ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 28, 1991
By Steve Newton
Rock ’n’ roll bands can be like families. A band offers its members a place where they can have a sense of belonging, where they can look out for one another, and where they can share the joys of their good fortune—whether that be getting a platinum album or just getting a gig.
But leaving the band’s safety net can be as frightening as leaving home for the first time. For Dave Alvin—who spent many years with his brother Phil in the Blasters, as well as time with L.A. post-punkers X—when it came time to take those first few steps on his own, it wasn’t easy.
“With my first solo album, I wasn’t prepared for that at all,” says Alvin. “And it kind of freaked me out, to the point where I just eventually didn’t want to make records any more. Sometimes even now it gets weird, but I don’t feel as alone, because I’ve sort of patched things up with the Blasters and with [X members] John and Exene. So I feel like I still have my friends with me, even though we’re not all in bands together any more.” Alvin appears with his new band the Skeletons at the Town Pump on Wednesday (December 4).
Alvin’s solo debut, 1987’s Romeo’s Escape, also signalled the first time the guitarist/songwriter tried his hand at lead vocals, another daunting prospect. Matter of fact, he needed a few good shots before he could actually step up to the microphone.
“Before that, the only time I’d ever sing would be when I’d write a new song for the Blasters and I’d go in and teach it to the band. I’d sing till my brother learned it, and then I’d never sing it again. So that was real rough, and in the studio it was like, ‘Oh, let’s get a six-pack of beer and a bottle of vodka and get this over with.’ ”
Alvin didn’t need any alcoholic encouragement while recording his new album, Blue Blvd. His vocals are impressive, and they’re matched only by his killer songwriting on a tune like “Andersonville”, which is based on the tragic life of a distant uncle of his, a Union soldier imprisoned by the Confederates during the American Civil War.
“When I was a kid, my Aunt Margaret gave me this little box and there were some little things he carved and two photographs, one of him when he enlisted at about 18, and the other of him about three years later. But the second photograph was from Andersonville prison, and it looked like he was about 85 years old. And it’s always been a very moving thing for me, to feel that kind of connection to the past. I was looking at this stuff about a year and a half ago, and I just thought, ‘There’s a song in here.’ ”
There’s also a sorrowful side to Blue Blvd’s title track, in that he wrote the tune with Del Shannon in mind, before the latter committed suicide last year.
“I was hopin’ that he would record it,” says Alvin. “He was gettin’ ready to make an album, and his manager is also my publisher, and they called and said, ‘Do you have anything that might be good for Del Shannon?’ Me and a guy named Michael Woody wrote that in Nashville, and I was tryin’ to capture that kind of early ’60s Del Shannon angst. I was thinkin’ in my brain about a guy who would probably be about Del Shannon’s age, still out cruisin’ around the streets lookin’ for some girl that he lost in 1963, and just how lonely that feeling is.”
With superb tunes like “Blue Blvd” and “Andersonville”—not to mention a whole whack of other fine tracks—Alvin’s latest album should give him the solo success that eluded him with Romeo’s Escape. He’s moved to a smaller label—from Epic to Hightone (Stony Plain in Canada)—but says he’s comfortable with the fact that his current record company lets him make the music he wants.
The folks at Epic wanted him to sound like Eurythmics, believe it or not.
“One guy gave me a Eurythmics record and said, ‘You might want to think about this,’ ” laughs Alvin. “You know, I really have nothing against the Eurythmics—they make great records—but, I mean, if they’re gonna give me Eurythmics, they should give Dave Stewart a Dave Alvin record. You know, ‘Sound like this, Dave. This Alvin guy, he’s onto somethin’.’ ”
While Dave Alvin doesn’t have that other Dave’s bank balance, the 35-year-old rocker says he’s satisfied with how his career has gone so far.
“I wouldn’t mind a few more dollars here and there, but I’ve been able to support myself for the past 11 years by playing the kind of music and writing the kind of songs I wanna do—and not many people can say that. So I don’t really bitch or moan. I’m fine.”