INTERVIEW WITH PHIL ALVIN
INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTOS BY DAN RILEY AND GARY LEONARD
Try to understand what IT is. Music-numbers-living-art-life… Phil Alvin is just that, living life. From one question to the next… the answer is in there, you just have to read, open your mind, and take it all in. It’s so very true that man can do more than one thing exceptionally well. The mere thought of that not being true, well, that’s up for debate, but you’ll never win…the truth always prevails. You can do whatever you want, but whatever it is, you better do good, or don’t bother wasting your time…Phil Alvin is living proof, and then again, this is my opinion…but that’s all I’ve got. This is the real deal, and rather interesting too.
“MUSIC HELPS DELIVER THE KNOWLEDGE OF THOSE THAT CAME BEFORE US IN LANGUAGE WITH CONTEXT TO ENSURE ACCURACY.”
Phil Alvin, I want to get your story. Where do you come from?
I was born in Hollywood, but I lived in Downey.
Where were you shot out?
I was shot out in Hollywood. I was the sixth baby born at Kaiser Hospital at the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard. I was born a star. They had stars out on the sidewalk; I dripped on them when I was carried out.
[Laughs] But you came back to Downey after you were born.
Yeah, they drove me back to Downey on the newly made 5 Freeway.
Probably not. There was plenty of traffic by 1960. My old man had all these traffic tricks.
Cass had tricks?
Cass had the tricks. My father had tricks for every occasion; not just traffic. Even the traffic tips mostly still hold. ‘When going from LA to Downey on the 5 take the 710 south to Florence only if southbound traffic on 5 is backed up north of the 710 overpass’ or ‘When taking the 10 east to the 5 south take the San Antonio off ramp to the on ramp for the 5, unless there is a slow truck or traffic jam in that off ramp.’ When I worked at the Chinese Theatre, I could go between Downey and the ‘Woods in 15 minutes with Cass tricks, and some of my own rules. ‘The cars in front of you and next to you are the ones you can run into, so pass them.’
[Laughs] You lived in Downey your whole life?
No. I lived in Long Beach for 12 years and aside from the years on the road I’ve had some extended stays in Chicago and Italy. I’m a ramblin’ man. I came back to Downey when Cass got sick. This has caused me to consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. Let me preface this whole thing by confessing that I went to Catholic school. God and I are friends.
He leaves me messages, ‘Phil, what do I do about this or that?’ Sometimes I pick up and tell him, ‘Next time you plan a universe – think ahead!’ I thank him every day for having the omniscience not to exist. Classical mythology is important. The Prodigal Son story says a man had two sons. One son stayed at home and helped on the farm. The other son asks his father for his inheritance, splits, blows the money and comes back. The father welcomes him, has a party and puts him back in the will. I guess the lesson is ‘Do whatever you want to do, it’s okay to mess up, all is forgiven.’ Yes, my brothers and sisters you can come home again. Then there was Ulysses who left home to fight the Trojan War. It took him 10 years more to get back because the gods were screwing with him. Then he had to fight a bunch of guys to take back his home. He said, ‘If I didn’t have to go to Troy, I wouldn’t have.’ The Greeks made it harder to go back home and pointed out, don’t leave unless you have to. I liked being from southeast LA. I was close to the ocean, the desert, the mountains, downtown LA, Hollywood and Baja. There are plenty of cool places around. You can do or be anything you want from here, so there was really no particular reason to leave. I always traveled. Usually when you travel some place, you later travel home. I’m a musician; you gotta pay me to leave town. I’m at this place right now after my old man died, where it’s like, ‘Nobody’s coming home here. I want out. Let’s just sell the place.’ My family said, ‘No. You’re going to buy it.’ I was like, ‘No. I want out of here.’ Then they made me a deal that I couldn’t refuse. So I am back home. I’ve got an update to the Prodigal Son and Ulysses stories. It goes, ‘You can leave home and screw up or do heroic things. You can go back home draggin’ your ass or like a conqueror. Don’t leave without a reason.’ One of which can be that no one else is coming home there.
A good deal is a good deal. A deal you can’t refuse, is a great deal.
Yeah, so I’m here. We can see Speedy McBurger running in place atop the 500 million sold sign at McDonalds. We got a lot in common. We’ve been around awhile. Not everybody knows us. Both moving fast as ever with bright futures, downplaying our successes because why change the sign? So I graduated early from Pius X High School and went to Cal State Long Beach. I quit in the first semester to play music. Cass made a pooper-scooper out of my guitar.
My mom said, ‘Phillip, jack-of-all-trades, master of none. You have to choose one of these days.’
We’ve had this discussion about jack-of-all-trades. It’s beyond possible and it’s not unreasonable. It’s just the way that some can do it.
People were not led to do otherwise. Sometimes the needs of society require doing something at the same time you are doing other things. I don’t think music, as a profession, is very healthy for the job of music. Let’s talk about music. I’m going to state a couple of things that I’m going to use as postulates that are true. Music is here for some reason. Evolution doesn’t mess around. Let’s see if we can find out the reason.
Music makes you feel good.
That’s a pretty good answer.
It moves things. It has a vibration. There are a lot of things going on with music in how you present it and how you take it in. Right?
You don’t even have to hear the words to a song. How does it manifest itself? Context is always important. Steve, I’ve known you a long time, but now I’m gonna cut your heart out and feed it to you!
I say that I could cut your heart out and feed it to you and you laugh. Okay, let’s go to Knickerson’s Gardens, to 114th and Success parking lot where Big Alphonzo runs the crack trade. Let him put his hand on his .357 and tell you the same thing. Would you laugh? No. You’d pee your pants or die stupid. When I say those words, you laugh. When Alphonzo says ’em, you pee. Meaning is context; words are at best pointers in some context. You were supposed to laugh or act puzzled when I said it. The meaning of the words is lost in the actuality of the context of one friend interviewing another friend. So what do the words by themselves mean? ‘I’m going to cut your heart out and feed it to you.’
That means you’re going to have to rip through my chest and pull my heart out.
That’s literally what it means, but when I said it, it didn’t have that meaning.
I thought we were just acting crazy.
You know me. I am liable to act crazy so that context overrides the literal meaning of the words. Many elements of context can’t be described in words; their meaning is the experience itself. Like red and blue or pain. These create a palette for context and are related to the sense organs.
[Laughs] I have those.
And your ears are the primary input screens for sound. Music is at least the experience and the interpretation of sound in an individual’s context. Like, ‘It was music to my ears.’ Just like shapes and colors for the eye there are archetypical and atomic sounds. Music makes you feel good, but it also can make you feel bad. I would invariably cry to Brahms’ ‘Lullaby’ when I was a kid. I heard that song and cried. There were no words. I just heard the music and I was sad. Boom. That was that. Sad song. Now what if I sang ‘Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polka-dot Bikini’ to old Alberta field holler? Even if the listener doesn’t speak English they can tell you something about the song. Like ‘it’s mournful’ or ‘it’s sorrowful but hopeful.’ If they speak English, they’ll probably say, ‘it’s sarcastic.’ Sarcasm is signaled by a friction between sub-contexts; in this case between a sub-context of archetypically mournful and strong sounds from the field holler’s melody and performance and the sub-context derived by interpreting the words in the bikini song. It’s the ol’ what you say versus how you say it. Music helps secure interactions between what is said and how it is said. We learn the alphabet a random sequence of 26 sounds from a song. So musical sub-contexts can bring meaning to other sub-contexts, which may have little inherent meaning themselves. Long before we had written language, our culture was passed on by song. Music helps deliver the knowledge of those that came before us in language with context to ensure accuracy. We must update anachronisms like the iceman since we have Frigidaire’s. Now the iceman is an alpine mummy.
There’s a new Ice Man.
There’s ice now, like Alfonzo has been slinging.
Oh, yeah, you mean smokin’ speed type ice. I wonder about that shit. You know that I am not a teetotaler. I know as well as the next man the uncomfortable pleasure of being tweeked. And in full light of this knowledge I tell you that I think this speed smokin’ is suspicious. It might be a conspiracy or something. I mean something strikes me as inconsistent with regards to the speed-smokin’ rage. I really haven’t hashed it out, but here are a few of the things that stand out to me. I began to notice those glass pipes being used for ice right around the same time that most of my crackhead friends started coming back to town. I hadn’t seen ’em for years. They seemed to be doing better, more alert and had some money. They had those little pipes and seemed proud of their pipe. Now they were smoking speed. Telling of recent sexual escapades where they performed like Hercules. Yet I understand that the greatest danger for that little glass pipe is to be dropped as they fall asleep smoking speed! And now I’m told powdered coke is back. Do you know why?
You see a correlation between the two?
[Laughs] Cocaine is famous for spiraling into the embarrassing disaster of E.D. Now for the record, I have not needed Viagra, but I took one and it has a little buzz to it. It really does. It was cool.
I took one once. I was still buzzed the next day.
[Laughs] Oh, yeah. Do you know Bobcat? He’s Chuck Berry’s cousin. We went to the Hootenanny when Chuck Berry played. Chuck wouldn’t talk to anybody, but then old Bobcat gets out of the car. He’s like, ‘Hey Bobcat. How’s your mamma doing?’ Bobcat knows all these people. He was on the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team. He grew up with Mickey Mantle. It’s true. One day I went down to the batting cages with him. This was when he was in his 70s. I was a good baseball player, but it had been 30 years since I’d had a ball coming at me that I was going to hit. The batting cages were packed. They had an 80mph and a 70mph cage. I went in the 70mph cage and was just missing them, over and over again. I finally fouled a couple out. Bobcat goes over to the 80mph cage and puts some quarters in. Then he took the bat and choked it up to almost a bunt. The thing started throwing and he just went, ‘Pop! Pop! Pop! Bam! Bam! Bam!’ He didn’t miss a ball. I’m sitting there going, ‘Remember the speed of impulses.’ It’s the truth that the heavy metals in your body and the replenishment of the cells that help your motor nerves pass the signals quickly do degenerate some amount. Some is genetic. All of those answers aren’t in yet. All that matters is that I could hit the ball, but I had forgotten the impulse. The first time I got hits fast and hard I carried that impulse with me. Later, I got hits faster and harder. I had to update. Bobcat hadn’t been to a cage in 30 years, but he never forgot the impulse. I was like, ‘How did you do that?’ He said, ‘I did that in spring training every time. You don’t go up there with a full bat. First you have to find the ball. Then you find your hands. And work your way up.’ That’s exactly what he did. Does your sense of timing get put in that memory? To what extent can a process aid in the memory? Can the rules to a process stop short? Does that process imbibe me with that impulse? Impulse is just part of it. You’re not thinking about other things like all the muscles involved with swinging a longer bat. The process still has value and Bobcat is one guy that knows that process. It was educational and humbling to watch. Maybe someone should write it down, and what they mean by writing is the sequential system. They don’t see pictures as writing, even though they say a picture is worth a thousand words. We say that we make symbols for sounds, but not really. If that’s the case, the word pneumonia needs to be explained to me.
Why is there a P in pneumonia? Who put the P in pneumonia? I have questions about that. If you took all the stuff that was written in the Cyrillic alphabet and translated it, there would be certain symbols that you wouldn’t know. R would become P. Pi is P over there in Greece. I don’t know if it was one of those tricks, but the people that were just using sound to write stuff down didn’t put a P in pneumonia. That must have come at another time. That must have been when two guys with two different writing systems stuck them together. They must have thought that God linked writing systems and sound systems, so if there’s a P there, it stays there. In fact, we should not make fun of hillbillies for a sign that says, ‘Closed due to Nu-moan-ya.’ It’s a lousy spelling system. So we have to pass down what Bobcat knows because, if we don’t, we’re going to loose the ability to preserve a warm-up system that’s linked the best players ever. Bobcat was a great pitcher and a very good hitter. He grew up next to Satchel Paige. He was taught how to throw the hesitation pitch. People would pay him $5 to teach them the hesitation pitch. He had all these names for all these pitches that he learned from Satchel Paige. If someone wrote them down accurately, then it could be an advantage for baseball to come. Is that why music is here? Is it just documentation? Let’s say I’m writing to a population of the color blind and I write, ‘Only eat the green berries, not the blue ones.’ I haven’t done anybody any good. I’ve given them the confidence to kill themselves by trying to convey something that has no contextual meaning to it. In Italy, I was learning Italian from my roadie, Ricardo, whose father was one of the police chiefs in Rome. Ricardo scored some herb and we were passing a pipe and lighter back and forth. Ricardo asked, ‘Too high?’ I said, ‘No.’ Then he asked again. I said, ‘No.’ Then he asked again. I said, ‘No, I am not too high. He laughed and said, ‘No. Tu hi.’ That’s Italian for ‘Do you have’. He meant the lighter. He wanted the lighter. Same sounds but a different meaning.
In an attempt to talk about music, it’s necessary to develop a context in which to talk about it. When I said I was going to cut out your heart and feed it to you, I didn’t mean it. There’s context.
What does music mean to you? What does it feel to you?
The first context of music is why is it in you at all? There are people that have it in them, but don’t play it. Why do we play music? Why is it there? Music delivers context, just like dance delivers context. If you’ve never been on a hunting trip, then you don’t know how all the little animals move before the big animals come. If you understood the dance, then the context delivers the meaning. If I can draw a picture of it, you get meaning without music or dancing. The first things that they called written languages were pictograph languages, right?
Okay. Within the language that we’re speaking, we can get a picture of what that image was. They were communicating with pictures before language.
We were making sounds too. Sound is another medium. You have a sense organ for sound. Is all sound music? Sound is the rarifactition and compactification of air molecules. In some contexts any sound is music. John Cage showed, ‘You have to allow such context.’ You can’t even say that it’s, ‘the rhythmic and or uniform wave in the breakdown of complex air pressure wave at the point where the microphone was or where your ear was when you hear it.’ You can’t even say that.
[Laughs] Music makes you feel good.
Well, it makes you feel good, but we also said it can make you feel bad. Here’s a song from 1946. ‘Oh my baby is going, makes me wonder why did she have to go. I wonder where she went. I’m looking for my baby. I’m going to kick, kick, kick down her door.’ We have the context. We have the woman beaters of society. What is he going to do once he kicks down her door? ‘When I find my baby, I’m going to knock her down, take her by the hair and drag her around.’ There was already a cultural context at that time. He said what he was going to do, but he didn’t get to do it. She was gone. There’s a whole bunch of songs from that time period like that. There’s ‘The Skinny Woman Story’ by Willie Headen. They are all songs about a guy getting back at his baby. How he’s going to go and kick her ass. In this case, when he got there, she was gone. She outsmarted him. In the case of Willie Headen, he gets there and breaks the door down and she’s standing behind him with a baseball bat.
She cracks him in the head. If you go back another generation, the earliest recordings of music were even less enlightened. Robert Johnson sang, ‘I’m going to beat my woman until I’m satisfied.’ I hope you can hear the cultural updating of music. This is some of a musican’s most important work, like renovating the songs with a ‘iceman’ in them. Musicians should renovate cultural anachronisms. There are plenty of cultural anachronisms for music to address right now. Things are moving really fast and many things are coalescing with each other, creating new cultural elements and rendering others moot or obsolete. I project that in the next 20 or 30 years, more then anytime before, scientific and technological revolutions will make most of the historically troubling issues of society not matter anymore. We will be a different kind of people, even our physiology.
What do you mean it’s not going to matter in twenty or thirty years?
I’m going to preface this by saying that I don’t want to trivialize this in the context of The Matrix, but effectively, it’s a done deal. I knew it was a done deal in 1978 when I was doing some mathematics. I’m a mathematical semanticist. I’m a set theorist, trying to teach a computer how not just talk but understand what the words mean. I was studying neurophysiology and mathematics. I was looking at the kind of computers and chips built at that time, which were essentially the same as we have today primarily sequential binary machines with little or no parallel processing. It’s not that we can’t make more parallel computers, which are sometimes called ‘reactive systems.’ The technology exists. It’s more a question of the will to do it; which is reflected in an absence of resources. In 1978 as it is today most computers, except for a few experimental machines and the so-called quantum computers, had two states. They don’t have to be that way. The reasons are primary because binary arithmetic is easy enough and it’s a sub-domain of the two valued, True or False logic called the Propositional Calculus which has a consistency proof. So I was working on these dynamical systems called ‘Cellular Automata.’ One day I was considering the consequences of some theorems I’d proved when I realized, ‘Damn, we can make ourselves effectively immortal!’ I wasn’t looking for anything like that. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Then it became clear, carbons into silicon’s, millions of planets in the universe have gone through this same process. I wondered why this seemed familiar to me. Then I remembered why. My context came from a guy named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was a Jesuit paleontologist who wrote a book called The Phenomenon of Man. My uncle Joe gave it to me to read when I was in sixth grade. He knew that I was interested in evolution. I started reading it even though I was worried about it being a religious book, but it wasn’t at all. In fact, Teilhard really called what was going on today. That book introduced me to the philosophy of evolution. At the end of the book, Teilhard talks about something he thought might be God in an intersection of space and time. He called it the ‘Omega Point.’ The guy was fully acquainted with Einstein. And now with what’s going on with the Web, Teilhard’s theory says that we first evolved the lithosphere, then the hydrosphere and then the biosphere. He predicted that electronic and wireless communications would create a Noosphere. It would be an information pathway that carries each person’s consciousness and where we merge with others to become new kinds of beings. I’ve been watching this unfold since sixth grade. By 1978, I was on the ARPANET which morphed into the Web. Nowadays, phones, satellites, wireless, television, radio, movies, games, literature, music, sex and just about everything you can think of are all merging into the one big Noosphere.
How does all of this math apply to music?
Instruments are computers. They are input and output screens to view music with. Take a player piano for instance. Each key is on or off, but each on key is different note so its not 0’s and 1’s like binary computers, it’s 0’s and 1’s through 88’s. The keys are the ‘space points’ of the piano because you can’t put two states, that is notes, in the same space at the same time. Either you play a keys note or you don’t. Now a guitar has six pieces of space which are its strings but each string can have 16 or more notes depending on the number of frets. Still you can’t have two notes on the same string at the same time. That’s how you know that the strings are the space of the guitar. If you try to play two notes at the same time on a guitar, you just get the highest one. Well, the guitar and the piano both play music. What a player piano can play, a human being can’t play because they don’t have 88 fingers. We’ve just seen a way to design an instrument; pick some space points, give each one some states and you get an instrument. That is a screen with which to make music or watch music. What’s helpful on a guitar is helpful on a piano too, even though certain things happen like sharps and flats. If you know how to play a song on guitar and make a bar chord, you could keep the same fingers and play in any key that you want. You can’t do that on a piano. If you play in the wrong key, you have to go from white keys to black keys instead of black to white. You have to remember all these different patterns. If they hadn’t put all those black keys in there and instead they’d just lined up the chromatic scale on white notes, than it would have been very easy. You’re playing the same scale, but you’re just moving up. Then you’d have to have a ten octave or a thirteen octave. I have a big hand and I can only do 13, at best. So the screen that you look at music with can be different. You have a harmonica and there’s something very unique about it. I’ve played harmonica since I was a kid. I also played piano. One of the first memories I had, was the piano we had. My dad played it. I wasn’t big enough to get to it. Finally, I looked at it one day and I climbed up on that chair. I looked at it and I knew it made music. I took my hand and pressed three white keys down that were right next to each other and it didn’t sound good. I knew that the piano could sound good, so my thought as a child was, ‘Well, if that doesn’t work, Ill skip every other key.’ When I skipped every other key it sounded good. No matter where I went on the piano, if I skipped every other key, it sounded good. What I immediately did fix on was that shapes made sounds. Of course, you couldn’t take that shape to the guitar and get it to make the same sound. I wanted to learn to play guitar when I was six. My sister was taking accordion lessons, so my mom took me down to the accordion place and the guy looked at my hands and said my hands were too small to play guitar. He said, ‘We’ll have you play accordion for a few years and learn how to read music; and then when your hands get big enough to play guitar, you’ll already know how to read music.’ Now my father traveled a lot, so about half of the time he wasn’t even there. My father was a straightforward guy and it was hard to bullshit him, especially about stuff that he knew about, like music.
How did your dad know about music?
He was a great musician. Cass was a much better human being than me, I mean, as far as skill and capabilities. Did you know that Cass went full term during WWII? He was number one in the draft in 1939, so they took him out of college. He went over there full term and stayed when they took the German monopolies down. He stayed because he was an expert in optics. He was the lab assistant for that guy Kaplan who got the Nobel Prize for describing the Aurora Borealis. Cass had to leave there and went to WWII, where he became a photographer and a writer. His partner was Russ Meyer.
Whoa. Russ Meyer?
That was Cass’ best friend.
That is so amazing.
My dad, Cass Alvin, and Russ Meyer ran the 166th Signal Photo core in WWII. Cass and Russ were running that shit. They were photographers. It’s one of the worst jobs to have in the army. You have a camera and a gun.
Do I shoot this or shoot that?
The best thing you can learn, about taking photos my father taught me is to ‘fill the frame with the subject.’ You see the mistake made all the time. If you don’t do anything else for the rest of your life, you could become a famous photographer if you just fill the frame with the subject. You would be taking great pictures right from the get-go, if that were your only rule. It does a few things. It keeps you from taking a picture of your wife standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Are you taking a picture of your wife or are you taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower? If you say both and follow the rule it can still be done but you will need some great angle and the right lens. The rule forces you to ask, ‘What am I taking a picture of?’ That’s the most important part. Once you solve that, then fill the frame with the subject. That’s great advice. It’s true of music, painting, or any art. Fill the frame with the subject. I don’t give a shit about your problems. Make me cry. Make me laugh. Fill the frame. A player piano could have all 88 keys pressed down at the same time, or any one of them. You could arrange almost anything for that piano, but what about a trumpet? What kind of a screen is a horn? This is important stuff to music.
I totally understand.
A piano is 88 space points with 88 states and with only one state per space point. A guitar has six pieces of space and 19 states per space point. Since the piano has only one state, plus the state of not involving the key or string, if the piano key is not involved, it’s silent. What kind of screen is a horn? How many spaces and states does it have?
A trumpet has three valves.
It’s on and off. You have eight spaces, but they play more notes than eight. Something is missing. What’s missing is what is making the sound. That has to do with sound pressure coming from the air. I can play a guitar string or a piano key quietly, but it’s not a question of playing quietly for a trumpet player. He has to have the pressure to get the note to go where it goes. Horn players in general cannot practice quietly. The guitar player is plucking a string, a piano player is pushing a string down, and the horn player is blowing air with pressure. I can pluck a string quiet or loud. If we described how a piano strikes a note and hits the wire and makes the noise, it’s going to be a bigger screen. Each of those things has a state that it can be in. But you group them all together and call it a piano. In the case of the horns there is only one piece of space. The air pressure and the fingering makes a note or state. Horns are space poor and state rich. Piano is space rich and state rich and the guitar is space lower-middle class and state rich. The horn players fingerings and air pressure all go into making one of the many possible notes, but only one at a time.
It’s on or off.
The valves seem like the piano keys or guitar strings. But they are not at all like those. The trumpets three valves in one of their eight combinations plus an air pressure all go into making one note on the one piece of space, which is the trumpet itself.
How many notes does it make at the same time?
You can only play one note at a time. The state the trumpet emits only plays one note. The guy playing it has named the configuration of the valves with the pressure. At the end of it all, you still get one note. A horn player can’t make a chord by himself, so it’s very important for them to learn to read music. Now back to language and culture. There is no city named Milan, it’s Milano. No Rome but there is Roma. When it gets down to calling Fierenze, Florence you are taking it too far. That’s the same reason there is a P in pneumonia. It’s the same reason that we are taught that there is a French language and a Spanish language even though the people in the north of France can’t understand the people in the south of France, but the people in the north of Spain understand the people in the south of France. Since ancient times they knew that if you wanted to take peoples culture away from them, take their language away from them. Make it illegal to speak and write in their own language. It takes their culture away from them. Don’t play them songs. Don’t be dancing those dances. Don’t be speaking that language. We still do it today. California is a place that used to speak Chumash and then for a long time spoke Spanish, but then some guy came in and did some double-dealing. Even when they got away from Mexico, California was its own country. From 1820 to 1840, California was its own country.
Sepulveda and those guys screwed the Mexicans. Those guys lived there and spoke Spanish the whole time. They left Mexico and made California what it was. Then Fremont and those guys came over. The Louisiana Purchase was from the French, not from the Spanish. California wasn’t Spanish anymore than Mexico. Who ran Mexico? The French. Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of Mexican forces over the French. Maximilian, the King of France, ran Mexico. They had some deal with Spain. It was like Blackwater, the French called in the Hessian, or soldiers for hire. Soldiers of fortune like Attila fought with the Romans and then fought with the Goths and against the Goths. It was army for hire. Maximilian unloaded all his resources on Mexico. They sent in a bunch of Hessians. They didn’t send French guys. They sent Polacks, Germans and Austrians. It was mostly East Europeans and Scandinavians. Germans are Polish, but then they decided to become Germany in the 1880s.
So Maximilian sent the Hessians over to Mexico and they lost, so Maximilian just left them there. I have a Strasberg zither. It’s an incredible instrument that has a lot to do with the evolution of the guitar. It’s from the 1860s. Have you ever seen a concert guitar? It has a harp on it. It’s a six-string guitar with a 27-40 string harp on its body. Why waste a good resonance box? A zither is a 27-40-string harp with a five-string guitar neck that looks like a pedal steel. They played the guitar and then they would pluck the harmonics and the harmonics would ring. The zither and the guitar evolved. Guitar playing and zither playing are very similar and have huge traditions. There are zithers that look like harps with a guitar down the center. The one that I have is a better one. It’s a Strasberg zither. It has a guitar neck going down one side and if you took the guitar neck off and stuck it on the top, you’d have a concert guitar. It’s a cool instrument. I bought it from a Salvadorian. I said, ‘Where did you get it?’ ‘I got it from some people that I know,’ he said. Their families came from Austria. Maximilian left them there.’ The year I was born, Cass’ brothers worked at a Studebaker place in South Bend, Indiana. That’s where Cass was from.
I have a ’55 Champion right now.
That’s a good one. Cass said the ’53 had bad brakes, but it was the best design.
Yes. They ran out at the Salt Flats all the time because of their aerodynamics, right?
That’s right. My dad got a 1953 Studebaker Commander, brand new, in South Bend. He drove it back here to California and gave it to my mom. That’s what I grew up riding in. He sold it for $25 about three years before I could drive. I bought a 1940 Packard 160 limousine that was 24 feet long and put it in the backyard for about ten years. My mom sold it to some guy for $500 while I was on the road. She said I made a profit.
So Cass knew that life was going to change. He had my sister and me now. He and his buddy Jack Moffet went to Mexico on fishing trips a lot. They went to Punta Pescadero right at the tip of Baja where the roosterfish come in. So Jack and Cass fished the gulf a lot. It’s mid-summer when they come in, so it’s hot. They go to the bar to find a guide and they’re asking around and they find this guy. They said this guy was great. He was smart as a whip, a charming guy. So they made a deal. He said he’d take them for two days for $5 a day, and two bottles of tequila. When they left at 4:30 am it was 110 degrees and they see this guy strapping the two bottles of tequila across his chest with belts, like a bandito. Then he put on an overcoat in 110 degree heat! They worried that the guy was nuts. So they go out fishing and they’re catching fish, but soon it’s 125 degrees. Jack starts to get sunstroke. He crawls back up this beach and lies under the Studebaker Commander to get out of the sun. About ten minutes later, Cass dragged himself up there and under the car next to Jack. Jack had a water bottle that had already poured all over himself. He told Cass, ‘Don’t do it.’ He did it anyway and wished he hadn’t. It was 140-degree water. They’re both under the car and they see the guide’s legs. He says, ‘Do you want some tequila?’ They said, ‘What? Are you crazy?’ The guy opened up his coat and said, ‘98.6 degrees.’ Cass said it tasted like ice water. They were catching rooster fish and drinking ice cold tequila until both bottles were dead. So this guy knew his shit. They hung with this guy for a few days, but then they were running out of money. So they were getting ready to go home but the guy kept hanging around. They were trying to get rid of him, but they don’t want to insult him, because they liked him. But they’ve got to go. Jack speaks a little Polish. So Cass says to Jack in Polish, ‘How are we going to get rid of this Marco Polo?’ The guy says, ‘I know all about Marco Polo. I will tell you the story!’ Cass figures the guy just heard ‘Marco Polo’, so he says in Polish, ‘How are we going to get rid of this guy?’ The guy turns to Cass and says, ‘Why do you want to get rid of me?’ The guy spoke Polish. Jack asked him how he learned to speak Polish? He said his grandfather was from Poland. Maximilian left him here.
There were all kinds of people left behind. The famous painter, Diego Riveras wife, Frida Kahlo, is great. He manned over her, so I have to give her props. She had some weird ass shit. The Mexicans were talking about taking languages away from people. They wanted to take their culture and their songs away from them. So I was talking about the future. I was talking about computers. I was talking about screens. I wanted to let you know that the screen is more than just the screen for music. There are other states besides the physical ones that you can see. As a harmonica player, other than a Jews harp and the voice, it is not done in the same place as instruments are. That’s brain theory. You write a song. You play a song in your cerebral cortex. When you sing a song, you sing from your limbic system. It’s the part of the brain that we have in common with reptiles. That’s why it’s uncomfortable for people to sing. It has a great deal to do with context. Sound has meaning before words do. Before you learn to talk the human language that you talk, sound delivers context. It’s also meaningful when someone who speaks English says these words. When words don’t match context, words leave. You can tell people that you love them in all kinds of ways. Words are pointers to meaning. Meaning comes on screens. Screens not only make sounds, but they take them in. When you’re a baby, every sense that you have is a screen. It’s in your brain. This is not a concept that I’m making up. There is a hardwired screen to every one of your senses, a map in your brain. They found the first visual one by cutting up cat brains in the ’60s. They would get to a certain section of the brain and they kept getting these shapes of a form in the brain. Finally, they figured out that it was the form of the shape of the room that the cat died in. That was the last thing they saw before they got cut apart. Then they found the audio and textural links. The last one they found was the oldest screen of all the senses. Screens that have had meanings passed down five billion years to us and that’s the sense of smell. Smell is the first sense. You smell like the devil.
One of the bad parts about losing religion, you Satanists, is if you lose God, you lose the devil, right off the bat.
They come as a package.
Yes. God met the devil at the church. He said, ‘Job, curse your God and die.’ In the real story of Job, God never gave him a break. He took him down until he died, but that was too heavy to sell this shit, so they took this great philosophy book and rewrote it with a happy ending. The philosophical work of Job turned into the story of how God makes bets with the devil down at church. The devil told God, ‘Job likes you because you give him all this good stuff, but if you took all the good stuff away, he’d curse your name.’ That’s why mythology is good. You don’t have to believe in God to know a good story when you see one. It’s got meaning that in some way could be pushed forward in time in the cultural medium. Evolution doesn’t mess around. It will be done if it can be done. If passing cultural information down works and it does, it can be done. It’s already been done. In fact, the idea that culture is just a species thing is bullshit. My sister is a linguist. Noam Chomsky is one of the most intelligent people that I know. Linguistics is one of the most fantastic sciences of the 20th century, but when someone wants to tell me that a dog doesn’t have language, I’m sorry, that’s not completely true. The dog may not make sentences, but the dog understands this and that. It has meanings. Some will even moan when you sing.
To tell me that an octopus doesn’t have language, well, you go and try to catch one in a tide pool. I’ve tried to do it. Maybe they don’t have language as most of us understand language, but they’ve got meaning, just like traits that have been handed down. There are no meanings except for what has been handed down to you. As one species turns into the next.
So how did you get into music?
My father played music. My mother was a dancer so she liked music a lot. Everyone in my mother’s family and my father’s family were into music. My father’s first language was Polish. Poles built the Catholic school system in the United States. A lot of Italians back east went to Polish grammar schools. They started the Catholic schools in Notre Dame. At Pius X high school we had Dutch brothers that were our teachers. Some were from the German side of the Netherlands. They were all poor guys. They were picking up on girls all the time. They would get their PhDs and then they split. The smartest guy of them all, Brother Louis, was from the non-Catholic side of the tracks. He was the head guy and he was just a little guy. He was like a little Hitler. He was getting his PhD at UCLA in Psychology in Group Dynamics – controlling crowds. This little guy would walk in and you would salute. I had him for some classes and got to be friends with him. I was in detention one Saturday and he walked by. I said, ‘Hey, Brother Louis, this sure is fun.’ He thought I said, ‘This is your fun.’ He thought I meant that this is what he did for fun; make us suffer. He got really red-faced. He was pissed. He called me into his office, sat back in his chair smoking a cigarette which he held between his thumb, index finger and finger, and he said, ‘Brother Alvin, sometimes I wonder if you belong in this school.’