Born in San Antonio into a musically rich family, the poetic songwriter, compassionate storyteller and passionate rock musician Alejandro Escovedo has been busy making music since the late 1970s — quite an achievement, in a tough industry, for a resilient man who has had to overcome hardship several times.
His raw energy onstage, coupled with a deeply sensitive and empathetic heart, make him a unique and remarkable artist and human. Backed by The Rant Band (who initially came together to back Ian Hunter), he will headline the fall edition of Hoboken’s biannual Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, taking place all day on Oct. 2 on Washington Street in downtown Hoboken. There is no admission charge.
When we spoke, he felt familiar as well as spiritual, possessing wisdom that arises from observing and experiencing deep pain, loss and love.
He has created a deep and diverse catalog of songs. “I’ve just always felt like it’s a never-ending urge, churning, search … whatever you want to call it. It’s always about exploring, never thinking that you’ve got it down. In a sense, sometimes there’s a bit of insecurity and nervousness about where you’re going — I always seem to find my way (and find) something that makes me feel good about what I’m doing.
“My first producer when I started my solo career was Stephen Bruton — a wonderful, wonderful, beautiful man — and he would always say about me, ‘He’s a swell bunch of guys.’ ”
Formerly of the alt-country band Rank and File and the roots rock band The True Believers, Escovedo has been a critically acclaimed solo artist since the early ’90s, and his solo work is rich and compelling.
“Alejandro Escovedo is the real deal — poet, rocker, raconteur,” said James Mastro of The Rant Band, The Bongos and other bands. “Armed with a guitar and a pen, he’s dangerous. When he sings, you can hear the wind blow across the Texas plains that he hails from, and the songs he writes will break your heart while you dance in the mosh pit. The Rant Band is thrilled to be his band for this special meeting of East meets Southwest.”
Rant Band member Mark Bosch, who also plays with Garland Jeffreys and others, said “We had big fun at the Alejandro/Rant Ian homage shows this past June at the NYC City Winery. This time we will delve into Alejandro’s deep catalog of songs. Al’s got style and grace and we’ll be pulling out all the stops at the Hoboken show.”
They are scheduled to perform at 4:30 p.m. Other performers will include Freedy Johnston, Cliff Westfall, Rio the Messenger, Frankie Morales & the Mambo of the Times Orchestra, The Gentlemen of Soul, Hudson City Rats, Matt Madly, 3 Dollars and Sir Synthesis. For more information, visit hobokennj.gov.
Escovedo met Rant Band members through Hunter, but also knows some of them from the ’80s Hoboken music scene. “The Bongos, The True Believers and Rank and File used to play on the same bill in Hoboken at Maxwell’s,” he said. “I know the town pretty well. I’ve always enjoyed Hoboken a lot.
“I once got to play with Bruce Springsteen in Houston with The E Street band backing us up. That band’s pretty remarkable and I rate The Rant Band up there with those guys.”
He is referring to shredding onstage with Springsteen at an arena show in Houston on a duet version of Escovedo’s bouncy 2008 song, “Always a Friend” (see video below). The performance appeared on Springsteen’s EP Magic Tour Highlights. Springsteen also made a guest appearance on Escovedo’s 2010’s Street Songs of Love.
I guessed that the 2008 guest appearance was a great moment. “It was crazy, insane … are you a surfer?” No, but I can swim.
“It’s like taking off on a 40-foot wave … it’s really exciting and crazy and you hang on for dear life and pray you don’t make a mistake.
“I feel the same way about playing with The Rant Band. I just try to keep up with them. It’s going to be pretty amazing to be playing my songs with that band.”
Escovedo made his mark early on in the punk band The Nuns, who opened for The Sex Pistols at their final concert in San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in 1978. He lived in San Francisco at the time but left later in 1978 and moved into the landmark Chelsea Hotel in New York and became enmeshed in New York’s Lower East Side music scene, joining the band of avant-garde vocalist Judy Nylon.
You can listen, below, to his 2008 song “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” which was co-written with Chuck Prophet and mentions being at the landmark building the night Sid Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen was murdered. Escovedo sings, “I lived in the Chelsea once, on 7th and 23rd/We came to live inside the myth of everything we heard/The poets on their bar stools/They just loved it when it rained/They comb their hair in the mirror and grow addicted to the pain.”
“The song says we came to embrace the myth of everything we’d heard,” said Escovedo. “I was living in a world that I had only read about or seen in Andy Warhol movies. So for me to be in it and playing with Judy Nylon, that was a dream come true.”
In the 1980s, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he joined Rank and File. After leaving, he formed The True Believers in 1983 with his brother Javier, who played with the punk band The Zeros. The True Believers broke up in 1988.
While working at a record store, he started to focus on songwriting. Around the time that his second wife, Bobbi Levie, committed suicide after the birth of their second daughter in 1991, he released his first two heartbreaking solo albums, Gravity (1992) and Thirteen Years (1994).
He grappled not only with the loss of Levie, but also with a devastating battle with Hepatitis C. He started to get sick in the late ’90s. “I came back from a tour and I was really ill and I couldn’t figure out what it was,” he said. “I went to a massage therapist in Austin, a Mexicano — he said, ‘I think you have something with your liver.’ He sent me to another doctor … He told me I had non-A or non-B hepatitis. They didn’t even have a name for it.
“I was supposed to leave on a trip to Paris. I was so sick on tour. The band was taking bets about whether I would make it. When got to Paris I was ill all through a two-week residency.”
He went to see a series of doctors and healers. “There really was no treatment in the ’90s,” he said. “There was a 35 percent chance for someone my age getting rid of it or even surviving it with my blood work. The last thing my doctor said to me was, ‘You should live the best life that you can while you can.’ Everything I read in the late ’90s said I was fatal.
“I started to get into a depressive state … my friend Stephen Bruton said, ‘Get off the coach, go outside, play your guitar.’ I saw Naomi Judd’s doctor and started to feel better. I started to tour and when I felt better, a lot of the old bad habits came back. One glass of wine led to a bottle of wine and that led to a case of wine.”
In 2003 — while performing “By the Hand of the Father,” a theater piece developed from songs he wrote about his father — he collapsed and was deathly ill.
“I was bleeding internally in three places and was taken to the emergency room,” he said. “I made it through the performance and then was hospitalized for a while and had a near death experience in the hospital. Western medicine wants to cut you up right away. They suggested a liver transplant; I was trying to avoid that.”
Eventually, he found a doctor who started him on interferon and “that stuff was poison and it almost killed me again,” he said. “I lasted a few months on it. I got off it and immediately started to feel a little better.
“I met a Tibetan doctor and he was really beautiful and he introduced me to another doctor and she really saved me. Her Tibetan medicine really kept me alive. Three or four years ago I got on a new medicine. The first couple of days I felt bad, then on Day 3, I popped out of bed and said, ‘Let’s get some breakfast tacos, and then in a month or two it was completely gone.”
He didn’t have medical insurance when he became ill, so friends and colleagues organized benefit concerts to raise funds for medical costs and living expenses.
“As soon as I got sick, Austin began a benefit and then it just spread,” Escovedo said. “There was one in Chicago, in Frisco, in New York with Levon Helm, Garland (Jeffreys), Ian Hunter … people everywhere played.
In 2014, Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo was released. It was a double album to raise additional funds for him featuring interpretations of his songs by Lucinda Williams, Ian Hunter, John Cale, The Jayhawks, Los Lonely Boys, Charlie Musselwhite, Lenny Kaye and others.
“It was just incredible,” Escovedo says. “I remember the first couple tracks that came in was ‘One More Time’ by Ian and John Cale singing ‘She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.’ It was really crazy. I was just so (physically) weak and emotionally weak. It got emotional when I heard those songs because those guys were so important to my music. I drew so much from them. I felt so fortunate to work with them. And Ian … The True Believers were trying to be the Mott the Hoople of the Southwest. I’ve always been trying to rip him off and then to hear your song … in a way, it was almost like it was being done correctly.”
I wondered if his work as co-founder of the Austin SIMS Foundation (aiding musicians and music industry members with mental health and substance abuse problems) had been inspired by the support he has received over the years. “Yes, yes,” he said in a hushed voice. “We did a project for them in the summer and we did media interviews and raised awareness. I’ll be playing a benefit in North Carolina in November with Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple and Mitch Easter (to raise money) to open up a SIMS office in Chapel Hill.”
Escovedo’s most recent album (and 14th as a solo artist), 2018’s The Crossing, is a defiant and politically relevant epic about immigration to the United States. It was recorded in Italy in collaboration with Italian musician Antonio Gramentieri and his band Don Antonio and recounts the tale of two young men who come to Texas — one from Mexico named one from Italy. We experience their difficult journey through Escovedo’s evocative lyrics, and learn about their love of punk rock groups MC5, The Stooges and The Ramones and beat authors such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Escovedo’s haunting, hypnotic title track (listen below) commands attention with every painful word, including the lines, “I lost my innocence at the ICE” and “Thoughts and prayers, they never last/Don’t waste them on the past/We all become history when we make the crossing.” The album also came out in a Spanish-language version, titled La Cruzada, last year.
The powerful “Fury and Fire” was “inspired by Trump coming down the escalators that day when he announced that he was going to run for President,” Escovedo said. “He said that Mexicans were drug dealers and rapists. I think he said, ‘There might be a few good people.’ That’s a subject that’s always been sensitive to me because of my father, of course. My father came from Saltillo and crossed the border when he was 12 and began his life on his own. My culture and my family are from Mexico. We refer to Texas as occupied Mexico.
“Have you read the book “Forget the Alamo?,” he asked, referring to the book “Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth” by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford. “You’ve got to read it. It was inspired by Trump based on his obvious racism and verbiage.”
He added, “Listen to album’s song ‘Rio Navidad,’ a spoken word track I wrote that with Freddy Trujillo from (the band) Richmond Fontaine and (his bandmate) Willy Vlautin.
“You ought to check out not only (Vlautin’s) band, but his books too — he’s amazing. I came up with that dialogue and Willy contributed to the (part about) the Texas Ranger. A lot of it is based on what Trump was going for when he got elected.”
The song is a searing indictment of racism in America. In it, the narrator says, “The border crossed me, I didn’t cross it,” and references the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico ceded much of its territory to the United States.
On The Crossing’s “Teenage Luggage,” about racism in the music industry, Escovedo recounts his frustrating search for the America expressed in songs he hears in a record store. He sings: “America is beautiful/American is ill/America’s a bloodstain in a honky-tonk kill … you don’t know me/you’re just a bigot with a guitar.”
He says this last line “was aimed at all the people you meet along the way who are alternative this and alternative that … indie this indie that, but there’s still a lot of racism with racist jokes and racist references. And they seem to think it’s OK.”
His experience with radio also revealed racism. Escovedo said, “When my records came out and the record promoters were trying to get them played on the radio, the DJs or the program director would say, ‘We can’t pronounce his name, how do you expect us to play his music? We already have one Mexican band, we don’t need another.’
“My records were never in the rock ‘n’ roll section; they were in world beat, salsa, Mexican … whatever it was that they had, that wasn’t white. I was born in San Antonio. I love my name and I’m proud of my name and I never wanted to change it, but that seems to be a problem. I should have made up a symbol like Prince.”
Are the stories in The Crossing autobiographical? “Totally,” he said, adding that Gramentieri “made the trek from this little village in Italy to Austin to hear the music he wanted to hear. For him it was the blues, R&B, Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray (Vaughan), but to the characters … in The Crossing, they’re looking for punk rock music, but it’s the same yearning. It was autobiographical for us.”
Alejandro and Javier Escovedo are not the only musicians in the family. Their father, who moved the family from San Antonio to California when Escovedo was a boy, played in mariachi bands and swing combos before and after he emigrated from Mexico. Escovedo’s brother Pete is a jazz artist, has played in Santana, and founded the group Azteca. Another brother, Coke, worked with both jazz and Latin groups and was a member of Santana and Malo. Pete’s daughter and Alejandro’s niece is Sheila Escovedo, the pop star known as Sheila E., who has played with Prince and others. His brother Mario played with the band The Dragons.
Escovedo married hair stylist and photographer Nancy Rankin in 2014 and had a challenging honeymoon at El Pescadero, Mexico, when a Category 4 hurricane made landfall. After that harrowing experience, they recovered from post-traumatic stress disorder and have found peace together. “She’s amazing,” Escovedo said. “She’s wonderful. I’m happy with her and we’re happy with each other. It’s all good.”
We discussed his current projects. “At this point, it’s been three years since I put out a record, almost,” he said. “I’m getting ready. The writing is starting to happen again. And I’m starting to feel good about what kind of record I’m going to make.
“But my thoughts have really been going back to the songs that I wrote early on, and I’m thinking about what inspired those and sometimes those are tough songs to sing. I’ve been doing this song ‘Sometimes’ and it’s really about the death of my (second) wife and how my children and I survived all that. So that one’s a little rough. I’ve been doing that one lately. The other one is ‘The Way It Goes’ and it comes from the same period of time.
“As you get older, you lose people — more and more friends, more and more people who inspired you or lovers, people who are very close to you, relatives, family.”
I suggested that when writing prose or poems, it’s hard to replicate those raw feelings of trauma that occur when you’re young and every experience is new.
“That’s very true,” he said. “I remember hearing a story about (producer) Daniel Lanois and Bob Dylan making a record. I think Lanois asked Bob if he could write something like his early stuff that he wrote and Dylan said, ‘No, you fucking do that; I can’t do that again.’ ”
I wondered if he ever wants to take a break from touring and recording?
“In a strange way, and it wouldn’t have been my choice as to how to take a break, but the course of COVID put us on a pause button for almost three years,” he said. “I didn’t write (songs) during that period of time … I’ve been working on a book and other things … I paid more attention to living on the property where I live with my wife and our dogs and taking in a lot of nature, which is hard to do when you’re on the road as I have been for 45 years. That opportunity doesn’t arise that often.
“It was a roller coaster ride,” he said. Indeed, during the pandemic he lost a colleague, John Prine, to COVID. “We were about to go to the Libera Icon Awards in 2020. I saw him in Australia, we had made plans to meet up in New York and possibly do a song together. That was very tough. Very hard.
“There were moments when I was really enjoying not doing that (writing songs and touring) for a while and there were moments that I fell into a kind of dark place in which I was questioning why wasn’t I doing it or if I even wanted to do it again.
“There had been so much touring for so many years. I got used to being at home after a while and I really loved being home. It was a little tough going back out there. But once I did, I’ve been having the greatest experiences playing live. And really, the first show I did was with the Rant Band last June at City Winery.
“Those gigs were really like the medicine. It made me feel really good about rock ‘n’ roll, first of all because they are such a great band. They’re so talented. All of them. And just a great bunch of guys, too. They made it easy for me to get back there.
“Once I did that, I started playing my own music, I started reading into the catalog of songs that I don’t play all the time. And I’m also playing a lot as a trio — and that gives the music a completely new feel — with musicians here in Texas: Scott Danbom, who’s with the band Centro-matic from Texas … and Mark Henne on drums who played with Black Joe Lewis.”
He will likely be playing additional gigs with The Rant Band. “There is talk about next year going to Barcelona in March and doing a small, short English run and possibly going to The Netherlands for some shows.
“Every year I put on a show in January at either the Moody Theater or the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin. They’re usually larger production shows where I have a theme; we did one about people we lost from cancer. Jesse Malin came and a lot of other great artists. I did the history of Austin music — 60 years of Austin music and about 30 artists. I did a tribute to Leonard Cohen with a great production for that one.
“The one coming up next year is the 50th anniversary of the album Mott by Mott the Hoople and the Rant Band will be out here with me and we are going to do the album in its entirety and we are inviting special guests. It’s going to be a beautiful thing with lights and video — three screens to show images — on Jan. 14.”
Escovedo is working on four albums and a memoir.
He calls his memoir, which he plans to release by the end of the year, “mythical” because “I’m creating my own myth, as we all do,” he said. He is writing the memoir with author John Phillip Santos, “a wonderful writer from San Antonio … he’s actually the first Chicano Rhodes scholar. Next year, I’m going to Calgary to work with a theater group called One Yellow Rabbit on a one-man show based on the memoir and I’ll probably do it with my trio (Danbom and Henne).”
“I’m headed to Spain in November to make another record with Don Antonio. That will be more like a songwriters record. And next year I want to do a record with the band that I have here (in Austin) and one with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck in Oregon.”
We discussed the interconnected nature of politics and music. He said, “The Nuns wanted to be Detroit and New York … we drew their influence from The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and MC5 and loved that sound and I also loved the political nature of those bands. You can argue that The MC5 gave up their career for the politics, in a way. It was important they existed.”
Is he optimistic about future? “I try so hard to be optimistic,” he said. “I meet young people along the way that give me faith and I meet young people that make me want to scratch my head and wonder why they are so complacent. I grew up in a time when people were very vocal about what was happening in the world in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s strange there seems to be a lull. Though the women’s marches were amazing. The marches in D.C. were amazing. It’s still there, but it doesn’t seem as active as it used to be. I don’t want to sound like the old guy, but people were more active.”
Escovedo’s music doesn’t fit neatly into one genre, but ultimately, he said, “I love rock ‘n’ roll. That’s where it all comes from. You approach every kind of style you might play with by accident … I don’t sit down and say this is a blues song or this is a punk song that I’m gonna write, or a rock song or ballad. You go into it with the same attitude. Even when my bands play ballads, I think my band is pretty powerful.
“It’s always about a good record recollection, isn’t it? What you listen to, what you absorb … it becomes a part of you without you consciously being aware of it. I’ve always loved records. I remember Rank and File wanted to marry the beat of Waylon Jennings with some dub reggae and some Everly Brothers and some Clash.”
Since Escovedo was young, he has been acutely observant of pain in people and I speculated that this adds depth to his writing.
“Yeah, I think that’s very true,” he said. “When I was a kid, I could always look at people and see that. What did Cocteau say? That the role of an artist is to see things that other people just look at. And so I think that’s the way I looked at people when I was young.”
When he was a child, his parents would put all the children to bed and he’d hear the grown-ups “partying in the back yard, they’d be getting drunker and drunker and suddenly she (his aunt) would start singing, and my dad would play guitar, and she had the most amazing voice and it could scare the hell out of us. She would really go for it. All heart, all passion, raw, crying.”
I suggested that he absorbed that capacity for feeling and expressing pain.
“I still feel that way,” he said. “Maybe not more than others. But I still carry a lot of pain and yet I’m happy. It’s weird. We all feel a little bit of everything, but some more than others. I remember Townes Van Zandt talking about a vessel for the blues and I think some people are, more than others.”
For more on Escovedo, visit alejandroescovedo.com.
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