Lush Images Along a ‘Dry River’ : Dave Alvin, Who Plays Saturday at Bogart’s, Cultivates Some Unusually Rich ‘Sad Stories’

Share via

If Dave Alvin’s music had made him a superstar, it might be orange- blossom time again in Downey.

Alvin emerged from that Los Angeles County city with the Blasters, one of the best bands of the early ‘80s roots-rock revival. A brief stint in X and two subsequent solo albums solidified Alvin’s reputation as a gifted songwriter who can paint scenes you can almost see, draw characters you think you might have met, and tell stories that have the emotional resonance to linger in the mind.

However, Alvin, who plays at Bogart’s on Saturday, remains a cult figure rather than a mainstream musical celebrity. If he had acquired a superstar’s bank account, maybe you’d be able to sniff the sweet scent of citrus as you drove the freeways through his old hometown. Alvin says his childhood dream was to make it big and restore orange groves to Downey.


“There were orange groves two blocks from where I lived,” Alvin, 35, said over the phone from his home in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake district. The groves were his playground as a small boy, “until one night I went to sleep, and I woke up the next day and they weren’t there any more.” Developers’ bulldozers had plowed under the rows of trees.

“When the Carpenters, who are from north Downey, made it rich, they built apartment buildings in Downey,” Alvin said. “I thought, ‘If I ever get rich and famous, I’ll buy plots of land, tear (the buildings) down, and put up orange groves.’ I love orange groves. I’m just a sucker for them.”

Alvin’s rural renewal project would cost prohibitive millions. But imagination is free. In “Dry River,” the closing song of his current album, “Blue Blvd,” Alvin has a vision of orange trees blooming again, and of the denatured San Gabriel River, now little more than a concrete-lined gutter, flowing freely once more.

Those images shouldn’t be taken literally, Alvin cautioned. “Dry River” isn’t an environmentalist call-to-arms, but a symbolic song about the persistence of hope, even in the face of stark, seemingly unalterable realities such as rivers and groves turned to concrete.

“There are so many sad stories on the album. It’s gonna sound corny, but (‘Dry River’) is kind of (about) survival of the spirit. Not to sound New Agey, but even though the river’s been paved over, maybe (in some metaphysical way) the river’s still there. You still struggle and continue on. You can’t put a reason on why you continue to struggle and get up out of bed in the morning. Poetry is one way of delving into that.”

The “sad stories” that lead up to the closing affirmation of “Dry River” are unusually rich and varied.


Listening to “Blue Blvd,” one looks in on the pathetic, drunken death of ‘50s rocker Bill Haley and hears the harrowing account of a Yankee prisoner of war held in the infamous Confederate prison camp, Andersonville. (Alvin said the song is based on the story of one of his ancestors, Asa Powell, who died at Andersonville, but left carvings, photographs and other artifacts that chronicled his prison experience.)

In “Plastic Rose,” Alvin watches a young couple biding time in a coffee shop, waiting to keep an appointment for an abortion. In similar fashion, “Guilty Man,” a song about a career criminal, gives a tightly drawn characterization of someone at the heart of a critical social issue. Rather than pull back to abstract a moral from these tales, Alvin lets the situations speak for themselves in all their tangled complexity and moral ambiguity.

Tacking on morals would have scuttled those stories, Alvin said.

“Wouldn’t it be corny if I did? Wouldn’t it be selling out the song? It would take the song out of character. One thing I really like about singing is I can get into the characters.”

“Blue Blvd” also has its share of love songs--and they are invariably blue. In those, Alvin says, he draws on his own experiences of love affairs gone awry.

“I used to be real cynical about this love jazz, but I know love exists. I’m still kind of searching after it myself,” he said. “If you ever hear a Dave Alvin record that’s called ‘Happy Love Songs,’ it’s either that I’ve sold out or I’ve found love.”

Alvin was matter of fact when asked what he does to keep his imagination stocked with such a rich array of characters and subjects.


“I’ve got a couple places I go that are very comfortable, and things just happen in ‘em,” Alvin said. “They’re real places, places where people drop their fronts. You can’t go to a Red Onion and expect to see people being themselves. But if you go to a Mexican family restaurant in La Mirada, you will. Because I don’t tour in a bus or a Lear jet, I’m on the interstates and in the cities. The types of places I play ain’t the Hollywood Bowl. You’re in direct contact with your audience, and you listen to them.

“You read the local paper, you talk to the people at gigs. You start seeing things when you spend six months driving around. I’ve seen that things are really rough out there.”

One outgrowth of witnessing a crumbling economy from city to city, he said, is that some of the songs he has written recently are more “soapboxy” on issues than the character portraits on “Blue Blvd.”

Alvin said the material on “Blue Blvd” germinated slowly during a couple of quiet years when he stayed out of the spotlight.

He had gone through a whirl of musical changes during the late ‘80s. In 1986, he made a difficult break with the Blasters, the band fronted by his older brother, Phil. Alvin joined X, Los Angeles’s most heralded punk-and-roots band, but left after just one album, “See How We Are” (to which he contributed the wonderfully vivid relationship vignette “Fourth of July”).

He launched his solo career in 1987 with “Romeo’s Escape.” Alvin said that his eclectic musical tastes became an issue for his label at the time, Epic Records. One faction at the company was urging him to play rootsy rock ‘n’ roll, he said, while others wanted him to go to Nashville and make a straightforward country album. At the same time, Alvin was sorting through personal changes, including the death of his mother and a couple of serious romantic involvements that had ended in sight of the altar.


Then, in early 1989, Alvin contracted meningitis while touring with the Pleasure Barons, a 19-member revue that also included Mojo Nixon and Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers.

“I was lying in the hospital, and it was the first time I had time to sit and think,” Alvin said. He decided his life had turned into “an avalanche” of changes and that he needed to slow down the pace. “I needed time to just wash out the bad experience of having people tell me I had to be country or I had to be rock ‘n’ roll or rockabilly. I needed to get a footing on how to proceed naturally.”

After he recovered, Alvin spent 1989 in lower-profile roles, writing some music for films, and touring as musical director of Syd Straw’s band. When he decided to resume his recording career, it was with Hightone, a roots-oriented, Oakland-based independent label that had no problem with his penchant for genre-hopping.

“Blue Blvd” ranges from swinging honky-tonk music to taut, Robert Cray-style R & B, from stark folk balladry and rural blues through rockabilly and gospel music, and on to heartland-rock anthems that Bruce Springsteen could have written (and probably would have liked to).

Alvin, who is savvy and opinionated about how music marketing works, realizes that such an approach goes against the grain at a time when almost all commercial radio stations play narrow formats that don’t allow for boundary-jumping.

But in his recent travels, Alvin said, he has seen some hopeful signs. “In the the past two years, some good radio stations have been starting up. Austin has a station that plays everything from John Prine’s new record and mine and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s, to Sting.” He said he ran across other commercial alternative stations in Minneapolis, Nashville and New York City that offer a more interesting blend than mainstream radio or the grunge-rock infatuated college stations.


“At least people are trying out there, and that’s encouraging,” he said. “I expected zero airplay on this record, and we got a lot of airplay. It has done really well. If it was on a major label, it would have been dead a week after it was out.”

Alvin is currently finishing a solo tour backed by the Skeletons, a versatile roots-rock band from Missouri. Other plans on the agenda include performing a short tour with the Knitters, the country-flavored band that also includes X members John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Don Bonebrake. Alvin said the band, which will play at Bogart’s Dec. 27 and the Coach House Dec. 28, is developing material for a follow-up to its 1984 debut album. Early next year, Alvin will also produce an album for Sonny Burgess, a ‘50s rockabilly figure. And, rather than wait another four years between solo albums, Alvin said, he wants to get started soon on a follow-up to “Blue Blvd” for Hightone.

Another possibility is some sort of renewed relationship with the Blasters, who haven’t released a new album since he left more than five years ago. Alvin said he played with his old band in October at a benefit concert that raised money o buy a tombstone for the grave of blues singer Big Joe Turner, one of the Blasters’ idols.

“My brother and I are getting along really well now,” he said. “I would never go back and rejoin the band, but maybe I can help out. They’re a good band, still.”

Alvin has had some success writing for the increasingly lucrative country market--notably with “Long White Cadillac,” a Blasters song that became a country hit when Dwight Yoakam recorded it. Many of his newer songs would also lend themselves to country treatment. While Alvin said he would like to have other established country stars record his music, he doesn’t see any need to join the army of professional songwriters who write specifically to feed Nashville’s song habit.

“If I was married and had a kid, I would probably be in Nashville in a room going, ‘What does Garth Brooks sound like, and how do I write a song for him?” But for now, Alvin has the luxury of pleasing only himself.


“My goal is the same goal the Blasters had when they began,” he said. “Play music that we like, play whatever we wanted, and somehow make a living by doing it.”

Dave Alvin, the Skeletons and Peter Fahey & the Fabulous Unknowns play Saturday at 9:30 p.m. at Bogart’s, in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Admission: $10. Information: (310) 594-8975.