Balancing Act

When Alejandro Escovedo speaks, it's in a near whisper. He begins his sentences slowly maybe two or three times before finding the right words to lead him where he wants to go. As often as not, the Austin singer/songwriter finishes those sentences with an inconclusive "so ..." or a fading "and ...," as if there's so much more behind what he's just said that's it's hardly worth going into.

There is more. As you're likely to notice, this week's music section has a running Sex Pistols theme, in honor of a band hardly anyone got a chance to see the first time around. Escovedo, though, didn't just see the Pistols, he opened for them. In January 1978, when they played their final show (or so everyone thought) in San Francisco, the opening act was the Nuns, Escovedo's first band.

"It was pandemonium," remembers Escovedo. "It wasn't very musical, but it was interesting. Sid [Vicious] came over to our house and hung out with us. They were barely speaking to each other; in fact, most of them weren't speaking to each other. So I never would have thought that they would have [reunited]. It's really disappointing, because I thought they were the perfect example of what a true crash-and-burn rock band ought to be."

Escovedo took the long road, through the punk Nuns, the early cow-punk of Rank & File and the guitar storm of True Believers -- three bands critics like to call seminal, and Escovedo calls "near hits, or near misses, whatever." Each group approached "success" but never quite made it over the hump of its own expectations. Escovedo's been referred to as a survivor for his longevity, and a 1996 Rolling Stone headline tagged him a legend for his travails. But according to Escovedo, it was all just rock and roll to him until the True Believers' gravy train jumped the rails. That last one hurt.

"It didn't really affect me until the True Believers. The Nuns were my very first band, I was just learning to play guitar and I'd never entertained the idea of being a musician before," Escovedo says. "I was enjoying this fluke, almost, in that we had become successful. It was really a joke. And then with Rank & File, I took it a little more seriously, but only because [the rest of the group] did, and that band didn't turn out to be what we had hoped it would be -- or what I had hoped it would be.

"The True Believers was the first time that I really put in a lot of effort and sweat blood, and it meant a whole lot to me. That was my first real heartache. That almost did me in, really, as far as music was concerned. I just put so much into it, and after that band had broken up [in 1987], I was incredibly disappointed and wasn't even sure if I was gonna play again."

But the breakup of the True Believers was hardly Escovedo's last heartache. Since the Believers lost faith, Escovedo has assembled an extended family of Austin musicians and friends, releasing three CDs as a solo artist: 1992's Gravity, '93's Thirteen Years and the new With These Hands. All have earned Escovedo an increasing sense of awe among critics, an enduring respect from a small legion of fans and -- commercially, at least -- not a whole hell of a lot else. But if, as Escovedo says, he hasn't quite "found that kind of success that people really value, or deem successful," he's created what will likely be his most lasting work in those three releases.

If there's a central event that dominates Escovedo's more recent career, it's this: after a 13-year relationship that spanned the course of his wilder days, Escovedo's second wife, Bobbi Levie, took her life in 1991, shortly after the birth of the couple's second daughter. That's the kind of full-bore emotional trauma that can destroy a strong man. To come face to face -- or even phone to phone -- with someone who's been through that trial and can still speak of art and love inspires the kind of awe generally reserved for the protagonists of Greek tragedy and people who survive airplane crashes.

It's that heartache that lent gravitas to Gravity, which Escovedo describes now as "an album about grief and pain." Thirteen Years was "about surviving all those sorts of emotions and problems and situations." And With These Hands, he admits, is the completion of the cycle. I won't say closure, and Escovedo doesn't either, but you get the drift.

"In a way, they kind of do work as a trilogy," Escovedo says. "I definitely wanted to go into this album making it different from the last two. I just wanted it to be a bit lighter, kind of stay away from such a personal bent on everything. I'm not so sure that I succeeded in that."

He didn't -- not really. But you can hear the struggle to break into something new, or something old -- something different, anyhow, in the songs. It's inherent in the disc's tension between squalling guitar feedback and string arrangements -- an idiosyncratic balance Escovedo has been able to strike on all three CDs with the help of producer/guitarist Stephen Bruton and the sit-down stylings of the band of Austin regulars Escovedo calls "the Orchestra."

You can hear it more specifically in the uncharacteristic bitterness of "Little Bottles," with its lonely antihero who's "not a man, you're just a fool / The odds are good / You ain't got what it takes." You can hear it too in "Crooked Frame," an ode to an unnamed woman of whom Escovedo sings, "I'm glad you didn't spend the night like you had promised / I'd have to stretch the truth to say that I was sorry .... I'm glad you didn't stick to my fingers like honey / I'd have to stretch the truth to say that you were pretty." The man in the hotel room is decidedly not Escovedo, and the woman in the crooked frame is far from Levie.

Then there's "Pissed Off 2 a.m.," a story that Escovedo says was written in his living room one post-gig early morning. It's about a man contemplating his slumbering home and wondering what happened to all those crazy drunken late nights of yesteryear -- the elegant musing of someone wondering where his youth went, and not quite content to let it go.

And he's not letting it go. Come January, his label, Rykodisc, is scheduled to release The Pawnshop Years, the debut CD from Buick McKane, yet another Escovedo-driven band.

"Buick's basically just a straight-ahead rock band -- a very loud, very alcohol-fueled garage band," he explains. "People have referred to Buick as the evil stepsister of the Orchestra. People always see Buick as kind of the side project, but they fail to realize ... the fact that Buick's actually been together like six years, and a lot of the material that I've written during that period, like when I wrote the songs for Gravity, I was with Buick. It's a real creative outlet for me."

But the hard rocking Buick McKane must also go against the grain of the reality that Escovedo is now solidly entrenched in middle age and married (for two years to Pork guitarist Dana Smith) with children. It's a conflict of interests about which Escovedo thinks plenty.

"I love playing, but I'm 45 now, and I want to get to a point where I can somehow do this at home, and stay at home more often than I do now," he says. "In a way, I kind of want to do some projects that would steer me away from the touring and the nightclub thing."

He mentions soundtrack work, and speaks of an upcoming project, a "song cycle about my father's life," that he plans to stage with the Meridian Arts Ensemble, a brass quartet. With These Hands' title track -- written by Escovedo for his father years ago, and benefiting from the percussion work of Escovedo's uncle Pete (known for his work with Santana), niece Sheila E and assorted cousins -- could be seen as a head start in that direction.

So we're talking here about a musician simultaneously driven to rev up and settle down, and there's little doubt that a skilled balancing act is required. Has he found that balance?

"Getting closer all the time," is Escovedo's answer. "You sacrifice a lot, but [for] a guy like me who doesn't sell a whole lot of records, the only way that I can keep making a living is by going out on the road. These tours are very exhausting, but I think things are getting better."

Escovedo is reminded that the sentiments of "Pissed Off 2 a.m.," not to mention the imminent Buick McKane CD and inevitable tour to follow, indicate the pursuits of a man who continues to want more than a good balance -- a guy who may want to be with his family, but who wants just as much to retain the undomesticated juice that fueled the Nuns on-stage back in '78.

For the first time in the conversation, Escovedo laughs.
"That too -- all of it."

Alejandro Escovedo performs at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, August 3, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $8. For info, call 528-5999.

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Brad Tyer