photo: Liz Devine
On the Trail of the Lonesome Snock
Wily folkplayer MICHAEL HURLEY (aka Elwood Snock) has charmed hip audiences for over fifty years now with his timeless surrealist tunes and sweetly weird comics, all the while maintaining a certain ornery, outsider mystique. Longtime Snockhead BYRON COLEY investigates this Wild American treasure.
Originally published in print in Arthur No. 35 (2013)
The best American musical inventors (Harry Partch, John Coltrane, John Fahey, Albert Ayler, et al.) have consistently possessed an odd blend of traditional and avant garde elements inside their work. I would suggest that Michael Hurley deserves a place among this pantheon; although, since his primary avant garde technique is surrealist lyric-writing, the radicalism of his work can be easy to overlook. Championed by outsiders, loners, stoners, eggheads, and marginal-culture nuts of all stripes, Hurley still seems to imagine himself as working inside the general blues/folk continuum, but that’s mainly because he’s so deep into his own weirdly personal universe he can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve been listening to the guy closely now for better than 40 years, and it is clear that a deep connection to avant garde themology (whether intentional or subliminal) suffuses his work to such a degree that it begins to explain why his songs—so simple on their surface—have long drawn their most devoted fans from people who eschew “standard” folk traditions.
The first time I ever heard about Michael Hurley I was sitting in my mother’s 1968 Chrysler 300 in the Fall of 1971. She and my sister were playing a round of miniature golf in Parsipanny, NJ, but I had opted to stay in the car to read the new issue of Rolling Stone. In it was a review of an album called Armchair Boogie by Michael Hurley and His Pals that sounded intriguing as hell. I made my way out to the Sam Goody’s store in Paramus (the very shop where Glenn Jones bought his first Fahey LP) and found a copy. The cover was a brightly colored cartoon of a wolf snoozing in an armchair. I was not a folk fan at all, but the thing looked so great I bought it, took it home and slapped it on the box. There was a black & white comic book insert as well—Boone and Jocko in the Barren, Choking Land—and I looked through it as the album began to play. The opening track was ‘The Werewolf’ and it just nailed me. Acoustic guitar, violin and a tired sounding voice that flew into falsetto without notice, telling a tale about the travails of being a misunderstood monster. The comic book was weird and funny as shit in a non sequitur kind of way. And by the time Hurley started singing the song ‘English Nobleman’ in a truly rotten British accent, I was utterly won over. But this story ain’t about me. It’s about Michael Hurley, aka Elwood Snock, one of the purest fonts of true American beauty and orneriness to have yet graced our planet. And man, he pretty much defines what it means to be a “lifer.” He’s a guy who has lived by his own rules for a long time, in a universe where most people are willing to bend themselves into pretzels just to get by. It’s an inspirational tale. Hope you can dig it.
Michael Hurley was born a rounder. He entered the planet in 1941, via Northern Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His dad was a producer of musicals and, while the area around New Hope remained the family’s base, they also spent time in Florida and California, before returning to Bucks County to stay in the middle ’50s. This travel touched young Michael profoundly. For the last half-century it has been anyone’s guess where the hell he’ll pop up next. His first extended solo trip was in the Summer between 9th and 10th grades. Having secured a letter from his father, assuring any authorities that he was not a runaway, Michael took off, hitchhiking to New Orleans, then on to Mexico. He spent some time in Matamoros, and a night in the jail in New Iberia, LA (“They decided to lock me up to give me a place to stay,” he says. “Just for safe keeping.”), but made it back in time to start school. After another year or two, he dropped out of high school and turned his focus towards the lights of Manhattan beckoning in the night sky just over the hills from New Hope.
Greenwich Village had the happening folk scene at the time. Hurley had been playing and writing songs since he was 13, and so had his pals Steve Weber (founder of the Holy Modal Rounders) and Robin “Rube” Remaily (who was in a later version of that band). They put together a combo called The Three Blues Doctors as much for their own entertainment as anything else. Playing a mix of originals and covers, The Doctors did some recordings on reel-to-reel tapes, but Hurley is cagey about what these might contain. The band played one gig—as a quartet, with pal Wayne McGuinness—at the Blind Lemon in the Village. It was a pass-the-hat gig, and The Three Blues Doctors’ performance approach—with everyone playing a different song simultaneously—proved to be more than the patrons could easily handle. The Blind Lemon gig may have represented the end of the The Three Blues Doctors, but it was Hurley’s first time on a real stage, and he liked it. Michael and “Rube” headed down to New Orleans to test their luck.
“We used to play together more coherently as a duo in New Orleans, playing in bars,” he says. “We’d go into bars and start playing, ‘cause they wouldn’t throw us out. It would kind of connect things for us, to be there just playing music. We didn’t get much free beer, but we’d meet people. They’d invite us to their houses and give us things to do—party jobs.”
Eventually the pair drifted back to Bucks County, and it was around this time that Michael acquired his sobriquet—Snock, or sometimes Elwood Snock or Doc Snock. His memory of the epiphany that led to this is clear, although as is often the case in Hurley’s tales, the dates are both specific and transitory.
“It was March 16, 1961,” he says. “I heard this music, and it was very snocky. It was like what you would hear when you hit hardwood sticks together. I heard a whole symphony like that. I thought it must be me, having my vision. I’d always read about the Indians who go out and fast until they get a vision and take a new name. They go out in the hills somewhere and starve themselves until they get a vision. Might be a bear or something. I was kinda following that idea. I heard this music and I kinda saw it too, over an ocean wave, like the surf was coming in. The surf was coming in just like this snocky classical music. That was it.”
In early ’62, Hurley moved up to Cambridge Massachusetts for a while.
“I went up there in the winter to see if I could survive, but I couldn’t really make it,” he says. “I had a little mimeograph magazine called The Morning Tea. I sold it on the street in Harvard Square for a dime a copy. I had a girlfriend up in Cambridge. She had a loft. So I was up there trying to inhabit that loft, but it was kinda rough living on The Morning Tea proceeds. My girlfriend kinda had this boyfriend. They worked in this frame shop together. I was kinda like persona non grata. I had to hide out. She’d keep me in the loft. There wasn’t much heat there, but there were crab lice, junkies and a Christian Mission on the bottom floor. A wino mission. That was down in the Combat Zone, but to sell the Morning Tea, I had to go up to Cambridge. I didn’t last long.”
The Morning Tea was an outgrowth of an earlier magazine Hurley did in high school called The Outcry, which ran two issues.
“It had tiny little poems and little drawings, adventure stories,” Hurley says. “Weber got kicked out of high school for selling it in his high school. He went to a different high school than I did. But he got expelled for selling my ‘zine. The first one I ever did was called The Underground Monthly. It had one story, a cartoon of a crap game in progress in an alley. I only have one page left out of it. It’s the end of the crap game and all these guys decide to beat the hell out of this one little kitty who was winning more than them.”
In this period, Hurley also made an important connection, meeting up with Perry Miller. Miller was from the Southern part of Bucks County, and he, Michael and a bunch of other wastrels shared a house across the river in New Jersey in the Summer of ’62. When Miller moved to St. Marks Place (where he worked selling mice wholesale to schools), Hurley had a ready place to stay. He moved to Manhattan and took rooms and couches where he could find them, playing gigs at the Fat Black Pussycat, the Cafe Wha and other pass-the-hat establishments. He even secured a booking agent, Peter Outlaw, whose clients consisted of himself, his future wife—Marjorie “Pasta” Sacco—and a street singer named Guitar Slim (no relation to Eddie Jones, the Mississippi-born blues musician who died in ’59). Outlaw took them around to various joints, but the only real success he had with his roster was getting them onto Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable show on WBAI sometime in ’63. Director Paul Lovelace turned up a copy of this tape during his recent work on a Fass documentary (Radio Unnameable, 2012). He got a copy to Michael, whose views were mixed.
“No good for me and no good for Pasta,” he says. “But I was really happy to hear Guitar Slim, this guy who came out of nowhere, and disappeared, but who I knew for two years. Before this I could only think about him and remember him. It was nice that he was right there on tape, doing about five songs. He did ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ and some blues. He was pretty into improvising the blues. Just crank it up and let it go.”
The rigors of being a singer in NYC took a toll on Hurley. Early in ’63 he ended up in the TB Ward of Bellevue Hospital for six months, suffering from liver damage, TB and Mononucleosis. His stay was lengthened by bad reactions to some of the medicine, but he was in good spirits most of the time, and had brought his guitar with him.
“One of the songs I wrote in there is ‘In the Morning,’” he says. “Another one which I never recorded was ‘The New York Line.’ But I mostly observed a lot of talk. We were all in one room. It was supposed to be lights out and no talking at 9:00. So as soon as the lights went out it was story time. That was the best time of day. ‘I remember the snows in the winter of ’59…’, somebody’d say. There was one guy in there, his name was George Flowers. I ran into him on the street after I got out. He was stretched out on a park bench. He tells me to come over and says, ‘We were in that hospital together and you serenaded us all.’ That was the only time anyone ever recognized that I was playing the guitar.”
Following his release from Bellevue, Hurley returned to Bucks County, sharing a house with Rube, playing parties and hanging out. In the course of this, he met Fred Ramsey Jr., an archivist, collector and engineer with deep ties to Moses Asch’s Folkways Records. They hit it off, and Michael would hang around Ramsey’s house, listening to his collection of pre-war 78s and playing his own songs on his Stella acoustic. Ramsey recorded a three song demo on the same deck he used to record Leadbelly’s final session and secured Michael a deal with Folkways. They recorded Hurley’s debut album, First Songs, in the same way. The album, cut when Hurley was 22, doesn’t sound like the work of a kid. The arrangements are stark and often slow. His voice has a hint of a bohemian Hank Williams on songs like ‘Just a Bum,’ ‘I Like My Wine’ and a tune that would become one of his signature numbers, ‘The Werewolf Song.’ And he doesn’t actually sound ancient so much as timeless. Even on the one song where Rube joins him (‘Captain Kidd’), there’s little sense of which decade of the 20th Century this recording is being done in. It exists as part of a troubadour tradition that starts when music does, and that will end long after we do.
Captain Kidd done flipped his lid
Wavin’ his sabre in the air
Captain Kidd soon left the moon
‘Cause there wasn’t any wine up there
While it became a very sought-after record before it was reissued, almost no one noted First Songs when it was released. Perhaps sensing this, Hurley played a single gig at Bryn Mawr College after it was released in the Fall of ’64, then split down to Mexico with Pasta for six months. They were headed for Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast of Nayarit, but didn’t like it much. So they ended up spending their time in Campostella, about 40 miles of winding mountain roads inland. What they did there, we can only guess. They got back to NYC in late Spring of ’65, to find that a promoter was putting together a Folk Festival at Carnegie Hall and that Hurley had been suggested as a performer by Folkways. Several days with all the Village folkies, plus people like Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Driftwood followed.
“All I did was play ‘The Werewolf Song,’” Hurley says. “Some people played full sets, but for me it was just play one song and get out of there. Chuck Berry was the best the night I was there. Johnny Cash was supposed to follow Chuck Berry. But after Chuck Berry refused to get off stage for a long time—he had a guitar cord that was about 200 feet long and he would duckwalk off stage and duckwalk back on—Johnny Cash decided he didn’t want to come on. He said, ‘Forget it. That guy played too long.’ But he finally came out. And he played ‘Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog.’”
Following this big break, Hurley moved out to a tipi in a quarry by the Delaware River called The Kook Kamp. Another resident worked at the Second Fret (the folk club in Philadelphia) so visitors included Taj Mahal, Shel Silverstein and various other players who were on the circuit. But Hurley mostly kept playing for himself. He kept in touch with Fred Ramsey, and knowing that Folkways was interested in a follow-up LP (having paid $100 for an advance), they did a few more sessions in ’65 at Fred’s house. These have recently been released as Back Home With the Drifting Woods, which reprises a couple of tunes from First Songs and generally maintains the same out-of-time vibe as the debut, although Michael claims it has more psychedelic touches. At the same time, the Holy Modal Rounders had begun recording as a duo (Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel). The Rounders included a Robin Remaily song, ‘Euphoria,’ on their eponymous debut LP. And Perry Miller, rechristened Jesse Colin Young by a producer, had cut a pair of solo LPs and was well on his way to founding the Youngbloods. Using typically perverse logic, Hurley and Pasta moved around a bit more as the weather got cold, then decided to go to Philadelphia.
In Philly, Hurley played at hippie coffeehouses a couple of times, but says he didn’t like to practice, so decided it would be better to just work at Sam’s Grocery in what was then the Polish neighborhood in town. He got an apartment for $25 a month, and illegally hooked up both gas and electric, so the living was easy. He had converted to a macrobiotic diet following his experience at Bellevue, when someone told him it would be an alternative to taking the horse pills they’d prescribed for his post-release therapy. Sam’s was just around the corner and he spent his days making kielbasa sausages until he got fired for being weird. A new career as a life model for art classes stalled out as well, so Hurley and Pasta split for Cambridge, MA.
In Cambridge, Hurley settled down into a series of jobs. He and Pasta were new parents (they would have one daughter and a pair of sons), and he decided he’d try his hand as a more serious breadwinner. This was not something that came easily to him. He had a long series of oddball (as opposed to merely odd) jobs. He sold hot pretzels on the street from a cart decorated with paintings of Boone and Jocko (more on them in a minute—hang loose). He made slats for venetian blinds. The only one he seems to remember fondly involved wheeling around carts full of cookie dough, for an industrial baking set-up. “I liked a job like that,” he says. “Where you could kind of space out all day. That one I kept for a long time.”
Early in ’66, Hurley decided he should go down to NYC and try to get that second Folkways album going again. But Folkways had moved its offices and studios, so he said “screw it” and left. A bit later, the Holy Modal Rounders got signed to ESP-Disk for the album, Indian War Whoop. They did a couple of Michael’s songs on that LP and recommended that ESP-Disk sign him as well.
“ESP said, ‘Have him send us a demo,’” Hurley says. “So I sorta put a band together. Martin Mull was in it. And Lenny Capizzi [who co-wrote Bobby Pickett’s ‘The Monster Mash’] had a big orchestra there. I was getting musicians out of his band. Like his drummer, Bill Elgart, plus Robin Remaily. We just rehearsed, but it was a very professional group. We were working on ‘Give Me the Cure,’ and ‘Hoot Owls.’ But in the end I just sent them a solo demo. I figured I was ‘in’ with ESP. I just needed a band for when they’d bring me down to NY. Then it comes back that ESP doesn’t want it. Bernard Stollman heard the mock trumpet and he says, ‘What’s this guy trying to do? Sing with his mouth closed? And why is everything so slow?’ Stampfel said, ‘Well, he’s kind of like an amphetamine head in reverse.’ Stollman didn’t go for it. So I never finished organizing that group. I just said, ‘Forget it guys.’ But it’s too bad. Could have made another one. I still like that mock trumpet. Three of the songs on that demo I also sent to Karen Dalton. I didn’t hear back from her, but years later she did play ‘O My Stars’ for me on her old guitar.”
In 1996, the songs from this demo, as well as some tunes left from the second unissued Folkways LP, ended up as Parsnips Snips, issued initially on LP in Germany by Veracity. Recorded at home on his trusty Wollensak, the music on Parsnips is an obvious evolution from the earlier recordings. Hurley’s guitar is more prominent and he does lots of the funny little single string runs that marked his later work. And there’s a bit more obvious swing to the music. There are very different versions of some songs that would show up again later, and the mock trumpet on ‘Give Me a Cure’ is some of the best you’ll ever hear anywhere. What was Stollman thinking?
After a year in Cambridge, Hurley moved to nearby Brookline and continued working an unusual sequence of jobs. More importantly, he began drawing a comic strip in The Broadside of Boston and doing a radio show on WTBS-FM which was then the station at MIT (before Ted Turner bought those call letters for his own use). The show was called “The Swamp” and featured a theme song by Allen Toussaint. Hurley played bluegrass, old blues, old jazz. “All the same stuff I still like now,” he says. Eventually “Rube” started coming on the show as well and they’d play live. He’d also invite up folkies he met at the Broadside office when he was dropping off his comic strip. Whether or not airchecks of these shows exist is unclear. As to the Broadside comic strip, it ran regularly during ’69-’70, the final year of the Broadside’s existence.
“The Broadside started out as just a folk music thing, but then it got into radical rants,” Hurley says. “It had started out as one piece of paper. Just something that said, ‘Bill Staines is playing Club 47.’ By ’69 it had become an incredible collection of Dave Wilson’s rants. I delivered my cartoon every other week. It was a lot of work, but I was getting published. Which was good. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. After about a year, I showed up to deliver my latest installment and the door was closed. That was the end of the Broadside. No one had ever told me they were thinking of closing. Just got there and it was no more.”
The strip usually starred Boone and Jocko, a pair of delinquent, beatnik cartoon wolves who have recurred often in his visual art as well as lyrics. They have been an important part of Hurley’s gestalt over the years.
“I started drawing them when I was in about 10th grade,” he says. “We had these two collies. My brother and his friend used to sit around and make up stories about these dogs, based on their characters. We liked this guy Boone, this dog, he was kind of outrageous. He had a very different character from the other dog, whose name was Count. Count was blind in one eye. That’s why he’s got those dark glasses. But I changed his name to Jocko because there was this show on TV. It was an alternative to Dick Clark. It was the black version, called Jocko’s Rocket Ship. Jocko was the Interplanetary DJ. He had this show and it was really cool. So I changed Count’s name to Jocko. Then I blinded him in the other eye.”
In Massachusetts, Hurley mostly eschewed attending concerts, unless it was Sam & Dave, or old friends like the Holy Modal Rounders or the Youngbloods. Fortuitously, the Youngbloods had managed to turn Dino Valenti’s ‘Get Together’ into a surprise hit at the end of their RCA contract. A bidding war for the band ensued, with Warner Brothers winning. As part of their signing deal, they were given a custom label to curate—Raccoon Records.
Jesse Colin Young had long been a fan of Hurley and his music, but could never figure out quite how to present him to anyone who hadn’t come up in the same rural hipster scene. Now he had the chance. He visited Hurley in Brookline, with his special roadie, Earthquake, in tow to assess the scene.
“One night we went out somewhere and we were coming back kinda late to my house—Jesse, me and Earthquake,” Hurley recalls. “My neighbor had gone nuts. He came up to my place with a carving knife. He couldn’t stand that Earthquake and Jesse were hanging out. It was too many hippies for the street. He always knew that I was horrible, but now I had Banana and Earthquake and all these guys going in and out. He had this long carving knife and he came into my yard, he said, ‘You guys are peace farty.’ He was pointing this carving knife at me, Jesse and Earthquake. We said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You want to call the cops? There’s a cop right across the street.’ He knew that the cop hated us, too. He thought it would be a hilarious joke if we asked this cop, Red, for help. That was his best friend. He’s pointing this long knife at us. Earthquake looks at him, and he kind of rummages around in our yard and picks up this big hunk of wood, all full of nails and barbed wire. He comes over to the guy and says, ‘Hey! Hey, you! Get out of here!’ Whoosh! Earthquake was a large fellow, with long red hair that went all over the place.”
Despite problems with neighbors, Young decided to record the album in Hurley’s bedroom, which was equipped with a piano. Michael was working as a janitor at the Paris Cinema at the time. And Young would show up when he could to record the album that would become Armchair Boogie.
“The sessions were great,” Hurley says. “Michael Kane played bass on it ‘cause he had the apartment across the hall from me and we both brewed a lot of beer. And I brought in my old pal Robin Remaily.”
Armchair Boogie is a thoroughly wonderful album. Homemade sounding, but much more evolved than the earlier stuff, there’s great fiddlin’ by Rube, and other gentle accompaniment that gives the album a stellar feel. There are also classic tunes here, like ‘Light Green Fellow’ and ‘Sweedeedee’ (so memorably covered by Cat Power on 2000’s The Covers Record).
Wash your clothes Sweedeedee
And hang them on the line
I can tell by the way you wash your clothes
Your cookin’ must be fine
The album didn’t sell all that well, but it got good reviews and Hurley decided it might be time to start playing live again (his first shows since Philadelphia). He began playing some of the newly arisen hippie bars in Cambridge and Somerville.
“That’s when I developed this Applause Pedal,” he says. “I made this thing, it was a sign on a six foot stick. It would lie flat face down on the stage. It was rigged to a foot pedal, so that when I hit the foot pedal it would erect into the air, this sign that said, ‘Applaud!’ I’d go into a solo then hit the Applause Pedal, and the applause would occur in the middle of my solo. I always liked that effect on jazz albums. That really worked well. People loved it.”
Soon after Armchair Boogie was released, the Holy Modal Rounders changed line-ups again, taking on Robin Remaily as a full member, and soliciting Hurley for cover art for their fifth LP, Good Taste Is Timeless (Metromedia, 1971). His cartoon cover—of the band in full flight with Boone and Jocko lurking in the background is a classic, and it’s also the third of theirs in a row to include at least one Hurley tune. Even if Michael didn’t give a hoot himself, there were plenty of people who wished him well. One of the less-expected tributes was on the solo debut LP by UK folk artist, Barry Dransfield. His eponymous 1972 LP on the legendary UK Polydor subsidiary Folk Mill, contains a cover of ‘The Werewolf,’ apparently learned from the First Songs. Because of the album’s extreme rarity, this cover was all but unknown until it surfaced on a Hurley-oriented radio broadcast in the mid ’80s. Maybe there are still some unknown versions lurking out there still.
For the follow-up to Armchair Boogie, Hurley drove to the Youngbloods’ home turf in Northern California. Upon arriving, he discovered things were not good. There was a lot of friction within the band, and Young was too preoccupied to find time for his record. Luckily another Youngblood, Lowell “Banana” Levinger (who’d been in Boston band, The Trolls, with Michael Kane) offered to step in. But first, there was a Raccoon Records package tour to do.
“I went on tour with the Youngbloods and Earthquake and a band called High Country,” says Hurley. “All up and down the West Coast. I was delighted with all that. Then after the tour, nothing was happening for a long while. I was living in my truck with my girlfriend, and Banana could see that this was not proper decorum for the county. The cops would wake us up every morning. ‘You can’t park here.’ That was in Marin. For a while we lived in Michael Kane’s house. Michael had a tremendous brewing operation going at that time. His whole porch was stacked up with brewed beer. He had ginger beer. He had spruce beer. His spruce beer—I’d really like to have a bottle of that right now. He’d say, ‘You know how beer makes you sleepy? Well, this beer wakes you up! It’s spruce!’”
The resulting album, Hi Fi Snock Uptown is another masterpiece. Recorded with all of the Youngbloods but Jesse, much of it has a super warm small combo sound that compliments the intimacy of the songs perfectly. Hurley’s voice still has a bit of a wild edge, but it’s all contained beautifully, and it has many memorable tunes—‘Water Train,’ ‘Twilight Zone,’ ‘In Florida,’ ‘Mr. Whiskerwits’ and ‘Eyes Eyes.’ One of Hurley’s most beautiful songs ever, its lyrics typify the alchemy of which he seems uniquely capable.
Protein monster ate a sack of poison sugar
Crawling out of the barn to the weeds to die
Rolling his eyes, eyes, eyes eyes
Mama Molasses broke my glasses
Then the moon came up and we wiggled our asses
She got red eyes, eyes
The werewolf rides and everybody hides
He won’t be scared when he dies
Look in his eyes, eyes
Marilyn Monroe pointed her toe
Crawling out of the pool from the waters so cold
Camera flashes flashing back from her eyes, eyes
Smoky the Bear standing there
In front of the woods all black and bare
Tears in his eyes, eyes
She calls me a bum
Sleeping through the day
There was nothing i wanted to say
I closed my eyes, eyes
Unfortunately, Raccoon Records (and the Youngbloods) did not long survive this release. But Hurley was not overly concerned. He drove back to the East Coast and began several years of yo-yoing between Martha’s Vineyard and Vermont. In Vermont he joined an extant electric band called Puddledock (the original name of the town in which they were based) and convinced them to change their name to Automatic Slim & the Fatboys.
“I told ’em, ‘We’ll make a million just on that name,’” he says. “I lived in this shack and in the woodshed I found this big stash of actual down pillows, the ones with the stripes. I said, ‘We’ll put these pillows in our shirts and really look like fat boys. This’ll go good.’ I actually got them a couple of times to show up with those pillows, but they’d always be taking them out and leaving them at gigs, so I was running out of pillows. These guys never responded to all my showbiz enterprise. And it’s funny. People always want to know who’s the leader of any group. We’d get somewhere and they’d ask, ‘Which of you guys is Automatic Slim?’ We had this old geezer we took around with us. He was like our mascot. We’d pick him up and take him to every gig. He would always be up for going to anywhere. He’d even go to Martha’s Vineyard. He was on the permanent extra room circuit—not the sofa circuit. We would claim he was Automatic Slim.”
This is the band that recorded Fatboy Spring, an album that was not released until 2011. It contains protean versions of songs like ‘Drivin’ Wheel,’ ‘Automatic Slim,’ ‘Watchin’ the Show’ and others, delivered in the most purely rural combo setting Hurley had yet achieved. There are a few tunes unique to this release as well. Nothing too mindblowing, but a nice peek at Hurley during a long lost period.
“We had a house—a dairy farm up by St. Albans—where we practiced,” he says. “There was a room upstairs where we set up a Teac 4-track. The first four songs or so are recorded with our most skilled efforts, and they sound pretty good. The rest of the album is half-assed practice sessions, from which we salvaged stuff, and live recordings from a rowdy bar. There was this guy who used to come to our gigs with a 4-track. I remembered listening to the tapes he’d made, and they sounded really good. I finally found him a couple of years ago. The stuff I was really interested in had all been taped over, but there was still some good bits. I got the title Fatboy Spring because it was written on one of the tape boxes. It just said ‘Fatboy Spring.’ I knew that meant the Spring of ’73, but I thought, ‘That’s a good album title.’ You don’t think of fatboys as being that springy. Although some of them are pretty swift.”
The Fat Boys’ yo-yo between the Vineyard’s easy bar gigs and Vermont’s rougher venues went on for a good while. In the meantime, the Holy Modal Rounders splintered, with Steve Weber heading a group in Portland, OR and Peter Stampfel leading a troupe (subsequently dubbed the Unholy Modal Rounders) in NYC. All of these elements came together in 1976 for an epochal album called Have Moicy! The specifics are far too tangled to get into here, but the basic idea was that Jefferey Fredericks (originally from Vermont) had gone out to Portland to replace the truant Steve Weber. Dave Reisch was one of the musicians who’d moved over to the Portland Rounders, but he went back to the era when the band recorded their Good Taste Is Timeless LP. He was in touch with everybody, and the general theory is that he was the one who suggested the idea for the album—a meeting of unknown underground minds that would become one of the few universally-loved folk albums of the early punk era.
If you’ve never heard Have Moicy! it’s hard to describe how pleasing it was to hear in the year of 1976. The Rounders had split into factions by this point, and Stampfel’s Unholies were doing a regular gig at Broadway Charlie’s in NYC (a long-gone hippie bar, sort of across the street from where the Strand is). The shows were fun and all, but it had been a while since the Rounders had recorded a really mindblowing album and expectations weren’t too high. The Hurley cartoon cover looked boss, however, and the record just wailed. It truly features the best of Hurley’s, Stampfel’s and Fredericks’s repertoires at the time, played by a kind of unknown dream supergroup. Amongst such readymade classics as Stampfel’s ‘Griselda’ (beautifully done later by Yo La Tengo) and Jefferey’s ‘Robbin’ Banks,’ is one of Hurley’s most requested/played tunes, ‘The Slurf Song.’
Oh a little wishbone
I’ll make a wish for a potato
It goes from there, with a very funny punchline. And the song has evolved over the years. I think I’ve heard three or four extra verses at various times in various combinations, but the original just swings so damn hard it is irresistible. Such heavies as Robt. Christgau foamed over the album, and I’ve heard it’s listed by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 of the ’70s (as if anyone cared what those dried up scumbags think, but still…) Those fans who are deeply into the Hurley experience have a tendency to rate his other records more highly. But Have Moicy! is a decent gateway for the uninitiated.
“Reisch didn’t bring too many people from the West Coast, besides Jeffery and Jill,” Hurley says. “My band in Vermont was called the Redbirds then. He used two guys from my band for the sessions, then Stampfel and Paul Presti from the Unholies, and then Jefferey and Dave. That group of people just did all their songs. Everybody always raves about that album. I still get letters. People tell me stories about how much they listened to it, and what they were doing when they listened to it all the time. Dave knew all the music. He had played all the songs. There was no winging it, and no case of anybody not knowing the material. There was a single weird appearance of the whole group up in Vermont at this place called the Bethel Inn.
“We did a gig up there and it’s kinda depicted on the cover of Have Moicy. My brother’s girlfriend heaved a beer across the room at that gig. It hit a fiddle that was leaning against an amplifier and I did a drawing of that. It broke the fiddle. So it was Froggy’s idea—that painting of Thora chucking this beer. Froggy was looking at my drawings and says, ‘You don’t have it right. You gotta get the dimensions of the beer right. Bring that beer up, make it bigger. Make it so you can see that she threw it and so that you can see what it’s gonna hit.’ No one sees that the fiddle was doomed, but that was the story. Paul Presti came up and played that show. That was when I first met him. The Unholies, Jefferey Fredericks, and my band were all there. I forget what the hell we were doing, but we put on a show. And my brother’s girlfriend was disgruntled. She was always doing things like that.”
The success of Have Moicy! allowed Hurley to add NYC to his touring schedule, and also resulted in Rounder Records signing him for a pair of albums. Long Journey and Snockgrass were both recorded with a mutating string of Vermont based musicians. After the reception which greeted Have Moicy!, Hurley told Rounder he had a few more batches of songs, so he and the boys would head down out of the VT hills and suit up for service. Long Journey (with guest banjo by Stampfel, and bass by Dave Reisch) has some incredible tunes on it, “Whiskey Willie” and “Hog of the Forsaken” (later used to good effect by HBO’s Deadwood), but its arrangements and Hurley’s vocals seem shaped by years of playing snowmobile festivals in Vermont. The denizens of the North wanted some basic bar boogie (not always a bad thing, of course) to go along with their beer and burgers. On Long Journey, Snock was more than happy to help ’em out.
The same is not true of 1980’s Snockgrass. This was the first Hurley LP I actually got a promo copy of, but my editor at NY Rocker would not let me review it since it had what he called a “porno cover.” Ah well. Various Rounders and Clamtones play on this one and they bring a certain feel to the proceedings that Journey may have lacked. That, plus the fact that the album includes ‘O My Stars,’ ‘Tia Marie,’ ‘I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop,’ ‘Watchin’ the Show’ and many other faves make it one hell of a pleasant listen. Still, one feels sometimes that Hurley’s true voice is constrained by the dictates of being in a real studio with all that entails. Snockgrass set no commercial woods aflame. How could it, in the year when most hepsters wanted to hear nothing apart from PiL or Joy Division? Hurley reportedly sent some other demos to Rounder, including a proposed album of songs for kids, but nothing happened. He and the label opted to part company, although Rounder commissioned a mural for their warehouse office. And it’s a good one.
The third LP in Hurley’s Vermont Trilogy was the ill-fated Blue Navigator. Released by Bill Wright’s Rooster label in 1984 (primarily a home for local Vermont folk and bluegrass musicians), Blue Navigator has a few old songs reconfigured, some overt rewrites and swinging hillbilly sound with pedal steel and other tasty licks. It’s a multi-faceted session, with some of Hurley’s patented (though rarely recorded) slow boogie woogie piano playing. Some people claim it’s one of Hurley’s best, but that may have something to do with the fact it’s one of his rarest. The Rooster Records warehouse went up in a fire later in the ’80s, taking all remaining copies, plus the master tapes with it. More recently it has been reissued on 8-track by Secret Seven Records.
Around 1987, Hurley gave up on Vermont.
“I finally got priced out of Vermont by the yuppies,” he says. “All the time I was up there you could find a house that no one was living in. You could contact the owner and tell them you were a carpenter or something and it was always a good deal for the owner to have someone there to keep it from leaking, and vandals from breaking the windows. I had a long string of places like that. The last place I was living I paid 35 bucks a month. Usually I’d either have something like that or free. But it got to where you couldn’t find that so easily. So, I moved to Richmond [Virginia] ’cause you could have a lotta nice stuff for like 120 bucks a month—heat, a flush toilet, electric upstairs, downstairs.”
While based in Richmond, Hurley released the Watertower LP thanks to the championing of Eugene Chadbourne. A beautiful, largely-acoustic session recorded in Vermont, the songs are mostly new and feel somewhat slight at first, although ‘The Revenant,’ ‘I Paint a Design,’ ‘I Still Could Not Forget You Then,’ ‘Broadcasting the Blues’ and ‘Indian Chiefs and Hula Girls’ are all growers.
Well I heard about them Injun chiefs
Camped up on the top of the hill
They smoke their pipes
And they roast those snipes
Hunters and they hunted still
Hurley dug using Richmond as a home base, but he was on the road a lot during his years there. He had started playing a lot of live shows. Working with Worcester Mass wildman Bob Jordan, he assembled one of the stranger “circuits” seen in recent years. I remember seeing him one time in the early ’90s at a rug store in Northampton, Mass. A fucking rug store. Not one that usually did shows, either. How that sort of stuff happened is anyone’s guess. But Hurley and his pals were finding ways to make it work without a record label or more than a skeleton crew of fans. He played teetotaler “bars,” arts centers and various other non-standard venues. He also pioneered the “merch” concept, issuing cassettes and comix to sell at shows.
The tapes included new material and old. Hurley’s in-house label, Bellemeade Phonics (their motto: “There’s always room for improvement”), released four cassettes in this period. Land of Lo-Fi & Redbirds (1988) has one side of wonderful low-key duos with Dave Reisch from ’88. On the flip is a side of the Redbirds, live at Folk City in ’76. It’s a goddamn pip, and probably the clearest record we’ll ever have of the sound Hurley evolved during his years without a label. Snock has occasionally talked about reissuing it. Not least because he thinks it would seal his claim to be the inventor of the term, lo-fi.
“I coined that term,” he says. “I see it all over the place now. It’s practically a genre. And I claim ownership. It hit me five or six years after the tape came out. I was in Germany and I was talking to this German music fan. I asked what he liked and he said, ‘Oh, the lo-fi. It’s the hippest thing.’ That’s when I started paying attention. Then Elmore Leonard used it in one of his books, and he’s known for picking up on street lingo. Getting his characters’ dialogue just right.”
Excrusiasion ’86 (1988) was recorded on the trio tour he did of the East Coast in the Winter of ’86. One side of the tape is from Folk City, the flip was done at the Blue Plate in Holden, MA. Despite some dubbing speed anomalies (at least on the copies I’ve heard), it almost functions as a live Greatest Hits package. Growlin’ Bobo (1991) was recorded at the Mill in Winooski, VT in late 1980 with a pared-down version of the Snockgrass band. Played before a rowdy audience, it sounds like the homecoming of a conquering hero. Woodbill Brothers (1992) was recorded in the Summer of ’92 in Richmond and is the lowest lo-fi one in the batch.
“It has lots of tape hiss,” Hurley admits. “I ran it through a four-track and ran each track separately, so the hiss adds up. Also, down in Richmond in the summertime they have these special insects that put out a heavy buzz right in the windows. So every track I added put on another layer of those bugs singing.” Still, Woodbill has the first recorded appearance of ‘$10 Gig,’ one of Hurley’s greatest love songs of the era.
I ain’t mad
I ain’t sad
But I’m doin’ kinda bad
Since I moved to the county where I live
It’s somewhere between a piece a firewood and a food stamp
And a $10 gig, a $10 gig, comin’ up comin’ up at the end of the week
During this label-less period, Hurley also began taking his paintings around to shows.
“The way I started to paint was that I got back into cartooning,” he says. “After high school I kept up drawing, but there was no boredom driving me to draw. So I didn’t draw much for a couple of years. Then I was taking a bunch of drugs and I started doing it again. The characters Boone and Jocko were different when they came back. Then one day I just wanted to get some color into the cartoon pictures. I was always drawing stars in the background somewhere. And it started out with me pasting a little star—you know those stars you get at the store—and I stuck a star in one of my cartoon panels instead of drawing it. And the color kinda of got me. So I went and bought a little watercolor set. I painted a few more things in that picture. It just eventually got to where I filled in the whole picture with color. Then I made it bigger. I just kept giving them away to people for a while. I’d hang ‘em up for decorations in wherever I lived.”
At one show at Folk City he sold over half the paintings he’d brought, and realized he was on to something.
“I can sell ‘em faster than I paint them,” he says. “I’ve never had a gallery show. People say, ‘Why not have a gallery shows?’ Why bother? Wherever my paintings are up, I should be able to sleep on the sofa there. You get a $50 discount for sofa access. For a while, the paintings were making my living, not the music. The paintings made it possible for me to stop working jobs like painting houses. Now I don’t really need the paintings, but it’s easier if I want to stay home and don’t want to tour. It’s better to paint.”
Hurley also did a series of four cartoon books around this time. They feature lots of hijinx from Boone & Jocko, and collect material done over a 30-year span. The first is called Uncle Gaspard Joins the Bograt Navy is a tale of whiskey madness, murderous rodents and monophonic blues records. 8 Track Sidetrack/Jesus Saves, combines a story about the philosophical implications of an 8 track tape’s infinite looping with a couple Broadside strips. Heartbreak Hotel & Prayer has one yarn about alien truck abductions and another about the power of positive drinking, and The Honking Duck Marina is an ode to “the three p’s—pointing, pie and pool.” Needless to say, they’re all essential reads. Hurley has long claimed he’ll do an omnibus edition once the fifth saddle-stapled volume appears, but it has been a while! There was also a VHS video tape released around then. I can’t find the damn thing, but I’m pretty sure it was called The Earthquake of ’89, and was a self-shot documentary about a West Coast tour that coincided with the Loma Prieta/”World Series” earthquake.
“I was at Michael Kane’s house when the earthquake happened,” Hurley says. “I saw the ground in waves. You know that song, ‘California Earthquake’ by John Hartford? There’s a line in there about, ‘The ground was like ocean waves.’ That’s not a figure of speech. I can’t explain what I saw during the quake, but I was outside and it seemed that the ground I could see was moving in waves. There were these swells, their crests were about ten feet apart. The ground looked like it was four feet deeper. If you just took me and shook me, I wouldn’t see the ground that way. I was fighting to stay on my feet. I was kind of wobbling around, but I was right next to this dumptruck, about a foot away. So after the quake, I thought about that truck. I thought it must be loose because I’d seen it swaying like hell. I went up to it and I couldn’t move it an inch. It was just as solid as a wall. Nothing had happened to the structures where we were. We were in Olema. And no windows broke or fell off the house or anything.”
It’s while still based in Richmond that Hurley got his first international connections. A German rock writer, Thomas Meinecke, tracked him down and got him to record a track for a compilation of love songs he was assembling for Peter Schneider at Veracity Records. This led to a German package tour in support of Love Is My Only Crime. While in Germany, Hurley convinced Schnieder to release an album of new recordings called Wolfways. The album was laid down in bits and pieces all over New England, with a wide roster of players. A bunch of the tunes are new versions of his own songs, but the arrangement are big, wily and very lush at times. The background harmonies are particularly fetching.
“After that, I convinced him to put out Parsnips Snips in 1995,” Hurley says. “Whereupon the finance police seized Veracity’s assets. About 25 copies had made it to the US at that time. After that, his dad pulled the plug on him.”
It was also during his Richmond days that Hurley got into 8-track tapes. He needed a new audio set-up for his car and thought cassette decks looked too modern. “I didn’t want that kind of anachronism glaring at me from the dash,” he says. Luckily he found a place in Barre, Vermont that sold old 8-track players for $5. He started finding cheap tapes in old department stores and junk shops and it kinda went from there. Before long, he and Bob Jordan had conspired to get all the 8-track tapes that Rounder was getting rid of. They also found an old Radio Shack manual about how to fix the things when they broke. Hurley illustrated it with Boone & Jocko and sold copies through Goldmine and 8-Track Mind. One time, David Greenberger (from Duplex Planet) had some car trouble in Richmond. It was gonna take a couple days to fix, so he looked up Hurley and remembers spending a couple of quiet days with him, fixing old tapes and listening to the flies buzz. Hurley seems to have moved beyond his 8-track phase now, but he was pleased as hell when Secret Seven Records did a limited 8-track-only reissue of Blue Navigator. Who wouldn’t be?
Blue Navigator is also the name of the Irish fanzine, put together by Brendan Foreman to document (more or less) the musicians associated with Have Moicy! He also assisted Hurley in getting gigs in the UK and Ireland, and was responsible for releasing his next album in 1998, The Bellemeade Sessions. Again, the music includes a few new versions of old Hurley tunes (including a great version of ‘$10.00 Gig’) plus a lot of covers, including Tom T Hall’s ‘Pay No Attention to Alice,’ which was a live staple for much of the ’90s. Unlike Wolfways, however, this one has a very unslick feel, which I credit to Nick Hill, a longtime fan and WFMU DJ who supervised the sessions. It’s funny, though, ’cause many of the songs on here are the ones you’d only hear live on one of those occasions where Michael had an open schedule and could play for a few hours. After about 90 minutes he’ll start digging deep into his stash of cover tunes. Bellemeade Sessions has that same late night feel.
After hanging around the Northeast a good long while (painting a great mural on the wall of Amherst MA’s Mystery Train record store in the process) he headed off for the driveways of Portsmouth, Ohio, taking his evil doppelganger, Kornbred, with him. I’m not sure how to describe Kornbred, except to say he’s a comic book figure come to life. A corn mutant with a long snoot, a bulbous head, and very bad manners. He has sometimes been known to invade Hurley’s live shows with his banjo, and has been a frequent subject of Michael’s visual art over the last decade-plus. Kornbred also appears as a backing vocalist sometimes. but honestly, the less said of him the better. Hurley ended up living in Ohio off and on for a while. And if you can still remember the story ’bout him visiting Cambridge in 1962, well…old habits die hard.
Weatherhole was the last album that was planned during Hurley’s Richmond phase. Nick Hill was doing A&R for Koch Records and he thought it could be slotted in as a follow-up to Wolfways (which Koch has licensed for the US). Typically, Nick got the boot from his job before that could happen, so he put it out on his own label (Field Recording Co.) and it was finished up in Brooklyn. The band on it (including Dave Reisch) is great, and Hurley mostly plays new songs, including ‘Your Old Gearbox,’ ‘The Rue of Ruby Whores,’ ‘Nat’l Weedgrowers Assoc.’ and ‘Wildgeeses.’ And while I would never say a harsh word about any Hurley album, since all have given me untold pleasure, Weatherhole is easily his most solid collection since Water Tower.
And now I see the wind
Blowin’ from Northwest
And I hear them honkers again
On their rounding quest
Over Lord’s Valley I’ll roll like a ball
And in the wind I hear them call
Wild goose, loose goose
I count them all
Yonder steppin’ that old light walkin’ wolf
Hungry as always
Long legs & long ears & tail
And a long long wail
I had an old goose & tried to keep her
But she awake & I the sleeper
She flew away left me the weeper
The next few years Hurley continued living in Ohio (technically), but he was all over the place. He’d be in New England for a while, then off to Europe, then the West Coast and wherever else. Brendan Foreman released a solid set of tunes, recorded by a trio with Dave Reisch and Tommy Beavitt called Live in Edinburgh in ’99. It’s mostly run-throughs of the hits, but it’s the first place you’ll hear Snock’s wonderful tribute to Scotch Whisky, ‘Knocando.’ As the new millennium dawned, hipster interest in American roots volk music continued to grow. But still, his most enthusiastic audiences were in Germany. And through some chicanery, he managed to get the Trikont label (best known for its roots reissues) to put out a new album called Sweetkorn. Recorded between Boston and Portsmouth, Sweetkorn is a lovely, somewhat stark LP, with light acoustic arrangements and thorough backing vocals. A few covers, a few old songs, but mostly new. It’s a bravura effort. As is its follow-up, Down in Dublin, recorded in a studio there for Brendan Foreman. Introducing such classics as ‘Goners’ and ‘Uncle Smoochface,’ it also includes the only cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho & Lefty’ that actually bests the original. Hurley still maintains he and Dave Reisch were not in good shape at the end of that tour, but I don’t really hear the problem.
“Dave and I were both really sick and we were exhausted from a three week tour,” Hurley says. “Brendan told us, ‘Okay, now. We’ve booked the studio for this album.’ He had Dave sing a few songs, but we were really sick. We’d gotten this horrible Dublin Rot. The audiences all had it too. We’d always hear coughing throughout the audience. Reisch was smart enough to put a kibosh on his contributions. He sang two songs, but said, ‘No way.’ I let that one go through.”
As the 21st century unspooled, Hurley found himself embraced by a new generation of fans. It wasn’t an onslaught or anything, but it was cool. After three years or so, he left Ohio for Oregon, where he has stayed more or less to this day. He has toured a lot with younger musicians—Vetiver, Ida, Espers and various others—and he was joined by Tara Jane O’Neil on his next album, The Ancestral Swamp, which was recorded between Ohio and Oregon for Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic’s Gnomonsong label. Dave Reisch and Lewi Longmire put in brief appearances as well, but it’s mostly a solo outing. Mixing trad material with some of his old songs, and some new ones—including great studio takes of ‘Knocando’ and ‘She Got a Mathematic’—it’s instructive to hear how Hurley makes small changes in style seem like major form shifts. In many ways, the approach on Swamp is no different than it was on Armchair Boogie, but you can feel the years hanging on him a bit more than before. Not that he ever sounded young, but he’s now completely grown into his wily coot persona, wearing it like a comfortably ratty barn coat. Released in 2007, Swamp is a record that reminds you even the laziest alligator still has big fucking teeth.
It was around 2007 as well that Lisa Foti-Straus’ ill-fated documentary, Elwood Snock & the Land of Lo-Fi, was in the works. Much footage was shot, many folks were interviewed, and Lisa had just about a final cut of the thing. Hurley didn’t like the way it came out, though, so he nixed its release. Too bad. I thought it was pretty cool. There’s even some boss animation of Boone & Jocko. But Hurley is picky about this stuff. “Yeah, I told them to go back to the drawing board,” he says. I mention that he did the same thing with the Snockument compilation that was being assembled by Non Sequitor in the early ’90s. He objected to the versions of songs that Jad Fair and Loren Connors had recorded.
“Well,” he says. “They had these two songs, ‘O My Stars’ and ‘Love Is the Closest Thing,’ which I figured were really pretty songs that people liked a lot. Jad Fair did ‘O My Stars’ and he didn’t have the melody, he didn’t have the words, so what did he have? If he woulda copyrighted that I would’ve had no problem at all, but I didn’t want the song represented that way. I figured, ‘This is one of my best songs and I want it out there in the public like it is.’ The same thing with the Loren Connors thing. It sounded like a pile of ghosts moaning.”
He much preferred a pair of other films shot around the same time as Elwood. Lisa had given him a video camera to record stuff, and he took it on a tour he did with Ralph White. The result is a rambling, weirdly entertaining, thoroughly Snockofied film called American Boogie. The other one is a short called Snock ‘N Roll: Adventures with Michael Hurley by Marc Israel. It’s about a traveling kambucha salesman getting a ride from Hurley and then hanging out with him and seeing some gigs. It’s loose, but funny.
“He painted me as a kombucha freak,” Hurley says. “I guess he needed something to tie his film together. So the story is that he’s hitch-hiking up to Woodstock with a case of kombucha for me. So now, wherever I go people bring me bottles of kombucha. Or they’ll give me a six pack. There was even a kombucha manufacturer in Portland who got in touch with me. They figured—this is our man. The wanted me to play for their tea house. And they’d give me a case of kombucha. That’s when I figured out I wasn’t too fond of kombucha. Once I got through that case.”
Hurley’s second album for Gnomonsong was Ida Con Snock, a surprising collaboration with the New York indie band, Ida. Recorded at Levon Helm’s studio up in Woodstock, Hurley calls it “my most state of the art release of all.” And indeed, it is. Ida and Tara Jan O’Neil provide a fine, stately accompaniment for a set of Snock hits, weird oldies like ‘Ragg Mopp,’ and a few new ones. The new version of ‘Wildgeeses’ is particularly beautiful, and the whole set swings with such slow surety it’s mighty fine.
2009 was also the year that Hurley hooked up with Eric Isaacson at Mississippi Records in Portland. He was on a tour with Vetiver and Andy wanted to hit the store. This led to reissues of the Raccoon LPs, Parsnip Snips, Back Home with Drifting Woods, Fatboy Spring, an EP with Betsy Nichols and a new album called Blue Hills. Blue Hills is a wild, idiosyncratic record. On the first side, he plays electric piano and pump organ. Hurley has a special relationship with keyboards, and he uses them to trance the hell out. I’m pretty sure the organ pieces were recorded by Aaron Rosenbloom out in Kentucky, and they are masterpieces of wrecked form. They ramble in the most sideways drifting manner you can think of. Absolutely unique and not much like anything else in the Snock canon. The flip side has another three tunes on which he plays guitar. There’s a new version of ‘The Tea Song’ from First Songs and a nice ode to Feathers’ Meara O’Reilly, but the album as a whole is suffused with a dark bluesy vibe that is as addictive as anything he’s ever recorded.
A little before Blue Hills came out, Hurley also had a bi-lingual book of lyrics published by the great l’oie de Cravan Press up in Montreal. The Words to the Songs of Michael Hurley/Paroles de Chansons de Michael Hurley, is a beautiful, illustrated guide to many of the master’s greatest lyrics. Some of them absolutely do not conform to what you think you hear, others are spot on, and they all read so well it’s an incredible rush to go through the book. The translation by Marie Frankland (an award winning translator of French avant garde poets) is also aces. But just reading Hurley’s words lends a lot of credence to the idea that he’s a functioning surrealist writer, whether he agrees with that assessment or not!
In the works right now is a new studio album called (probably) The Land of Lo-Fi, unrelated to the earlier tape, recorded with a bunch of Northwest musicians, in the purest house environment available. Hurley is also responsible for a new daughter, appropriately named Wilder, who requires a good bit of due diligence. He also has some art shows scheduled. He’ll be showing in Astoria, OR in late summer, and then down in L.A. next year. It seems like the biggest thing on his mind, however, at least as he told it to me, is an anti-Monsanto compilation he’s trying to get together to protest the whole GMO food thing. He wants to compile an album of songs that profile the evils of big agrobiz without being pedantic. Think of the way Hurley writes songs—simple on the surface, but as deep as anyone would ever care to take them. I suppose he’d like stuff on that level, but he’d be happy to just have tunes that sounds good. So send ’em in, c/o this mag if you so desire.
And why does Hurley care so much about this stuff? Hard to know. Maybe part of it’s for the future of his little girl. Maybe part of it’s just pure cussedness. But another part is that this GMO shit just don’t fit into the universe of Boone and Jocko and Kornbred and Snock. It is a weird, compelling place, parts of it as old as American history itself, other parts of it twisted into the the most immaculate post-stoner architecture imaginable. But none of it cottons to goddamn mutant seeds. And maybe that is the bottom line.