DAVE ALVIN INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
Guitar slinger, slinger of the pen, a craftsman, crafting the vibrations and telling one’s truth. The storyteller, the hook, the chorus, the roots, the rhythm… 100% or split… From Downey to Hollywood and then the world repeatedly. It’s American music. Just ask Marie Marie. Somewhere down at the Flat Top Joint is where you’ll find Dave Alvin, in the heart of it, doing what he does best… slinging it with everything he’s got! – INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
STEVE OLSON: Hey, Dave, how are you buddy?
DAVE ALVIN: I’m good. How are you doing?
I’m right here right now.
That’s the best you can ask for.
Yes sir. So we are just going to have a conversation about your career. Were you born and raised in Downey, California?
Yeah. My brother, Phil, and my sister, Mary, and I were all Downey kids. I was born in ’55 and I grew up playing the AM radio in mom’s ‘49 Studebaker Champion. That was when you could hear Elvis, Carl Perkins, The Coasters, Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Reed on AM radio. You could just spin the dial and find everything from Hank Williams to Chet Baker. Give me that car radio dial.
When did you start playing music? Was the guitar your first instrument?
Oh god, no. The first instruments I started playing were flute and saxophone. In Downey, around 1970, when I was 14 years old, there were a lot of great guitar players. There was a guy named Mike Roach who was in a band with Bill Bateman that got a big record deal. Mike Roach was one of the greatest guitar players I’d ever heard. There was a guy named Gary Masi who could play like Jimmy Reed or T-Bone Walker. He grew up in South Central L.A. and he picked up how to play like that. These guys were all five or six years older than me, and if I wanted to get invited to the jam sessions, I wouldn’t get invited if I were a guitar player because they had plenty of those. In my early teenage brain, I figured, “Hey, I’ll play something that nobody else plays. I’ll play sax. I’ll play flute. I’ll get invited.” And I did, but I was always staring enviously at the guitar players. There were always guitars around our house when I was growing up too. My cousin, Mike, was a folkie in the ‘60s. He played guitar and banjo and he turned my brother Phil and I on to blues artists like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and folkies like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and early Bob Dylan. Phil always had a garage blues band going so, when those guys would split to go get hamburgers or take a break, I would run to their guitars and try to start figuring out what they were just playing. I taught myself how to play guitar by doing that. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I really started trying to be a guitar player. I still love saxophone, but I was born to be a guitar player. The one thing that I do that not a lot of guitar players do is that I play a lot of horn lines when I’m soloing.
On “American Music”, I can hear the sax lines on your guitar riffs.
Yeah. It helped me create a slightly different style than your average blues, R&B, rock n’ roll guitar player because I’m playing what the tenor sax would be playing. It’s sometimes my first instinct, especially if I’m sitting in with a band and we do a blues number. If the other guitar player is laying down Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck or B.B. King licks, I’ll think, “What would the horn player play?” That’s what I’ll play for my solo and it creates a whole different vibe between the two guitars.
Noticeably. It seemed like Johnny Meeks from Gene Vincent, and the cat from Bill Haley and the Comets, played more like horn than your average rock guitar player.
Yeah. When people look back on the history of rock n’ roll, they tend to go to certain musical areas and say, “This came from Delta blues and this came from hillbilly music.” The reality is that a lot of the stuff in early rock n’ roll came from swing music. Guitar players would be trying to mimic the sound of a big band horn section or harmonica players in Chicago blues, like Little Walter, who would be playing the swing line. Decades later, one of the best guitar players that I ever heard in my life was Hollywood Fats. The difference between Fats and every other guitar player I’d heard in the blues realm was, for a white guy, Fats swung. Fats really understood swing and it set him apart stylistically.
Who were your early influences when you were just jamming on the guitar?
There were hundreds of people. The main guys were acoustic players like Lightnin’ Hopkins and pre-War players like Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller. For electric guitar, it’s a combination of Magic Sam, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Otis Rush and Roland Janes. Roland was the guitar player on all of the Jerry Lee Lewis records on Sun Records. I think that most guitar players have hundreds of influences. My most recent album is a thing called The Third Mind, which is a psychedelic collaborative jam record that is a tribute to two of my favorite guitar players, one of whom was Michael Bloomfield. The stuff that Bloomfield did in the ’60s is some of my favorite guitar stuff. The Third Mind record was also a tribute to this great guitar player, John Cipollina, from a ‘60s band called Quicksilver Messenger Service. In Bloomfield’s case, he was playing the blues. In John Cipollina’s case, he was playing way outside and just going for it. I’m attracted to musicians that go for it – whether they are good musicians, great musicians or terrible musicians. ‘Go for it’ could mean playing loud and distorted, but if it’s great, it’s great. It could also be someone playing acoustic beautifully. There’s that commitment to not phoning it in. Those are the guys that I like. I was a big Merle Haggard fan and I saw Merle be just flat out transcendental and then I saw Merle phone in a show or two. I don’t blame him. He was on the road a long time and it gets harder as you get older to keep up the energy. I will say this for a lot of the older guys. Merle would always give you at least one song, even if he were phoning in a show. He might race through a bunch of the hits and then he’d give you one song that was just over the top. It was the same thing with B.B. King or Bobby “Blue” Bland or George Jones. They’d save it for one song. It’s like, “Okay, you paid $25 to get in here. Here’s your $25 right here.” When I go on stage, I’m like, “We’re going for it.” I don’t care if there are a thousand people out there or ten. In The Blasters days, that was always our attitude and nothing has changed. If I’m on stage, I’m going to go for it.
“I always looked for the connection in music. What connects rockabilly with punk rock? What connects surf music to rockabilly? What connects all of this to the Blues? I’m always looking for those kinds of connections and they are there and they can be found.”
How do you get the energy to keep that up?
It’s a mental state. Playing music is like a sport in that you’re using your body, so you want to keep your body in shape. The more you play the more it’s second nature. A few years back, we did a Flesh Eaters reunion with Chris D, John Doe, Steve Berlin and D.J. and it’s a really hard gig for the drummer, Bill Bateman. It calls for a lot of different time changes and it’s exhausting and Bateman really impressed me. He rose to the challenge and kicked ass. Bill has been kicking ass on drums since I first saw him play drums in 1969 when he was a teenager. Some guys either got it or they don’t. There’s a bit of a killer instinct too. All of the guys in The Blasters have it. John Doe has it. D.J. has it. It’s the same thing, no matter the genre. There was a rockabilly guy named Ronnie Dawson and Ronnie had it. It was the same as Sonny Burgess and Big Joe Turner. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the blues guitar player, certainly had the killer instinct too.
Yes. When did you guys start to form bands? You were jamming in garage bands in Downey, right?
Yeah. My brother, Phil, always had a great band. Phil is such a great singer and he has perfect pitch and he’s also really smart and guys wanted to play with him. He had a professional band when he was 16 years old. That’s when he got tight with Lee Allen and T-Bone Walker.
What is the age difference between you and Phil?
Phil is two and a half years older than I am. At age 16, Phil had a great blues R&B band managed by this woman who had been a blues singer back in the ‘40s and ‘50s named Mary Franklin. Mary was a great business woman and she got Phil and his band to cut their hair and she put them in suits and trimmed the songs down from being 15 minutes long to being 3 minutes long and they started working really steady. I was always the little brother tagging along. There used to be a bar in Venice called Rick’s Blues Bar, when Abbot Kinney was the danger zone. Rick’s Blues Bar was a great place. There were places in South Central that they’d be playing and we’d be hanging out. After that, Phil got disinterested in music and he went to work at the steel mill in Fontana. Then Phil worked as a longshoreman and I started working as a fry cook in Long Beach and Bateman was working as a draftsman at Randall Lamps. We all figured that our lives were over because we were hitting 20 or 21 years old. Then the punk rock thing happened. Even though our roots were in blues and R&B, I immediately glommed onto punk rock.
That gave you a new charge in music?
Yeah. We came up in a community that was a blues community, especially at a club like the Ash Grove, which was a melting pot of African Americans, radical left-wingers, truck drivers, lawyers and rock n’ roll stars. You know. You were friends with Miss Mercy. You were familiar with that scene. When the Ash Grove burned down in ’73, that scene dried up. In ’77 and ‘78, I started going to punk rock shows in L.A. and I felt the same sense of community at the punk rock shows that I felt at the Ash Grove shows. People that were hanging around the Ash Grove were now hanging around the punk rock scene. Then there were people like Miss Mercy who was in her own scene. She was tight with Johnny Otis, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone and, of course, she had Shuggie Otis. Then she was hanging out at the Masque and the Whisky. I felt like musically we weren’t exactly aligned but, when the original four Blasters play together, we played roots music, blues and rockabilly harder and faster than everybody else.
The original four players in The Blasters were yourself, Dave Alvin, your brother Phil Alvin, Bill Bateman and Johnny Bazz.
Yeah. We started playing gigs in Hollywood and West L.A. Eventually, we became friends with The Plugz, The Weirdos, X, The Go-Go’s, The Screamers and all of the great bands then and we started doing shows with them. We became part of that scene and it was one of the happiest times of my life, especially ’79 through ’84. After ’84, things started slowly getting weird. If I could go back in time for a night, I’d pick ’81. I loved the Starwood. That was the musicians’ hang. When I’d hang there, I’d always have a hangover the next day.
Why the Starwood?
Well, for one thing, the Starwood had no age limit, so kids could come in from Pomona and Pacoima and Malibu and the South Bay and see a great band every night. You could go see the Alley Cats on a Tuesday night, and Fear on a Wednesday, and X on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Link Wray on Sunday. One thing that was great about no age limit is that the local kids could identify with bands. If you’re 15 or 16 years old and you could go see X, you’re going to identify with X and that’s going to become your new band. It could be like, “I drank my first beer seeing X!” “I got in my first fist fight seeing X.” That’s going to become your band and you’re loyal to it. The other thing that was good about the Starwood was that it had all of these nooks and crannies. It wasn’t just a box. It had a dance room and great DJs like Phast Phreddie and Don Waller spinning everything from old soul music to the latest 45 by The Cramps. To get back over to the performance room, you had to go through all of these little hallways where you’d meet people and hang out with musicians. The greatest thing about the Starwood was, if you played the club, you were on this guest list, and you could go straight to the balcony and all the local musicians were welcome there. That’s where a lot of the L.A. rock scene hung out in ’80 and ’81. I would go up there and get drunk with bands that I never thought I’d be hanging out with. I’d be hanging out with X, Levi and the Rockats, and Wall of Voodoo. Everyone got in free and we all liked to drink and get buzzed, so we’d hang out there. If you had a band and you were looking for a bass player, you could go to the Starwood balcony and look for a bass player. That helped create such a thriving musical scene. The gangster, Eddie Nash, owned The Starwood. I used to have to go settle up with him, so I had a few fun exchanges with Eddie Nash. When The Starwood closed, a big chunk of the L.A. scene went with it. Suddenly, you were left with great clubs, but they were all 21 and up. That was a drag and that was a scene slow death killer, in my opinion.
What about the whole rockabilly revival that hit with you guys and the Rockats?
It was great. There was certainly competition, but it’s the same as in skateboarding. If Tony Alva did one thing, Jay Adams had to go top it. That’s the way it was with all of the bands. In general, it was a friendly competition. You’d go to a gig and hear a new song that Peter Case from the Plimsouls wrote and you’d think, “I’m going to go home and write a song as good as that!” The rockabilly scene was great because a lot of the bands and the audiences were really sincere. Some musicians were better than others and I tended to like the ones that weren’t the best. I liked the ones that were trying their hardest, because that’s what I was trying to do. I was the least good guy in The Blasters, so that brought a certain edge to the band, that maybe the band wouldn’t have had if they had some hotrod guitar player, but I could play as loud as anyone else, or louder, and I could jump higher than anybody. It was all or nothing. I’d get up in the morning with my pompadour still on and slip into my boots and have a beer and start the morning. It was great. There were some bands that I really liked. I dug James Intveld. James was just a little kid, but he was already a talent. I liked the Rockin’ Rebels and I loved the Cramps. I liked Levi and I dug the way he sang. I also felt a kinship with the blues scene and punk rock scene. I always looked for the connection in music. What connects rockabilly with punk rock? What connects surf music to rockabilly? What connects all of it to the Blues? I’m always looking for those connections and they are there and they can be found.
Yeah. Rolling Rock Records was the first one that did a Blasters record, right?
Yeah. We read an article in the LA Weekly and called them up immediately. We’d done a demo session where we recorded songs by Blues guys like Little Junior Parker and Howlin’ Wolf and rockabilly guys like Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran and some R&B stuff like Otis Redding and Little Richard, so we just drove the demo tape over there. It was the demo tape that I had been shopping around to the Whisky, the Roxy, the Troubadour and Madame Wong’s trying to get gigs. When this crazy Italian guy that ran Rolling Rock Records, Rockin’ Ronny Weiser, listened to our tape, he said, “You guys are really good, but I don’t think I’d do a record.” Then this truck driver came in to pick up a box of records that Ronny was having shipped and the truck driver heard our tape and he says to Ronny, “Is this one of your records? Where can I buy this? This is my kind of music.” Then Ronny said, “Oh, they have an album coming out in a few months. I’ll get it to you.” Then we left with a record deal.
It’s true. One thing Ronny said was, “It’s fine to do covers, but you need original songs.” As we left Ronny’s, all of The Blasters said, “We’ll meet at rehearsal in four days and everybody bring in two or three songs.” I brought three songs, but nobody else brought any songs, so I became a songwriter. We cut a record and Rockin’ Ronny printed 3,000 or 4,000 of them. Then we left the label for business reasons and decided we wanted to get a real record deal. We didn’t like the way the record sounded. You couldn’t hear Bazz’s bass. We wanted to get with a real producer in a real studio because we did the record with Ronny Weiser in his garage. On some songs, you can hear his German Shepard dog, Crystal, barking in the background. Looking back on it now, I love that record. It’s a great record and it perfectly captured a moment in time. At the time, we wanted to sound huge. We wanted to sound like we sounded live.
You had success with “Marie Marie”. That song came off that record, right?
Yeah. “Marie Marie” was the fourth or fifth song that I wrote for The Blasters and then this Welsh rockabilly singer named Shakin’ Stevens did a good pop version of it and it became a hit worldwide, except in the United States. Suddenly, I went from being a fry cook in Long Beach to getting some serious royalty checks. The next thing you know it was like, “Bateman, do you want to get a place in Hollywood?” Bateman was like, “Yeah!” I was like, “Okay. I’ve got some money. Let’s go get a place!”
“Marie Marie” was a hit worldwide.
Yeah. It was worldwide and I soon started getting cover versions of “Marie Marie” in any language you can imagine – German, French, Japanese… I loved it. The only drawback was, suddenly, I started getting phone calls from Shakin’ Steven and his manager and record label saying, “Can you write us another hit?” I was like, “I don’t even know how I wrote that hit!” [Laughs]
When you wrote that song, did you think it was catchy?
When I wrote “Marie Marie”, I knew I had written something really good. The way it would work was that I’d come into rehearsal with a song that I wrote and I’d play it and everyone would put in his two cents and then we’d play it for a few days until we got it. We had “Marie Marie” the first time we played it. It played itself. Then I started to realize it was really special.
It is a great song.
Yeah. I had no idea that I would be a professional musician 40 years after I wrote that song. I just figured it was a really good song. I felt that way about “American Music”. I’m proud of all of those songs. Sometimes I can’t believe I wrote them.
“Songs are like little visitations and you have to be in the zone. It’s similar to when you’re on stage playing music and the band is cranking and you and the audience are connecting and you get into a zone. It’s like being in the zone for a skateboarder or a surfer. That zone is where your high is and you get addicted to it. It’s the same with songwriting.”
I think there are times that Bob Dylan can’t believe he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Most songwriters don’t know where songs come from. Some say that god gave them to them and some say that they come from the cosmos and some say they come from hard work and sweat. If you put all those reasons together, that’s probably as close as you’ll get. People have said to me, “Why don’t you write more songs like “Marie Marie”? If I could, I would. They say the same about “4th of July” and “King of California”. Songs are like little visitations and you have to be in the zone. It’s similar to when you’re on stage playing music and the band is cranking and you and the audience are connecting and you get into a zone. It’s like being in the zone for a skateboarder or a surfer. That zone is where your high is and you get addicted to it. It’s the same with songwriting. You get in the zone and what comes out is what comes out. I was really proud of “Marie Marie”.
When you sit down to write a song, is it similar to how you’ve always written?
Yeah. I sit down with my guitar, a blank piece of paper, a pen and a pack of cigarettes. You get to a point where you take a break and you walk to the corner and get a hamburger or something. While you’re walking, that song is going through your head constantly. There are times where people will be talking to me and I’m staring at them, but I’m not there. I’m thinking of how a word rhymes or how a song ends. Some guys have home recorders and they constantly record every idea that they have. I’m the opposite. I walk around for days or months or years with a song. Sometimes I’ll have a piece of music and I’ll wait for the right words.
What are your favorite songs you wrote?
There are certain songs that mean something and are sentimental to me. I was at a certain place in a certain frame of mind when I wrote it and that song triggers those memories. That’s one reason that I never get tired of my songs. I always go right to where I was when I wrote the song. I was on the Long Beach freeway driving north, when I was writing the song, “So Long, Baby Goodbye”. I had just broken up with one girlfriend and I was driving to the home of my next girlfriend. I was writing this song to the old girlfriend, but I was driving fast because I wanted to get to the new girlfriend’s place. I wanted to say goodbye to the old girlfriend, so it was like, “Okay, we tried. Maybe it wasn’t worth it. See you later. Goodbye.” Whenever I play that song, I go right to the Long Beach freeway. When I wrote the “King of California”, I remember exactly where I was. I’d been fussing around with this style of banjo playing called clawhammer that I had started doing on guitar. Within an hour, I had the song. I had written it a few days before the ’94 earthquake so, whenever I think about “King of California”, I think about the ’94 earthquake. Los Lobos just recorded a version of my song “Flat Top Joint” and I’ve always loved that song. I can’t sing it that well or I’d do it live. I sang it a few times live, but it tickled me beyond belief that Los Lobos covered it for their new album. I wasn’t expecting that. That song means a lot to me.
I love that song. Why does “Flat Top Joint” have sentimental value to you?
There used to be these bars in the ‘70s that were quasi-country bars on the southeast side of L.A. known as flat top joints because they tended to have flat roofs. They were just little shitty bars where there were still a lot of guys with slicked back hair and the jukeboxes had ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s rock n roll and blues music. I spent a lot of time in those bars when I was teaching myself how to consume alcohol. That song is a testament to those bars, which are long gone now, so it’s sentimental to me. It’s a way of keeping those little joints alive.
The accents in your guitar playing on “Flat Top Joint” remind me of how a horn would hit. It had that explosion. Who were some of the horn players that you loved when you were playing sax?
Well, Lee Allen was a family friend and mentor to Phil, me, Gene Taylor, the piano player for The Blasters and Johnny Bazz and Bill Bateman. He was our friend and mentor from when I was 14. I took sax lessons from him and Lee gave me the greatest sax lesson I ever got. He would have me run over scales and then we’d take a break and have a cigarette. Then we’d do some more scales and then take a break and read the newspaper. I took notes from that. Play some scales and take a break. [Laughs] Lee is still my idol and so are a lot of the R&B guys like King Curtis and Sam “The Man” Taylor and Plas Johnson. Also there were the swing jazz guys before them like Lester Young. I always loved listening to Lester Young, who played with Count Basie in the ‘30s. I loved Lee Allen, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and the one note guys like Joe Houston. That guy knew how to make one note work. He could play a whole solo on one note and it would be great. He could put so much intensity into that one note that it could rattle the world. I also dug Charlie Parker. I dug guys that could play a million notes. I like everything that is passionate. I could see the passion in Charlie Parker and I could see the passion in Joe Houston. I’m not crazy about a lot of modern day saxophone players. I love John Coltrane and people like that, but I’m not crazy about a lot of the easy listening saxophone players. I’m pretty old school when it comes to the saxophone.
Did you like how Louis Jordan played?
Certainly. I loved Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson who was an alto player and a friend of ours when we were teenagers. Eddie was a big star in the ‘40s in the rhythm and blues world. He had a way of playing the blues that I imitate every now and then. It’s something most guitar players don’t do.
Do you think that’s one of the reasons you sound different than other guitar players?
Yeah. For better or worse, I didn’t spend a lot of time studying certain guitar players. Most guys learn Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. I figured I’d never be as good as them, so I never tried to play as good as them. When I was 13, I saw Jimi Hendrix and it was the greatest musical experience of my life.
Where did you see Jimi Hendrix?
I saw Hendrix the first time at the Devonshire Downs Pop Festival in early ’69. It was before Band of Gypsys. It was a jam session with Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles, and the bass player was Harvey Brooks from the Electric Flag, and the horn section from the Electric Flag. They jammed outer space blues for an hour and my life changed right at that moment. Then I saw Hendrix about four months later at the Fabulous Forum and it was Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass. Between those two shows, I decided that no one should ever try to play like Hendrix because you’ll never get there. There are guys that can imitate Hendrix, but I never wanted to. Occasionally, there are certain Hendrix tricks that I will throw into a Knitters show, especially when D.J. Bonebrake and I are taking the songs way outside. When I became a member of X, I thought, “X has been dominated sonically by Billy Zoom and what Billy brought to the band is so great and all-encompassing.” I thought what I could bring to X was an element of we don’t know what is going to happen. We would do a song like “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene”. If you went to see X in 1979, it was two minutes and 15 seconds. When I was in the band, D.J. and I would go berserk and do seven-minute-long versions of “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene”. I was playing two Marshalls, so it was like, “Let’s see what Jimi would do on this song.” We would take it outside and fuck it up and then come back for the chorus. When I played with X, some songs lent themselves to stretching out a bit, like “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” or “Hungry Wolf”. I threw in a little Jimi on the psychedelic project I did last year called The Third Mind. There’s a little Jimi floating around in there, and a little Peter Green and John Cipollina and a lot of Mike Bloomfield.
What made you want to do a psychedelic album?
It’s something I always wanted to do. It’s a way of recording. Starting in the old days of The Blasters, with only a few exceptions, I’ve always recorded live in the studio. When The Blasters did tracks with John Mellencamp and his producer, Don Gehman, those were done from the kick drum up, pure ‘80s style. In the case of the Mellencamp tracks, me, Bazz and Bateman would go out and cut a track and then they would start layering stuff on top of it. Maybe they might put in a new kick drum, so it wasn’t just Bill out there. That’s when I really saw how ‘80s hit records were made. I was like, “Oh, this is how you guys do it. You don’t just go in and play the song. You go in and build the track up.” Most of the time, everything is recorded live, but I always wanted to try going into a studio with no rehearsal and no arrangements. On The Third Mind album, the drummer is Michael Jerome, who plays drums for Richard Thompson and Better Than Ezra. The bass player is Victor Krummenacher who was in Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, and the guitar player is David Immergluck who played with John Hiatt for five years and he plays in Counting Crows now. He’s also in the Monks of Doom and he’s a very eclectic musician. Then I brought in a friend of mine, Jesse Sykes, to do some vocals, because she is a very unique singer and she was down with it. The idea was no rehearsals and no arrangements. We’d just agree on the key and turn on the tape and see what happened. I read a biography of Miles Davis and that is something that he would do in the studio. He’d get a bunch of great musicians and put them in the studio and turn on the machine. Miles would say that it would be in this key and this was the groove he wanted. He would then cut up all of the performances and make them into compositions. We didn’t do that, but we had certain songs that we agreed on. We did “East West” by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which Michael Bloomfield wrote. With no rehearsals, by the fourth take, we had it. We did the song “Morning Dew” in the key of D and we just turned on the tape and, by the sixth time, we had it. We just let everyone play what they wanted. It was just something to do for liberation. A lot of pop music and rock music now is too choreographed. If you went to a punk rock show in the ‘70s, it was never choreographed. I remember seeing the Dead Kennedys at the Hong Kong Cafe and it was just chaos. I remember thinking, “I have no idea what is going to happen. This is great! I have no idea what Jello is going to sing or what East Bay Ray is going to do on guitar.” A lot of the punk rock shows were like that. If you went to see The Gun Club, you had no idea what Jeffrey Lee Pierce was going to do. The Blasters had moments in our sets where we didn’t know what we were going to do, but never to that extent. There might be a fight between me and Phil on stage or Phil and Bill might fight on stage. That was the great thing about that era. You never knew what was going to happen. In my solo career, when I’m out on tour, there are parts of my shows that are musically set aside for not knowing what’s going to happen. We will play a song of mine called “Abilene” but the end part is different every night and we don’t know where it’s going to end. That keeps all the musicians on their toes and they don’t feel like, “Oh, we gotta play that song again.” Instead, it’s like, “We’re going to play this song and then we’re going to play some stuff that we never did before.” There are parts of my shows that are purely that. When I play “Long White Cadillac”, I don’t know how it’s going to end.
How do you know when it’s ending?
We listen to each other and look at each other. Sometimes, when you’re on the road with a band, you get into situations where you don’t listen to each other and you don’t look at each other. That leads to guys phoning in shows. They just know they have to play the songs and then they’re going back to the hotel room to watch TV. I don’t ever want music to be that. I want to have the same thrill now that I had when I went on stage with The Blasters in 1979. By keeping things fresh and slightly unknowable, it keeps that excitement happening. Bob Dylan has been touring now for decades and no show is the same. He may play the same songs, but the performances are not the same. I have recorded and sat in live with Bob and you don’t know what the hell is going to happen. It can be a little bit of a mind fuck, but it’s exciting. It’s like seeing the Cramps at The Starwood. I had no idea what was going to happen.
It keeps you on your toes. What about when you guys were on American Bandstand?
That was great. The first time we went on, we behaved ourselves pretty well. I didn’t have any problem doing American Bandstand because all of my heroes had been on American Bandstand like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Lee Allen was on American Bandstand in the ‘50s when he had an instrumental hit. Going on American Bandstand was a tradition. Dick Clark was really nice to us and he was a fan of The Blasters. We got in trouble at our second appearance because they didn’t put enough beer in our dressing room, so Bateman went and found some. The other act on that day was Sheena Easton and Bateman went over to her dressing room and took all of her beer. Apparently, Sheena did want her beer. Unfortunately, we had drunk it all by then. I have fond memories of American Bandstand. After we did it, X did it. To me, it was just part of the rock n’ roll tradition. You make some records and go on American Bandstand and you drink their beer and then you go play a gig. I felt fine about that.
How was it when you started touring?
I loved it. I still love it to this day. I don’t like flying and the 800-mile drives, but I love playing every night. It keeps you in touch with immortality. When The Blasters started touring, it was weird on some levels because, once X and the Go-Go’s and The Blasters started touring, the L.A. scene started changing. You’d come back to town after being out of town for two or three months and the scene had changed subtly. By the mid ‘80s, you’d leave and come back and there would be a whole new passel of bands you had to check out. As far as touring itself, it was interesting because there were areas where we had the same type of audience as we had in L.A., like on the West Coast and the Northeast and the upper Midwest, like Chicago. That area could be pretty radical. Then you’d go to a place like Baton Rouge, Louisiana and you’d have an older audience that wanted to hear oldies. Then you’d go to Austin or Houston or Dallas and it would be wild and you felt part of the zeitgeist. You were part of this bigger thing that was happening. You could play The Whisky in L.A. and then leave and drive all night and hit Tucson and there would be roughly the same audience. Then you could drive all night and get to Albuquerque and that would be a similar crowd. Then you’d drive another night and get to Dallas and there would be this crowd that was punk rockers, rockers and kids. The Reverend from Reverend Horton Heat used to see us when he was a little kid. We were like Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker to young guys like Reverend Horton Heat and Big Sandy. I loved that part of touring. I loved getting drunk and waking up in strange places. I was like, “This is great!
When you started traveling the world, did England understand that “Marie Marie” came from you and The Blasters?
Some people knew, but most didn’t. By the time we got to England, we were a year too late for it to really help our career a lot. We certainly have fans in England that are loyal and have been with us since the beginning, but, when we got to England, there were a lot of things that were going on. I’ll put it this way. The Stray Cats were no longer the big thing going on. The new big thing was Adam Ant. Anything slightly resembling rockabilly was considered old. Anything slightly punk rock was considered old hat by the time we got there. England had already moved on from punk rock. Adam Ant was the big thing and he was replaced almost immediately by synthesizer bands, like the Thompson Twins and ABC. We did well over there, but it wasn’t like people in L.A. had said to us that we could go to England and never have to work another day. We had to keep working. We couldn’t retire from that. It was eye-opening to find out that England is such a small country. It’s about the size of California. There were so many great creative people there and they are always looking for the next big thing. It’s like a snake eating its own tail. If you’re big this year, you won’t be next year, because of the English press. I imagine it was even true in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the English press. T. Rex had a couple of great records and then they just wrote him off. They were like, “Next please.” Thanks for “Bang A Gong”. I loved that record.
That record was great. That song had such a groove to it too. It was insane.
Yeah. It had great guitar tones and everything. People ask me about songwriting and there are great songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. You can also write a song like “Bang a Gong” that is basically nothing and it’s great.
Yeah. How did you start the Knitters?
Well, the Knitters were formed in my living room on Mansfield. In those days, bands were always getting asked to do benefits. There were some that Billy, Exene, D.J. and John would all agree to do, and there were some that The Blasters would all agree to do. Then there were benefits that maybe Billy wouldn’t have any interest in. John, Exene and I decided, “We can do these benefits as something else besides X or The Blasters, so we decided that we would be the Knitters. Our first five Knitters gigs, we never got paid for because they were all benefits. Eventually, we were like, “Maybe we should play real gigs where we get paid.”
Okay. I’m going to bounce around. I had the pleasure to hang out with your dad occasionally. What kind of influence did Cass have on you?
He was a huge influence. Both of our parents were. Our dad was a steelworkers union organizer and he took my brother Phil and I on organizing trips when we were kids. In the ‘50s and ‘60s and into the ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were steel mills all over the place in Southern California. The steelworkers union in the West also organized the copper miners and coal miners, so we would spend a good chunk of our summers as kids in Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado in little mining towns. At an early age, we had been exposed to the other side of the American situation. My old man would see something on the news and he would always say, “There’s another side to that story.” That affected us early on. During The Depression, my old man rode the rails from Indiana to California and that colored his view of the world and who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. In World War II, my dad had been in North Africa and at D-Day and the Battle of France and Battle of the Bulge and then he was at the Liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. He was a sergeant in the Signal Corps and their job, once they liberated the concentration camp, was to take photographs of every prisoner and all of the dead bodies and all of the dental records. He came back from World War II with a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder, so he was a very optimistic pessimist. All that stuff filtered down to Phil and I, and it had a big effect on my lyrics and songwriting. When he’d get drunk, he would sing Woody Guthrie songs and songs by Joe Hill, the great union songwriter, so that was a big influence. It made total sense that, within a few years, we were following around Big Joe Turner and Lightnin’ Hopkins because those guys were another side to the story. It wasn’t the standard pop culture of America. There were all of these subcultures.
What is the connection with Big Joe Turner and yourself and Phil?
Well, we knew who Big Joe Turner was because our older cousin, Donna, had been giving us his records since the ‘50s. When we saw him for the first time in ’69, he was still in his prime and he had that charisma. I had just seen Jimi Hendrix and now I’m seeing this guy that doesn’t have a guitar and just has his voice and he had the same kind of charisma as Jimi Hendrix. It really hit Phil and I hard. Phil had the vocal chops to immediately start singing like him. All he had to do was see Big Joe Turner once live and he was walking around the house singing Big Joe Turner songs at the top of his lungs. Then we started following him. Big Joe was singing with Johnny Otis and His Orchestra in those days. Johnny Otis had Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. We literally followed them around from gig to gig. They could be playing the Ash Grove or a bar on Florence and Central or a high school gymnasium in East L.A. and we’d go and study them. Eventually, we got to be friends with them. One of my favorite memories was when they had a gig at a high school in Santa Fe Springs and, on the way to the gig, Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson came by our house and had dinner. Our parents were great and they allowed us to follow our passions in that regard. When Big Joe first met our mom, he fell in love with her. He said that our mom looked exactly like his mom. From then on, he and my mom were pals and he looked out for us like we were his nephews or something.
That’s interesting. What did Cass think of your success? Coming from Downey, all of a sudden, you were traveling the world.
He was into it, because he could see the writing on the wall. The dependable industrial unionized jobs where you got health care and dental care were disappearing and so were the white-collar jobs. He saw that corporations felt no compunction about firing some white-collar guy. It was the same to them as firing a blue-collar guy. To them, it was all about the bottom line. For a lot of kids, especially our age and younger, that led to a lot of the subcultures that developed after that guaranteed work disappeared. You had to create your own worth and your own world, whether it was in music or sports or art or mixtures of both, like skateboarding and punk rock. Everybody could create their own survival subcultures. My dad understood that. His main thing was, “Are you making enough money to pay the rent?” Later on in life, one of my regrets is that I won a Grammy the year after he died. If my old man or my mom would have seen me win a Grammy, that would have been something.
Oh, I’m sorry. That would have made your mom and dad’s day. My mom passed away six years ago and I was so lucky that she was there when I was inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame, so I can relate. My mom and dad were there and it had materialized into something that they could be proud of. I knew that you won a Grammy, but I didn’t know if it was before or after.
It was after. My girlfriend, Mary Zerkie, and her brother, Richard Zerkie, were skateboarders in the ‘70s with Unity; and they went to the competitions back in those days. Mary’s mom, Joan Zerkie, used to drive Mary and Richard and Tony Alva and Jay Adams to the pools to skate. They would find out about a pool someone had drained in the Pacific Palisades and she would be like, “Okay, I’ll drive you.” To her dying day, she was always so proud of Mary and Richard, but she was also proud of Tony and Jay. She considered Jay and Tony like her boys. I think some parents don’t get it and other parents do. I think, if my parents had seen me get that Grammy, it would have made up for all of the hours of me playing loud music in the middle of the night in my bedroom and made it all worthwhile.
Which album did you win a Grammy for?
It was for an album called Public Domain. It was all traditional American folk songs. The irony is that I finally won a Grammy, but it’s not for any song that I wrote. It’s all anonymous folk songs.
Well, it’s you playing the songs.
Exactly. It’s a good record, so I’m not complaining. I took it like, “I’ll accept this on behalf of my album of traditional American folk songs, and all of the records I’ve ever made, the stuff with the Blasters, my solo records and all the songs I ever wrote.
What did you think when they told you that you were up for a Grammy?
I was up against The Chieftains, the Irish band, so I thought there was no way I would win. I was also up against a perky young Canadian female fiddler. I was like, if the Chieftains don’t win, she will. Then I won. I remember sitting at the Staples Center and they called my name and I zoomed up to the stage and thanked my mom and dad and Phil and everybody. I was like, “Wow.” The funniest bit about winning a Grammy was, after you win, they escort you offstage and then you go do these interviews, and I got to meet B.B. King for the first time. I was standing there holding my Grammy and I was so stoked because that gave me an in to say to B.B. King, “You cut a record for RPM Records called “The Woman I Love” with the Count Basie Orchestra and that’s one of my favorites.” He was like, “How the hell did you know that record?” I was like, “It doesn’t matter, Mr. King, but thank you!” I got my picture taken with Emmylou Harris and Taj Mahal and I was like, “This is great!” Then there is a guide that takes you from place to place and I said to the guide, “Hey, man, where can I get a cigarette? I need a smoke.” He takes me to this area and I’m out there having a cigarette and then he goes, “Can you find your way back to your seat? I’d love to go call my girlfriend.” I said, “Sure. No problem.” So my guide splits. Within a minute, I’ve got security guards trying to throw me out of the Staples Center. I was like, “I just won a Grammy.” They were like, “No you didn’t. What are you doing back here? You’ve got to go.” Finally, some guy walked by that saw me win the Grammy and he said, “He’s okay. He won a Grammy.” They were like, “Okay, you can go, sir.” You’re on top of the world one minute and you’re getting thrown out the next.” [Laughs]