By Richard Skanse
If you had to categorize Alejandro Escovedo as a glass-half-full or half-empty person based solely on his song catalog, odds are you’d peg him as a half-empty kind of guy. From his 1993 solo debut, Gravity, and clear through his last full album, 2001’s widely acclaimed A Man Under the Influence, song after song — from the achingly beautiful to the flat-out rocking — seems to reveal a hauntingly fatalistic point of view. Call it the sound of “Five Hearts Breaking.” In the bittersweet world of Escovedo’s songs, you slay metaphorical dragons only to find that you’ve lost (“Broken Bottle”), you’re helpless and hopeless (“Helpless”), everybody waves goodbye (“Wave”) and a lifetime of hard touring yields more miles than money (“Last to Know”). And even when life throws you a wicked good time like the heroine of “Castanets,” well, you like her better when she walks away. Clearly, this is a guy who could hold his own in a sad-song contest with even Townes Van Zandt.
But forget for a moment — if only very, very briefly — about the man’s songs. Take into account what Escovedo has lived through in 2004 alone, and that half-empty glass should be just plain empty. Diagnosed with Hepatitis C back in 1996, Escovedo collapsed during a show in early 2003 and was forced off the road — his primary source of income to support both himself and his family — and thrust headlong into the fight of and for his life. He spent the better part of the next year-and-a-half bedridden, his body ravaged by both the deadly liver disease and the medication that was supposed to make him better. All this, mind, without health insurance. February dealt him another knock-out punch with the death of his father, Pedro Escovedo — a man whose remarkable life story inspired one of Alejandro’s proudest creative achievements, a heartfelt theatrical tribute called By the Hand of the Father.
So after all that, how is it that Escovedo, calling from his home in Wimberley two days before Thanksgiving, sounds not only like a positively glass-half-full guy but one whose cup runneth over? Perhaps because as Escovedo endured the hardest year of his life, he was also the recipient of an overwhelming show of support and encouragement from family, friends and fans not unlike the lovefest awaiting Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. As soon as word got out that Escovedo was sick and in a bind, benefit shows began popping up all over the country to raise money for the Alejandro Fund, set up to help him cover his medical expenses. His songs were saluted on not one but two tribute CDs — the Canadian-centric Escovedo 101: Songs of Alejandro Escovedo and the considerably higher profile Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo. The later featured contributions not only from Escovedo’s peers like Lucinda Williams, Jon Dee Graham and Steve Earle, and his brothers Javier, Pete and Mario Escovedo and niece Shelia E, but also a generous sampling of Escovedo’s biggest musical heroes, including the Velvet Underground’s John Cale and Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter. In November, many of the artists featured on Por Vida paid tribute to Escovedo in person at an all-star benefit concert at Austin’s Paramount Theater — at which it was announced that the Alejandro Fund, having covered Escovedo’s own needs for the time being, would henceforth benefit other artists and their families inflicted with the Hep C virus.
Best of all, after months of not even touching a guitar, Escovedo has slowly but surely returned to playing, writing and recording. In addition to a few songs at the Por Vida concert, he played two nights in October at the Texas Union Theater in Austin and a triumphant comeback show at the Continental Club on the last night of South By Southwest in March. In 2005, he plans to venture out of state for more shows and begin recording the follow-up to A Man Under the Influence.
Yeah, it’s a wonderful life, all right. And while the artist who’s long sung the words “everybody loves me but I don’t know why” may still wonder why, more than anything he’s learned that “why” doesn’t really matter. He’s just thankful that so many people do love him, and that he’s still around to love ‘em all back.
Alejandro, how are you feeling?
I’m feeling pretty good. How’s it going?
Pretty good. How’s Wimberley? Weren’t you living in Canyon Lake not too long ago?
Yeah. We’ve been in Wimberley since February or March, something like that. I love it very much. It’s a great place. I’ve found a lot of kindred spirits out here. Ray Wylie [Hubbard] lives out here, and my friend Joe Nick [Patoski], who used to manage me. And I’ve met a lot of new people who I really enjoy their company. It’s nice. We found a really cool place, too, so we’re really lucky.
November’s wrecked havoc on the Hill Country, flood wise. Have you had any problems?
With flooding? No. We live on a creek, and the creek has risen quite a bit — it’s now a river, actually — but nothing threatening. Not like at our Canyon Lake place. During that Fourth of July flood about three years ago, we actually got evacuated. I was in Canada on tour with By the Hand of the Father at the time, but my wife Kim got evacuated, and I remember trying to figure out what to do with everything over the phone. We must have been a good 50 or even 100 yards up the side of hill, and the water came all the way up there. It was amazing, and a little disheartening at the time. But here we are again, on the water. [Laughs] You never learn a lesson around here.
Speaking of disheartening … by all accounts you’ve had an incredibly hard year, maybe the hardest of your life. But at the same time, all the love and support you’ve received as a result of your hardships must have been pretty overwhelming, too. I mean, most artists never get to witness that many tributes to their work in their own lifetime, let alone in a single year.
No. It’s a rare occurrence. And it has been … the past couple of years have been the most intense test I’ve ever had to go through. And I’ve sometimes felt very isolated from everything and everybody because of the medication and such. But in reality, like you say, there’s never been anything quite like it that I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen that many benefit shows put on and so much compassion directed my way. There were times when I was really kind of … the word isn’t embarrassed, but I wasn’t sure that I deserved it. But my wife was always here to provide assurance and to let me know that it made everybody feel good to help me. And all that love and compassion from people, it’s really been amazing. I don’t know that I would have made it without it. If I had just been sitting here alone, going through the things that I was going through, psychologically and physically, I don’t know … it would have been very difficult to make it and come out real positive on the other side.
It sounds like all the support helped in more ways than just financially.
Yeah, it wasn’t so much the money as it was just the immediacy that everyone responded. And without question, you know. That was what was amazing to me. Everyone was like, “Yeah, no problem. We want to put on a show. We want to be on that record.” I mean there’s so many people that wanted to be on the Por Vida record, we could have honestly put out a boxed set if we wanted to. It really is incredible. I don’t even try to figure it out. I’m just so happy that it happened to me. I feel very lucky and fortunate. And it’s changed my life. It really has, in a lot of ways.
You know, like you I’m a huge Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople fan. I think my favorite song that you’ve ever recorded is your cover of Hunter’s “Irene Wilde.” So when I first got the Por Vida record, the first track I went to was Hunter’s cover of your own “One More Time.” And when I heard him kick it off by saying “All right!” just like he starts “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” man, I knew you had to get a huge kick out of that.
[Laughs] You know, that was one of the ones that came to me and gave me so much inspiration. Really. I mean, it’s like trying your whole life to sound like these guys and try to be like them and emulate them in some way, and then to have them kind of bring it back to you as a gift? That’s pretty heavy! That kind of thing just seemed so out of reach to me as a guy who loved records and loved music but didn’t even start playing guitar until I was 24. I never would have thought Ian Hunter would have done one of my songs. I’ve always done his, because he’s the master, as far as I’m concerned. Him and Cale, and Jennifer Warnes and Ian McLagan, all those people were people that I followed all my life, and learned a lot of things from them. And to have them be so generous in return at a time like this — it’s what picked me up out of bed, honestly. It’s what made me want to play again. Because I hadn’t been playing at all. Guitar wasn’t the foremost thing on my mind. Music and certainly a career was the absolute last thing on my mind. I was more into just trying to feel better and enjoy what I could, working really hard to enjoy what I had already. I had no desire for anything else other than to try to survive it, and then I figured I’d pick it up after that. But that’s a long time not to play guitar for a guy who played every day for 30 years. So, I mean, I can only thank Ian Hunter and all those guys. Without them, I probably never would have played music.
Tribute records are usually pretty hit and miss. I mean, if I feel like hearing Johnny Cash, I’m going to reach for the real thing and not a Cash tribute record. But the remarkable thing about Por Vida is that it actually sounds like an Alejandro Escovedo record. Did it strike you that way?
Well it struck me that everyone … what I hear on the record that’s real special is that everyone tried really hard, you know? There’s so much beautiful, wonderful effort. It’s like everyone was recording on the same day almost. To me it sounds like everyone was just really enjoying themselves, and really conscious of what they were doing, and put a lot of effort into it. And you can hear that. I think that’s what makes it special to me. Quite honestly, if it wasn’t my songs, I’d still think it was a great record, because the performances are just incredible. I mean, John Cale’s version of “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” — that’s just an amazing performance.
Are you able to listen to your own records much?
Sometimes. The kids want to hear them sometimes, and I’ll play them with them, and we’ll have fun with them. But I don’t mind hearing them, because I have really good memories making every record. I think more about making them than the actual performance sometimes. I try to think beyond the performance, and just enjoy what it was that put me in that place. Making a record is like a lifetime that you live through, and you come out on the other end feeling different and having a different perspective. And some of them are failures in some ways, some of them are great successes in other ways. So it’s always interesting and it’s always a lesson, I think. I learn a lot from making records. Everything from the most base, elemental aspect of getting on with others and sharing ideas and stuff to what it is I want to say musically on the next record. You learn a lot like that. So you’ve just got to look at them as periods of time, like looking at a scrapbook. You can’t get all freaked out by them. I mean, everybody was real disappointed with the first True Believers record we made — outside of us! [Laughs] But we didn’t really know what we were doing, you know? So to me it just sounds like where we were at at that time. And maybe we weren’t ready to make a record at that time. I don’t know. I listen to those songs and I think of all the times me and my brother spent writing some of them, and Jon Dee writing songs and blossoming into who he became, which is amazing. I just feel lucky to have even had that experience.
Did you have a favorite moment at the Por Vida tribute concert at the Paramount?
There’s a couple. John Cale was amazing. So was “Rosalie” by Bobby Neuwirth. And then being onstage with Shelia E. is like being onstage with a hurricane or something. [Laughs] I’ve never … you know, all the guys I’ve ever performed with, they all pale in comparison to what that was like.
So that was the first time you’d ever performed with her?
It’s actually the first time side by side like that. She played with us once when we did By the Hand of the Father in Los Angeles. But that was the first time we ever just hung side by side doing that kind of thing. It was pretty amazing.
Let’s go back to your SXSW show in March, which was your first time back on stage in nearly a year. What was going through your head that day? Were you nervous, or really hungry to play again?
I was pretty scared. Because I wasn’t feeling that well. People kept telling me that I looked OK, but I knew I didn’t feel good. You just know it. And I think the closer I got to the show, I kept thinking, “Is this the right idea? What if I can’t make it? What if I pass out or something?” I wasn’t in the greatest physical shape. I don’t know if you know that much about Interferon, one of the drugs I was taking, but it messes with your head quite a bit. So I was having my doubts that day. Kim and I were trying to relax, but we really couldn’t. And I saw so many people, and it was wonderful to see everybody, but I wanted to take it easy so I couldn’t go out and hang out like I’m used to. So it was a little odd. It was weird. I didn’t want people to think I was just trying to hide from everybody and be a pop star or whatever. I’ve always been known as a person who tries to make himself as accessible as possible to everybody, and to not have that ability because of the illness was a real drag.
Once you started playing, did you feel a little more confident, or was it still a struggle to get through each song?
It wasn’t a struggle. Once we started playing and the band started rocking, it was like everything else slipped away, basically. There were moments when I was kind of concentrating on things I wasn’t as fluid on as I had been, but nothing stressful. It was all fun. And all the support from the band and everybody else melted away any sort of paranoia I had about not making it. I knew the band was watching my back for me. They were so good that night. It was just fun to be playing music, to have a guitar in my hand again and not be thinking about all the other things that I thought about for so long.
What about the two shows you did in October?
I felt much better. Because I had gotten off the medicine in August. What happened was the medicine had started to turn itself on me. It was starting to eat my bone marrow, so I had no immune system. I got really, really sick, I got bedridden again for about a month almost. They were talking about doing blood transfusions again. I was pretty bad. And then slowly but surely, as soon as my wife and I decided to stop taking the medicine, it just happened … I felt so much better, like within a couple of weeks. And by the time October came, and we rehearsed, it was a lot of fun. I had a great, great time. And that’s what I want in a gig, to just feel that joy in music. When you tour every night, you don’t want it to be like a job, right? I didn’t get into this to have a job. So I really enjoyed those October shows. They were great. And the other thing was it was really our thing, so we could settle into playing whatever we wanted. We tried something we’d always wanted to try, which was for me to start out the show solo, and then bring in the strings, and then bring in another instrument or two, and start rocking. It turned out really nice.
When it was announced that the Alejandro Fund would now be benefiting other people in need, it was said that your needs had “been met.” That seems to imply that you’re fully recovered, but that’s surely not the case, is it?
I think that I was in such a bad state when I started out on this program, that it’s going to take a lot longer than I thought to heal, actually. When I got sick, I was bleeding internally quite heavily. So there was a lot of damage there. I had like busted blood vessels in my esophagus, and advanced cirrhosis of the liver and possible ulcers in the abdomen. And then I went through a really scary bout with the medicine after nine months of taking it — it put me right back at the beginning, actually. But I’ve stopped taking it, and I feel much better, much healthier, and have more energy than I’ve felt in two years probably. My doctors had told me even after I had discontinued taking the Interferon and Ribavirin that it would take an equal amount of time plus another year to totally get back to normal again. But I honestly believe that I’m going to be fine, you know? I feel that as long as I take care of myself, that I’ll be OK. During that nine months when I was feeling really bad, we did one last blood test — the most extensive blood test you can take — and they found that the Hepatitis C was undetectable. Whether it stayed there or not — sometimes it stays, sometimes it comes back. I’m just trying to take care of myself the best that I can. I’m doing a lot of acupuncture, trying to eat very healthy, and doing a lot of meditation, a lot Buddhist practice. I’m just trying to take care of myself in the ways that I know how right now. And in December I get another blood test, and we’ll see where that’s at.
How long had you had Hep C?
I was first diagnosed when With These Hands came out, the Ryko album, which I think was in ’96. After that album came out, I had been touring for the better part of a year, and I got sick, and that was my first experience with it. But back then doctors didn’t even really know what it was. And some of them didn’t find it in the blood test. It took quite a while to finally find a doctor who said, “Yeah, you have this non-A, non-B Hepatitis, they’re calling it Hepatitis C, and it’s chronic. And Interferon is the only treatment that they have for it, and the success rate is 25 to 30 percent. And it will make you feel like you have an intense flu for a year.” And I wasn’t in the demographic that was supposed to be successful for recovery, because I was older and I was a male, I don’t know, there was some weird things. So she suggested I not take it. She said, “I’m going to tell you what I tell my AIDS patients: Just go out and live the best life you can.” And so that’s what I was faced with at that point. And so, you know, I wasn’t very smart, because I did some things I shouldn’t have done — which was to think that I could go back and drink in moderation. Because I was really depressed, and I thought, I’ve got to work, I’ve got all these kids, I’ve got this house, I’ve got to get back out there. And I didn’t have insurance. And no one was going to take care of me. Even MusiCares wasn’t going to help me. For some reason, they thought I was a rich rock star.
Your experience with the medications you were on sounds especially harrowing. Anytime the “cure” is as bad as or worse than the disease …
Right. We’re guinea pigs! They tell you not to drink because alcohol is obviously not good for you if have Hepatitis C or any liver dysfunction. But what could this medicine be doing to us as we take it? Or if we stop taking it? No one told me that. I’ll be honest with you — when I first got sick and started seeing doctors, I’d say that 80 percent of Western doctors wanted to cut me open on the spot. They wanted to do some sort of liver transplant, or put in what I believe they call a splint, a little filter where they bypass the arteries going into your liver. And they said, “Well, there could be problems. You could lose all senses that relate to creativity, or maybe your arms won’t work for a while, but we can clean them out every four months.” And I’m going, “I don’t want to live like that! I want someone who’s going to give me some positive hope here, to really heal myself, and not just throw a big band-aid on it.” I wanted to completely understand what was going on. And that’s one thing that the Foundation is going to do. We really want to give out information as far as alternatives on what to do. Sometimes Western medicine could be the only answer. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t use it in a combination with something else that’s going to kind of level out the side effects.
I wanted to ask about your father, because he was obviously such a big inspiration on the last project you were working on before you got sick, By the Hand of the Father. Did he ever get to see the play before he died?
He never did. He did get to see the Austin City Limits taping, but he never got to see the complete show. But when I first got a copy of the soundtrack album, Kim and I went out to California and I played it for him. And he took it, and he just kind of sat in the corner by this little boom box, and he played it once, and he turned around and smiled but didn’t say anything. Then he played it over again, and he was really lost in it. He ended up playing it like six or seven times, just listening to it, kind of dreamy. And afterwards he told me, “I think you finally got the beat right!” [Laughs] And he was really proud that Pete and I played together, because Pete was on it, and that it was his story, that his story inspired the whole thing. He was a great storyteller, so it fit right into to his character. I feel so lucky that I was able to give him that before he passed away.
That’s great that he liked it. He sounds like he was a pretty tough critic.
[Laughs] Yeah, he was a really great music critic for us. He was really funny. He always let us know what he thought of certain things we were doing. When we were in punk bands he’d do this crazy imitation of us playing punk rock music. It would make us laugh. He was a character.
You have a new song of your own on the Por Vida record, “Break This Time.” That was something you recorded for a new album before you got sick, wasn’t it?
Yeah, that’s one of the ones I did with [producer] Chris Stamey out in North Carolina, in Chapel Hill at his studio. It was just before I got sick, and we recorded like four songs, and that was one of them. It was going to be the start of a new record. We recorded them as demos really, but they turned out pretty good.
Have you written anything new lately?
I’ve been writing a little bit. I did a soundtrack for Mario de la Vega movie called Robbing Peter, which showed her at the Austin Film Festival and in L.A. I wrote the music for that with Screen Door Music, and my wife Kim and I wrote a corrido that Ruben Ramos sings in the movie, which was pretty cool. And then I did a song for that 13 Ways to Live album that the guys in Screen Door Music put together. So I’ve been doing a little bit, and I’m getting really close to figuring out what I want this next record to sound like.
What are your plans for next year?
My grand plan right now is we’re going to Chicago in February to make up for these dates that I missed in August when I got sick again. And in March we’re going to D.C., and in April we’re going to the Northwest to do one weekend. And then hopefully we’re just going to take it like that — like one weekend a month, which I think is the only realistic thing for me to do after almost 30 years of touring all the time. You know, there’s only so many miles you can do in a 15 passenger van with a bunch of guys before you start to get a little whacked, you know? [Laughs] I think that’s part of the lesson I learned. I mean, I’m 53 — maybe I wasn’t supposed to be doing stuff like driving from Chicago to Minneapolis to Denver night after night anymore. There’s other ways to do it. I was just kind of into that groove for so long, but there’s alternatives.
When do you think you’ll get started on a new record?
Hopefully we’ll start working on a new record by the end of the spring, early summer. That’s what the plans are. And that will be real casual too. If everything works out, maybe I’ll have a little studio here that I can work out of. We’ll see. There’s a lot of things to do, and I’m starting to feel better, and I know I’ll get them done.
As soon as I got sick, Chris Stamey told me, “Now is the time for you to make your dream record, the record you’ve always wanted to make. Don’t let anyone talk you out of doing it the way you want to do it. This is the record. You can stand or fall with it, but it’s going to be the record that you’ve always wanted.” That was kind of mind-blowing at the time, and kind of scared me. I started to think too much about it, and then I started getting sicker and sicker, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. But now I’m feeling so good that I’m starting to think more about what it is that I want to do. I definitely want to include some of the experiences I’ve had, but I don’t want it to be a complete downer of a record. Because without sounding like some trite hippie boy or whatever, I’ve learned a lot. And I’ve learned more positive things than negative things from all of this. Just the fact, like you say, that so many people came to my aid, and how close I got to my family. I’ve never been this close to my kids because I’ve always been traveling. We’ve always been close, but I’ve never been this physically close to them this much. So there’s a lot of plusses. I want people to know that when I start writing again. It’s not going to be like smiley face me — it’ll still be my songs and my approach, but I really want to try some different things musically, and branch out on the things we’ve already started to explore. But then again, some days I think, “I just want to make a real rock record!” It’d be fun to rock out again.