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'West of the West'

Barbara Isenberg talks to Dave Alvin about his latest album and the native sons who inspired it

August 27, 2006|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is the author of "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work."

Dave Alvin, a veteran of such local bands as the Blasters, X, and the Knitters, likes to honor western music as well as write it. His mother's family came to the state in the 1870s, and on his new album, "West of the West," the fourth-generation Californian interprets songs by fellow natives such as Merle Haggard, Jerry Garcia and Brian Wilson. When he's not on the road, which isn't too often, home is a well-worn place in Silver Lake, and tonight he'll be in the neighborhood--for a 6 o'clock gig at the Sunset Junction Street Fair.

Q: Do you think there's such a thing as a California songwriter?

A: I remember sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch with my mom and watching TV when John Stewart was a guest on a local daytime chat show. When he sang his "California Bloodlines," my mom said to me, "That's what you've got. Just like him. You've got California bloodlines."

When I go into my subconscious to write songs, a lot of the imagery that I'm looking at is colored by my first broken heart, first hamburger, first ride in a car, first jump in the ocean. As you grow and mature, of course, you write about other things, but wherever you're from is still a part of you. Merle Haggard was formed in Oildale, near Bakersfield, and he'll always have that with him. Brian Wilson will always have Hawthorne. When they go back into their subconscious, they're writing about things they saw when they were kids.

Q: What did you see when you were a kid, growing up in Downey?

A: Bean fields. Avocado groves. Small towns. Old oak hillsides. Downey was still a quarter rural, and there were orange groves a block from the house. You could play in the San Gabriel riverbed. There were hobos sleeping along the banks of the river. The first time I went to the East Coast on tour with the Blasters, I felt cramped, and then I realized that psychologically I'm used to the open spaces here.

Q: Traveling the West with your father also shaped you, didn't it?

A: That was great. My dad rode the rails out here from Indiana in the Depression, and was organizing and working for the steelworkers union. There were steel mills here then, and in the greater Southwest there were the coal and copper mines. Because he'd be gone a lot of the time, to have "bonding moments" he would take my brother Phil and me out of school and throw us in the car. We saw everything as kids-- Indian reservations, little mining towns. Seeing all that stuff at a very tender age definitely influenced everything I've done since. I am a Westerner. I see things in a Western way.

Q: You obviously write things in a Western way as well.

A: A lot of people think that where they come from, there's no poetry, and that they have to go to New York or Harvard or Paris to be a poet. But what I learned studying poetry at Long Beach State from guys like Gerald Locklin and Elliot Fried is that whatever your world is, that's where your poetry starts from. It doesn't necessarily end there, but it starts from there.

Q: Your 2000 Grammy-winning album, "Public Domain," was traditional folk songs. This time you're looking at California songwriters. Do you feel a responsibility to the artists who preceded you?

A: In the early days of the Blasters, before I started writing songs, we wanted to play songs by old blues singers like Junior Parker and old rock blues songs by Carl Perkins, and to me that's a noble thing to do. You're passing on a heritage. With some of the lesser-known songwriters like Jim Ringer and Kate Wolf, it's a way of saying they're as great in my opinion as the famous songwriters. They just didn't get the breaks.

Q: Your album also tosses a lot of California sounds together in new ways. On "Surfer Girl," for instance, where did you get the notion of putting a '50s doo-wop group like the Calvanes together with Beach Boys music?

A: I was a big fan of Jesse Belvin, Richard Berry and people like that, and the Blasters did a project with the Calvanes. A lot of that surf music came out of R&B, so I was trying to reconnect the dots between '50s L.A. R&B and early '60s L.A. surf music.

Q: "West of the West" seems like a tribute to California as much as to its songwriters.

A: It was a little love letter to the state, but an eyes wide open kind of love letter. "I love you, honey, but do something about your breath"--it's that kind of love letter.

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