Just To Keep the Story Lit
By Paul Snyder
It’s a longstanding debate over whether the God of Rock & Roll is a benevolent one.
This God let Mark David Chapman loose in New York City on December 8, 1980 and sent Otis Redding’s plane into Lake Monona back in 1967.
But the same God also pushed Mike Love out of the way so Brian Wilson could finally realize SMiLE and, just for a lark, threw George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison into the same studio in 1987.
“After being sick for two years and not being able to get out there, it’s just nice to feel strong enough to go out,” says Escovedo. “It’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ to the fans who’ve been so supportive through all of this.”
Alejandro Escovedo collapsed from Hepatitis C complications after an April 2003 performance. The same disease claimed his brother Coke years earlier.
Though Esovedo’s prognosis improved and he adopted lifestyle changes to manage the disease, he was a long way from home free. With no medical coverage, a large family to take care of and rising medical costs, Escovedo was also bereft of his means of making money – playing music.
His biggest admirers stepped in. An array of artists founded the Alejandro Escovedo Medical and Living Expense Fund, and released Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, a two-CD set featuring interpretations of his songs from contemporaries like Lucinda Williams, Los Lonely Boys and the Minus 5, and heroes like Ian McLagan, John Cale and Ian Hunter.
A critical and commercial success, Por Vida lured new audiences to Escovedo’s catalogue, raised awareness for Hepatitis C studies, and brought the man himself back to the stage in late 2004.
Escovedo is quick to use the term “full circle” when speaking of his career, and still talks about music with as much passion as a teenager who spends his entire allowance on new records. He compares the Beatles vs. Stones battles of the 1960s to the Blur vs. Oasis battles of the 1990s. He says that while England has a good pop conscience, the country will never produce the likes of a Sonic Youth. And while there’s a lot to be said for American music, “that Lynyrd Skynyrd redneck stuff can be pretty scary – even to a Southerner like me.”
The one thing that becomes most apparent in our conversation is that first and foremost, Alejandro Escovedo is a big rock & roll fan. He’s even fashioned his own orchestra on [Small Faces/Faces legend] Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance label.
“I used to follow him around, almost like a stalker,” he laughs. “To eventually get to play with Ronnie and get to meet Ian [McLagan, Small Faces/Faces organist] was just a dream come true.”
Imagine the thought, then, of McLagan leading his band through a sublime and soulful rendition of “Wedding Day” on the Por Vida tribute CD.
“Oh, wasn’t that beautiful?” Escovedo asks with the sincerest reverence.
As Por Vida and his loyal fan base have proven, Escovedo is now captivating minds with his own music. How does it feel for the pupil to become the teacher?
“To have someone tell me that a song I’ve written has had an effect or changed their life in some way is just the ultimate compliment.”
Music began affecting Alejandro at a very young age. With a father steeped deeply in traditional Mexican music and a mother enamored of pop and dance, all sorts of sounds mingled in the youngster’s ears.
“I had a voracious appetite for records, books and movies,” he says. “Consuming all of it became like a religious experience for me. Just listening to these phenomenal records was enough – I never dreamed that I’d pick up a guitar.”
That happy fluke occured during in Escovedo’s college days, when the budding filmmaker decided to make a film about an awful punk band. Problem was, the band he fronted for the project, The Nuns, suddenly gained a reputation as a really good little outfit. Perhaps it was meant to be – his older brothers Pete and Coke had already taken to playing with the likes of Santana and Herbie Hancock, and it wouldn’t be too long before Pete’s daughter, Sheila E, made a musical name for herself. To this day he carries the lessons he’s learned from his family.
“Something that I got from watching my brothers is the power of drawing in the audience with just the music,” he says. “We watched and listened to old Miles Davis shows and those classic Coltrane performances, where they’re just engaging the audience by playing in the moment with the music. It works just as well as bringing out cannons on fire, I think.”
Another major factor in his musical development was his decision to root himself in Austin, Texas.
“I’m so happy I didn’t go back to California,” he laughs. “In Austin, you have a community that totally supports music. Something is going on every night here – there’s always someone playing. I remember when Lucinda [Williams] used to busk in front of the university.”
Escovedo admits he never had the ambition to become a pop star, and getting a delayed start was beneficial to his songwriting.
“I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 24. I didn’t start writing songs ‘til I was about 30, so I was able to write with an adult perspective.”
In 1994, Escovedo released his second solo album, Thirteen Years, which dealt exclusively with his relationship with his first wife, their split and her subsequent suicide.
“There was a lot of soul searching on that record,” he says. “I played every song for my nine-year-old daughter first. It was as important for her, because she had lost her mother. When it came out, there were some reviews that accused me of capitalizing on her death, and when I was writing it, I kept asking myself if I was doing that. But it got me out from underneath the weight of that situation.”
“I knew I wasn’t Steve Sondheim – I didn’t want to be,” says Escovedo. “But when I started writing it, I was trying to write all these big, grand numbers. And then the woman who was producing said ‘Just tell your story,’ which made it a lot easier for me.”
The performances, which also featured Pete Escovedo, Rosie Flores, Ruben Ramos of Los Super Seven and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, and the resulting album, By the Hand of the Father: Stories and Songs from the Original Theatrework, were rapturously received. The experience also refueled his original desire.
“I still want to do a movie,” he says.
And yet, Escovedo continues to question his own abilities.“I’m so insecure about writing,” Escovedo says. “I have to go through this gestation period where I kind of convince myself that nobody’s going to laugh at it. I always tend to gauge how good a song is by the audience response.”
This revelation may be perplexing to his fans. Surely there’s been an instance – perhaps when first blaring out the opening riff to “Castanets” – when the man stopped, smiled and knew he was on to something special?
“I don’t pat myself on the back,” he says. “I can tell you artists who have come to me telling me how great they are, or who are just unable to fathom why they aren’t more successful. I’ve always thought that’s an odd way of looking at life. I subscribe to the Mayan and Aztec belief that as artists, our gifts are given to us by God. We’re just supposed to spread the art and be messengers.” VS