A Link in the Chain: The Blasters

Fishnet stockings ensnare the lust of the passing drunks who miraculously have leftover cash in their pockets. For a street-walkin’ woman the stockings nightly provide a decent haul of Johns. A man with his hair slicked back leans back against a crumbling brick wall in the same alley as the women, his clouded by the acrid smoke of every cigar puff he takes. Some of the women periodically hand him money. Maybe he’s just more honest about his money-making than the Wall Street stiffs or maybe he’s the devil. Probably both. In the distance a fistfight erupts, bringing with it a cacophony of screams, shouts, and car horns. It’s Los Angeles, the City of Angels, but here those angels are mostly all fallen. Still, beauty happens here in small increments, like a dandelion growing through a crack in an urban sidewalk.

A teenage boy, escorted by his mother, makes his way to a nearby hotel. The mother waits outside during the relative calm of the daylight hours, while the boy climbs the stairs. Upstairs one of the greatest harmonica players in the history of American music, Sonny Terry, has a room while he’s in town. Teaching the teenager, who goes by the name Phil Alvin, is something Terry does when he’s in town. It’s the handing down of an ancient art form. Who knows where the form started, but it’s come here from Africa and Europe, and it’s been going on for thousands of years. Sonny Terry passing on what he knows to Phil Alvin, will lead to Phil Alvin, along with his brother Dave, forming The Blasters. And The Blasters will keep the old ways alive for a few more generations.

The Colorado River runs wild through the layers of the Grand Canyon. For the past few million years, the Colorado has sawed through the floor of the desert, infusing the sand with life; verdant sage, red-blooded rattlesnake and everything in between. If the Grand Canyon were the music of this country, the Colorado River would represent the universal depth of feeling present in the work of any successful American musician, regardless of his/her genre. Miles Davis’ modal jams, George Gershwin’s piano rolls, and Hank Williams’ three chord heartaches all have the same current running underneath them. To be nurtured on the banks of that river, where so many before have been, is to be linked to one’s roots.

In today’s American music there is a resurgence of interest in, and attachment to the music of the past. Bands not afraid of letting their musical forbearers shine through have even earned their own genre label; americana, or occasionally roots rock. The Blasters were one of the few bastions of what is often referred to as roots rock in the ’80s. Just don’t ask them to sit quietly in any category. Phil Alvin, vocalist, guitarist, and harp player of The Blasters, instantly corrects my application of the term roots rock, or any other labels to his music. “Music in its standard public perception is so oversimplified. [People] talk about country music, or jazz music as if there is some clear definition between those things.”

Dave Alvin, songwriter and lead guitarist for the group, summarizes the essence of The Blasters’ music as such; “we wanted to recreate music we loved, and then figure out where to take it from there.”

And take it far they did, drinking deep of the blues, R&B, and rockabilly spirits in American music, regurgitating it as their own unique songcraft. Along the way they earned a reputation for frenetic energy based on their live shows. Like a Blasters’ live show, a moment with either of the Alvin brothers is never a dull one, and early on in our conversation Phil earns his reputation for speaking his mind.

“Have I met you before?”

“No you haven’t.”

“Good, then I’m not an asshole.”

Back in the ’80s, near the end of their band, the brothers had a blowout or two during an interview. So their manager prevented them from doing interviews together. In a 1985 Montreal show their backstage arguments about the direction of the band made on an onstage debut. After the show, Dave Alvin was done. Pianist Gene Taylor left as well. Dave made his way to New York, where he joined punk band X for a while. Gene Taylor was resurrected as a member of The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Before all that happened though, there was harmony in The Blasters and out of it came some of the most genuine American Music this country has never known.

In Downey, California, which is slightly southeast of downtown L.A., the young Alvin brothers had music coming at them from all sides. Phil, who came into this world from the same place as David, 18 months earlier, wasted no time getting started on his vocal development. “My mother kept me in a drawer next to her bed after I was born . . . and well, she decided she’d never do that again.” One of the earliest influences on the developing musical sensibilities of both brothers was their cousin Donna, “a real ’50s rock-and-roller wild child.” It was Donna’s record collection, as well as the parties that she took them to as youngsters, that exposed the Alvins to all kinds of early R&B and rock music.

Downey’s proximity to L.A. meant that many of the world’s greatest sidemen were still active in the bars around town. But they had been long forgotten by the world, and were now spending the twilight of their time as mere mortals playing for a crowd more lost in the bottom of their glass, than they were in the melody. These were men like Lloyd Glenn, who had done the key arrangements for Ray Charles that defined his style. Another was named Lee Allen, who had played Sax on most of Little Richard’s and Fats Domino’s records. Allen would later finish his music career out with a bang as a member of the Blasters.

The Alvin boys were usually welcomed at the performances, despite their youth. Their encyclopedic musical knowledge, even as teenagers, impressed the elder musicians. “These guys were kinda stunned that there would be these 14-year-old white kids that knew who played drums on some record they made in 1944,” recalls Dave Alvin. These men to the Alvins were more palpable superheroes than Batman and Robin, and the boys were excellent candidates to receive the legacy of a bluesman that was soon to play his last twelve bars.

It was this passing down of a legacy that had Phil Alvin, in his early teens, traveling to that seedy hotel in downtown L.A. for harmonica lessons with the great Sonny Terry. To Phil it made perfect sense that an old bluesman such as the Sonny Terry would spend time teaching a young musician. “Why would Sonny Terry pass on something to me? Because he had the duty, just as those that came before him, they had the duty to teach him.” An acknowledgement of the timeless music that happened to be recorded before they were born is an inherent quality of all The Blasters’ work.

As Phil’s teenage blues band, which included Bill Bateman from The Blasters, developed, so did his relationship with the last survivors of the great heyday of the blues. Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters all made his acquaintance and most of them even played with him. Dave, meanwhile, was studying his older brother’s band, noodling about on their instruments when they were left unattended. Writing songs, however, was something he had always done. And when he finally joined his brother’s band and they became The Blasters, it had been a long time coming. “When David was 3 or 4, he would write little songs, I would sing them for him and rearrange them a little,” says Phil.

“Basically I tried to write my own blues,” says Dave Alvin when asked about his approach to songwriting in The Blasters era. In a description of Robbie Fulks, he reveals his own tools as a successful songwriter. “He’s got all the things a songwriter needs; heart, brains, and a sharp knife.”

“We saw music as a connector, not a rejecter,” Dave Alvin chuckles before adding, “I sound like Jesse Jackson.” Adding to the notion of a common American Music indivisible by genre labels, The Blasters were directly in the middle of the L.A. punk scene. Their fast and loud attitude to music found an appropriate, yet anomalous niche between punk contemporaries such as X, The Screamers, The Plugz, and The Weirdos.

Slash Records released the first Blasters album in 1981. Emphatically positive reviews of Blasters live shows buzzed loudly from the lips of their fan base, which continued to grow, even among people once frightened of rockabilly. “Marie, Marie” and “Border Radio” were concrete evidence that The Blasters were capable of writing and playing tunes worthy of an old Chuck Berry record. It seemed natural that the mainstream media would soon follow. Time magazine named The Blasters’ debut among the top 10 albums of 1981.

Still, mainstream success eluded The Blasters. The barrage of bottles tossed at The Blasters by drunken fools when they were the unannounced opening slot for Queen would have earned the band their stripes if they were carnival clowns, but it did little to further the appreciation of their developing style. Fortunately, this did nothing to quell the drive of the Alvin brothers. “Any time I played in tune it was a highlight, not getting hit by a beer bottle was a highlight,” says Dave.

For The Blasters’ next album, 1983’s Non Fiction, Dave Alvin penned all but two of the songs. Still loud synthesizers of all American music, The Blasters were now moving further away from a traditional rockabilly, R&B sound into their own distinct musical voice. Dave Alvin’s songs, such as “Boomtown” and “Long White Cadillac,” were now the shouts of dispossessed Americans, no less authentic than Springsteen’s songs from the same period and much deeper in resonance than John Mellencamp’s small town ballads.

This would continue into their last album, 1985s Hard Line. “Trouble Bound,” the first track on the album, gives immediate proof with its gospel chorus that The Blasters were not content to recycle the success of their earlier albums. The album has more rock, more horns, and more gospel than any of the earlier Blasters efforts. “Little Honey” is some sort of Blasters masterpiece, similar in feeling to earlier Blasters material, but entirely different musically. Phil’s arrangement of the traditional “Samson and Delilah,” hangs heavy with a Staple Singers’ influence.

Trouble bound was an apt description of the band at the time as well. For Dave and Phil The Blasters were two distinct things; Dave had now established himself as a noteworthy American songwriter and Phil had no interest in moving so far away from his earlier roots. Then came the disastrous Montreal gig of 1985 and it’s on-stage flare-up. When the ashes of the band were sorted through, Dave Alvin and pianist Gene Taylor were nowhere to be found.

It’s 2002 and the Alvin brothers have put aside their differences, for a while at least. Long enough to prove that the Blasters haven’t lost a bit of what they were once all about. Never able to get the proper live album released, the Blasters have finally gotten their chance. For Dave Alvin, it’s all that their previous live EP, Over There, should have been. Their recent live release proves that Phil still has that hound dog howl that looses whatever it is we all have bottled up inside us. Despite winning a Grammy for his own solo work, Dave is still humble enough to let his brother do all the singing again while he plays the hell out of a lead guitar riff.

While the Alvins are testing their conflict mediation skills, the original Blasters aren’t going to stay together forever. After a quick tour of the U.S. the Alvin brothers will once again do their own music. True brotherly love, after all, does not necessarily exclude fisticuffs. Nor does it eclipse disparate musical visions.

“I love my brother very much, and I think he’s even partial to me,” says Dave Alvin. “There’s been a few guys that have become great, white, blues singers, I think Bob Dylan is one. My brother is another . . . I think highly of my brother’s voice . . . in general, he’s a great blues singer. Do we agree on everything? No! I’m not rejoining the band, so that will tell you right there.”

“You fight the hardest with your friends,” says Phil Alvin. “And I think that’s pretty healthy, in terms of getting out best performances. We can yell, balls out, it doesn’t mean shit to us . . . I love my brother and he loves me. I respect him and he respects me”

A missed Blasters show this time around, is like skipping that last class before the final; the one in which the teacher spells out a large part of what you’ll need to know. Acting as a link between the musical past and its present manifestation is an essential part of what the Alvin brothers do. For Dave Alvin our musical past is like an ancient tongue, a vocabulary that needs to be spoken to avoid extinction. It is the musician’s job to preserve that musical vocabulary. “You have to keep the vocabulary alive. You have to have people that know how to speak that so you can go access it.” Phil Alvin sees music as no less than the wisdom of our ancestors. “Evolution does not play around, music is not here for no reason . . . evolution has no room for fluff. Words don’t have meaning. Context has meaning. Words are pointers. Music brings forward the collective knowledge of those who came before you. You’re going to have to get it from those that came before you.” So come and get it, whether it’s on their new live album or at their live show. Either way, you’ll be washed in a musical current that has run for thousands of years and that shows no signs of drying up.