“A toilet bowl full of blood.”That’s what Alejandro Escovedo says he saw after he vomited in his hotel room in Tempe, Ariz., on April 26, 2003. That’s when he knew the Hepatitis C he’d been running from for seven years had finally caught up with him.
He went ahead and did the show that night anyway. It was By the Hand of the Father, a theater piece about Mexican-American fathers—Escovedo’s and dozens of others—featuring slides, monologues by actors and actresses and Escovedo’s original songs performed with his band. But as soon as the show was done, the singer/guitarist collapsed and was rushed to St. Luke’s Hospital.
“When I got to the hospital,” he remembers, “they found I had varices of the esophagus, cirrhosis of the liver and tumors in my abdomen, and they were all bleeding at once. The doctors gave me a blood transfusion and then started talking about a liver transplant or shunts that bypass the liver. This nurse asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘I have hepatitis C, and I’m bleeding internally.’ She whispered conspiratorially, ‘Oh, I have it, too. You know how I deal with it? I drink my urine every morning.’ Then another nurse came in and told me I didn’t have long to live.”
It’s now three years later, and Escovedo is still with us. But he’s not the same; you never come out of a long hospital stay the same person you were when you went in. “I died a little today,” he sings on the song of the same name from The Boxing Mirror, his first studio album in four years. The lovely guitar arpeggio unfurls slowly, as if reluctant to delve into such territory, and there’s a similar hesitation in Escovedo’s wavering tenor as he continues, “I put up a fight and carved a simple hello.” It’s as if we’re back at St. Luke’s Hospital and the news is sinking in. Brian Standefer’s cello enters with the dark undertow of that reality, and the singer adds, “You can hold to the light / So no one will know / We died a little today.”
The song echoes the sound of those early-morning hours, when most of the city is asleep, but you’re still awake, confronting the questions everyone avoids when there are daylight or neon-light distractions. It’s a sound Escovedo had to invent in the early ’90s to fit songs such as “Pissed Off 2 A.M.,” “Broken Bottle” and “As I Fall.” It’s the anguished epiphany of every stop-and-go, yes-and-no, early-morning dilemma. But never had Escovedo had an early morning like April 27, 2003.
“You know how people talk about near-death experiences and how it changes your life so profoundly?” he says of “I Died a Little Today.” “Even Buddhists talk about how everyone should have one. I left a lot of things behind, who I thought I was. I always had this thing about pride, and that’s not necessarily a great thing to possess. I’m still working on it, but I think I have a lot less.”
What makes the new album so impressive is that Escovedo never makes the glib claim that letting go is easy or clean. His doctors finally convinced him he had to stop drinking and smoking if he wanted to live, but he never pretends he doesn’t miss those pleasures. In the song “Arizona,” he sings, “Have another drink on me; I’ve been empty since Arizona.” You can hear alcohol’s allure in John Cale’s bubbling synth figure and in Standefer’s snaking cello line, and you can hear the struggle with temptation in Escovedo’s vocal.
Arizona is not only where he almost died; it’s also where he met his fourth wife, Kim Christoff, while he was still married to his third. “One kiss just led to another,” he sings in the same song, “one kiss just fades into lover.” In other words, some temptations are hard to resist.
For Escovedo, music is a temptation he’s indulging again after a period of abstinence. When he left St. Luke’s, he spent a month in Arizona, walking the desert, wondering if he was going to live, pondering what kind of life might remain ahead of him. When he was strong enough, he, his wife and daughter returned to their home in Wimberley, Texas, in the hills south of Austin. There he was swallowing so much medicine that he barely had the strength to walk around, much less play music.
“Interferon and Ribo?avin f— with your head so much,” he says, “that I was depressed and fatigued and behaving erratically. I wasn’t a very nice person during that year. After a while, the medicine was making me sicker than the disease was. I couldn’t sleep for months because my skin was burning up. I had no red blood cells and no white cells and it was eating away at my bone marrow. I almost needed another blood transfusion.
“Regardless of how sick I got, though, I have to admit that the drugs gave me time; they cleaned out the virus, allowed my liver to regenerate itself and got me to the point where I could switch to a more holistic approach. But it was hell to pay. I didn’t pick up a guitar for almost a year.
“It was like I was suddenly cut loose from the capsule. I wasn’t sure who I was. If I wasn’t a musician, who was I? If I wasn’t traveling in a van, who was I? If I wasn’t staying up all night after the gig, drinking with the guys, who was I? I had to rethink everything, and the only way I could make sense of it was to start writing songs again. The first song I wrote was ‘Arizona.’”
Escovedo’s story is interesting not because he got sick and almost died. That’s the most common story in the world; it’s a story that’s going to happen to all of us sooner or later. Escovedo is interesting because he has a rare gift for turning this universal experience into songs that clarify the feelings behind the facts.
Even before he collapsed in Tempe, his music was haunted by mortality. Many of his early songs tried to make sense of the 1991 suicide of his estranged second wife. Many of his mid-period songs tried to make sense of the hitless songwriter’s life, where so much is said and so little is heard, a career summed up by the album title, More Miles Than Money. And now his newest songs deal with the fact that death knocked on the door once and could always knock again.
The power of these songs comes not so much from the lyrics as from the music. Escovedo’s words set the scene, name the characters and provide the premise, but the real drama is in the sound. It’s the sound of punk rock’s electric and percussive instruments pushing forward while the acoustic instruments of Mexican folk music and classical chamber music pull back; it’s the stabbing notes of fretboards and drum skins set against the sustaining notes of violins, cellos and steel guitars. Ground up between these opposing forces are the lead vocals, a curious blend of Tex-Mex melodrama and hipster-bohemian skepticism, a deadpan description of early morning’s existential crisis.
Since 1970 or so, it has been difficult to create a genuinely new sound within the guitar-rock format; Escovedo is one of the few to pull it off. The style he created for his six solo studio records, from 1992’s Gravity to this year’s The Boxing Mirror, is so different from anything else in rock ’n’ roll that the industry hasn’t known what to do with it. And though it never sold many records, this sound may end up as one of the most influential inventions of the ’90s. After all, who in the 1930s would have said that Robert Johnson would become one of the decade’s most influential artists? Who would have said it of Woody Guthrie in the 1940s? Or of Professor Longhair in the 1950s? Or of The Velvet Underground in the 1960s? Or of Townes Van Zandt in the 1970s?
It took Escovedo a long time to come up with that sound. By the time he turned 24, he still hadn’t picked up a guitar; he was still a fan rather than a player. It was 1975, and he was living in the Palo Alto Hotel, a transient flophouse full of penniless bohemians and former mental patients in San Francisco’s Polk District. Some of the residents were so zonked out on their meds that they couldn’t even calculate the right height for a successful suicide jump. “A third story jump ain’t high enough,” he later sang. “It’s just a mess on Market Street … The neighbors spend their days washing their socks and staring out the windows in a Thorazine haze.”
That song, “Sacramento & Polk,” first appeared on Escovedo’s 1999 album, Bourbonitis Blues, but he re-cut it for the new album, just for the chance to do it with producer John Cale. After all, Cale’s 1974 album, Fear, was something Escovedo listened to every day at the Palo Alto Hotel. Cale thickens the arrangement with distorted guitar, sawing cello and thundering drums ’til you can actually hear the “Thorazine haze.”
Escovedo co-founded primitive punk band, The Nuns, in San Francisco. He moved to New York and joined the Judy Nylon Band and the heady milieu of the downtown punk scene. Then he joined Rank & File, a new band led by Chip and Tony Kinman who were pioneering a fusion of punk and country music. When Rank & File moved to Austin, Escovedo was back in his native state and surrounded by reminders of the border culture he thought he’d left behind.
“I was like the George Harrison of Rank & File,” he says with a laugh. “I was completely overshadowed by Chip and Tony, because they were so good. But I wrote songs anyway, because I knew there was something I needed to say. I started to write when I was past 30, so I wasn’t interested in writing about teenage things. My favorite film teacher in college had told us that the best stories are usually family stories, so I started writing about my family.”
To get these new songs out to the world, Alejandro quit Rank & File, phoned his brother Javier in Los Angeles and told him, “Come out to Austin; we’re forming a new band called the True Believers.” It was 1982, and by 1983 the band was opening for Los Lobos in Austin. When Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo added his accordion to the True Believers’ set that night, a bond was forged, and the two groups would tour together off-and-on for the next four years.
“Los Lobos made me get serious about music,” Escovedo confesses. “They were really good at their instruments and they were open to all kinds of music. We were both blending Chicano roots and rock ’n’ roll, but my rock is so different than Los Lobos’. They’re coming from The Band and Creedence, while I’m coming from the Stones and Stooges and all that aggression and angst. And their Chicano roots are different, too. You can tell Los Lobos apart from the Texas bands, because we have that Tejano-blues aspect, that San Antonio sound of Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez.
“Back then it was important to declare that rock ‘n’ roll was our music, too. My parents listened to Mexican records, but they also listened to Frank Sinatra. We listened to The Rolling Stones and Marvin Gaye growing up. When you heard bands like Love, the Sir Douglas Quintet, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs and ? & the Mysterians, you were hearing Mexican-Americans playing rock ’n’ roll. After we met Los Lobos, Javier and I could hear the Chicano influence that had crept into our voices and our guitar lines without our ever being conscious we had put it in there.”
In 1984, Alejandro began inviting Jon Dee Graham, a guitar hero from Austin punk band The Skunks, to sit in with the True Believers. Graham sat in so often that he gradually became the third guitarist without anyone ever saying anything. Graham is not Mexican-American (he’s Cherokee and Scottish among other things), but he grew up near the Rio Grande and absorbed the Tex-Mex culture.
“As a kid I was constantly surrounded by cumbias and rancheros,” Graham explains, “and when you listen to wailing rancheros, they have such a high emotional content they can overwhelm you. Moving away from punk was a natural evolution that was going to happen anyway. There were only two ways to go. You either slip back into what you already know and become a caricature of yourself or you push forward and follow the music wherever it wants to go. Where it wanted to go was a combination of rock ’n’ roll and that border music we had all grown up on.”
A small-budget album, True Believers, was released in 1986, and a big-budget follow-up was finished and scheduled for release in 1987. That album had the potential to lift the band from local heroes to national prominence, to make them the Los Lobos of Texas. But the True Believers were dropped during a shake-up at EMI Records and the second album went unreleased until 1994. Javier hit the road with Will Sexton; Graham moved to L.A. to play guitar for John Doe, and Alejandro hunkered down in Austin to ponder his next move.
“All my influences up to that point had come out of the Stooges/Velvets/Mott [the Hoople] camp,” he remembers, “but my new songs didn’t sound anything like that. A lot of that had to do with where I was living. In Austin, I would go out and hear Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock and Billy Joe Shaver and they came out of a different camp—Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmie Rodgers.
“They were the best teachers in the world. In punk rock, it was all about the industrial drive, but this was more delicate, more human. When you live in Texas and go to a barbecue, there’s going to be a guitar and it’s going to be passed around. If you call yourself a songwriter, you’d better be ready to sing a song. In learning to play on an acoustic guitar, I learned to ask the question, ‘Can the song survive if all the amplifiers disappear?’
“During the 1980s, we drove between Austin and Los Angeles all the time, and that trip probably influenced my songs more than anything. It’s ‘mi tierra’; it’s where my people came from. I heard the vastness and the emptiness of that landscape in Dylan’s stuff, in Townes’ stuff, in Butch’s stuff. By returning to Mexican folk music, we were closing the circle like Dylan did with his mountain ballads.”
What, he asked himself, was the sound of a landscape so vacant and ruthless? How could he get that sound into his songs? Part of the answer was pushing the Believers’ mix of acoustic and electric guitars to further extremes, so the quiet parts were even quieter, even more lyrical, and the loud parts were even louder, even rawer. And part of the answer was strings. One thing Mexican folk music and New York art-rock had in common was strings.
“The Velvet Underground got me interested in strings,” he says. “Lou Reed’s Street Hassle was the most profound influence, but I also loved John Cale’s early albums and Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid.” I started listening to Nick Drake, [and composers Béla] Bartók and [Erik] Satie. When strings are used well in rock, they can be as aggressive as guitars and as ugly as feedback and yet sound so beautiful. They sound different from the usual guitar records, and they’re very supportive of words.
“And words are important to me. That’s one reason I didn’t join the typical Latin dance band. I wanted people to pay attention to my songs. The storytelling, guitar-oriented songs of rock ’n’ roll fit right in with the Mexican corrido tradition, which I was exposed to by my father and his friends and relatives. My parents would have barbecue parties and after they’d had enough beers, they’d break out guitars. My aunt would start singing and they would all start crying.”
The Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra was founded in 1990, the leader says, to “create a Southwestern version of Brian Eno’s Another Green World.” To capture that atmospheric texture, Escovedo invited violinists, cellists, trumpeters, saxophonists and steel guitarists to the weekly gigs in Austin. Soon, it really was an orchestra, a rock ’n’ roll big band, the roots-punk equivalent of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound.”
For most of the ’90s, the Orchestra would play the final Sunday night of the SXSW Music Conference with 15 to 20 musicians onstage. Many critics (including me) consider those shows some of the most thrilling concerts they’ve ever witnessed. But the tapes have gone unreleased. Part of the problem was technical; it’s difficult to capture so many players with so little rehearsal in tune and in tempo. Part of the problem was economic; without major-label support, you can’t record such a large ensemble or tour with it.
Instead, the orchestra’s sound was distilled by producer Stephen Bruton to a small combo for Escovedo’s ?rst solo album, 1992’s Gravity. Instead of orchestral rock, this was chamber rock, especially on the four cuts that featured cellist John Hagen. One song described the voice of a departing lover as the sound of “Five Hearts Breaking.” That was the sound of Escovedo’s own voice, too, as he sang of those early-morning hours when “the party’s over and we won’t go; no one to laugh at our jokes anymore,” when the good liquor is gone and there’s nothing left to do but “pour me a drink from a broken bottle and fill my glass with the dirty water; what I’ve lost is gone and what I’ve gained has no name.”
One thing he’d lost was his second wife, Bobbie Levie, who committed suicide in 1991 shortly after they separated. Her ghost haunts the album, most obviously on “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Broken Bottle” and “Gravity/Falling Down Again.” The latter captures the vertigo when the flooring of every assumption you’ve ever had is pulled out from under your feet. The song boasted the grating guitar, droning strings and unflinching vocal of its model, Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle.” Later, in his live shows, Escovedo would yoke “Gravity” and “Street Hassle” together in a malignantly brilliant 12-minute medley.
Escovedo and Bruton collaborated on the 1993 follow-up, Thirteen Years, which extended the themes and sound of Gravity with a more prominent use of strings and Mexican motifs. The elusive reviews convinced big indie label Rykodisc to sign Escovedo and sink some money into his 1996 album, With These Hands, and the 1997 album, The Pawn Shop Years, by his hard-rock side project Buick MacKane. It seemed Escovedo was again poised for a breakthrough.
It didn’t happen. None of these albums sold 30,000 copies; other artists weren’t recording the songs, and the singer slogged his way across the country, from small club to small club with a guitar case full of press clippings and unpaid bills.
“The road is very seductive,” he concedes. “When you’ve been doing it a long time and you’re not making much money, what becomes the attraction? It’s when a stranger tells you how great you are. That becomes the medicine that you take to deal with all the pain. Eventually there’s a point when the perks of this occupation become more important than the occupation itself.
“You go to the gig and after the gig you stay at the bar drinking all night and singing for the help; that becomes more important than ‘How do we work on this verse and make it better?’ A lot of musicians on the road are running away; ultimately they’re running away from themselves. You enter this never-never world where you’re always young, because it’s a young-man’s game. Then one day you realize that all you’re doing is selling beer.”
When the tour for With These Hands got to Canada, Escovedo’s bandmates noticed he was turning colors human skin wasn’t meant to be. The doctors told him he had Hepatitis C and he’d have to stop drinking. He did for a while.
“I tried to deal with it as best as I could,” he says. “I didn’t have the money to go to St. Louis to see the doctor who cured Naomi Judd. As I lifted myself out of it, I thought it was OK to have a glass of wine—everything in moderation. But before I knew it, I was drinking a lot again. Then one day in a Louisiana hotel room, I could hardly get out of bed to go to the next gig. The maids were looking at me like I was pathetic, and I realized how far away I had gotten from what I set out to do.”
Even so, he continued to make impressive records. The spectacular live album, More Miles Than Money: 1994-96, was released in 1998. A collection of tracks from scattered recording sessions, Bourbonitis Blues, came out in 1999. By the Hand of the Father—the mixed-blessing soundtrack from the theater production—emerged in 2002, just a year after Escovedo’s finest moment, the Chris Stamey-produced A Man Under the Influence. And then, on April 26, 2003, he collapsed in Tempe.
Like most musicians, he had no health insurance. So his manager Heinz Geissler and Larry Miller of Or Music asked a few musicians if they’d record tracks for a fund-raising album to be called Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo. The response was so overwhelming that plans for a single-disc, 12-song album mushroomed into a two-disc, 32-track package with contributions from Steve Earle, Ian Hunter, The Jayhawks, John Cale, Son Volt, Los Lonely Boys, The Cowboy Junkies and many more.
“I was still messed up on the medicine,” Escovedo recounts, “and Heinz would play the tracks for me as they came in and I would just sob like a baby. I was especially moved by Cale’s version of ‘She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ and Hunter’s version of ‘One More Time.’ The reason I do what I do is because of their music. I had started out trying to sound like them, and now they gave me back my songs, making them sound like they should have sounded. That’s when I realized I had to fight this thing and get back to music.”
On March 21, 2004, at the end of SXSW, Escovedo stepped on the stage of the Continental Club for his first public performance since Tempe. Dressed in buttoned-up black shirt and tan suede jacket, he moved gingerly and his face bore new creases. “It’s just time and it’s gone, but that’s the way it goes,” he sang on the first song, as if shrugging off his lost year.
Facing a packed house of Austin fans and music critics, he sang, “Everybody says they love me, but I don’t know why,” on the fourth song, and halfway through that number he seemed to shake off the rust and doubts. He looked over at Jon Dee Graham; their guitar riffs locked up and took off. Brian Standefer underlined those riffs on cello, and Hector Muñoz, Escovedo’s drummer since the last days of the True Believers, gave everything a firm shove forward. You could almost hear the people on the nightclub’s packed floor finally let go of their bated breath. There would be another chapter of the Alejandro Escovedo story after all.
To ease himself back into touring, he formed the Alejandro Escovedo String Quintet with Standefer, second cellist Matt Fish, violinist Susan Voelz and acoustic guitarist David Polkingham. When they visited the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, Md., recently, the ?ve musicians—dressed all in black—sat in a semi-circle of wooden chairs and played old songs and new ones with a hushed intimacy that coaxed previously hidden nuances from the former. In the lobby, they were selling their two-CD, 14-song, web-only release, Room of Songs.
But, now, with The Boxing Mirror hitting record stores, Escovedo has reconvened his rock ’n’ roll band, the one that made the record—Graham, Standefer, Muñoz, Voelz and bassist Mark Andes. It’ll be back on the road that provided him with so many pleasures and temptations in the past. The challenge will be to choose the healthy pleasures and forsake the others. Escovedo is optimistic, but he’s also aware of the dangers. “Speak to me softly, and tell me you love me,” he sings on “Break This Time,” the new album’s galloping, Stones-y rocker. “We’ll join together inside the refrain,” he exults; then he adds the necessary warning, “But I just might break this time.”
“It’s like being in love,” he says of his career at this point; “you never know what the experience is going to be like, but you just throw yourself in there. It’s like surfing; every wave is different, and sometimes you get spit out at the end. I feel like I’ve been through a lot in the last few years and I’ve been spit out and I’m glad to still be standing.”