Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Riffs & Licks

Rockabilly Men

Dave and Phil Alvin are blond and blue-eyed, like good American boys are supposed to be and rarely are. But even though their mom could join the D.A.R. if she wanted, they don't look much like Anglo-Saxon Protestants and in fact they're neither: I'd guess they get their blunt faces and high temples from their father, né Czyzewski in South Bend, Indiana, and now an AFL-CIO bigshot in California. The Alvins were pegged as rockabilly revivalists when they first brought the Blasters to New York in the spring of 1981, but the pigeonhole didn't quite fit. They didn't pose enough--there was no way to dismiss the Alvins' modest pompadours as quiffs, and where the average Whitecat was so pencil-necked he could barely hold up an acoustic bass, the Blasters actually seemed to have muscles. These days they're called a roots band, and in retrospect they might even be accused of exploiting a nascent fad to slake a lifelong passion, one they shared with most of the original rockabillies and too few of the Ubangi-stomping young hair sculptors they got lumped in with: blues. White blues bands had proven a dead end, although piano man Gene Taylor did get as far as Canned Heat. The Blasters' style of neobilly gave them a chance to play blues--plus r&b, country, New Orleans, all the unfashionable vernaculars they loved--to a young and hungry audience in a recharged dramatic context.

In 1980, still a quartet, they recorded their first album for German-born Rockin' Ronny Weiser, owner of Rollin' Rock Records and L.A.'s foremost rockabilly nut, who proudly named the disc after the band's breakneck anthem, "American Music." A year later, after they added Taylor and a horn section anchored by New Orleans legend Lee Allen, Phil's straining tenor and Dave's honed-down songwriting won Warners distribution for their 1981 Slash debut. Once again "American Music" was the theme song--Jimmie Rodgers and Bo Diddley and Sunnyland Slim alongside the familiar bad-boy swagger of originals like "Hollywood Bed" and "Marie Marie." With hip Anglophilia looking fishier by the week, that was all the image they needed to convince rock and roll's underground nation, but in the world of commerce they found themselves confused with three neobilly Anglophiles. After an EP of medium-classic covers recorded live in London and redolently entitled Over There, Dave Alvin sat down to prove the Blasters weren't the Stray Cats. Outcome: Non Fiction.

Up to then, the Blasters' stance had been a little hard to pin down. Formally, they were traditionalists if not purists--no funkbeats or forcebeats, no AOR synths or new wave electronics, not a-hint' of pop cutesy-pie or bohemian posturing--and though they weren't the usual rockabilly boys, or the kind of blues/r&b holdouts found at better fraternity parties, they did fall prey to the traditional male rock and roll baby-I'm-gone. Only with Non Fiction did I realize that it wasn't just grimacing urgency, punk-inclined speed, and my general high hopes that induced me to regard them as contemporary and forgive that king-sized peccadillo. I'd always suspended my disbelief and heard the Blasters as ordinary guys who wanted to play music so much they couldn't be bothered playing roles, but this time the role Dave's songs defined was impossible to ignore. These aren't ordinary guys, after all--they're artists who grew up in the suburbs with the AFL-CIO in their blood. Non Fiction imagines a world in which the American music the Blasters love has remained the common tongue of ordinary guys, guys whose connection to their cultural history helps them understand where they are. They're not in control--that's the way America is, little man--but at least they're conscious. When they play their music, the Blasters become those guys. Hardly kids themselves (Dave is the youngest at 29), they have no interest in the neobilly fantasy of staying 19 forever. Call them rockabilly men.

Unfortunately, the Blasters' kind of American music was anything but the common tongue of ordinary guys in Anglophiliac 1983. So the follow-up, Hard Line, is the band's compromise with radio. It's got producers and stereo and more drums and no horns and a John Cougar Mellencamp song and already it's their biggest record ever, which I'd attribute as much to Bruce Springsteen's American music and Los Lobos' 200,000-units-and-counting as to any of the aforementioned. On the other hand, it wouldn't even be smart purism to object overmuch to compromises. The horns will be back--the band's magnificent Ritz gig March 29 climaxed with Lee Allen honking like as if to turn Clarence Clemons green--and the drum sound is slightly annoying only because it emphasizes the rather square and heavy thump Bill Bateman has always laid down on record. If producers Jeff Eyrich and Don Gehman have echoed around a bit, they've also gotten impressive new vocal detail and encouraged the kind of fancy stuff that comes naturally--accordion here, acoustic version there, Jordanaires all over the place, and the Jubilee Train Singers on a one-take cover of "Samson and Delilah" that's fiercer and more joyous than the Reverend Gary Davis himself.

With its ancient threat to tear this building down, "Samson and Delilah" is one reason not to fret that production compromise signals philosophical retreat. As are "Dark Night," about a race murder ("I thought things like that/Didn't happen anymore") and "Common Man," about some president or other ("he learned to smile, quote Abe Lincoln/and get his foot in the door"), both more pointed than the wary "Boomtown" or the last-ditch-exuberant "Jubilee Train," the only political songs on |(italics)Non Fiction| and the first the Blasters ever recorded. What has softened somewhat, though, is the bite of the writing. "I like form," says Alvin, who remembers a professor who forced him to produce sonnets as fondly as he does T-Bone Walker and compares blues chords to haiku; he says a lot just right in a very few words even in his least noticeable songs ("We know/None of us are gonna cry/It wasn't even worth the try/So long, baby, goodbye"). But on Non Fiction he nailed specifics again and again: Hank Williams admitting "Sometimes I blame it on me," despairing marrieds trying to sleep in a bus station's plastic seats, repentant husband wiping ashes off the bed. If there's a problem with Hard Line, which certainly isn't any more than marginally inferior to Non Fiction, it's that Alvin has settled (or worked) for a generalization level suitable to pop. Sometimes ordinary guys don't want things spelled out so fine that's what bizzers tell us, anyway.

Onstage the band hasn't settled for a thing. In the heat of the moment Bill Bateman and bassist John Bazz, who doesn't have a whole lot to do but at least gets to play a Fender, dug into the pocket until the joint was rocking for Dave's splay-legged leads and haikulike (not sonnetlike) solos. And mouthpiece Phil, who scandalized the scattered neobillies by coming on in a tux (which he doffed before it got soaked through), made his singularly constricted vocal presence signify. At the Non Fiction show I saw, Phil's Kirk-Douglas-as-Satchmo rictus was starting to look mannered, but though his choppers were every bit as evident this time the rest of his body language took some of the spotlight off. And he sang with such attention that, for instance, the conventionally self-aware bad-boy swagger of "Trouble Man," which keynotes the new album too traditionally to suit me, took on the wisdom of George Jones. Dedicating tunes to everyone from John Hammond Sr. to the graffiti brotherhood, he sure warn't no purist. Just an extraordinary American guy who lives in the present. Like all of us.

Village Voice, Apr. 16, 1985