By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Bad Girls Upset by the Truth
Monkey Hill Records
FOR A LONG time, she was only a rumor, a storied presence we might've made up ourselves out of a need for perspective and even reparation. She had a three-pronged name, Jo something something, and she ran and sang, fought and fucked with the legendary troubadours of the Texas Panhandle, the original Flatlanders and their bar- and train-hoppin' buddies, all Lubbock-born and Austin-saved. Joe Ely kissed her, or a woman like her, under a cornbread moon. Someone with her face danced the West Texas Waltz with Butch Hancock, then left him--bruised by her sharp heels--in the dust, moaning something about bluebirds. Jimmie Dale Gilmore pleaded with her to "treat him like a Saturday night" and when she did he wrote 20 mournful songs about heartbreak. Across three decades and a wheelbarrow of famed albums, she played mystic mama, loaded lay, impish angel, wandering muse; and we non-Texans never even heard her speak. Although, like I said, word was out that she did sing.
Turns out there were two Jos behind the rumors: Jo Harvey Allen, married to singer-songwriter Terry, and Jo Carol Pierce, onetime teen wife of Gilmore, mother of his daughter, former rail-rider, washboard-player, hippie. A soundtrack from a stage musical, 1994's Songs from "Chippy," gave both women some elbow room behind the mike, but it was Pierce's piece "Tongues" that seemed to herald a true beginning to the tale so long untold. A rhythmic rant of wordless shrieks and guttural grunts rising to sudden, enraged understanding, the number can be heard as a literal and metaphorical clearing of the throat; late last year, Pierce finally went on record herself with her female trouble song/story cycle Bad Girls Upset by the Truth.
Performed before Austinites for years, Bad Girls has more claim to the title Pussy, King of the Pirates than the recent uneven Mekons/Kathy Acker collaboration--mostly because Pierce is a better storyteller than that infamous author. Pierce's seas are flat West Texas plains rimmed with prairie dog towns, her ships big Eldorado convertibles and shiny trucks, and her heroine a pillager of boy bodies and hearts. This bad girl, Pierce confides in her droll, elastic drawl, has been charged by God to honor His Son by knowing, in the Biblical sense, every attractive son of a gun that strays within her radius. "(E)verytime I kiss another one," the guileless narrator explains, "I can feel Jesus right through his skin. And I need to know Jesus fully."
Such a singular spiritual path earns her a "bad reputation in my peer group" and nearly gets her sent to a mental hospital--not to mention making monogamy impossible before marriage and really stressful afterward. Eventually spurred back on her pilgrimage by the "insidious beat of the grocery store music" down at the local HEB, Pierce's struggling penitent waltzes off with yet another Jesus and breaks her husband's heart and her own. She earnestly takes God to task for their pain, thereby setting in motion a wild, magic-realist denouement involving UFOs, the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary), a ride in an anti-Chrysler (ha), and the Second Coming as the non-virgin birth of a female baby Jesus. By this point, it's obvious that pirate Pierce has cheerfully ravaged not only bad-girl clichés, but also the romantic male narratives of her musician friends, Christianity, and history itself.
Unlike most musicals, Pierce's organizing tale and descriptive language are so thick with wit and color and cockeyed (so to speak) insight that the songs dim in comparison. Or at least they do at first. With age, the winsome plainweave of "You Bother Me" becomes infectious and wise; and the lusty relish of "Secret Dan" (a bar thumper on par with Hancock's "Firewater") and "Borderline Tango" (a grand push-and-pull waltz between the sexes) starts to feel as comfortably pleasing as a longtime lover. Pierce's thin singing voice doesn't always hit true, but she mixes it up so well with bawdy declarations and pissed-off chants that the result could be Janis Joplin--if only that archetypal Texas bad girl had politicized her search for self-esteem, tempered her chemical intake, and reached her 50s with generous body, mind, and spirit intact.
Indeed, Pierce's affinity with Joplin--especially on the revelatory lounge rant "Does God Have Us by the Twat or What?"--is one of this album's truest gifts. The very existence of Bad Girls changes the ending of an old story from martyrdom to complex survival, as Pierce, now readying the sequel, Bad Girls Get Old, is very much aware. Holding up the baby girl Jesus, Pierce's heroine asks, "Does that mean that us girls can quit committing suicide?" The BVM smiles and shakes her head no. Prizing the divinity within their own skin will not protect bad girls from the painful deaths that come from loving well and loudly. But it will give them the faith to be born again before sunset, ready again to sing into existence their own version of the truth. CP
Monkey Hill Records, 804 Spain St., New Orleans, LA, 70118.