Dave Alvin sings about California the way Bruce Springsteen sings about New Jersey. Both men have forged careers singing about the struggles of people with two strikes against them who are still in the batter's box, swinging for the fence.
But while the mention of New Jersey will usually bring a snide remark or a dirty look, California still has magic in its name, and Alvin's California is a far cry from the picture the mass media have painted of freeways, beaches, and Disneyland. "It's a big state," he says. "It's got everything, but a lot of people have this idea that it's all what they see on Baywatch. It's there, but you also have East L.A. and South Central L.A. that few out-of-state visitors ever see, and the deserts and the mountains where few people live."
The California that doesn't show up on television is where Alvin finds the subjects of songs. He's examined their lives on five solo albums since 1987. Alvin will be telling these folks' stories Tuesday night, when he makes a return to Wilbert's with his touring band, the Guilty Men.
"California can produce a Brian Wilson or a Dave Alvin or an N.W.A," says Alvin, who grew up in the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Downey, which also produced the Carpenters. "You write about what you know. If I lived on Park Avenue, I would be writing things about wealthy socialites."
Alvin isn't acquainted with all the down-and-out characters showing up on his records, but he's close to them. "Sometimes I know them, and sometimes people come to me and say, 'Let me tell you what happened to me,' or 'I know this guy who did this.' These stories just kind of morph into songs."
Alvin's latest album is last year's Blackjack David. The title track, a rendition of the eighteenth-century English folk song, sets the tone for the disc. "Blackjack David" is the tale of a well-to-do woman who must choose between the comfortable life with her husband and child and going away with the drifter she loves. The approach-avoidance conflict between love and duty permeates Blackjack David on songs like "1968," "Abilene," and "Mary Brown."
"If you're looking for [folk heroes] these days," Alvin explains in his promotional notes, "you'll usually find them in bars."
Or in diners along U.S. 22 late at night, the way Springsteen did. The comparison to Springsteen, John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, Steve Earle, and even Bob Dylan--the great storytellers in pop/rock/folk history--flatters Alvin, but with a caveat. "It's not that I don't appreciate it," he says. "I regard it as a compliment. I just don't want to take it too seriously. If you do, you sit down to write, and you start thinking about whether what you're doing is what you have to do, and that's like thinking about walking. You really can't work that way."
Alvin has been letting it flow for twenty years, ever since he and brother Phil formed the Blasters, a hard-charging roots-rock band that was in the vanguard of the Los Angeles rock renaissance, along with the Motels, X, Los Lobos, and the Plimsouls. The Blasters could never be called folk-rock, but there were political zingers in their repertoire such as "Jubilee Train" and the unmistakably anti-Reagan "Common Man."
Alvin left the Blasters in '85 and had a brief stint as lead guitarist of X, replacing Billy Zoom. His first solo album was Romeo's Escape. That was followed by Blue Blvd., Museum of the Heart, King of California, and the live Interstate City. He still gets calls for songs by the Blasters and scatters tunes like "So Long Baby Goodbye" and "Marie, Marie" into a set with "Thirty Dollar Room" and "Dry River."
Blackjack David appeared on a bunch of top ten lists for 1998. Exposure from radio stations, however, has not followed. "It's frustrating at times, no doubt," he says. "It's hurt somewhat, but I don't think about it when I have to write. Every artist has to find his audience, and I look at it as I haven't had to work a day job in twenty years.
"One of the other things that has helped me since the Blasters' days has been the Internet. Someone in California will post a message one day, and someone in Oklahoma will read it, and the next night he will come to our show in Oklahoma City based on what he saw on the Net. You can even listen to music on the Net. That has really helped me."
So did touring with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell last fall. Alvin said he was more than a little apprehensive about the gig, but found he had no cause to be. "If you're not a household name, you can be taking your life in your hands opening a show for someone who is," he says. "The Blasters toured with Queen once, and the booing was constant. We had fans throwing things at us. That's something you never forget.
"But [the Dylan/Mitchell tour] went better than expected. We were getting standing ovations some nights. It can be more than a little nerve-racking, walking into a hockey arena filled with people not there to see you. But crowds responded well, and that made us comfortable."
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men. 9 p.m. Tuesday, February 23, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 W. 9th St., Warehouse District, $10, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.