Lives lived, imagined


Terry Allen is an artist, songwriter, musician, poet and above all, a storyteller. Over the last 30-odd years, he’s shaped his concerns into multi-media works that explored sex and violence, rootlessness and disconnectedness in the American West (Juarez) and the terrible toll of Vietnam (Youth in Asia).

Here, with an introductory quote from a fishing manual, Allen suggests that he was “born with a memory but neither experience nor history to account for it, and spent forever after seeking to invent what didn’t exist in the curious belief that his imagination might become his experience.” History was a series of various competing and conflicting attempts to explain how it was, or how things came to be; attempts that didn’t really fit, that were someone else’s story or just one god-damned thing after another. His story had to be imagined to be believed.

The tale is the Allen clan’s life in the Texas panhandle from just after the Civil War to just after World War II. It’s offered up via an episodic collection of scenarios that are conveyed in a variety of media: a radio play; hundreds of drawings and paintings, assemblage tableaux, video projections, and large-scale sculptural installations (reproduced in 157 color photographs); and a full-length play accompanied by live music (included as a CD in the book).

The title suggests a kind of shelter ("half-in and half-out of the side of a small Oklahoma hill"), as well as a means of historiography—excavation. At one point, the narrator says, “A person has to dig into the heart of everything … and what little gets dug out is all there is … or ever will be.” For Allen, history is a salvage operation, It’s an act of rescuing and recontextualizing the bits and pieces of family lore and warped social mores to tell a story, forge a life. It is both personal narrative and social commentary, a thicket of metaphor and symbols, partly truth and partly fiction.

It is the story of his parents—an itinerant, retired semi-pro baseball player and a college-drop-out honky-tonk pianist—who had an unexpected outer space arrival of a “whatsit” son. The son grew up in a world totally alien to everything that had come before: 1950s anti-communist and anti-masturbation paranoia, I Led Three Lives, drop-duck-and-cover drills, Charlie Starkweather, rock ‘n’ roll, thalidomide babies and polio. It is, as Allen says, “a love story … a kind of supernatural-jazz-sport-history-ghost-blood-fiction.”

Listening to the CD on a long drive to Wyoming, my wife and I were struck by the fact that what made this particular archaeological dig so compelling was how his tale—the characters, their lives and the stories they tell—reverberated and resonated with our own, with those of people we knew. They were both completely personal, unique to Terry, yet profoundly universal.

We saw Allen with Guy Clark a few years back in a sold-out performance on a sweltering summer day at the Palms in Davis, Calif. He and Clark came out on stage, and Terry lit a cigarette. There was a chorus of boos from the audience. He took another drag, looked at the audience and said, “Y’all oughta get a life.”

In creating these vignettes, he’s got some lives down pretty good. In doing so, he suggests how shared and invented memories can become the places and spaces of our own lives.