Everyone has a story to tell. Some people keep their stories private, creating a mystery; others will assault you with their most personal -- and often most boring -- details over a beer at an office mixer. The most interesting ones, however, turn their tales into art, perhaps because they know that talking about life sometimes renders it inappropriately trite and shallow and hollow.
Alejandro Escovedo is such a person. Escovedo weaves his personal experiences into sonic tapestries so effectively that it often leaves him without much to say when there's no musical accompaniment. "My stories are in my songs," Escovedo says over breakfast at a bustling Austin cafe. You can't really blame him for his silence.
After the 1991 suicide of his estranged second wife, Bobbi -- the emotional aftermath of which was chronicled on Escovedo's first two solo albums, Gravity and Thirteen Years -- it became increasingly difficult for him to discuss publicly what he expresses so fluently through music. "It became a real tender area, and I finally told my press agent that I didn't want to talk about it anymore."
To understand how Escovedo reached this quiet place, perhaps it's best to see where he has been.
Escovedo's very first band, the Nuns, was a fluke. It was born from a project called Eighteen and a Half, a film that was loosely based on Iggy Pop's song "The Dum Dum Boys" and the genesis of the Stooges. Escovedo, who was based in San Francisco at the time, and his mates needed people to portray the band; they decided they were the best men for the job. "None of us knew how to play," Escovedo says with laugh. "The fact that we actually became a band well, it was against nature." The Nuns went on to open for Television and for the last ever Sex Pistols show. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky saw the Nuns in San Francisco. Ginsberg later said it reminded him of Kabuki theater.
As the Nuns were breaking up, Escovedo moved to New York in the late '70s and drifted into his next band, the cowpunk outfit Rank and File. "That was when I started to develop a guitar style of my own. It allowed me a lot of freedom." The band relocated to Austin in 1981, where it quickly flamed out. "We thought we were going to be the new Faces, but it didn't turn out that way. We had someone who was a wonderful person but a terrible manager and that was the end of that."
Next came the True Believers, the band Escovedo formed with his brother Javier. "Probably the most important band in my career," he says. One gets the impression that this is another topic Escovedo would rather not expand upon, given the acrimonious parting of the band's members. (Javier, while on tour with Will Sexton, announced in a 1988 interview that he had left the True Believers. It was the first Alejandro had heard of it.) He insists that his relationship with Javier is good now, but in the same breath says that working with his brother was one of the worst career decisions he could have made. There's a whiff of what-could-have-been wistfulness in Escovedo's demeanor.
After his move to Austin, Escovedo took a job in a library at the University of Texas, where he developed a close relationship with postdoctoral literature student Sterling Morrison, better known as the former guitarist in the Velvet Underground. "My ex-wife [Dana Lee Smith] had a band called Pork, and he was a huge fan of theirs. I don't think he was a real big fan of my music. He came to a lot of the early Mucky Duck shows, and he would always tell me he wished I would play electric guitar but the Velvet Underground was the most important band in my life, and I was always more interested in rhythm guitar, taking a more supportive role, like him in the Velvets or Angus Young in AC/DC." "Tugboat," the closing track on 1996's With These Hands, is Escovedo's touching tribute to Morrison, his old friend who died of cancer in 1995.
Death has obviously had an effect on Escovedo. It arguably has taken him in directions that that early cowpunker never could have imagined -- like arranging his latter works, often deeply introspective tunes, with orchestral instruments. Then again, even in his early days Escovedo seemed like an artist who would consistently defy expectation, not to mention categorization. "People always try to lump me into alternative country, whatever that means, and I'm really nothing like what you'll read about in No Depression."
Give a listen to his latest record, Bourbonitis Blues, and you'll understand what he means. A balanced selection of reverent covers and rugged originals (like the excellent "I Was Drunk"), Blues spans the music spectrum, revealing Escovedo's punk past, his tender countrified present and, of course, his eternal devotion to the Velvet Underground in the form of the delicate cover of "Pale Blue Eyes."
What's most important is that -- young bands, please take note -- Escovedo makes a sound that is unlike anyone else's. "My friends tell me that the one thing that separates me from everyone else is that they can hear anything that I do, whether it be 'Pale Blue Eyes' or 'I Was Drunk,' and they know immediately that it's me."
True to his individual nature, Escovedo is not confined to pop music. He has also composed tunes for By the Hand of the Father, a multimedia theatrical production that has been described as "a meditation on the subject of fatherhood," specifically the Mexican men who dared to cross into America and start life anew. The work premiered last summer in Los Angeles; the theater critic for the Los Angeles Times wrote: "The music is the main thrust of the storytelling. The seven-piece band takes its place center stage, led by Escovedo, a modest, comfortable presence whose plaintive vocals cut right to the heart of any matter."
A national tour of By the Hand of the Father is planned for this spring, as is a new Escovedo record, A Man Under the Influence. The recording process took more than six months, possibly because of Escovedo's studio approach: "I really gamble big-time. I go in with ideas ideas of how I want the record to sound, what I want it to say thematically. I love to write under pressure."
Escovedo won't yet reveal publicly what recent experiences might be retold and reshaped on A Man Under the Influence. Then again, maybe he won't ever really reveal that information. It's just not his style.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.