Blast from the Past

The Blasters keep the fire and brimstone burning

The last time Phil Alvin came through town, a decade or so ago, he visited with blues patriarch Henry Townsend in his East St. Louis home. They could have talked for hours, but instead Townsend sat down at his piano, and the two just played and played and played. There's no audio document — and there shouldn't be. Oral culture hasn't died. It's always waiting for individuals to renew the conversation between the past, present and future.

That conversation is the secret of the American music Alvin has championed since he formed the Blasters in Downey, California, with his younger brother Dave, drummer Bill Bateman and bass player John Bazz. They started out as the Night Shift, backing local R&B singer Mary Franklin — and then found regular gigs backing up Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.

Los Angeles in the late 1970s may have been a kind of melting pot, but the music scene wasn't. It was a supercollider of sounds, and the Blasters were at the white-hot core. They looked like rockabilly hoods, but their approach — like New Orleans juke-jumpers fronted by a cross between Gene Vincent and Eric Burdon — could be as hooky as the Go-Go's and the Plimsouls, as rhythmically accomplished as Los Lobos, and as fast as X and Black Flag. They did gigs with them all — and judging from the live recordings that circulate, the Blasters could cut them all too.

"The first time I knew there were people called punks was when 'God Save the Queen' came out," Phil Alvin recalls. "I was quitting math and starting music again. Stylistically the punks were doing what I was doing, in the intensity and the emotion of the performance. I was twenty-six at the time, and I had been playing biker gigs since I was fourteen. The idea that someone was gonna have a fight in front of me didn't mean a thing!"

The Blasters' first album, American Music, was recorded in a garage. Their follow-up Slash albums (The Blasters, Non-Fictionand Hard Line) retained that grease and grime and, more important, the sense of how anything is possible in the garage — if (and this is the crucial if) the band knows what matters most about their traditions: the way the music feels when you sing it and play it as intensely as you'd absorbed it. The Blasters' originality was always about the way their origins felt as they cut them loose in the fury of a moment.

"The way that I feel music works in our culture — no, in human culture," Alvin corrects himself, "the way it interplays with each one of us, it doesn't really have an idea of an original. You may have heard of a singer named 'Howlin' Wolf'? Well, there were Howlin' Wolves before him. There are roles that music has that need to be portrayed. The howl of a wolf is a meaningful sound. These are archetypes within music. Evolution doesn't play around. Music still embodies meaning and story prior to the existence of the advanced verbal languages. Verbal language is a biological abstraction of natural language. Our experiences have meaning, beyond words. Sounds are the pictures, they are the meanings."

Alvin may be ranting and raving, but he isn't blowing smoke: He wrote a master's thesis on precisely that natural/verbal dynamic. You could dismiss him as a crank — if he weren't a lifelong mathematician, if he didn't have a photographic memory for details and intonations of music, and if he couldn't still sing like a golden-throated maniac. But you can't fake the primal sound; you just have to surrender to it.

"Music has a job to do," he says. "If words are pointers in a context, then verbal descriptions can't be as effective as music. The job is to bring forward the history and lessons and knowledge. Homer didn't write The Iliad and The Odyssey. He wrote them down. And in that sense he killed them. The value of music, aside from whether I get laid tonight in a limo, is to bring knowledge forward, the collective knowledge of those that came before you. And so it acts as bridge between cultures that come before."

When the Blasters come back to St. Louis, they'll appear as a quartet: Phil and bass player John Bazz from the original lineup, along with Keith Wyatt on guitar and drummer Jerry Angel. Brother Dave, who wrote the bulk of their classic material, left the band in 1986; with the exception of a few reunion shows, the two have pursued music separately.

"Brothers are brothers," Alvin says. "I love Dave and he loves me. He's one of the greatest songwriters alive, and he can fend for himself. But he still sings like a frog! I have always had a band called the Blasters, and if it wasn't for Keith and Jerry telling me to do [the reunion shows], I wouldn't have done them. I don't have two bands. But Dave and I have the greatest respect for each other. We also know exactly what the other's problem is."

The creative tension between the two brothers — one a verbal storyteller, the other an oral storyteller — provides a clue to the elder's aesthetic, a philosophy as important to the vitality of the Blasters' sound as their implacable rhythm section. For Alvin music is performance; recordings, at least as the industry has viewed them, are furniture.

"The recording industry was a furniture business!" he shouts, referring to pioneer Ralph Peer and RCA/Victor. "And a recording master, that is only important to someone who can't make that song again. As long as corporations make value out of freezing the music, freezing the masters, saying you stole four bars of this song or whatever, musicians themselves have been able to get away with murder. They don't have to compete against music through time. They only have to compete with what's in their immediate history or memory."

Alvin claims to be more than ready to release more studio recordings — the Blasters' first, last and only studio album since 1982, 4-11-44, was released in 2004 — but he remains intensely suspicious of any and all recording contracts. He believes the Internet will eventually make label exploitation obsolete, but he knows he won't live to see it. Ultimately, the survival and furtherance of the natural language of American music, regardless of fashion and form, remain his passion and mission.

"Country music!?!" he barks, exasperated by idea of genre, any genre. "It's fucking ridiculous! Were there really cowboys? There were. And they wrote poems. But it wasn't cowboys who made this music. You know what Hank Williams said about playing at the Opry? 'They got me here in this git up!' A white cowboy suit and a hat. As long as we've had these investment groups, we've had these divisions: the white guy singing the blues and the black guy singing white music. But the music doesn't lie.

"Music has a job to do," he repeats. "It's our music."

9 p.m. Monday, July 3. Beale on Broadway, 701 South Broadway. $12. 314-621-7880.

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