THE BLASTERS: IT’S NOT JUST AMERICAN MUSIC—IT’S DOWNEY MUSIC!By The Downey Patriot
EDITOR’S NOTE: Carol Kearns graced today’s Downey Patriot with this factual and emotional trip down a stretch of Memory Lane that was formative for a huge cross-section of fifty-somethings in the Greater Long Beach area. Enjoy the ride.
What is it about Downey that so many gifted singers, songwriters and musicians develop in this town? Is it the pristine water from the city’s own wells? Downey Studios, in the back of Wenzel’s Music Town on Lakewood Boulevard—now a Dollar Store—was the recording site in 1962 for the international surf hit “Pipeline.” Grammy winner James Hetfield from Metallica is a Downey boy. And a prominent display in the library reminds visitors that this city was home to the award-winning Carpenters.
Equally legendary, but in a different musical genre, is another pair of Downey siblings who have achieved an international fan base with devoted followers—songwriter and guitarist Dave Alvin and brother Phil of the Blasters. The band, founded with fellow Downey residents Bill Bateman and John Bazz, was known for its throbbing interpretations of rockabilly style and first appeared during the LA punk scene in the early 1980’s.
The reputation of the Blasters grew when their first album, “American Music,” caught the attention of the British rock band Queen, who invited the group to be an opening act on a portion of their west coast tour. The Blasters, in turn, helped promote Los Lobos and Dwight Yoakam with invitations to tour. In 1989, Yoakam’s cover of Dave’s “Long White Cadillac” was a hit on country charts.
Both brothers are charismatic performers with exceptional musicianship. Their music is often referred to as “American roots” music because they skillfully fuse so many styles—blues, rock, country rock, alternative country, honky-tonk, western swing and the like. Performances can be roof-raising, leaving the audience exhausted, with Phil’s soaring voice lifting the rafters and Dave’s ripping guitar work shaking loose the studs. For a change of pace the band can ease into an irresistible swinging grove, compelling listeners to dance. And Dave’s delivery is riveting with his plaintive lyrics about love gone wrong. The early Blasters are referenced in a history of California country music, “Workin’ Man Blues” by Gerald Haslam, as a creative force impossible to ignore.
Brother Dave left the band in 1986 to pursue song writing and a solo career, which eventually would earn him a Grammy. In 2009 he and Greg Leisz gave an acoustic performance at the Disney Concert Hall. He is a prolific writer, and his reflections on life prompted two books of poetry. His songs include memorable tributes to Bill Haley, “Haley’s Comet” (co-written with Tom Russell), and Big Joe Turner, “The Boss of the Blues.” Arguably his most beautiful song is the tribute to his father, union organizer Cass Alvin, “The Man in the Bed.”
For a while after Dave left, there were some changes in personnel; but the Blasters continued, with Phil as dynamic as ever. Despite their creative differences, the brothers’ love is deep, and Dave rejoins the group from time to time on reunion tours.
Dave’s new album, soon to be released this June, and entitled “Eleven-Eleven” after his birthday, contains a testament to the strength of that love. As the Blasters, Dave and Phil observed a division of labor and never sang together—Dave wrote lyrics and was lead guitarist, whilehil did vocals. For this album, they will sing a duet written by Dave.
In addition to songwriting and performing, Dave has also worked as a producer for other acts, and performed in movie roles. Earlier this year he was spotlighted in the national press when creators of the FX series “Justified” (who are Alvin fans) wrote him into an episode to play himself in a country bar.
In early April, the blogosphere was again abuzz when Mayor Joe Krovoza of the California town of Davis presented an official proclamation, with gold seal and calligraphy, lifting a 1982 ban on any Blasters performances in that town. Through no fault of the band, a riot had started among fans after a performance in Davis 29 years ago and police helicopters were brought in. The current mayor is a big Dave Alvin fan and rode along for a while on the singer’s musical rail tour to Seattle to present the proclamation and invite the brothers to please come back to Davis.
Phil Alvin still lives in Downey, even as he travels the country to perform with the band. His powerful lead voice has a crystalline quality that he uses with superb musicality. He’s also multi-faceted, completing a Master’s thesis in mathematics and teaching for a while at Long Beach State.
The Alvin brothers, like so many aspiring musicians at an early age (think Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones), immersed themselves in blues, R&B, and rock and roll by the great ones. They also performed in bars and clubs when they were underage (plenty of good company here with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carlos Santana and Pink, among others).
What is somewhat unique about the Alvins’ situation is that, as teenagers, they were actually mentored by legendary blues musicians such as T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, and saxophonist Lee Allen because of Downey’s proximity to the historic jazz center on Central Avenue.
By day they were students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help grammar school and Pius X Catholic High School. On weekends they went to rock concerts at the Shrine Auditorium, and later to the fabled Ash Grove near Hollywood. When they looked old enough, they performed wherever they could, and in 1970 they played at the York Club on 88th street for Big Joe Turner. Phil was just 17.
The back story of their formative years is as interesting as the brothers’ stories about Central Avenue, because their mother Eleanor played a significant role in their musical education.
The Early Days
Parents Cass and Eleanor Alvin settled in Downey in the early 1950’s along with hundreds of other young couples eager to begin their families and make up for lost time during the war. Although the area had a significant aerospace industry, the city was not yet incorporated and still abounded with orange groves. Dairy farms were nearby.
The idyllic look of the community must have been a balm to the soul after what Cass had seen as army photographer at Dachau when Germany surrendered. A daughter Mary was the first of the couple’s three children. Phil was born in 1953, and Dave followed in 1955.
Reminiscing about weekend jaunts with big brother Phil to the San Gabriel River, Dave said the undeveloped area sheltered abundant wildlife. “It was my Mississippi,” he explains, “a place where we could all be Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.”