Dave Alvin - "4th Of July"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Dave Alvin.

"4th Of July"

Artist: X
Writer: Dave Alvin
Album: See How We Are
Label: Elektra
Year: 1987
Dave Alvin is a man of many layers, one part fierce guitar slinger out of the roots rock tradition, one part hard-bitten author out of the Raymond Chandler school of pithy prose - and no part naturally gifted warbler, whether in the Blasters, X, or on his own. With the writing of the future anthem, "4th Of July," Alvin joined the disparate parts of his persona into a mythic tone poem of romantic alienation, never a hit, but played to this day at ballparks across California to celebrate Americana's national holiday.

"What I've always tried to do is be a combination of my musical and my literary heroes," he said. "When I started writing songs for the Blasters, I felt the music I really love and listen to was slowly disappearing as far as being a cultural force. I felt there were a lot of bar bands or even some national acts that were playing, we'll call it traditional electric roots music, whether it was blues or rockabilly or R&B. But the one thing I always felt was lacking in a lot of them was the Dylan influence. And one of the things Dylan was great at, and still is, is basically taking Elmore James and making "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" out of it. So my feeling was to take, say, Little Junior Parker or Howlin' Wolf or Jimmy Reed or Carl Perkins or Chuck Berry and write my own lyrics. So there's certainly a little bit of Raymond Chandler in there.

"In college, one of my poetry teachers was a guy by the name of Gerald Lockland, who really enlightened me as to the beauty of the mundane. You drive through a neighborhood of tract homes and all the houses look the same and you can just see there's nothing going on there. But inside all of those friggin' houses is a poem, maybe a short story, maybe a novel, maybe a song. A lot of my songs in those days came out of free verse prose poems, which I would shape into songs if I found a good image. "4th Of July" started as a three page prose poem. It was written about a year or two before the song. There's only one or two lines from the prose poem that are actually in the song. "Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below," and "She turns out the lights and lays in the dark." It also had 4th of July in it, but it wasn't a chorus.

"I think the poem was called 4th of July in the Dark. It was about a previous girlfriend and I living in a neighborhood in our hometown in South Downey. We were living in a little duplex apartment and both working day jobs and I considered myself old and done at the age of 21. There's a line in the song, 'On the lost side of town.' When I sing it what I'm thinking about is where I come from. It's a part of town where great things don't come out of it. It's the kind of place where your job in life is just to work, eat something, sleep, and pay your bills. I think any relationship in that kind of situation has its difficulties, where you're sort of transitioning from your youthful dreams into possible adult disappointments. That can put a lot of stress onto a relationship.

I don't know if '4th Of July' is my most Chandleresque song, but it was definitely trying to say a lot with a little. Sometimes I try to say a lot with a lot. But that song was trying to say a lot with a little. When I was writing it, I had a third verse, which I threw away, because the weight of the song with the third verse felt too heavy. On the other hand, with just the two verses and the little part that goes 'whatever happened/I apologize,' it felt like, 'Is that enough? Is that possibly enough? I get it. But will anyone else?' Here's what I've learned over time, and my only advice to a young traditional roots rock songwriter is that a song you think is entirely personal and no one else will get it is sometimes the most universal. I don't know too many songwriters who were 'trained' or schooled as songwriters. So it's a feel thing. When X wanted to record the song and we recorded a couple of demos for Elektra, one of the producers, who is a notable musician who shall remain nameless, said, 'I'm not getting enough. It needs more.' So, I thought, well, maybe I should pull that third verse back into it? But then I thought, no, it's getting the point across. They're either breaking up or they're staying together.'"

Thus, with the music and the lyrics out of the way, the stage was set for something totally unexpected. "What happened next," said Dave Alvin, "changed my life."
Dave Alvin:
Technically, I'd already left the Blasters and was a member of X when I wrote the song. In the Blasters, besides being the loud, noisy guitar player, I was the songwriter. And when I left the band, they were kind of up the creek without a paddle, because there was nobody else in the band who could write songs. In the Blasters' contract, there was a leaving member clause, which meant if either my brother or I left, Warner Brothers had the right to drop the band. But Warner Brothers decided, if we get another guitar player everything will be fine, and they agreed to let the guys do another album. And then because I grew up with these guys, I felt like, okay, I'll write songs and I'll even play on the record. But when the recording and the writing is done, you guys get another guitarist. I'm not part of this band. Is all that clear?
Dave formed the Blasters in 1979 with his brother Phil, who was the group's lead singer/guitarist. The group released five studio albums between 1980-1985. Most of their original songs were written by Dave and clocked in under three minutes. Joining X for the See How We Are album, Dave replaced their original guitarist Billy Zoom.
Then Warners sweetened the pot, so to speak, by suggesting that Nick Lowe produce the band. We knew Nick. We had toured Europe with him earlier in our career. So we thought that was a great idea. Early in 1986, we were scheduled to go in and cut two or three songs and I had to come up with them. So, one night I was with my girlfriend and some other friends at a bowling alley. Normally I write sober. But we're sitting there having a beer watching our friends be bad bowlers and at some point the little inspiration muse walked into the bowling alley and sat down next to me and said, "You know that poem about the 4th of July, that's a song." So I grabbed my girlfriend, drove her home, drove to my house, grabbed the guitar, and about two hours later I called her up and said, "What do you think of this?"

Now, I was never a singer. When I was a little kid, I got kicked out of choir. My older brother Phil was one of the star choir singers of the Catholic church and I was asked not to be part of it. So when I wrote songs for the Blasters, I'd go to rehearsal and sing them for like an hour and my brother would sit and listen and say, "Sing it again, sing it again." Then when he would step up to the microphone, he'd say, "Okay, I got it" and I'd never sing the song again. I mean, I had this brother with this big, loud, magnificent blues voice.

So Nick Lowe flies over from England and we get together. I'd written "4th Of July" and I'd written another song. I sat down with Nick, played him the one and then played him "4th of July." And then he said something that changed my life, which was, "Your brother can't sing this." I said, "What are you talking about?" Although I knew kind of what he was talking about, because structurally it was different from anything the Blasters had ever done. He said, "It doesn't fit his voice. Melodically, it's not what your brother does." Then Nick said, "You should sing it." I said, "Well, I can't sing." Then he gave me my motto for the rest of my career, when he said, "I can't sing either, but I've somehow made a living doing it." And that registered. Because in those days there was still enough of a sort of do-it-yourself punk rock underground that I was attached to. So I go, "Yeah, that's right. That guy can't sing and that guy can't sing, and she can't sing, and that other guy can't sing either."

So we go into the studio and we start tracking the song with me singing in the same way I would at a Blasters rehearsal two years before. And Phil and Nick had, we'll call it a disagreement. Because Nick was like, "You know, your brother's going to sing this." Which put my brother into a real uncomfortable situation, because, as he was trying to explain to Nick Lowe, "Well, that may or may not be true, but he's only here to help us make a record so that we can continue touring. He's not going to be in the band to sing the song." And I'm in this weird situation, too. Once I heard my brother singing it, I knew that, yeah, it's not in his comfort zone. And yet I'm not in the band. So we cut a demo for Warner Brothers with me singing. Nick went back to England and my brother went in with the engineer after Nick left and cut his own vocal on it and both versions were delivered to Warners, and then Warners had the same reaction. "This is great, but he's not in the band!" So, long story short, that album never happened.

Once I played X the demo, I was really high on the idea of me singing. I just thought the song was frigging great. It was one of those things that as soon as I heard it coming back through the speakers of the studio, I was like, "That could be a hit." I played it for Exene and John Doe and John was instantly: "I want to sing that song." And I was like, "Oh, fine." Because I knew that he could. So that's how it eventually wound up on an X record called See How We Are. But even while that was going on, at the same time Demon Records over in London approached me. "Well, hey, we'll give you x amount of dollars if you want to make a solo record."

Elektra released X's version as a single and I still think it should have been a hit song. I'll put a couple of other songs of mine in that category. Back in Blasters days I could never figure out why this song I wrote called "Marie, Marie," which was a huge international hit for a guy named Shakin' Stevens out of England, wasn't a hit in the United States either for Shakin' Stevens or for the Blasters. Warner/Slash never released it as a single. "4th of July" should have been a hit, too. But in 1987 there was still enough of a pushback from radio against anything that even remotely resembled punk rock which kind of doomed that record. This was before Nirvana, before Pearl Jam, before all the bands that got on the radio because a shift in who decided what got on the radio happened in the early '90s. Bands that were influenced by X or Hüsker Dü or the Replacements were getting on the radio then, whereas the bands of 10 years before were strictly on college radio. I had left X by the time the record was released, but I know Elektra tried their best to break that song. On the other hand, out here, and several other places, they play it leading up to 4th of July at baseball stadiums. It gets played at Angels Stadium, it gets played at Dodgers Stadium. So in some ways it was like having a hit.

I think I've written three songs, maybe four, that'll be around when I'm gone and that's one of them. When I'm writing songs, I don't think that way, but over time you start going, "Wow, people really like that song." You get messages through Facebook or whatever from fans: "My dad used to play that song and dance me around the room when I was a little girl." As in any song that gains some sort of cultural popularity, they start taking on the qualities of folk music in that they touch people and they remind people of certain things that are timeless. The songs take on that kind of timeless patina. So I can't complain. I mean, I was a fry cook in Long Beach, which was the era I wrote about in the song. I'm a really lucky guy in that when I did go solo, I couldn't sing a note and somehow I stuck with it and learned.

When I look back on my time in this racket the one thing I know is that you never know what people are going to like. I didn't think anyone would like "4th of July" when I was writing it. All I knew is that I liked it. But as a songwriter, you have to persevere through that board of critics that's in your head going, "You might as well just throw this away. Nobody's going to like this one." You just have to get to a place of acceptance.

November 4, 2013.
More They're Playing My Song

Comments: 6

  • Clare from New YorkMarie Marie was the first Blasters song I heard, and I instantly fell in love with their music. 4th of July is a favorite of mine too. Both songs should have been bigger hits, but they’re loved by people with good taste! I can also relate to Dave finding his voice - I gained the confidence to sing after realizing that some of my favorite singers “couldn’t sing” in the traditional sense.
  • Edward Gentz from AlbuquerqueBig Blasters fan. Big Dave Alvin fan. Big Nick Lowe fan. Big fan of X. 4th of July was the best song on that X album
  • Will Fifield from Smohomish WaGreat backstory on a great song. Really dig Dave's songs and voice and his story about his struggles as a vicalist and writer are very close to my personal struggles in those areas. Maybe there is hope for us bad singers yet...
  • Adam from San DiegoGreat read! Thanks, sirs. Just shared it on Yer Doin' Great's Facebook page.
  • Michael from Rockford IlRomeo's Escape is one of only three albums I remember from the 80's. Steve Earle and Los Lobos being the others. 4th Of July is a great song. Nick Lowe's instincts were right. Romeo's Escape is a great AMERICAN RECORD!!! Up there with The Band's self-titled album. Hank, Woody, Jimmie Rodgers, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash Bruce, John Fogerty and Dave Alvin write about AMERICA. That's my obsession.
  • Myla from San Diego, CaGreat interview on how this great song was written. Definitely an American classic! Even though there is a sad tone to it, there is some hope to it even to momentarily enjoy the fireworks.
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