Michael Hurley could be called the godfather, or grandfather, of ‘freak-folk” but the Oregon-based singer, songwriter, artist and storyteller’s roots go back to his childhood in rural Pennsylvania and early forays into New York City, where he found kindred spirits like Peter Stampfel, Sam Shepard and the Holy Modal Rounders. The 2019 inductee into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame has, in recent years, been embraced by the likes of Devendra Banhart and Byron Coley, both of whom have released his albums on their labels. But all along, Hurley has marched to his own drummer, as a truly original American artist. Gregory Daurer spoke with Hurley about his unconventional life for PKM.
As a songwriter and performer, Michael Hurley has earned totemic status among freak-folkers, alt-country people, and punk-and-indie rockers alike. The 77-year-old’s homespun yet artful music can make eyes mist and guts rollick. For a guy who has sung, finger-picked his guitar, blown the “mock trumpet,” and played his banjo and fiddle in semi-obscurity over the years, Hurley’s impact has resonated across the cultural landscape, his underground renown spanning from Baby Boomers to Millennials.
Hurley’s debut album, First Songs, appeared in 1964 on the Folkways label (later acquired by the Smithsonian Institution) – making his music, by association and sound, genuine Americana. In between, there have been more than two dozen often-endearing, roughhewn releases, in which maidens, werewolves, wild geese, dogs, UFOs, and the Twilight Zone, make appearances. His lyrics tread, from song to song, between the natural world and the realms of supernatural hokum.
The covers on his albums often feature his own folk art paintings. And several of his Boone & Jocko cartoons – featuring Hurley’s anthropomorphic wolves who occasionally populate his songs – appeared in Boston’s underground newspaper Broadside in 1969-1970, and then over the years in his own self-released publications.
Hurley has appeared at gatherings like the Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio and All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK – although he’s also been featured at the avant-garde club Cafe OTO in London. Or you might catch Hurley at a farmer’s market in Portland, Oregon, playing his music prior to picking out his non-GMO produce.
Hurley’s music has made memorable appearances in the films Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton’s final flick) and Hamlet, and a Hurley composition, “Hog of the Forsaken”, was featured in both the TV show Deadwood and the 2019 Deadwood movie.
Influential scribes are on board the Hurley train – including Byron Coley, Joe Carducci, and Nick Tosches (who’s called Hurley’s songs “gosh-darned great”). Coley, who’s released albums by Hurley on his Feeding Tube Records, wrote a 10,000-word article about him for Arthur magazine – which was this author’s introduction to Hurley’s work six years ago. (I’m a Hurley-come-lately.) Podcaster Marc Maron has name-checked Hurley during a WTF episode featuring The Handsome Family. Hurley’s the inspiration for an Irish fanzine, Blue Navigator, named after one of his songs and dedicated to the music of Hurley and his associates; and there’s a cafe in Portland, Oregon, Sweedeedee, named after another of his compositions. Hurley is a 2019 inductee into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
Hurley is a contemporary of Peter Stampfel of those urban psychedelic hillbillies, The Holy Modal Rounders – a band which the fiercely-independent Hurley is quick to note he’s never been in, although it’s been occasionally misreported that way. Still, there’s a history between them in the ’60s, and Hurley and Stampfel later appeared together on the album Have Moicy!, credited to Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Frederick & The Clamtones. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called Have Moicy! “the greatest folk album of the rock era,” and also named it his top pick of 1976 – ahead of debut albums by the Ramones and The Modern Lovers, Eno’s Another Green World, and Bowie’s Station to Station.
I conversed with Hurley in Portland, Oregon in May 2019 prior to his semi-regular monthly gig at the LaurelThirst Public House (the third Friday of every month from 6-8 p.m.) backed by his skillful band The Croakers (guitarist Lewi Longmire; bass clarinetist, tenor saxophonist, and vibe tinkler Nate Lumbard; and bass guitarist, background vocalist, and onetime-Holy Modal Rounder Dave Reisch). We also spoke by phone and corresponded by email for the condensed – yet still lengthy – interview that follows.
PKM: What do you remember about growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania – and what did you take away from there that you carry with you today?
Michael Hurley: Well, I feel lucky that I grew up there. It started in the ’40s. Nice rural rolling hills, roads to drive around on, great old barns…great architecture. It was actually settled by Germans, and they liked to build big, stone houses. Still totally intact, most of it. There’s actually a pull in the places you come from, there’s some kind of magnetism. People don’t recognize it, but I feel it sometimes.
PKM: As a young man you started venturing into New York.
Michael Hurley: Yeah, it was so close to the city that you looked to the east at night, you could see this dome of light – and that was New York City. We could get there I think in an hour and twenty minutes or something. We could go out for a night, hit New York City, and then come back. Sometimes we weren’t so satisfied – and sometimes we were – with our doings. Eventually, some of us started living there full time. A few of us. Not so many. But I ended up living there for a full year, in 1963.
PKM: If you read press releases or things journalists have written, they say “Michael Hurley, part of the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s.” How much did you really feel a part of that?
Michael Hurley: Well, pretty fringe. But I did spend some time there. Like ’63. But I’d been going there since ’59 or so, as soon as I was 18 and I was able to legally buy alcohol in New York. That was my first interest to go there. Get one of those zipper overnight bags – you put a football in them or something – fill that up with booze and bring it back.
Then, I started by hanging out there in different ways. Folksingers didn’t get gigs – the gigs started to be all poets, when it became beatniks and tourists. The tourists were going to the Village to hear the poets. That was like in the late ’50s. The book On the Road came in, the idea of the beatnik got established: bongo drums and all that.
My parents I think conceived me in the Village, before I was born, on…I can’t remember the street. It’s in my mind, but it won’t come out. After they conceived me, they went to Florida, then they came back. I was born in, I think it was Jersey City.
Somebody wrote recently in the New York Times or something about some gig I had last year, and they referred to my past and the record Have Moicy! and they said even then he seemed like some sort of projection from the bohemian era. And that was the most truest thing that some journalist perceived and had written in a long time. Because my parents were sort of that. My dad was a writer, he started out as a newspaper writer.
PKM: He was in musical theater, wasn’t he?
Michael Hurley: Yeah, for a while he ran an operetta theater.
PKM: Do you have a song from early childhood that resonates with you still?
Michael Hurley: Probably “Ol’ Man River.” I remember learning it. I’d hear it sung at night. It was in Florida and I’d go to the shows. I probably went to every show that was produced. There was a guy, he was a career singer of “Ol’ Man River,” and I’d hear him sing it. I found a book of the lyrics – I didn’t need the music or anything. I started singing, just a cappella, you know, “Ol’ Man River.” It was in the operetta Show Boat.
PKM: I was reading your liner notes to your Living Ljubljana record, and you discussed how you and your label-mate Townes Van Zandt were being interviewed by German reporters who were fixated on you being a “hobo.” Even when you said you weren’t a hobo, they wanted to believe you were a hobo. And Townes said, no, he’s a hippie, I’m a hippie. What have you been over the years? Do you feel you were a “beatnik” or a “folkster,” a “hippie” or a “freak”? Did you have any labels you felt akin to?
Michael Hurley: I remember when I was 17 or 18, bumming around and partying a lot, having a great time being out of school – I quit high school – meeting a lot of people. But I would always say, “I’m a creative writer.” You’ve got to explain yourself – or maybe you feel like you want to explain yourself. So, I was always saying, “I’m a creative writer.” And when I was in grade school that’s what I would tell the teachers that I wanted to be. You know the teachers would always [in a squawky school marm voice], “What are you going to be when you grow up?!” And that’s what I’d say.
PKM: You know, you’ve got a guitar in your hand, but I would say that you successfully became that.
Michael Hurley: Yeah, when I was saying I was a creative writer, I never thought I’d be a musician, eventually. Just playing guitar, and I was singing songs. But I was thinking I was going to write books, because I like to read books.
PKM: So, you did some partying in your young days. And you had some friends in Bucks County, like Jesse Colin Young.
Michael Hurley: Actually, I met Jesse in New York City. And then later we lived together in Bucks County. We lived in Point Pleasant for one summer. We had kind of an open house. We rented this house and a bunch of hippies moved in. His band, The Youngbloods, had that hit record [“Get Together”] and the label then was Warner Brothers. They gave The Youngbloods kind of a franchise to have a subsidy label, which they established as Raccoon. And when they did, Jesse came over to where I lived and started recording Armchair Boogie.
PKM: That’s still one of your most popular albums, isn’t it?
Michael Hurley: Yeah, totally it is. Kind of a ridiculous album, but what can I say?
PKM: A ridiculous album? Why do you feel that way?
Michael Hurley: [Starts singing:] “Come on, get the best of me, come on and get the best of me, come on and love me, honey, because your loving set me free.” That’s ridiculous.
PKM: Armchair Boogie‘s got a lot of good songs on it. “Light Green Fellow” – it’s a good version. And “Open Up,” “Werewolf,” “Be Kind to Me,” and “Sweedeedee.”
Michael Hurley: Yeah, it was my most popular album, for sure. I don’t know, my consideration floats around sometimes. I gotta support it – It’s the public’s fave and, you know, that’s how it is. [Laughs.]
PKM: Where did you first encounter Steve Weber of The Holy Modal Rounders?
Michael Hurley: I met him in New Hope.
PKM: What was he like when you met him?
Michael Hurley: Oh, he was kind of a quiet, whispery-voiced teenager, 17-years-old.
PKM: Wow, that’s not how I picture him having seen Bound to Lose, the documentary on the Rounders!
Michael Hurley: No! He’s not like that anymore. He seemed very mild mannered when I met him. He transformed himself over the years. [Laughs.]
PKM: What was Sam Shepard like during that era?
Michael Hurley: He was a kind of nice, clean-cut guy. He was the drummer for the Rounders.
PKM: Did you have any inkling that he was a playwright?
Michael Hurley: No, I didn’t know him very well. Later, I lived in Richmond. He also lived in Virginia, sort of out west from Richmond a ways in the country. I think I tried to contact him about something, I forget what, but didn’t get in touch.
PKM: Peter Stampfel has written that you and Steve Weber and Robin Remaily [who’s played with both Michael Hurley and The Holy Modal Rounders, penning the Rounders’ classic song “Euphoria”] came up with “Intersoular Blues”…
Michael Hurley: That was my song.
PKM: Was that a result of a peyote trip in a train station in Philadelphia or something?
Michael Hurley: No, I don’t remember where I wrote it or anything. But the part where I’m going “wu-wu-wu-wu” was…I had a lot of trouble tuning my guitar back then, so if you get a guitar that’s got some out-of-tune strings it makes that “wu-wu-wu-wu,” so I had something that was doing that very distinctly. And that’s when I started yodeling to imitate it. I didn’t really have any particular theme that I was trying to say much; I think maybe the theme was the “wu-wu-wu-wu.”
PKM: What’s your relationship with The Holy Modal Rounders these days?
Michael Hurley: Well, I try to keep [my reputation] separate, because the music is really different. I was never in that band, anyway. I really think the music is a lot different.
PKM: Were they some of the first people to cover your songs?
Michael Hurley: Yeah, I think Stampfel covered the “Werewolf” back in ’68.
PKM: Why do you “have sympathy” for the werewolf?
Michael Hurley: This is funny. When I was in high school, I think it was in a course called Social Science or something. And the teacher didn’t like me. And he gave us an assignment “Why I Believe in America” for a writing contest. I was a creative writer, so I wanted to get my entry in there. I remember the night that I was writing it. What do I really like? But I didn’t moralize and wave the flag – beautiful freedom and all this stuff.
Where our house was on this river road, it’s kind of not a really busy road by the railroad track and a canal beside the railroad track, the Delaware River beside that. All these power lines right by the side of the road. And I’m walking up the road and there’s nobody driving or anything. In the moonlight, you can see Jersey on the other side of the river. And the moonlight’s throwing the shadow of the power lines across the road. I said, “This is why I believe in America.”
Lawrence Talbot, the werewolf in the story, he’s seeking someone who will put him away, because he doesn’t want to be a werewolf. And there was a scene in the horror movie where he’s up on this craggy old mountain top and there’s some type of little stagecoach there in the lightning storm. And he gets in this little coach and he’s looking for Dr. Frankenstein. Somehow, I thought that was pretty great.
One other thing was driving me: Clyde McPhatter’s hit “A Lover’s Question.” There’s a great feeling in that song.
Then I come back to school and the teacher says, “I’ve got all your submissions. I did not submit Michael Hurley’s piece because it sounded like it was quoted verbatim out of a Mickey Spillane novel.” So this guy thought he was so smart – I never read any Mickey Spillane novels! Still haven’t. (Maybe, I should.) I don’t think I would have won, but I thought it was rather vicious of Mr. Riegel to not even send [in] my writing. The fucking teacher was furious.
PKM: The story of your first producer – the musical archivist and writer Frederic Ramsey, Jr. – picking you up hitchhiking is almost out of a Coen Brothers movie; it just seems fortuitous that he would do that. He clearly, in his liner notes for First Songs, really loved you and what you were doing.
Michael Hurley: Yeah, he took to me right away. I don’t know why, but … He called me a goaty musician.
PKM: A “goatee musician”?
Michael Hurley: “Goaty.” Because I never bathed much.
PKM: From what I’ve read in the First Songs liner notes, you had hepatitis, mononucleosis, and borderline tuberculosis in your early ’20s.
Michael Hurley: Yeah, I had real tuberculosis, too.
PKM: Were you fearful as a young man that that’s where your life was going to end or did you think you were going to get out of the hospital?
Michael Hurley: I thought I was going to get out, yeah. It was true. [Laughs.] But the funny thing was that when they started administering my cure, they diagnosed the liver and the lung problems and gave me this medicine for TB, but it aggravated my liver, so I couldn’t take that medicine. So, they said, well, there’s nothing you can do for your TB, except [for you to] lay there in bed and eat three meals a day. I ended up in Bellevue Hospital in New York City in the chest ward for the eleven other winos – I had to be there for six months with all the riffraff that couldn’t afford the hospital in New York City. People with pneumonia and TB.
PKM: So it was after getting out of the hospital that you met Ramsey – and he recorded you on the same recorder that he recorded Lead Belly with, I’ve read.
Michael Hurley: Lead Belly was available in Bucks County when I was growing up, and I knew the music. I think he was one of my favorites for a long time. He was like a giant. The availability of Fred’s archive, the Last Sessions [by Lead Belly], was great. Lead Belly also spent time in Bucks County, he partied there. It was kind of an annex to New York City: The folk community in New York – and the painters, writers and stuff – to get out of New York, a lot of people were going to New Hope, Pennsylvania. So that was considered an arts colony. And, then, I never seen a more similar town to New Hope than Woodstock, New York.
PKM: It’s a similar vibe?
Michael Hurley: Yeah. When I first arrived in Woodstock to look at it probably in 1982 or something – “This is like New Hope.” You walk ten feet and there’s a crack in the wall, but there’s a little gift shop in that crack, and a coffee shop or a jewelry shop. You know, tourists are walking around with cameras and ice cream cones.
PKM: Ramsey also wrote something about how you “might not fit into the going coinage of the marketplace of the current folk song boom.” So, he recorded you during the “folk song boom” of the early 1960s, but he saw something in you that was maybe more authentic.
Michael Hurley: Wasn’t it – it wasn’t the product for commercial [viability]. And the folk community echoed that sentiment. They didn’t accept that as folk music. But now they do.
PKM: They didn’t take to you?
Michael Hurley: I wasn’t able to go to a festival until [around] 1989. It was the late ’80s. At the time I was living in Richmond, and I was hanging out with some friends in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And I was reading the local entertainment thing like we have [here in Portland], the Willamette Week. I see that Emmylou Harris is playing nearby at a festival. I like Emmylou, you know – that’d be great if I could get to that festival. Almost for a joke, I call up the festival and tried to get hired on – and I got myself hired on at the festival. It was a festival for the Eno River, which is some swampy little river that apparently trickles through the lowlands around Chapel Hill. And suddenly, I was playing at a place. I played there for the next two or three years.
PKM: What do you think it is about your music that resonates across time and generations?
Michael Hurley: I don’t know really. But it didn’t kick in until the early 2000s. Whatever it is, I was really surprised. [Until 1996,] I was living in Richmond. All my tours were mostly pointed north to Rochester, New York City, Boston. I was just kind of really struggling. My bookers were having a hard time getting me booked anywhere. I just kept going, because I could eke out an existence that way.
And finally some guy re-releases First Songs [as Blueberry Wine: The 1st Songs of Michael Hurley in 2002]. And I’m in Minnesota – Saint Paul. And there’s a record store there that wants me to play an in-store, and they’re kind of amped-up on the re-release of First Songs. The people from Rounder Records had convinced me that First Songs was not a good record, when I first started with Rounder. They say, “We don’t like that record. We don’t want you to try anything like that.” But, I think over the years, I sort of had an impression it’s so imperfect, and I think I was always slightly disappointed with it, but there was things I liked about it. But, anyway, at that time, I was thinking it’s not a good calling card. And this record store wanted me to play an in-store – and it’s all about the enthusiasm on the vinyl re-release of First Songs. It was a big surprise to me. “Oh you like that?!” A big surprise. The place was full of twenty-somethings.
PKM: All of a sudden it had authenticity to young people.
Michael Hurley: I’m glad, because it’s put wind in my sails for … [I’m] still kind of going on it.
PKM: Is there an album of yours that you occasionally enjoy revisiting?
Michael Hurley: I kind of dig now a lot Parsnip Snips. [Laughs.] And also Ida Con Snock. And some of my Mississippi [Records] records like Blue Hills. I’m always kind of focusing back on something new – like, do something else.
PKM: What do you like about Parsnip Snips?
Michael Hurley: There’s the song “Give Me the Cure” with the mock trumpet work. The yodel on “New Tea.” The whole thing I put together out of my home tape recordings [between 1965 and 1972]. For six years, I never made an album, and I had this Wollensak tape recorder. And I played guitar and often tried to make recordings. So Parsnip Snips, almost all those recordings came out of what I collected in a few years on the Wollensak. I think “Light Green Fellow” is on there too, right? It’s kind of distorted, the recording, because I had the levels up too high. But I was actually making it up as I was recording it. Because I remember I came in and – I want to record something. I don’t know what I’ll record, I’ll just turn this tape recorder on. I start playing “Light Green Fellow” all the way through.
PKM: I interviewed a songwriter and singer that I enjoy, Angel Olsen…
Michael Hurley: Oh, I know her.
PKM:… and she said that’s one of her favorite songs of yours.
Michael Hurley: A lot of people say that. Especially women. Women like that song. Or the guys request that.
PKM: What inspired you to start “playing” the mock trumpet?
Michael Hurley: I was listening to a lot of jazz at the time. I was listening to a lot of Duke Ellington and then earlier jazz of the ’20s. I was at a job where I was selling hot pretzels on the street. I’d just stand there on the street all day. I had a pretzel cart and it had a charcoal fire in it, and it had a glass enclosure over the charcoal burner where I could keep the…they were soft pretzels. They’re popular in Philadelphia – but this was in Boston [around 1967]. This business guy had the notion he could make them catch on in Boston, so he got himself a whole bunch of these carts and was hiring people to sell the hot pretzels. So, I’d been doing that all day and at night. When I’d go home, I’d be listening to jazz after dinner. And one night as a I was wheeling my pretzel cart back to the garage where the pretzel carts had to go every night, I just started thinking about playing the trumpet maybe and started [making trumpet sounds with my mouth]. So I kind of invented that for myself. But later on I discovered there’s a recording by the Mills Brothers, they’re doing that in three-part harmony. Three mock trumpets blowing. And the song is “Moonlight Bay.” Before I heard that I figured I’d invented that for myself. But apparently the Mills Brothers invented that for themselves too. [Laughs.]
PKM: Ida Con Snock. What do you like about that one?
Michael Hurley: Well it’s more like modern day, state-of-the-art [when compared with my] homemade records – call [them] “lo-fi.” It was made in Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock. We had everything of the modern day at our disposal. And I had the band Ida working with me. And they’re all what you call quick studies to learn a song. They can practically learn it as they play on it – as they hear it for the first time, almost. It was nice working in that studio, and it was nice working with band Ida.
PKM: You really haven’t done a heck of a lot of protest songs up until this recent Doc GMO release featuring “Bad Monsanto.” Would you say that’s correct?
Michael Hurley: Yeah.
PKM: And did the protest aspect of folk songs…I’m not going to say not move you…but you didn’t feel like you were the proper voice for that?
Michael Hurley: Right. I wasn’t concerned with politics at that time in my life. I think I am more now – at least following it. I had no idea what was going on in the news until like somewhere in the early ’80s. I started to realize what was going on in the world.
PKM: I just saw Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!. There was a story about Monsanto having to pay a couple over a billion dollars, I think it might be two billion. Amy Goodman played your song “Bad Monsanto” and showed clips of Monsanto’s products.
Michael Hurley: I wish I could have seen that. She used it back when I put it out first, with a different backdrop. People were marching. [Pause.] I’ve really been incensed by Monsanto’s deeds.
Michael Hurley: Yup. I guess, now, I’m getting to protest it. I have another one up my sleeve. I had written – I never recorded it yet, or performed it much, or, really, finished the lyrics out as much – but it goes to Monsanto first; then the police shooting people all the time now; then it goes to the elections being bought; and then it goes to a couple other things, verse by verse. And I was working on developing it, and then, suddenly, along comes Trump. Now it’s all like a package deal: If you want to attack something, you attack Trump. [Laughs.]
PKM: Well, I noticed that you added, a bit later, a line about the police shooting people on the streets in…
Michael Hurley: “Portland Water.” Yeah, they do it here. They shoot crazy people. People of color. And kids. Kids with toy guns. It seems like they’re crazy and trigger-happy. Both.
PKM: What influenced the song “Portland Water”?
Michael Hurley: Well, in 1974, I was hitchhiking up to Portland. It was like Petaluma [in California], I was hitchhiking up there. I always deal with music from walking or something, always a piece of melody or music I’m fooling around with. So it took a long while to hitchhike to Portland. I went up 101, that’s why. It was just that winding drive. Even if you have a car, it will take you all day; it will take about 14 hours from San Francisco to Portland if you went 101 all the way. Hitchhiking was probably all day, all night, and then all day. I just come up with this melody, and then put a bunch of Portland references in, because that’s where I was going and planning to stay a while.
PKM: “Portland Water” evokes up a different time, making “a call up to Portland on the public telephone.”
Michael Hurley: I know. There’s no public telephones anymore!
PKM: I think about Hank Williams and the woman on his “party line’s a nosy thing.”
Michael Hurley: Oh yeah! I love that verse, too. I was thinking of that the other day, the party line thing. You’d be talking on the phone and you’d hear a boop-click and somebody had picked up.
PKM: What inspired the line in the “Slurf Song,” “Oh a little wishbone, I’ll make a wish for a potato”?
Michael Hurley: That was in Portland, a backyard cookout in 1974.
PKM: Same year, same trip?
Michael Hurley: Yeah, a few months after I arrived there. And then, this woman, her name was Georgia McArthur, I think. There was a chicken there that had been roasted. And she just said, “Oh a little wishbone!” She took it out of the chicken. But she said it so melodically, she basically wrote that line. And I was doing a lot of fiddling then. I fiddled the rest of it out. And then I made all the other verses about food, too. A lot of songs occur that way: Some people can speak melodically – and I pick up on that.
PKM: I’ll bring up, first, probably the most famous version of that song, and then another one that’s a favorite of mine. It appeared and reached a wider audience on Have Moicy! – which I take is a title you came up with, since you seem to say “Have moicy!” occasionally during your shows. What are your thoughts today on the Have Moicy! collaboration with The Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Frederick & the Clamtones?
Michael Hurley: I don’t know. It helped my career a lot. It was well-conceived. A lot of people still today tell me how much it influenced them, how happy it made them. It’s not my favorite thing that I’ve put out, but it did a lot for my career, you might say. Most of my life, I never figured I was having a career. Sort of back to when I was going around playing guitar all the time, partying, professing to be a creative writer. But I still keep a journal. And I’ve got two typewriters in my house. I learned to type when I was 15 or so. I like to use the typewriter. I write stuff on paper – like typewritten pages. But I can’t seem to sustain steadily, consistently enough, to really gel something. But I do have a lot of pages typewritten.
PKM: One of my favorite live releases that you ever did is Growlin’ Bobo; I really love the version of “Slurf Song” on there. On Have Moicy! it’s a little more sped up and it’s a little more hyper. But on Growlin’ Bobo it’s got that feeling of like, “Oh God, I’m full. And now there’s dishes.” What was that band like or that period in Vermont for you?
Michael Hurley:Growlin’ Bobo?! Congratulations for liking Growlin’ Bobo, first of all!
PKM: I love it. And I love the crowd sounds in it. It’s almost like people in the audience are saying things and it rhymes with what’s going on in the lyrics.
Michael Hurley: You know, we were doing a three-day engagement, I think, at this place that was kind of a wild tavern. We sort of created it ourselves. We found this local, geezer bar, which basically had no business whatsoever, but a huge room and a little front parlor where a few geezers would drink in the daytime. Then it had this vast empty space that could be rented for an event or something. It never was much, but at the door it said, “Internationally Famous.” In the ’50s, they had the Miss America crowning there, when Phil and Julie, who ran the place, a married couple, that was in their prime when they did that. And people were still coming up to take photographs of that place, like Japanese people and stuff, because of the Miss America crowning that took place there one time.
But when we discovered it, it was just a sleepy, old geezer bar. And, way in the back, there was this piano, and we liked to go in there and get a beer and bang on the piano, and they were completely cool with that. And then we get the idea, Hey, you know, it’s hard for us to get gigs with the competition of Burlington. And this was in Winooski, which is like ten minutes from Burlington. So, we created the gig there. We got a stage, you got a piano, you got all this stuff. And we started doing gigs there, and then a lot of other people started doing gigs there, too. They went on a roll with packing the place. But they never speeded-up their pace, because they’re quite aged at this point. So, the bar could be swarming with people that wanted a beer, four deep all around this whole bar. [Imitates Phil and Julie looking around, barely moving.] They’re in no hurry. And they wouldn’t hire an extra server or nothing. It was . It was a good time for us and that place. I don’t even know what they called that place. We called it Phil and Julie’s.
When I first moved to Vermont, there was only one recording studio in the whole state. Like in the ’60s – I was living there, off and on, in the ’60s. There was no place at all that someone like me could get a gig. No place at all.
PKM: The song “Automatic Slim and the Fat Boys” [which is also the name of the Vermont band, which was the first group that Hurley ever played with] starts off with humorous, nightmarish imagery. And then it talks about reliable Slim and the Fat Boys. They’re like the volunteer fire department, almost as much as a band.
Michael Hurley: Yeah! We used to help the local farmers get their hay in and stuff. And fix their equipment, you know. Old farmers who are still trying to make a go of it, when they were struggling.
PKM: The line from that song that I really think of as a Michael Hurley line is “If you don’t believe us, why don’t you come and see us, we’ll be here from July to June.” I love that “July to June” part.
Michael Hurley: That means “all year round.”
PKM: [Laughs] Yes, it does! It’s a very creative-writing way of saying “all year round”!
I want to show you something. This is a list of people – some well known, some not so well known – who’ve covered your songs. [Hurley is presented with three pages with more than 50 different listings from albums, YouTube, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud, including under-the-radar covers like “Open Up” by Odd Knocky, Jackie McDowell’s “The Tea Song”, and a minimalist electronic version of “The Slurf Song” by 8 Bit.]
Michael Hurley: Really? It’s more complete than I know about.
PKM: Do you have a favorite cover version of one of your songs?
Michael Hurley: Where did you find all this?! This guy here is number one, I think.
PKM: What do you like about Barry Dransfield’s “The Werewolf”?
Michael Hurley: Well, the thing I like about it, when I heard that this English guy recorded it, I imitated his version perfectly. Oh, I can just hear it: [puts on English accent] “Oh de werewolf, de werewolf…” [Laughs.]
PKM: Well, like you said at one of your gigs here, “This is an old English ballad: It’s what the blues sounded like before the automobile.” He kind of brings a little bit of that vibe to it, kind of makes an old English ballad of it.
Michael Hurley: What, “The Werewolf”?
PKM: Yeah. Were you aware of it at the time in 1972?
Michael Hurley: I heard about it at the time, but I didn’t hear it for a long time.
PKM: Is there another one that stands out to you?
Michael Hurley: I just recently heard the Yo La Tengo – “Polynesia” – and I really liked that.
PKM: I like Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton’s “Jocko’s Lament.” It has a real melancholy vibe. It’s sweet. And I like Amy Annelle’s “Just a Bum.” She sings the hell out of that.
Michael Hurley: Those are both good.
PKM: It seems like the women really love your songs. They enjoy singing with you. That must be gratifying.
Michael Hurley: Yeah! In fact, Lewi [Longmire, the guitarist in Hurley’s backing band, The Croakers, and co-owner of the Portland tavern, the LaurelThirst Public House, where Hurley plays] said one night, “I don’t know how you do it: There’s a lot of women here tonight.”
I don’t know how I do it, either. [Laughs.]
PKM: Do you have a favorite appearance of one of your songs in a film or television show? Did you enjoy Lucky with Harry Dean Stanton, how that ended with your song “I Stole The Right to Live” playing during our final glimpses of Harry Dean?
Michael Hurley: Yeah, that was perfect. The way they played the whole song and the way they saved it for last. It kind of explained the conclusion to the story, when he walks off and kind of disappears around the hill.
PKM: I’ve heard that you get requests to play “O My Stars” at weddings; I’d like “Open Up” to be played at my funeral. [Sample lyrics: “Open Up, eternal lips, and swallow me … take me to the tit of the heavenly body.”]
Michael Hurley: [He starts to review it out loud] “Open up…” Yeah, good selection.
PKM: There’s an African folk concept where the singer can either be singing in their lyrics to their conception of deity or a lover. And it seems like that song fits into that.
Michael Hurley: Deity. True. That’s what it is. It’s cosmic, rather than sexual. Some people interpret it sexually.
PKM: The lyrics are sexual – however, it’s cosmic.
Michael Hurley: It’s where my mind was for that.
PKM: Were any of your cartoons ever published by anybody, other than self-published?
Michael Hurley: For a while, there was a periodical in Boston which started out called Broadside. It started out as [he spreads his fingers out] this much paper with a staple or two, keeping track of the folk performances that happened in Boston and Cambridge, and it evolved into a big, radical periodical that’s like four times the volume of Willamette Week. I think it was the year ’69, and I got on as [a cartoonist]. So, that ran for one year. Then, it suddenly terminated, when suddenly there was no more Broadside. I never found out why or what happened with Broadside. It was quite the rag [laughs], during 1969.
PKM: Your cartoon characters Boone and Jocko: I’ve seen them described as being…I know originally you created them, because of some collie dogs that you had. But do you picture them in the cartoons as wolves or as dogs or a combination?
Michael Hurley: Well, they’re supposed to be wolves, but obviously they’re wearing clothes and hanging out. But in the stories, in the cartoons, there’s few humans visible. Everybody in the comics is some kind of animal.
PKM: There’s Peyote Pete.
Michael Hurley: Yeah, he’s a monster.
PKM: Are you still painting?
Michael Hurley: I’m trying to get back to it. I don’t paint like I used to. But I’m doing mostly my full color watercolors, like large ones. I was selling every painting I made – and I was able to – so it was making me more money than my gigs. So, every time I get a few gigs, I’d make sure I had about four or five paintings hung up behind me, and I was able to sell them at the gigs. Or somebody would make a deal – paint me something else. Now, I’ve got, like, a hundred people who want a painting.
PKM: A hundred people?
Michael Hurley: Yeah, from the last ten years or so – and I ain’t doing it. I mean, I’d like to [trails off] … I do commissions; the best way is to pre-pay me [laughs], because then I feel obligated, tied in. But, otherwise, I just forget about it. And I don’t tend to paint like I used to – draw or paint. I spend most of my idle hours playing music, still. Or just cooking food. Or listen to the radio.
I’m a member of the Northwest Vintage Radio Society. We meet once a month in Oregon City in the Abernathy Grange hall. It’s the only place I go where I meet a lot of people who are older than I am. It’s the only place that I can feel like the kid. Of course, I’m not. But I like the sense of humor that these older guys have. It’s educational. We’re all geezers at this point. All we do is go after the tube sets from the early 20s, even the crystal sets.
My main interest [in vintage radios] is the ’40s, 50s and 60s, when I was alive, because I have a radio background. My life in radio. Because it was really a revelation to me. One of my sister’s boyfriends was going into the Marines (my older sister’s five years older than me). So, he gives me this little AM radio that blew, it didn’t work. So, I go and get some tubes for it, and start listening to the ’50s rock & roll – Fats Domino – all night long. It was like the basis of my dreams or something. I could sleep to it, I could sleep to rock & roll. So, that generated fantasies, and I did cartoons and stuff.
And Long John Nebel on the radio – he broadcast from New York City on AM. You could hear him clear as a bell in Bucks County. It come on at midnight with some eerie music theme that he had, which sounded to me like, This is the days of the dino-saurs, this is like the theme for a dinosaur movie. And he was like the first Art Bell, the first Coast to Coast AM. He just wanted to find people – wackos – who claimed to be clairvoyant or claimed to have been abducted by Martians. Things like that. You figured they were quacks. But they’d be on for five hours from midnight to five a.m.
And I was always a night bird as a teenager. That, and being the ’50s, all the doo-wop is strong, it was on all the channels, playing great doo-wop. And it all come in really good at night. AM is like that. People don’t seem to know that, these days. Where I live in the rural hills around Clatsop County [in Northwest Oregon, near the coastal town of Astoria], my radios will pick up maybe no AM at all, or maybe one or two stations in the daytime, whereas maybe 14 stations at night.
PKM: Sounds to me like all that musical influence reaching from New York City to Bucks County, as well as that paranormal guy, Long John Nebel, all worked its way into your musical vocabulary and fantasy-driven kind of lyricism.
Michael Hurley: I’ll never forget the night I woke from a sound sleep and the radio was on, and some guy was on the radio demonstrating to Long John Nebel the language of the Martians. So, I wake up, you know – and when you’re a teenager you really sleep soundly … I’m 16 or 15 – and go, “What the fuck?!” But there it is, right on my radio. [Laughs.]
Them fuckin’ little martians, coming all aboard my ship/Fuckin’ up my love life, puttin’ me on their trip/Puttin’ me on their trip – “Blue Navigator” by Michael Hurley.