Troubadour of Troubled Times
Dave Alvin sings of a grittier unspoken California where longing and greed and lust and loss all come together
You can smell it in the air
You may be rich or poor
But you know that
fire don’t care
Dave Alvin is one of the seminal figures in California music, a poet and global ambassador for the folk-blues-country amalgam known as roots rock. But on this spring morning, he is playing informal tour guide as a vintage railcar knifes through the San Fernando Valley, north past tract homes, chain stores and fields turned to asphalt.
Peering through the wraparound windows, he offers a narration, highlighting the features amid an ocean of suburban sameness: the hangar where the end of Casablanca was filmed, the craggy rocks where they made old TV westerns, the Chatsworth site of the former Spahn Ranch, where Charles Manson and his cult squirreled themselves away.
Several dozen passengers have paid handsomely for the chance to ride with Alvin and other musicians, setting off from Los Angeles for a series of rolling performances en route to a show in Portland. A guide is on hand to point out wildlife and other natural features. But Alvin’s observations are not a part of the program; hidden behind dark glasses, he seems to be talking to himself as much as anyone around him. Maybe it’s habit.
Over the course of roughly three decades, Alvin has compiled one of the great, if underappreciated, California songbooks, cataloging the people and places most overlook or choose to ignore.
His is not the confectionary California of endless summers and Hollywood glitter or the kooky capital of New Age seekers and sunbaked hedonists. Alvin sings of life on the margins and between the cracks, of farm workers and illegal immigrants, of meth heads and lost souls and places like Bellflower, Fontana, the High Sierra and the 605 Freeway.
He sings in a throaty rumble of love and loss and ghosts of things past. California natives, Alvin believes, suffer an odd kind of nostalgia that comes when talk of old times refers not to generations ago but a period only a few years back. “By the time you’re 20, you’re 40 in the sense of waking up in the morning and thinking, Let’s go see the orange groves. But they’re not there anymore,” he says. “They’re just gone.”
Alvin, a fourth-generation Californian, born and raised in Downey, wrote one of his best songs, “Dry River,” about the cement channel running through his hometown. He recalls the time he bicycled to an orange grove near his home, only to find a field of stumps. The trees had been chopped down overnight to make way for apartments and commercial development.
Alvin, 55, has never been an overtly political singer, in the sense of writing protest songs or lending his name to a cause. But he is an acute observer of politics—especially California politics—and with the Golden State in seemingly perpetual crisis, with high unemployment, meat-cleaver budget cuts and a government paralyzed by partisanship, he suggests the state, as we know it, may be headed the way of those orange groves. Listen closely, and you might hear it in a song.
Red flames are growing
At the top of the hill
If the fire don’t get ya
Well, you know the
Dave Alvin marvels at Brian Wilson, who, as a young man, crafted lyrical postcards—pillowed in plush harmonies—from a land of sun and fun that defined California for a worldwide audience. When he was that age, Alvin says, “I was trying to figure out how to open a beer can.”
That’s somewhat of an exaggeration. Wilson—13 years older than Alvin—was 20 when he broke through with the Beach Boys: youthful, certainly, but no pimply faced teenager. Alvin was not that much older when he quit Long Beach State to perform full-time with the Blasters, the rockabilly/roots-rock band he cofounded with his older brother, Phil.
Unlike, say, Wilson, whose musical aptitude was evident practically from birth, Alvin was no songwriting prodigy. He had to live a little first.
Growing up, he was a decent enough student, though shy and daydreamy. “I’d do this,” he says, staring out the train window at the Cascade Mountains, “going, Hmmm, I wonder what’s out there?” He began to founder in high school, where an unstructured environment was all the incentive he needed to do what many teenagers would. “I started smoking pot,” Alvin says, “and sneaking into bars.”
He graduated from Pius X High School in South Gate, but his true education came elsewhere, in places like the Ash Grove on Melrose, the Parisian Room on La Brea, Vina’s on Adams and the York Club on Florence.
The Alvin brothers were avid record collectors and loved the blues. So when they learned some of their heroes were still alive and performing 15, 20 miles away, they began seeking them out, bumming rides until Phil was old enough to drive. They saw T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Willie Dixon. They befriended Big Joe Turner, who, as Alvin recounts in “Boss of the Blues,” took them on a tearful tour one night of Central Avenue, a shabby relic of the former jazz and blues hub. Another ghost song, set to a boogie-woogie beat.
The Alvins founded the Blasters, which built a following around the L.A. area. But when it came to producing their first LP in 1979, they needed original material, so at a band meeting, each member agreed to return a week later with two songs. “Nobody else brought in any,” Alvin says. “I brought in three.”
He had begun writing in college, inspired by his favorite English professor, Gerald Locklin. The two spent hours talking, drinking beer and testing each other with music and literary trivia. “He certainly had the discipline and erudition to have gone on for a PhD,” says Locklin, a writer and poet. “But he made the right choice. There are plenty of PhDs walking around.”
The Blasters brought Alvin a measure of fame and success, playing a rollicking combination of blues, country, R&B and old-time rock ’n’ roll. But tensions—over big things, like the band’s direction, and trivial ones, such as which brother knew more about music—led Dave to quit abruptly in 1985. He joined the punk band X for a brief turn, supplying the rock anthem “Fourth of July,” then set out on a solo career.
Up until then, Alvin had always played lead guitar while someone else sang. But he grew tired of writing for other people. There were things he wanted to say and portraits he wanted to paint—and California was his canvas.
There’s trouble in the
You better pack up
You better get out while
Dave Alvin could well have been Dave Czyzewski. His mother, Eleanor, was born in the Sierra foothills and knew the state was special. She bred that belief into her children, the two boys and an older sister, Mary. “Everywhere else—Phoenix, Las Vegas even—was back east,” Alvin says, “and the accent was on that word back.”
His father, Casimir Czyzewski, lived back east, next to the railroad tracks in South Bend, Indiana, until one day as a young man in the 1930s, he hopped a freight train to join his brother, Joe, out in California.
Joe, a Los Angeles newspaperman, had shed the family surname for his middle name, Albin, in a nod to his literary hero, Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski). But people kept mispronouncing Albin, so Joe changed it to Alvin. When Cas arrived, he did the same.
It is a typical story of reinvention, which makes it a typical California story. But Cas Alvin’s view of his adopted home state was more jaundiced than many. After scraping through the Depression, he saw firsthand the worst of mankind; as a member of the Army Signal Corps, he shot some of the initial photographs of the Nazi death camp at Dachau. After the war, he worked as a union organizer in steel mills across the Southwest, fighting the undertow of a dying industry. Summers, he took his sons with him, to strike rallies and furtive organizing sessions in frayed company towns.
When it comes to his songwriting, Alvin cites many influences: Locklin, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski and, musically, performers as varied as Merle Haggard and Captain Beefheart. But perhaps the greatest influences were his parents: the pride of place, instilled by his mother; the hard-bitten worldview, acquired from his father. From both, he took away an affinity for life’s underdogs. “My dad always said there were two sides to every story,” Alvin recalls. And that is why his songs so often dwell on situations and circumstances that others neglect, and not just in the milieu of working-class whites.
“Alvin has been really good about the bumping up of whites, Latinos, African Americans on the kitchen lines, on job sites, in motels, in bars,” says Josh Kun, a USC professor who studies the social connections of popular music. “He hasn’t shied away from the cultural clash of California.”
Black clouds are rising
They’re blocking out the sun
Some folks are sayin’
The judgment day has come
Politics, however, is something altogether different: “I’m a left-leaning, meat-eating, bluecollar, independent smoker.” Which is to say Alvin doesn’t put much stock in either party, much less any politician. And that skepticism—passed down from his father—has deepened as California seems to be steadily unraveling.
Where, he asks, are the Willie Browns and Jesse Unruhs, who could cut a deal and keep things running? What kind of state lays off teachers while millionaires pay a pittance in property tax on their mansions? “This isn’t the California I grew up in,” says Alvin, who believes there’s a growing gap between rich and poor—and a shrinking in between.
He fears the trend, like so many rooted in California, is spreading nationwide and suggests nothing will change until lawmakers overhaul Proposition 13 and fix the state’s gridlock-inducing budget system.
But don’t expect Alvin to sing about reforming Sacramento. For him, topical songs rarely work. Besides, there are other ways to make a statement. His interest has always been in the life forces—hope and greed and lust and hunger—that collide and smash those caught in the middle. The closest he comes to a “finger-pointing song,” he says, is a cut on his new album, Eleven, Eleven, due out this month. On “Gary, Indiana, 1959” he sings of the nationwide steel strike that year and the slow, steady decline that followed. With howling guitar and a churning rhythm, it’s an angry song—“The factories are in ruins / decent jobs hard to find...’cause the big boys make the rules / tough luck for everyone else”—but not an “answer song.”
“I’ve always tried to write songs where there’s not an answer,” Alvin says. “I don’t have ’em—I supply questions. And what I try to do is wrap them around situations people understand.”
Granted, that has never been a formula for commercial success. Alvin has no million-seller to his name. (He did win a Grammy Award in 2001 for Best Traditional Folk Album.) He tried Nashville for a brief, unhappy stretch in the late 1980s, but all that yielded was a song, “Highway 99,” about missing home.
He’s far from wealthy, but he writes what he wants and sings what he feels and makes the mortgage on his home in the hills above Silver Lake. (Alvin is unmarried with no children, the price for a life spent mostly on the road.) “I’ve been really lucky,” he says, as Oregon’s green fields fly by outside the dining car. “There’s not a day goes by, especially in the last 15 years, I don’t feel that.”
For all the darkness, that resilience shows through in Alvin’s music. In “Dry River,” the ode to a trench, he sings hopefully of the water returning and the blossoms blooming. It’s the kind of defiant optimism that marks a true Californian—and the stuff that keeps dreams from dying.
No one knows when this
Well, what that fire burns
We’ll just build it back again
MARK Z. BARABAK, a native Californian, covers politics for the Los Angeles Times.