In 1979, Dave and Phil Alvin formed the Blasters, a band that grew out of their love of the blues and folk music nurtured at the legendary Ash Grove club in L.A. The Blasters, along with kindred spirits X, expanded the sound and range of the L.A. punk scene. Dave was a member of X for a spell, too, and still plays with that band’s intermittent offshoot, The Knitters. Since those early days, Dave has been an in-demand guitarist, collaborating with Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Willie Dixon, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, among others. But he’s also pursued a prolific solo career. Noah Lekas caught up with Dave in the wake of a new release of career-spanning recordings.
Musician, writer, and producer Dave Alvin is original L.A. punk royalty. Along with fellow guitar slingers like Poison Ivy Rorschach, Billy Zoom, and others, Alvin helped build the proto-cowpunk house that every modern Americana-rocker hangs their perfectly worn vintage guitar in. Forming the Blasters in ‘79 with brother Phil, Alvin and the band earned fans in high places, garnering an appearance at 1985’s inaugural Farm Aid and landing an opening spot on tour with Queen. While Farm Aid was a triumph, the Queen tour was an overwhelmingly hostile experience that Alvin describes as, “20,000 people booing and throwing beer at you.” After leaving the Blasters in the mid-‘80s, Alvin did a short stint with X, while continuing to play with their ongoing, albeit intermittent, country-offshoot The Knitters.
By 1987, Alvin was officially a “solo” artist, but the collaborations, cameos and guest appearances hardly slowed down. Continuing to be an inveterate force in roots music, the last several years has seen Alvin release a steady stream of collaborative efforts including 2018’s Downey to Lubbock with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and 2015’s Grammy-nominated tribute to Big Bill Broonzy, Common Ground with brother and fellow Blaster Phil Alvin. Earlier this year, his pseudo-psych supergroup The Third Mind dropped their self-titled debut.
With his latest, From an Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings (November 2020), Alvin mines the archives, pulling together a collection of covers and originals that feature a litany of co-conspirators from fellow Blasters to Guilty Ones. Dave Alvin and I caught up by phone on a late Friday afternoon to talk about the early days of the LA punk scene, passing on a Bob Dylan recording session not once, but twice, viper tunes and the importance of finding the connections in music.
“I just thought, ‘if Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler started a band’ (laughs) that’s the way I was looking at it. So that’s what I’ve continued to do throughout my career.”
PKM: The new album, From an Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings is a collection, but it plays like a record. Do you consider it an album or…
Dave Alvin: I consider it a record (laughs) Some of these tracks are as good as anything I’ve ever recorded since the Blaster days till now, they just didn’t fit anywhere, you know? A lot of them were recorded just for fun, just because the musicians were in town and I had some extra money to spend on a day in the studio. To me, that doesn’t lessen the quality of the music, in some ways it enhances it because it was mostly recorded for the love of music and the joy of making noise together. To me that shines through on these tracks. It’s a legitimate record. It’s telling a story.
PKM: Your story starts by studying folk/blues at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, punk came later but how did you make that leap?
Dave Alvin: Well, the thing about the Ash Grove, you would have people from the Hollywood scene, and I’m a Downey guy, so I wasn’t part of this. I was a kid to boot, I was 13-years old or whatever. But the Ash Grove would have people from every community represented in the audience. There was a community there of like-minded people. When the Ash Grove closed around ’73, that disappeared out of my life. That was a big part of my life for four, five years. Phil and I would go to the Ash Grove to see Johnny Shines. We’d go four nights to see Johnny Shines and a couple nights there would only be 20 people in the audience, but there was still that sense of community. Now to get to punk rock. The first punk rock show that I went to, that’s what I felt. I felt, “oh it’s a community.” And I liked that you know? The early days of punk rock were less about defining what is and what isn’t punk, and it was more about all these oddballs and goofballs that had found each other. In the early days, everybody sounded different. The Weirdos sounded one way, the Screamers sounded entirely different, you know different instruments, different approach. You had X with a little more Rockabilly and some country, but it was also kind of like The Doors and the Jefferson Airplane, you know? I don’t say that as a slag. Then the early Go-Go’s, the Bags, the Plugz, you had all these bands that were similar but entirely different. You had people that were into art music, Screamers were kind of like that or early Wall of Voodoo with Stan Ridgway. Then you had the polar opposite, The Dickies or something like that. In a weird way, it was inclusive. Even though rhythm and blues was not a big part of that scene, the way that we played it, The Blasters played loud and we played fast and there were certainly people that didn’t like us, but there were more that did. They could appreciate the energy level and the intensity level, especially live in those days, so we fit in. We became part of that community. Community gets forgotten a lot in discussions of music. A real important aspect of music is the community that it comes from.
“American Music” – The Blasters at Farm Aid, 1985:
PKM: After the Blasters you joined X before going solo, but even solo you were constantly putting musicians and bands together. Has community and collaboration always been important to you?
Dave Alvin: Yeah, it’s how I learn. I’m a self-taught musician so the more musicians you play with, the more you learn. That’s always driven me. It’s like when I joined X, John and Exene were like extremely close friends at that time, so it was just like, yeah OK, be in a band with your pals. I don’t plan things, I’m not a big plan guy, I’m an organic guy. With The Third Mind, that was something Victor Krummenacher from Camper Van Beethoven and I talked about for years. You know, let’s just go in and see what happens, no plans, no anything, we’ll just decide on a key and go for it.
“Dolphins” – The Third Mind (cover of Fred Neil classic):
But that’s how I learn. I’m basically a blues guy, but what I like to do is see where I can take it, play with different musicians who maybe aren’t blues musicians and see what happens. The other thing is that it’s always been about the song. One of the reasons I left both X and The Blasters was if I was going to advance as a songwriter, if I was going to grow as an artist, I had to do it on my own. I couldn’t be part of a band. And as far as music in general, yeah I want to play with as many musicians as I can because that’s how I learn. My motto has always been, play with musicians that are better than you. That’s the case in everything I’ve done, I’m the least talented guy or gal on stage.
PKM: From The Blasters, X and the Flesh Eaters to sessions with Ramblin’ Jack, when did you figure out you could navigate both worlds?
Dave Alvin: Well, I always looked for connections in music. When you’re a little kid just sitting in your mom’s car playing with the radio, you don’t know what a genre is, you’re just spinning the radio dial and some songs catch your ear. It’s only later that you see the divisions. I always lean towards the connections. When I joined X, besides having to play whatever familiar lick that Billy Zoom had come up with, when I take a solo I was just playing Lightnin’ Hopkins really loud, (Laughs) you know?
PKM: Similar with the early Chess Records stuff, Muddy is playing the same Mississippi Delta guitar parts through a cranked amplifier and it’s a new genre.
Dave Alvin: Yes, exactly.
PKM: The new record has a great version of Willie Dixon’s “Peace” on it, you met Willie pretty early on, right?
“Peace” – Dave Alvin (Willie Dixon cover):
Dave Alvin: I first saw him play when I was about 14 at the Ash Grove. We met when the Blasters did a show called Soundstage for PBS and they said, “We’d like you guys to have a couple of guest stars” and the first thing out of my mouth was “Let’s get Willie Dixon.” He said yes and we became sort of friendly after that. When he moved out to California later in the ‘80s, after he got his Led Zeppelin money finally, he bought a really nice house over in Glendale at the base of the hills. We tried writing a couple of times and I played some shows with him. When I was at his house, I was always more fascinated by his scrapbooks. I was being a fanboy. The Dixon family are sitting on a treasure trove of photographs, man, these are off the cuff photos, Elmore James and Chuck Berry walking down the street, “What!?!” You know? How come no one’s seen these photographs? Big Bill Broonzy showing something to Muddy Waters on guitar. I spent hours at Willie’s house just, “When was this taken?”
PKM: The old war stories are always my favorite part. I heard Bob Dylan is sitting on some recordings that you guys did together. What was recording with Dylan like?
Dave Alvin: It was intense.
Dave Alvin: Yeah, oh fuck yeah. He’s Bob Dylan. And he was a big fan of the Blasters. He asked me to do a session and I said, “Well I can’t do it. I have a gig in Sacramento.” I was talking to one of his assistants or whatever and the woman was like, “You know we’re talking about Bob Dylan here,” and I was like “Yeah, I know, but I got a gig” (Laughs) so that impressed him. We met at the first Farm Aid and he was teasing me about missing the session. We got to talking and he said, “You’re one of my favorite guitar players” and I was like “Oh bullshit, Bob” (Laughs) and then he sang me my guitar solo from “Marie Marie”. He sang it note for note to me. I was just like (makes dumb-founded sound). So about six months or a year after meeting him, I get a call for another session, they wanted me in there for like four days but I only had one day free. It was thirteen hours.
PKM: What did you cut?
Dave Alvin: We did a lot of blues covers, we did “Look On Yonder’s Wall”, the Elmore James tune. We did “Got Love if you Want It,” the Slim Harpo song, we did “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and a couple other things like that. We did a rockabilly number, Johnny Carroll, and we did a Warren Smith song, “Pink Cadillac and a Black Moustache”. Eventually we did a version of an old spiritual that we cut previously with the Blasters called “Samson & Delila.” Then out of the blue Bob wanted to record, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” (sings the verse) and I was like, “I can’t fucking play that.” You know, I have no idea how to play that. Bob doesn’t like rehearsing, he just wants you to know the song, Al [Kooper] managed to get him out of the studio for five minutes and he ran back in and wrote charts for everybody. Al would show me the chord and I have all these names for chords that are not the [correct] names of chords because I’m self-taught. One I call a radio chord, because you hear that chord on the radio all the time. Then I had another one, a T-Bone Walker chord. When I made the chart, parts of it would say C, Gm, radio chord, T-Bone Walker chord, A, you know. When Bob came back to the studio, he got kind of upset that there were charts. Then he walked over to me and he looks at my chart and he got fascinated, “What’s a T Bone Walker chord?” and I’d play him a 9th chord. “Oh yeah yeah, what’s a radio chord?” and I’d play him the radio chord, then he got into it. So, we wound up recording what’s probably a pretty good version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with the horn section and the gospel choir and the whole bit. I remember, I think we did two or three takes of it and the second or third take I remember looking up and watching him do it, and he was so sincere that it blew me away. He was putting his all into that song. There were some great moments.
PKM: What happened to the recordings, is there any chance of them coming out?
Dave Alvin: The funniest thing is about six months or a year later, he released an album called Knocked Out Loaded that was mainly stuff recorded the following week that I was supposed to be in the session but had a gig in Houston. His people invited me to go see him, he was playing the Forum with Tom Petty. So, I’m backstage and he gave me the greatest line ever. If you ever wonder if Bob Dylan knows who Bob Dylan is, he’s totally aware of who Bob Dylan is because he says, “Yeah man, I’m sorry that we didn’t use any of that stuff we cut but” he pauses and goes “but it’ll come out one of these days on one of them box sets.” (Laughs) and I was like, man you are self-aware, you know who you are.
PKM: “Who’s Been Here” on the new album is a great Bo Carter cover. Mississippi Sheiks don’t show up too often.
“Who’s Been Here” live in Italy, 2010:
Dave Alvin: Oh thanks. You don’t hear enough about the Mississippi Sheiks, they were a great family organization, Bo Carter is the shit.
PKM: And it’s the best band name ever.
Dave Alvin: Yes exactly!
PKM: Imagine walking into band practice with that name tucked under your arm, “Guess what fellas? We’re now called Mississippi Sheiks.” Done and done.
Dave Alvin: (Laughs) Done and done.
PKM: Is that Louis Armstrong tune “Perdido Street Blues,” one that you’ve had kicking around for a while?
Dave Alvin: It was written by his second wife, Lillian Hardin Armstrong. She played on a lot of the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings back in the ‘20s. One of the other members of the Hot Fives was the New Orleans clarinetist Johnny Dodds, I had the Johnny Dodds record when I was a little kid, an old 78 that my brother and I found and I always loved it. In the ‘20s and early ‘30s there was a lot of viper songs. On this [song] it was like, lets revive viper music, lets revive hop head music.
PKM: What’s the story of “Beautiful City Across the River”?
Dave Alvin: That was written for the TV show Justified, so it was based on a character in the show that embezzled some money, but then I decided let’s make it quasi-religious. I liked the idea of Juarez being this beautiful city across the river, so it’s kind of mixing the spiritual with the profane – which is always fun.
PKM: Like William Burroughs heading to Mexico to dodge the police and score?
Dave Alvin: Yeah exactly, (laughs) exactly.
The early days of punk rock were less about defining what is and what isn’t punk, and it was more about all these oddballs and goofballs that had found each other.
PKM: The Beats and romantics run through your work just like Lightnin’ Hopkins does, and you’ve published quite a bit including Any Rough Times Are Behind You Now and you wrote a chapter in John Doe’s book, Under the Big Black Sun a couple years back. How much is the 70’s punk-lit scene still part of your songwriting?
Dave Alvin: They are all connected. I was a big fan of Raymond Chandler, still am. I was a big fan of earlier Ernest Hemmingway, the short stories in particular, I was a big fan of small press poets. I wanted to be a small press poet. The teachers I had were all small press poets and they were great, Gerald Locklin, Elliot Freed, a guy named Richard Lee. You know Bob Flanagan was a good friend of mine, he’s known more as a performance artist, but Bob was an amazing poet and one of the best poetry teachers you could imagine.
PKM: There is certainly a lot of overlap between small press literature, punk and rock n’ roll. Again, focusing on the connections right?
Dave Alvin: I had a revelation when we started the Blasters. I thought, if I can take what I’ve learned from well-known writers but also, the writers that I’d learned from [who] wrote in an almost prose-like style – even though they forced us to write sonnets and alexandrines and haikus so that we would get an idea of meter which really came in handy for writing songs. But what they were writing about was day to day life. I just thought, ‘if Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler started a band’ (laughs) that’s the way I was looking at it. So that’s what I’ve continued to do throughout my career. In the same way that my guitar playing tends to naturally gravitate towards the blues, my lyrics tend to come out, if you look I have a bookshelf at home that’s full of small press books from the ‘70s that I learned to write by reading and from these teachers. There are a lot of obscure poets that only did one chapbook, but they affected me. Edward Field is a great example, a great poet. The guys I mention, so yeah, I come out of both those worlds, two different worlds but they’re similar.