Posted November 22, 2014 by Cooper Point Journal in Artist Statement
 
 

The Legendary Michael Hurley Plays at The Guest House

Still Charming Us with Aliens, Tea and Train-robbing wolves, 50 years After his First Album

By Ariety Fried

It was warm and distinctly cheerful inside the Guest House where Michael Hurley was about to play last Tuesday night. I had worried I wouldn’t recognize him from his picture as a 22 year old fledgling on the cover of his first album, First Songs, recorded in 1964. But I knew him instantly when he came out of the green-tiled bathroom, looked at me and said “You got a mint bathroom here.” He was wearing a green polka dot cap and an unassuming outfit of work boots and pants, faded button up shirt and bandana tied cowboy style around his neck. Residing in Astoria, Oregon, the 72-year-old folk legend’s demeanor suggested he had long ago figured out exactly how to dress for the Northwest.

At around 10 p.m., everyone crowded into the basement to sit packed together on the floor. Hurley waded through the crowd to the front, plugged his guitar in and began with a sad song by country musician Cindy Walker. In his usual vein of balancing humor and poignancy, he followed it with a song about waiting for aliens to pick him up.

Illustration by Paul Elliot.

Illustration by Paul Elliot.

His voice was steady and pure, still going up with ease into his signature wordless high humming falsetto, such as in “Tea Song,” the only one off of First Songs he performed. Many of the songs he played were from the more recent of his 28 albums, including a song called “Bad Monsanto.” Released this year, it is a protest song that, through Hurley’s simple and sincere wording, is funny at times and deeply biting at others. He sings, “The GMO potatoes that McDonalds buys, now it ain’t even safe to eat a mess of fries,” and more darkly, “Monsanto, have you no children to live beyond your time? Live to feel the shame of your every crime?”

Between songs he told a few stories, one of them about the nickname he acquired from a band mate during his days performing with The Clamtones. “He called me Basket Case, to my face.” Hurley smiled, showing some gold teeth. Throughout his set he would occasionally close his eyes, retreating momentarily into himself before coming back again, looking out across the room like a wizened tomcat.

When he finished playing the audience clapped and called out for more. He calmly held up a finger for us to wait and played two more songs, including one about the wolf characters Boone and Jocko that show up repeatedly in his drawings and cartoons. After, he almost shyly said he had merch for sale upstairs and for us to stick around and chat with him. The serene magic of his songs had been transferred to everyone in the room. For one night we were all inside his world of sweet raunchiness and not caring about anything “just so long as the cupboard’s full of tea.”

Upstairs, I joined the ring of people quietly listening to Hurley telling more stories and jokes. He talked about being influenced by Leadbelly, Fats Domino, Hank Williams and Burl Ives, who he said used to come over to his house when he was young. He noted that he always goes back and forth between listening only to blues and then only to country but can always listen to public radio jazz. He said he hoped nobody had recorded him to put on YouTube. I thought of this later when I had trouble finding recordings of the songs he’d played. It only added to the intimate feeling the show already had, and the feeling that Hurley a bit mysterious.

It has been 50 years since Hurley recorded his first album on the same reel-to-reel machine on which Leadbelly’s Last Sessions was recorded. He remains completely untarnished, genuine and kickin’.