Clip: Alejandro Escovedo's Joyous Rebirth
Alejandro Escovedo's Joyous Rebirth
Three years ago, Alejandro Escovedo almost died. His latest album The
Boxing Mirror, charts his harrowing descent into illness, his slow
recovery and the life-affirming love of music, family and friends that
brought him back from the edge. "I'm not the same person I was. None
of us are. But to have a near-death experience, you come out of it
with new lines, you know?" Escovedo said. "It's almost like you come
out of it as a new human being, a new person, a new spirit."
Long a cult figure revered for his soulful blend of rock, country,
jazz and Latin music, Escovedo got his start with the 1970s punk
rockers The Nuns. Still, he is better known for his rootsier outfits —
the early cowpunk band Rank and File, and the True Believers. By the
early 1990s, Escovedo had started recording his eclectic solo albums:
Gravity in 1992, Thirteen Years in 1994, With These Hands in 1996, the
live More Miles Than Money two years later. Bourbonitis Blues followed
in 1999, then A Man Under the Influence in 2001.
Escovedo was performing his musical play In the Hands of the Father in
Tempe, Arizona in April of 2003, as he had many times before since
being diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1996. This time, though, he
collapsed after the show, bleeding internally in three different
places. After being hospitalized for over a week, Escovedo retreated
to the Arizona desert with his wife and young daughter, where he began
the slow process of recovery. A month later, in Texas, a doctor
started him on interferon therapy, a standard treatment for hepatitis
C, but one which, Escovedo says, again almost killed him. "I was
supposed to be on interferon for about a year or a year and a half,"
he said in a recent phone interview. "I only lasted six months because
it began to kill me. I had another kind of near-death experience."
So, weakened for the second time, he began to seek out natural
healers, finding relief in Tibetan and Chinese medicines, acupuncture,
meditation, yoga and abstinence. Slowly he began to heal, and when a
coalition of friends and acquaintances put together the tribute album
Por Vida to help defray medical expenses, he began, for the first time
in months, to begin to think about making music again.
"I didn't play guitar for about a year," he admitted. "The medicine
puts you in a state... it's pretty shaky ground you're on. So
psychologically and physically, I wasn't in that great of shape. It
was really more about just trying to survive the disease. I still
loved music, but I didn't really listen to it even."
But the outpouring of support, through cards and letters and
especially through Por Vida, gave Escovedo the strength to start
again. "When Por Vida came out, I really got inspired to want to play
again," he said. "I think it was during that time that I realized that
I had a lot to write about, but I was kind of clogged up emotionally.
It was almost as if there was too much to write about. I felt too
much, you know? I kind of had to filter all that through.
"I remember speaking to Chuck Prophet about this, because I just
wasn't sure how I was going to approach it. And he agreed that it was
a tough task to write about death, near death, survival — so I really
didn't want to sound maudlin and I didn't want to sound like I had a
lot of self-pity."
A Boxing Mirror, out now on EMI's Back Porch imprint, is anything but
self-pitying. Even its darkest moments — like the opener "Arizona" —
are charged with a defiant joy, a triumphant celebration of simply
being alive. Other tracks — the hard-rocking "Sacramento & Polk,"
"Take Your Place" and the wonderful title cut — are varied in style
and tempo, but seem full of irrepressible joy.
"I think the songs, the more you listen to them, the more someone will
hear that there's a lot of joy in these songs," Escovedo said. "It's
about having gone through this experience and finding true love in
this experience, and finding a lot of love from an extended family
that taught me that my family is not about blood. It's about all of
the people that I love and that love me. The respect we have for each
other as a musical community."
To make The Boxing Mirror, Escovedo enlisted the production assistance
of John Cale, a longtime friend who was one of the first musicians to
contribute a track to Por Vida. Cale and Escovedo had first met in New
York in the 1970s, but they had grown closer over the years, as
Escovedo contributed "Tugboat" to a tribute for Cale's fellow VU-alum
Sterling Morrison. They had played SXSW together a couple of times, as
Escovedo said Cale has been an influence for decades, dating back to
his teenage years when friends would fight about The Beatles versus
the Stones, and Escovedo would insist that the Velvet Underground were
better than either. "I loved the Velvets. And everything that he did
after that, all John's solo albums, all the Nico albums, the Jennifer
Warnes records, The Stooges and Patti Smith, those were all very
influential for me," he recalled. "I love his sense of orchestration
and arrangement. I love the way that he developed this... kind of this
folk style with avant-garde dissonance. So ... and I love his... he's
fearless and that's a wonderful thing to possess when you're a
musician and songwriter."
Cale's influence is particularly strong, Escovedo explained, on cuts
like "Looking for Love" and "Deerhead on the Wall." "'Looking for
Love' particularly has been a very difficult one for us to play," he
said. "We had never found the right groove or the right arrangement
for it. We had done it in every single variation we could dream of,
but none of them seemed to work." In the studio, with Cale's
assistance, however, it finally clicked. "And then John comes in and
totally nails it," Escovedo remembered. "He came up with an
arrangement that sounds very much like him, in a way, and reminds me
of the best of that kind of mid-1970s music that was coming out of
Brian Eno, John Cale, Phil Manzanera, stuff like that."
Escovedo assembled a great band for The Boxing Mirror from such
long-time collaborators as drummer Hector Munoz, cellist Brian
Standefer, Susan Voelz (Poi Dog Pondering) on violin and Jon Dee
Graham on guitar. Of Munoz, perhaps the longest-standing member of
Escovedo's band, he noted, "We have a relationship kind of like what
Mingus and Danny Richman had. You know, we've talked a lot about
drumming and I've forced him to do things that he didn't want to do.
But in the end, it's really worked out and it's tailor-made for the
music that I write." For this record, for instance, Escovedo insisted
on no cymbals. "I think that cymbals have a sonic presence that eats
up guitars, especially acoustic guitars. So I wanted the guitars to
kind of jump out more," he said. "By taking away the cymbals, he's
challenged to kind of reinvent himself. Almost to learn how to play
the drums all over again."
There were also some new faces, such as David Polkingham, a guitarist
whose background was almost entirely in jazz and Latin music. "We've
spent long, long nights of conversation, just talking about the whole
attitude, the approach to rock 'n' roll guitar," Escovedo said. "But
he's brilliant, you know. We just taped Austin City Limits for the
first time on Monday night, and he just totally ruled it, completely."
Mark Andes (ex of Spirit) plays bass and Bruce Salmon adds the
Eno-esque keyboard lines and sampling.
Behind the scenes, too, Escovedo had another important collaborator:
his wife, the poet Kim Christoff, who contributed lyrics to several of
the songs, including the title cut. In the past, Escovedo has simply
gone through her notebooks, looking for words, phrases and images that
he can incorporate into his songs. More lately, she has started
bringing him poems specifically written for music. Escovedo said that
working with his wife's lyrics has changed the way he approaches
songwriting. "Her poetry is so free that at times it's difficult to
fit into some kind of verse or chorus. But what's interesting is that
it's made the songs... it's kind of broken down the walls of what a
song should be. Now anything that I sing... If I just sing one stanza
of her poetry, to me it's good enough to become a song, because her
images are so strong," he said. "The Boxing Mirror," for instance,
takes an image from Escovedo's childhood, training in the boxing gym
with his father, and uses it as a metaphor for reflection that changes
everything about what you're doing.
The songs on The Boxing Mirror are typically varied in style, with
ballads next to all-out rockers and mariachi flourishes abutting
Eno-ish soundscapes. "I've been hearing lately that a lot of people
tell me I'm kind of foolish for not sticking to one thing. You know,
record-industry people think that I should try to write a hit song,"
Escovedo admitted. But it sounds like that's not going to happen any
time soon, given his diverse interests and influences. "When you go
over to somebody's house and they have a great record collection, it's
never just one thing," he added. "They have great jazz records and
great classical records and great rock records and great garage rock
records. Whatever it is. So that's what I always tell people. It's
just a product of my great record collection that I have."
And, in fact, since his days with the Nuns, Escovedo has sensed a link
between great music from all genres. "The thing about punk rock for us
was that we wanted to kind of pay homage to all the great people who
were punks," he said. "Miles Davis was as much punk as Jerry Lee Lewis
as Bob Marley as Joe Higgs as Burning Spear or whoever. The attitude
was about spirit, the spirit to do it yourself and not to listen to
other people. Not to be shaped by mass consumption. Just to go out and
follow your heart. To sing the truth."
Escovedo will be touring steadily this year in the U.S. and Europe,
his wife and daughter in tow, trying to balance the requirements of
his career with the health regimen that saved his life. "I take all my
Tibetan medicine with me. I follow my practice every day, and try to
go to bed earlier than I used to. Since I don't drink anymore, I have
more energy. So it's all good. My band really looks out for me, and my
manager," he said.
Escovedo wouldn't have it any other way. "When I finally came out of
it and wanted to play music, it made me really love music again, in a
way that I hadn't in a long, long time," he said. "So now I really
value the opportunity to play, and I value the opportunity to have
such great friends and family. And to have found an even larger family
in my life. It's really humbling, you know." — Jennifer Kelly
[Tuesday, June 6, 2006]