Trial by fire

Alejandro Escovedo still finds inspiration in guilt and family

In the musical mythology, Austin is one of the coolest, most laid-back music towns on the planet, a Central Texas bohemia where slack and good vibes rule. But just beneath the seeming bonhomie, one finds a voracious creature that eats its own--and frequently its best.

When Stevie Ray Vaughan got sober, for instance, he had to move back to Dallas from Austin to escape the city's insidious downward pull of booze and small-town success. For all its charms, Austin is nonetheless a community that delights in knocking its own back down, a place where the tall poppies are frequently scythed to the same height as everything else surrounding them. And few Austin artists have experienced the Peyton Place parochialism of the Austin music scene more than Alejandro Escovedo.

To the surface observer, he's one of the city's biggest local heroes--a Mexican-American rocker with genuine punk credibility making singer-songwriter records that have a worldly and modern sophistication, the all-but-perfect poster boy for everything the Austin music scene wishes it was. But then there's the background noise, the incessant chattering about his personal life; or the excesses of his previous band, the True Believers; or how his critically acclaimed Gravity and Thirteen Years albums maybe didn't sell quite as well as claimed. Basically, those who talk about such things mutter about how the sharpest guy in Austin Music High School is also a screwup and a slacker, just like the rest of us.

And you can well believe that behind his cool and placid exterior--almost too Austin mellow for mellow Austin--Escovedo knows it. "You know how in families there's just a lot of stuff that kind of bubbles underneath? People carry it with them for so many years," Escovedo observes.

"Sure, you also find that in bands," says his interviewer.
"Yeah, and you blame...In a band you blame each other, or the manager, usually the people you love the most," he says.

Escovedo is sitting in a chair underneath a pecan tree on the side lawn of his South Austin home. His dog Tex lies a few feet away, cracking open shells with his teeth to get at the nut meat. Escovedo's daughter Paloma trots up from time to time to sit in daddy's lap, trying her sweetest best to distract him from his conversation. It's a bucolic weekend afternoon during a fine Texas spring, yet that stuff beneath the surface still percolates.

"I've been through a lot of stuff," Escovedo shrugs. "People never really know what two people go through...behind closed doors, what it's really all about."

To anyone who's lived in Austin for a while, it's obvious what he's referring to--the 1991 suicide of his second wife Bobbi, a tragic event that has colored much of Escovedo's music since then, and also served as something of a litmus test for his standing in the Austin music community.

Alejandro Escovedo isn't an Austin native, but he was born just down the road in San Antonio to a large and very musical family. The Escovedos relocated to Southern California when Al was still a child, and his formative years were spent watching brothers Coke and Pete become well-known percussionists with acts like Santana and Azteca, and soaking up the varied local and touring music the burgeoning Los Angeles area had to offer.

Though a rabid fan, Escovedo didn't take up playing music until his early 20s. His first group, the Nuns, became one of San Francisco's original punk acts, while his next outfit, Rank and File, was seminal '80s cowpunk act that eventually landed in Austin. Meanwhile, Al's younger brother, Javier, had founded the Los Angeles punk band the Zeros.

When Escovedo quit Rank and File, he beckoned Javier to Austin to start their dream band, a rock-and-roll outfit they dubbed the True Believers, which they hoped would reconcile such diverse inspirations as the Stooges, T-Rex, and the Flying Burrito Brothers into the true sound of the New West. Joining forces with fellow guitarist and songwriter Jon Dee Graham, the Escovedos generated enough of an Austin club buzz to convince Waterloo Records, a locally owned store, to loan them money to make a record.

The indie Rounder Records label picked up the project, and then managed to secure major-label distribution for the album through EMI. Though the record was only a pale outline of the band at its live best, it did help stoke a national reputation that was kept alive by constant touring. The True Believers appeared to be on its way.

In the Believers' hometown of Austin, the band became the music scene's latest great hope, that one act that would come along (yet still hasn't) to indelibly etch Austin rock and roll onto the national map. But when the True Believers took an Austin journalist and photographer on tour as a roadie to write about the experience for Spin, the resulting tale of the band members' seemingly endless substance abuse and frequent peccadilloes made it look like these feisty contenders from Texas were blowing it.

A big-budget second album finally captured the majesty of the songs written by the Escovedo brothers and Graham, as well as the sheer power of their three-guitar attack. But then EMI dumped the act in a corporate shakeup, and the record never saw the light of day (at least until 1994, when it was packaged with the first album's reissue as Hard Road on Rykodisc). The Believers trouped on for a while, finally sputtering to a halt when Javier was seduced away by a paying gig with another band.

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