Page 2


Where West Texas Meets Vietnam By Richard Ryan Washington, D.C. ON AN EVENING IN November Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen and Jimmie Gilmore took the stage of the Baird Auditorium in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and, while dinosaur bones and Indian fetishes rattled in the outer hallways, set about distilling and projecting the musical essences of the Vietnam War. And, naturally, in such a convergence of oil patch vigor and Washington hauteur, there was some cultural payback in the offing: as they worked their way through a series of recently written songs and older works \(many intervention non pareil, the scions of Lubbock treated the audience to an authentic psychedelic performance piece, a symbolist songcycle complete with interludes of bad spoken poetry and plenty of lyrical excess. Within this nostalgic perimeter, the evening plunged quickly into the paradoxical intensities of the Sixties, by turns labored and confused, delighting and mystical. The performance, conceived by Terry Allen, was a part of War and Memory in the Aftermath of Vietnam, a long-running multimedia exhibit coordinated by the Washington Project for the Arts. To prepare for the event the musicians had spent this past spring going over artifacts and memorabilia of the war, especially those that have been collected at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. What they built from their gatherings turned out to be a smoke-and-lights machine that sometimes shone and sometimes spewed fumes. “Slow Boat to Tokio” the title alludes to a small town outside of Lubbock set the tone early. A group composition completed a few days before the show, “Slow Boat” opens with a classic country tableau: a lonely figure wanders down to a desolate highway, one more drifter strung out on cliches and wanderlust. But suddenly the light pours down through “a mighty ozone hole” and then our hero, halfway across the pavement, gets caught in a rush of on-coming foreign cars, a helpless victim in the four-lane rumble of international history. Yeah, but “a mighty ozone hole”? “1 swear it’s out there somewhere,” Hancock said several days later. “Just like the Great Red Blob of Jupiter.” And what about the song’s apparent isolationist sentiments: “We were really trying to make fun of Detroit,” Gilmore explained apologetically. Richard Ryan writes about politics and culture and lives in Washington. D.C. Though the musicians grew up together in Lubbock, and, with the exception of Allen, had all belonged to the Flatlanders, a legendary West Texas band, this marked the first time in many years the four had played together. And from the standpoint of pure charisma, it was an unbeatable combo. Firmly ensconced in cult figuredom, Ely was his usual, magisterial self, his Fender ringing out through sumptuous vibratos, his vocals as operatic and convincing as ever. Hancock and Gilmore, two of the best songwriters around, deported themselves with twangy intensity. Even Allen, whose prankster tactics often cancel out his musical abilities, was in impressive form; several of the show’s best numbers had been written by Allen for the soundtrack of “Amerasia,” a German film set in Thailand and still unreleased in this country. One song, “Back Out of the World,” describes a vet who cashes all his VA checks and flies back to Southeast Asia. Another Allen composition, the haunting “Bloodlines,” pulsed like a spooky tribal anthem and more or less summarized the quartet’s Whole Earth politics. This ecological mysticism took its toll; in the Butch Hancock songs, its weaknesses were most evident. “Already Gone,” about the Native American protests at Big Mountain sunk like an overwritten master’s thesis. In contrast, “Mama Don’t Take My Name Off That Wall,” a second Hancock work, narrated by a dead soldier from inside the marble at the Vietnam Memorial, packed a wallop, mainly because it traded clouded, visionary landscapes for stark, naturalistic images. AS A STYLISTIC MEDIUM, the “Texas sound” a lawless amalgam of rockabilly roots and ethnic influ ences worked some strange magic on the imagery Allen and his compadres had gathered. And that’s legitimate enough: it was a strange time indeed, when poor people were sent to kill poor people, farmers to fight farmers, while men walked on the moon and the college students back home tried to hallucinate their way to freedom. Faced with such inherently surreal material, we cannot expect too much straight-laced theorizing from musicians who described themselves as “goodnatured anarchists.” Still, something misfired in the effort to recast Vietnam as a Dylanesque version of Crazy Horse’s revenge. In the Jungian free-for-all, ambiguities were played out on so many levels it was hard to follow. You just had to accept the thing as honkytonk zeitgeist. “What we’re about is the art of trying to do two things at once,” Gilmore said later, reflecting on the apparently ingrained West Texas disposition to turn everything into symbols. Gilmore agreed that the tendency to read the world as a big paisley allegory was something that he and his friends picked up during the Vietnam years: “Doing this show made us realize how much the counterculture affected us.” Hancock went one step further, saying: “I don’t think the war is really over. It hasn’t become history yet.” If Texas music has never severed its connections with the rock music of 20 or even 30 years ago, perhaps it’s because Texas still languishes in a pre-Sixties eddy. Like the rest of the country, Texas was subject to a spectrum of progressive political forces, some genuinely radical, others merely libertarian. The problem with Texas rock is that it’s very good at celebrating the second kind of tendencies but usually misses the first. We have “Down on the Drag,” but what we need is a border equivalent of “Volunteers” or “Fortunate Son.” The WPA concert underscored this. I don’t want to belittle the importance of freedoms of lifestyle I’m glad it’s safe to be openly gay or smoke pot in neighborhoods like Houston’s Montrose or Austin’s Clarksville, and I’m sorry that this can’t be said of more places down home. But in a state as poverty-ridden and politically repressed as ours, it’s time for Texas intellectuals and artists to realize that Martin Luther King and Noam Chomsky were more progressive social figures than Jim Morrison and Timothy Leary. This need holds especially true in Austin, where the hang-loose, neo-hippy culture eventually begins to bore the shit out of everyone who stays there long enough. The four Horsemen of Romanticism galloped into other ideological swamps as well. Besides a general lack of historical focus, many of the songs muddied themselves with bad sexual politics by repeatedly linking the longing for peace and homeland to the longing for an unattainable woman. Ely, singing “Letter to L.A.” from his new album a wonderful song, by the way, if you don’t think about it too much emoted so much desire verging on resentment that social injustice began to look like just another brand of unrequited love. The lyrical, accusatory refrain \(“Your love is like the city/it only shines at night/Your love has no pity/but baby heartsick exile to America herself, but then who’s to say America is a “her” anyway? 24 JANUARY 15, 1988