"Bob Dylan Was From Mars": The Dave Alvin Interview

"I'm Shakin'," the lead track from 1981's The Blasters, announced the Los Angeles-based rock and blues band's presence. The start-and-stop R&B track led by Phil Alvin's church revival voice and the twin saxophones of Steve Berlin (now in Los Lobos) and New Orleanian Lee Allen sounded ecstatic, and the performance was so traditional that it seemed -- during the heyday of the Los Angeles punk scene they were loosely a part of -- to come out of nowhere. The album featured a Professor Longhair-like rhumba ("Hollywood Bed") with Gene Taylor on piano, and a couple of great rockabilly tracks featuring the songwriting and stinging guitar of singer Phil Alvin's younger brother Dave. One song -- "American Music" -- became an anthem, and "Marie, Marie" is the sort of simple, joyous love song artists spend their careers trying to write. Buckwheat Zydeco would go on to record it on his 1987 album, On a Night Like This.

Roughly five turbulent years and three albums later, Dave Alvin embarked on a solo career, though the Blasters reunited in 2002, a show recorded for the Trouble Bound album, and again in 2003 for Going Home. As he told Mark Gould in 2002 for Sound Waves magazine, reunions are "like going home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. You don't want to live there, but it's still a gas while you're there."

As a solo artist, he won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2001 for Public Domain, a collection of red-blooded treatments of traditional folk and blues songs including an achingly beautiful "Shenandoah" and a rocking "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down." There and on the largely acoustic King of California (1994), he demonstrates his sensitivity for folk and quiet music, but much of 2004's critically acclaimed Ashgrove album shows he knows how to rock as well. The album is an electric guitar record by design, and his solos are the quintessential blues solos -- never showy, always eloquent, and always with a clear sense of purpose. In that sense, his playing mirrors his art.

Alvin's in a hotel in Santa Cruz, Calif. talking about the Blasters' first appearance in New York City at the Mudd Club, likely in 1981 and meeting the writer and one-time rock critic Nick Tosches:

A: Someone said, "Nick, this is Dave Alvin from the Blasters. Dave Alvin from the Blasters -- Nick Tosches." He looked at me and said, "If you buy me a beer, I'll like your band." (laughs) That wasn't our first gig in New York; it was our second or third. In a way, it was the unveiling.

We drove all the way out from California, so there was five, six -- we had the horns -- seven guys, plus a two-man road crew in a van pulling a trailer. We find our way down south of Houston Street, and we're literally about two blocks from the Mudd Club when the van just dies. Dies. We had to push the van. There was a line to get in and it was going down the block in front of the Mudd Club, and the whole band had to get out and push the van to the reserved parking place in front.

Q: At that point, traveling with that big of a band, was it possible to make any money?

A: For the Blasters? Oh yeah. We weren't millionaires or anything. Without going into details, once we started getting records out, we were making money. Everybody did all right for a while, there.

Q: I think about funk and R&B bands here struggling to make money on the road because of the size of the band.

A: It's difficult. Right now, I have a six-man band, and the sixth guy is me. Sometimes, depending on the venue I've been known to go up to seven or eight, but for the past five, six years, it's been a constant six-man band.

In a weird way, between airline flights, motel rooms, the cost of gasoline and a variety of other factors -- workman's comp, blah blah blah -- this is going to start sounding like a small business convention, but it's really hard.

Q: The economic realities are such a big part of the rock 'n' roll story.

A: Not just rock 'n' roll. It's similar but not the same as when, say, Count Basie cut down to a sextet.

It's difficult now; it was difficult then, too. I do alright now, but I road manage and manage myself. Now days, there's very little drinking and carousing on the road like there was 20 years ago because I'm in the room doing the books at the end of the night. (laughs)

Q: I've been curious why you carry two guitars and an organ?

A: The sound. It's a bigger sound.

I have a tendency, each time I reach a financial plateau, instead of taking the money and, whatever, buying French impressionistic paintings, I add an accordion player, or sometimes we shoot up to seven players. Probably in about 20 years, I'll have a 30-piece band.

Q: I love "Ashgrove," and in the song, I'm into the idea of casting the blues musician as a guy who picks up his lunch pail and goes to work -- "I play the blues 'cause that's what I do."

A: That's what they are. The reality is that there are one or two guys or gals in the history of American music that fit the blues mythology, but in general, they were people that worked. The people I knew growing up -- Big Joe Turner, people like that, Lee Allen -- it was a job. It's a skilled profession.

The same applies in a weird way if you go back in time all the way to Charlie Patton or someone like that. Charlie Patton was a professional musician. Take someone like Blind Willie McTell from Georgia. Here's a guy, the mythology is that he was stuck out on the street corner starving, but as they found relatives and found out more and more, he made enough; he had a three-bedroom apartment where he had one room just for his guitars. This is a pre-war blues singer.

Look at the city you're in. In New Orleans, that's what musicians were. From the time of Buddy Bolden on, they're guys who went to work. They played in whorehouses or in bars or on riverboats. They were workers.

Q: I've always thought it was important to remind people of that because the mythology around the blues singer and around most artists always seems to make art more mystifying and farther away from real people's lives. It's like the more you remind people that this music is the result of real people getting up and going to work, and talking about that makes art more accessible.

A: When I was a kid growing up, well, really up until being a young adult, well, hell, up until a couple of years ago, to me songwriters came from Mars. Bob Dylan was from Mars; he wasn't from Hibbing, Minn. He wasn't a kid, y'know what I mean?

There is a magical side and a mystical side to it. There's a mundane, workaday world thing, but what you're able to do as a musician is transcend that. Because you can transcend the mundane and the everyday -- if you're lucky -- that does add those qualities. People see that. They don't see me doing the books at night. They see James Brown doing the splits, but they don't see him the next morning paying his mortgage. It's a balance between the two.

Q: Many people go home and if they're frustrated or have something on their mind, they watch TV or something instead of figure out how to make a song.

A: Yeah, that's the new America. Or they become rappers.

It's also just the nature of humans to create myths around things. How do you explain that magic that happens, whether it's a blues singer or a spiritual singer or an opera singer? Some sort of magic, shamanistic thing happens; then how do you explain that? People go towards the more colorful because it's a better story.

Q: You said a few moments ago that it was only recently that songwriting stopped being an otherworldly thing for you. I think about what a good songwriter you've been for so long, and that's not something I expected to hear you say.

A: Me as a songwriter is kind of complicated. The band that I started writing for, the Blasters, we didn't start out to be a songwriter band. We started out to do Junior Parker covers, Professor Longhair covers, Carl Perkins covers. Then it morphed into becoming a band based on original songs. The guy on this tiny label that wanted to record us said he'd only do it if we had some original songs. To make a long story short, nobody else wrote any songs and I did. That was because I studied poetry and I had some very good teachers that forced the students to write sonnets and in blank verse, forced us to use meter correctly, blah blah blah. That was my only schooling in songwriting. It's like if songwriters built buildings, there would be some funny looking buildings, or the buildings would be beautiful because the blueprints would all be different. (laughing)

I did write songs when I was, like, six years old, but in my household it was not considered a career option. It wasn't until 10 or 12 years ago that I said, "Yeah, that's what I do." It was the second Blasters album, Non-Fiction, where I had to write the songs in a six-month period, and that's when I realized that I could write songs.

But it's still a mystery. Some of my friends and acquaintances are very methodical and very structured. I'm very much a folk song writer. I tend to let the field go fallow, then it all comes tumbling out in a mad rush.

Q: Do you have songs you end up not using, or songs you end up trashing part way through realizing, "This isn't getting anywhere." Does every song started find its way to completion?

A: It's a process of elimination. Since I don't have gigantic budgets to make a record, I can't say, "Okay, I'm going to write 33 songs, and record 25 of them and choose 10 or 12 from that 25. I don't have that option. If I'm midway through a song and it's going nowhere, it goes nowhere. I'm a real strict judge. Ask anyone who's co-written with me. I'm maybe the strictest guy to write with; maybe Lieber and Stoller were stricter. I don't know. In a way, it's a good thing.

On each album, there's one or two songs that we record but we'll never finish. We'll get the basic track and say, "Screw it, it's not cutting it." On this album, there's a very good song that's not on the record. It just didn't fit the theme. It did when I was writing it, and we tracked it. We had a pretty good track of it, but with all the survival themes on this record, this thing just didn't fit. It's sitting in the next room waiting for the next record.

Q: What has to be there to make a song good for you?

A: I don't know. I have no idea. Maybe years ago I could have told you, but it really does boil down to the cliche, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like."

Sometimes people I respect and people I don't respect will come up to mr and say, "So-and-so's a great songwriter. You have to check them out." I go check them out, and I go, "Huh? I don't get it." In a similar way that modern, contemporary poetry is difficult to critique because there's no firm aesthetic, it's the same way for me now with songs.

People send me their demos or a series of songs they've recorded, and they ask for my critique or my help, but if I'm not producing it, I won't do it because it's like, "I don't know." I listen to top 40 radio or whatever that is, and alternative radio, and I hear some good songs and I hear some songs that I don't think are great-written songs by people that are supposedly great songwriters, and I'm like, "Whatever."

Any song where the lyrics can tug on my heart strings, so that's anything from Charlie Patton to Smokey Robinson to Merle Haggard to Percy Mayfield. Take a New Orleans song like "Ooh Poo Pah Doo." Take Jessie Hill. It's a great song.

Q: What I like so much about that song is one of the things I like most in your writing. There's either a specific detail that makes a song go, or there's a specific, deliberate turn of phrase. I'm not sure what "Start a disturbance in your mind" is about, but I love the phrase.

A: That is a good line. One of my other favorite New Orleans lines is, "I've got to boogie woogie like a knife in the back." You can't top that one.

I like songs with lines like that. Take Bob Dylan. Bob's a pretty obscurist songwriter in most of his songs since "Highway 61." They've gotten more and more obscure and convoluted, and it works because Bob knows how to drop in those concrete images. He was not only influenced by Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, but also by the French Symbolists. If you read French symbolist poetry, you'll often go, "Huh?" but on the other hand, they'll drop in something that's so concrete, you go, "Ohmigod, that's great. I don't know what he's talking about, but that's great." In lesser hands, that kind of obscurity doesn't work, but great writers can do it.

There is a concrete image I look for in my songs and in others, that makes you go, "Yeah, that explains something." It goes back to what we were saying. That captures some kind of magic. There's a magic in the everyday, and if there isn't, we're done. You want to find an everyday thing, whether it's a brick or a nine-volt transistor radio, or whatever, and find the metaphor, find the magic in that thing. And by finding the magic, giving yourself a reason to get out of bed.

Q: That reminds me, how did you and Rod Hodges (of the Iguanas) come to write "Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart"?

A: Sitting down. (laughs) He came out to L.A. for a couple of days. We wrote a couple (of songs). We wrote another good one that I think they tracked but didn't use.

It's funny. We both were thinking the same thing before we met. It's usually the nice thing that happens in co-writing -- your brain is going somewhere and the person you're with, their brain is going the same places, but you're coming there from different directions. It's hard to explain, but at some point, somebody said, "Y'know, I was thinking about these radios Š"

"No kidding! So was I!" and then you get going.

Q: There was a point when I kept a list of songs about radios and how they affected people's lives and gave them the language to say what they felt, so I was glad to hear that theme revisited in that song.

A: I don't know how much longer that will be true. I'll have to write a song to talk radio in the future.

I think for a lot of musicians, when and where you hear music the first time is amazingly important. That's where you first get the magic that leads to your addiction to play music.

Q: My feeling is that music you hear between the ages of 16 and 18 is your musical home, and it's the music you always go back to.

A: I say it's even earlier. My brother Phil and I had amazingly hip older cousins. We were kid kids -- not teenagers, but kids -- I was five, six, seven years old and my cousin Donna was an R&B girl. She would play records until she wore them out, then she'd give them to us, so we'd have Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles records, and some rockabilly records and doo wop records from the West Coast. I had a cousin Mike who played banjo and guitar, and he was into Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack (Elliot), early Dylan. My cousin J.J., he was a country dude, so by the time I was 12, it was time to sneak into blues bars. (laughs)

We were blessed in that sense. Maybe you're right with most people. It's one of the reasons as a songwriter it's difficult. Ask Bob Dylan or any long-term songwriter why certain songs -- maybe some of your newer songs -- may be as good on every level as your older songs, but some of your older songs are going to mean more (to people). It's because that's the song somebody got their first date with, or lost their virginity to, or the first time they got drunk, or the first, whatever. All the major things that happen as a teenager, there's usually a soundtrack of music, whether it's Aerosmith or Snoop Dogg or Hank (Williams) Jr. No matter who the artist is, you hear it and that song becomes eternally associated with that event, so when Bob Dylan plays "Like a Rolling Stone," it gets more response than when he plays something off Time Out of Mind.

Q: Are you still writing poetry these days? (Alvin has one book of poetry, Any Rough Times Are Behind You Now.)

A: I'm always writing poetry in my head, yeah. That's how I tend to do it. I've been thinking about doing another book, but I have to take it real easy in a way because I get a little freaked out about this whole, sort of -- there was that period 10, 12 years ago when that whole "spoken word" thing was going on, and like I said, I studied poetry. If I know anything, I used to know a lot about that. I don't know what I know now. I do take it pretty seriously and I take Philip Levine and Billy Collins and writers like that pretty seriously as writers. I don't know whether the world needs another musician writing poetry books. Do we need another Jewel book? I don't know.

Q: I'd like to finish up talking about Lee Allen. How did you meet Lee Allen?

A: That's kind of complicated. Basically, there was a woman who was a blues singer named Mary Franklin. Her son Ernie was in a music store in our hometown (Downey, Calif.) and picked up a guitar and started playing. The guy who worked at the music store was a friend of ours, and the guy was playing like T-Bone Walker, so they got to talking about T-Bone Walker. Then one thing led to another and the next thing you know, Ernie Franklin brought Lee and Big Joe and his mom down to see my brother's band. I was about 13 or 14 and Phil already had a pretty good blues band going, and that was that. Mary Franklin wound up managing the band, and Lee and various other people started mentoring this whole group of kids, most of whom became the Blasters later on. So did Lee. (laughs)

Q: What did you learn from Lee?

A: A lot of shit, most of it not related to music. There was traditional R&B mentoring going on, and there were things that didn't make sense anymore. Lee always thought no matter what our single was, you go out and start the show with that, end with that and that's the encore, too. That's your single. (laughs)

That's old school R&B, so on one hand, you learn things like that, but on the other hand, you learn survival skills. That's really what you learn. It's not about learning ninth chords or certain scales or all that. You learn how to survive mentally because a lot of guys -- black, white, whatever; blues, jazz, bluegrass, whatever -- there's a great threat of becoming bitter and angry, and that closes you off to the world. Somebody like Lee Allen and Big Joe Turner and T-Bone -- did they deal with bitterness? Oh yeah, it was there in them, but they learned how to overcome it, where other guys maybe didn't. I can see it now in people. I run across people and realize, "Whoa, he didn't learn his skills." And I'm always cross-checking myself. It goes back to the last line of the song again: "It's just what I do." I was trying to strike a balance in the song between frustration and uncertainty and, "Hey, I get to do this for a living." That's the main thing. That, and Lee Allen taught me that I should not play saxophone. (laughs) He gave me a couple of sax lessons then gently pushed me away from it.