By Richard Skanse
(May/June 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 3)
“I buried my heart, I was born again
with 17 lies and one night of sin
Oh yeah, oh yeah!
I’m a man of the world, it ain’t no thing
I can take a punch, I can take a swing!
Oh yeah, oh yeah!”
— “Man of the World,” from Big Station
Alejandro Escovedo’s new album, Big Station, opens much as his last two did: with guns blazing. The man’s always been a rocker, but time was when his albums didn’t typically hit full intensity right away so much as creep up on you, introducing themselves by way of songs like “Paradise,” “Wave,” and “Arizona” that arrived cloaked in beautiful, haunting mystery and foreboding tension. But Big Station’s “Man of the World” — just like Street Songs of Love’s “Anchor” and Real Animal’s “Always a Friend” before it — crashes through the door and slams a B-12-fortified shot of rock ’n’ roll adrenaline right in your heart. And if you’re not singing along with the gang chorus of “oh yeahs” by the time Escovedo declares “I’m not dead yet!” in the final verse — well, you just might be.
After weathering 37 years of highs and lows in the rock ’n’ roll ring and narrowly escaping death by Hepatitis-C in the last decade, Escovedo himself has earned every ounce of the jubilation packed into those “oh yeahs.” Because for all of that song’s explosive, carpe diem spirit, it really isn’t a cocky battle cry so much as a survivor’s anthem, its defiant bravado counter-balanced by disarming vulnerability. Far from invincible, this “Man of the World” swaggers with a stagger; he takes a punch for every swing, falls behind for every jump ahead, and grapples with feeling frustrated, overrated, and dissipated. And yet, here he is, still standing; “duct-taped together for one last ride,” perhaps, but against all Vegas odds producing the most invigorating music of his life. (Oh yeah!)
Big Station is Escovedo’s fourth album since fighting his way back from the near-fatal health scare that knocked him out of commission in 2003 and sparked a flurry of benefit concerts and even an all-star, two-disc tribute album, 2004’s Por Vida. The Boxing Mirror, produced by John Cale of Velvet Underground fame, was heralded at the time of its 2006 release as Escovedo’s comeback; but that album’s somber, meditative tone was more dark night of the soul than triumphant resurrection. His true return to form was just around the corner, though, as first revealed in full glory on 2008’s ambitious Real Animal and reinforced with 2010’s even more ferocious (if slightly less definitive) Street Songs of Love.
Like both of its immediate predecessors, Escovedo’s latest project is comprised mostly of songs he co-wrote with fellow journeyman rocker Chuck Prophet and boasts production by Brooklyn native Tony Visconti, an industry legend in his own right who spent the ’70s recording fistfuls of classic T. Rex and David Bowie albums. But after the familiar opening wallop of “Man of the World,” Big Station takes a hard left into the title track’s thumping intersection of doo-wop and acoustic-driven glam rock and departs from there to parts unknown. Throughout his long career, Escovedo has collected passport stamps from all over the music map, from the frontlines of the nascent punk scene in the ’70s to ’80s cowpunk, blistering roots rock, and two full decades of critically acclaimed, ruminative singer-songwriter fare (served every which way from solo acoustic to pummeling bar-band blitz to string-laden chamber pop). But he’s never made a record quite like Big Station, so quick on its feet and full of snap and buoyant rhythmic spring, even as the lyrics take an unflinching look at a world in dire straits. In stark contrast to the darkened chambers and brooding atmosphere of so much of his music in the past, it’s a startlingly refreshing, step-lightly-and-carry-a-big-stick approach that Escovedo likens in spirit to reggae music: i.e., social messages that you can dance to.
Incidentally, those lyrics find Escovedo charting new territory, too. Although there are still several telltale nods to his own life experiences, by and large the album finds him making a concerted effort to step outside of his customary, intensely personal frame of reference and examine the world around him from what he deems a “less egocentric” point of view. He cites three songs — “Sally Was a Cop,” “Bottom of the World,” and “Can’t Make Me Run” — as keys to setting the lyrical theme for the album.
“Chuck and I were talking a lot about how things have changed,” explains Escovedo, who doesn’t look quite his 61-years-of-age anymore so today, sitting by a window in Austin Java at 11 a.m., than he did a week ago whilst prowling the stage of the Continental Club, vamping his way through an encore cover of the Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” “We were thinking a lot about the media, and we were thinking a lot about Mexico, because we went down there and witnessed firsthand the problems that Mexico’s facing as far as politics, social conditions, and the way the cartels have put fear into everybody’s lives.”
That chilling state of affairs is captured most evocatively in the striking “Sally Was a Cop,” which brings the album’s recurring sense of shit-hitting-the-fan anxiety to an early boil over an eerily hypnotic disco beat. He says he was aiming for a “Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men kind of vibe,” though truth proved far grimmer than fiction.
“It’s very odd to see 35 bodies just thrown upon a highway in, where was that, Veracruz? It was all over the news — just insane brutality. It’s like the degree of violence has risen to the point where we have no respect for the human body or life anymore. So that really affected us, and we were trying to write about it in a way that wasn’t necessarily political, but just, this is what we see around us.
“There really aren’t any answers in this record,” he concedes. “Just observations.”
It was an observation of an altogether more hopeful variety that inspired Big Station’s title track, however. The day after a show in Pittsburgh last summer, Escovedo went for a run and came across an immense and immensely curious work of public art on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University: a 100-foot, stainless steel pole arching skyward at a 75 degree angle, with seven life-sized fiberglass human statues marching up its length like ants on a tree trunk — or commuters on a stairway to heaven. At the time, he didn’t know the name of the piece (“Walking to the Sky”) or the artist (Jonathon Borofsky), let alone that the structure was a duplicate of the original that’s actually installed far closer to home at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas; but it captured his imagination enough to warrant a snapshot … and later, a song.
“That art piece was initially what the ‘Big Station’ was all about,” he says, scrolling through the photos on his iPhone to find the image. “I showed the picture to Chuck and said, ‘This is the Big Station, right here.’ But where is that? Is that in your mind? Is that in your spirit? For everyone, for every individual, it’s a different place, a different idea; the Big Station could be the planet Earth or your home or your car or a lot of things. But to me, the Big Station is where we began and where we’ll end up. So it’s about a journey, really.”
“All I ever wanted was a four-piece band
Yeah, we’re coming on strong just like an accident.”
— “Chip N’ Tony,” from Real Animal
Alejandro Escovedo’s journey on Big Station Earth began on Jan. 10, 1951 in San Antonio. He was named after his father, Pedro (“Alejandro” is actually his middle name), though he was not the firstborn and wouldn’t remain the youngest for long, ultimately falling somewhere in the middle of a dozen children.
As chronicled in one of Escovedo’s most haunting and powerful songs, “Wave” (featured on both his 2001 album A Man Under the Influence and in By the Hand of the Father, the music and spoken-word stage production he premiered the same year), his father left his native Saltillo, Mexico, while still a young boy, hopping a train without telling his grandmother goodbye in order to track down his parents north of the border. In the years between that dramatic departure and eventually settling into the plumbing trade, Pedro Sr.’s journey included stints as a Mariachi musician, boxer, and semipro baseball player. It was that last one that probably impressed Alejandro the most growing up, back when he still harbored daydreams about becoming a ballplayer himself. But as he told me in an interview for RollingStone.com 11 years ago, “I just wasn’t big enough. And then I found girls and pot, and that ruined me.”
The Escovedo music gene ultimately proved far more dominant, with eight of the children (or by some accounts, all 12) growing up to play in some form or fashion. Some may have taken to it earlier in their life than others, but Alejandro was a late bloomer; he says he barely even ever picked up a guitar before age 24. In fact, prior to forming the True Believers with his younger brother Javier in the ’80s, it seems the only family member he ever jammed with was his older cousin Gloria — singing along to her collection of Elvis, Big Bopper and Chuck Berry 45s. “She was a bopper, so she had all those records and posters on the wall, and I’d sit with her and she’d teach me the dances and how to impersonate Elvis, all that kind of stuff. In fact, I did an impersonation of Elvis once in a school talent show in San Antonio.” He smiles. “It wasn’t good.”
He couldn’t have been more than 6 years old at the time, because 1957 found the whole Escovedo clan moving all the way out west to Southern California. That’s where Alejandro would spend the rest of his childhood and teens, take up surfing, find the aforementioned affinity for girls and pot, and develop an insatiable addiction to a whole new breed of rock ’n’ roll to call his own. Bands like the Beatles and Stones were of course de rigor; but he also took a shine to fringier fare like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, and rolled into the ’70s (and his 20s) riding a Bowie, T. Rex, and Mott the Hoople glam high.
Through it all, though, he still remained just a fan. Two of his older brothers, Pete and Coke (who had 16 and 10 years on him, respectively), had both played percussion together in Santana before securing a record deal for their own Latin orchestra, Azteca. That set the bar for musical success pretty high in the Escovedo clan, and Alejandro had no interest in proving himself not up to snuff. He cites that same simple “insecurity and fear” as the reason why, even after he eventually did start playing guitar, it would still take him several more years before finding the gumption to sing one of his own songs. “I was the guy who never felt he could do anything, who was told all his life he couldn’t do anything,” he explains matter-of-factly. “I was a fuck-up; I was just a guy who looked cool, but didn’t do anything. I was always the guy who was just a dreamer, you know?”
He did manage to find his way north to San Francisco, though, where he started attending community college classes and exploring an interest in film. Together with fellow student Jeff Olener, he hashed out a treatment for a low-budget film about a hopelessly untalented and unbookable rock ’n’ roll band. The kind of band, say, that could be pitted against the Stooges, and consequently turn the world’s biggest Stooges hater into a Stooges convert just by basis of comparison. Of course, they needed a band to play this band, and the more inept, the better. So they cast themselves: Olener on vocals, Escovedo on guitar, and a couple of other friends on bass and drums. The intended film was never finished, but by January 1976, San Francisco suddenly had its first bona fide punk band: The Nuns.
In spite of their best intentions, they weren’t all that bad, either. Or at least not for long. They rehearsed, shuffled through a few different rhythm sections, and added a pair of additional singers, including keyboard-playing “Mill Valley charmer” Jennifer Miro (to quote Escovedo’s “Nuns Song,” from Real Animal). There really wasn’t a ready made niche in the hippie-friendly Bay Area music scene for the Nuns’ savage stab at sloppy “Bowie trash,” so they just ripped a new one out for themselves. They weren’t alone in it for long.
“We don’t want your approval
We know we’re not in tune
We know we’ll never be great
We made it this far
A little piece of fame
Up on the bandstand
Nobody knows no shame.”
— “Nuns Song,” from Real Animal
As far as the Nuns’ infamy outside of San Francisco goes, a big part of that “little piece of fame” is the footnote fact that the band opened up for England’s notorious Sex Pistols on what proved to be the latter’s final show (on Jan. 14, 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom; the Avengers, another female-fronted band that sprang up on the local punk scene shortly after the Nuns, were also on the bill.) The band went on to release a few singles, followed by a self-titled debut on Bomp! Records in 1980, but Escovedo wasn’t on it. He’d shed his Nuns habit a while before it was recorded, opting not to go back home with the band after a gig in New York City. The parting was apparently not on the best of terms, but there’s more affection than acrimony in his voice when he looks back on their time together now, especially in light of Miro’s passing this January in a New York hospice.
“That was real sad, because she died by herself, and she didn’t have anyone. I didn’t know that,” he says. “I always felt a little odd about that, because the Nuns were a funny band for me. I mean, they kind of ripped me off [financially], you know? Not kind of, they did. So that was weird. And then I ended up in Rank and File, and that was odd, too. So these bands have all been just kind of like teachers; they’ve been ways to learn what to do and what not to do. But still, the Nuns were my first band, and I’ll always love them for that, and I’ll always love them individually, because they were great guys. And we hung out and had amazing times. Our big goal was just to look cool.”
Escovedo was still living in New York (at the infamous Chelsea Hotel), coming off a short stint backing moody avant-garde artist Judy Nylon, when he started his next band, Rank and File, with Chip Kinman. Chip and his brother, bass player Tony Kinman, had previously co-fronted another band in California, the hardcore but harmony-laden Dils, and it wasn’t long before the two brothers were singing together again at the front of Rank and File. Escovedo played guitar and sang backup, and drummer Slim Evans completed the lineup featured on the band’s 1982 debut, Sundown.
Rank and File’s music was right in step with that of like-minded contemporaries like Nashville’s Jason and the Scorchers, putting them in the vanguard of the punks-gone-country movement that seeded the “alt-country” explosion of the ’90s. But the novelty appeal of playing rhythm guitar behind a pair of latter-day Everly Brothers wore out quickly for Escovedo, who had finally started writing songs of his own not long after moving with the band down to Austin. Maybe it had something to do with finally coming home to the state of his birth, or with hitting the big 3-0. Maybe he just wanted to cut the faux country crap and rock again. Regardless, he quit the Kinmans after Sundown and decided to start a new rock ’n’ roll band with a brother of his own.
The hermano Escovedo who won the “come to Austin” call was Javier. He was several years younger than Alejandro but brought just as much experience to the table, having launched his West Coast punk band, the Zeros, in 1976 while still in high school. He sang, played guitar, and wrote his own songs, too, and for the better part of their first year playing together with bassist Denny DeGorio and drummer Kevin Foley, the Escovedos took turns in the driver’s seat. Then they added Jon Dee Graham, late of Austin’s the Skunks, to the mix, and the band locked into the triple-guitar, three-singer battle formation of Austin music legend. They called themselves True Believers, and by mid-decade, they sounded fit to conquer the world, blasting catchy, earnest roots rock through a wall of guitars and a spinning prism of Faces, New York Dolls and T. Rex.
“There were times when I was like, ‘This is a lot of sound,’ but the whole band played to the edge, I mean the absolute edge of their ability every time they played,” enthuses singer-songwriter Troy Campbell, who was so inspired by an early True Believers show in his native Dayton, Ohio, that he took Alejandro’s advice and immediately started a band with his own brother, later moving to Austin. “And they really mixed it up, because Javier was like a really good pop singer who looked cool, like Johnny Thunders cool, and then Al had kind of a punk Tom Petty thing going on and Jon Dee was like your Tom Waits. So they had three singers, which some people might find distracting in any band besides The Band, but I just thought it was really fun.”
The True Believers’ buzz extended far beyond Austin; they toured hard, sharing bills with acts as varied as Los Lobos (with whom they became fast friends) and Guns N’ Roses, and they recorded two albums for the EMI-distributed indie label Rounder Records. Unfortunately, only one of them made it to public release, and it wasn’t the great one; the songs on 1986’s True Believers certainly hold up, but the album’s thin, flat production (by Memphis’ Jim Dickinson) leaves the band’s much-ballyhooed roar up to the imagination. The second album (helmed by Jeff Glixman) righted that wrong with a vengeance, but a massive, merger-instigated house cleaning at EMI swept “the Troobs” off the roster. The ensuing struggle to untangle the record’s masters from legal limbo and secure a new deal, compounded by various other tensions within the band, ultimately proved their undoing. Javier bailed, and Alejandro and Graham labored on with game faces and a new rhythm section (DeGorio and Foley having already been axed going into the second album), but it was all over before the ’80s were.
“I think all of us who were in the Believers, I know it’s corny to say, but we believed in that band, and we believed in the power of rock ’n’ roll and how it would change our lives,” says Escovedo. “And when we fell short, it was pretty devastating, you know? I mean, Jon and I tried to keep it going with J.D. [Foster] and Hector [Munoz], but it just wasn’t happening without Javier.”
The Believers’ second album was finally released posthumously in 1994, compiled along with the debut on a Rykodisc CD called Hard Road. But the Escovedo brothers and Graham had each moved on in their separate careers by then, and though the odd, one-off and usually spontaneous SXSW reunion appearance every decade or so since has been ecstatically received by fans (especially by those who missed out on the Troobs the first time around), nostalgia alone has never been enough to rekindle the true faith.
“The Believers reunions aren’t so much fun for me,” Escovedo admits candidly, albeit with an insistence that it’s not because of any bad blood in the brotherhood. “I mean, I like playing with Jon, but I don’t like that thing where we all just get up and play the old stuff. I think we’re too good for that, we’re much better than that. And I wish people could see how good we could be if we just stopped and took a week to rehearse, or even wrote and played a couple of new tunes. Because all three of us are much better songwriters than we were, better guitar players, better singers.”
He says that not just as a true believer, but as a matter of fact. Because however much the Troobs may have played to the “absolute edge of their abilities” together in their ’80s heyday, Escovedo’s ensuing solo career would prove right from the outset that beyond that edge was a whole new world of previously untapped artistry.
“It’s all about this love
It’s all about this pain
It’s all about the way
We break, to love again.”
— “About This Love,” from A Man Under the Influence
When traced all the way back to his inauspicious beginning with the Nuns, picking up an instrument he’d never really played before in order to play the part of a guitarist in a make-believe movie band, Escovedo’s entire music career can jokingly be likened to the word’s longest exercise in method acting.
“It’s true, it’s true,” he acknowledges with an easy laugh. But of course it’s not. However sincere his claim that the Nuns’ main objective, even after becoming a fair deal more than just a concept in a student film treatment, was to just to “look cool,” he was always too much of a true fan at heart to fake his way through the whole rock ’n’ roll ride.
“I think there’s a difference between me and a lot of the guys I started out with, and that’s that they just didn’t keep doing it,” he says. “I mean, really doing it: Starting to write songs and sing, and to really kind of make records that were saying something. There comes a point where you become the music and the music becomes you, it becomes one thing. The air you breath is musical, and the world you see is musical, and it’s all about, ‘how do we get this into these songs, how do we make the band better, how do I get the guitar to sound the way I want it to? I can’t quite get it yet, but I’m going to work on it until I do.’ And a lot of my friends didn’t follow that through. They got involved in different parts of rock ’n’ roll, sometimes just the trappings, like the drugs or the girls or the liquor or whatever. They got caught up in that, and they became caricatures. I always try to avoid that.”
Not that he was always successful. “There was a point where the alcohol and stuff was getting the best of me,” he admits. “And I was becoming just this party clown kind of guy, like an MC more than a musician. More, ‘Let’s all drink, I’ll toast this, toast that.’ It was all a party, a celebration. And it was fun. But it led to bad things for me. I almost died.”
But Escovedo was first diagnosed with Hepatitis-C in 1996, and it wasn’t until after being hospitalized for advanced cirrhosis of the liver following a 2003 performance in Phoenix, Ariz., that he finally swore off alcohol for good. So although sobriety has been a key clause in the new lease on life that has since resulted in four of the finest records he’s ever made, he had already become well and truly “one” with his music and songwriting muse for the better part of two decades, committed to the path of singing songs that really had something to say as early as “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over,” the very first song he wrote for True Believers. After the Believers gave up the ghost, he continued chasing the sounds in his head down myriad avenues, from John Cale and Lou Reed/“Street Hassle”-inspired chamber-pop string ensembles and his 15-piece Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra to back into the garage (and barrooms) with his unapologetically loud and obnoxious, boys-night-out-with-the-Stooges vehicle, Buick MacKane.
Strains of all of the above would continue to inhabit Escovedo’s music for years to come (and still do), but it was neither his record collection nor his journeyman experience onstage that directly inspired the staggering beauty and pathos of his first two solo albums, 1992’s Gravity and ’94’s Thirteen Years. Rather, it was the 1991 suicide of his second wife, Bobbie Levie; the couple had recently separated, but had two children and a long history together, going all the way back to just before Escovedo’s move to San Francisco in 1975. Escovedo was still reeling from the loss, his grief spilling into song, when guitarist/producer Stephen Bruton befriended him and coaxed him into the studio.
“When Bruton came into my life, he gave me a verification and a confidence that I just hadn’t had before,” says Escovedo. “And his spirit and his belief in me was major. I mean, I really think that the only reason I’m still doing this was because of him. I was ready to quit. My wife had just killed herself, I had kids, and I was ready to quit — or maybe just play a little happy hour every now and then, that kind of thing. And then he came in and said, ‘No, we’re going to make a record. You’ve got to make a record.’ So he was with me through all of that grief process, helping me, talking to me, being a good friend, and he had a vision for the record that was spot on. I couldn’t tour with the Orchestra, so he just wanted to make something simple that I could take on the road and play with a band or as a trio or duo or whatever. But the most important point that he made was about the songs: ‘We have to get these songs down … you’re still learning as a singer, but we’ll get these songs down in a beautiful way.’”
They recorded Gravity together in nine days. Although the whole album is steeped in heartbreak and loss, Escovedo calls them “the greatest nine days of my life.”
“I’ve tried to tell people this, but Bruton was like a guide,” he continues. “He definitely woke me up to this whole world of possibilities that I hadn’t know. I mean, the first song that we recorded together was ‘Broken Bottle,’ and I heard the playback and just went, ‘Fuck, man — I’ve never heard it like that before. That’s really us? I did that?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, man, that’s you. That’s your band.’ I said, ‘Wow.’”
Escovedo and Bruton went on to make two more records together, Thirteen Years and 1996’s With These Hands. Escovedo still considers Gravity and Thirteen Years to be two of his very best records, and smiles sadly when recalling how he and Bruton had frequently talked about working together again before Bruton’s death of cancer in 2009. “There was always a matter of how to get past whatever label he was on or I was on, so we decided we were going to make a secret record that nobody knew about. And he was always pushing me to play more guitar.”
Although a mainstream breakthrough was never in the cards, Escovedo finished out the ’90s and rolled into the 21st century riding high on a wave of widespread critical acclaim and cult success. No Depression magazine famously named him its “Artist of the Decade” two years before the decade was even over, and 2001’s sweeping A Man Under the Influence, helmed by Chris Stamey of the dBs fame in Chapel Hill, N.C., was almost unanimously hailed as his crowning achievement. It very nearly was — and his swan song, to boot.
It’s been nine years now since that fateful night his Hepatitis-C caught up with him and knocked him down in Arizona, and six since his return to making records with The Boxing Mirror. The overwhelming show of support from fans, family and peers, most notably via the 2004 Por Vida tribute album featuring the likes of Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter, Lucinda Williams, and fellow True Belivers Graham and Javier Escovedo, went a long way towards helping the uninsured musician cover his medical bills and inspiring his eventual recovery. But he admits that returning to the stage was hardly foremost on his mind when he was at his worst, his body ravaged as much by the aggressive drugs he was on as by the disease itself.
“The ambition was always just to get better, and not necessarily to get better and make music, but just to get better so I could be a father and a good husband. It was all about that,” he says. “And at first everyone was just trying to get me back in the van: ‘We’ll patch you up and you’ll be back on the van in a few weeks.’ And I’m going, ‘The last thing I want is to be back in the van right now. You don’t understand — the van is why I’m here.’ Because I kind of blamed it on the music at first, and on the lifestyle and on my bad decisions. I wasn’t blaming other people, I was blaming myself, but then you kind of go, ‘Well, why me? How came I got it, and the guy who was my roommate for 10 years on the road and drank more than I did, didn’t?’ So you go through a lot of different phases. But in the end I think the thing that was important was I learned a lot — about people, friends, family, love, insecurities … and how to get back up on your feet and forge ahead. And my music is better and my whole life is better as a result.”
It goes without saying that he’s feeling a whole lot better now, too — thanks mostly, he says, to Tibetan medicine, sobriety, and a conscious effort to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. But he was still a ways away from 100 percent when he returned to the studio to make The Boxing Mirror. Although it teamed him with producer John Cale, whose Velvet Underground and solo albums have long been pivotal influences in his own music, Escovedo admits that the album “was a record that I didn’t want to make, but I had to make it.”
“And once I made it, I was done with it,” he says. “I mean, we hardly ever played any of those songs live, and now I don’t think we ever go back to any of them. It was just a hard album to make. I remember ‘Evita’s Lullaby’ was one of the first songs that I wrote for that record, and it was right after my dad died. There was just a lot of shit going on at the time. But John told me, ‘I want you to go deeper than you’ve ever gone into yourself. And I want you to sound healthy when you sing.’ Those were the two things he wanted. So it was pretty intense.”
Shouldering the heaviest load of emotional baggage of any record in his catalog this side of Gravity, The Boxing Mirror had depth and intensity in spades. Also like Gravity, it was not without its fair share of somber but occasionally even hopeful beauty. But fun? Not so much. Come time to make his next record, though, Escovedo was in a completely different headspace. And so was his next producer.
“I’d known about Alejandro and his music for at least a decade before,” says Tony Visconti, whose credits include such legendary albums as T. Rex’s Electric Warrior and a baker’s dozen Bowie albums, including Space Oddity, Low, and “Heroes.” “And then I got involved with a fund-raising event for him when I was the president for the New York chapter of NARAS — we were rooting for Alejandro all the way up in New York. But when we first started talking about working together, one thing I told him was, ‘A lot of your music is very low-key, with very dark subjects and all that. I think you and I should make a rock ’n’ roll album together.’”
They ended up making two of them: 2008’s Real Animal, an epic autobiographical tour of Escovedo’s punk and glam-rock wonder years that was equal parts Raw Power punch and bittersweet Mott the Hoople sentimentality, and 2010’s Street Songs of Love, a pugnacious Raging Bull of a four-piece-rock-band record with a chip on its shoulder and a raw, tender heart on its sleeve. Whatever doubts and insecurities Escovedo had fostered during his sick leave and dragged into The Boxing Mirror for pensive review seemed all but fully purged from his system.
“People talk about records being a reflection of the time and circumstances in which they were made, and The Boxing Mirror, for so many reasons, felt really off balance to me and awkward,” recalls Brian Standefer, an Austin-based cellist who’s played with Escovedo on and off since the mid-90s and appeared on six of his albums. “Maybe that was the way it was supposed to happen, but it never really felt like a band making a record together to me, and I think Al was really not feeling too great yet and still struggling with where he wanted to go as a person. But when we got to doing Real Animal, there was more of a feeling of collaboration on the whole thing that was really special. Al was co-writing with Chuck Prophet, and Tony Visconti did a great job of promoting a real band mentality and getting everyone feeling like a family again. We cut the album live with everyone in the room at the same time. And Al was feeling a lot healthier, too, and maybe just more comfortable in his own skin. I guess that’s just a natural progression after going through what he did: To be off balance and thrown into the air, and then when you land, you kind of have to figure out where you are and what your place is. And Tony and Chuck both had a big part in helping with that.”
SABOR A MI
“Sometimes I wonder where on earth we’re going
Sometimes I wonder if we ain’t already there …”
— “Common Mistake,” from Big Station
However grounded Escovedo might have seemed on Real Animal, though, Big Station finds him very much right back up in the air.
Career wise, he’s never been on surer footing or had a more powerful industry support crew behind him, most notably the folks at Jon Landau Management (aka Team Springsteen). Tony Visconti, the producer of almost all of T. Rex and David Bowie’s most famous records, is now just as much his producer, and he’s also knocked one out with John Cale and been invited onstage by Ian Hunter to sing “All the Young Dudes.” That such artists, whom Escovedo still calls “giants in my eyes … they’re gods,” should deign to consider him “like them” – as a peer, even – is an honor he does not take for granted. Nor is it lost on him how lucky he is to be healthy again, still making records that he’s immensely proud of and eager to play on the road. He’s playing more and more guitar of late, too, just as his late friend Bruton had wanted him to. He’s also happy to be back in Austin, after living most of the last decade in Canyon Lake and Wimberley. “I have seven children, and six of them live here, so I’m surrounded by my kids again. It’s good to be reunited with my family.”
All of that’s well and good. And yet, listen to almost any song on Big Station, even the ostensibly less “egocentric” ones, and you’ll find his view of the world to be as oftentimes sideways or upside down as right-side up. He’s nine years sober but still surrounded and constantly tempted by the siren calls of “Party People,” and sings of his “darker days” and “self-destructive ways” in a wistful manner suggesting he’d happily dive right back into the deep end with all the other “Headstrong Crazy Fools” if only he didn’t know better. Not that he’s all that wiser for being older, anyway, at least not in regards to sidestepping love’s messiest “Common Mistake,” having pulled into Big Station fresh off his second divorce of the decade.
What’s it all about, Al? Like the man said at the outset, there are no answers here. Only observations. Call it, as he offers in reference to one song, “a hard view from the bottom of the world,” or else dispatches from that elusive, intangible “Big Station.” But wherever that is, it’s most certainly not a musical comfort zone. Right from the start of making their third record together, Escovedo and Visconti made a conscious effort not to repeat themselves, beginning with their decision not to make another guitar-driven rock record. Or at least, not an amped-to-11, electric guitar-driven rock record. All of the album’s most immediately assertive, catchy anthems, like “Man of the World,” “Bottom of the World,” and “Headstrong Crazy Fools” (one of two songs Escovedo and Visconti wrote together) jump from the speakers with a crisp, acoustic buoyancy that brings to mind the explosive urgency of the Who.
“To me, a lot of the greatest rock ’n’ roll songs are really kind of acoustic-oriented,” says Escovedo. “When Bruton and I were making a record, we would always marvel at how we’d do basic tracks with two acoustic guitars and a rhythm section, and those songs would just be rocking and swinging. And then we’d start to add on electric guitars, and the weight of them would just bog it down.”
Guitarist David Pulkingham and bassist Bobby Daniel were both carried over from Street Songs, but key to “changing the whole vibe of the band,” according to Escovedo, was the introduction of drummer Chris Searles to the mix, replacing longtime Escovedo cohort Hector Munoz. Escovedo had made good use of a Roland TR-808 drum machine while writing with Prophet, and though he wanted a live drummer on the record, the songs called for a lighter touch. “Hector’s an amazing drummer, but he’s a very heavy drummer, more like a big, loud [John] Bonham drummer,” Escovedo explains. “Chris has more subtlety sometimes, and a lighter feel, and that kind of propelled these songs into another place.”
Visconti concurs. “I think Chris was really central to changing the direction of the sound and to Alejandro’s desire to leap into the unknown,” says the producer. “When I worked with Bowie, it was always leaps in the dark like this. Alejandro could have rested on his laurels, but he didn’t, and I really respect him for taking this adventurous approach.”
One tried-and-true aspect of recording the last two albums that they did stick with for Big Station, though, was an effort to capture as many takes live as possible, including the vocals.
“Al is all about feel,” says Visconti. “I don’t care if he sings in tune or out of tune, you gotta capture the man’s feel when he sings. If he’s feeling right, the vocal takes are excellent, and on Real Animal, he was so charged up and so happy to be doing it that way, that we were able to use about 60 or 70 percent of his live vocals on the record. And I’d say maybe about 30 percent of the vocals on this album were live takes, too. Or if not live, it’d be a take where he’d give the band a break after we’d nailed a take, and sing a second take immediately afterwards while he was still in the mood of that song. It’s that spontaneity that he obviously loves more than anything. I work with some singers who would like to sing 40 or 50 times to get it right, but it’s very hard to get Alejandro to sing anything more than twice, honestly. The third time — you have to have a really good reason for him to do it a third time.”
There was one exception to that rule. “Sabor a Mi” (“Be True to Me”), the classic Latin love song, written by Alvaro Carrillo, that closes Big Station. “That was the first time that he sang in Spanish, and he worried that his accent had to be perfect,” says Visconti. Background singers Karla Manzur and Gina Holt, both fluent Spanish speakers, patiently coached him through every take. “That track meant a lot to him in more ways than I really know. He’d always go into a zone when he had to sing that song or even just think about it. I think it’s one he’s wanted to do all his life.”
“It was my father’s favorite song,” affirms Escovedo. “He sang it to my mom all the time. And even though we do a very different version, I think you get that sense of romance and melancholy and reverie, that beautiful place that lovers go to. And so, I don’t know … those kind of things are really important.
“I got a beautiful letter the other day from a friend in El Paso,” he continues. “His ex-wife’s mother lives in Juarez, and I guess she comes and takes care of the kids during the week, and then he takes her home for the weekend. And he was giving her a ride back, and he put our version of ‘Sabor a Mi’ on, and she started singing softly right away, started talking about all the different events in her life that that song had played a part in. Baptismals, weddings … it was her husband’s favorite song, they danced to it all the time. She started to cry and talk about these stories.”
He slips into one of those zones Visconti spoke of, and smiles.
“To me, that’s the most powerful gift in this process we call music.”