Saturday, October 14, 2006

phil alvin of blasters: bakersfield blackboard interview, 2004

Phil Alvin, mathematician, is the genius frontman of the legendary Blasters, the Los Angeles musical heroes whose jumping blues, boogie and all-good-things-American music is a triple E ticket ride – eclectic, eccentric, exhilarating. Alvin has an stage presence that must be witnessed – swaggeringly confident, compelling, charming, strange – and the sounds he can make– with his battered Kay guitar, his harmonica and especially with his voice -- amaze. The band–Alvin, guitarist Keith Wyatt, bassist John Bazz, drummer Jerry Angel, promoting their new CD, 4-11-44, will appear at Fishlips downtown on Oct. 30 and the show review will appear next issue. For now, read on to have a small peek into the large, convoluted mind of the grimacing guy who’s been called “the greatest white blues singer living.”
J: I’ve heard a few interviews with you before, and would you be more interested in just talking, or do you want me to ask you a buncha questions?
P: Do whatever you want to, and anytime you want to shut me up, just tell me to shut up.
J: OK, well, your music’s been my favorite for over 20 years and I felt like killing myself ‘cause my band didn’t get to open for you here in Bakersfield.
P: Oh, no kiddin’. What’s yer band’s name?
J: The Dusk Devils. D-u-s-k. Doesn’t really roll off your tongue.
P: Cool name. Well, if you put a “uh” between it, then it will. Dusk-a-Devils. That does work. But then... that’s mathematics [laughs].
J: Can you tell me a little more about that?
P: About laying sounds on rhythms? [Laughs.] I don’t know if anybody wants to read about it, but I can certainly talk to you about it. The most obvious thing that comes to mind when you talk about sounds and words is that sounds have meaning to people before words have meaning.
J: Like a baby. Yes. I’ve heard you say that before.
P: Yeah. No s**t, I said that before? [Laughs.] G**damn, I’m sorry– Words by themselves don’t really carry much meaning unless there’s something demonstrative with them. Such as “Hand me THAT.” “That” is something you point at; it’s something that’s real. The words are more like pointers, or they embellish on pointers. But sounds have meaning. Doesn’t matter what language you speak – the sound of crying, of wailing– those sounds come to you before you learn your language. And it comes from such a low, ancient part of the brain, the limbic system, a very primitive part of the brain that has to do with smells, the part that is in common with amphibians. Any instrument you play, writing music, singing it in your head, you’re not physically engaged in singing, you’re way up in the cerebral cortex, way in the very recent brain.
J: I wanted to ask you about your singing. You’ve got such a fantastic voice! I got a tape recently from like 1980 where you’re doing a promo for a show in a club in London and you’re singing just like Joe Turner.
P: Well, Joe Turner was a really good friend of mine. We were his back-up band. That’s how we got the name The Blasters, when I was like 15 or 16, before the real, original Blasters [laughs], you know: Johnny Bazz, Gene Taylor, a guy named Gary Massey played guitar. I thought Joe Turner’s backup band on his Atlantic records–I had these 78s–I thought they were the Blues Blasters. That ends up it was Jimmy McCracklin. I just took the "Blues" off and Joe finally told me, that’s Jimmy McCracklin’s name, but you tell ‘im I gave you permission to steal it [laughs].... It’s not just the timbre of your voice, it’s part of what I was talking about, the limbic system. Part of what singing is, is the voice that you have, another is the ability to “go there.” Most people would find it difficult to just start [bursts into song] singing about what they’re talking about [laughs], because when you sing, it puts more meaning into what you’re trying to say. You need to have that, too. My brother and I have the same timbre in our voice.
J: His seems much deeper.
P: David sings lower because, well... [laughs] ... David with the same voice is a different personality. David was not a singer all of his life; he was a writer. What happened to me is that everybody in my family— my mother was a dancer, my father played many instruments...
J: Really? I know he was a union organizer, wasn’t he?
P: Yeah, and he was also on the road with something called Major Beau’s, which was like a talent contest on the radio in the ‘30s. My dad was a violin player from childhood, but he also played piano and knew music very well. I also had a cousin who was a guitar player and a banjo player; he had inherited my uncle’s banjo. My uncle had wanted to be a yodeler in the 1930s. My cousin Mike played harmonica, and my dad had a couple inside the drawer. My dad taught me to play some pretty difficult songs when I was very young– [sings] “Popeye the Sailor Man” – that’s actually not an easy song to play on the harmonica. He taught me to do what’s called "tonguing" when I was like six years old. And we always had a piano in the house. I have a lot of musical memories. On birthdays or anything like that my father or I would get on the organ and a lot of people played – we would sing funny songs. When it was my dad’s side of the family, there would be a lot of polkas. My father came from a family of eight men – they were all writers, all journalists – the South Bend Tribune, my oldest uncle, Frank, was the editor. Also my father was a photographer.
J: Your father was a Renaissance man! It sounds like you had a lot of passion in your house, a lot of meaningful experiences.
P: Yes. It’s very true. My father was a remarkable man. Homer records in the Iliad, “Sons are always different than their fathers. Most worse, some better.” But when I was in second grade, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, you know, you would sing in class. Well, one day the principal, who was also the woman that led the choir, came into our class and she had us sing a song to her. She got up and walked over and grabbed me by the arm and took me out of the class, walked me across the street to Mrs. Gibney, who had a piano there, and just started having me go through these little scales [sings], and told me that day that I was going to be in the choir. So I sang and was soloing since I was in second grade. The nuns stood in front of me and if my stomach would be going out while I was singing, I would be stuck in the stomach with a ruler. And they taught us the way they thought sounds were supposed to be sung, and I remember at the time disagreeing with them, especially the percussion sounds, which they don’t like. That Ls and Rs are terrible sung sounds. When you’re a kid, you already knew that . But when something comes along and validates that, you mostly already know everything, you just need somebody to bring it out. “Educo” - the root word of “education” - “to bring out of.” I took four years of Latin - the only subject I ever flunked [laughs]. I can remember some of the declensions. The nice thing is that I was not taught Ecclesiastical Latin, where they pronounce Vs. But in Classical Latin, those are all Ws, so what Caesar said was not “veni, vidi, vici,” but “weni, widi, wici.” [laughs]
J: Sounds like a hot dog stand.
P: That’s got much better matching of the rhythmic component with the melodic component. [Laughs.] Whadda you writing this for? This is for a newspaper?
J: I asked the editor, and this is a paper I used to run...
P: Really? You sound like you’re 16 years old! [Laughs and laughs.]
J: I’m old. I saw you all the first time in 1985 and I was a backwards kid from Bakersfield.
P: Sure! I used to play Bakersfield when you were probably not even born. Dave Carroll– he was in the Blasters for a while – he was playing between Palmdale and Bakersfield in the ‘70s. I like Bakersfield! My mom’s from Reedley. Reedley is named after one a my great, great, great uncles or something, then my other grandma was from LA. We’re Californios. We were here “back then.”
J: I know a few guys about 50 years old now, and one backed up Joe Turner one time, another when he was 17 played with Charles Brown. What was it like being a 15 year old kid playing in clubs?
P: There was a lot of that then. Joe Turner and many great musicians, I was able to befriend and play with – and in my case, if you look like you’re 50 when you’re 15, then it wasn’t too harmful. I’ve always been pretty big for my age.
J: I saw a picture of you when you were 18 and you looked like you coulda been 35.
P: Sure, and there’s an advantage 'cause you keep looking the same. Everybody else starts changing, but I got used to being 50 when I was 15 [laughs]. Usually I found that when we would go in to play clubs in South Central that it was so weird to see these goofy guys down there, nobody ID'ed us there, but once you were playing no one could do anything – there were a coupla bars we used to have to stand outside of on the break.
J: I’m so curious. What kind of a person was Big Joe Turner?
P: He was brilliant. I tell ya, I met many people who were famous who took me under their wing: Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Terry. Evolution has brought music to us. Before there were record companies, there was music. And so music has a reason, it has a purpose that is not the same as the purpose of fashion, which also has a purpose. On occasion, the purpose of music and fashion link. With the capability of recording, which happened 100 years ago, it put a different area in music, but it didn’t take away a part of music in that it’s got to be handed down. Gene Taylor and I went and saw Henry Townsend – the very great country-blues player from the ‘20s – he was 88 and really sharp– and he told us what a difference it made when records came in ‘cause you could pick up the needle and put it over the same lick a hundred times and learn that lick. You couldn’t do that when you didn’t have recordings. You’d have to see the lick a hundred times, or get someone to allow you to see it a hundred times. He was related to the Mississippi Sheiks, the famous band in the teens and ‘20s. A sheik was like a player, a pimp... See, I don’t take credit for the music; it was handed to me by great people, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. And there is a duty embedded. The view you have of the people who taught you the music and your memory of that is of such purpose, for you to not be a part of that goodness in handing it down to the next person is not likely. And so people feel a debt to pass the music down.
J: Do you then apprentice others now?
P: James Intveld and I hung around a lot. Smokey Hormel played in the Blasters for a long time. You learn from both ways. Any time that I meet a player– – even if I don’t think he’s valuable – the opportunity to pass the information or to demonstrate a mode of playing, you do it.
J: I had a piano lesson with Gene Taylor. I wished my eyeballs had been able to open wider, and my ears, too. It’s amazing, the wealth of knowledge he has, the stuff that to me is authentic; he’s a living link. I feel like I should be going around to some of the old country players here in town...
P: That’s right. The ones that are GOOD. [laughs] For innumerable reasons, but if you are going to be a part of that river that is music, you have to enter it.
J: Wow. This is all so fascinating. You have several degrees, correct? Mathematics?
P: My area of specialty is set theory. The meaning of meaning.
J: I’m intrigued, but I can’t even pretend to understand. Is there a lay explanation?
P: Sure you can. Anybody who knows how to talk can understand. I study semantics: what meaning is. The reason this comes under the domain of set theory is when you consider what things mean, you’ll find out that it’s very rare that a single thing is what one of your words are. For instance, as you and I have been talking, some skin cells have fallen off your skin. You’re not the same Jenny that you were a few seconds ago; you’re not the exact same thing, but you’re still Jenny. And so "Jenny" isn’t just a single thing. And if I’m looking out the window at the trees with the wind blowing and that tree is in a different position and a leaf flies off, it’s still that “tree.” A “thing” is usually very abstract things. Like the number one. There’s only one “one,” but there’s many symbols for the number one. There’s also that feature of meanings that when you get down to the very bottoms of things, you find that there are many different things that make up a Jenny. And those are sets. Jenny is constantly changing. So there is a collection of things that I call Jenny, and even though those things are constantly changing, this thing I call Jenny has some value that it doesn’t change. It’s inside of a world that is changing. If there was no change anywhere, there wouldn’t be any time, and if there wasn't any time, there would be nothing you could know; you wouldn’t learn anything because to learn something is to change something. Anybody who learned how to speak language is a mathematician. There is nothing that is beyond your capability.
There’s not any one well-defined theory of semantics, which is what I contend that I have. I did a masters degree, a PhD thesis that was recognized as such by UCLA. The techniques I was using then, in 1979, they didn’t like and they wouldn’t back me on, are now well-accepted. When I went back to prove these techniques worked, at the same time another guy put out a paper in a similar fashion that had turned the head of this guy named John Barwise– he’s kinda like the James Brown of set theory– he said yeah, we’re gonna have to admit these kinds of systems. And that then made it easier for me to publish this paper. I sent my thesis to him and he said this is fantastic; we’ll publish this in all these places. And I was crying. All I wanted to do was play music. Wild... It’s actually best for me, when I play music, I do mathematics, and I’m most in harmony. If I’m on the road and I play until I’m completely physically spent and I’m still full of adrenaline, I go back to the hotel and after about an hour, that’s what I like to do is do math.
J: My friend used to do that with physics. We would go out and listen to music and then we’d get home and she’d do her formulas. And I would draw pictures.
P: Those are formulas, too. Those are geometry.
J: So I’m just picturing this little kid in the choir singing, but he’s got this whole other world going on in his head.
P: Well singing is just part of Life. See, I’m a science guy since I was born. I’m an evolutionist; that’s what I do even with the semantics. I used to work at the LA County Museum in invertebrate paleontology when I was 12 until I was 18. I studied neurophysiology, too.
J: [Whistles.] Now what do you do with all of this when you’re on the road?
P: There’s the gig, there’s the burden of travel, but you still get to see a lot of places and meet a lot of people and keep in touch with a wider geographical domain than you do when you don’t travel that much. It gets horrible 'cause at your home you can’t control a lot of things when you’re on the road a lot –your dog dies, they build a parking lot across the street, even trying to buy a house is difficult when you travel 'cause you don’t have time to look at ‘em, and you’re away from people – your girlfriend leaves you, mother dies, stuff like that – when my mother was dying, I stayed off the road, but some people can’t afford to. But then if you stay off the road for a while, you start getting itchy. Since my father died, about three years ago, we weren’t playing as much, but for the last six months now that we finished this new record, we’ve been on the road about two or three of those.
J: What’s the significance of the title 4-11-44?
P: It refers to numbers you’d pick in a lottery game. Those particular numbers were called the “washer woman’s numbers;” that meant the hotel maid’s numbers. At the turn of the century, that number was the most played in number games. They had legal numbers like they have legal Lotto now, all across the United States. Sometime in the 1930s, that number came in, and the brokerages couldn’t pay it off 'cause they didn’t have enough money. And that’s when a buncha federal legislation came in making the states do it by themselves; they swept it away. Now you’re getting taxes from the Lotto business people, but who’s buying the tickets? It’s not the rich people, it’s the poor people. So it’s a regressive tax. Now once they passed Proposition 13 in California, took away so much of the state’s money and gave it back to the businesses: well, businesses sell their businesses ever 25 years; residents sell their residences every seven years, so the businesses pay less property taxes. So lotteries became the answer; they said lotteries would pay for education. First of all, they’re taking poor people’s money and spending it, it’s just another tax; and the next thing is, they don’t give very much to education. To the extent that they are paying for it, it’s just another tax on poor people. And now with Indian gambling, which I’m all for, now they’re gonna tax that.
J: There’s a philosophy underlying everything that you do – I don’t know if I should call it populist – that I agree with and think is very humane and inclusive.
P: A lot of that I got from my father, and a lot from music. Music passes through boundaries. Just because they made people take blackface off, and they didn’t let white people play with black people doesn’t mean white people stopped playing with black people. Music still “passes.” You can hear music. It links us beyond whatever the particular social setting is we’re in.
J: Great humanizer, music.
P: That’s right. As long as you don’t take credit for it. It’s our music, not yours, handed to you by great people.
J: That’s another thing. Barring great inspiration, do you think there really is any need to write any more songs, with the wealth of great songs that already exist?
P: Here’s what happens. There used to be iceboxes. Now there are refrigerators. The purpose of music was to bring forward the collective knowledge of those that came before you in a language that had context, that had meaning delivered with it. Still you go places in the world and see songs being sung about the history of a place. Songs adapted to changes in the environment. They changed iceboxes into refrigerators. Now the idea of owning a song came down – and that came in from kings; that's why you get paid "royalties:" "Hey, Mozart, you won't be playing that tune at the opera house in town. I, King Rudolph, paid for your chateau that summer, you'll pay me my royalty." And then social democratization brought that down so that Willie Dixon, who was my good friend, could get paid like a king, and they called that "king's money." We were playing with T-Bone Walker and we went to a party where I saw an album by a guy named Lee Michaels that had "Stormy Monday," T-Bone Walker song. And he didn't give T-Bone credit for it. So I took it to T-Bone and showed it to him and he slapped his finger on it and said, "That's king's money, I can get that money," and he got 24,000 bucks from 'em. That's because royalties are a good friend. What constitutes writing a song? Supposedly, 50% of it is the melody and 50% of it is the words, and if you take any more than four bars of either of those, that's the cut-off. Now, I tell you as a mathematician and as a musician, the number of melodies is not that great. When you take 16 choruses and break it up into four bars and say how many notes can I take that go together in some melodic way, you get a finite number of melodies. They just say that they care about the music. Every time that I made a solo record, I would push this issue. I'll give you an example: most melodies are used over and over and over again, and the melody part of the song exists inside that song. Here's how different they can be. Here's an old Blasters song [sings]: "Clock ticking says the night is through, I don't want to let go of you, let the jukebox play just one more song, and you can go on home..." [Same melody:] "Oh, Mary, don't you weep don't you moan, oh Mary, don't you weep don't you moan, Pharaoh's army got drown-ded, Oh Mary, don't you weep." Take that song as an example. It's about a guy in a bar, and it's closing time. That's not a setting that is new. If I were to take a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, go through a song and change the words, I can put it on an old melody, 'cause they don't care about that, and I can say I've written a song. Or I can just steal a song. Songs that I do, nobody knows what they are, anyway. But then, so did Muddy Waters "steal songs." But they didn't steal it; see, when Fats Waller found out you could get paid for 'em, he'd go out and sell 'em four times a day. Sell 'em to four different people [laughs]. Musicians, the way you made your money was on a street corner. Then that's what you had to worry about; that's where your business was. That's why Muddy Waters didn't write music down. The king wanted you to write music down, that way he could own it. The written language is 6,000 years old. It wasn't poor people that were making dictionaries. The king wanted all the s**t. How come Yeshua ben Yosef, the guy they call Jesus Christ, or Gautama Buddha, or Pythagoras, why didn't they write anything down? Pythagoras was the guy that first wrote music, too. He also said, "Don't do this." If you wrote something down, the king could own it! Written language is much different than the spoken language and that has a lot to do with oral traditions. ... I forgot what the hell I was talking about.
J: Songs and the necessity of writing new ones...
P: Periodically some contributions are made to the kinds of structures that go beyond the general view. If you're in a bar and it's late at night, you can write that from many different perspectives. And so when people talk about writing music, it doesn't really have much to do with music. It's got to do with poetry or language or song-writing. I'm sort of saying song-writing doesn't have a lot to do with music [laughs]. The setting, the context made by the music, and I include in that the sounds of the voice, you could write the same thing in five different ways and I could sing it and primarily the same elements of music, if it was supposed to mean the same thing, would be the same. The particular written word, whether it's an icebox or a refrigerator, doesn't really matter. It matters to those who don't have to want to think about it. But as a singer, you have to think about it. You don't want to say "icebox" when people don't know what an icebox is; you have to make that repair. And that's when you're NOT involved in the music [laughs] ... What products were they selling when I didn't write my music down? Every person that ever could have bought my product, I saw. It's only been in this recent time when you could record me and I could be heard where I wasn't. And musicians didn't get paid for that, and they still don't, and someday there will be a lawsuit and a legal contract, though things are changing, what with the Internet, essentially bringing back in the long run the means of production to the hands of the musicians. You don't need to go to a big, fancy studio; you can record at your house and you can distribute and you don't need trucks and warehouses. And eventually that's what it will come to. Music has been around for at least 150,000 years, and that's if you don't think birds do it.
I collect Oriental ceramics, since they're the real fathers of the stuff, and the evolution and history of ceramics goes very closely with the evolution of music. Clay is something you can almost make do whatever you want to, and music is the same. When you let it dry, it stays around for a while. Until the Chinese learned how to high fire, make porcelain, stuff would only last 'til it would chip and break away in about a generation. That's the same with music before you could record it. You could be told about it, you could hear me sing: here's Howlin' Wolf II, here's Howlin' Wolf I; Howlin' Wolf wasn't the first Howlin' Wolf, there's lots of Howlin' Wolves. And you could only hear what I could show you. If I was a potter, I could only try to make the pot that I remember seeing, 'cause it's gone now. But once it came to be true that the shapes were hard and would stay for long periods of time, just like it was with music when you could record it--it's not the exact same thing; the event of throwing that pot is not the same as the event of looking at that pot. The record is not the same thing as performance.
J: So that goes back to semantics, huh.
P: [Laughs.] Exactly. You can always go back to semantics 'cause usually when you're talking, you'll want to know what you mean. Or not; maybe that's my problem [laughs]. Imagine singing "Itsy Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" to "Old Alberta," the field holler. [Sings.] That's sarcasm. But music carries meaning. If you didn't speak English, then what I just sang would have been the same to you as if I'd sang to you the words that meant something. You would've still got the musical content of it, that it was a song of looking forward, of tough times, and therein lies the difference between words and music. Music lays a bed for the words, and you can change the words on top of it. If you change them out of the context, then you become sarcastic.
J: I hope I'm not being sarcastic when I'm performing. You know, that's another thing. How do you select the songs that you perform? On the new record, are some of them original songs? Or ones that you've carried with you for a while?
P: That's a repertoire, what you're talking about. I've heard and know lots and lots and lots of songs. And there's been songs I've done over the years that I don't do now 'cause they don't have any meaning to me, to anybody else, or they don't have the meaning they once had. That doesn't mean that they won't in another time. For example, "4-11-44." I wrote that song because when I realized quite a while ago -- God, Lee Allen was still alive-- this gambling thing was just going crazy. The theme of this album is that they're locking everybody up in jail and the rest of the people are gambling. Your brother is in the pen and your mother's gambling. We were in Las Vegas and Lee's got a Keno card at the table and he started filling out stuff and he looked at me and I said, "Yeah, 4-11-44, Lee." He looked at me and said, "You know, those are good numbers," and I thought "Man, I'm gonna write a G**damn song." When I looked through my repertoire, had a I had a song that I knew that was against gambling? Well, I didn't really know any. And so that's why I wrote the song. That's when I feel the need to write a song. If I'm standing on a street corner and I decide that something needs to be said, and I don't have a way to say it, well, then I write a song. But if I've got a way to say it, but it needs to be updated in a few places, well, then, that's what I do. That's music. That's how you bring forward the collective knowledge of those that came in the past. And it's only when your pocket book and your ego get involved that you say, "Well, OK, I'll get paid more on the mechanicals if I take this idea from this song and here's the melody from this song and now I've written my own song." I'm not saying that's bad, I'm just saying the ego is involved more, and the pocketbook. And I don't know if having your pocketbook involved is bad, and not that I make decisions not thinking about my pocketbook...
J: Well, I know in my little band, people will say you gotta write songs to get a record, and I keep thinking I don't want to write any songs. The ones I do, they speak for me already.
P: That's right. Some of what they're saying is true in that things are changing; record companies had to pay publishing mechanicals 'cause that's king's money, you can get that money with a long legal history. Record companies want to not have to pay so much mechanicals, so it's a fallacy that they're looking for new material. They don't care whether it's new or not; they're looking for something they don't have to pay a lot for. If your performance of the song brings life and meaning to the song, that's valuable to music, whether you wrote the song or not. If the repertoire you select imbibes people with a spirit that is deemed useful by them, that's important to music. Record companies don't necessarily reflect what's important to music. And nowadays I wouldn't even really be worried about record companies. This craziness that's going on right now with Hillary Duff is the last, gasping, dying breath of a dinosaur. It can no longer make recording and price you out of the business of that; the last thing it's going to is publicity. It makes it impossible for you to have the channels for publicity because it fills them with its own things. It's not a free system. But that only lasts for a little while. Selling records is selling performances. Billy Davis's website, they have all kinds of Blasters bootleg shows where you hear "Marie Marie" different ways, different times. Musicians sell performances. Record companies sell masters. F**k the masters. Excuse me.
J: Where can people find Phil Alvin and Blasters music?
P: I think the Blasters newsletter, And there's a lot of links to guys trading live recordings of Blasters performances. I'm all for it.
J: And there's a newsgroup, I guess that's what you just referred to, it's like the Grateful Dead, they have hundreds and hundreds of recordings that are being traded. One of the stipulations is that you may not sell them.
P: Funny you say the Grateful Dead 'cause I used to use them all the time as an example. When the record companies wouldn't sign the Grateful Dead, they kept touring anyway, and the told their fans to hold the tape players up and turn them on so that other people could hear it and they would come. And that's exactly the right attitude to have.
J: It's so rebellious, and yet so right.
P: It's rebellious against something that has to be removed.
J: How can people get up-to-date information about when you're playing?
P: The best place is the Blasters newsletter. And maybe we need to set up a hotline. I'm an open source kind of guy, so I need to get on that website, get on the Linux and out of this Microsoft crap.
J: You sound like you're good at lots of stuff, like your father was.
P: What's the old line? "I'm not braggin, it's understood, everything I do, I do pretty good"? [laughs] My mother used to say, "You can't be a jack of all trades, you'll be a master of none," Well, I still insist you might be able to be a jack of some trades, master of some.

Article originally printed in Bakersfield CA's monthly underground press, The Blackboard, which published from 2001-2006. Reprinted by permission of author. Photo by Bomar Leopold Fuchs from Fishlips, Bakersfield, 2004.