Bad Girls Get Old

 

Bad Girls Get Old

Thirty years ago, Jo Carol Pierce turned her Lubbock upbringing into a sublime musical about sex, suicide, and Jesus. Now 72, she's ready for her third act.

Carol Pierce sneaked a look at the crowd and reminded herself not to be scared. Just play the songs and tell the stories like you do in your living room. She had been performing at this coffee shop in downtown Austin every Thursday for weeks now, yet she still felt like throwing up each time. She was 45 and had red, wavy hair, wide eyes, and an open, friendly face. Her outfit—a multicolored and layered cancan skirt, purple bustier, and turquoise cowboy boots—looked like something Miss Kitty might have worn on an episode of Gunsmoke had it been directed by John Waters.

She took a deep breath and smiled nervously as she glanced around the small stage. Behind her stood a makeshift altar, where a dozen votive candles were lit and an antique suitcase lay opened on its side, revealing a display of old black and white photographs of her ex-boyfriends, some actual, some imagined. Jo Carol turned and said something to her partner, a hulking man with dark circles under his eyes, long, stringy hair, and a black hat, who sat on a barstool to her left. He laughed, and she relaxed a little.

She was holding a guitar, but she wasn’t sure she was doing it right. After fiddling with her mic stand, she lightly strummed a chord. Finally, she smiled at the crowd, which was bigger than last week’s, and started like she always did. “Hidy, y’all,” she said brightly in a deep Lubbock drawl. She introduced her bandmate. “This is Jesus, our personal savior, Rob Jacks.”

And then Jo Carol began telling a story about how she committed suicide because her boyfriend called her a son of a bitch. “After I had committed suicide, I started seeing things in a whole new light,” she said. “I noticed what a cute boy my boyfriend was.” She appeared completely sincere, even when she recommended that the audience commit suicide every day as a way to answer life’s toughest questions. One of hers, she said, was “What are these boys for, and what am I supposed to do with them?” She invited her listeners to slit their wrists in the third verse of her first song, which was about an approaching apocalyptic blue norther. “Winds are rising,” she sang in her rough, tremulous alto. “Jesus, I need to scream.”

For the next hour and a half, Jo Carol performed Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, a series of songs and stories about a much younger woman, also named Jo Carol, whose spiritual quest carried on from Lubbock to Austin and included sleeping with 157 “perfect boys” to find Jesus. By turns absurd, poignant, and hilarious, Bad Girls was Jo Carol’s tale of trying to pull her life together. The simple, aching songs made you grasp how much she wanted things to work out and how terrible she felt when they didn’t.

The audience hung on every word. No one cared that her voice cracked and shook, or that she would occasionally hit the wrong chords on the guitar and break into an embarrassed smile, or that Jacks, who harmonized with her in a high, clear tenor, stared at her for the entire show. Her unapologetic accent made tales of the heartbreak she’d both caused and endured seem much funnier. She told stories about boyfriends who won her over by saying things like, “I’d crawl over twenty miles of bad country to listen to you pee in a tin cup on the telephone.” She told how she’d given monogamy a shot in Austin until she started an affair in the H-E-B on aisle 6B between the birthday cards and the gift wrap and then returned in desperation to Lubbock, where Jesus told her the meaning of life: “Don’t you ever even worry about keeping that beat. You just let the beat keep you.” After her last song, “Vaginal Angel,” the crowd gave her a standing ovation, insistently whooping and cheering. She stood on the stage holding hands with Jacks, bowing and smiling. She loosened up a little. They’d seemed to like it okay.

Jo Carol backstage at Capitol City Playhouse in 1993. Courtesy of Lynn Keller.

It was 1989, at Austin’s Chicago House, and Jo Carol, a middle-aged social worker known (if at all) as the first wife of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, was turning a lifetime of depression, anger, and romantic misadventure into a work of performance art, saying things about sex and feminism and religion and West Texas in a way no one had ever done before. It didn’t take long for Austin songwriters to notice; soon they were covering her songs and even recording their own versions on a tribute album, before she herself had recorded a single note. Eventually Jo Carol released her own album and toured the country; fans couldn’t get enough of a brash, funny woman singing openly and outrageously about sex. They compared the wit and pathos of her monologues to Dorothy Parker, her sexual agency and emotional urgency to Joni Mitchell, and her ability to break your heart to Leonard Cohen. If you had to categorize Jo Carol, she was a country artist, but country music never had the brazen feminist anger of “Does God Have Us by the Twat or What?” And no one in Nashville ever had the eschatological spunk to end an album with the Second Coming taking place in the produce section of an H-E-B. “Her closest comparisons are not American,” says writer Michael Ventura, who happens to be an ex-boyfriend. “In both content and in structure, she writes in the vein of Kurt Weill.”

How Jo Carol went from adventurous Lubbock teen to single mother working the midnight shift of a state abuse hotline to one of Austin’s most celebrated songwriters is a story unlike any other in Texas music history. “Before all that happened,” she said recently, “I was really just a person who played at my house. Suddenly I was kind of semi-famous. It was something that put a stamp of okayness on me that has lasted the rest of my whole life. It made my mama say things like, ‘If we had known how talented you were, we would have done things differently.’ ”

A generation later, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth is largely forgotten and, as far as iTunes and Spotify go, nonexistent. Jo Carol is retired and living in South Austin with her fourth husband. When she’s not driving her youngest granddaughter around town or plotting how to remove the first letter from the street signs on nearby Slaughter Lane, she’s writing a follow-up that she hopes will dramatize what she’s wrestling with these days. The title gives away the whole story: Bad Girls Get Old.

You meant nothing by it, you were just falling
Like a loose diamond falls
Like it was your true calling
And the night was your dance hall.
—“Loose Diamond,” Bad Girls Upset by the Truth

Growing up in tiny Wellington, 130 miles northeast of Lubbock, Jo Carol was a daddy’s girl. In 1946, when she was two years old, her father, Joe Edwin Pierce, a.k.a. Joey, moved the family to Coulee City, Washington, where he and her mother, Virginia, published a small newspaper. Jo Carol learned to read sitting in his lap as he set type for the paper. “He was just tickled with me,” she says. “He was always pushing me toward my own power and independence.” But business troubles forced Joey, a World War II veteran, back into flying planes for the Navy during the Korean War. At first he was a flight trainer in eastern Washington, where, to amuse Jo Carol and her two younger sisters, he would buzz their house. Then he was transferred to Naval Base Coronado, in Southern California, so he and Virginia relocated the family to nearby Imperial Beach. Soon, Joey shipped off to Korea.

Joe Edwin Pierce with his three daughters (from left), Cynthia, Beth, and Jo Carol in 1952.

Jo Carol never saw him again. In 1954, on the night before he was due to return home, his plane went down in a storm, in Okinawa, where he was performing training exercises. The family was devastated, and Virginia moved Jo Carol and her (now) three sisters to Lubbock so she could get a Ph.D. in psychology at Texas Tech. Jo Carol often dreamed of her father; once she woke up convinced he had more power than Jesus. She missed him and his encouragement, and her loneliness got worse when her overburdened mother married a man Jo Carol considered abusive. At age fourteen Jo Carol tried to kill herself. “It was hard for me. So this one time, I took all the pills I could find in the house.”

Her mother took her to several psychiatrists, but what saved Jo Carol’s life, she says now, was latching on to her dad’s memory to remind herself what it felt like to be happy. One recollection in particular stuck with her, and it would eventually help shape her as a songwriter decades later: “He showed me how a diamond would scratch glass, and that fascinated me. I stole my mother’s diamond engagement ring and brought it to school to show the other kids, and the teacher took it up. My mother was upset, and my dad took me over to the teacher’s house to get it, and he was not mad at me at all. He was singing and went in and got it, and there was never a word of rebuke.”

I need to know Jesus fully. Jesus in a brown leather jacket. Or you know that kinda thuggy Jesus with the hooded eyes, like Robert Mitchum? Or the Jesus you wanna make biscuits for? Or the Jesus you wanna wrestle with? Or the Catholic Jesus? Or the Jesus that’s so good in bed you think he’s Catholic but really he’s not?
—Monologue, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth

Neither of Jo Carol’s parents was particularly religious, and she wasn’t either, though she went to church and, while visiting her grandmother, attended a Primitive Baptist church camp where she learned to harmonize with boys. It was a game changer. “We had to be close together,” she remembers, “and my sounds from deep within intermingled with their sounds. Music and sexual attraction got mixed with religion.” Jo Carol found herself falling in love with Jesus, but not the one in the paintings at church. He was too passive, she thought. Jo Carol’s Jesus was adventurous, a rebel. He had a glint in his eye.

So it was no surprise that, as Jo Carol moved through adolescence, she found herself hanging out with boys more than girls. She got the validation and escape that she craved, and she also found herself practicing romance as “life’s biggest thrill.” One of her sisters had told her, “You can’t know boys. The only way you can know them is if you sleep with them. Then you know everything.”  There weren’t, in fact, 157 boys, but she found if she could keep one foot in the romance and one foot out the door, she could have fun while staying emotionally remote. Even when depressed, she could see this drove the boys wild.

The boys she ran with were creative types who liked her easy laugh and quick wit. They read strange books and listened to early rock and roll, rebelling against all things Lubbock, a starkly conservative place. Later, a few of them—Gilmore, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock—would add their own chapters to the Texas songbook, but for now they were just learning how to play their guitars while trying to get through high school. Gilmore hung out with gamblers and bootleggers who taught him songs, and he would show them to his friends. They were misfits who fit together, turning old tunes into a new sound in one another’s living rooms. And Jo Carol was one of the guys, until she wasn’t.

Mother Mary, won’t you meet me down at the zoo?
We got some phylogenetic talking to do.
Why won’t you tell me what the deal is and what it’s not?
Does God have us by the twat or what?
—“Does God Have Us By the Twat or What?” Bad Girls Upset by the Truth

One time, Jo Carol and the boys were gathered at a friend’s house where the bathroom was separated from the living room by a curtain. Jo Carol went in, sat down, and was startled by the silence. Finally, she heard one of her friends say, “You know, when women pee, it’s just that real high-pressure sound.” She couldn’t explain why this moment—which haunted her for decades—hurt her feelings so much. It was like they were culling her from the herd. Already many of her friends were writing songs and playing them for each other. Jo Carol was writing too, but she rarely showed anyone anything. She didn’t have the courage. But she also felt she wouldn’t be taken seriously. She wanted the recognition her male friends got for being creative, but she felt it was never going to come.

She got the message: the way to be involved with music was to be involved with a musician. In 1964 she married Gilmore. They had known each other for years but hadn’t started dating until they were both at Texas Tech, where she studied biology and math. Soon Jo Carol was pregnant, and they got engaged, and though she miscarried, they tied the knot anyway. Jimmie and Jo Carol were the first married couple in their circle of friends, and soon they were the first parents too, after she got pregnant again and had a girl, Elyse. Their friends hung out at their place, turning their living room into a West Texas bohemia, where the boys argued politics and taught one another songs. Jo Carol found herself talking with the girlfriends in the kitchen, then cleaning up the bottles and cigarette butts later on.

A 1994 photograph of some of the cast of Chippy (clockwise from top left, Pierce, Wayne Hancock, Jo Harvey Allen, Robert Earl Keen, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, and Terry Allen). Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden.

In 1965 she and Gilmore dropped out of Tech and moved to Los Angeles with Elyse to check out the emerging counterculture. He did just that, playing gigs in Hermosa Beach. She didn’t, getting a job as a clerk at an insurance agency on top of taking care of their daughter. Jo Carol had been waiting all her life to get out of Lubbock, and here she was in the same old pattern. She felt taken advantage of, stuck. “Man,” her mother told her, “you girls got the worst of both worlds.”

The next year, the couple drove back to Lubbock and divorced. Jimmie moved into a house on 14th Street with Ely and Hancock. Memphis had Sun Records, Detroit had Motown, Lubbock had the house on 14th Street, where the three formed the Flatlanders. Jesse “Guitar” Taylor lived there too, as did budding writer Michael Ventura, who turned the experience into his first novel, Night Time Losing Time. Meanwhile, Jo Carol moved back to California, this time to Berkeley, where she got a job as a social worker while raising Elyse on her own. At one point, Elyse asked, “Only women work, right?” which made Jo Carol even angrier.

Well, I got in a world of trouble going from Secret Dan to Secret Dan. I got a bad reputation in my peer group. . . . And everybody was discouraging me from falling in love. They’d say, “Jo Carol, why can’t you do something you’re good at?” And so I tried to explain to them why I had to do these very upsetting things. I said, “Look, the reason I cannot pass up a single Secret Dan is that each one of them is just another side of Jesus. . . . And I need to know Jesus fully.”
—Monologue, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth

Jo Carol wasn’t done walking her spiritual path. She continued to seek the true, uncritical love she’d gotten from her father, but no sooner would she get it than she’d throw it away. “I wanted them to do something to prove it,” she says, “like let me be married to them and date. I would be happy then!” She broke off a brief engagement to guitarist Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson when her old friend Jesse Taylor came through town with Jimmie’s band. Jo Carol fell hard for the tattooed, hard-living guitarist, and the next day he told Jimmie he wasn’t going back to Lubbock. He was moving to Austin with Jo Carol and Elyse.

It was the end of the sixties, and she and Taylor were happy—which was her signal to get out before things got bad, so she did. She spent the seventies working and raising Elyse; toward the end of the decade, she married a university professor, but that lasted only four months. In the early eighties, she enjoyed a longer and happier marriage to the owner of a music equipment store. But in the end, none of her unions could withstand her flirtations and outright infidelities. She was miserable. “I was breaking my own heart all the time,” she said. “The last divorce completely broke me.”

I should’ve gone the way I came
Like a flicker in her flame
And left her there remembering
How my diamond scratched her windowpane.
—“Scratch Upon her Windowpane,” Bad Girls Upset by the Truth

Her friends tried to persuade her to check herself into a mental hospital. Instead, with her daughter safely in college, Jo Carol entered a monastery. It was the Bodhi Manda Zen Center, in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. She would get up at five, meditate, eat breakfast, and go back to her room, where, finally, she felt herself free to write. She found she had a lot to say, and the songs poured out, most of them about a half-daring, half-lost young woman from Lubbock who asks Jesus, “What are these boys for, and what am I supposed to do with them?” She wrote a rocker about Secret Dan, the archetype who kept luring her out of happy relationships, and a sad song called “Vaginal Angel” about how, all along, her spiritual journey might really have been a way to deal with her father’s death. She wrote about God and the devil, the paradise of love, the hell of being alone. And she wrote about diamonds and a character who embodied her idea of innocent love. Of course she named that character Joey.

The songs were funny, smart, and terrifying—and they kept coming. She stayed at the monastery for most of 1984, writing about sex and suicide and romantic ecstasy and resentful submissiveness. She would have stayed longer, but a friend of hers got her a deal to co-write a script for a movie. She moved back to Austin and into an apartment complex in South Austin owned by Willie Nelson that was popular with musicians. She kept writing songs, singing them to herself alone in her living room. At night, she’d keep her window open so she could hear the music coming from a nearby club.

Soon she fell in with a local theater group that was writing a guerilla play called In the West: Living Portraits Avedon Would Die For. The play was a reaction to a book of black and white photos of modern working-class Westerners taken by Richard Avedon called In the American West. Jo Carol and her new friends thought the photos were condescending to their subjects, so they wrote their own sketches, which brought the subjects to life. Suddenly Jo Carol wasn’t writing alone anymore, and there was a community of creative people that wanted her for something other than tidying up. She got to act too, playing a couple of characters, including a female highway worker who hadn’t wanted Avedon to take her picture.

In the West became a hit, and Jo Carol—now a playwright and a songwriter on top of being a social worker—started hanging out with creative partners, not romantic ones. First came Jacks, who was well known in the local punk scene and was friends with iconoclastic singers like Exene Cervenka and Debbie Harry, with whom he wrote a song for the soundtrack of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation—in which he played Leatherface. Jacks saw a similar creative force in Jo Carol and loved singing with her in her living room. A friend of his recorded them on a cassette tape, Jo Carol banging out the songs on an old guitar and singing in her raspy voice in harmony with Jacks’s high one. “Robbie had a lot of friends,” she says, “and he spread that cassette around, and it spread like wildfire. I was amazed.”

They give their bodies to the music
’Cause the music knows what to do.
For the bad girl who has forgotten
Who she is and who to give it to.
The music knows what to do.
—“Vaginal Angel,” Bad Girls Upset by the Truth

The homemade tape drew more musicians to hear Jo Carol play in her sparsely furnished apartment. One of them was David Halley, another Lubbock singer and songwriter whose “Hard Livin’ ” had been a top ten hit for Keith Whitley. Halley knew Jo Carol socially, but he wasn’t prepared for “Vaginal Angel,” or any of the other songs. “She wasn’t taking off from somebody else’s viewpoint or trying to create favor with anyone,” he remembers. “And that’s the way it hit all of us.”

In 1989 Jo Carol, now working the state abuse hotline, landed a weekly gig at Chicago House, just off Sixth Street. She was still working on the songs and monologues, rewriting through the week—making them funnier and more heartbreaking on Wednesdays, performing on Thursdays. The small crowds grew as people returned to hear the material, none of which was on tape or record, as well as to watch Jo Carol develop her charming onstage persona: clever one minute, bewildered the next.

“Does God Have Us By the Twat or What?” performed at Capitol City Playhouse in 1993. Courtesy of Lynn Keller.

Musicians made up a big part of her audience. All the boys from Lubbock, who had never thought to ask if she wanted to play music in the living room back in the sixties, came to see her play in Austin in the nineties. Soon Jo Carol added to her odd duo, bringing in accordion player Mike Maddux, singer Kim Longacre, and guitarist Halley. Jo Carol gave him the role of Joey, and he sang the songs about diamonds. Younger songwriters came too, like Troy Campbell (who renamed his band Loose Diamonds) and Michael Hall (now an executive editor at Texas Monthly), who were so entranced by Jo Carol’s songs they began putting together a tribute album to her. Musicians from all over the Austin music scene—punk rockers, folkies, pop bands—lined up to record her songs. Terry Allen, Ely, and Gilmore did too. Across the Great Divide: Songs of Jo Carol Pierce became the best-selling Austin album in 1992, and at that year’s Austin Music Awards, it won best album and Jo Carol won best songwriter.

Not long after that, Campbell produced an album-length version of the entire Bad Girls, and she and a small band hit the road for a national tour that played in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Jaston Williams of Greater Tuna fame produced Bad Girls as a stage play in Atlanta, and Jo Harvey Allen cast Jo Carol alongside her husband, Terry Allen; Ely; and Hancock in a musical called Chippy. Jo Carol, along with the rest of the troupe, played Lincoln Center in 1994.

“For a while,” Campbell says, “Jo Carol was a rock star.”

In the spirit of reconciliation, Jesus had sent me the only boy in the world who could ease my aching heart, the boy whose diamond had scratched my windowpane. . . . “Joey, I had the sweetest dream about you and me the other night. I dreamed that we were reunited.”
—Monologue, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth

On a warm Sunday afternoon in April, Jo Carol sat in the living room of her South Austin ranch house, drinking coffee out of a green metal thermos, surrounded by pieces of her improbable life. In the entryway was an unfinished portrait of Jesse Taylor. Over the piano hung posters from shows she and her band had played at Austin clubs during the nineties and aughts. Those clubs are now closed, and she never again came close to the fame of Bad Girls, though in 2008 her band recorded an album of her songs called Dog of Love.

The piano is one of the places where she’s been working on new songs that she hopes will someday become Bad Girls Get Old, the late-in-life sequel to her seminal work of middle age. Jo Carol also writes in the car and on random pieces of paper whenever the inspiration hits her. She doesn’t know where the songs come from, they just fall out of her in pieces. One is called “Bitchy Baby Mama,” another “There She Lies.” The lyrics of “We Didn’t Come Here to Stay” show how she’s wrestling with mortality:

These things are still good:
Coffee so hot and so black,
Topo Chico so cold.
And this ring looks like it’s been in a car wreck,
But it’s still gold.
Find what you want, carry it away.
We didn’t come here to stay.

Jo Carol looked around at the art on the wall. Every piece was created by her fourth husband, Guy Juke, who was still asleep in the bedroom. Juke, who is 65, paints until dawn, then goes to bed. She calls him Jukie, which is pretty close to Joey if you think about it, which she says she hasn’t. Juke is one of a group of legendary Austin poster artists whose lineage goes back to the Armadillo World Headquarters. The two got together in 1991, when Sharon Ely, Joe’s wife, was creating an art installation for which Juke painted a yellow rose on a black velvet coat and Jo Carol wrote monologues. The fact that they fell in love taking part in a show called “The Wedding at the End of the World” is a little on the nose if you think about it, but she swears she never noticed.

All of a sudden, Jo Carol was happily married. She mostly stopped writing, or, as she puts it, “I fell out of the story.” She was no longer trying to invent her version of feminism in the stifling oppression of Lubbock. She was no longer trying to heal the hurt caused by her father’s death. She was no longer trying to, as she put it all those years ago, “keep her future a secret from her past.” She was happy. “And who wants to hear about that?” she said, laughing.

Now Jo Carol says she is climbing back into the story. Ventura, who calls her the “most underrated Texas artist of her generation,” has offered to print her complete works via his and his wife’s publishing house, LettersAt3amPress, which released Joe Ely’s novel, Reverb, in 2014. Terry Allen has invited her to contribute an audio track to Road Angel, his acclaimed art installation at Laguna Gloria, in Austin.

Most important, there are the new songs. If Bad Girls Upset by the Truth was motivated by the internal conflicts that stemmed from her father’s death, the songs in Bad Girls Get Old are driven by acceptance but also by regret: about what happened as well as the fact that it’ll never happen again.

“I was always either trying to get into a relationship or out of one, which is not a good way to live, especially if you have a kid. But the falling-in-love part sure was great.” Jo Carol might have grown old, but that doesn’t mean she’s turned into a good girl.

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