Alejandro Escovedo Has a Lot to Sing About: He's Still Alive
By JON PARELES
Published: April 30, 2006
WELL after midnight on a Sunday night in Austin, Tex., Alejandro
Escovedo was onstage at the Continental Club, a neon-lighted
1950's-style bar where the city's hipsters savor honky-tonk. He was
playing his annual benefit show at the end of the South by Southwest
Music festival, and the club was full of locals and the festival
stragglers still in town. But he wasn't there to play good-time music.
"This song is called 'Died a Little Today,' " he told the crowd with a
half-smile. "It's a song about dying, actually, which we all do every
day." He added, "Maybe to some of you it may seem sad, but it's not
sad at all."
A few years ago, Mr. Escovedo didn't know if he would live to record
that song, which is on his new album, "The Boxing Mirror" (Back
Porch). The sense of mortality that suffuses the album, along with its
stubbornness and its noisy resilience, reflect a year he spent on the
verge of death with complications of hepatitis C. He is still
rail-thin and fragile-looking, until he picks up a guitar and steps in
front of his band. There he is completely at home, contemplating
tragedy and rocking out.
"The last few years were probably the most intense I've ever
experienced, and so having this record is a great joy," he said a few
hours before heading to the Continental. "It's like starting again for
me. And after 30 years, that's a great thing to be able to say."
Mr. Escovedo, 55, has long been one of Austin's local heroes, the
modest reward for a long career. He was born in San Antonio, one of 12
children of a mariachi musician. His family moved to Orange County in
Southern California when he was 7, and he soaked up 1960's rock and
then the proto-punk of the Stooges and the New York Dolls. (His
brothers Pete and Coke Escovedo would go on to join Santana.) As a
student in San Francisco he started, for a film project, what turned
into an archetypal Bay Area punk band, the Nuns. He lived in New York
City during punk's late-1970's heyday, then moved to Austin in 1980.
With the groups Rank and File and True Believers, he became a pioneer
of what's now called alternative country.
Yet the solo albums he began making in 1992 fit no ready-made genre;
they are profoundly and complexly moving. Even when he's pounding out
a garage-band stomp, there's a somber core to his songs, a recognition
of irrevocable loss and lasting sorrow that places him alongside
songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. His voice has a core of
melancholy stoicism; his music sums up all that he has heard, from
Mexican boleros to punk, and it embraces both the primal and the
orchestral, weaving meticulous arrangements around songs that may well
use only two chords.
His band, as refined through the years, now merges a rock group with a
string trio. At the Continental that night, it could sound like Lou
Reed's "Street Hassle" (one of Mr. Escovedo's acknowledged models),
Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and the string-topped rhythm-and-blues of the
Drifters. "Died a Little Today" had the lilt of a Mexican ballad;
"Sacramento and Polk" was a blistering rave-up. And his songs took
pleasure not from escaping trouble, but from facing it.
Mourning and catharsis have never been far apart in Mr. Escovedo's
music. His first two solo albums, "Gravity" in 1992 and "Thirteen
Years" in 1993, dealt with his failed marriage and the suicide of his
wife, from whom he was separated, in 1991.
"I wrote about it because all I could do was to write about it," he
said. "It was just totally pouring it out, getting it out of my
system. And I was accused later of capitalizing on this tragedy
because I was singing about it. But I felt that it was my experience,
and in being my experience I wasn't disrespecting anyone. You know, I
was just telling my story.
"But sometimes it's hard," he added. "With the first two records I was
just starting to go out on the road again, and build this solo career
or whatever you want to call it. There was a lot of people in bars
that didn't care what I was singing. And at that point I felt
disrespectful to the subject of the song. Because at that point, why
am I pouring all of this into the song if these people just care about
He was getting drunk regularly himself. Through the decade, supporting
himself by touring as his albums racked up laudatory reviews and sales
only in the thousands, he drank his way through a career that one song
sums up as "more miles than money."
Yet even as he was naming albums "Bourbonitis Blues" and "A Man Under
the Influence," his songs were unflinching. He began writing not only
about love and death, but also about family and heritage. What started
in 2001 as some songs for his father's 90th birthday grew into a
five-character music-theater piece, "By the Hand of the Father," which
has been staged and praised around the country. It's about the Mexican
immigrants of his father's generation and their Americanized children:
their choices, their obstacles, their rifts and reconciliations.
"We've had people from every culture come up," he said. "And they say,
'That's our story.' "
Mr. Escovedo met Kim Christoff, who is now his wife, when she was
teaching poetry at Arizona State University and saw one of his
concerts in Tempe. "She had no idea who I was," he said. "Someone
dragged her there, and then we just started talking about writing. And
it just hit me, man, and there was no looking back after that." On
"The Boxing Mirror," he has turned some of Ms. Christoff's poetry into
enigmatic songs. "It takes me away from myself for a while," he said.
"I can sing words that aren't mine and yet they're very close to me
because they're hers."
In 2002, Mr. Escovedo was back in Tempe to perform "By the Hand of the
Father." Just before curtain time, he began vomiting blood; after
getting through the performance, he collapsed. At the hospital, he was
found to have advanced cirrhosis of the liver, tumors in his abdomen
and varices on his esophagus — all of them bleeding at once as a
result of the hepatitis C.
Treatment with interferon brought on a premature aging disease and
left him so weak he couldn't play guitar for a year. "The drugs really
took me to a place. ..." he trailed off. "I've never been that down
Friends from Austin and beyond — including Los Lonely Boys, Steve
Earle, Lucinda Williams, John Cale of the Velvet Underground and
Sheila E., Mr. Escovedo's niece — recorded his songs on a tribute
album, "Por Vida" (Lone Star), to help pay his medical expenses. The
32-song collection also introduced new fans to his music. Eventually
he gave up on interferon and began using acupuncture and the Tibetan
medicine he continues to take.
By 2004, he was performing again around Austin. "I was very weak then,
still very sick," he said. "It wasn't so much about the music. It was
more about just seeing everyone and saying thank you."
Early in 2005, he gathered his String Quintet — two acoustic guitars,
two cellos and a violin — to perform at the Cactus Cafe in Austin. The
shows were recorded on a new high-definition digital system that made
the performances a vivid, close-up retrospective. Mr. Escovedo quietly
released the recordings on a two-CD set, "Room of Songs," on his own
label, More Miles Than Money Records. Soon after those shows, he
performed with Mr. Cale at South by Southwest, and asked him to
produce a new album.
"I said: 'Look, I've been trying to rip you off for years. Let's just
get that straight upfront,' " Mr. Escovedo said with a laugh. "So, you
know, having him there was like having the real captain at the helm."
Mr. Cale, who produced milestone albums by the Stooges and Patti
Smith, rigorously pared down the songs. But he also presided over an
album that ended up, Mr. Escovedo said, as "a grand spectrum of
everything I'd ever tried to do." It includes barreling, openly
Velvets-style rockers like "Break This Time" and "Sacramento and
Polk"; it also includes intimate ballads like "The Ladder," "Looking
for Love" and "Evita's Lullabye," written for his mother after his
father died two years ago. And there are two versions — one almost
disco, one full-tilt bar-band rock — of "Take Your Place," on which
Mr. Escovedo sings, "I'm so messed up/ I got nothing to take your
As the album begins, with "Arizona," Mr. Escovedo sings, "Have another
drink on me/ I've been empty since Arizona/ I turned my back on me/
and I faced the face of who I thought it was."
It's an openly autobiographical dirge about "giving it up, but
grudgingly giving it up," he said. "My doctor told me you can't drink
or you can die, basically. So I chose to live."