'I Should Have Died': Dave Alvin, Seminal California Country-Punk Guitarist, Talks Private Cancer Battle
By the end of 2019, Dave Alvin knew something was wrong. He’d spent 11 of the past 12 months on the road, and for the first time in his career, he no longer felt physically capable of keeping up his furious touring pace.
“I started feeling like, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore,’” Alvin says. The following month, in January 2020, he was hospitalized for nine days with a sepsis infection. By the next month, Alvin was feeling just barely good enough to perform at a benefit tribute show for the Lovin’ Spoonful on February 29th, but he still didn’t feel right.
Two month later, in May of 2020, Dave Alvin was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“And that,” says the singer, “began the next two years of my life.”
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It was a period defined by a fog of illness and recovery: Alvin received three separate cancer diagnoses and spent months undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. He suffered from neuropathy, a common side-effect from chemo, which left him unable to play guitar for months — He worried he’d never again pick up the instrument. “There was a song of mine called ‘King of California,’ I couldn’t play it,” he says. “My fingers wouldn’t go there. That is such a weird feeling.”
Alvin did muster up the strength to play guitar on two records over the last two years: a session for his old friend Jon Langford, and an upcoming tribute album to the late drummer Don Heffington. “OK, this may be my last recording session,” Alvin remembers thinking, “but I gotta do it for Don.”
Apart from his partner, his brother, his bandmates, and some close friends, Alvin told almost no one what he was going through.
“In a black humor sort of way, it was like, ‘If you’ve got to pick a time to get cancer and not be able to tour, this is really the time to do it,’” Alvin, 66, jokes of the pandemic timing of his diagnoses. “I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because dealing with cancer puts fear into people, and I just didn’t want to deal with all the sort of stuff that comes along with everyone knowing.”
Today, Dave Alvin is completely cancer-free, though he’s well aware it could return at any point. The California singer-songwriter and guitarist — influential in the worlds of country, folk, and punk — is excited to be on the verge of playing his first proper shows this summer, with old friend and collaborator Jimmie Dale Gilmore, in two and a half years. Like so many who go through the experience, he says his diagnosis has changed him permanently, and he finally wants to talk about it.
“I’m fairly positive, and I’ve got a few more years, you know?” Alvin says, erupting into a laugh. “I’m cancer-free today, and hey, tomorrow? Who knows.”
Did you make a pretty intentional decision to keep your health issues private while you were still actively dealing with them?My brother Phil [Alvin] has had a lot of health issues the past few years. We had to make his health issues public, and I knew how much it hurt his pride and ego. On one hand, he loved the fact that people cared about him, but on the other hand, he didn’t want to seem needy and weak. So I just decided to not tell anyone. But it’s gotten to the point now where not telling people is more of a burden than telling them. It’s a fact that I had to deal with three different cancers and, knock on wood, I’m free of them all. You’re sort of in an Alcoholics Anonymous situation where it’s, “One day at a time.”
What was your actual diagnosis?
The smallest one was prostate, and the major one was colorectal. It was stage four, and it had moved onto my liver. Last year I had a massive surgery where they removed all the tumors and everything. Then, in late June , I was told I was cancer-free, and part of me didn’t believe them, which was good, because literally two and a half weeks later they were telling me I had a year to live. They found another tumor developing, and it became this Kafkaesque thing: One of the oncologists thought I may have cancer in my lungs, so they started me on chemotherapy for cancer in my lungs. Then, due to another uptick on Covid cases, I couldn’t go in for a lung biopsy for a while, so I had chemotherapy for a cancer I didn’t have after having chemo for and radiation for cancers I did have.
What was the hardest part of the whole process?
The big thing was the colorectal cancer. When Chadwick Boseman passed away [from colon cancer], that was such a gut punch. I couldn’t understand how he could do all the great work that he did and go through those treatments. My admiration for him went up even more than it already had. He became one of my heroes through all this.
And then it was the reactions I had to chemotherapy, the major one being neuropathy in my feet and hands. For about six months, I could not play guitar. Some people would say I’ve never been able to play guitar, but that’s neither here nor there. Once the neuropathy got to a tolerable level, the only way I can describe it would be that the guitar strings were like razorblades. Then, a few months later, I was able to touch guitar strings but my fingers were numb, so I couldn’t tell what fret or string I was on. I had to stare down at my hands like I was a beginner.
What was the last time you played onstage before the pandemic?
I did this benefit show right after I got out of the hospital for sepsis. It was a tribute to the Lovin’ Spoonful. I had said yes because the first rock & roll show I ever saw when I was nine years old was the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Bobby Fuller Four, the Turtles and Thee Midniters and Herman’s Hermits. The two bands that had the biggest impact on me were Bobby Fuller Four and the Lovin’ Spoonful. I remember their performances pretty crystal-clear. John [Sebastian] did this thing that night called “Night Owl Blues,” and I had never heard blues harmonica before. I was like, “What is that sound?”
So it was a big thing for me to play “Night Owl Blues” [at the February 2020 benefit] with John Sebastian, eight million years later. But that scared me. Because I was like, “I’ve come full circle.” My first gig was the Lovin’ Spoonful, my last gig was the Lovin’ Spoonful. If I had fallen off a mountain the next day it would have been like, “Well, you wrapped up that circle.” But one of my cancer friends recently said, “It’s not a circle, it’s a figure eight.” I just finished the bottom half of the figure eight, so now we’re going to the top half.
How have the last two years changed you?
I just always felt like I wasn’t going to die. “You can’t kill me, not yet.” Looking at my career, I’m a stubborn old dog, and one of the reasons I have a career is that I refused to quit. There’s been a lot of times when a less stubborn person would have, or should have, quit. What changed me, the biggest change, is that I always kind of stuck to my own guns creatively and lived outside the margins of the music industry, like a lot of my heroes did. This has all just convinced me to follow that path even more.
But the major mental change, and this is going to sound cornball, is that it’s all frosting now. I should have died. I had a career and a life full of cake, and now everything I do above that, even the shitty days are OK. I’ve always been a little bit snarky, sarcastic, cynical in some ways, and I’m still that, but when I’m cynical now, it’s being cynical but with a, “Gee, isn’t life freaking beautiful? Isn’t it precious?” People are cruel, and justice is something we have to strive for, but, God, look at those trees. Look at those flowers. Wow, I never noticed those before.
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