MICHAEL HURLEY INTERVIEW
Photo recreation realized by John Toth
by Frank van den Elzen and Leslie Gaffney (winter 1997)
(courtesy of Popwatch Magazine)
Michael Hurley's music is often coined as "outsider folk." His hobo lifestyle indeed could be looked upon as eccentric, but it might be better to regard him as one of the last insiders keeping alive the traditions of the folk troubadour. Since the earliest of the 60s, when he started rambling with his fiddlin' Bucks County buddy Robin Remaily, Hurley has slowly carved out a monolithic catalog that stands as a one of the richest in the history of American folk music. Hurley-or Snockman, Doc Snock, Hi Fi Snock, Elwood Snock, or simply The Snock, as he likes to call himself on different occasions-is one of those songwriters who can casually sing one of his heartbreakers, like "Sweedeedee" or "The Twilight Zone," and create a feeling of melancholia deeper than the deepest waters. What makes the Snockman doubly amazing is that, after 35 years, his song craftsmanship hasn't shown the slightest decline in quality. The Wolfways album from a few years ago is a masterpiece, and his newly recorded album-that doesn't even have a home yet-has songs like "Mr. Man in the Moon" that transcend a loneliness more poignant than anything else I know. Not that Hurley's music is just about longing and trouble and strife, the Snock can be very loopy and funny too; he writes from the perspective of a porkchop in "I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop," or he sings like a crow, or tells us that we are all gonna look like a monkey when we're old. Hurley's music draws from the wealth of old American folk styles like country blues, bluegrass, and country, of which he has a profound knowledge. When he plays the banjo or fiddle you're under the impression he's lived in the Appalachians all his life, and his intricate but bare finger picking on the guitar is identifiable out of thousands; and like John Lee Hooker and Robert Wilkins, he idiosyncratically adds or skips a beat or bar when his muse calls for it.
We travelled out to Amherst, Massachusetts to see Hurley play in the fall of 1996 and asked him after the awesome show if he would be interested in an interview...not today, but someday soon. His reply: "oh sure...and I could make you one of dem covers if you want too." After a letter and a couple of phone calls we realized that the Snock wasn't a real talker, and figured, since his letters and the Snocko News reports he sends out to fans across the land were well written and funny as heck, that an interview by mail was the way to go. In the meantime I had also started to find gigs for Michael in the Boston area. When he called and asked if he could stay at our house for a bit and that he would put the interview into our computer himself while he was in Somerville, we of course okayed. And that is what happened, with Michael finishing up the text in different locales when the road called him back again. He answered most of our questions at length, skipped a few, and left us with the cover painting and some fresh Cornbread illustrations to go with the article. He even played us some of his songs, including a brand new one written during his stay. Where he is now we don't know-could be Vermont, Western Mass., Virginia, even Florida. All we have is the reassuring knowledge that he will knock on our door again when he's in the area. Remember, when you see a dark green 70s Chevy van with a 4" by 8" wooden beam for a bumper going 50 mph on some interstate somewhere, don't forget you're passing a true American originator-so roll down your window and give him the thumbs up!
ED NOTE: This article originally appeared in Popwatch Magazine #9 (available for $3.95 from P.O. Box 440215, Somerville, MA 02144 USA). You can also contact Popwatch at firstname.lastname@example.org. It's one of the finest music magazines around so do yourself a favor and check them out.
Q: Tell us about your background-where did you grow up and what made you to pick up a guitar and start writing songs?
HURLEY: I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania mostly, with periods of 3 different years spent in Florida and 1 year in California. These years were when I was 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12-years-old. My father was producing operettas in Florida. There were five of us kids. We would start the school year in Pennsylvania and then after a few months, transplant to some school in Florida. A different one each time. Rio Vista was one. We enjoyed the journey up and down the east coast. That was how I first came to hear the pedal steel guitar of country western music. We would go into these steel joints on the ways to and fro Florida. Hank Williams was still alive. Every year we went to Florida, Hank Williams was still pickin' and puttin' out hits like "Hey, Good Lookin'."
After 3 years of producing the operetta-with shows like Showboat, The Chocolate Soldier, Carmen, Naughty Marietta, The Merry Widow, and a host of others-my father lost the show in a swindle handled by some of the backers. The next year he got into promoting a smog-eliminating device that was supposed to fix the problem in LA and we all drove across the country in a Willy's Jeep station wagon. Even brought a big black dog and we moved into an awesome mansion with the beach of the Pacific ocean as the backyard. This place was so opulent that at first we all suffered from nightmares of guilt, or maybe the house was just full of bad vibes. I could walk in the sand a mile up the beach to a big pier. This was Malibu beach on Highway 101. I ate salted parched corn from a little cellophane bag and sang runes in the American Indian scale. They were runes I'd heard in the movies. Movies like TULSA. After the California caper, my old man succeeded in keeping us pretty well stayed put in the American northeast. In the Delaware Valley and the Leighi Valley. The Delaware River became my symbol of home. It still is. I'm still there.
Then when I was 17 I began to ramble. A muskrat will do the exact same thing. I hitchhiked to New Orleans, New York, and Mexico. I was then learning to play the guitar. I was having a lot of fun with it and eventually became a loco local party entertainer with Robin Remaily.
I didn't think my blues playing and songsterism would go any further than that, but eventually phased into coffeehouse gigs in NYC and the making of Folkways record #3581. The thing that made me pick up the guitar in the first place? I just liked the looks of it. I liked banjos too. I liked mandolins too. I liked anything with strings on it and a resonation chamber on it. Then I liked the rock and roll records that were coming out. "Rock & Roll Music" by Chuck Berry, "Sweet Little Sixteen" by Chuck Berry, "Wait and See" by Fats Domino, "Little Bitty Pretty One" by Thurston Harris, "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy" by Hank Williams, "Ramblin' Man" by Hank Williams, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" by Hank Williams. My brother and I used to love to see Spike Jones' banjo player on TV.
Q: Which artists were important to you in your formative years and what styles of music did you listen to then?
Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins, Brenda Lee, Joseph Spence, Flat and Scruggs, Smiley Lewis...don't feel slighted if we missed your name (1).
Q: How did you wind up in NYC in the 60s?
HURLEY: If I left in the morning, I'd be there before noon. If I left at noon I'd make it before nightfall. These days I probably wouldn't be able to get a ride crossin' New Jersey but back then you could, mostly by the strength of the thumb.
Q: You befriended Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber (the original Holy Modal Rounders) and wrote songs for them, can you tell us a little more about that?
HURLEY: Le Deux Megot was a cafe in New Hope, Pennsylvania where I met Steve Weber. "Heartaches Five In Number" was a well known piece at the time; at least it had recognition with the nice night life types (2). I guess you wouldn't be makin' the rounds without your occasioning "Heartaches Five In Number." But it wasn't Weber who played and sang the song there, it was somebody else, and Jenny Coates gave a knowing look to Maureen, the Roaster, my sister, when the dude began to sing it. What Weber did was "Greensleeves" and he played a little blueslike progression and run that I remember now.
I don't know what else.
I never said there'd be nothin' else.
I show Weebs Long John and Junco Partner. We smoked aspirin. I drank wine all the time. The Weebs (Steve Weber) would have rathered a bottle of Cosynel cough syrup. A lot of people didn't get Weebs. They still don't, many of them. He'd go hang out in NYC for weeks and come back and play us some cool songs he'd learned. He taught me Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon" which I still love today. When he sang, "and the rain never falls, and the sun never shines," I could see drops of water spouting out where his fingers pressed the D chord. Sometimes imagination is a huge disadvantage. I'm just coming into realization of that now. But we'd pondered many things out. Among them never how to survive in the world.
Peter Stampfel I met when Weebs took me to the apartment where he lived with Antonia on East Houston Street. Stampfel was a post-Marxist agitator at the time. At his apartment he rapped apocalyptic runes to all who did well within where he'd scrawled "poverty sucks." He was even on TV one time and they showed that wall with "poverty sucks." We would take off our clothes and all lie naked in a row on their bed. Rube the Card (Robin Remaily) came to town in a '40 Ford held together with bailing wire and he took us out riding like gangsters around Houston. We went to a Chinese restaurant. Pete and Antonia liked my music and cartoons. I was doing my first record for Folkways and they said it was good. Pete encouraged me to get on the poprock market, but I wanted to hoist loads of produce, selling them to the Chinese who had restaurants on Houston and Mott. I had a need for fast cash so for years I heisted the produce, even robbed trains, hopped trains, and even worked as a broomsweep in a small Philadelphia grocery.
NYC had always been too busy for me. I would slide out into the rural route where I stole apples. Rube the Card and I went to live in New Orleans where we heisted potatoes, cartons of lactose-free milk substitute called Mul-Soy, sacks of citrus fruit, and once, a half a ton of sugar from Domino, and I do not mean Fats Domino. But the crime scene was active there; it soon seemed we were engulfed and gone in the sea of crime. After our first five or six arrests and given suspended sentences, we went back to Bucks County where the law didn't take us so seriously. With Robin I played the music of the question. We'd improvise like you'll never hear today, or want to either.
Of course Weebs, Peter, and Antonia loved Rube too. Robin always seemed to be taking a different tack than others (some things can be done as well as others). He played a couple of fiddle cuts for the album I did for Folkways. He got caught in a big heist and they put him away for about 10 years. He had been a good pal, tho'. But I used to punch him sometimes. Which is why he shot me with a .38. Luckily the bullet only lodged between my skull and my skin, it probably didn't do no brain damage you don't think? Me neither.
I was troubled because I had to get gigs and promote my record, he just said he didn't care to go, he was gonna drive down south in that '40 Ford. Find a new place to dwell (3). I told him that was alright, I wish you wouldn't go.
I wish I was goin' too.
"Thumbs up," we used to say on everything.
"So, the big bopping summer of '62 is over? Thumbs up!"
And he'd put them both up.
Q: How did the Folkways album come about?
HURLEY: Fred Ramsey Jr. lived just up the road from my family's dwelling. One day I was hitchhiking up the road with a guitar. A blond Stella, never had a case for it. Fred picked me up. He asked what kind of music did I play. I told him mostly the blues. He invited me to his house to learn more blues from his legendary blues record collection. Fred could make good homebrew beer and had an organic garden. Split the crop with the bugs he said. So Fred and his wife Amelia taught me a lot about organics and homebrew and American blues and jazz, all of which I still love today. So Fred says come on up and record a 3-song demo tape and he takes this in to play to Moses Asch (Mr. Folkways). He ran in and out of New York in a '56 Chevy. Later he got a '57. Moses Asch said go ahead on the Snock Archives. Fred said I had beat out the Chinese Bob Dylan.
Q: You sing about wandering a lot-the liners on your first album say you're a wanderer, and according to the 8-Track Mind video your van was your home. Please tell us a little more about where you've lived and wandered and how you're living right now.
HURLEY: I wandered in NYC and hung out in the village. I was interested in Beatniks because they didn't have to go to school and got to drink wine and they were cool. After awhile, of course, I began to see through all this and went back on the rural route where I lived in a tepee in our own hipster campground. We called it the Cook Camp. I had this girlfriend I'd met in Greenwich Village when we were working for the same music agent and promoter, the African American Peter Outlaw. My girlfriend, I called her Pasta. When winter came about we rented a small house in Lambertville, New Jersey for $25.00 per month. Pasta got a job as a waitress in The New Hope Diner, a steel joint. I bought a 1951 Plymouth station wagon and picked apples in a Bucks County orchard. In my '51 Plymouth I'd go and pick up Pasta when she got off work in the middle of the night. She'd be dressed in her white waitress dress. Neither of us had any idea of how beautiful we were. We didn't know that they should have been making a movie about us, but at the time they didn't know either. We drew practically no attention at all. Except every once in awhile some weirdo would hit on Pasta. But she was so tough and savage that she would teach them to leave her alone. We smoked cigarettes. I have no idea what we would be talking about as we drove by the highway side (4), but I believe she loved me like a woman who wants to have babies would. Her white waitress dress had a small red polyester bib in the front. She wore red lipstick. Her hair was black.
We saved up a bunch of money and went to Mexico in that damn '51 Plymo. We weren't sure if the Plymo would really last out the trip or not, but one day when we were driving past Buddy Williams diner on highway 202 I noticed how confident it seemed at 35 mph. I mentioned this to Pasta and she agreed; "Yeah we could go all the way to Mexico in this if we just go 35 mph!!" and this proved to be the truth. The rig went to Mexico all through the Sierra Madres, Durango to Mazatlan, and back up through Texas and up to Cleveland where Pasta was from and back to Bucks County where she went back to work at the New Hope Diner. We went and found another cheap rental. An apartment built in a barn in Lahaska, Pennsylvania near highway 202. Bucks County was filling up with freaks who wanted to party all the time and pick the blues like Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin' Hopkins. So this did not deter my wishes too much. That winter we moved to Philadelphia and rented a small apartment for $25.00 per month. There Daffodil, our first child, a girl, was born. Then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where she hatched out two more rugrats, boys, we named them Jordan and Colorado. By this time, of course, I began to grow weary of Pasta's surly and unremitting ways, so I went up to Vermont and began to study auto mechanics. She took the kids and drove to California in another '51 Plymo I gave her. This one was in much better shape, allowing her to achieve speeds of 55 to 65 mph just like regular folks. Then I went to live on Martha's Vineyard for awhile. I met another baby-makin' woman, Kim she called herself, she had one little rugrat and soon became pregnant with my fourth. We drove out to California in a nice '53 Chevy. She was blond and all the "blond jokes" you hear today are applicable. The police pulled us over in Arizona.
"What's this? Bonnie & Clyde?" said the troopers.
"What's in this ashtray?" they said.
"You shouldn't be harassing us. We are good people," Kim, who I called "Big Duck," said to the troopers.
"I won't find any marijuana butts in this ashtray, will I?" said the trooper.
"No," said Big Duck, "we don't smoke marijuana (5)," and she was telling the truth.
"Well, if you don't smoke marijuana," said the stupid trooper, "then you are good people. Let's see what you've got in your trunk Mr. Hurley!"
I opened the trunk for them and there was nothing in there but a spare tire and a jack and a Coleman stove and a case of my homebrew-The Black Freightor!
"What is this?" asked the stupid trooper.
"Beer!" I told him.
"Well, that's alright, as long as you don't drink it while you're driving."
"O Hell no, I don't do that," I told him, lying, and then they let Bonnie & Clyde go on their way.
I was going to California to record my second record on the Raccoon label which turned out to be called Hi Fi Snock Uptown. After recording it we went to Vermont and lived in Staelbons, where ironically, I am now as I write these very words that spit forth like the spittle of beer on a beer-drinker's lips. And it is because of having been here 20 years ago that I am able to roost here now, although I am a rubbertramp, as Gypsy Moon, Queen of the Hoboes, pointed out to me a few years ago. I argued that that wasn't true, that indeed I wasn't no rubbertramp and she kept right on callin' me a hobo of the rubbertramp variety and I think she put a curse on me, because if it wasn't true then it certainly is true now.
Vermont remained home base although I left it many times and went to live in Texas, Kentucky, and North Carolina, but I would come back to Vermont. For the last 10 years I left her pretty good though, taking up residence with Mora Reinhardt in Richmond, Virginia. No children resulting from this pairing and it's now over. It's too cold to live in my van. I either would have to go to Georgia or Florida or southern Alabama and live in it or I could stay with the C.O.N. Artists in Somerville and try to earn my keep.
Q: When did you start drawing? And more specifically, when did you start drawing wolves...why wolves?
HURLEY: I started drawing around the age of 4. My sister had a drawing talent and she could effortlessly render portraits and perfect anatomy of people, so with that showing me that it could be done, I tried. I recall that one of my first renderings was the face of a fox. I didn't know how to write, so I asked someone to write the words "Fierce the Fox" on the picture and then hung it on the end of the bookcase that served as a partition between our living room and our kitchen. In the second grade I had a friend, Jimmy Mueller, who could draw just as incredibly well as my sister, Maureen. He could knock out exact likenesses of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Goofy. One of the first times I saw him he was doing just that for a waiting line of classmates holding blank schoolpaper for him to draw their favorite character. He never backed up and erased a line. He never sighted up and proportioned his area. He just knocked it out stone-cold perfect everytime. He taught me to do this, but also to forget Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry and to take up the ways of the Indians. Jimmy was part Potawatomie. We would go out into the woods, make warpaint, put it on, run for miles, make bows, arrows, spears, moccasins, tepees. We did everything we could to be Indians short of chipping flint, altho' we did know how to make good stone axeheads by a grinding method. Funny thing was, my sister was always bringing me into the woods also. Both of my drawing instructors drew me into the forests. Anybody who can draw has powers of intuition as well. They can predict the future altho' not always correctly, but can read your mind on occasion. And I have this capability too.
Illustration by Michael Hurley
See Part Two of the interview
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