May 11, 2001
A founding member of the immortal roots-rock band The Blasters, Dave Alvin has built a stellar solo career around impeccable guitar playing and timeless songwriting. The garrulous Alvin paused from packing for relocation to a more pine tree-friendly section of Los Angeles to address the mysteries of American music, electricity, and life in a California home guarded by cartoon heroes Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil.
B&W: Have any rolling blackouts hit you yet?
Alvin: No, in L.A. we have a different power company, and they actually planned ahead [laughs]. So while Bakersfield or Fresno or San Francisco lose power, we’re fine. It’s the one thing in L.A that works [laughs].
B&W: Besides reliable electricity, what’s the attraction of living in L.A.?
Alvin: A few things. Silly things. Mexican food’s the best. And when you grow up out here, that becomes real important. I haven’t found better Mexican food anywhere else. My Texas friends and I always debate that. And the weather. And also the fact that within half an hour I can be in the mountains, or within an hour I can be in the middle of the desert. It’s good for a writer.
B&W: What was the coolest thing about radio for a kid in California in the ’60s?
Alvin: Well, the greatest thing was the border radio stations, because you could hear 50,000 watts, clear channel, just across the border in Tijuana. At night it would be r&b. You could hear everything from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bobby Blue Bland, doo wop, whatever.
B&W: Were you going to shows as a kid?
Alvin: Oh, yeah. My brother Phil and I–when I was about 12, I guess–we started sneaking into bars. We found out that one of the great things about California is that every type of music was here. When I was a kid, I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins 45 or 50 times. People like T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner became actual family friends because we were these little white kids that pestered them. So that was my education.
B&W: At what age did you and Phil begin playing in bands?
Alvin: Well, he started a band pretty early on, and I was never good enough to be in it. So I was always in bad bands [laughs]. It wasn’t until we started The Blasters that we finally played together. I mean, not even around the house. There was a hierarchy. There were a lot of great musicians in our hometown. There were guys who could play exactly like Jimmy Reed or exactly like T-Bone Walker or exactly like Eric Clapton. And they’d come over and play guitar, and we always had guitars in the house. They’d play, leave, and then I’d pick up the guitar and imitate what they did.
B&W: What year did The Blasters begin?
Alvin: We started in March of 1979 but didn’t really come up with a name until, like, July [laughs]. Our first regular gig was playing for free beer in a biker bar in Long Beach. It took us about eight months to just get a gig, because Downey was so far from L.A., a different world, you know? It’s on the east side, and the east side is more or less the blue-collar area. L.A. “proper” is the west side.
B&W: Would you tell me a Ramblin’ Jack Elliot story [Alvin did a stint as Elliot's guitar player]?
Alvin: My favorite Jack story that’s printable was when just he and I were riding one night on the interstate that runs by the Mississippi down by St. Louis, and it was raining. Tornado weather. Hot and raining, thunder and lightning. Just a vicious, stormy night. I asked him if he knew a good Billy the Kid song. He knew a lot of Jesse James songs. And he did a half hour, a capella, of Billy the Kid songs. A private concert.
B&W: I’ve always been impressed by performers that keep playing regardless of their age.
Alvin: Well, there’s no reason not to keep doing it. If there’s one thing I learned from Lightnin’ Hopkins, is that those old guys played for love. You play because it’s your sanity. Without getting too psycho-babble on you, when you’re on stage and it’s a good gig, and the musicians are all connecting nonverbally, nonvisually, there’s no feeling like it, because–and here’s the psycho-babble part–time kinda stands still. There’s no past, there’s no future. It’s just the present. And there’s people that you love that have passed away that are still alive for a few minutes. I’ve talked to people that have run 26-mile marathons and all that. It’s kinda like a runner’s high. I think that’s why so many musicians wind up getting involved in drugs and heavy alcohol use and all that. Because the feeling you get playing is so amazing, that when it’s over, it’s like, “Let’s go play another gig,” you know [laughs]? As long as you’re playing, you’re alive. And as long as you’re playing, you’re working. You’re not sitting around resting on your laurels. You’re not a non-contributing member of society. You’re sharing. It’s hard to let that go and just sit around the house.
[At this point, Alvin excuses himself to address a distant female voice asking where he hid the door key. He can be heard saying, "Yeah, I put the key under Yosemite Sam, there. Oh, I'm sorry, I meant the Tasmanian Devil." The woman finally locates the key, and Alvin returns.]
B&W: I read a quote where you said that you heard the song “Shenandoah” [one of the songs on Alvin’s latest release, Public Domain, a collection of traditional American music] before you were born, and you’ll still be hearing it after you die.
Alvin: Yeah, that song and maybe one or two others out of our folk tradition are genetically encoded. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that people take it for granted, they think it’s corny or sappy. So every now and then you have to put the picture in a new frame and go, “Wow!”
B&W: I’d like to toss out a few names and get your reaction. Let’s start with Buck Owens.
Alvin: I interviewed Buck about two years ago for a magazine called Mix, which is for producers and engineers. Buck Owens is one of the architects of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll. To me, the great thing about California country is that it’s willing to take chances. Buck Owens is a paradox, in that he’s a guy that believes in art for art’s sake, and yet he’s also a businessman. He’s a rebel, and he’s also a conformist. I think he’s amazing.
He told me during the interview that one thing he could never, ever say during the ’50s and ’60s was that his two biggest heroes were Bob Wills and Little Richard. Those were the two guys he modeled himself after.
B&W: Johnny Cash.
Alvin: An icon. My favorite stuff of his is what he did at Sun Records. I don’t think people realize that he created that sound that we all take for granted–that Johnny Cash sound. Those records, to me, still sound like they came out of the mud. They weren’t made in a recording studio. They just kind of grew organically.
B&W: Any thoughts on Carole King?
Alvin: [Surprised] Carole King? Wow! I wish I had her songwriting skills. I’m a true sort of folk-blues songwriter, so I write when I’m moved to write. And I really admire people like Carole King, the whole Brill Building gang, that could get up every day and go into the office and write on demand.
B&W: Jonathan Richman.
Alvin: My drummer and keyboard player did a couple of albums and tours with Jonathan a few years ago. He gave me, not a lecture [laughs], but advice about a problem I have, because half my audience wants to hear the lyrics and the quiet songs, and the other half wants to hear the rock ‘n’ roll stuff. The rock ‘n’ roll people usually outnumber the quiet people. And Jonathan goes [imitating Richman with a New Jersey accent], “No, you make ‘em listen. And if they don’t listen, to hell with ‘em.” Jonathan hates loud music [laughs].
B&W: I’d be remiss if I didn’t get some thoughts on Joey Ramone.
Alvin: Oh man . . . I met him once in New York about 15 years ago. He was a real sweetheart. We have a lot of mutual friends. To me, the Ramones were one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever. When I heard the first Ramones record, that was like hearing Chuck Berry for the first time when I was a kid. They were the real deal. They had the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. The Ramones invented the Sex Pistols [laughs].
B&W: My first exposure to “American Music” (an old Blasters hit) was as the opening theme for “New Wave Theater” (early ’80s cult cable television program that featured live performances). The host, Peter Ivers, was a strange man.
Alvin: Yeah, we did that show two or three times. I never could figure Peter Ivers out. He was a nice guy. You know, he got murdered. I think he was a little crazy to leave his door unlocked, living in downtown L.A. I remember seeing him on social occasions–in a bar a couple of times. And he was always talking about what a great harmonica player he was, and how he wanted to sit in with us [the Blasters].
B&W: Did y’all ever let him sit in?
Alvin: No [much laughter].