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Alvin finds not all that glitters is golden

By Brian Steinberg, June 1998

Dave Alvin's version of California is a little bit different than the one you're used to hearing. In Dave Alvin's world, not everything in the Golden State glitters.

"If you never drive more than one mile from the ocean, your concept of California is every bad joke you've heard someone from New York make," Alvin says during a recent interview, "but if you go to Bakersfield or Downey, where I grew up, it's another reality. Not everyone's writing screenplays."

Grim words from a man expert at delivering them. Alvin, who started out playing fast-driving R&B and rock along with his brother Phil in The Blasters in the early Eighties, has slowed things down a bit over the last decade.

With "Blackjack David," his latest album, he delivers the fifth in a body of work examining life among the down and out.

In Alvin's world, rock n' roll pioneer Bill Haley dies by himself in a dark hotel room near the Rio Grande; a ne'er-do-well in a $30-a-night airport hotel room smokes cigarettes down to the filter because he can't afford to buy any more; and a woman scans her radio dial for the border station because the music reminds her of the man who left her.

There's more of the same in the new album, which by Alvin's own admission is "really purty," perhaps a step forward from his previous studio album, "King of California."

That disc took a basic roots approach to his storytelling. The basic tracks on "Blackjack David," are live performances Alvin explains, but "everything else is sort of stacked up and produced on top of it. We were trying to get the best of both worlds."

On "King...," he says the live tracks were only augmented by a few overdubs.

The California world-view gets another workout on the new disc. "California Snow," written with songsmith Tom Russell, was inspired by the plight of Mexicans forced to cross into the United States over freezing mountain passes, thanks to the increased enforcement of several border crossings. The little guy on the fringes often gets hurt and has little recourse, Alvin seems to say, simply because no one cares whether that person lives or dies.

"Everyone thinks of Brian Wilson and 'Baywatch'," but California is a lot of things, he says. It can be "power lunches and Beverly Hills," he continued, but if one should rent a car and drive east, "it's funky. It's a whole different world, and the two never really meet any more."

The characters on "Blackjack David" would certainly seem to have little reason to cruise Rodeo Drive. They're much too busy trying to climb out of their own self-created mess. From the drifter looking for a new start in "Abilene" to the lovelorn murderer of "Mary Brown," Alvin's characters always seem to trip up on something, and they never lead jet-set lifestyles or seem to have much money on hand.

"Whoever the great folk heroes were, they started out as real people," he explains in a set of promotional notes included with some copies of the new album. "If you're looking for them these days, you'll usually find them in bars."

That's not to say the man can't be hopeful. "Fourth of July," an Alvin-penned song originally performed by the punk band X, weaves some hope in among the despair, telling the story of a man who sees America's birthday as a time to renew, perhaps, a fading romance. The song got a revival when Alvin included it on "King..."

Alvin, who recently participated in the Monsters of Folk Tour, may meet with more acceptance from radio this go-round than he has in the recent past. When his first solo album, "Romeo's Escape," came out in 1987, his vocal chops were not the best (by his own admission) and radio was just about to exit the roots-rock movement.

Bands like the Georgia Satellites and Jason and the Scorchers found it harder to get airplay, while Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam slowly began to inject some life into the ailing country music scene, although neither was ever embraced by the mainstream.

Over the years, however, Alvin has honed his voice with self-training, and put out fine works like 1991's "Blue Blvd.," 1993's "Museum of Heart," and the live "Interstate City," which might offer the most clear-cut example of his vision.Alvin ties his own composition, "Jubilee Train," about a series of folks who have lost their jobs and will do anything to find stability, to Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" and Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi." In the end, even as the characters discover that dreams rarely come true, they light out anyway for the West Coast in a last-ditch effort.

While he's proud of his storytelling ability, Alvin has been hard at work on his singing and guitar technique. It's hard to believe the one-time lead string-bender of the speed-blues Blasters needs more instrumental practice, but Alvin demurs.

"When it's time to hit hard, I can hit as hard as anyone else," he boasts, but then he turned serious: "One of the things that keeps me going, without sounding egotistical, is I keep getting better. I may not be good yet, but I'm getting better."

"The vocals have definitely improved," he adds, "and with the guitar playing, I'm getting more of a vocabulary. I'm feeling more comfortable showing off. I'm feeling more comfortable exploring what I can do on guitar."

But the biggest change, he says, has been in his songwriting. "When I make a record, or bring a song into a group of musicians, the song takes precedence over the band. When you're in a 'band' band, the band takes precedence over the song," he says. "Say I was to write 'Yesterday,' and I was in The Blasters. They wouldn't even have agreed to do it. That's one of the reasons I left The Blasters."

Still, he thinks his growth up to this time has been "organic." After all, he says, "it's roughly the same type of music, especially when I play live. Maybe the guitar solos are getting longer."

"I'm trying to age gracefully. I'm not kidding," he quips. "I don't know what the Dave Alvin guy of 1981 would say of this Dave Alvin. I think he would have liked him, but wouldn't have admitted it."