Dave Alvin – Do look back
It’s the voice of his father, his body lying withered beneath hospital sheets, even as his mind imagines grabbing the white-uniformed nurse and dragging her down to the nearest dance hall. “The Man In The Bed” is one of the best songs ever written about the contradiction that confronts us all, especially as we grow older: The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
“One of the first times I did that song live, a guy came up to me after the show and said, ‘That’s an amazing song about denial.’ I said, ‘It’s not a song about denial; it’s a song about survival.’ There’s a spirit inside the body, even if the body is not living up to its responsibilities. The decrepit body is not the guy; the guy is whatever that thing is that makes us not be rocks, not be cement, and I don’t mean that in a religious sense. The narrator knows he’s in the bed. You don’t have to say that; it’s implied in the lyrics and in the music.”
In a sense, though, it is a song about denial, about denial as a means of survival. Alvin’s father never did get out of that bed and go running wild again, and only by ignoring that reality and living in his imagination was he able to make the most of his last days. What’s astonishing about the song is the son’s ability to crawl into his father’s imagination and go running beside him.
It’s not the only time on the album that Alvin enters another person’s head. On “Everett Ruess”, Alvin becomes a mountain man who drops off the social grid to live off the land in the Sierras. On “Out Of Control”, he becomes a dope dealer waiting while his girlfriend turns a trick. Like Steve Earle or Paul Kelly, Alvin has been doing this a long time, assuming the persona of someone other than himself and telling a story that may or may not be true. Over the years he has become an arsonist, a hold-up man, an unhappy husband, a Gold Rush miner, a Civil War prisoner and Hank Williams.
“In a lot of my songs, the characters see things from their point of view,” Alvin says. “If their point of view’s unreliable or just framed by their experience, that’s who they are. Richard Thompson has written some great jerk songs, and Richard’s hardly a jerk. With that approach, you can dig around in those parts of yourself where that person lives, as if you were an actor, a playwright or a novelist. You want to deal with the demons inside as well as the angels.
“A failing of some songwriters, especially beginning songwriters, is they go into the me, me, me songs too much. If you hear a songwriter who writes like that, it can get a bit whiny. That’s something you could never accuse Richard Thompson or Randy Newman of — or Chuck Berry or Leiber & Stoller or Woody Guthrie.”
The assumed-persona approach to songwriting has a political aspect as well. The act of putting yourself in another person’s shoes requires the admission that you’re not the center of the universe, the recognition that every other person has an equal claim on the world. It requires an act of empathy that makes racial, gender or class prejudice difficult to sustain. The Alvin brothers grew up in a household where such political considerations were part of the nightly dinner table conversation.
“From an early age, we knew there were two sides to every story,” Alvin recalls. “‘Don’t believe everything you read in the news,’ our dad told us; ‘Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.’ There would be big family arguments, because my mother’s family was very conservative. My mother had been ostracized, because they thought she had married a communist — and not only a communist, but a Catholic.”
Cass Alvin was a first-generation Polish kid from South Bend, Indiana; his last name was originally Czyzewski. He rode the rails out to California during the Depression, worked in the steel mills, served as a photographer for the signal corps in the war, and then became an organizer for the Steelworkers Union. When Dave and Phil were little kids, their dad would throw them in the car and they’d go off on organizing trips to mining towns in the Rockies.
“I vividly remember this one night,” Dave recalls. “There was this late-night union rally, an illegal rally, in Red Cliff, Colorado, so far off the highway that you had to go down a one-lane dirt road with no lights into this canyon. We’re talking Walker Evans photos here: row after row of company houses, poorly lit streets and poorly dressed children standing on the porches. The rally started with a guy with an acoustic guitar, and then my dad stood up and gave an organizing speech. That kind of experience stays with you.”
The Alvin family lived in Downey, an inner suburb just east of Los Angeles. Today, the L.A. area is still divided between the fashionable west side — the silver-screen land of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Santa Monica, Culver City and Los Angeles itself — and the largely forgotten east side — the blue-collar world of El Monte, Compton, Long Beach, Norwalk, Pomona and Downey. But the divide was even sharper in the ’60s when the Alvin brothers were young. Phil Alvin still doesn’t trust anyone who lives west of the Harbor Freeway; he has never quite forgiven Dave for making the move as an adult.
So it was a bold expedition to cross the Harbor Freeway in 1969, when Dave was 13 and Phil was 16, and venture to the Ashgrove in Hollywood. But the Alvin boys had no choice. They had become so entranced by folk and blues records that they had to see their heroes in action. For as influential as their father was, their older cousins also left a mark. One cousin, Mike Keller, had turned them on to Dave Van Ronk and Rev. Gary Davis; another cousin, Donna Dixon, had given them her old Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner 45s.
“Our first trip to the Ashgrove was pretty exciting,” Alvin remembers. “It was only 20 miles from our house, but for me it was another world. The Ashgrove was down on Melrose before Melrose got gentrified; it was all boarded-up storefronts, not the groovy, trendy neighborhood it is now. It was a folk club off the radar in a forgotten neighborhood. You’d walk inside, and the entrance chamber was usually decorated with political art, Chinese propaganda posters and such. Before you even heard any music, you were being educated, not so much into Maoist thought, but that the music you were about to see, ladies and gentlemen, wasn’t just ‘let’s have a party and get drunk’; it came from a socio-economic consciousness.
“Off to the left was a used record store. Then you went down a long hall to where the club was. The seats were pews like the Ryman, probably bought from a burnt-out church. It was funky, but not sloppy funky. It was a good-sized stage. The first show I saw was Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and Margie Evans. Once I saw Big Joe Turner, forget it; I knew I’d seen something. The tragedy of learning this music from records is that you don’t get the full effect with a lot of artists, the physical feeling of being in the presence of someone like that.