Tall Tales of Low Living
What you really notice about Jo Harvey Allen—more than her dark, purple-red hair, fair skin, bright lipstick, black skirt, turquoise cowboy boots, weighty jewelry, and the tattoo she wears on her third finger instead of a wedding ring—is her voice: that harsh yet oddly musical twang that could only be the product of West Texas.
A former DJ for underground music station KPPC in Pasadena during the late sixties, she now makes her home in Fresno, where she lives with her husband, visual artist-writer-musician Terry Allen, and their two sons, Bukka and Bale. Jo Harvey returns to Los Angeles periodically to perform though, as she will next Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27, when she offers some of her poetry and music, as well as a sampler of her characters—Ruby Kay and Hally Lou, among others—in the Barnsdall Park Gallery Theatre.
Jo Harvey is clearly in love with Ruby Kay. The character is witty, wonderful, and profound, a mass of contradictions and passion. When Ruby Kay pours you a cup of coffee while chewing on a forkful of pie and tells you in a running monologue about how she caught her husband in bed with “this girl” and had to raise her four kids herself, you believe her; you know she knows what she’s talking about. This woman doesn’t care about getting in touch with herself because she already knows who she is.
Jo Harvey’s characters are so real that they have set some to wondering how much they reflect their creator’s upbringing. The characters are composites of many actual persons, the product of more than four years of interviews Jo Harvey undertook with women throughout the Southwestern roadside.
Highway 99 to Fresno is dotted with orchards, truck stops, Caterpillar tractor dealers, and vineyards. It’s the last leg on the straightest route from Lubbock, Texas, where Jo Harvey Allen (nee Koontz) was born November 1, the Day of the Dead, 1942.
Lubbock has given rise to Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and the Lubbock Lights, the most thoroughly documented sighting of UFOs anywhere. Many have speculated on why this ordinary town set in the Texas flatlands has produced such a seemingly disproportionate number of extraordinary occurrences.
Jo Harvey believes that an answer rests in the fact that a person can see 360 degrees of horizon there. “You can stand in a field and you’re right in the middle of the world. It gives you this feeling that you’re real important and at the same time you’re not anything.”
Jo Harvey was an only child in a middle-class, extended Texas family. “I was raised by three women, and when I think about it today, I had a magical childhood. I was always told I could do anything and love was poured on me always.” In addition, all of what can be classified as the metaphysical, or what Jo Harvey terms “the mysteries,” played an important part in her life.
One of the female influences was a spunky, ambitious grandmother who ran a boarding house. “She had a huge house and would get up at five in the morning and cook for everybody. She would serve lunch for all these people who would work downtown and come back to the boarding house to eat. She had a big, screened-in back porch and women would come over and sit around on big stools and quilt.”
Every day after dinner at five o’clock, Jo Harvey recalls, neighbors, friends, and family would retire to the lawn in front of her grandmother’s house to do what is “real natural” for Texans: tell stories. “All the neighbors and kids would take pallets to lay on and we would stay out until eleven or so at night and tell stories. I remember being scared sometimes because we were sure that flying saucers were around.”
Across the way lived her other grandmother, Grandmother Koontz. “She lived in a little shack with chickens right up to the back porch. She had this big record collection and wore long fox heads and tails and she was big and fat. She played country music for me all day.” It was the beginning of Jo Harvey’s romance with the art that best expresses the American heartland. “All I knew about country music was that I loved it. But I was forbidden to listen to it by everyone other than my grandmother. My parents had once been poor, and they didn’t want to associate with country music.”
The third woman in her life was her mother, who worked at a fine ladies dress shop, had good taste, wore wine suede platform shoes and silver satin robes, and went out on Saturday nights in cocktail dresses. She was “hot stuff.”
“My grandfather was a rich storyteller too. He was an elevator operator in the one tall building in Lubbock. Once a year he would take two days off from work to cook chili. He would invite everybody from town he’d ever done business with—people at the gas station or people who rode the elevator—to come to his house anytime of the day or night during those two days to sit and have a bowl of chili with him. Each person would get a little chili and some crackers and he would eat a little with each one. They would visit and get to know one another.”
When Jo Harvey was 12 she met Terry Allen at a Rainbow Girls dance. Terry (better known as “Rubber Legs” because of his dancing ability) wore a red sports coat. They felt an “instant attraction, absolutely instant.” Throughout high school she “seriously dated everybody else,” while “Rubber Legs” remained her best friend and the only boy with whom she ever shared her collection of forty-fives. They started dating seriously their senior year of high school and shared their personal fantasies. “Terry would pick me up for dates and say, as soon as we got out of the door, ‘Run Jo Harvey, run. They’re after us.’ And our whole entire evening would be spent running from these imaginary killers, until 12:30 that night, when we’d finally get home safe.”
The year after they graduated from high school they got married and ran away to Los Angeles, where Terry entered Choinard Art Institute and Jo Harvey studied to be an interior designer.
Her first job consisted of decorating homes for the mob. “I worked with a woman who lived in Beverly Hills, she had a Cadillac convertible. She’d come and pick me up at noon to go have lunch with the mob boys, then we’d go and decorate their model homes, then at five we’d go and have drinks with them. They wanted me to do a little fake house, where a little gray guy drove a gray car to a little house. I quit when I was presented with that proposal.”
After taking off to have two sons two years in a row, Jo Harvey informed Terry that she wanted to go to radio-announcer school. The next morning Terry informed Jo Harvey that he had gotten her a radio show and she was to start Sunday.
The show, “Rawhide and Roses,” was broadcast by KPPC out of the basement of a Pasadena church. It consisted of “wonderful music that L.A. had not been exposed to yet,” as well as live interviews with such singers as Linda Ronstadt, B.B. King, and Mae Bell Carter. After three years on the air though, Jo Harvey was axed from “Rawhide and Roses” when she tried to move the show to Lubbock.
They moved to Berkeley, where Terry taught art, and was subsequently offered a job teaching at Fresno State. “We looked at the map and saw that it was between LA. and San Francisco, and decided it would be OK,” she says. “A lot of people think we’re crazy. What does Fresno have to offer? But it’s been really good for us. It’s been a good place for us to raise our kids, work, and be out of that mainstream.”
Not long after arriving in Fresno, she befriended some of the members of a small but burgeoning writer’s community, including poet Phillip Levine. Eventually, she asked if she could study with him. “I was terrified because I was in awe of his writing.” She later studied with poet Kenneth Rexroth, and started publishing some of her poetry and doing readings on radio stations around the country. When dancer-filmmaker Yvonne Rainer came to Fresno State for two weeks to teach a workshop and nobody signed up for the class, Jo Harvey literally attached herself to her: “I would rehearse all night and put on elaborate performances for her and bring four carloads of props. She encouraged me to use the things I knew about.”
While all of this was going on around her, an opportunity arose to do an interview with Waylon Jennings for a Fresno radio station. But Jo Harvey lost her nerve and later, while sitting in a café with Terry, depressed and feeling angry with herself for not going through with it, she complained that the waitress serving them was probably more interesting than Waylon Jennings.
“This really cheerful, wonderful waitress kept bopping over to the table,” recalls Jo Harvey, “and kept saying things like, ‘Whatsa matter with you, honey?’ So when she came back to the table I said, ‘Can I come over to your house tomorrow? I want to talk to you.’
“I got to her house and it was an incredible situation. She and her kids lived on her tip money. She had just been beaten up and had a black eye. There was no furniture in the house and no food for her or her kids. She had to borrow money for a dinner of McDonald’s French fries.
She decided to write about the woman, thinking it might make a good, thin little “art book.” But she couldn’t stop, and did more interviews with waitresses all over the country. “It was just those women’s stories,” she says of her obsession. “I would talk to them about their whole lives, everything, their childhood and their families. I found there were different stages of their stories. First was what they wanted you to think; then what they wished they were; and then, when the tape went off, they told you all the things they wanted to tell you but didn’t want anyone else to know.
She did more research and got a job waitressing in Carrow’s Coffee Shop in Fresno, then at the Sheraton Cocktail lounge, which featured a window view of the bottom of the hotel swimming pool. “You could see legs hanging down in the water from the bar. Everybody would sit there and gawk. It was incredibly sleazy.” But her best job was at the Texaco Café in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. “I applied for a job at that truck stop because I had seen it on national TV,” says Jo Harvey. “Some of the waitresses were hookers and they were all on strike. They were all yellin’ at the truckers and carrying signs and all these big diesels were flying around and all these waitress-hookers were out screaming in the middle of the pavement.
She began to work on a collection of waitress stories that came to be called The Beautiful Waitress. “It was the first big project I’d ever completed.” She sent the book off to some publishers, but the woman’s movement was in full flower and publishers were more interested in political statements. Ms. Magazine offered to print one of the chapters but turned down what Jo Harvey sent them. “It was when everyone was burning their bras. The article I wanted to give them was of a woman who said, ‘I wear a bra, a push-up bra. I’ve got a new forty-dollar perm. I was a smart duck, now I’m a foxy chick. And I’m liberated.’
“This woman had been a smart duck all her life, and her idea of being liberated was to be a foxy chick working in t his cocktail lounge. She had achieved what she wanted, and as far as everybody else was looking at it at the time, she was going backwards.”
Meanwhile, Terry Allen wrote and directed a video of a play he’d written, The Embrace…Advanced to Fury, and he cast his wife as one of the two main characters. The video won that year’s American Visual Arts Award.
“Up until then all this talk about acting had been a fantasy that I had had,” says Jo Harvey. “When I actually got to do it, I realized that there was no getting around it—I had to do it.” She was thirty-five at the time.
“I knew then that nobody was going to come and knock on my door and ask me to be in the movies or in a play. My chances of continuing were so limited that I had no hope but to write my own plays.”
She honed her characters, the first were based on The Beautiful Waitress, and started doing performances. Terry wrote the music and she built her own props and sets. She performed in cafes and honky-tonks, using real counter people and cooks. Because of Terry’s connections to the art world, she also got invitations to perform in galleries and museums. She came to be known as a “performance artist,” a distinction that even today she finds difficult to fathom; when she performs in a theater she gets reviewed by theater critics, and when she performs in a gallery she gets reviewed by art critics. “From what I’ve seen of performance art,” she says, “I feel that my work is a lot more connected to straight theater.”
After writing her first full-length play, Tables and Angels, Jo Harvey wrote Hally Lou, about the wife of a preacher who dreams of becoming a television evangelist. The character evolved out of tapes that Jo Harvey had recorded years earlier of women preaching all over West Texas. The taped sermons became the sermons that Hally Lou preaches in the play.
“From the time I was a kid I was always fascinated by the tent revivals. People would bring big grapefruit jars full of iced tea to the tents and lay on pallets. They’d sleep there and stay for days and sing. I was thrilled when I first heard people speaking in tongues; and the snake handlers. After I first saw the film, Holy Ghost People, I rented it off and on for two years. The kids would come home from school and I’d be in the bedroom with all the lights out, watching these snake handlers.” Jo Harvey, too, learned how to hold snakes, and went to Bible-study classes.
“It’s important that you work on something that really fascinates you, but that you don’t have the answers for. I think what’s so incredible about life is its mystery. It’s difficult to talk about it because when you do, something gets lost. But when you let the mystery be a part of your life it really works. It makes things real exciting.”