By Geoffrey Himen, American Songwriter
“Dave Alvin is one of our best songwriters. He wrote almost all the original material for the Blasters’ brilliant first four albums between 1981 and 1985,” writes Geoffrey Himen in American Songwriter. “He wrote ‘Long White Cadillac,’ a top-40 country hit for Dwight Yoakam and ‘Marie, Marie,’ a top-20 U.K. hit for Shakin’ Stevens. His second solo album (Blue Blvd. ) and his ninth (Ashgrove) are two of the best Americana albums of all time. And yet, for all of Alvin’s achievements as a songwriter, he continues to record songs by other writers.”
So, why does Alvin spend so much time with other people’s songs?
One of the reasons, Alvin said, was the challenge of reinventing a song: “You take the original and then tear it apart,” Alvin told Himen. “How do you do a song like ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ that’s not like Dylan, not like Johnny Winter? Dylan did it as a blues, leaning on the one chord, but I brought it what I call spooky chords, these suspended chords, to set up the refrain at the end of each verse. I wanted to sing it somewhere between Mose Allison and Ken Nordine. The Dylan version has the siren and the jokey/jiving feel, but I wanted to bring it down to the darkness. I wanted the guitars to sound like avenging angels, like you’re driving down the road late at night, and you see these apparitions flying at you until we get back to the one chord.”
How do you go about writing a song? Alvin responded by asking himself, “Well, what if you combine Chess Records, Sun Records and small press poetry? If Willie Dixon, Leiber & Stoller and Charles Bukowski sat down to write a song, what would it sound like?”
“His interest in poetry connected with his admiration for the lyrics of Percy Mayfield and Merle Haggard,” writes Himan. “His interest in poetry gave him an immediate connection with John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X, a band he would join briefly after exiting the Blasters.”
The songwriting process requires ruthless editing. “Even if a song comes in a red-hot flash, you have to come back with a cool head and say, ‘This part is really good, but this part isn’t.’ It’s painful to cut certain phrases, but when you sing the song, you realize the song is better without those phrases,” said Alvin.
“My plan has always been to keep music fun,” he says. “This business can be so dispiriting, so I like to do things for fun, to remind myself what it was like when I was a kid playing in a garage. You figure out how to play ‘Louie, Louie’—‘Oh, the five chord is a minor’–and that’s a blast as well as an important education.”