Thirty Years Too Late for Cousin Donna
Here’s how it kind of begins: “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re in for a treat. Put your hands together for Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men!” Here’s how it pretends to begin: 20 seconds or so of band-tuning-up noise, weird organ drones, Hawaiian-sounding pedal-steel swoops, and random drum knocks. But here’s how it really begins: with a guitar. Doesn’t it all? It’s a dirty tough sound, a gritty no-bullshit sound, and it’s the truth, and it signals the band to jump into a rockabilly blues groove, which it does, thereby starting one of the most satisfying albums you will hear this year or any other. It’s the sound of Dave Alvin, and it might be the sound of genius.
I don’t say this lightly; my pride and my entire marriage are at stake. See, my wife is just about the biggest Blasters fan I’ve ever met in my life, but I always thought they were kind of drab on record, certainly somewhat boring, and certainly overrated. My wife, on the other hand, has them as the second-best band of the entire 1980s, looking up at only the Violent Femmes—high praise indeed for a Wisconsin woman. This has been one of our longest-running arguments. Actual dialogue: “With all that crap you listen to, you dare insult the Blasters? You listen to the god-damned Roches, for God’s sake!” (Which is an overstatement; I sold that record, okay? I swear it.)
So when I immediately fall in love with “Out in California”, the first and title track on this live album by Dave Alvin, I’m a little disturbed. Alvin was the principal songwriter and lead guitarist for the Blasters, who mixed the whole rockabilly revival deal with an encyclopedic knowledge of rhythm and blues classics; his brother Phil was the singer, but Dave was the heart and soul of that group. While the Blasters still tour with Phil and some other original members and put out an album every once in a while, Dave’s been on his own for a while, hovering just under the pop-culture radar while building a rabid cult following. He still puts out powerful studio albums with his roots band the Guilty Men, but what he loves is touring, playing in front of real live people. This is his second live record in seven years and was recorded in three different locations in Southern California over the course of the last year. It is also the summation of his career.
“Out in California” is the ideal way to start this record. It’s a zen blues: “Well I’m sittin’ here drinkin’ / In the last bar on earth / Yeah, sittin’ here drinkin’ / In the last bar on earth / She’s out in California / Takin’ off her tight red skirt”. Everything choogles along with a momentum on loan from God, with steel swoops and boogie woogie piano and some truly evil guitar licks, as Alvin talks all about his broken relationship without talking about it; as the song progresses, he’s compared his breakup to Indian genocide and the endangerment of grizzly bears . . . except without actually saying it. “When a man keeps on runnin’ / He’s gonna run right into himself / She’s out in California / Lyin’ down with somebody else.” And even though it’s all very portentious, you’re still not prepared for the kicker: both the music and the mind of the narrator break down and get real quiet: “Well I’m gonna buy me a Chevy / Soon as my luck turns around / Well I may buy me a shotgun / Soon as my luck turns around / Baby I’ll drive on back to that / California town”.
Sorry to quote so many lyrics at you, but these are some damned wonderful songs here. “Haley’s Comet”, a weeper about the lonesome death of Bill Haley in Texas, is beautifully constructed, with images of pickup trucks full of migrant workers and blacked-out windows. But it might go over the edge into sentimentality were it not for the ferocity of Alvin’s vocal attack. Similarly, “Abilene” takes seven minutes to tell the story of a woman coming back to the town where she was victimized as a child; it’s harrowing, and it’s realistic, and it’s sad as all hell, but it’s not exploitative. And if you’re looking for perfectly constructed choruses, you can’t do better than “Wanda and Duane”, a rocker about two white-trash kids who seem to fall out of lust about 10 seconds after they move in together: “Ain’t it a shame / But there ain’t no one to blame / When love just slips away / And only the lovers remain / Lord it’s a shame / But there’s really no one to blame / So the names have all been changed / To protect Wanda and Duane”.
That these songs can come through in a live context is a testament to this incredible band. Bobby Lloyd Hicks anchors everything with a New Orleans second-line shuffle on the drums, and works closely with Gregory Boaz on bass; Joe Terry and Rick Shea trade solos on keyboards and steel guitars, respectively; Brantley Kearns has a nice country fiddle thing happening, and Chris Gaffney is a continual rock-solid presence on accordion and backup singing. Some of the numbers were recorded as part of a semi-acoustic set, and really showcase the delicacy that expert musicians can muster; “Andersonville”, a Civil War horror tale that Alvin introduces as being about his “great-great-great-uncle”, transcends its Southern Gothic pathos (“I’m pullin’ worms out of the mud / ‘Cause there’s nothing else to eat”) with intricate mandolin picking and chilling harmony vocals.
Dave Alvin is a man who loves music. This comes through in his blues covers, like “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and “All ‘Round Man”—this latter, a wonderfully salacious Bo Carter number, makes the balding near-50 Alvin into the sex symbol he was never destined to be: “I ain’t your butcher / I’m no butcher’s son / But I can give you meat until your butcher comes”. He turns his Blasters hit “Little Honey” (co-written with old friend and bandmate John Doe) into a nine-minute epic by combining it seamlessly with Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” gaining about a million roots points by using the original lyrics about “Arlene” and “Bo”. He is the rare example of a country-leaning rock musician who understands that the foundation of rock and roll music is rhythm and blues music, and he’s willing to put his money and his mouth where his heart is.
The key to this record, though, is the lengthy introduction to “Blue Boulevard”. Here, we see Dave Alvin the way he really is: a man who loves music and lives in a slightly different time from the rest of us. He dedicates this song to his cousin, Donna, who “was into hard R&B and hard rock ‘n’ roll” and used to let Dave and Phil cruise around with her in her car on the tough southeast-side streets of L.A. listening to Jimmy Reed and Roy Orbison 45s with her. The song, he says, is written for a guy who comes down to “Tweedy Boulevard, or Bellflower Boulevard, or Whittier Boulevard 30 years too late, and he’s looking for my cousin Donna”. The song is also done acoustically, and every fiddle lick and guitar riff strikes right to the heart. This is what beauty is.
Out in California is 76 minutes long, but it’s been 40 years in the making, ever since Dave and Phil Alvin sat in the back of their cousin’s blue ‘48 Ford with their cousin Donna. So when Alvin busts out with “Fourth of July,” which I first heard on X’s See How We Are sung by John Doe, it feels like this tale of romantic rebirth has been turned into a declaration of musical independence. And by the time they close things out with “American Music”, the Blasters’ biggest hit, a furious rockabilly number (with some great Jerry Lee piano lines by Joe Terry) about the glory of “the Looziana boogie and the Delta blues,” it feels like triumph. As much as it pains me to say it, it looks like my wife might have been right all along.
Oh, and by the way: don’t go reading other reviews. They give away the great hidden joke at the end of this album. That just shouldn’t be allowed.