Oh the werewolf, Oh the werewolf, comes steppin’ along
He don’t even break the branches where he’s been goin’.
You can hear his long holler from way ’cross the moor
That’s the holler o’ the werewolf when he’s feelin’ poor.
For the werewolf, for the werewolf, have sympathy
For the werewolf is someone just like you and me.
Two years ago, Michael Hurley made a rare public appearance at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Conference. Just before midnight in the ballroom of the Driskill Hotel, the reclusive minstrel emerged from a cloak of darkness and sat down beneath a lone, lunar spotlight. For all of 20 minutes, he plunked out rudimentary figures on his guitar and, in a creaky moan, sang songs of artless beauty and depth. Then, without a word, he vanished into the night. He might as well have been the mythic man-beast of which he sings in “Werewolf,” his signature song for the past three decades.
Hurley first recorded “Werewolf” for the Folkways label in 1964. He had just come off a six-month stay at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital; a wicked mix of hepatitis, TB, and mononucleosisdoubtless acquired from years of rambling aroundhad nearly claimed his life at age 22. Since then, Hurley has surfaced periodically, only to withdraw, like his evanescent lycanthrope, from the public eye, sometimes for years at a stretch.
Hurley has always been a loner. During the 1960s, though, he fell in with the reigning musical anarchists of New York City’s Lower East Side, the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders. The latter group even included an echo-drenched version of “Werewolf” on The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, an acid-crazed classic from 1968 that also featured “Bird Song,” one of the highlights of the Easy Rider soundtrack. Yet as much as Hurley shared his cohorts’ anti-authoritarian bent, his dissent always lent itself to more sylvan settings.
Back home in his native Bucks County, Penn., Hurley drew on his love of prewar blues, hillbilly, and ragtime music and recorded a pair of early-’70s solo albums for Jesse Colin Young’s Raccoon label. By mid-decade, he had moved to Oregon, where he started gigging around with fellow iconoclast Jeffrey Fredericks and his band, the Clamtones. Then, in 1975, the two men joined original Holy Modal Rounder Peter Stampfel and a loose aggregation of pickers for a two-day free-for-all that gave birth to the epochal Have Moicy!, a bacchanalian hootenanny that both celebrated and subverted the hippie mythos. Hurley has since recorded sporadically for U.S. and European labels. But, except for two beguiling albums for the Rounder label (named, by the way, after the Holy Modal Rounders), only Wolfways, a 1995 collection of mostly rerecorded material, remains in print.
Hurley has never been a prolific or a high-profile artist. And yet as his Austin performance confirmed, each time he reappears, with yarns and watercolors in tow, he reminds us that the line between human nature and the rest of nature isn’t as absolute as some might like to think. With whimsy and insight, Hurley has blurred distinctions within the natural order through his rustic cartoon drawingsfantastic universes populated by wolf-led stringbands and by naked men and women who guzzle wine and raise all manner of hell. He does the same thing in his outwardly quaint songs, where hogs, wolves, and monkeys sing, drive, and carry on, and where humans do little more than eat, mate, and eliminate.
“We fill up our guts then we turn it into shit then we get rid of it,” he sings on “Slurf Song,” one of his four magnificently understated contributions to Have Moicy!. “Goin’ to Florida,” a cut from his 1980 Snockgrass LP, addresses one of Hurley’s other great subjects: sex. “You can wash your body, you can wash your soul,” he muses over a delicate mandolin obbligato. “But you can’t wash off sweet jelly roll.” And in a warbling yodel, on “Don’t Treat Me Bad,” he sings, “Grandma, Grandma, jackin’ off and she’s 84/Don’t treat her bad, don’t treat her bad/Grandma, Grandma, use your left hand/It feels like someone else, it feels like someone else.”
In the hands of a more self-conscious artist, these ruminations on the appetitive side of human nature might come off as smug or over-the-top. But Hurley’s commentary, rendered with the bemused benevolence of a bohemian Will Rogers, is devoid of such pretense. Although at times riotously funny, one never gets the sense that Hurley is going for cheap laughs. His observations are just thatglimpses of mundane life culled from “watchin’ the show,” as he puts it. “Sea is sea and coral is coral,” he avers on “No Home.” “I promise you there is no moral.” Only Captain Beefheart has portrayed untamed humanity with as much largesse as Michael Hurley has.
The inscrutable songster comes by his take on life honestly. “I hated this civilization, most of my life,” he told folk-music scholar Frederic Ramsey Jr. in 1964. Sounding rather like a latter-day Huck Finn, Hurley went on to relate how, growing up in bucolic Bucks County, he and a childhood friend fancied Indian lore and “ran around in the woods all the time in loincloths.” As an adolescent, Hurley discovered the guitar and mandolin, which he strummed, untutored, for hours on end. He never quite mastered either instrument, but as his rough-hewn recordings attest, he found his groove nonethelessnot to mention a means of creating undomesticated worlds of his own.
Hurley’s woozy mix of country, blues, Cajun, and jug-band musicwhich revolves around the shambling sounds of banjo, fiddle, trumpet, and the likeoffers an ideal soundtrack for his quotidian reportage. Never proficient enough for bluegrassers, and too whacked-out for folkies or blues buffs, Hurley’s modest oeuvre warrants a category all its own. Not surprisingly, Hurley has coined a term for his quixotic Americana: He dubs his music “snockgrass,” after his alter-ego, Doc Snock, the amiable rounder who frequents his narratives.
Some write off Hurley’s halting and circular ditties as so much feckless noodling. But just as Doc Snock rambles from place to place and always seems to be precisely where he belongs, Hurley too always manages to get where he’s going; or, at the very least, he recognizes it once he arrives. “Come sit with me, come laugh and sing a little while,” he chirps on “Watchin’ the Show.” “Will I be good? I’ll probably make you smile. Time, it’s watchin’ the show. Time, it’s watchin’ the show.”
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