Alejandro Escovedo felt death. He’d been laid low, bedridden, by hepatitis C. After 30 years on the road, writing and singing songs that had become the fabric of other people’s lives, his own life seemed near exhausted.
Escovedo had never achieved broad commercial success. But among other musicians, he was revered. He’d emerged from the San Francisco punk scene of the 1970s and gone on to produce an extremely varied and influential body of work, ranging from hard rock to delicate borderland balladry. Even in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas – the epicenter of Americana songwriting – Escovedo was known as a songwriter’s songwriter, an inspiration cited by artists ranging from Ryan Adams to Bruce Springsteen (both who performed with Escovedo).
Escovedo had never been in it for the money – the title of one of his live albums was aptly called More Miles Than Money – yet now he found himself in a dire position, critically ill without health insurance.
His songs came to his rescue. Musical admirers from around the country organized a series of benefit shows, out of which grew a tribute album called Por Vida featuring almost 30 artists, including Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, M. Ward, Son Volt, and two of Escovedo’s own heroes, John Cale and Ian Hunter.
As oddly happens often in life, something profoundly good had come out of something horribly bad.
“When you are going through something like that, it’s really hard to see that,” Escovedo said in an interview this week. “You are so embroiled in the fight for survival, just to stay alive. But once I got past that, it was the music – when they were making that Por Vida record, the first cuts I got back were from Ian Hunter and John Cale. I was in the throes, just really down…I remember hearing these things and they just kind of broke me up so much, man, I was just bawling like a baby, it was just so intense.”
“Because here were these guys I had listened to all my life, and in a way I had modeled everything I do musically on them,” Escovedo said. “And then here they were singing my songs back to me. It was really a touching moment, and more importantly, it was kind of like the medicine that made me want to get up and play again.”
The hepatitis, which he’d long been diagnosed with, hit hardest in 2003. The love and support he received from his fellow musicians bolstered Escovedo in such a real and powerful way that by 2005, he was declared free of the disease.
He has played music like a man possessed – by a lust for life, an urge for creation and a careening wild love for music – ever since his brush with death, releasing six records in seven years and touring relentlessly.
Most recently, Escovedo released a hard-rocking album titled Big Station, the third in a series of songwriting collaborations with his old friend and fellow rocker Chuck Prophet (all produced by Tony Visconti, of David Bowie and T. Rex fame) which began with 2008’s Real Animal. Like all his work, Big Station defies categorization. “Musically, Alejandro Escovedo is in his own genre,” Rolling Stone critic David Fricke has written, and this record completes what amounts to a triptych that began with the defiant yowl of Real Animal and songs of gratitude from 2010’s Street Songs of Love.
This is a lush, urgent record that finds Escovedo and Prophet looking outward, telling hardscrabble yet buoyant tales of characters on the outside looking in, often at the wrecks of their own lives. “I can take a punch, I can take a swing,” Escovedo sings on “Man of the World”, opening the record with what amounts to a statement of intent. These are songs sung from the trenches of hard lives, sometimes transcending circumstances, other times crumbling beneath them. “I used to be on top/now I just roll over/I used to run hot/now I run a little colder…” he sings on “Sally Was a Cop.”
The title cut, “Big Station,” was inspired by an art installation called “Walking to the Sky” by the artist Jonathon Borofsky that Escovedo saw while passing through Pittsburgh last year. The piece is a pole several stories tall on which people of several ethnic and social strata are walking into the sky.
Escovedo rattled off three possible interpretations of the song.
“That song is really about the journey…there are all these fiberglass figures of ordinary people from every walk of life climbing up a pole, an angle that is veering into the sky, into the unknown,” Escovedo said. “And there are people at the base of it waiting in line, in order to also make this climb into the unknown. And so that, to me, is what ‘Big Station’ was about – it was kind of a mysterious place where we all began and we all end up. But it could also be interpreted as a place where there is a great radio station in the sky somewhere that plays really great music, with freedom, in order to not care about commercial needs and whatnot – just great music for the love of it. And ‘Big Station’ is maybe just kind of like this cosmic signal that we all feel and we are all connected by. That was my take on it.”
What sets Escovedo apart is the bravery of his musical instincts, the supple nobility of his voice, and the imaginative range of his songwriting. His intention is not to create mere entertainment, but real art.
“My parents used to give me a hard time about me not knowing exactly what it was I wanted to do,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘I want to be an artist.’ And they said, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure, I just want to make my life art.’ I don’t know, maybe it worked out alright.”
Indeed, he has cut one of the most unique career swaths in modern musical history, beginning with the punk band The Nuns (who opened for the Sex Pistols and were so rough-hewn they had to ask the audience to tune their guitars), continuing with the cowpunk band Rank and File (that prefigured the so-called Alt Country movement), included a foray into glam rock with the briefly legendarily raucous outfit called Buick MacKane, and then emerged with his own orchestra (featuring cello, violin, and both nylon and electric guitars) in what would become a signature sound, all of which led No Depression magazine to declare him the Artist of the Decade in the 1990s. It’s pretty hard to think of anyone else who has ever walked this particular road.
It is a road that has never included big record deals or much in the way of fame, but he has vehemently, passionately gone his own way.
“I remember when we were younger, everyone wanted to get a major record deal,” Escovedo said. “And we all found that was definitely not the answer. It was billed as something other than what it was. It was just a big money trap….and really, because a lot of the guys I know who ended up on major labels ended up in a bad position, and a lot of them aren’t even making music anymore. I think you could always tell the guys who were going to be doing it for their lives because this is all they know how to do and all they want to do, and they put everything into it. Just as an example, Bruce Springsteen is known as kind of an iconic rock star, but when you get on a stage with that guy, he’s like 16 years old again – he’s just having the time of his life playing. And that is something you don’t even see a lot among a lot of these really young bands.
“I just love that part of it. I had a friend, Stephen Bruton, who produced my first three albums, and when he was very sick with cancer I’d go over and write songs with him,” he added. “And as soon as he got that guitar in his hands, even though he was near death, he would turn into a kid again. His eyes would light up….Music has that ability to that.”
Questions are frequently asked how an artist of Escovedo’s stature never gained a larger audience, particularly given the people he’s had in his corner (as Paste magazine recently noted, his work is “the secret handshake that separates those who know from those who think they do.”). But this has never been his concern.
“I’ve been asked that question for quite a while now, and I always feel that people don’t truly understand what it is I’ve been able to do: to sustain a life being able to make the records I want to make and the music I wanted to make with the different type of musicians I’ve played with over the years, everything from punk rock to kind of folk ballads, and music with a little bit of hint of my cultural background and family,” said Escovedo, who is the youngest of 12 siblings in a musically rich Mexican-American family that includes percussionists Pete and Coke Escovedo and niece Sheila E. “I’ve been pretty lucky. I feel very blessed to be able to do what I’ve been able to do for as long as I have. It’s been thirty something years now. So: pretty cool.”
Alejandro Escovedo plays Saint Rocke tonight. Jesse Malin opens. $20. 9 p.m. See saintrocke.com for tickets.