Dave Alvin’s songwriting talent first emerged a little over two decades ago when he formed the Blasters with his brother Phil and several lifelong buddies from the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, California. Rising from the wreckage of the Los Angeles punk scene with a fire-breathing blend of blues-based rock ‘n’ roll that left scorched earth long after their 1985 demise, everything about the band was impressive, but it was songs like “Dark Night” and “Blue Shadows,” with their magically direct lyricism, that cemented their timelessness and put Dave in a class by himself. After cutting an album of traditional honky-tonk with the Knitters-which included fellow LA. veterans Exene Cervenka and John Doe-Alvin joined their band X for a year before striking out on his own with his first solo album, 1987’s Romeo’s Escape. Eight albums later, his songs have been covered by Dwight Yoakam, Buckwheat Zydeco, Dale Hawkins and countless others, while 2000’s Public Domain: Songs Of The Wild Land garnered him an unexpected but much-deserved Grammy Award. Truly an unsung hero of American music, nobody captures the triumphs and tragedies of life’s back roads quite the way he does. A book of like-minded poetry, Any Rough Times Are Behind You Now, was published in 1995.
This year has been a busy one for Alvin. After Rhino released Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings, the Blasters celebrated the occasion with a few gigs that wound up becoming a live album [Troublebound] and led to a small tour. Almost simultaneously, Dave and his current band, the Guilty Men, released a live album as well, Out In California, that distills much of what he’s been doing in the last 15 years. I caught up with Dave just as he was about to finish his Blasters tour, shift gears and hit the road with the Guilty Men, who he’ll be bringing to the Parish;at House of Blues on Sunday, January 12. .
So you played a gig with the Blasters last night. How does it feel to be playing with that band again?
Pretty good. It’s nothing permanent, so I’ve always got one eye on the exit door, but it’s a family reunion, it’s Thanksgiving dinner at home, so it’s nice. The amazing thing to me is how much the band means to certain people. It’s just especially weird ’cause the music was out of print for so long and in this business if you’re out of print you don’t exist. When we did the first reunion gigs in March we just did five shows in California and it was almost like the Beatles or something. I was a little stunned. People were in these clubs just goin’ berserk to see five shlubs from Downey, California onstage together. We’ve done just about a month of gigs and it’s the same way everywhere we’ve been. So it’s been very gratifying.
I remember being 15-years-old and working the graveyard shift on the weekends at Azar’s Big Boy in South Bend, Indiana. All the waitresses were singing “Panama” by Van Halen, but “Red Rose” and “Border Radio” just played over and over again in my head all night long. The Blasters just blew my mind.
Well thanks, man. South Bend, that’s my Dad’s hometown. He grew up on Florence Avenue.
Yeah. He left during the Depression, he used to tell a story that the house that they grew up in was right next to a railroad track and he’d just lie there and listen to the trains. Then one day in ’32 or so he just got up, went out, jumped on the train and came to California.
Your father was a union organizer. Were his experiences a big influence on your writing?
Oh yeah. The biggest lesson he taught us was that you should always remember that whatever you read in the newspaper or see on TV, there’s another side to the story; or there’s many sides to it. He taught us that at a pretty young age so a lot of my songs come from the other side.
A lot of the characters that you celebrate in your songs seem to dwell in life’s forgotten fringes.
In day-to-day life that’s where the drama is. There’s drama, say, in a mansion, but most of the drama takes place where dreams and reality collide. So that’s where I place a lot of my songs.
Another thing I’ve noticed about your songs is that they embrace the American dream even with the knowledge that it often doesn’t pan out the way it’s supposed to.
Well, it’s there in the music. Those are the ideals on which the country was founded and whether it’s jazz or a garage band, music is the one place where those ideals come to fruition because it’s just a big melting pot. Music knows no color; you can’t segregate music. It’s gonna drift and float in the air.
There’s a strain of wounded patriotism that not only runs through most of your songs, but seemed to encompass everything the Blasters represented. That was very rare during the Reagan years.
There was a lot of confusion–or misunderstanding maybe-among some people in those days over the song “American Music.” Especially one or two writers in England kind of trying to peg us as a Reagan band, which was the furthest thing from the truth. Patriotism got sort of coopted by the right and when that happened the left started to disown it on any level. I don’t see the difference between the American experience of…let’s say a news commentator for Fox News. I don’t see why his quote unquote “American Experience” is any more valued or real than Blind Lemon Jefferson’s. They’re both Americans and everybody’s got their own view of it. To me, like I said, it’s in the music. When you study American folk music all the history of the country’s right there. All the blood and deceit and envy and jealousy, it’s all right there in the music, and the music is what triumphs. Folk music — whether it’s acoustic or electric — is survival music, it’s music that helps you understand an un-understandable world, so that’s why you play it; it’s your therapy. It’s the reason why a blues guy gets up every morning and starts playing guitar, ’cause the music is what gets you through.
I’ve heard both blues and punk fans say, unequivocally, that when they first saw the Blasters they didn’t know what to make of you guys because they just weren’t used to seeing anyone play music with that kind of ferocity.
It’s funny, with the gigs that we’re doing now in many ways we’re a better band than we ever were, but it’s exactly the same energy level. You’d think 20 years on we would have slowed down but there’s something chemical that happens when these five guys play together. It gets pretty intense, there’s no laying back. [laughter] It’s a good and bad thing, but it’s pretty intense having the five guys play. When we were little kids — all the guys in the band — we got to be close with some of the older performers like Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker and people like that and so in some ways we kind of look at it as we’re part of a tradition and our job is to pass it along, keep it going.
I think one of the things that made the Blasters so special is that the band had such an even-handed view of different musical styles. I know a lot of people don’t feel this way, but to me blues and punk rock are very much the same thing.
That was the way we looked at it. If you could play blues or rockabilly or bluegrass with the same sort of intensity as the punk bands were playing three-chord rock then it was easy to see the connection. I mean, with “Marie, Marie” I was trying to write a Balfa Brothers song. A song for the Balfa Brothers as if Chuck Berry had played it. The way that we saw it — and the way that we still see it — is that the connecting tissue of American music, the bridge between all the different styles basically boils down to the blues form. So you get Miles Davis and Hank Williams and Dick Dale together and what would they play? I know what they’d play — they’d say “Blues in G!” [laughter] From Jimmie Rodgers the Blue Yodeler to Bob Dylan, no matter what cosmetic stylistic differences there are, the thread has always been the twelve bar blues form. Because of its all-pervasive influence, you can connect all those musics together using that form or those tonalities. Because I can hear blues in Bob Wills, besides junior Wells, it connects all of that.
How does playing with the Blasters compare to playing with the Guilty Men?
What I enjoy about the Guilty Men is the guys that sort of morphed into this band, they all come from different musical backgrounds — from honky tonk guys to blues guys to rock ‘n’roll guys, they could be anything. And in the Blasters, towards the end of the band I was trying to, for lack of a better term, push the envelope and see how far the Blasters would go musically. And we pushed it to about the edge of what the Blasters would do. [laughter] Not what they could, but what they would. I’m basically playing the same stuff now but what I’ve tried to do in the years since is use all the styles of American music. In the Blasters there was a heavy Memphis influence and a heavy New Orleans influence and a heavy Chicago influence. All that stuff is still there, but in the Guilty Men I can do West Coast country or I can do Chicago blues or I can do an Appalachian folk ballad and I don’t try to limit it, because as a songwriter that gets constricting.
When you were growing up, did you always see yourself becoming a musician?
No, I didn’t see myself as a musician until a few years ago. For years I just thought of myself as very, very lucky. When the Blasters got together we were all working day jobs. When we were teenagers there were all these guys that we knew that all played music and some of them were amazing guitar players and musicians. By the time we were in our early twenties, most of those guys were gone; they were either dead or in jailor just missing and we were like the last guys left. We put the band together because I found out I was the same age as Johnny Rotten and I really liked the Sex Pistols. I figured what the hell-it’s worth a shot. The whole purpose of the band was to get together and play old R&B covers and blues covers and the occasional rockabilly or country cover. We didn’t get together and say “Okay, we’re gonna be a songwriter band, one guy’ll write ’em and one guy’ll sing ’em.” That just kind of evolved organically, there was never a plan. The whole goal then — as now — is we just wanted to play the music we loved and not work day jobs. I can’t get too highfalutin’ about anything because I’m very lucky to be where I am. My whole goal is to be a better musician I still practice and set goals like “By the end of this year I’ll be able to play a Big Bill Broonzy song.”
Had you already been writing songs when you started the Blasters?
I’d written songs all my life. When I was a kid I used to sit in my mom’s car and just make up songs. We realized we couldn’t ever get a record deal just doing covers and we wanted to make at least one record. So we had a band meeting and said “Okay, next week everybody show up with two songs” And I showed up with three and nobody else showed up with any. Suddenly [ was a songwriter. So that was really a nuke. Sort of like being a musician; there was a few years before I actually considered myself a songwriter and occasionally I still wonder just ’cause it’s a weird thing It’s not what I chose to do; it’s just, one day I was a songwriter.
Did you guys ever feel a distance from anyone in school because your tastes were so different?
To some extent, yeah. It used to be you’d get invited to a party but it would always have the caveat of “Don’t bring your records.” [laughter] And I listened to current rock ‘n’ roll at the time too but our love was the older stuff. It was like we led double lives. You’d have this sort of day-to-day life of trying to get through school and then you’d be sneaking off at night to see Lightnin’ Hopkins and living in that world.
Then there was the West Coast country scene. You must have watched the Town Hall Party TV show when you were growing up.
When I was a kid, there was a car dealer named Cal Worthington who had Saturday nights on a local independent channel; he bought the whole night. So you would see Town Hall Party, quasi-syndicated shows from Nashville like the Kitty Wells Show, but then you’d also see the West Coast guys and gals. And you’d hear it. You’d go into a burger joint and-depending on what kind of burger joint you were in-the jukebox would be full of West Coast country stuff. So it was very much around.
There are all these misconceptions that Southern California doesn’t have any soul, yet truth be told, it’s such a cultural melting pot. I think a lot of people miss that.
Our area, if you go over to the eastern side of LA. County, not Hollywood or Beverly Hills but the other side, there was a lot of music ’cause there had been a lot of the sort of economic diaspora from the South and the Midwest that had taken place during the Depression and the Dust Bowl, as well as the aerospace industry after World War II. You could access, in those days, just about any type of traditional American music you wanted. You could go into different bars and hear blues guys, honky tonk singers, Norteno singers. It was a good mix, so we were very fortunate. At the time we just thought “This is really cool, man!” but in hindsight it was really easy to strip off the veneer of pop culture to find the folk culture underneath it. So that’s what we we’re doing.
Beyond those who moved to California and brought their cultural backgrounds with them, there are a lot of great musicians who grew up there as well.
I can list, right off the top of my head, three songwriters born and raised in California: Merle Haggard, Tom Waits and Brian Wilson. There’s a big contrast there. People outside of California think of Hollywood and Beverly Hills but they don’t realize that there are several different Californias.
When you started to go out and see guys like T-Bone and Big Joe, how did you end up being friends with them?
We literally followed ’em around so they got used to seeing these little white kids hangin’ around. And we’d always be asking dumb questions like “Who played the sax on that record you made in 19467” and they were always like “How the hell should I know?” But, yeah, especially Lee Allen who was later in the Blasters and Big Joe; we got to be pretty close lifelong friends. I knew Lee from about the age of 13 or 14 for the rest of my life until he passed away. In the early days he tried to give me sax lessons and mercifully I dropped that. He very gently kind of nudged me away from the saxophone. Lee and Joe and some other guys who were more obscure, they just took us under their wings; showed us the ropes as much as they could.
The Blasters used to come to New Orleans a lot, you guys were really loved here. Inside the booklet of Testament, there’s a poster from when you played Tipitina’s, which is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
The first time we ever played New Orleans we played Tip’s and then we did Jimmy’s and then we came back to play Tip’s with Lee with us. The dressing room was upstairs and there were these two big rooms. In one room were all these rockabilly and punk kids hangin’ out, drinkin’ and all that. And in the other room was Dave Bartholomew and the whole Fats band; they’d come down to see Lee. So there was this great party going on upstairs, Lee’s introducing us to everybody. The gig, I remember, was probably okay. But I remember the backstage really well ’cause it was such a good contrast; the perfect Blasters concept.
It must have been a pretty cool feeling to have been playing in New Orleans with Lee Allen.
Oh yeah. He’s one of the guys who defined that sound, that ’50s New Orleans sound. Whenever we played New Orleans with Lee there were like eight million old friends of his there. I just hope we didn’t embarrass him, that’s all I can say! We tried our best. [laughter]