Friday, January 26, 2007

"King of California" / Dave Alvin

Anybody remember the Blasters? Yeah, me neither.

That was Dave Alvin's first band, with his brother Phil (love those brother bands), Phil Alvin being the lead singer and Dave the guitarist and songwriter. I've now got a couple albums by the original Blasters, a power-fueled rockabilly shot of adrenaline; though released in the 1980s, their musical roots were set deep in the 50s, like something you'd find on an ancient roadhouse jukebox. Eventually, I gather, Dave and Phil couldn't work together anymore (love those brother bands); Phil kept hammering away at the Blasters, while Dave went solo. So it goes.

This 1994 solo album, King of California, was the first I knew of Dave Alvin, though, and it's hard for me to backtrack to the Blasters after falling in love with this. This release shows Dave exercising his acoustic chops and exploring where his own gravelly voice could take a song. "King of California" is particularly heartfelt -- the Alvins are not only Californians, they're fourth-generation Californians (not too many of those around), connected to an old gritty California that has nothing to do the beach/mall/freeway culture. Dave may not have his brother's great yelping voice, but he does have a rough, sincere vocal edge that makes me visualize sagging barbwire, a sunbleached cow skull, a snarl of tumbleweed. This stuff may be classified as "country", but it's far from Nashville and NASCAR; it's a pipeline into the authentic West, and I love it.

There's a tender, yearning quality to this track , with sweet slide guitar fills and a deft mandolin twanging alongside Dave's acoustic strum. Though Dave wrote it himself, it's basically a pioneer folk ballad : "Well I left my home and my one true love / East of the Ohio River / Her father said we'd never wed / For I had neither gold nor silver / But my darling dear please shed no tear / For I think that it's fair to warn ya / That I return to claim your hand / As the King of California." Maybe it's just me, but I love that "warn ya/California" rhyme. He crosses the Indian country and desert (dreaming of his girl), prospects in the Gold Country (dreaming of riches and his girl), and . . . er, is killed in a gunfight (dreaming of her kiss as he sinks to the floor). Killed? Yup, a tragic ending.

We've been so seduced by that loping melody, buoyed by that earnest gruff voice -- that melancholy ending devastates me, especially the way Dave groans and heaves on the line "His bullet in my chest is burning" (inverted syntax, a perfect 19th-century touch). For some reason I picture the ending of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, my favorite Robert Altman movie. "My darling dear please shed no tear," he pleads -- too late, I'm already choked up -- then adds, "'Cause I think that it's fair to warn ya / That I return to claim your hand / The king of California." Okay, possibly he survived that gunfight; but I think he's coming back as a ghost to haunt her, in classic folk-ballad manner. The mandolinist plucks an unsettling riff, the guitar strum gets louder, almost frantic . . . and for just a moment, we feel the sadness at the heart of things. That's what I call striking gold.

Check it out at


johnnylockheart said...

I have a couple of Blasters albums from way back when - very cool stuff. Haven't really followed the solo careers, need to make amends on that score.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is also my favorite Altman movie, and one of my all-time favorites. But then I have been madly in love with Julie Christie ever since I first saw her in Far From The Madding Crowd...

Anonymous said...

Hey Holly,
I use to love the Blasters back in the day. They were the fiercest rocking roots band of that era. They played with punk manic energy, but their lyrics had a working class sensibility. In the early days, the band also included the great New Orleads tenor Lee Allen and Steve Berlin on baritone sax. Berlin moved on to play with Los Lobos and Allen passed away early on. I've not followed Dave and Phil too closely, but I know their solo work has been somewhat more eclectic. I will check out The King of California.


--Dave K.

Carol said...

Yep Holly, Dave is great. I was born in Downey, CA, where the Blaster Boys were raised. A native Californian:born,bred, raised and ruined in the golden in the Northern part of the central valley now (Sacramento). I go to this silly great festival twice a year near Yosimite (Strawberry Music Festival)and several years ago, Dave and his Guilty Men came on right about sunset, with these amazing mountains about on this meadow, ringed by pines and aspens and he launched into "King of California" as the horses were let loose to run in the meadow sorta next door. The hair on the back of my neck stood right up.