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'Dry River'

Dave Alvin | 1991

January 06, 2008|GEOFF BOUCHER

Ask Dave Alvin where he lives and you get a long answer. "I've lived in L.A. proper since 1980 or 1981 now, but I still feel like a stranger in a way. And you know, I don't consider myself an L.A. songwriter. I'm a Downey guy."

So although Alvin's house sits on a hillside in Silver Lake, his most enduring memory of home is the long-gone orange grove that sat just a few blocks from his boyhood residence in Downey, which was still dense with farms, pastures and dairies. "One day I woke up and that grove was just gone," Alvin said. "And then later they were all gone."

Alvin has been one of Southern California's true roadhouse philosophers -- first as a founding member of the Blasters, then on his own or with bands such as X and the Knitters. Like so many blues-drenched troubadours, Alvin is best when writing about loss; in 1991, he released one of his best songs, "Dry River," a lament about parched land and severed roots.

I played in the orange groves

Till they bulldozed the trees

Still I'd stand out in those dead stumps

And smell the blossoms on the leaves

Someday it's gonna rain, someday it's gonna pour

Someday those old dead trees won't be dead anymore

Alvin turned 52 in November and he mocks himself for sounding like some "old codger on the porch" ranting about his lost paradise. But he also knows that he's not the only one who feels it. "It was a uniquely Southern California experience of the 1960s, watching the farms and groves just vanish," said Alvin. "It's happening everywhere now, of course. The song is about the feeling you get, this environmental dislocation."

In "Dry River," there's an underlying pulse that is both inspiring and a bit ominous; there's a deluge coming, the song says, and it will bring upheaval and then a communion with the leafy past. "There is a wild, untamable side to the place we live," Alvin said, "and you see it in the earthquakes, floods and landslides. . . . People deny its naturalness -- instead of going with the flow they go against it. You have this manicured version of the place with English lawns."

The kid from Downey laughed and said some once-a-century storm might come and wash his Los Angeles mailing address right off the hill that he officially calls home.

"Then my song will have come to fruition. I'll get what I asked for."


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