YOU’RE DRIVING through the New Mexico desert in the dark. Your teeth are grinding, though the buzz of the blue meth or whatever you were on has long worn off and you don’t remember where you were or where you are going. Just driving, with an AM radio with a busted antenna that must have been torn off in a street fight, but you don’t remember whether you or some vandal with whom you had some mild disagreement used it as a weapon. The sky is full of stars and the occasional untethered, shape-shifting airborne vehicle that has the radio playing nothing but static. You’re not in Roswell but not that far from it, either.
You go over a ridge and there’s a faint signal at the lowest part of the AM dial, almost longwave, the part of the radio spectrum where sounds don’t travel very far. It’s the deadpan voice of a preacher. He’s totally unexcited, unlike most radio evangelists. He doesn’t shout, it’s like he’s reading the Bible to himself. With musicians playing in the background, it sounds like Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah, where G-d has ordered Abraham to sacrifice his child.
The preacher recites the verse, but it’s not exactly like the Old Testament. More like a paraphrase: “God said to Abraham, kill me a son/Abe said, man, you must be puttin’ me on.” You know these words like you know your name. (If you could remember your name.) It is the title song to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. But it doesn’t have that manic swing, the amphetamine-in-the-molecular structure of the original. You’ve heard hundreds upon hundreds of Dylan covers in the 55 years since this song, this album, entered your consciousness, but you’ve never engaged this kind of thing before.
It’s Dave Alvin singing and playing ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ on his new album, From An Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings. This is not a random collection of scenes from the cutting room floor. Though recorded over a number of years, with different configurations of musicians but a steady, dedicated core of his fellow travellers, it seems as carefully constructed as any new release. It is as if he was a much younger man and aiming for the charts, the way he did with the Blasters in the late 1970s, when for a short time the focus of both the industry and the critics who once had influence saw the future of rock and roll was once again, and not for the first time, in Los Angeles.
The Blasters were the heartbeat of a roots-rock scene that somebody wanted to label as punk, or new wave, because that’s what time it was. The Blasters and two of its Slash Records label confreres formed a powerful triad: X, with Exena and John Doe, were the Tammy Wynette and George Jones of LA punk, while Los Lobos brought the myths and realities of Mexican East Los Angeles to the mainstream.
The scene, to the Blasters and company, was not Sunset Strip or Laurel Canyon, but a whole kind of downward mobility you might find on the periphery of the California dream, from the oil derricks of Long Beach that Alvin cites in the closing song, his own ‘Signal Hill Blues’, to the backbeat of Bakersfield, where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard kept playing country music while Nashville turned out some artificially-flavoured version of the real thing. Bill Morrissey’s ‘Inside’ is a kind of scene-setter for this album, and Alvin’s approach to California music: “It ain’t Hollywood, not Venice or Malibu.”
It took a while for Alvin to find his voice. In the Blasters, remember, it was his brother Phil Alvin with the golden throat, Dave with the songs and the blessed guitar. When the Blasters went their ways with typical brotherly acrimony (since reconciliated, as suggested in a wonderful song called ‘What’s Up With Your Brother?’ from Alvin’s previous best solo album, Eleven Eleven), Dave’s solo career has been so prolific it’s hard to keep track.
Eleven Eleven (2011) is where Dave really found his voice, and I mean that in all kinds of ways. Like Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen and other ace writers whose material first thrived when sung by others, Dave’s one-and-a-fraction octave range reminds me of something Linda Ronstadt once said: “There are three elements of singing: story, voice, and musicianship.” Storytelling comes first, and Dave Alvin has grown into one of our finest storytellers, whether he makes them up himself or extracts nuggets from some hidden American songbook.
Many of the players on From an Old Guitar are or have been moving parts of a sequence of Alvin’s bands, such as the Guilty Men, the Guilty Women (an all-female entourage), and the Guilty Ones. They include Greg Leisz and Rick Shea on pedal steel, Danny Ott on guitars, Bob Glaub or Gregory Boaz on bass, Don Heffington, (drums), Christy McWilson on vocals, Lisa Pankratz on drums, and Chris Gaffney on accordion.
Gaffney died in 2008, but as recently as 2019 Alvin and friends were still putting on tribute shows for Gaffney, whose squeezebox takes the place of an entire horn section on Peter Case’s ‘On the Way Downtown’, a song about a time when city lights burned bright, promising a good time, or at least an opportunity to get lost seeking one. But to continue our story:
You feel like you’ve pulled off that desert highway at 3 am, and there’s a roadhouse band featuring Gaffney alongside Alvin playing ‘Variations on Earl Hooker’s Guitar Rhumba’. People are listening to the music, smoking cigarettes, and drinking cans of Coors Light, except for vampires sipping from the extensive menu of Bloody Marys: A casual waitress, chewing gum and dressed in cowboy hat, denim, white blouse and black string-tie, will ask, “type A, B, AB, or O, positive or negative?” AB negative costs $10,000 a shot, and if you order that, you will be taken to a secret room, where you will be shot, your blood donated to the Red Cross.
The traveller orders hot black coffee and a shot of rye. Gaffney takes charge of ‘Amanda’, a ballad of sorts and one of the hundreds of hits by reclusive Nashville songwriter Robert Lee McDill. You might have heard Waylon Jennings’ version. The band changes moods, accelerates with the good time swing of late hippie-era Doug Sahm’s ‘Dynamite Woman’, a relic from a time when everything, from pretty good to awesome, was “dynamite” (but not yet “dyn-o-mite”!)
There are some oddities that throw the listener: There’s the reassuring sound of a Willie Dixon 12-bar blues, a seldom-heard 1971 anti-war song called ‘Peace?’ from one of Dixon’s solo albums. Dixon was probably trying to reach college kids who had discovered his work through the Stones and Yardbirds and Cream. The traveller puts some cream, an extra spoonful of sugar and another shot of golden rye in his coffee. Next, an old Marty Robbins song, but not ‘El Paso’, where our traveller is heading, but an environmental protest song called ‘Man Walks Among Us’. It is basically about birds and animals in the forest talking to each other, warning each other to watch out, because man is coming around and spoiling their once pristine home.
Man. The Man. Our traveller remembers that he is running from a man, or The Man. He goes out to the parking lot, checks his headlights and taillights, making sure there’s no rational excuse for him to be pulled over. He’s sticking as close to the speed limit on the outskirts of ‘Albuquerque’, which happens to be the name of the song he’s turning to on the radio. He knows the sheriffs in these parts have a reputation: In 2014, after a two-year investigation, the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division and the US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico found the Albuquerque PD had a prolific pattern of using excessive lethal and less than lethal force in a whole range of unnecessary situations.
The song, ‘Albuquerque’, is about an entirely different state of mind, written by a Cajun musician named Link Davis, who recorded it in 1966 under the name Link “Big Mamou” Davis. The single was produced by Huey Meaux and released on the Princess label out of Pasadena, Texas. Dave Alvin, from working class Downey, California, about a half hour south of the posh Pasadena of the old money and the Rose Bowl, probably finds this amusing, as will you. This ‘Albuquerque’ rocks wild; it sounds like the kind of place you’d want to go on spring break, but then again, anybody nicknamed “Big Mamou” takes the party wherever he goes.
Driving out of Albuquerque on I-25 South, the traveller is heading for Las Cruces, listening to Alvin and his band play the instrumental ‘Perdido Street Blues’, by Lil Hardin Armstrong, and originally recorded in 1926 by Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, or the Hot Five with Lil but not Louis, or some variation with a different name. But he misreads the map and instead of Las Cruces, he stumbles into nearby New Crobuzon, a creation of the self-described “weird fiction” writer China Miéville, in his novel Perdido Street Station.
The station is an excellent place to lay low for a while, to be invisible. There’s a jukebox in the station café where what sounds like another Bob Dylan song is playing, a possible outtake from Highway 61 Revisited. The song, ‘Beautiful City ‘Cross the River’ is a Dave Alvin original, starting with a hushed choir, kicking into gear with Chuck Berry licks, and shot through with paranoia.
This song speaks to our traveller. He leaves New Crobuzon/Las Cruces and realizes he is quite near El Paso, Texas, the destination of ‘Beautiful City ‘Cross the River.
Alvin certainly has a sense of humour. One line goes, “I drove three long days to El Paso/with a bag full of cash and visions of Mexico” and his foxhole prayer is that god deliver him to that beautiful city across the river. Which is Juarez, Mexico, which in 2008 had the highest murder rate per capita in the world. Our man on the run did not think through his plan.
While he ponders his odds, the album ends with ‘Signal Hill Blues’. It’s a reverie about an old-time lover’s lane among the oil derricks of Long Beach, California, where a young man is singing a story song about being in a car with a woman twice his age, but looking pretty good. They sip some whiskey, they pass out, and when they wake up, nothing much has happened, and they wonder if it’s all been just a dream.
© Wayne Robins, Copper, 14 January 2020