Music: Revolting middle age

If you've ever wondered what became of pop's rebellious streak, you'll search in vain among today's youth. Instead, check out two fiftysomething iconoclasts from America - Terry Allen and Johnny Dowd.
What's the matter with kids today?" ran the old Sixties show tune, a familiar generation-gap grumble lamenting the rebelliousness, poor posture and general lack of fortitude of the first generation of teenagers. As far as I recall, the song's subtext was that the recent abandonment of National Service was a bad thing, and that the kids were, as a result, revolting.

How times change. One woman PM later, and the very idea that kids could be revolting, that there may in fact be a youthful duty to question and rebel, provokes widespread bemusement. Cowed and acquiescent, generations of pop kids have stood meekly by while successive governments have restricted their access to further education, ridden roughshod over their right to party, and embarked upon ill-advised adventurism in the Balkans, secure in the knowledge that there would be no repeat of the anti-war demos of the Sixties.

By their music shall ye know them: what was once a genuinely threatening medium of political and social protest has become a paper tiger - to use the once-fashionable Maoist term - given over to rote complaint and whiny self-pity, in the few moments when it's not entirely dedicated to off- your-face hedonism or in-your-face consumerism. New bands on both sides of the Atlantic appear, for the most part, to have no agenda other than the accumulation of money and celebrity, or the blinkered pursuit of some half-baked aestheticism. Whatever you do, don't mention the war.

Certainly, things have come to a ridiculous pass when the most genuinely rebellious, iconoclastic records I've heard all year turn out to have been made by fiftysomething malcontents from America: the Texan sculptor/playwright Terry Allen's scabrous Salivation, and the chilling Pictures from Life's Other Side by the New York removal man/murder balladeer Johnny Dowd.

These aren't your average tired old rockers. Think of fiftysomething musicians, and the picture that springs to mind is of some bloated millionaire has-been desperately trying to claw another advance out of a record company, or get fit enough to drag his bloated, booze-raddled carcass on another tour: out of date, out of touch and out of steam.

Dowd and Allen, by contrast, aren't so much has-beens as never-weres - and, more pertinently, couldn't-give-a-damns. Neither has been driven by desire for fame or fortune, even though Allen, at least, has been putting out albums since the mid-Seventies. (Dowd's first release was last year's gripping Wrong Side of Memphis.) And having safely reached their respective half-centuries, neither is burdened overmuch by idealistic expectations about the world.

"I think that once that first piece of slime crawled out of the liquid, it's been a crapshoot since then on," chuckles Allen. "We're always going to be surrounded by epic, spinning piles of shit, that's just the way it is." Allen, who's written songs for Little Feat and David Byrne, is better known in American art circles as the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for his plays, sculptures and installations, which tear subversive holes in the fabric of everyday life in a manner akin to the seething secret histories of the novelists Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, particularly the latter's bravura, waste-fuelled account of the American century, Underworld. One of Allen's bronzes, Modern Communication, depicts a businessman with fingers in his ears and a shoe in his mouth. Another installation featured vans with sound systems and translators parked 10ft apart on either side of the Mexico/ US border at Tijuana: people were invited to broadcast to the other side, resulting in shouting matches, discussions and even simultaneous battles of the bands, as mariachi and jazz musicians tried to blow each other away.

Allen recognises no equivalent boundaries in his own work, however. "What may start as a series of drawings could end up as drawings plus sculpture plus songs plus theatre work," he says. "I've never been particularly prejudiced about materials or domains, whether it's theatre or music or whatever. I think the common denominator is the necessity you feel to make something, and then try to be as true to that as you can when you're working on it."

That applies strongly to his music, which starts from a core of country- rock but winds its way into more unusual, apparently conflicting areas, some involving Arabic drones, bouzoukis and the like. Asked whether what he does is country music, Allen responds smartly: "Which country? There really is no more country music; it's all urban music now. Because, in a sense, there's no more country - even more so with the Web and all that. It's all corporate music now, because it's a corporate culture - that accounts for the deadness you sense in that music."

The same disillusion with contemporary country music comes through in Johnny Dowd's work, a bizarre blend of spare, sometimes atonal country- rock settings and Dowd's sharecropper croak of a voice. "People thought that country music went totally commercial back when Billy Sherill was doing all those string arrangements," he reckons. "But listen back to that now, and it seems like it's the rootsy thing. In 20 years, Shania Twain will seem like Hank Williams, and country music will be totally drum'n'bass, electronica, sung by Germans or somethin'!"

Certainly, there's little chance of Dowd's music getting played on mainstream country radio, consisting as it does of horrifying, claustrophobic tales of murder, hardship and misguided passion, such as "The Ballad of Lonnie Wolf", in which the poor, depressed Lonnie elects to take his own life, but botches the job badly and winds up paralysed, even worse off than he was before. The song, Dowd claims, is a true story which happened to the boyfriend of his best friend's mother. As the chorus of his earlier "Thanksgiving Day" advises, "Be content with your life - it may not get any better." Allen's songs grapple with similarly prickly themes: organised religion comes in for a thorough pasting on tracks such as "The Doll" and "Salivation", while his schoolboy-killer soliloquy, "Crisis Site 13", has taken on a terrible irony in the wake of the Colorado murders. "But it ain't nothin' new," he contends. "Springsteen's Nebraska was all about Charlie Starkweather, who was kind of the first rock'n'roll murderer, because he had a car and a teenage girlfriend and was drivin' all over the place shootin' people!" This impulse parallels Allen's own attitude to art, which he defines as the urge "to get out of town", to escape old boundaries and encounter something new.

"You have to get out of town to look back and see it," he says. "America has always been about flight in one form or another, certainly in the part of the West that I was raised - there's always that longing to be somewhere else, and if you can't make it physically, you make it up. When I first left Lubbock, I drove straight to the Pacific Ocean, got out of the car, walked across the beach and waded up to my neck, as far into the ocean as I could go - and if I'd had a boat, I'd probably still be going! I've never seen an ocean, in any part of the world, that I didn't want to be on the other side of!"

Dowd and Allen share a healthy distaste for the heavily mediated, homogenised condition of modern culture. "There's a total bonding of commerce and popular culture, commerce and religion," believes Dowd. "Everything is just about money, and everybody is just a consumer." Allen, though, clings to the possibility that some latterday equivalent of Presley, Dylan or The Beatles might suddenly revivify things. "I'm convinced there's somebody out there right now that's gonna turn everything upside down," he says. "That's what's amazing about modern culture - it's very easy to get demoralised and zombified by it, but you don't have to, you can still go with your own heart, if you can just find it through the murk."

Whether or not some such massive cultural shift does occur, it's hardly likely to impinge that much upon Allen's or Dowd's outlook. After all, they've both got this far without bothering to chase trends and attitudes, and the chances are that they'll continue to lie in the beds they've made.

"By the time you're 50, you've made some choices, taken some roads, and your options are getting more and more limited," muses Dowd. "And the older you get, the worse it gets, until your last option is just to die. That's what my characters feel like - they feel as if they've made some mistakes, done some bad things, and there's not enough time left in their lives to fix them, y'know? Like, if you're 20 and you fuck somebody over, you might think, I'll apologise later, become a better person; at 50, if you make a mistake, you can't recover from it."

Terry Allen's 'Salivation' is out now on Sugar Hill Records. Johnny Dowd's 'Pictures from Life's Other Side' is released next week on Munich Records