Revisiting: Dave Alvin – “Romeo’s Escape”

If you know this album (bravo to you) it’s probably as Dave Alvin’s first solo recording after leaving the Blasters (and X) and before he made all those albums people really love. And indeed, it’s a transitional artefact of Alvinology. Everything about it, by context and content, invites us to look to the before and to the after but which also deserves it’s place among the cream of that era’s roots rock on it’s own merits.

In his “Consumer Guide” for The Blasters 1983 album Non Fiction [Slash Records], in which he gave that album an A rating, Robert Christgau wrote, “Dave might qualify as the last great singer-songwriter if only he was a singer.”  Putting aside the typically breezy xgau provocation in the first half of the sentence, four years later we have the uncommon pleasure of being able to watch that exact hyphenate come into existence.   Interestingly, Nick Lowe played a big part in the transition when they worked together on Hard Line [Slash Records, 1986], which would be the last Blasters album with the original four:

At that point, I was done writing songs for Phil. I just wrote what came into my head, which was “Fourth of July” and “Brother on the Line.” When I went to meet Nick, I showed him those two songs and he said: “Phil can’t sing “Fourth of July.” It’s not his kind of song.  You should sing it.”  I said: “I can’t sing.” Nick said: ” I can’t either and I’ve made a career out of it.”

Quoted in the terrific fan-produced Blasters Newsletter (Issue #67, December 2012)

Let’s start, as one does, with the album cover (I only have a digital copy to hand so over-analysis of the back cover will have to wait.)  I have to say I’ve never dug it.  Oh on a conceptual level, there’s a lot to interest the eye and trigger the mind.   The Californian lipstick sunset where the neon and the desert meet is arresting and collage is an almost too-perfect association for a work which pays homage to tradition but also wants to complicate the official stories.   In particular, the photo of his mother and Big Joe Turner both inspires awe and invites an intimacy with the listener, a promise of the more personal turn of his songwriting.  The chopped up head reminds me, on one hand, of  someone in a transporter beam in Star Trek, phasing in and out of their destination before finally locking in. Another apt image, in its own weird way, of the artist’s journey to here.  All this works a treat. My problem – and I willingly admit I’m probably the only one so afflicted – is when I look at the central image I do not see Dave Alvin. It looks like the actor Michael McKean to me and I like to think the reason the album was never a hit was that shoppers thought it was some kind of Spinal Tap Gone Greaser parody and no one needed that in 1987.   Of course, the real reasons it wasn’t successful boil down to a) people are foolish and b) the music industry is foolish – but really, how hard is it to make Dave Alvin actually look cool?

On to the music.

Fourth of July    

Dave does not bury the lede, putting his flagship solo song up front. There are splashy ’80s rock drums but, at the very same time, defiantly country pedal steel, a transgression which confused and distressed the label CBS at both the New York and Nashville ends (read above interview and weep.)   In his Theme Time Radio Show (or producer Eddie Gorodetsky, but we do know Bob was a Blasters/Alvins fan) chose the acoustic version from King of California for the “Summer” episode which is a fair call but there’s a lot of confidence about this performance, the song sounds great to this day and as a whole it’s an exceptional kick-off.  

Long White Cadillac  

The major transition being negotiated here is obviously that from non-singer to front man and he has not yet found the vocal sweet spot which make the subsequent solo albums and live shows so magnetic. Some straining is also evident on songs like “New Tattoo” and “Romeo’s Escape” but those are swaggering tracks that need a bit of mongrel (which is a positive attribute, in Australian-speak) about them so it works. “Long White Cadillac” is only track where the vocals really distract from the song. His later slow-burn bluesy version/s still have a distinctly angrier tone than either Phil Alvin’s or Dwight Yoakam’s renditions but there’s a balance between projecting to the back of the pub and finding the emotion with more nuance. Seek out later live versions.  

There is an unexpected treasure here though, just when you think it’s over: some laid-back, proto hick-hop lines from Hank’s “Honky Tonk Blues.” One day I’ll get around to snipping that bit out and making an excellent ringtone out of it.

Every Night About this Time  

There’s a playlist to be made of country songs told from the point of view of  benevolent paternalism towards a jaded honky tonk angel – my favourite of the genre is Steve Young’s “All Her Lovers Want to Be The Hero.”  Famously, he tried to shop this one to George Jones and it’s a great pity his people passed on it. Not even country rock, just straight up country (despite those drums again, by future/former Blasters drummer Jerry Angel) and he very effectively leavens in a lot of light and shade into his delivery.

Romeo’s Escape  

This is basically one long #humblebrag about being a massive stud and I am definitely here for it. “Big busty blonde” always stands out to be as a cliche that might have benefited from a bit more workshopping but what the heck, it’s just a big, dumb rave-up that’s a lot of fun. I don’t think I can actually imagine Phil Alvin signing this but it definitely dips back into the bluesy punky rockabilly bag of tricks and there’s a faintly Dylanesque quality to how he packs in all those words and how he delivers the end of each phrase. Song most likely to have me accidentally kick the person next to me on the train if it comes on during my morning commute.    

(That said, the the 9 minute version that’s on the live album Interstate City [High Tone, 1996] is the best version.)

Brother On the Line

There’s an excellent Jon Pareles article in the New York Times from August, 1987 titled “Bruce’s Children” which surveys the state of heartland rock in the fading days of Reagan. Romeo’s Escape is referenced but more interestingly is the mention of the then-unreleased Tunnel of Love, on which, as it would turn out (it was released in October that year), Springsteen put aside the themes of “small-town decline” and “bitter nostalgia” that Pareles  identifies with heartland rock for an exploration of the individual and the couple but not explicitly of the community.

“Brother on the Line” and the following “Jubilee Train” are political songs which manage to be beautifully crafted and heartfelt, with a refreshingly different angle on the topics. Instead of being addressed to a faceless boss or politician or vague force of economic logic, the striking factory worker turns towards his childhood friend-turned-scab.  While the sentiments have a righteous force and the accusations are serious they are delivered tenderly, supported by the smoky harmonica and mournful violin (the latter played by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo) weaving in and out of each other.  The music fades out leaving just the pulse of the drum. “Small-town decline” and “bitter nostalgia”, for sure, but there’s still a heart there.

Jubilee Train

Not a radical departure from the Blasters version, except for the background singers which enhance the gospel blues vibe of the music and lyrics. When the guitar kicks in it sounds disappointingly thin and low, I think. Live he does this in a medley with Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” which is a perfect match so I’ll always probably listen to those versions, or the slightly more pounding Blasters version, but it’s good to have this situated between three ballads.

Border Radio

One more midnight and her man is still gone
The night moves too slow
She tries to remember the heat of his touch
While listening to the border radio

And that’s really all I have to say about that, because it is perfect.

Far Away

This song opens in a “sundown town” which first time I heard it reminded me of the term for communities where non-whites could not stay the night, enforced under threat of violence. This is a promising theme, but listening further it’s … a town upon which the sun is setting. Economically and socially, perhaps. Probably it’s just literally dusk.  The lyric never develops beyond here and it strikes as a dedicated attempt to serve up some heartland rock of the most inoffensive variety, so lacking in ambition it might even get played on the radio.  I would say “filler” but we know the back catalogue of songs he could have dusted off for this slot, which was impressive even in 1987.  Having said that, even the thinnest Alvin song can’t ever be totally forgettable, so I am sometimes shocked to find myself singing the chorus. And Al Kooper is on it, so there’s that. 

New Tattoo

Another one he’s kind of loosely growling but since it’s a song about pure lust, it works.  Actually under-rated I think, although I wonder if it can mean the same now tattoos aren’t any kind of symbol of actual transgression.   I think it’s kinda under-rated as a song, any  bands looking for a greasy, uptempo sex song to cover should give it a spin.

You Got Me

In the “Romeo’s Escape” vein, not going to be anyone’s favourite on the album but a lot of the couplets are quite clever and it’s a perfectly cromulent rave-up.
I Wish it Was a Saturday Night

In the linked Blasters Newsletter interview, Dave says he doesn’t re-visit this one often because he got so much “drubbing” for his vocals on it but it just sounds like a great mid-tempo country rock song to me, although I guess I can’t return to a world that hadn’t been listening to Dave Alvin sing for 20 years (and nor would I want to.)

Man, I wish it was Saturday night
Why can’t it be tonight
Nothing hurts
No one would cry
If it was Saturday night

Really, who can argue with that?

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