Trial by fire
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.
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"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.
Alejandro also took a job--working as a clerk at Waterloo Records. Some Austin scenesters snickered at how the once-mighty Al had fallen, acting almost as if they were the ones who'd been deprived of stardom by the failure of the True Believers.
Such talk was insignificant compared to what Escovedo was facing at home.
Bobbi, his companion for 13 years, had finally had enough of the rock-and-roll lifestyle. "I know she wanted me to give it up," he confesses, "but I just couldn't do that." The couple separated, and to complicate matters further, Bobbi discovered she was pregnant--while, at the same time, Al became seriously involved with another woman, Dana Lee Smith, who plays guitar and sings with the Austin punk trio Pork.
Four months after Bobbi gave birth to Paloma, her second child with Escovedo and his fourth daughter, Escovedo's estranged wife killed herself.
In the game of blame, the community finger ended up pointing at Escovedo: wayward husband, absent father, self-indulgent musician suffering from a Peter Pan syndrome. When you listen to his mea culpa rocker "Guilty" on his brand-new Rykodisc record With These Hands, it almost seems as if Escovedo even heard those whispers: "There was a man who lived outside the gate/And guilty was his name/He tried to love most everything/But where he ended up was wrapped in shame."
But who really cares about rumors when you have to deal with ghosts, both metaphorical ones and those of the somewhat more tangible variety?
"I feel that power all the time," Escovedo says. "At first it was kind of frightening to really experience it like that--after Bobbi died is what I am talking about. I've had some experiences here at the house that have been really bizarre. I used to feel her presence all the time here. I don't feel it so much anymore. I just hope she's a lot happier. But at first it was kind of scary.
"My daughter used to believe she lived up in the attic. And for a long time I wanted to believe it too, I really did. And sometimes I still think that she's somehow in a crowd or something. It's hard to let go."
But what Escovedo did instead is face his pain, his guilt, his shame--all his conflicted emotions, as well as his love--in his music. Though he'd never performed solo, after a few first tentative gigs he started amassing an outfit that came to encompass a revolving cast of a dozen or more of Austin's best players, The Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra. With string, horn, and percussion sections mixing with electric guitars and keyboards, it was an ensemble that on its best nights gave renewed potency to the much-abused notion of musical eclecticism.
"For me, that was a really rich period," Escovedo recalls. "Personally, they weren't the greatest years of my life, but creatively, it was incredible."
Battered but unbowed, Escovedo consciously used his songwriting to process his pain, even writing one song, "Thirteen Years," about his marriage to Bobbi from her point of view. He signed with the Austin indie Watermelon Records and hooked up with the Texas-reared and L.A.-schooled producer Stephen Bruton to make two albums and an EP that won Escovedo enough attention to score him an even bigger deal with an even bigger indie, Rykodisc.
Meanwhile, back in Austin, Escovedo's star ascended above the small-town talk, especially after his Orchestra's concerts at La Zona Rosa on the final Sunday night of South By Southwest became the capstone musical event of the annual festival. With his songs providing a public expiation, Escovedo again became the local musical hope.
Like most truly creative musicians, Escovedo resists describing his style(s), even with the threat of a gun to his head. "You'd probably have to shoot me. I'd be taking a good one to the temple," he laughs. But his music is a unique mix that could only have been cooked up in the Austin cauldron.
"It's hard to describe it," he shrugs. "I've heard everything from Tex-Mex to baroque to Crazy Horse to chamber to avant-garde to free jazz to folk music. It really is all those things. They're all there. It's not like I'm deliberately trying to play all those styles. Some of those things just kinda come out because of the music I grew up with, and the music I listened to.
"I never sit down and think, 'Well, I've gotta write this salsa-influenced tune.' Some of the first songs I ever wrote were 'Hard Road,' 'The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over,' and 'With These Hands.' They sound kind of Western, but they're also a little Latin. Both me and Jav used to freak on that. We never grew up wanting to play Tex-Mex or cha-chas or pachangas or anything like that. But when we were singing those songs, he said, 'I can hear it.' And he more than anyone never wanted to give up the New York Dolls tradition."
To wit, With These Hands closes at least one musical circle on its title tune, which was written for Al's 89-year-old father Pedro, and features percussion by Escovedo's older brother Pete and such family members as Pete's wife Juanita, Pete and Juanita's sons Juan and Peter Michael, and his daughter (and Al's niece), the singing and drumming sensation known as Sheila E. In a similar spirit, Al has rebuilt his own family, marrying Dana Smith, who bore him his first son and is helping raise Escovedo's two daughters from his previous marriage.
The couple appear to be balancing a two-band, three-child household, and Escovedo's actual and lyrical struggles with mortality and maturity find him focusing even more on the notion of family for future inspiration.
"Here's what I wanna do as my next project, or somewhere down the line," he says. "I wanna write my father's story into song. He's 89. He came from Saltillo, Mexico, when he was 12 years old. He's done a lot of stuff and had a very colorful life, and he's had all these kids, and he's just a really cool guy. I'd like to do that and have the family play, and perform it once, and record it. I think it'd be cool. I'd like to give him that much.
"That's the thing about writing songs," Escovedo observes. "I try to say this in a lot of songs: The paychecks are small sometimes, but the one thing you are really fortunate to give is the song. If you can express it and other people dig it or relate to it, it's worth more than money. For me, for my parents, that's all I've got to give them. They're really happy when I do that. It means a lot to them."
So even though, not too long ago, it looked like Escovedo had lost it all, he has rebuilt his home life and renewed his musical career to a point where he seems happy--or, at the very least for now, content. "There's nothing better than coming home. It's beautiful," he says. "It's the coolest thing to, first thing, have kids run up and climb all over you, and your wife is happy to see you. It's a bonus to come back to.
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