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'You Gotta Write Your Own Blues'
by Buddy SeigalRecently at the Casbah in San Diego, Dave Alvin put on a concert that lasted well more than two hours and ranks among the Top 10 shows I've seen this decade. Performing signature tunes from his days with the Blasters and X and from his six solo albums, the guy was on fire, and the sold-out crowd got their eyebrows singed. So much for Alvin's long-held paranoia about California audiences south of LA disdaining his post-Blasters work. Among the screaming throng were various members of the San Diego music-scene elite, Hell's Angels, rockabillies, punks, cowboys, squirming hippies in Grateful Dead T-shirts, middle-aged normals, and a variety of delightful alcoholics from all walks of life.
"That's kind of my audience: people who don't fit into categories," Alvin acknowledges with a laugh.
That's also his kind of music. Alvin's latest album, Blackjack David, is a marvel of literate songwriting, tasty musicianship, eclectic song structures and consistent intelligence-arguably the crown jewel in his catalogue. Alvin borrows elements of myriad roots music to arrive at something evolutionarily offbeat, like the duckbilled platypus if the platypus could play guitar.
Perhaps this miscegenation works because Alvin started listening to American roots music a long, long time ago, when he was a tyke from Downey. Dave and his older brother Phil were weird kids. They didn't bop to the Beatles and the Monkees like most '60s poo-butts; they collected blues 78s and hung around the wrong side of town, looking to make contact with their heroes.
"By the time I was 12, we had Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles records. And then we realized these guys were there," says Alvin. "Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker lived in LA. Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson and guys like that were playing neighborhood bars, joints. So we just started following them around."
The peculiar-looking brothers with the Easter-Island foreheads befriended LA's blues legends and apprenticed at their feet. In 1979, guitarist/songwriter Dave and singer Phil linked forces with bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman, and the Blasters were born-pianist Gene Taylor and sax legend Lee Allen joined the lineup a couple of years later.
In 1980, the Blasters released American Music on the tiny Rollin' Rock Records; a self-titled album was released by Slash the following year. The group performed a driving, dynamic hybrid of rockabilly, blues and R&B and were an immediate sensation.
But their introduction to the big time was less than auspicious: in a positively twisted bit of billing, the macho, swaggering Blasters' first foray into major touring was as an opening act for Queen, then the biggest thing in swishy glam rock.
"We were playing a roller disco in LA," Alvin recalls, his giggle bones all a-twitter at the memory. "They had the band set up in the middle of the rink. Corny as the idea was, we had to play there because the money was unbelievable. I remember one time, Susie Chapstick was there, skating around us, and we were just in hysterics! 'Hey, there's Susie Chapstick!' And then one day, three guys from Queen came down and saw us. They had that rockabilly hit at the time ["Crazy Little Thing Called Love"], and they thought it would be a good idea to have us open for them. [Adopting prissy English accent] They thought that would be very cleh-vah."
While the Queen tour served to introduce the Blasters to audiences outside LA, the experience was often nightmarish. "Sometimes, we wouldn't be anywhere in the ads. Then at the show, the lights would go down, and 4,000 people are screaming, expecting to see Queen. They're all going berserk, and four guys from Downey get onstage. The pack mentality couldn't handle it," Alvin says with a laugh. "Some of those shows got pretty ugly."
The Blasters were embraced by nascent punk, new wave and rockabilly crowds, though, and the group developed a reputation for particularly fearsome live performances. Phil's purple-faced, death's-head leer and Dave's acrobatic stage flailing were trademarks of the Blasters' live shows, fondly remembered by anyone lucky enough to catch the band in its prime. Often billed with punk bands like X, the Plugz and Weirdos, pogo-crazed fans of the era didn't seem to mind that the Blasters were not actually a punk band. "We were a roots band, but we played really hard and really fast," Alvin says with a chuckle. "And back then, everyone knew each other. It was us against the world. It wasn't until later on that everything fell into a category."
The Blasters released three more albums on Slash-including 1983's criminally overlooked Non Fiction, an artful concept album full of prole politics-but the magic was wearing thin. Dave and Phil fought like hell, and so did everyone else in the band.
"We did this gig in Montreal in late October ," he says. "Phil starts changing the lyrics to 'Marie, Marie' to make fun of Bateman. Bateman starts throwing drumsticks at Phil, hitting him on the head. Gene gets pissed off and starts pounding the piano with his arms. I'm standing onstage going, 'This is NOT fun.'
"That was it."
Since then, the Blasters have been little more than Phil's backup group, with a revolving-if always solid-lineup of musicians that has included guitarists James Intveld, Greg Hormel and the late Hollywood Fats. The only constants have been Phil and Bazz.
"My complaint about the Blasters is that Phil hasn't taken it anywhere; he hasn't done anything with it," Dave laments. "He's calling it the Blasters, and it ain't the Blasters. The Blasters were a bunch of guys from Downey and Lee Allen. Some people still pay money to see the Blasters, and they think they're gonna get Bill Bateman and Dave Alvin and John Bazz. To this day, people come up to me and say: 'Hey! I see you guys are playing at the House of Blues!' Phil and I are brothers, but when it comes to music, we don't get along at all."
Just two days after leaving the Blasters, Alvin got a call from John Doe of X, asking him to replace Billy Zoom, who had just left the group. Alvin hung in there for a year and a half, recording the album See How We Are along the way as well as an album with X's hillbilly side project, the Knitters. But the lure of a solo career was already apparent.
"It was a gas playing in X from beginning to end," says Alvin. "It was great working in a band that didn't argue, didn't yell and didn't hit one another. But in X, you already had two great songwriters in John and Exene [Cervenka], and although they always encouraged me to write songs for the band, I'd always be a sideman. Then we brought Tony Gilkyson into the group, and it was like: 'This guy's a great guitar player. You guys don't need me. I have to go make my own records now.' I missed playing rootsier stuff."
Alvin then signed with Columbia records. In 1987, his first solo album, Romeo's Escape, was released. The album was an artistic triumph (if not up to snuff with Alvin's more recent output), but sales were slow. Alvin soon found himself feeling used-up.
"In 1987, I was $40,000 in debt," he recalls. "CBS pulled tour support, and I took every cent I had and put it into keeping my band on the road. Meanwhile, the CBS people were telling me I can't do anything rootsy-they wanted my next album to sound like the Eurythmics. They actually told me that! Then I stopped and looked back: I had been in two of the best bands of the '80s, been through all that shit. And by about '89 or '90, I realized nothing I'd ever done-not my solo album, not the Blasters, not X, not the Knitters-was in print anymore. I mean, Slim Whitman still had albums in print! LA is a company town, and it was like I didn't exist anymore. I was gone; I was history. And that's when I realized you can't play this kind of music and expect to live off a major-label schedule. You put a record out, and if it hasn't sold 800,000 units in three months, they drop you."
In 1990, Alvin signed with Hightone Records. At the age of 42, he has rebuilt his career and earned near-universal respect as one of America's finest singer/songwriters. Alvin has always earned respect for his songwriting, but early in his solo career, he was panned for his awkward, muggy vocals. With time, though, he's grown into his voice and is now an excellent interpreter of his own work. "It's nice not to have to go through reviews anymore and read, 'Well, his songs are good, but . . .'" he says.
He's also become renowned as a producer, with credits on albums by Chris Gaffney, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, the Derailers, Billy Bacon & the Forbidden Pigs, Sonny Burgess, and others.
Most bands he produces are roots purists; Alvin is nothing if not a cross-pollinator. "I think it's great that there are these imitators because it keeps the vocabulary alive," he says. "It's great that there are guys who can play T-Bone Walker note-for-note. It's great that there are people who can slavishly do western swing or the Bakersfield sound-that's where I come from. But I wanted to expand the palate and use everything out there, use Chicago blues and Texas blues and Carter Family mountain music or a Cajun melody or a Tex-Mex kind of thing. I don't want to be limited as a songwriter.
"At some point," he says, "you have to transcend all that and discover your own world. You gotta write your own blues."
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men perform at the Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 439-2119. Wed., 7 p.m. $12.