It shouldn’t come as any surprise that there’s a strong connection between music and sex. In fact, there are too many strong connections — and I don’t mean cock-strutting young guitar-men or writhing women in rap videos or Latino singers who wear suit jackets cut short so they emphasize their “packages.” That’s just false sex, and it’s not worth thinking about.
Of course, there’s also false music, which is called pop. But this piece isn’t about any of that. It’s about Dave Alvin, who is a national treasure and a great songwriter and guitarist and performer and most of you reading this have probably never heard of him.
But since I saw him play an amazing, blistering, transcendent two-and-a-half hour set at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass. Wednesday night, I’m writing this about him. But not really.
Really, I’m writing about sex.
Dave is a man with a deep, rumbling voice, a man who looks like an albino but isn’t one, a limber and skinny man, a man who just turned 56 and still talks on stage about strippers he has known, a man who writes too many songs — maybe — about women in tight red dresses and what happens when they slip them off, a musical road warrior for almost three decades, a gifted guitarist who has played with many great musicians (the story is often told that he turned down an offer to tour with Bob Dylan because he was ornery enough to want to be his own front man, but I don’t know whether or not it’s true), a man who has buried too many friends, and a man who can play either an electric or acoustic guitar with his both fingers and his heart until everything — including the room — starts to smoke and burn.
Whether it’s Dave alone with an acoustic guitar singing my favorite of his songs — “Blackjack David” (and yes, I know that’s sort of lame and I don’t care; by the time he stops singing I want it to be me lying on the ground in the arms of the handsome gypsy.) Or playing with his band, The Guilty Men — one of the best damn hard-rocking bunch of musicians who ever went on the road. Or playing with his later band, The Guilty Women (their CD is quite a departure — Dave gives the women all the room in the world to shine in rootsy-land and then adds a sad lovely song about Karen Carpenter, of all people). Or whether he’s playing — as he was Wednesday night at the Iron Horse — with a mix called The Guilty Ones — drummer Lisa Pankratz, guitarist Chris “All Killer and No Filler” Miller and bassist Brad Fordham.
Dave doesn’t come around here that often, so when my friend Sheryl Hunter, who writes about music for the Greenfield (Mass.) Recorder, heard he was coming to the Horse, where “music alone shall live,” she immediately got us tickets.
I have a long history with the Horse which goes back more than 20 years, back to when its founder, Jordi Herold, still ran it and I got my first gig as a music critic writing for the Brattleboro Reformer up here in Vermont. It was a small paper then (it’s an even smaller paper now) and the first time I called for complimentary review tickets, Jordi told me, “I can’t afford to subsidize your musical education.”
That he went on to do exactly that for the next 15 years is a tribute to something — maybe to the fact that I was soon writing for the much, much larger Springfield (Mass.) Union-News. (It’s now The Republican, and it’s also a lot smaller.)
Well, Jordi doesn’t own the Horse any more, he’s now a real estate mogul, but he was there for the Dave show. So was roots fanatic John Bodner, who’s at every show I’ve ever been to, and that’s not even scratching the surface of where he’s been and what he’s seen and who he’s driven to the airport in order to get free tickets.
Back in the days when I was reviewing eight or ten shows a month, Sheryl and I were allowed to sit on the Iron Horse steps, just next to the board where the sound is perfectly focused. I always thought that some day they would put a bronze plaque on that step — call it the Joyce Marcel Memorial Step, maybe. But once they started enforcing the fire laws we were forced to sit at tables. Usually we sit downstairs, but this time we ended up in the balcony, so we were looking down.
Which is how I discovered that sex permeates live music, but not in the way I always thought it did.
Sex. Lord knows, I’ve lusted after enough male musicians (and a few female ones) to fill a long, long musical train. And I’ve had more than enough thrills running through my body from the excitement of live music.
And more than once or twice, I’ve wanted to be the guitar.
But Wednesday night, I was able to look down and watch Lisa’s face as she played the drums, and her expressions were identical to the ones that must pass over her face during sex. The pushing of the jaw forward, the tongue licking the lips, the brow furrowing in pleasure, the eyes scrunched up — I know those faces. And the way her hands gently held those soft sticks and moved them slowly, slowly, slowly down the cymbal and then up again and then down again — I think a lot of men in the audience might have wanted to be that cymbal.
Then there was Chris, the guitarist. From above, I could see how his middle or ring finger flicked over a particular string as it stretched over the body of the guitar, flicking, flicking, flicking in time to a rock or a boogie beat, diddling that string. It didn’t take too much imagination to know what that diddling would feel like to a woman lying naked in bed with her legs spread.
Then I focused in on Brad, and noticed that his fingers sliding up and down the neck of the bass guitar were like large brown wriggling worms.
OK, I thought. What’s going on? The musicians are having sex with their instruments? They’re playing their instruments the same way that they have sex? They are having sex with their music?
Sex was definitely in the air.
Then there was Dave. I think for him, playing music might be indistinguishable or even better than sex. From the time he hits his first note he’s totally gone completely into the music. He’s locked into every moment, driving hard, moving the sounds around, communicating with his musicians, living every note.
As for me, I drink in every chord he plays as if it is fine whiskey — and Wednesday night I was drinking Talisker at $9 a shot, which in my ears made his voice even deeper and more rumbling and sweeter. And sexier.
It’s not that I want to have sex with Dave Alvin — I’m not even sure I want to have a conversation with him — but listening to him makes me want sex. Or makes me think about wanting sex. Maybe I want to have sex with his music. Actually, I think I do have sex with his music.
Dave mourned a lot of people in song Wednesday night, from his best friend and musical partner Chris Gaffney, to folk singer Bill Morrissey — who he can uncannily imitate — to another of his musical partners, Amy Farris, who killed herself during The Guilty Women tour, to the great ‘50s rocker Johnny Ace, who liked to give himself an energy bump every night before going on stage (at least the way Dave tells the story; there are other versions) by taking five bullets out of his gun, spinning the barrel, putting the gun to his temple and pulling the trigger. On Christmas Day in 1954, with Big Mama Thornton watching, his luck ran out.
And then that haunting Karen Carpenter song, because she came from the same town Dave comes from, Downey, Calif.
So lots of dead people on the stage, lots of ghosts in Dave’s world, and that girl in the red dress and me just thinking about sex.
“This is my church,” Dave said. “This is where I come to pray, to mourn and to celebrate.”
Dave Alvin is one of the greats. That he plays live music in bars and when he comes to the one near you you can have a transcendent musical experience for about $20 — the church of great live music just continually amazes me. As long as Dave wants to keep playing, I’ll keep coming. In more ways than one, I guess.