Avenues of the Golden State


Dave Alvin has written dozens of songs that hone in on the nuances of California’s dark corners. Here’s a sampling, along with some of his thoughts.

“California’s Burning”: The title kicked around in Alvin’s head for years. As a boy, he was chased by a wildfire that threatened his uncle’s ranch in what is now Granada Hills. And then in 2008, he passed over the devastating Sylmar blaze as he flew to an out-of-town engagement. Fire is part of California’s life cycle, Alvin says, and so is the determination to rebuild. The song was finished by the time he landed.

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“California Snow”: The song is about worlds colliding, Alvin says. In this instance, the crash involves a Border Patrol agent “just tryin’ to make a livin’…an old man at 39” and a couple who sneak into the country from Mexico, with tragic results. People have an idealized image of California, he says, but it’s not all millionaires and movie stars: “Whoever thought it snows in San Diego County?”

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“Dry River”: This tune about the concrete trench and decimated orange groves near Alvin’s boyhood home in Downey is actually “a love song,” he says. “It’s not only about rivers and orange groves, it’s about someone’s broken heart” and that heart eventually mending.

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“Downey Girl”: Karen Carpenter may be Downey’s most famous celebrity. Alvin was no fan, though he recalls going into a record store after she died of anorexia at 32 and receiving condolences from a man behind the counter, who said, “Sorry about your homegirl.” Alvin “never thought about her that way, but yeah, she was. She drove down the same streets I drove down. Musically, we don’t have that much in common, but she was the voice of (my) hometown.”

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“Everett Ruess”: Alvin has long been captivated by the story of the poet and explorer who disappeared in the Utah desert more than 75 years ago. A few years ago, scientists thought they’d found Ruess’ body, but that was disproved by DNA. Either way, Alvin had no intention of revising the song. “Finding him is journalism,” he says. “Disappearing is poetry.”

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