Photo by Shaun McKee

Whistling Past The Graveyard: The Gospel According To Luke Spurr Allen

John Swenson

Offbeat, May 29, 2017

Luke Spurr Allen has patience. It's a quality that might be mistaken in a city other than New Orleans for inertia, but in the somnabulant byways of his adopted city, where many greet the day only because theyve been up all night, Allen's patience could well be viewed as a kind of ambition.

The somnambulist tradition is second nature to the legions of barflies, bartenders and musicians who spend their lives here working in the wee, wee hours. The tradition has lingered into the 21st century despite the exponential gentrification that has taken place since Katrina. Many of the newcomers to this place prefer spin classes, chai tea and luxury condos to a seat on the porch and a pot of red beans. They are so busy they consider it an imposition to say hello to a stranger. But there are still enough Miller-High-Life-and-a-whiskey holdouts around to keep the bars alive.

Which is where the kind of patience Allen possesses comes in handy. In addition to being one of the key songwriters in the city's recent re-emergence as a place where good songs are written, Allen is a bartender who's seen his share of sunrises and a co-club owner who helps curate one of the signature music rooms in the city, Siberia. Allen's patience is an absolute virtue at Siberia, although one imagines that virtue is often sorely tested. Other club owners are throwing their proverbial babies out of the proverbial window in their frenzied dealings with the tedious process of complying with city ordinances; dealing with new neighbors who moved to New Orleans for the peace and quiet; and fighting off other club owners with visions of Live Nation in their heads. Allen moves stoically through the process until he has all his ducks in a row. As a result, Siberia is a thriving business along the St. Claude Avenue club strip with Allen as a key partner.

Photo by Shawn McKee.

Photo by Shawn McKee.

"Owning a bar/venue was never exactly a dream of mine," says Allen, "but when my wife Meghann and I knew we were both done with tending bar for other people, it made sense to invest our money in Siberia when one of the original partners there left.

"Matt Muscle is one of my partners at the bar. He books the majority of the shows: the punk and metal is more his scene and he's friends with Katey Red and Big Freedia so we get some good bounce shows. I'm more connected with the folk and Americana scene, so I fill in gaps in the calendar with that business. There are lots of great country and folk musicians in Holy Cross where I live now. Sam Doores, Leyla McCalla, Esther Rose, Lydia Stein, Lauren Herr, Chris Ackers and Samm Bones, to name a few.

"When we first bought into the bar, the kitchen was doing regular bar fare: wings, burgers, jalapeno poppers, etc. and wasn't exactly thriving. My old friend Matt "The Hat" Ribachonek moved back to New Orleans right around then. Back in the early aughts he worked at Fiorella's when the whole Bingo thing was happening. He cooked fried chicken there, but he's of Ukrainian and Polish descent and an all-around talented man and had a side business selling homemade pierogi out of a duffle bag on Decatur Street. Good stuff. So, it was a logical move to have him take over the kitchen with his 'Slavic Soul Food.' Perfect fit for a bar in New Orleans called Siberia."

Patience also characterizes Allen's approach to his music. When it comes to songwriting, this guy can really wait around for the fish to bite. His new album, Pothole Heart, is seven years in the making. It's not surprising that the record has a timeless quality about it. There's even a reference to that paragon of Biblical patience, old Job himself, in the song "Grackle."

"Two weeks after we made the decision to invest in Siberia, we found out Meghann was pregnant with our son Arlo," notes Allen. "Real game changer between the two. And thus, Pothole Heart is my first album in seven years."

The album starts with a blow-your-mind song. When I first heard Allen play "Too Late to Die Young" at Chaz Fest it absolutely stunned me, nailed me to the spot. Wow. The song was clearly not autobiographical, but in total empathy with the realization of the title. It's not a moment that happens, it's a moment when you realize that it's happened already and there's nothing you can do about it. It's not even fatalistic, almost Zen. Deadpan, which Allen is a master of. It's the kind of song you can only write after you've met a hell of a lot of people. I found myself wishing Crawdaddy founder Paul Williams could have heard this song. He probably would have written one of his 10,000-word essays about it, linking it to Philip K. Dick's novels and the Man With No Name films.

"'Too Late To Die Young' has been kicking around for a while. People have asked me for a while when it was going to be recorded. We have giant Viking funerals for our younger friends, but if you make it to your 90s and all your friends are gone, who's going to show up for the service?"

Allen allows that the experience of marrying, taking a job and raising a family has affected his songwriting.

"It's made me older," he says. "It's made me wiser. It's kept me from wallowing in certain things. It's made me think more outward and less inward. Just a larger perspective."

Several songs on the album are about, or inspired by, Allen's new family.

"'There Is Time' and 'Mercury Lexapro' kind of go together at the end," he says, referring to the album's last two songs. "'Mercury Lexapro' was about having a kid before I had a kid. We were living on Gallier Street and talking about growing things in the backyard. My wife started talking about all the shit that was in the soil. She said if we have a kid we should call it Mercury Lexapro. And I thought what a great astronaut name. Then I started thinking about the connection to Noah, so I was thinking about this kind of half Noah, half Luke Skywalker kind of figure."

"Please Be Good" is Allen's plea to Arlo: "Don't be like your old man. That song is the one honest song about Arlo that I wrote. The anxiety of having a kid. Don't be like me."

Another song, "White Dog," was based on a character in one of Arlo's children's books.

"Arlo will be five in August," says Allen. "He's genuinely funny and he's sweet and he's built like a linebacker. We didn't exactly name him after Arlo Guthrie, we just really like the name. I love 'Alice's Restaurant,' though. And the film based on the song is, hands down, my favorite Thanksgiving Day anarchist manifesto."

Allen has a history of writing dark songs examining the pathology of people who've gone off the deep end. Pothole Heart contains a powerful song, "Gary Brown," about a mass murderer who kills himself. "I wrote that right after Sandy Hook," he says. Arlo was a newborn when the children at Sandy Hook Elementary were murdered.

Allen can relate to his son being so involved in his music. When he was five years old his own writing habits and love of music were nurtured by his parents and older siblings.

"My sister Sylvia has a cassette of me somewhere at age five singing along with 'Fly Like An Eagle'," he laughs. "I guess I knew every word: 'Shoe the children, with no shoes on their feet.' Neil Young was a huge influence, as was Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel. I was born in 1970, but my sisters were born in '60 and '63. My brother Mark was born in the last day of '57. I remember listening to Roger Miller with him.

"One of my earliest memories is a party my sisters threw while my folks were away. I must have been five or six and curled by the stereo speaker and listening to the 'lie lie lie, la la lie lie lie lie lie' of 'The Boxer.' And the seeming explosion that followed. Also Tea for the Tillerman and a ton of Neil Young. 'Out On The Weekend' is another early memory. And Neil Young has remained valid and a renewable source of inspiration with his ability to tread through the dust of quiet despair and then rage when it's time to rage.

"I started writing songs and stories when I was really young. My mom was always great about reading to me when I was little and both my folks were very strict about any TV. We lived in a little box canyon between Salinas and Monterey. Lots of sage brush and oak trees and hills to climb. Spent a lot of time by myself. Lots of make-believe complicated story lines I'd act out. I guess the stories started there. And my mom gave me a real appreciation of the natural world. I knew the names of all the animals, all the birds, the plants and wild flowers by the time I was six or seven years old. And unlike the rest of my family, I didn't get poison oak. So that was good."

After studying creative writing in college, Allen hit the road and, like a lot of young musicians in the 1990s, found himself in New Orleans where the lifestyle fit his needs.

"When I moved here in the early '90s it was just a cheap place to live and thrive and drink and play. Tons of musicians and plenty of big old moldy barge board rooms to rehearse in. I was never super into trad jazz or New Orleans brass music or zydeco and certainly incapable of playing it. But this town allowed me to be loose and a little lazy and it was new to me, so I was always listening and playing attention and falling in love with girls.

"Back then I'd write lyrics on bar naps and then transfer the good stuff to notebooks and get my guitar and run through some chords 'til I had something. These days I write on my iPhone mostly. Write the lyrics in the notes section and record little vocal lines and whole songs I want to share with other players. A lot more efficient this way and a lot less gets lost. Not nearly as romantic as the bar naps though. A lot of those would be pretty terrible, though, the next day. Not to mention illegible.

"But it was a great town to write in and read in. And there were lots of artists and writers and players late night at bars. I remember late late drug-addled nights on lower Decatur talking literature with well-read off-duty strippers. The soil was just so rich, you know. Maybe from all the decay?"

Photo by Lady R. Walker.

Photo by Lady R. Walker.

As the decade wore on Allen met like-minded songwriters and musicians and became part of the unofficial "house" band at Piety Street Studio, where producer Mark Bingham delighted in bringing disparate people together to make music. The first Happy Talk Band album was recorded at Mike West's studio, which was destroyed in the Katrina flood. The next two were recorded at Piety Street, where Bingham and his partner Shawn Hall took the band under their wing. Alex McMurray, Morning 40 Federation and Helen Gillet were all in and out of Piety. A scene was born.

"I'm a big fan of Alex as a songwriter and guitarist," says Allen. "I think I've listened to Banjaxed the most but really admire everything from Fingerbowl 'til now. I think Ryan Scully is a phenomenal songwriter and arranger as well. And Julie Odell, Tasche de la Rocha, Leyla McCalla, Helen Gillet are all amazing songwriters and players. Too many to name."

I wondered if Allen ever felt like he was having a conversation with other local songwriters through their songs. I suggested that Alynda Segarra's "Body Electric" could almost be an answer song to some of Allen's murder ballads. I give him a lot of credit for not ducking the question.

"Alynda is a powerhouse," he answered, "and I think 'Body Electric' is a good answer to every murder ballad ever written. What a beauty of a song.

"I don't know if it's an answer to any of mine. Years ago, though, she and Walt McClements - another spectacular songwriter - came upstairs in Mimi's when I was playing and she got up halfway through 'Forget-me-Not' and split. Was it to protest my murder ballad, or maybe I was drunk and sloppy and playing like shit, or maybe she had an appointment? I guess I could ask her.

"I like murder ballads. I think I've written one for each of the albums I've put out. 'Gandy Dancer' on the new one."

Perhaps one of the reasons Allen's fascination with death resonates is because his tone is usually ironic rather than morbid. Like whistling past the graveyard. He speculates that it may have something to do with his experiences in New Orleans.

"I know so many people who've died," he says. "Not kids I grew up with but people who came to New Orleans. When I was in my 20s and 30s it was murders and suicides and motorcycle accidents and ODs. Now it's more people who've been going hard since their 20s and their bodies just gave out. My dad is getting up there in years and I feel like I have more dead friends than he does. It's the nature of the town."

It's a place where you might be inspired to write a song called "Too Late to Die Young" and find out you have a hit.

"People do like that song," he admits. "I think it's because it's pretty funny. It's dark, but it's kind of tongue-in-cheek. It's catchy. It's fun to sing along to. It's a fun song, man."