The night L.A. rocker Dave Alvin was an English professor
Whenever Dave Alvin shared a poetry reading stage with his old teacher, Gerald Locklin would tell the audience that, were Alvin not such a gifted songwriter and musician, he would have made a fine English professor.
The praise wasn’t just a professor’s fond remembrance of a star student from decades ago.
In Locklin’s Cal State Long Beach classroom in the late 1970s, the future member of the punk-era bands the Blasters, X and the Flesh Eaters was a professor for a night, lecturing on the early 18th century English wits Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.
Alvin recalled the episode while sharing memories of Locklin, who died in January and whom he counts among his greatest influences. Even after decades of friendship, Alvin would call his former professor “Gerald” or “Mr. Locklin,” never “Gerry,” as most knew him. “A little too intimate,” Alvin said.
With a songbook featuring “Fourth of July,” “King of California” and “Every Night About This Time,” the Grammy-winning Alvin is esteemed as one of the premier American songwriters and a California treasure. He says he learned to write songs not only from listening to his blues heroes — Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Marty Robbins among them — but from Locklin.
Gerald Locklin, who died of COVID-19 this year, was a poet-professor who helped shape West Coast literature and turn Long Beach into a poetry hub. A Times staff writer who was his student and others reflect on his influence.
“Whenever I think of Locklin, I think of him telling me one night how you could write a great poem about falling in love with the girl at the Taco Bell in Bellflower,” Alvin said. The aim was to find “the transcendental in the everyday” — an apt description of the blues, a good Locklin poem or “Dry River,” maybe Alvin’s greatest song, about the concrete-lined San Gabriel River near his childhood home in Downey.
“When I’m writing songs, I’m still writing for Locklin, I’m still using those rules,” Alvin said. “Because the writing of the blues and the writing of a Gerald Locklin poem, there’s similar laws going on there.”
Alvin’s studies with Locklin included many hours outside class over beer, where the talk would range from Joan Didion and the Venerable Bede to music trivia “and life and everything else,” he said.
Escapades sometimes ensued, some of which he’ll talk about. “There’s one or two stories that I swore to Locklin I would never repeat,” Alvin said.
One that he can share begins soon after a bar opened on the Long Beach State campus, the Nugget — “a great day for my intellectual development,” Alvin deadpanned.
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One afternoon, Alvin and Locklin gathered at the Nugget with a few other students and teachers for beers. One pitcher became several, and before long “we got blottered,” Alvin said. To the point where Locklin — half-joking, half-drunk — leaned in and said to Alvin, “I don’t think I can teach the class tonight.”
“And I was drunk enough to say, ‘I’ll teach it!’” Alvin said.
Locklin agreed. “And he just handed me his class book.”
Coffees and Cokes and hours later, “we sobered up,” said Alvin, and headed to class.
The lesson Locklin had planned, on Addison and Steele — famed for their journal the Spectator, which brought lofty matters of philosophy, culture and literature to the tea tables and coffeehouses of England in 1711-12 — was right up Alvin’s alley.
“I really liked Addison and Steele,” Alvin said, “and so did Gerald. Because you could see where Noel Coward came from and that tradition. But also you could see where Gerald’s tradition came from. It was lighthearted yet serious; witty and erudite, yet geared toward the common reader.”
As Alvin tells it, Locklin walked up to the lectern and announced, “Tonight, Mr. Alvin has shown his extremely deep knowledge of Addison and Steele, and so I decided that Mr. Alvin will teach the class.”
As Locklin took a seat in the back, Alvin, an undergraduate, took to the lectern. He began with Locklin’s signature line to start each class: “What’s haaappening?”
Then he opened his professor’s lecture book, “and there were all Gerald’s notes written in the margin,” Alvin said. “So all I had to do was teach the class based on Gerald’s notes.”
And how did it go?
“The class went great!”
For one who had thought himself “a dumb cluck” while at St. Pius X High School, Alvin said he remembers leaving class that night thinking, “Well, maybe I could be an English professor. It’s kind of cool.”
At the same time, he thought, “I don’t know, I do kind of like bashing on a guitar, though.”
Alvin quit Long Beach State in 1979 to start the Blasters with his older brother, Phil (who has taught mathematics at Long Beach State).
In a 2011 L.A. Times magazine article by Mark Z. Barabak about Alvin, Locklin said: “He certainly had the discipline and erudition to have gone on for a PhD. But he made the right choice.”
Alvin is invited often to perform his narrative poems at readings, but in later years he has seldom agreed. “I do poetry readings with a loud guitar,” he said.
He’d make an exception on one condition. “I’d say, ‘Well, if you get Gerald Locklin, I’ll do it.’”
Both were on the bill for a poetry reading at Gatsby Books in Long Beach in 2019. At their previous reading together a couple of years before, friends and fans kept them occupied afterward, and the two were hardly able to say hello and goodbye to each other.
So this night, Alvin couldn’t wait to see his old teacher again, aware it might be their last chance to perform together.
Locklin, by then afflicted by dementia, was a no-show. “Just heartbreaking,” Alvin said.
He speaks of Locklin’s importance in his life alongside that of his parents and musical mentors. “It’s just a huge hole in my artistic heart, and my Taco-Bell-in-Bellflower heart.”
As for his one night as a professor of English, Alvin said: “I could probably go back and teach a class on Addison and Steele now. If I had Gerald’s notes.”
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