There is Nothing New but Dylan

Buddy Seigal talks with Dave Alvin about God

Dave Alvin, who has toured and recorded with Dylan, likes Dylan so much that it's fair to refer to everyone's favorite greaser from Downey as a Dylan apologist. I sat with The Alvin—winner of a Dylanesque Traditional Folk Grammy in 2000 for his Public Domain CD—to put the "anal" back into "analysis" during a recent session of Dylan-beration. Draw conclusions on the wall, indeed.

OC Weekly: Let's first discuss your supposition that Dylan is the best white blues singer around.

Dave Alvin: Possibly.

He proved that right out of the gate on his first album [which largely comprised country blues covers]. That record is woefully underrated.

I think it's an underrated album. All of Dylan's cover records are odd and people tend not to take them very seriously. On that first album, a lot of it was an act but he was very good at it. He was very good at imitating Woody Guthrie, Big Joe Williams. But even in his imitations, he had his own voice.

He didn't have burnt cork all over his face; he sounded like Dylan.

I wouldn't say that Bob had blackface on that record; he had poorface. He was imitating black country blues singers and white traditional singers. A lot of folksingers previous to that approached it with good intentions as a classical form of music, you know—they sang with perfect diction even though they were singing in dialect. The thing about Dylan was that he was not only a folkie and a blueser, he was also a rock & roller. That was deep inside of him; that rock & roll energy was in the tracks. Everybody sings with varying degrees of authenticity. Bob Dylan eventually became authentic by being Bob Dylan, and he did it fairly quickly.

When do you think he came into his own?

Well, he was Bob Dylan on his first record, but Freewheelin' was pretty Bob Dylan. Then he really hit his stride with Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin'. Those records, in a weird way, seem to get lumped in with his first one, but they're really totally different. He'd progressed as a songwriter to where he was incorporating all his influences. Everything is there except for jazz, and he even took a few pseudo-stabs at that on his last couple records. Everything—from country blues, Chicago blues, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Woody Guthrie to gospel music and old hillbilly music and union protest songs—is there. My take on it is still that he was a blues guy in most respects, though. Even when he wasn't adhering to strict blues form, his vocal phrasing was always blues. Even on the Nashville Skyline country stuff, it was in his phrasing.

You keep speaking about him in the past tense. Is that because his career has been so lengthy or because you feel that the old Dylan isn't with us anymore?

Oh, no. He's as creative as he ever was.

Do you feel that his last couple of records stand up with his best work?

Yeah, I do. I really do.

They sound great. But it seems to me that structurally, his songs have been a lot more tradition-bound than they used to be, as if he's now adhering to the rules he dismantled 40 years ago. This is the same guy who wrote unconventional songs like "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." I get the feeling that he's more eager to please than he used to be, that he's on cruise control.

If he was on cruise control, you'd be getting much different records out of him. He was on cruise control for a long time, is the way I view it. But not anymore. There are songs on these records that I don't think are among his best, but Time Out of Mind is an amazing record and Love & Theft is a really, really good record.


Alvin:"Dylan influenced everybody."
Do you approve of Daniel Lanois' work with Dylan?

Certainly. Even though the sessions were . . . feisty, I guess is the word. He also did a great job on the Oh, Mercy record.

You don't get the feeling that Lanois imposed his own vision on Dylan too much?

No. In my very limited involvement with Dylan, I find that he's looking for something musically that is hard to put your finger on. I had a conversation with him last year about what we play and he said, "I just play folk music, exactly the stuff you play." To him it's all folk music. You can't go back and redo Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61. He already did those and he's not the kind of guy who's gonna go back. He's looking for certain things. I guess his complaint about Time Out of Mind was that it didn't rock enough. When you see him do those songs live, they really rock. But as an overall listening experience, I think the album stands up with anything he's done, and you can tell he's the same guy. He's held to a very high level by critics because of who he is, and that's why I'm glad I'm not him.

There's a young man's energy on his best albums that can never be recaptured.
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