Like millions of my fellow Americans this summer blockbuster season, I won’t be caught dead entering an air-conditioned multiplex showing Disney’s The Lone Ranger. Unlike most Americans resisting the train-wreck temptation of Johnny Depp’s monosyllabic redface-blackface minstrel routine, I was, initially anyway, anticipating The Masked Man’s big-screen revival. My dad and I spent a considerable chunk of my childhood Sundays watching re-runs of black-and-white TV westerns he’d first watched during his own childhood. The 1950s television adaptation of The Lone Ranger radio show was one of my favorites — up there with The Wild Wild West.
1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger was a hard lesson for an eleven-year-old boy. Long before that legendary bomb’s end credits rolled, I suspected that I’d been robbed of something more valuable than my matinee ticket price. And Hollywood’s 1999 adaptation of The Wild Wild West seemed tailor made to turn me against my fondest childhood memories. (I watched it on TV once, too, just to confirm that suspicion.)
I never trusted Disney to get The Lone Ranger right. I don’t mind them updating the story with over-the-top digital special effects. That I understand. I used to draw swooping bats, rock slides and mushroom clouds into the melodramatic scenes depicted in my beloved Lone Ranger coloring books. But it was obvious from the first online trailer I watched that this movie was, from the beginning, only seen as an old-fashioned Disney franchise opportunity, complete with baby boomer brand loyalists and a few spry stunt horses for when CGI wouldn’t do.
But that’s okay. The westerns I’ve been reading (and re-reading) this summer didn’t need CGI effects to blow up the genre.
David Markson’s The Ballad of Dingus Magee transforms low comedy into high art. Absurdities and coincidences abound in this “immortal true saga of the most notorious and desperate bad man of the olden days, his blood-shedding, his ruination of poor helpless females, & cetera,” but it’s all in the name of wildly entertaining the reader. Remember entertainment? Markson’s later works were critically revered for how they toyed with the novel form, but, word for word, this bawdy page-turner is no less accomplished. Looking for a down and less-dirty pulp tale to haunt your next trip to the cabin? Joe R. Lansdale’s The Magic Wagon is a creepy crawly mash-up that can be tough to find, but if you do it’s worth an afternoon and sleepless night. There’s no resisting a yarn that begins, “”Wild Bill Hickock, some years after he was dead, came to Mud Creek for a shoot-out of sorts.”
An overly generous Dean Koontz cover blurb on my copy compares The Magic Wagon to True Grit — a comparison that undervalues the Charles Portis classic in exactly the way that Dean Koontz would. As much as I enjoyed Jeff Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers film a couple of years ago (which was more than I enjoyed John Wayne in the role when I was a kid and hadn’t yet read the book), my favorite thing about 2010’s Hollywood adaptation was how it inspired me to look up Portis. True Grit is a complex tale of revenge for the whole family.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Canadian poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, is the most adventuresome of the westerns I’ve perused this summer. Structurally speaking, anyway. Its combination of impressionistic poetry and prose, recounted in the first-person voice of the legendary desperado, defies familiar genre conventions at every turn. Which might be why I’m enjoying Ondaatje’s pseudo-autobiographical take on the outlaw myth as much if not more than Markson’s coarse cowboy farce.
I’m hoping to revisit Ishmael Reed’s “HooDoo Western” classic Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, too, before summer ends. Because I love genre-derailing literary hijinx as much as I loathe plastic Lone Ranger soda cups with my Subway sandwiches.
Outlaw country music singer-songwriter/multimedia artist Terry Allen unravels fine art genres in ways that leave me feeling ill-equipped to critique what I’ve just experienced. Most of the time I’m lucky if I can make sense of my visceral response to what he’s done. I think that’s because he does it all — usually all at once. Allen draws, paints, sculpts, assembles installations and writes and performs theatrical pieces for/with his wife, actress Jo Harvey Allen. Everything of Allen’s I’ve seen or heard or read about challenges audience expectations and explanations.
Droll wit and good-old-boy drawl aside, Allen has a febrile imagination.
Mostly I’ve listened to his country albums and recordings of his works for the stage. Allen’s a great songwriter, but one typically lacking either a band or a budget equal to his brilliance. His classic 1979 double album Lubbock (On Everything) is the most listenable exception to this disappointing matter of fact, but even so, you have to be in the mood to be transported to a 1979 juke joint when you press “play.” Lubbock (On Everything) is a classic album, yes, but it’s not a timeless one. (Lubbock highlights “Amarillo Highway” and “New Delhi Freight Train” are also available on 2007’s Americana Master Series retrospective on Sugar Hill Records.) Legendary musician/producer Lloyd Maines joined Allen, as usual, on this year’s Bottom of the World, Allen’s first studio album in 14 years, but it remains a disappointing listening experience. Minimal instrumentation and non-existent production undermine Allen’s latest too-smart two-steps and Tex-Mex shuffles.
For her part, Jo Harvey Allen has always been equal to (and bettered, I would say) whatever her husband has created for the stage. As muse and chorus in his theatrical productions, she embodies reckless abandon and erotic energy. Her spirited presence also helps ground Allen’s collage-ish assemblages of poetry, narrative, song and ambient found sounds.
Every time I listen to Dugout, Pedal Steal or Ghost Ship Rodez, I discover something new in Terry Allen’s aural mythologies. Based loosely on the lives of Allen’s parents and his own childhood in West Texas, Dugout is, according to Allen, “a love story, an investigation into how memory is invented, a kind of supernatural-jazz-sport-history-ghost-blood-fiction.” That the University of Texas Press’s book accompanying the hour-plus performance spans 260-some pages suggests just how complex the story is. Suffice it to say that baseball has never seemed so metaphorical or Texas in the 1950s so avant-garde. 2010’s Ghost Ship Rodez dramatizes Antonin Artaud’s delusional, deteriorating mental state during a 17-day freighter journey from Ireland to France — which the incapacitated playwright spent straightjacketed and chained to a metal cot down in the ship’s hold. Artaud’s nightmarish fate, particularly as the Allens detail it, becomes the stuff of legend, for sure, but it remains human and humane, too.
Originally commissioned in 1985 as a soundtrack for a performance by San Francisco’s Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Pedal Steal is my favorite of Allen’s theatrical works to be released as an album. A fictionalized account of the life of roadhouse pedal steel guitar legend (and drug casualty) Wayne Gayley that Allen originally envisioned as a fictionalized account of the life of Billy the Kid, this 35-minute tone poem tribute to his late friend traverses an incredible range of sentiment and emotion via sensory overload. Tape-recorded interviews memorializing Gayley give way to Native American chants give way to Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar dive-bombs give way to sultry R&B sax — which all give way to Allen’s deadpan narration and electric piano.
“He had pictures living behind his face,” Allen imagines at one point during Pedal Steal. “They ran out of his head like movies. He’d sneak into them and watch, then go back outside and make up his life.” I suspect that’s also as true of art/music maverick Terry Allen as it is of any character he’s ever honored in story, song or staged multimedia event.