True Believer

From punk to rock to country, Alejandro Escovedo has weathered the push and pull of family and music

Bourbonitis Blues, Alejandro Escovedo's sixth and latest solo album, is the culmination of a life spent growing up in public. It wasn't an easy growth -- his path has been pockmarked with deaths, births and changes in musical styles to match -- but between the album's swelling strings, ebullient country stomps, and meditations on his past, he finally sounds like he's mending, not breaking. On the phone from his Austin studio, Escovedo's in the middle of talking about this maturity -- growing up as a musician, growing up as a person -- when his year-old daughter Juanita approaches him. "Excuse me, I gotta pick up my kid," he says, and his child coos into the phone as he pulls her onto his lap.

For more than 20 years, Escovedo has moved from playing punk rock in San Francisco with the Nuns (who opened for the Sex Pistols at their infamous Winterland dénouement) to cowpunk to Stooges-inflected rock to chamber pop. Swirling all around that is a family lineage that cuts a broad swath across the American musical landscape. His older brothers Pete and Coke were both percussionists in Carlos Santana's band during the '60s (Coke is now deceased; Pete is a famed Latin jazz percussionist in his own right); Alejandro's niece Sheila E did the same for Prince's band in the '80s; Alejandro and his younger brother Javier played together briefly in the True Believers in the mid-'80s.

Born in 1951, Alejandro is the seventh of 12 children. His father, Pedro, grew up in the northern Mexican town of Saltillo, and moved to Texas and roved the Southwest working fields, among other odd jobs. "He was a semipro ballplayer," says Alejandro, "and he was a prizefighter, and he sang, and danced, and he did all sorts of stuff, but I knew him as a plumber." Alejandro's own life path has a similar randomness to it. Growing up in Huntington Beach, he learned about glam rock and early punk, not to mention The Little Red Songbook, a collection of pink-tinged folk songs like "Joe Hill" that he became familiar with when he joined his parents on the pro-union picket line.

Alejandro Escovedo: "I'm not a musicologist at all. I just like music."
James Stark
Alejandro Escovedo: "I'm not a musicologist at all. I just like music."
Escovedo (far right) during his punk days with the Nuns.
Escovedo (far right) during his punk days with the Nuns.

After moving to San Francisco in the early '70s, he became deeply involved in the nascent punk scene there -- playing guitar with the scruffy, provocatively named Nuns on songs like "Child Molester," "Big Fat Chick" and "My Savage," managing bands, marrying his second wife, Bobbie. "It was a beginning," he says of those days. "It was a start. We kind of made up our own thing. What I like the most about the Nuns was that we were really influenced by American bands -- the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground -- and we weren't trying to be the Clash or the Sex Pistols. So in a way, we were really kind of an older wave. I was only 24; 23 when I started playing there, but we seemed older than the rest of the kids."

"It's funny," he adds, "because I go back there and a lot of people from that period of time are gone. A lot of them died, passed away from various things, whether it be drugs or AIDS or whatever." There's a hint of those memories in "Sacramento & Polk," a cut from the new album, based on Escovedo's experiences in San Francisco's Palo Alto Hotel, one of many transient hotels, including New York's famed Chelsea, that he's spent time in. It's a driving blues-rock song that's half love song, half horror story; he shifts from watching a sleeping lover to looking at his downtrodden neighbors, their hands shaking in a "Thorazine haze."

By the time Escovedo left the Bay Area for New York, Los Angeles, and finally Austin, he'd begun the slow process of shaking off his punk rock past and morphing into a country-influenced singer/songwriter, mixing Stones-like guitars and lilting cellos, as well as a vocal and lyrical sensibility that owes much to Elvis Costello. The change from his work in Rank and File and the True Believers to his solo work, Escovedo says, "was really natural. It was just a matter of learning how to play guitar, and learning how to play songs. My tastes were always there anyway, but once my development as a guitar player and a songwriter caught up with them, it was easy. . . . It wasn't ever a conscious decision to play country music or whatever."

If that's true, it's also true that family life -- birth and death -- has pushed and pulled his evolution as well. With Coke's death in 1987, Alejandro moved away from heavy guitars entirely and launched the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, based around a string quartet and mournful songs. And in 1991, when his wife Bobbie committed suicide shortly after the birth of his second daughter, the floodgates opened. His 1992 solo debut, Gravity, is a pure bloodletting: Opening with the dour but lovely "Paradise," the first words out of Alejandro's mouth are "Did you get the invitation? There's gonna be a public hanging." From there, he blazes a trail of broken hearts, broken bottles, tears, and desperation. 1994's follow-up, Thirteen Years -- the amount of time he was married to Bobbie -- was only slightly less caustic and yearning, though the lyrical harshness was wedded to a melodic grace and affecting humility.

The passage of time, he says, has relaxed his songwriting. "That just comes with letting all the skeletons out of the closet. You can only dig into that psychic well so often before you run out of juice, and I think it just takes a while to kind of refuel. But I think now the writing is calmer. I've gotten a lot out of my system in the last seven or eight years." 1996's With These Hands was a family reunion of sorts -- brother Pete and niece Sheila contributed to the title track, dedicated to his father -- though he now concedes that the record is overproduced ("We used this weird method of mastering, this newfangled thing at the time that really squashed the whole record").

By comparison, Bourbonitis Blues, released early last year on Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot, is refreshing in its embrace of simplicity. With the exception of a handful of originals ("Sacramento & Polk," "I Was Drunk"), it's a loving, string-driven appreciation of older songs and covers: Ian Hunter's "Irene Wilde," his beloved Velvets' "Amsterdam" and "Pale Blue Eyes," and most interestingly, the Gun Club's punkabilly classic "Sex Beat," done acoustic and half-speed, an approach that reveals even further the lascivious drama the song always suggested. Guest appearances color the arrangements, including Mekon Jon Langford, former Jody Grind singer Kelly Hogan, and former dB Chris Stamey, who recorded most of the songs. Those collaborations have helped form a sort of extended family that includes folks he regularly shares bills with, like Jonathan Richman, Peter Case, Los Lobos, Flaco Jimenez, and Freedy Johnston, as well as old friends in music, like the late Townes Van Zandt.

Still, Escovedo keeps looking toward his past. He's currently working on songs for a production called By the Hand of the Father, a multimedia presentation of song, narrative, film and video, "based on the lives of five different men born in Mexico [who] crossed the border into the Southwest, and how they deal with their hearts being in Mexico and having to assimilate into a new culture," which is scheduled to open in Los Angeles in the fall.

Escovedo wasn't asked to research the music of the time -- the producers just wanted him to "write songs in the way that I write songs." That, for him, was a relief. "I'm not a musicologist at all," he says. "I just like music. I love records, and I love listening to songs, and I love stories."

Alejandro Escovedo is scheduled to perform on Saturday, January 22, at the Balboa Café in Tempe, with Richard Buckner. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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