Born in 1943, Terry Allen was raised in Lubbock, Texas, a place he often describes as “so flat that if you look in any direction really hard on a clear day you can see the back of your own head.”
His father, Sled Allen, was a former major league baseball player, who spent his later years promoting wrestling matches and music concerts, exposing Allen as a child to musicians like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Hank Williams and Elvis. His mother Pauline Allen, a professional barrelhouse piano player, was thrown out of Southern Methodist University for playing the “devil’s music” with an interracial band. It was from her that Allen learned to play the piano: “She taught me ‘St. Louis Blues’ and then she said, ‘you’re on your own.’”
Driven by the “need to get out into the world, without any real reason other than curiosity,” Terry Allen and Jo Harvey Allen left Lubbock for Los Angeles after getting married in 1962. Encouraged by a former professor at Texas Tech, where Allen spent one failed semester, he attended Chouinard Art Institute and for the first time, encountered serious artists. Following graduation in 1966, Allen delved into a series of densely drawn cartoon-like depictions, made in resistance to the prevailing legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Drawings like Babylon Superman and Coat of Arms, with tight renderings of boxed vignettes fractured in surrealist arrangement, were attempts by Allen to illustrate the Bible as a springboard to developing new ideas.
5-4 Note of Mouse…And Make It was Allen’s first publicly exhibited work. It was shown at Cal State Los Angeles, in an exhibition juried by Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston and Ken Price in 1967. He conceived the imagery (outlines of Mickey Mouse overlapped with texts) as a criticism of Disney’s takeover of Chouinard (which later became the California Institute of the Arts) and is an early example of Allen pairing language with imagery – a device that would continue throughout his career.
For Allen, music and visuals assert equal importance in addressing his own artistic inquiries. However, it wasn’t until he wrote Red Bird in 1962, did he recognize one of his compositions as a “real song.” In 1965, he performed the song on the TV variety show Shindig!, to a studio audience of screaming teenaged girls, as well as the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein.