Dave Alvin didn’t set out to write a song when he started recounting a day in his life on paper 40 some years ago
But, years later, Alvin used that writing to create one of his classics, “Fourth of July.”
“I wrote a long poem is how it really started,” Alvin said while tuning his Stratocaster before a recent show. “It’s based on a true story in my life, back when I was a fry cook in Downey (Calif).”
He’s returned to his home state for a series of shows this week, including Saturday night at Auburn’s Odd Fellows Hall.
So did the story of Alvin and a depressed girl he lived with actually take place on July 4th? Or was the date inserted using poetic license?
“Oh yeah, everything in the song is true,” Alvin said. “There was this little cul-de-sac and there were all these beat-up duplexes. We lived in the upstairs duplex. There were Mexican kids shooting fireworks on the street in the cul-de-sac. She didn’t want smoking in the place, so I’d sit on the top of the stairs and just stare at the cul-de-sac.
“I was just trying to capture that moment,” he said. “This is long before I even thought of being a songwriter. I was 21, 22 and I looked at the Mexican kids shooting fireworks and I looked at everything and I thought, “This is a song.’ Eight years later, I finally wrote it.”
To turn the poem into a song, Alvin stripped away most of what he had written, eliminating description of the Coca-Cola distribution plant across the street and detailed observations of the crumbling relationship and crafting a chorus that begins:
“On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone/“Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below”
“When I first wrote the song, Phil (Alvin’s brother, who sang in their band The Blasters) didn’t like the line,” Alvin said. He was concerned it was racist. He said ‘’Can’t we say children of Latin heritage or something?’ I said ‘It’s not, they were Mexican kids and they were shooting fireworks.
“The guys from (Los) Lobos, we played it for David (Hidalgo), Louie (Perez) and Cesar (Rosas) and they said ‘That’s the greatest line ever.’”
That line subtly makes “Fourth of July” about the Fourth of July and America, in all its diversity, said Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the Grammy-nominated Texas singer, songwriter, actor who paired up with Alvin for the 2018 album, “Downey to Lubbock.” Gilmore will join Alvin for the Aug. 24 show at Odd Fellow Hall in Auburn and sings on “4th of July with Alvin each night.
“I think there’s also a subliminal thing to it – of the Mexican kids shooting fireworks,” Gilmore said. “Being unstated, I think that sent a message about patriotism, especially about Mexican kids nowadays.”
Alvin agreed with Gilmore’s assessment.
“It is about the Fourth of July,” he said. “It’s not that it’s not about that. It’s about all that and other stuff. The main thing is some nights I sing it like it’s a breakup song. Other nights, I sing it like, ‘Hey, we can make it, come on outside.’ It’s hard to write that kind of song – it could be this, it could be that.”
“Fourth of July” took a circuitous route to getting on record.
In 1986, shortly after he wrote the song, Alvin left The Blasters to replace guitarist Billy Zoom in the iconic L.A. punk band X. But Alvin was The Blasters songwriter and agreed to write songs for the rock ‘n’ roll band and play on a record they were preparing for Warner Brothers.
One of the songs he brought for recording was “Fourth of July.” But producer Nick Lowe wanted Dave to sing it, not Phil.
“I cut the demo with The Blasters with me singing, which pissed off my brother to no end,” Alvin said. “We cut this really great demo. I played it for the X people and John was ‘That’s our song, that’s our song.’ I was like ‘Okay.’”
Alvin departed X on good terms after a few months and recorded the song for his debut solo album 1987’s “Romeo’s Escape.”
But before that album came out, the X version with Doe and Exene Cervenka intertwining their voices and Alvin on guitar was released on 1986’s “See How We Are.”
“Fourth of July” gets plenty of play every Independence Day – on radio, playlists and when there’s a home game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, which is about a 30-mile drive from Downey.
Even with the annual attention, “Fourth of July” isn’t Alvin’s most widely known song – because it’s about an American holiday.
“Marie, Marie.’ is,” he said. “Fourth of July,” you go overseas and even go up to Canada, it loses some of the zing. “Marie, Marie” is kind of international. It already was an international hit for Shakin’ Stevens. In the States, it depends on what audience. Your retro crowd, it’s “Marie, Marie’’ for your alt-rock audience, it’s “Fourth of July.”
If you go
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Odd Fellows Hall, Auburn
Cost: $20 to $30