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Phil Alvin: New Blasters, Old Songs

June 01, 1986|CHRIS WILLMAN

Phil Alvin, the singer for the Blasters, was leading bands long before the L.A. rock scene took off again in the late '70s, and he plans to be doing so long after its embers die.

The unusually outspoken Alvin doesn't seem worried about the recent departure from the band of his younger brother Dave, even though the latter played guitar in the group and wrote the socially conscious songs that so defined the group's highly acclaimed albums.

In fact, Phil Alvin made no secret of his distaste for his brother's propensity for sitting in with other bands on the side during his Blasters tenure. Dave Alvin, who joined X's John Doe and Exene Cervenka in the country-minded Knitters for several shows last year, before replacing Billy Zoom a few months ago in X, was in the studio working on the new X album and unavailable for comment.

But a confident Phil Alvin summarized the loss of his brother and the addition of one Hollywood Fats, formerly with the James Harman Band, in these terms. He thinks his roots-flavored band lost "the best songwriter in the United States" and gained "the best guitarist."

The new Blasters will be unveiled Friday and Saturday at the Palace--and the billing for the weekend dates ("first shows of the summer tour") is in sharp contrast to the "farewell shows" advertisements that ran a couple of months back. Those dates were canceled and Alvin called the ad line "total baloney."

No doubt the promoter was not the only one in town wondering how the Blasters could go on without the member credited with writing virtually all of the band's original material.

Queried about what the band will do for new material without Dave, the elder Alvin made it clear that he takes it as an insult when onlookers credit the style and direction of a band exclusively to its songwriting:

"Because of what I feel is an unfair emphasis on songwriting and because of my brother's prolificness, there's a misnomer that the sound of the Blasters has something to do with those songs, and that's not true. If I do a song, it sounds like the Blasters, and David knew that and hence could write for that.

"I'm the leader of this band and I made it very clear early on that only one person writes songs. Many times David offered me writer parts, but I wouldn't take it because bands break up because of those things. You can't have people sitting and bickering over what percentage of what they brought to it."

Alvin said the emphasis on songwriting these days can hurt singers. "They feel that they've got to write songs. They consider themselves inferior if they don't. Likewise, songwriters are told that they have to sing. For what? Because it makes a more salable package," he said.

"There's a great deal of interfacing between publishing and recording, so it's better to have a singer-songwriter no matter what the cost to music. The more money in just one hand, the easier the package moves through the system. And it costs singers and songwriters. Talking and singing don't occur in the same section of the brain, much less writing and singing, so the assumption that these two sections should just naturally be together is wrong.

"Very few times in history has there actually been a singer-songwriter--Hank Williams could be an example, or Jimmie Rodgers. Who's the king of rock 'n' roll? Does he write songs? Does Jerry Lee Lewis write songs? Bing Crosby? Rudy Vallee? Frank Sinatra? And if you ever want to go hear Sammy Cahn sing his songs, it's cute, but it ain't right, right? "

Alvin has an adventurous solo album due out in August encompassing songs and styles representing music dating at least as far back as the '50s--some, in fact, with origins in the black troubadourial songs of the 19th Century.

"There's a lot of characters and stories that I've always liked, and they're not very well elaborated on anymore in that there's certainly no cause in the modern music industry to ever pay real intelligent musical respect to a song that's not gonna get anybody who's alive any publishing. So you don't get to hear 'The Ghost of Smokey Joe.' Who's Smokey Joe? That's always been the job of musicians, to sort through old records and oral tradition."

Unlike H. L. Mencken, Alvin said that it is possible to lose money underestimating the taste of the American public. The eternal optimist, he said that in a truly free marketplace, the cream will rise regardless of trappings.

"Eventually, all music will compete with itself all the time, always. You'll always be competing with Blind Lemon Jefferson, because people's knowledge of him will be equal to their knowledge of the B. H. Surfers or the Barf Puppies or whatever. The people who don't want to compete with Blind Lemon Jefferson are the people who aren't good enough to. I want to. I want my records to have to sell in a free marketplace, not tied to time. Who said music is tied to time?"

Alvin has become more acutely aware of time, though--or at least the waste of it--through lessons learned with the record industry, mistakes he plans to begin rectifying soon.

"I'm not saying farewell, but I am going back to school," said Alvin, who used to teach mathematics at Cal State Long Beach. "I could've gotten my Ph.D. in the last seven years, because nobody in this business is available for anything until 2:30 anyway. You call at 10 and they're either not in yet or nobody knows where they are right now; they come in at 11 or maybe 11:30, go to lunch at 12, then they're gone till 2:30.

"I'm working, I'm out on the road, spitting blood, and what are these guys doing? So be at lunch till 2:30! Between 8 in the morning and 2:30 in the afternoon, I'll be at school."

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