Alvin Dahn, ya say? Alvin Dahn has been writing popular music since the year 1968. Popular is subjective, though. I do not really mean popular because his output is easy on the ears and moving (it is, in fact), but because it stays close by the center of rock ‘n roll’s roots. Like the days when rock ‘n roll had a wider mass appeal. I ran into Alvin Dahn by way of the classic outsider music book Songs in the Key of Z and Irwin Chusid, the novel and website’s author. Alvin’s musical career is not extensively profiled in Songs and there is not much in the way of Alvin in the annals of online.
My first impression of Alvin and his music came from this Vimeo “Clip from Outsiders: Alvin Dahn and ‘Don’t Throw Your Dreams Away”. The first twenty-five seconds are awesome and I feel like giving away what happens: there’s a clip of Tonawanda (no idea where that is… I looked it up and it’s in NewYork), audio from what sounds like a radio station introducing Alvin Dahn, and then there’s a middle age gentleman standing chuckling to himself as heavy metal riffs go off in the background. He turns off the music and says: “As you said earlier, a little wilder than I looked. But what is an artist supposed to look like? You know, you do what you think you want to do at the time, what you’re feeling, not what you’re looking.” I think I paused the video at that point. That statement stuck with me. The rest of the video is an informative narrative of Alvin and some of his music career. I say some because it mainly focuses on Alvin’s early 1990s output, which I mistakenly believed was his only foray into the music world. I don’t think my mistake was a serious error or anything. The world of outsider music is strangely made up of interesting characters, some regular Joe types, some people a bit more ‘crazier’, but who is crazy and who is not crazy in music, anyway? So it’s interesting to speculate what little we actually know about these people. I kind of wanted to avoid that for this piece because Alvin is worthy of a more honest look. Come on, baby.
I’ve recently reached out to Alvin and now have a better idea of the merits of his non-career in music. In some other era, I would wager that if you slapped on some Alvin Dahn on the Juke Box, nobody would think of you any less. When I heard “Don’t Throw Your Dreams Away,” I was like wait a sec, this is a larger than life classical, sun shiny ‘60s ballad. Incredibly eerie, though, or ripe for a soundtrack or something. Maybe I’ve missed the boat on music’s history and I bet I have, but this seems almost like a real original here. But then I stumbled back upon “You’re Driving Me Mad,” which is the heavy metal sounding (besides Alvin’s light vocals) track from the Vimeo. Ultra clean production and exquisite technical playing. Was this an all Alvin affair on the instruments?
Well, Alvin told me that the songs on his It’s Time album (which is commercially available online) were composed and arranged by his truly prior to the professional studio recordings, which took place over the years, 1990 to 1993. He played guitar, piano, violin, percussion, and sang on It’s Time. In 1991, the first ten songs were released on vinyl and cassette, and the two Christmas songs were released as a cassingle. “You’re Driving Me Mad” is a rehearsal version and the other two songs – “Don’t Throw Your Dreams Away,” and “The Devils Candy” were released as a cassingle in 1993. These songs collectively perhaps are Alvin’s most popular work – granted this is incredibly tough to measure – primarily due to the exposure received via Chusid, a revered WFMU disc jockey. [Chusid notably included “You’re Driving Me Mad (Rehearsal Version)” on his compilation album Songs in the Key of Z Volume 2.] It’s Time is the only album of Dahn’s that I own. It stands out for its stylistic fluidity – you will hear early rock ‘n roll, new wave, disco, country, gospel, blues, metal, and Christmas songs. Alvin flows here and there with his own familiar-totally unfamiliar flourishes. I cannot definitely pick a favorite song, but I suggest to Alvin that “The Devil’s Candy” is his most creative. He tells of the instrumentation on this one, “I thought the use of the harpsichord lent a very different feel to the song. The soprano sax made to sound like an oboe growling was meant to show the devil’s frustration.” The fuzzy guitars and harsh drums give this one a dark feel, although the song itself is really melodic, inviting, and yes, yes, sweet as candy.
Alvin’s first 45 “I Left My Yo-Yo Back In Nashville b/w Blue Girl” was recorded and released in 1974 on a private, local (New York) label. His follow-up 1976 single “404 b/w Free Rolling Man” is credited as The Alvin Dahn Band and was released on Alvin’s own Sky-Child Records imprint. Alvin set up his record label and publishing company, Sky-Child Music, because he realized that if he was to be successful, he “needed to be able to release in a larger geographical area.” Alvin received recognition from Billboard magazine for his releases, but he was not able to elicit major label interest. After his third single, he was able to secure a print contract with Big Three Music, the print division of EMI. In the years following, Alvin released and published records for other artists. In 1998, he wrote and performed “Healing Miracles” for a Christian cable TV show of the same name that aired until 2010. Alvin tells me that he has a “huge stockpile of new songs” that he would love to record and release, but it is not likely that he will be able to. I am so down to see what Alvin has up his sleeve!
I was wondering what Alvin thought of the term “Outsider” and what it means to him. He says, “I think that only refers to the people who have never had a break with a major recording company.” I understand what Alvin means because he is not in fact short on instrumental, production, and songwriting ability. He started playing the violin when he was 9 years old and went on to play in a variety of orchestras, choruses, and choirs. What might set him apart, what might have made/make him an “outsider” may have to do more with just how invested he was in his creative output. The directions he gave to his hired session musicians may certainly have seemed confusing and unusual. Alvin attributes this behavior as an attempt to “contain all the large egos and get everyone to play exactly what I wanted.” Alvin also explained his bronchial asthma, which heavily affects his vocal performance. It is hard for him to breathe to support his pitch and this affected his recordings.
My take away is that rock ‘n roll is not perfect and it can be tricky to replicate a complete vision even with the most attuned musicians. We often hear about “musical geniuses” and there is no one way to characterize these folks. Some slip through the cracks (largely), never breaking through to a widespread audience. Alvin has never toured or even played a live show, putting him in an exclusive category of recording aficionados. But his music, which has helped him through the toughest of personal struggles, will seemingly always be. I appreciate Alvin’s contributions even more knowing a bit of his back story, which I incorrectly assumed was that of a musically naïve man who, maybe on a whim, invested all his savings into an extravagant artistic project that was stunning and beautiful. But no. Alvin was doing what he loved and ultimately that made sense to him, free of all outside pressure and influence. Well that’s a solo, DIY I will say, musician for you and one that I think still has a bevy of bona fide songs waiting to delight his listeners, whoever they may or may not be. God bless the man, Alvin Dahn.