THE TIME: Summer, 1987. The place: Downtown Manhattan hang-out The Kat Klub. It’s the height of the annual industry beanfest, the New Music Seminar, and among this year’s live attractions is an especially enticing triple bill of high-calibre players in a sub-genre that would, in a few years, come to be known by marketing types as Americana. Admission is free to any NMS delegate sporting an oversized laminate around his or her neck, like some sort of tacky medal at the Schmooze Olympics.
First onto the stage is kd lang & the Reclines, offering a masterclass in the cheery Western Swing and rockabilly that was Kathy Dawn’s bread-and-butter before her subsequent emergence as a hip, ironic torch singer. Next up, it’s Steve Earle & The Dukes, riding high on the critical acclaim for the Guitar Town album, the frontman acclaimed in some quarters as a semi-ruralized redneck Springsteen.
By the time the last act gets going, it’s way past midnight, and the previously packed club has thinned out considerably. Understandable, perhaps, seeing as the buzz around the seminar had been all about Lang and Earle, but what many missed that night was the return of Dave Alvin, showcasing several songs from his debut solo offering, Romeo’s Escape.
For a man who was right in the thick of things at the start of the 1980s, when his band the Blasters (which he formed with his elder brother Phil) were prime movers in a loose collective of roots-inspired rock outfits, it was a return with little fanfare. It could be argued that Alvin, who’d already experienced the double-edged sword of being regarded as the Next Big Thing, felt more comfortable sneaking back onto the music scene through a side door when no one – or at least a smaller number – was looking.
Dave and Phil grew up in Downey, California, not far from the sprawling Disneyland complex at Anaheim, and formed The Blasters with fellow neighbourhood twentysomethings John Bazz on bass and Bill Bateman on drums. Oddly, for a band who immersed themselves in the blues and R&B of warhorses Buddy Guy, Albert King and T-Bone Walker, they found a fairly receptive audience on the emerging punk club scene in Los Angeles. But it was LA rockabilly guru Ronnie Weiser who played an important role in the group’s first excursions outside of local circles when he signed them to his mail order label Rollin’ Rock.
Their first album, American Music, attracted huge interest, despite only 4,000 copies being pressed. One of the them found its way to Welsh rocker Shakin’ Stevens, whose cover of Dave’s ‘Marie Marie’ landed him in the UK Top 20 for the first time in 1980. (It wasn’t the last time they’d rub shoulders with Brit talent, although their subsequent support slot on a string of US dates by Queen was not as fulfilling, and they were frequently booed off stage!)
Signing to Slash Records, home of fellow Angelenos Los Lobos and X, they made further inroads with their self-titled second album in 1981, revisiting several cuts (including the aforementioned ‘Marie Marie’) that had appeared in rougher form on their debut. They gained a following in the UK, bolstered by music press enthusiasm for similar hard-rocking roots-based bands like Jason & The Scorchers and Rank & File, and back in the US they were even bigger media darlings. An early fan was film director Walter Hill, who, having failed to persuade them to make an appearance in Eddie Murphy’s first major movie 48 Hours, finally landed them to feature playing live in a club scene in his next flick, Streets Of Fire.
Yet, although the group were rightly being lauded for their music, some sections of the press preferred to focus on the constant in-fighting between lead guitarist Dave and chief vocalist Phil; nothing particularly new with brothers in bands (the Everlys, The Kinks, and, more recently, Oasis), and often it’s that friction which provides the chemistry for some great music. The Alvins didn’t help matters by having an especially vociferous spat live on air during an appearance on NBC’s top-rated morning magazine programme The Today Show, which resulted in the group’s management banning the siblings from giving interviews together in the future.
The familial face-offs were taking their toll on other members of The Blasters, and pianist Gene Taylor, who’d been added to the line-up when they signed with Slash, quit the group citing not just the tension between the brothers but interference from the label. Now part of the Warners umbrella, Slash were under pressure to deliver a radio-friendly hit single to lift the Blasters to a level beyond the ardent live following and critical acclaim, but nothing on subsequent albums Non Fiction (1983) and Hardline (1985) quite fitted the bill. Dave approached respected Brit musician and producer Nick Lowe to helm their next record, but Phil clashed with Lowe in the studio and the sessions were scrapped.
Dave announced he was quitting the band in April 1986, but briefly returned to the fold the following year to play a European tour, just months before he set out on his own with Romeo’s Escape. Free from unwelcome major label muscle, the record offered Dave more scope to indulge his various musical passions, from the chugging blues of ‘You Got Me’ to the introspective country balladry of ‘Border Radio’, from the Springsteenesque pocket anthem ‘Fourth Of July’ (rescued fom The Blasters’ sessions with Lowe) to the pedal steel lament ‘Every Night About This Time’. The latter even provided the album with its title when first released in the UK, although no one involved seems to remember why it was changed in the first place! Other Blasters oldies were given a fresh lick of paint, including ‘Long White Cadillac’, which, ironically, became the hit single Warners had yearned for when it was covered by Dwight Yoakam in 1989.
Some fans contend that this is how Dave’s songs should have sounded when first recorded, but their original intent was often lost in the too-many-cooks and too-much-compromise environment of the Blasters camp. Certainly, something as sparse and as delicate of ‘Brother On The Line’, parts of which could be read as a regret-heavy olive branch to the estranged Phil, would have been battered out of shape by his former band. Romeo’s Escape was the sound of Dave Alvin as he truly always should have been heard, liberally plundering musical styles from throughout the 20th century, but with the evocative voice of a poet who’d (perhaps) seen too much. What most surprised longtime followers was the sure-footedness and confidence of Dave as a frontman. Never the most technically adept of singers, he nonetheless brought an honesty and vulnerability to the songs, a tender humanity totally suited to the subject matter.
But sales were disappointing, and Dave’s US label Columbia, decided not to renew his contract. Undeterred, he went off in another direction, forming the touring band The Pleasure Barons with fellow mavericks Mojo Nixon and Country Dick Manitoba, an outfit he once described as “a Las Vegas revue from an act who are never gonna be asked to play Vegas.” (The Pleasure Barons would intermittently reconvene over the years, even releasing a live album in 1993).
Dave’s second solo set, Blue Boulevard, appeared in 1989 on Hightone Records. He delivered the album complete to the indie label, having financed its recordings himself with the royalties from the Yoakam cover of ‘Long White Cadillac’. Another critically-acclaimed release, it again failed to reach anything approaching a huge audience, but Dave seems to have been happy about that. It did just enough business to allow him to pursue his own career paths, including long players Museum Of Heart (1993) and the acoustic Kings Of California (1994), and sidemen activities with some of his early heroes like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Sonny Burgess. He also published a book of poetry and short stories, the fittingly titled Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You, in 1995, which was part autobiography, part a more detailed examination of modern-day America than the confines of a three-minute song had previously afforded him.
In 2000, Alvin recorded a collection of traditional folk and blues classics, Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land, which earned him a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. It was belated recognition for a man, who though never far from the epicentre of the intelligent roots music movement, has more often than not shied away from the spotlight. He’s rightly proud of the work he did with The Blasters, but the subsequent years paint a truer picture of the real Dave Alvin. Romeo’s Escape represents the first few brush strokes on that fascinating canvas.
© Terry Staunton, Acadia Records, June 2006