I keep pointing people to this as one of the most brain-bending interviews I’ve ever done, and it wasn’t easily accessible online. (Although if you google “Phil Alvin” + “set theory” it comes up pretty high in the rankings, but who’s combining those search terms habitually?) I thought my experience with Phil Alvin, Ph.D. was unique, but it turns out this 2008 conversation with the cofounder of the Blasters is the kind of thing he does all the time, whether in interviews, on camera, or in conversation.
Alvin, who started the Blasters with brother Dave and other players in their hometown of Downey, California, fell badly ill on tour in Spain in 2012, leading to benefit concerts to raise money for his medical bills. Now 60, he’s on the mend and playing again, including an appearance at his own fundraiser. My only regret about this interview is I forgot to mention to Phil the first time I saw or heard the blasters: in that cracked-out ’80s action-musical Streets of Fire. The text was first published here.
The thing that always struck me about the Blasters music is it often doesn’t sound like what I think of as rock ‘n’ roll or rockabilly. It’s got sort of a postwar, pre-Elvis kind of feel at times.
Hopefully, that is because maybe we have pointed that way. All of these names that people had for different fashions that have lived on top of music don’t really have a lot to do with the core, the current of music that’s being passed through time, through your culture — if I’m not getting too abstract, which I tend to do. For example, Elvis Presley was a white guy that sang black music. Now, how many possible things could be more incorrect? Although it will be said in this sense. And was Elvis the first? They’ll say that Elvis was the first, but Elvis wasn’t the first that tag was given to. That tag was given to Bing Crosby, in the ’20s, as a jazz singer. That tag was given to people who put blackface on for years. Elvis Presley played what kind of music? Rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll — they have all these names, and these names are usually telling you what color the singer is, what color shirt the singer is wearing. But most of these core ideas that are being handed down, whether you sing a song that’s been sung before, or write a song to update anachronisms and things from other settings, you contribute to this cultural flow. When fashion gets too involved in it, you get these things like, “Well, this is a rockabilly band.” Well, certainly the word rockabilly existed, and it was sort of a derogatory term in the sense that “hillbilly” was a derogatory term, and the “rock” just meant they played music perhaps like what they called “black music” — which has got a lot to do with African music, but it’s not devoid of European influence or participation during its entire history.
Elvis Presley wasn’t something special. He was good, but he wasn’t something that hadn’t happened before. It’s simply a political divide between the blacks and whites that made it reasonable to have words like that to apply at those times. They didn’t really apply. There was some overt efforts to separate those musics, because of records. … Once you were able to have music with records, a couple of things happened. First, music has to start competing through time. Before you could record something, you could write it down, you could say, “OK, here’s Mozart’s thing, I’m gonna be a traditionalist and play it and interpret it this way” — but it wasn’t Mozart playing it. Once you could record somebody, I didn’t have to hear somebody tell me about what they sounded like. I could actually hear it, and I could pick up a needle and put the needle back down and learn the lick real fast. Music, because it was such a business in his century, was treated differently in the way we talk about it — because of the money generated by publishing and the distribution of the information. But because of that, you had people like us who grew up able to listen to the whole spectrum.
When I sang Elvis Presley songs, most of the time I already knew the song that he got it from and the song that that guy got it from. It’s part of music, to hand the collective knowledge on the culture that came before you, to hand it forward. That’s part of your job. Your job may also be to make some furniture company inheritee rich when they sell record players and distribute heavy records, or maybe to get fellated someplace, but primarily the job of music is to embody your culture and your history. Before we wrote it down, we sang it, and when we sing it, it brings a context with it. Yes, some people write songs, and some people steal songs, and iceboxes turn into refrigerators, but things that have important information, important perspectives, continue to be handed down. From that perspective, the Blasters tried not to lay too much fashion inside of the music, albeit David and Bill did wear bandannas. I saw them. But less musical fashion, play more to the core of the flow. We got famous for singing “I’m Shakin’” — a rhythm and blues song. If I wouldn’t have been pink, then nobody would ever have said we were a rockabilly band. But we were pink, so we were a rockabilly band. That meant both my complexion and my shirt.
Did you take that mission very seriously when you got started? Did you think of yourselves as being carriers of the music?
Well, the entity “The Blasters” started in the late ’60s, with John Bazz, who plays bass now — played drums at that time. I know that this happened to other people at my same age, and I know that it’s happened historically all the time — when I grew up, every now and then you’d got to a thrift store and buy a 78, and some of the music was a lot cooler than what I could buy someplace else, and it was a lot cheaper. And people were still around playing it. We started learning who they were. You can’t really kill that core part of music, and it’s always enticing to a young musician to understand, when context is deep. There were so many great musicians — when I was 12, I walked up to Sonny Terry, the harmonica player, and he gave me harmonica lessons.
By the late ’60s, when we were like 15 or 16, we were backing up T-Bone Walker and Joe Turner. Lee Allen was playing saxophone with us. Music is handed down. See, before records, it was even a more personal thing — you sort of had to be there to hand it down to somebody. Somebody had to see you many times to be able to learn your licks on a guitar or even to remember you phrasing on a song, whereas with records you could play them over and over again, and now the pulse became faster. … Before I could drive, these guys were friend of ours. I remember two weeks after I met Joe Turner and Lee Allen at the York Club in LA. We were 15, we had a gig opening for Black Oak Arkansas at the Golden West Ballroom in Norwalk, California. We’re getting ready to go onstage, we’re really nervous, the place is packed, they don’t know who the hell we are. And Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker just came to the gig! We didn’t even tell them we were playing there. These big shots came down there.
People handed you music. And I’m in a position now that I try to disseminate it as well. That’s part of the job of the musicians, and that’s part of the way that you feel yourself connected as an element in that cultural wave to the future. That’s your real job. The body sanctions you for that. Evolution doesn’t play around, it’s here for a reason. If I’m left alone, I’ll sing, and if people are around, I’ll probably sing in a different way, for different reasons, for my ego, but to pass information on. And so yeah, I always figured that it was getting passed to me, and I always felt that you were supposed to pass it down, with whatever individuality and variation that your personality and character reasonably adds.
When you started playing as the Blasters, you were playing to audiences that had come to see X or had come to see the Germs, as the case may be …
Yes and no. The thing called the Blasters has been a band that existed, and even used the name the Blasters, since about 1967, when we were 14 or 15. I played at disco places, but when punk came around, it was such a refreshing as well as familiar cultural setting and musical mode that it made it easier to find some roots — whatever the core thing was. … But yeah, we started playing at punk places. We’re friends with all of those guys still. In fact, we rehearsed at the Bazz Houston factory, Johnny Bazz’s father’s factory, since we were very young. And when we started practicing at the late ’70s down there, his partner’s son, a guy named Stevie Houston, who had the Joneses, another early punk band, and TSOL used to practice there at the same time.
So we were all friends. They learned a lot. Todd (Barnes), the drummer from TSOL, used to sit and watch Bill Bateman, just sit and watch him all practice. If you’ve seen the Blasters show — that’s another thing, I have no delusions about what my face looks like when I’m singing. It’s not a rockabilly face. It’s more like a Caesarean birth. The energy level is hopefully as high as I can keep it. … And that’s another thing that has to be passed down. Whether you start as a punk or a hot rod player or whatever, it seems that as time goes by they all settle into this groovy kind of mode, and I’m trying not to let that happen. I say that with a certain amount of sarcasm
Did your audience members come to believe that some of the covers you were doing were originals?
I have no idea. There certainly many times when originals they thought were someone else’s. Even the notion of somebody’s song — “I’m Shakin’” is probably first recorded by the same guys that recorded “Fever,” Rudy Toombs and Little Willie John. And “Shakin’” is in my estimation, other than “Fever,” the best of that class of songs. … A song is a song. If one of the important jobs of music is to bring forward the collective cultural knowledge of those that came before you, and deliver it in a medium that has context — I can’t sing “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” to “Old Alberta,” the field holler. It’s sarcastic, because the words don’t match the music. The music has meaning that underlies, that overtakes, that makes sarcastic or creates friction between words and music. Music delivers context. Context is what carries most meaning in language — words are sort of pointers inside of context.
So if the job of music is to hand this knowledge down, then how important is a new song? There are new songs, but there’s only so many melodies that are 16 bars long, and when somebody writes a song, they get paid money for that, and they have a name for that payment, and it’s called a royalty. It comes from the time of kings. It’s from 700-year-old French and English jurisprudence— “Hey, Mozart, you won’t be playing that song in town at the opera house. I, King Rudolph,” or whoever, “paid for your chateau that summer, you will pay me my royalty.” And through social democratization, this notion of the ownership of a song arose. It became important to learn how to write down the songs in written music if you were gonna do a song. The way that musicians would get sanctioned would be by being and playing where we are at that time. Whether we wrote a song, didn’t write a song, were the first to record it, we’d play the song. Now, if somebody hears that song that you write, what’s the point of that song? The point of that song is to pass some piece of information, isn’t it, to get people to hum the song in your head? It’s gotta be something close to that, so it helps them remember this message and take this context. …
One of the ways that people got paid, like Homer, who wrote the The Iliad and the The Odyssey — he actually sang it, but he just wrote it down. He was a singer; how did he get paid? Well, in order for other people to have the history, there was no recording, they had to come hang around you. People became students of these people in order to learn these songs. They did not care who wrote this song. Homer didn’t write The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer wrote it down. Homer may have taken out some anachronisms, added some flowery words, once he wrote that thing down, If I say, “The scarlet-fingered dawn,” they say, “Ah ah ah, Homer said ‘rosy!’” But before Homer wrote it down, the song had evolved from great to poet to great troubadour to great singer to great orator, back to orator to singer to poet. It got handled to where parts of the story and ways of saying that story were a collective, social thing. Anybody who writes songs has always found their inspiration — frequently, I don’t want to say always — but you find your inspiration in the society around you. … It only became important who wrote a song when the king started getting paid royalties. And that part of music, because it came down through social democratization — all of a sudden we could get publishing money.
Of course, the publishing then was for a piece of written sheet music. Then it became a record. Now of course it’s a for a string of zeros and ones that may be interpreted to be a song. They might also be interpreted to be a picture of Bing Crosby. Such things are going to occur. Willie Dixon was a good friend of mine. Willie Dixon would get paid money for the song “Spoonful.” Willie Dixon, I know, did a great version of “Spoonful,” but Willie Dixon knew he didn’t write “Spoonful.” He would tell you, “I didn’t write it, I was just the first one to publish it.” … Nobody wrote “Baby Please Don’t Go.” There are songs that weave in and out. You could put a multiplicity of songs together out of “Minnie the Moocher” and “Buffalo Gals.” They all intertwine with each other. But we pay the king, certainly we want to pay Willie Dixon, we want to pay me whatever publishing I can get.
We talk about writing music. A great deal of the reason for music is because, look, we’ve only been writing for about 6,000 or 7,000 years. We have been bringing our culture forward in music and sound and language for at least 200,000 years as modern human beings. The tendency for us to think of words in time as things that are one piece paper, the written language, is foreign to music itself. It is an intrusion on it. Music’s job was to make you remember sounds and word with the meanings attached to them, and sometimes to take things that have absolutely no meaning, like ABDCDEFGHIJKL… I’m saying it now, but I still, someplace in the back of my mind, I’m singing that song. There isn’t any reason that A should come before B. What puts any sense to that is you learn to sing a song. There’s 26 letters, there’s eight notes, and you follow the absolutely random, chaotic order of sounds. That’s the power of music, to connect with its context.
Not that there isn’t power in writing, not that writing and music can’t match each other — but if a guy was a songwriter, he could’ve never ever touched a pen in his life. There are songs that some people start singing and they’ve never written them down. They write them down later. They call it songwriter, they could also call it songsinger. … And the difficulty in making those distinctions is reflected in modern publishing laws. First of all, yes, you can take somebody’s song that’s owned by them, even though they may or may not have written it, that doesn’t matter, but if you significantly change that song, you can apply for what’s called arrangement royalties. Your unique arrangement gives you some points off of that. That’s a way they’ve tried to make a friction between those two things (performance and publishing) that don’t really have friction in music. They have friction in music as a business in the society in which it came up.
So the musician or the songwriter is a conduit in this model.
Correct, correct. And some songwriters are musicians, some songwriters are singers. Irving Berlin didn’t sing his songs, he wrote songs. There are all of those different variations. A dancer — tap dancing interfaces with music, and in fact had a great deal to do with the rhythms that came through the ’20s and ’30s, bringing 2/4 and 4/4 jazz and backbeats. Dancing is as old a part of the context of handing culture down as music is. … A culture is handed down through all of those things. Music, it’s not a visual thing, so it doesn’t hinder you from any visual communication, and it sets a context in one of the oldest senses — the sense of vibrations in my close environment: sounds. There is a palette of archetypical meanings. The sound of babies crying is understood between mammals pretty easily. … Music is a sentence — not a written sentence, it’s a spoken, sound-controlled sentence that supports the words. Or there’s plenty of music that doesn’t have any words, it’s just music, and it sets up its own context, and doesn’t point anything out to you in words. … I presume that people could take these court cases, but nobody wants to shake any boats. And now, with the stuff that’s going on on the Web — which is good, I think, and healthy — the redefinition of even what it means to be a royalty is coming about.
Isn’t there a risk that the people who win that kind of conflict are the ones who have the deepest pockets to begin with? I mean, Disney made sure that its characters didn’t go into the public domain …
Brother, you are on the ball and preachin’ to the choir! Hell, yes. You know about that Disney thing, good for you, because I might have said it in five more minutes. What was Disney’s first cartoon hit?
Steamboat Willie, right?
Steamboat Willie. And what does “Steamboat Willie” mean? A very famous, very important cultural song is “Steamboat Bill,” and that’s what he’s whistling in this little cartoon. “Steamboat Bill” probably was adapted in the middle of the 19th century. It’s about a steamboat guy who gets in a race with the Robert E. Lee, which is the fastest steamboat to go from Natchez to New Orleans. It was famous for that. You would maybe recognize the melody, if you’re old enough. … One of the reasons he used it is it was public domain, it was so damn old. So he takes a public domain song, makes his first cartoon, there’s even good reason to question whether he didn’t steal his little cartoon drawing from some New York doll manufacturer, and if not, from Ignatz from “Krazy Kat.”
Really, Mickey Mouse was just a blackface comedian, singing a minstrel song. And all of the public domain stuff, from the very first one to the present day, that Disney has made their fortunes on — now it comes down they have to get rid of their stuff, and they go to Congress and pass a fuckin’ law. … When record companies first came out, there was nothing in the books, no laws that said guys who sang songs on records had to pay anybody any royalties. So in 1928, two of the publishing companies got together and took a suit against Victor, Columbia, a bunch of the record companies, saying you have to pay us money like you were selling sheet music. The court said, “There’s nothing in the law that says you have to do this.” So they denied their claim. They appealed it, and again, they were told, “There’s no law that says you have to do this.” They stopped there, they went to Congress, and they got a law passed. That’s why we have mechanical royalties, started in 1928. Then in ’29 and ’30, ASCAP formed in order to collect those things, and then that was so corrupt that BMI formed. Now they’re all corrupt. … No matter how many times they hear you sing it, you don’t get a dime for that, it just depends on who wrote it. Which of course is unfair — that doesn’t mean that who writes it shouldn’t get paid, it just means that people who perform it should too, and we’re now upon that with the Internet.
Isn’t it a case of the bitter with the sweet, though? You got the chance to meet Sonny Terry and these guys, but most 15-year-olds, if they wanted to hear the music, would have to experience it through records.
Well, I experienced most of the stuff that I experienced through records, but I did meet some people. There’s always some people still alive. That’s part of the reason why you hand it down. You could come meet me! Not that that’s as good as meeting Sonny Terry, but I’ll tell you what he said. I’ll show you what he taught me. There’s always a lot of greats around. …. I know 15 guys who are great musicians, who play out in the street and pass this stuff around.
Does the Internet make it easier to pass musical traditions around?
Absolutely, it makes it easier to pass it around. It also inundates you so that it’s very difficult to find a path through all of the possibilities. For example, I knew Bear from the Canned Heat — his real name was Bob Hite. Bob Hite had one of the most phenomenal 78 collections, one of the great ones of the world. I first knew about that because he was on “Ninth Street West,” a dance show — I was like 13 or something — and they had that hit song, “Going Up the Country,” which was Alan Wilson’s arrangement of a song that was recorded by Charley Patton and Henry “Son” Sims on fiddle. And Bob Hite played that 78 on that show. That was the first time I ever heard that stuff. I went, “Oh, Jesus Christ!” I made it my commitment right then … one day I was gonna find that Bob Hite guy and play that stuff for him. I just had to hear a few seconds of it — the straightforwardness of the music, the perspective of the singer, the aggressiveness of the guitar — immediately I just said, “Oh my God!”
When I saw James Brown on television singin’ “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” it was like BOOM! Jeez! You know when it’s there. Even if they try to hide it with fashion, eventually some guy at a local bar, they still ask you to play “Johnny B. Goode.” There’s shit that’s good! There’s no reason for it to leave. There may be reasons to update it. There may be reasons to cycle it through as its texture fits the texture of a culture at a time. We don’t have any new names for music, and most of the ones we had were artificial anyway. It’s all mixed up, there’s no reason to talk about jazz, funk, fusion, pop, rhythm and blues, country … Country! Where’d they get that one? What country are you talking about?
You’ve studied math and artificial intelligence. These are big fields.
Semantics in a mathematical sense? Is that meant as a mathematical term?
In the linguistic sense, which is a mathematical area. But yes, intimately related to meaning is the theory of sets. … People who work in semantics are mathematical linguists. I have a pretty good perspective on what’s going on in semantics, because of my longtime pursuit of that, since at least the middle ’70s, and the set theory techniques that I use that did not used to be accepted. Then they became really accepted in 1988, and then everybody had to say, “Oh, I guess you were right.” … You think it’s hard to get in the music business? I thought it was gonna be easy to get into the mathematics business, because you PROVE the stuff that you do, right? But just like in the music business, if what you’ve proved diminishes the scope of what someone else has proved, they don’t really have any interest in supporting that. That’s OK too, but then they actually have an interest in squelching it, marginalizing it. … I wrote a thesis for my master’s degree. I had to write it at Long Beach State, even though I was accepted at UCLA, because they didn’t accept these set theory techniques. I did that in the middle ’80s — I slowed the Blasters down then — but in ’79, when I went to UCLA, I went to get an adviser, and I had these three-page synopses of stuff that I’d already done. Most people wouldn’t read it when I just gave them the light explanation, because mathematical semantics, certainly at that time, was in its fairly early stages. When I got some people to read it, the set theory that I used was what’s called a non-well-founded set theory. … At any rate, I got vindicated. I went back to UCLA in ’93, but I had fought so long I wanted to just play music, and that’s really why for the last 12 years I have played more music and done less math. But I’m now also doing math again, because I want to give them the next part of the story. I hope that it shows to be true. So far, so good.
That is to say, you have proofs that you’re working on which are related to your earlier work, and you want to expand upon it.
Well, the earlier work, the thing I wrote my thesis on, is the tools of my set theory. I showed the relative consistency of my set theory to the famous set theory that they love, Zermelo-Fraenkel theory. That means mine’s not screwed up if theirs isn’t screwed up. And then it has all these advantages. I developed these things so that I could use it to frame semantics in, so you could get all of these results, keep the algebra of the sets. But they didn’t accept the set theory that I used, so I had to go and write a thesis to prove that the tools were good. Now I’m gonna take the tools and do the theory that I had done before, now that everybody knows the tools are good. That’s big stuff.
Well, where do you teach?
I don’t teach anywhere now. I only taught when I had to keep myself off the road. I taught at Long Beach State, I’ve taught at a few private places, and I’ve been a teaching assistant at UCLA. And I’m a good teacher, I like to teach, but I like to play music and then do math at night, after I’m finished blowing myself off with music. It’s just right with me. If I teach math all day, then I play music at night, and I don’t wanna to do math. So it’s better to play music all day and then do the math you want to do at night. I’m sort of the opposite of many mathematicians I know who play music, but do mathematics to make money. I play music to get the money I need to do my mathematics.
When you have been teaching, what have your students thought when they learned you were also a musician?
Well, the first few semesters I taught, they would’ve had to be pretty hep to know I was a musician, even though I was playing around town, mostly solo at the time. But the second time I taught, ’84 or ’85, people actually knew who the Blasters were — it was actually good for them, because the classes learned a lot better, whether it was because they were trying to impress me or what. But I’m a pretty good teacher. The problem is I have ethics. I won’t have sex with my students, and boy, do teachers get opportunities to do that. I just wouldn’t do it, and boy, there was a lot of beautiful girls that second time around, jeez. Maybe that’s why I don’t teach — I’d just get in trouble.
Well, I hear there’s groupies in rock ‘n roll too.
Oh, there are. There’s groupies for crackheads. Everybody’s got some groupies.
What’s your brother Dave’s relationship to the Blasters now?
Whenever David needs the Blasters, he tries to get one of those so-called “Original Blasters” gigs together. Other than that, David and my relationship is good. I talk to David a couple of times a month, and we love each other as we always have. We’re just brothers, y’know? How would you like to be my little brother? I don’t think so. … Nonetheless, it is good fun to play with my brother, as it was since we were small kids. But you gotta watch him.
(Which reminds me that I am now feebly, fumblingly Tumblring here.)