Dispensing Salvation

On a scalding Miami afternoon, Juan Alvarez arrives home from work to find his son, known as Christopher Alvy, sitting in the kitchen talking to a stranger. So Alvarez fixes some cafe cubano and breaks out the scrapbooks.

The father, a former baseball player and musician, flips the pages and taps the photos with a finger. "There's Chris with Dave Winfield," he says in a cheerful blend of English and Spanish. "Here he is in Mexico, very good baseball. He hits .375 and he's from Miami and the Marlins don't want him? He hits better than anyone playing for Florida right now. And this one, this is from 1986 when he was named the Yankees minor league player of the year." The son smiles, indulging his dad even as he secretly hopes the conversation will soon return to rock and roll.

That's where Alvy is at now. He's laid down his bat and glove -- he doesn't even play pickup games for fun -- and strapped on a guitar. "No more baseball," he says. "All this time, music was my love." Alvy's hard-hitting debut CD, Beyond Salvation, has received raves in the local music press, for which he says he's appreciative. But he also regrets to a degree that his baseball past often receives more attention than his music.

Born Jesus Alvarez in Cuba, Alvy and his family moved to Spain when he was four. A few years later when they arrived in Miami, Juan Alvarez opened a baseball academy. Alvy played little league, eventually becoming a three-year starter at Miami Senior High School. Scholarship offers poured in, and the teenager, wanting to stay in South Florida, opted for Miami-Dade over UM. "My goal was to sign [a pro contract]," he says, "not to be a scholar. I love studying music, but not math and all that." Playing at a two-year school allowed Alvy to go pro at any time, which he did in 1985, when the Chicago White Sox drafted him in the fifth round. They sent him to the Sarasota White Sox to play in the rookie league.

After that season, he was traded to the New York Yankees, who placed him with the Single-A Fort Lauderdale Yankees for a year. He moved up a notch to Double-A with Albany, then Triple-A with the Columbus (Ohio) Clippers. After two years, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers organization, which sent him to Toledo to play Triple-A for the Mud Hens. He consistently made minor-league all-star, and spent spring trainings during the Yankee years playing with New York, which brought him up to the bigs during the 1988 regular season but never gave him an at-bat. Later he played with the Houston Astros organization, and, near the end, the Mets. "After I signed with the Mets," he recalls, "they wanted to send me back down to Double-A, and I wasn't going for that. I declined to stay with them." Instead he took an offer to play pro with the Mexico City Tigres, then the Monterrey Industriales.

It was baseball that led to his name change. He was called Crispy back then, but people constantly wanted him to explain that strange moniker. He grew weary of the inquiries, and began telling everyone his name was Chris. He expanded that to Christopher and shortened his surname when he changed vocations.

Throughout his baseball career, Alvy played music, just like most of his family. He recalls banging on a drum set at age three, and how as a youngster he was allowed to sit in with a band that included his father, uncle, and cousin. The group was considered radical and subversive in Cuba; they played Hendrix, Cream, Iron Butterfly. Juan Alvarez maintains a sizable collection of Sixties and Seventies hard-rock albums. And somewhere in the back room amid the vinyl and the musical instruments set up for Alvy's band's rehearsal sessions, the son finds a color snapshot of his father wearing a long blond wig. Revenge for the scrapbook display.

Alvy picked up the guitar during his early teens, and played in a few rock cover bands before beginning his baseball career. He continued to teach himself guitar and write songs: "It was a release, a way to relax. But I kept it to myself."

About five years ago Alvy bought a four-track recorder and began taping his original songs. Today he has about 100 tunes down. After committing to rock and roll, he also checked out the local music scene. "To be honest," he says, "I found it to be kind of dead. People go out to dance, not to see bands."

He also picked up a copy of Rag and saw an ad about a guy with a four-track. He invited the player over to jam, and, through him, met Peter Paul. "I told this guy to bring Peter by," recalls Alvy. "I was hoping he could show me how to do some things on the four-track I didn't know. It turns out his house was destroyed by the hurricane, and he was staying nearby, so he came over to hear a couple of songs. The next day he came back to hear more. Then he told me he had incorporated a label and he offered to do a record. Right off the bat. I said, 'Great. You got a studio, I got the music.'"

Does he ever. The eleven songs culled from Alvy's four-track tapes and re-recorded at Peter Paul's studio, Heaven's Gate, in Cutler Ridge, constitute a shocking debut for any artist, local or national. From the blow-your-brains-out grunge metal of the opener, "God," to the I-am-what-I-am closer, "Mr. Green," Alvy racks up varied songs with strong impact.

While Alvy, who performed the music on Salvation nearly single-handedly, can smoke a high, hard guitar solo, he also can elicit warmth from an acoustic, pound out powerful beats on drums, even fill the bottom on bass. "I just went in and laid it down," he says. "It was very hard work, but it was fun, too, and that's important. We did it all in about five weeks of actual recording time, morning-to-late-night sessions. The bitch was that we wanted a vintage sound that was also modern. So we were trying to get an analog sound digitally. The mix was the hardest thing."

Halfway through, Alvy brought in Tony Ray to add keyboards, a brilliant move that can be heard in the real-organ fills of "Baby Don't Love Me No More" and elsewhere. Alvy also met a friend of Peter Paul's, drummer Rene Aragon, who added some percussion to the album and then became Alvy's drummer for live shows. "He's a veteran," Alvy says, "who got tired of the local scene. He's excellent. In our shows he plays the drum parts the way I did on the record, but much heavier." It took a while to round up a bassist and guitarist ("We auditioned about a million guys," Alvy says), but finally Jebo Thonk, another pro who became jaded and turned to teaching jazz and classical bass, and Darrell Killingsworth, a young hotshot guitarist with a knack for inverted chords, were hired on, and the group began playing the local circuit a few months ago.

They've been welcomed; the band has about a dozen gigs booked for August alone. "I love performance, but that's not the main thing," Alvy says. "What I love more is the writing, creating, arranging."

What you have to love is Beyond Salvation's sonic adventure. "God," which is like Marilyn Manson with manners, gives way to the boys-on-the-prowl party song "A Million Beers," which takes the listener on a brew-fueled joy ride through Southern Rock, Steve Forbert, and, in the chorus's tag, a perfect Tom Petty imitation. The song's hook is big enough to land Jaws, and the cut sounds like a perfect summer hit (if there still is such a thing). Not to mention the snappy "Our Time Has Come," which is being considered for the album's first video.

The CD has been distributed throughout Florida (nine of twenty radio stations it was sent to have played it, some heavily), and Heaven's Gate intends nationwide saturation in a month or two, probably backed by a tour. "We hope to tour," Alvy explains, "but first we have to see how the reaction is. We need to find out who wants us. Me and the band sat down and decided to go for it. None of us are in it for the money. We're thinking about the long-term, the fun, and the love of music. We have a plan, and we're going to do it." The band, also called Beyond Salvation, "knows the rules of the game," Alvy says, "and they're committed to this."

Juan Alvarez sips his cafe and smiles warmly. He's been there, and he knows that the music game and baseball share much in common -- both are volatile performance-based entertainments that can leave a man beaten and regretful or put him on top of the world. And in his wisdom he knows, too, that the most important thing he taught his son was not how to swing a bat or bang out a drum riff. It is this: Please yourself first. Build it your way, and they will come.

If there's any doubt that Christopher Alvy has learned this lesson, take a listen to his stupefying debut CD or attend one of his live shows. Or simply check out the lyrics of "Mr. Green": "Tell me, tell me Mr. Green, have you ever had a dream?/Have you found your everything?/I may not be worth a damn, but in a song I'm/Who I am, no don't you judge me."

Christopher Alvy and Beyond Salvation perform at 2:00 a.m. tomorrow (Friday) at Plus Five, 5715 S University Dr, Davie, 434-1224. Admission costs $5 and $7.


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