Apparitions: James Allen’s lyrical ode to the gritty streets of San Pedro
“Apparitions (Ghosts on Pacific Avenue),” by James Preston Allen (Beacon Light Press)
by Bondo Wyszpolski
As the editor and publisher of Random Length News since 1979, James Allen has had a front-row seat observing the downtown districts of San Pedro. On this two-disc set, he’s put aside his laptop and picked up his guitar to become a troubadour of the downtrodden, and these 10 tracks — which are not so much songs as musically underscored ballads — give us an “intimate and journalistic” (his words) portrait of a town with hard edges and a large quota of wayward characters. It’s always been a workingman’s community, with a large Old World migrant population. As Allen writes in his liner notes, “These song-stories are lifted right off the streets of San Pedro, California and may resemble people and places either living or gone. Some of the names may have been altered to protect both the guilty and the innocent, some have not… These are a few of their stories.” And, by the way, there’s not a traditional love song in sight.As a quasi-historical document, “Apparitions” is culturally important, much like Ray Carofano’s portraits of the town’s marginalized denizens in his book “Faces of Pedro.” The two endeavors — Allen’s and Carofano’s — could almost be marketed on the same shelf. There’s an ambience, an atmosphere, that floats over both works.
Which doesn’t mean we’re giving Allen a free pass on his vocals, his musicianship, or his songwriting. But first, his influences, which tend to be singer-songwriters whose primary focus was on their lyrics, the story or the message (political, social), rather than on virtuoso soloing à la Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, or Eddie Van Halen. “One cannot be a singer of ballads and not be influenced by Dylan, Springsteen, Paul Simon, Tom Waits,” he told me, “and anybody who has reference to Woody Guthrie and Mississippi Delta blues or Americana roots music.” And in Allen’s case, one can pitch in the man who has come to personify San Pedro: Charles Bukowski (paid homage here in “Walking Through The Fire”).
Perhaps Allen’s singing voice requires some getting used to, but after listening to his compositions several times it’s still reminiscent of someone performing at an open mic night at the local coffee shop. It can be thin and reedy. He often reaches for the higher registers, but the upper registers keep pushing him away. Well, Dylan and Waits don’t sound like Andy Williams or Tony Bennett, either.
As Allen has pointed out, it’s just him and his guitars—a D-18 1965 Martin acoustic and a Breedlove 12-string acoustic—on this album. No overdubs, no double-tracking, no Pointer Sisters on backup vocals. This is both good and bad. Good because there’s the raw, unfiltered, barebones sound that befits his subjects, and bad because Allen is no Leo Kottke. He tends to slash his chords, which is a fairly rudimentary way of handling the instrument. A little more fingerpicking would have been welcome. Furthermore, there’s sometimes too much guitar in between the verses.And that, of course, brings us to the poem-like lyrics, which were written (along with the music) between 1997 and 2010. Again, Allen has been actively observing the local milieu since the late ‘70s. Here are a few examples (and cue the Bukowski influence):
“The barefoot saint steps through broken glass,/ Unknowing of his saintliness,/ Over crack gutters where drunk fathers/ Are deaf to the crying dreams their children have./ Shadows of life, eclipsing death,/ Down alleys of poverty and wealth.” — “Barefoot Saint.”
“There’s been a shooting at the bar, boy killed in crossfire/ The cops have come and then the coroner’s van/ They’re looking for the shooter at the corner of greed and desire/ The streets of the Alhambra like molotovs on fire.” — “Goin’ Down To Hear Marilyn Tonight.”
“Larry, the thief, said to Harriet, the nun/ ‘There’s good and bad,/ And what’s done is done.’/ Then he turned to look/ Around and said, ‘I best get out of town/ So that nobody knows where I was/ when the body’s found.’” — “Freddie The Hat, He Knew That.”That’s the tenor of the album, more or less (probably not to be endorsed by the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce). And, to repeat, not a love song in sight.
But then there’s “She’s A Gypsy Girl (Trying To Run Away),” which is a compelling narrative about a young woman named Lasheem trying to put the slip on her past while being pursued by the Bulgarian mafia. The narrator picks her up one evening, they go dancing, he takes her home — and wakes up to find that “She was long gone/ Along with my wallet, my credit cards./ Leaving behind just her thong.” Three years later he picks up the scent, so to speak. The song holds our interest, although it could be a little tighter: It runs on for 13-and-one-half minutes.
That’s another sticking point. The ballads tend to ramble and Allen could have upped the pace here and there. Even opera moves faster. We want to hear the story, not so much the strumming guitar interludes. Sure, one might counter this and say, “but he’s fleshing out the mood.” To which one might respond: Okay, but then let’s have some percussion or a guest artist. Where’s Alley Cats frontman Randy Stodola or the famed saw performer Lou Mannick, both Peedro habitués?
None of this is to undercut what Allen has accomplished, this being a sharp-eyed if somewhat grim tone poem with a cast of the “walking wounded or insane… All of them appearing like ghosts — the faces on Pacific Avenue.”
So it’s really a portrait of San Pedro’s second major thoroughfare, after Gaffey, and what transpires almost block by block and via the side streets and alleys that feed into it. It’s a seedy neighborhood in places, colorful and colorless at the same time, but gritty with lives lived and, for some, the end of the line. Therefore it’s best to conclude with a stanza from the title track:
“Sometimes I look over my shoulder/ And I see the trash trucks like banshees come/ I see the young or the hip or the homeless/ Or a group of gang wannabes start to run/ Past an old crippled man down on Twelfth Street/ Standing there with a vacant stare and worn out shoes/ He’s standing at this crosswalk wondering which way/ he’s gonna lose/ But I know they’re all dying to be ghosts out here, too/ More faces on Pacific Avenue.”Give it a shot. It’s an album that will pull you in after a listen or two and make you think about humanity, and about how fragile all of us are in the open palms of fate.
Apparitions: Ghosts on Pacific Avenue, by James Preston Allen, includes two CDs and a lyric booklet, and it’s being sold for $27 at JDC Records in San Pedro or online if you visit randomlengthsnews.com/product/apparitions. ER