Dave Alvin – Do look back
“Ashgrove”, the title song from Dave Alvin’s new solo album, is a salute to the Hollywood nightclub where Alvin, as a teenager, first saw Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Reverend Gary Davis. But this is not your typical tribute tune, full of reverence and sentiment. This, like all of Alvin’s great songs, is a tangled knot of mixed feelings.
It opens with one of those swaggering guitar riffs Alvin brought to the Blasters in the early 1980s, and the first verse nods to his adolescence, when he and his brother Phil were first inspired to play music by the likes of Turner and Hopkins. In the second verse, though, the song shoots forward 30 years to describe the singer by himself “out on this highway, traveling from town to town, trying to make a living, trying to pay the rent, trying to figure out where my life went.” It becomes clear that this is not a nostalgic view of a golden past; this is a song about a difficult present, where the rent is not easily paid and meaning is not easily found.
There’s a curious mixture of weariness and resilience in Alvin’s vocal, as if the years of low-pay gigs in small clubs have taken their toll even if he’s inspired to carry on by the example of the Ashgrove acts, who created great art in the face of similar frustrations. Alvin has created his own share of great art, even if he’s never received the recognition enjoyed by such peers as Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello, much as his heroes Percy Mayfield and Willie Dixon were never as celebrated by the masses as Buddy Holly or Burt Bacharach.
Yet Alvin keeps going. His sandy, swept-back hair begins further up on his forehead these days, but his long, lanky frame still seems to disappear within his cracked black-leather jacket. He’ll be back on the road this summer with his best album in a decade. What keeps him going is the model of Lee Allen and Big Joe Turner, who still poured their passion into the blues even after the rest of the world had stopped caring — when they were playing for tiny crowds at the Ashgrove, crowds that included two wide-eyed brothers from Downey, California.
On the final verse of “Ashgrove”, Alvin sings:
I’m thinking of friends and lovers and how they come and go
Like look-alike houses on the side of the road,
Full of everyday people trying to get ahead,
Trying to find a reason just to get out of bed,
Because we all need something just to get us through,
Well, I’m going to play the blues tonight, man,
Because that’s what I do.
With a drum fill and a splash of loud guitar, the song shifts into the chorus, and all of Alvin’s weariness seems to evaporate as he shouts with renewed confidence: “I’m going back to the Ashgrove; that’s where I come from!”
“When people first hear the song,” Alvin says, “they think it’s just a song about the Ashgrove, but the second time they hear it, hopefully they realize it’s about something else. It’s a hard life on the road, but it’s a hard life for everybody, whether they’re a musician or not. I didn’t want it to be a whiny song, because I’ve been very blessed; I love what I do, even though I’ve paid a price for it.
“The Ashgrove is just a symbol of whatever gets you out of bed. Whether it’s your kids, your religion or the basketball playoffs; you need something to get up in the morning. What’s happening to a lot of us my age [Alvin is 48] is the death of our parents and even our friends. Life’s no longer about losing your virginity; it’s about other things, so you write a different kind of song. When all that stuff is going on, how do you live your life, and what things pull you through?”
In the third verse of “Ashgrove”, Alvin sings:
Now my mother’s gone, now my father’s gone,
And all the old bluesmen have all passed on.
I’m out on this highway, traveling from town to town;
I’m setting up my gear, then I’m tearing it down.
Turning up my guitar, standing up on the stage,
I’m just trying to raise the ghosts up out of their graves.
“My favorite thing to do is to play live,” he claims, “because when you play music, you can raise the dead. On a good night, time becomes elastic, and everything that’s ever happened is right there — your first girlfriend, your present girlfriend, Big Joe Turner, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, your parents, everyone is right there.”
T-Bone Walker died in 1975; Big Joe Turner in 1985; Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson in 1988; Lee Allen in 1994. Alvin’s mother Nana died in 1984; his father Cass died in 2000.
His father’s death was especially difficult, because Dave, his brother Phil and their sister spent many hours over many years sitting in hospital rooms as their dad struggled with Parkinson’s, a broken hip and finally the pneumonia that killed him. Out of that experience came “The Man In The Bed”, which appears not only on Ashgrove (released June 15 on Yep Roc Records) but also on ParkinSong, Volume One: 38 Songs Of Hope, a two-disc benefit project that includes contributions from Bonnie Raitt, Alejandro Escovedo, Greg Brown, Kelly Willis, Tom Russell and others.
The Ashgrove album has an obvious pattern. The blustery blues-rock of the title song, which opens the disc, is followed by the drum brushes and twangy guitar of “Rio Grande”. The CD continues to alternate, blues-rock followed by country-folk. The eighth track opens with a pretty arpeggio picked out on an acoustic guitar as Alvin whispers in a weary baritone:
The man in the bed isn’t me
No, I slipped out the door, and I’m running free
Young and wild like I’ll always be
‘Cause the man in the bed isn’t me.