studies for a musical, co-written with David Byrne but never produced. The plot centers on the murder of a sailor and his new bride, a Tijuana prostitute by Mexican American hoodlum Jabo and his California girlfriend Chic Bundle.
The liner notes say “Dugout” (1993) is autobiographical and is based on the lives of his mother, a barrel-house piano play and his father, a former pro baseball player, and promoter. It’s part love story part paranoid fantasy with a jazzy soundtrack where actual events transmute into supernatural fantasies of blood and mistrust. Suffice it to say, like the other three dramas, it’s not for the meek.
Pedal Steal + Four Corners sounds clear and crisp as the cuts were scrupulously remastered from the original masters. The package is available as a deluxe LP, three CD, book set with a heavy-duty board gatefold jacket, a high-res Bandcamp download code, and an exhaustive 28-page color booklet containing an in-depth essay on this work plus dozens of images of Allen’s related visual art, full scripts and credits for all five pieces (a total of 33k words). It’s a lot of stuff meant for the most committed fan of Allen’s work, He is a major contemporary figure in the art/music world. This is important work that deserves such a plush and thorough treatment.