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
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
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 well.
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
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]