“On the Trail of the Lonesome Snock”: Byron Coley investigates Michael Hurley (Arthur No. 35, 2013)

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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.”

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BULL TONGUE "TOP TEN #3" by Byron Coley & Thurston Moore

TONGUE TOP TEN #3 – April 27, 2009

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1. Easily the best-looking LP we’ve had the pleasure of grappling lately is Light by Reiko and Tori Kudo, issued by Siwa. Reiko and Tori are best known for their work with Maher Shalal Hash Baz, but this stuff is even more casual, diffuse and haunting. Mostly just piano and female voice, the sound has an elegance and mystery that makes our veins wiggle. It’s like some sort of otherworldly cabaret, beamed in from Planet X. And while the music is available now as a CD, the LP version is just incredible—a wooden box, with nine separate compartments, each containing a printed booklet with lyrics. Quite unbelievable, even for Siwa, which has long set a tough-to-match standard for packaging. Hats off to the label’s Alan Sherry and all who sail with him.

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Bree


2. Just got a couple of fine new books by the great Cleveland poet, Bree. The bigger of the two (although printed in a wee small format) is was chicken trax amidst sparrows tread (The Temple Inc). This one collects a bunch of Bree’s fantastic prole poesy and uses it to sorta set the scene for a long prose piece about asshole blood. Amazing stuff. There’s also if i cld a body slam on her own imprint, Green Panda Press. This one’s a slim, folded sheet with six “peace poems” (one of which is purely visual). What makes them “peace poems,” we can only guess, but they’re boss and loud, which seems like a good thing. It should be noted that Bree is also hosting the Tres Versing the Pandapoetry festival in Cleveland on May 8-10, this year, which should be an excellent place to be.

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Willie Lane


3. Great new guitar record out by William “Willie” Lane, called Known Quantity (Cord Art). Willie lived up here in Western Mass. for a good long while and was involved in lots of weird musical shit. Not much of it got proper documentation, however, although Child of Microtones did issue a fine CDR, Recliner Ragas , a few years back. Anyway, Willie moved down to Philadelphia a couple of years ago, and we get a chance to hear him now and then when we’re down there, or he chooses to hit the road with one of the MV & EE traveling carnivals. But his solo work has always been amazing and rare. Well, not so rare this week. There’s this new LP, and it was recorded throughout 2006-2008, and is a total blast. Willie’s mostly solo (save for some licks by Samara Lubelski) and his playing ranges from Wizz Jones power-pluck at its cleanest to Michael Chapman electro-smear at its phasingest. But Willie knows his stuff cold and this instrumental slide through the gates of Neverland is one of this year’s great rides.

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Duplex Planet editor David Greenberger and poet Ernest Noyes Brookings at Dunkin Donuts, Jamaica Plain, MA. Summer 1985 photo by Stephen Elston


4. First new issue in a long time of David Greenberger’s vastly entertaining magazine, Duplex Planet. Issue 184 doesn’t revolve around a central theme, but details various conversations David had with the residents at senior centers in East L.A. My favorite is the one with a woman who claims to be the 23rd of 24 children in her family, and also to be a great-great-grandmother. There’s no earthly way to know if she’s full of shit or not, but it’s nice to read her thoughts. Greenberger has a gentle way of probing the memories of these folks that is funny, sad and surprising—sometimes simultaneously. His work is always cool. The same is true of his sometimes collaborator, longtime pal, Terry Adams . Adams, a founding member of NRBQ as well as a legendary Sun Ra collector, has a new CD called Holy Tweet (Clang!).

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Primarily recorded as a trio date with Tom Ardolino and Scott Ligon, the vibe is like a stripped down version of the Q Mothership—rolling bones of uniquely shaped, instantly recognizable goodtime roots pop whatsis that transcend boundaries of “mereness” by a mysterious propulsive force. The stuff is always just off-base enough to keep our interest thoroughly poked (especially as the first zephyrs of spring beckon us to the hill towns beyond). Sometimes it’s enough to just enjoy.

Mats Gustafsson


5. Mats Gustafsson has ten of the busiest fingers in all of Sweden. And yes, his primary focus is record collecting. But he does a few other things and he does them well. Three recent albums attest to this (lord knows how many record he has released since we last met) and they also map a width of style-ass as impressive as it is bounteous. First is The Vilnius Implosion (No Business), which is a solo work for baritone saxophone, slide saxophone and alto fluteophone. What the latter of these two instruments look like is best left unmentioned, but the sounds are swimming! The music (recorded in concert in Lithuania) is explosively sculptural—three-dimensional blocks of sound bursting through sheets of reality as though it was all a crepe paper curtain. That’s the first side, the flip has longer, grouchier masses of tongue flex, approaching jazzic concepts at times. Lovely! Then we have Mats G Plays Duke E (QBICO), a one-sided LP with Mats playing nearly-straight versions of several Ellington tunes on tenor, enlivened by primitive vocls and raw, live electronics. Parts are sweet enough to play for yr grandma, others will just make her ass bleed. The final piece is a split LP with Dutch pianist Cor Fulher on Narrominded. Fulher uses some extended techniques to take his piano sounds into vast regions of new, and Gustafsson is equally adept at squeezing sounds from his sax that are beyond the ken of most of his peers. Using rolling sequences of tongue-clacks, overblowing, breath-splatter, he ends up doing things, making sounds, that seem impossible. But Mats is more than up to the task. Amazing shit.

6. Hisham Mayet is one of the geniuses behind the Sublime Frequencies project, which is attempting to document many strands of ecstatic global culture before they are bulldozed into oblivion by Western hegemony. His efforts have been prolific and inspired, and his latest DVD, Palace of the Winds, is no exception. It combines snippets of performance footage with long shots of Saharan landscape in motion, and various other shots of the sun-smacked towns and people of the region.

Less tripped out than some of his other films, this one is carried along by the amazing guitar music of Group Doueh, Group Marwani and others. As beautiful as any foot.

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