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True Believer

His bands come and go, and so do his record deals, but it doesn’t seem to faze Alejandro Escovedo, who only wants to play rock and roll—even at 46.

By February 1997Comments

BEFORE AUSTINITE ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO had ever played a single note of music, he was an aspiring filmmaker. His first effort, done with a group of friends in San Francisco, was 181�2, the story of a young punk with more attitude than talent who, on the verge of his nineteenth birthday, was certain the end of teenagehood equaled the end of life itself—or, at the very least, the end of art, rebellion, and rock and roll. “We really believed that twenty or twenty-two was too old to rock,” Escovedo says now. “That once you were no longer a teenager you couldn’t sing about teen angst.”

That was more than two decades ago. Since then, Escovedo, who turned 46 in January, has been in half a dozen bands and recorded for almost as many labels. He’s sung about teen angst as well as grown-up pain, having experienced plenty of both. He’s shared the stage with artists as varied as Johnny Rotten and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. He’s been feted as the next big thing and written off as yesterday’s news. And he is universally a critical favorite—with the requisite modest sales figures.

In other words, Escovedo is a member of that unique species known as the Texas musician. Like Joe Ely, Steve Earle, or even the internationally famous Willie Nelson, he’s more familiar with the ring of a cult following than with the ringing of cash registers. Nevertheless, he has been able to keep on making music for most of his adult life. There have been concessions and sacrifices along the way, plus many grueling months on the road, but for the most part, he has gotten by without compromising his artistic choices. He’s a survivor, a stubborn person who knows what he wants, and if he has irritated people and made a few mistakes, the career that has resulted from his determination is a quiet triumph.

Escovedo’s latest project, Buick MacKane, perfectly illustrates both his music-for-music’s-sake attitude and his bad run on the business end of things. Buick is a four-piece garage band—guitarist-vocalist Escovedo, drummer Glenn Benavides, bassist David Fairchild, and guitarist Joe Eddy Hines—that was never intended to be more than a group of friends chasing down Jagermeister and turning up amps. Their debut album, The Pawn Shop Years, was eight years in the making, as they were never overly concerned with making it. Nevertheless, their high-volume frivolity has found a home at the well-known independent label Rykodisc, which will release the album later this month, mainly because Escovedo already had a solo deal there. And therein lies the rub: Last November Escovedo’s contract with Ryko was terminated, as the saying goes, “by mutual agreement.” According to Escovedo, Ryko was dissatisfied with the sales of his most recent release, With These Hands, and proposed to cut the budget for his follow-up, halving both his personal income and his studio expenses. Escovedo declined, hence the agreement to disagree.

It was a fairly shocking development. As an independent operation that occasionally competes with larger record companies, Ryko is supposed to be an artist-friendly haven that specializes in long-term, mutually fruitful relationships, particularly with major-label refugees like Bob Mould, Throwing Muses, and (for reissues) David Bowie and Elvis Costello. Ryko doesn’t drop artists, and artists don’t leave Ryko. Ryko spokeswoman Darcy Mayers characterizes the split as the hardest thing the company ever had to do; Escovedo, she says, was the kind of artist who “represents why people work at a company like Ryko.”

It certainly seemed like a match made in heaven at the time. “It’s the perfect place for me,” Escovedo told the Austin Chronicle in the spring of 1996, just after Ryko had released With These Hands, and both label and artist were gearing up for the many good things to come. He played the label’s South by Southwest showcase in Austin. He did the Conan O’Brien show and got some radio play while earning his usual reams of good press, including a splashy feature in Rolling Stone. Last fall he toured with band-of-the-moment Son Volt, played two weeks of gigs in Paris, and joined Bruce Springsteen at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Woody Guthrie tribute.

After all that exposure, however, With These Hands has sold only about 15,000 copies, a figure that is actually smaller than the numbers his two previous solo records put up on the much smaller Watermelon label. But no one was expecting platinum sales from an adventurous, literate, and musically ecumenical singer-songwriter in his forties. “They had always spoken of me as a long-term artist,” Escovedo says. “I felt like our whole relationship was based on trying to establish a career over five years. Maybe they expected too much too soon.” That may well be, but it’s also a symptom of a recession that has been affecting the entire music business—according to Mayers, Ryko is struggling along with everyone else, but unlike other labels, it doesn’t have a few superstars to help bankroll the rest of the roster.

Escovedo is more disappointed than bitter; he made a lot of friends at Ryko, and all concerned are looking ahead to the release of the Buick MacKane record. Then he will indeed move on. As a 25-year veteran of the music business, he has already suffered every indignity record companies (or audiences) can come up with—and he has seen it all. As someone who has had music in his life before, during, and after the punk explosion, Escovedo’s career has an almost Forrest Gump—like quality to it: He has done a little bit of everything and been a little bit of everywhere.

For starters, music has always been part of the family business. His father, Pedro, in addition to being a prizefighter, ballplayer, plumber, pipe fitter, and picker, played in mariachi bands. Alejandro was born in San Antonio, the seventh of twelve children, and his eldest siblings, from a different mother, lived in Northern California. (They include world-famous percussionists Coke and Pete Escovedo; Pete’s daughter is former Prince protégée Sheila E.) In the late fifties, looking for a better life and an escape from the anti-Mexican climate in Texas, Escovedo’s family moved to Southern California. “It was very Grapes of Wrath,” he says. “We left the dog, the cat, all our furniture.” He spent his teenage years in Huntington Beach, where he dreamed of playing pro baseball and stood out as the only brown surfer among bleached-blond California boys. He grew up quickly, becoming a father himself at the age of seventeen; there was another child and a wholehearted effort to make the marriage last, but it didn’t work out.

A few years later, living on his own in Hollywood, he was exposed to formative bands like T. Rex, the New York Dolls, Mott the Hoople, and the Stooges. An early thrill in his life was giving Iggy Pop a ride down Sunset Boulevard; later, Iggy would almost produce the first record by Escovedo’s first band, the Nuns, during what Escovedo says “turned out to be basically a lost weekend.” The Nuns had come together in 1976 in San Francisco after the making of 18 1⁄2, in which 24-year-old Escovedo and his friends cast themselves as the film’s incompetent backup band, figuring that they were right for the part. In a matter of months, however, they were one of San Francisco’s first significant punk bands (and well known outside the Bay Area for their opening slot at the Sex Pistols’ infamous Winterland show—the latter’s final concert). “I really had no delusions of being a musician,” Escovedo says. “I was just enjoying the clothes and the girls.”

One of the girls was Bobbi Levie, who had left Los Angeles with Escovedo to move to San Francisco. “We decided just to kind of run away together,” he says. “It was the age of quack doctors and Quaaludes. We did all sorts of crazy things to survive on the street.” After the Nuns toured the East Coast, Escovedo severed those tempting Bay Area ties. Perhaps unwisely, he decided Manhattan would be a good place for Bobbie and him to start over. The bohemian couple set up residence at the Chelsea Hotel, where their neighbors included Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. There, Escovedo had the harrowing experience of helping Nancy out during one of Sid’s drug episodes only a few days before Nancy herself died.

Having left the Nuns behind in San Francisco, Escovedo needed a new gig, and at first he fell in with fellow punk veterans Chip and Tony Kinman of the Dils. The phrase “alternative country” gets thrown around a lot these days, but the band Escovedo and the Kinmans formed, Rank and File, was one of the earliest to self-consciously combine classic roots influences with a punk and rock sensibility. The trio relocated to Austin—not necessarily a good idea, it turned out, as Texas kids still considered country to be the music of their parents. More problematic was the fact that Escovedo was on his second band yet still hadn’t written a song, and with the Kinman brothers dominating the creative process, he wasn’t going to. Despite a record deal with Slash/Warner Bros., he was unhappy; he also needed to be home more—in 1983 Levie gave birth to their first daughter, Maya.

So in 1984 Escovedo quit Rank and File and sent for his younger brother Javier in California. Together, they formed the True Believers, a three-guitar outfit that was the beginning of his career as a songwriter. Widely considered to be Austin’s best band of the mid-eighties, the Believers were quickly signed by EMI and seemed destined for big things. Instead, they spent month after grueling month on the road, got talked into firing their rhythm section by a big-time record producer, and then got drop-kicked by their label. The band’s self-titled 1986 record remained in the EMI vaults until Ryko released it in 1994.

Escovedo had a good ride with the Believers, but the band’s demise took its toll. His relationship with Levie had become impossibly strained—as a mother with a regular job, she longed for a stable, more ordinary life. Escovedo, on the other hand, was fairly certain that such a life was not for him, a point that was hammered home when he was forced to find work at a local record store. “It was very masochistic,” he says now. “Not only was I selling other people’s records, but I was answering all the questions about what happened to the Believers. I had nothing.”

So he poured himself into music, with solo performances eventually mutating into the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, a three- to fifteen-piece band (“more like a ‘workshop’”) that made music both grandiose and subdued, with elements of jazz, folk, country, rock, and cabaret. As the flip side to that, there was Buick MacKane, formed, at the urging of Benavides, in the back room of a house just for fun. “I just wanted to play,” Escovedo says. “I wanted to play loud and drink as much as I wanted to.” Indeed, an early attempt at a Buick recording session resulted in “more cases of beer than amps in the studio,” he says. “And we had a lot of amps in the studio.”

Escovedo was back on his feet in the musical sense; however, his relationship with Levie was past healing. The couple separated while Levie was pregnant with their second child. Six months after giving birth to another daughter, Paloma, she took her own life. It’s a tragedy that Escovedo lived through once, and then again in his songs: Gravity, his 1992 solo album, is a highly emotional, painfully cathartic affair; 1993’s follow-up, Thirteen Years, is more about letting go.

As a musician, Escovedo has had his share of second chances; he’s been fortunate enough to get some in his life as well. He has since married someone who can relate to his chosen vocation: As the guitarist in the all-girl band Pork, Dana Smith has seen her share of half-empty clubs and broken-down vans. The couple have a son, Paris, who was born in 1993, and they live together with Paloma and Maya. Having been a long-distance father to his first two kids and an absentee father when Maya was young, Escovedo is immersed in his family this time around. “I try to do all the things I wish I had done previously,” he says, “so I spend a lot of time with them when I’m home, take them to the movies, pick ’em up from school, make the lunches. Recently the whole family went out to see Beck together.” With all that has happened in the past six months—not just the record company troubles but also a bout with hepatitis C, which has left him a strict vegetarian and teetotaler—he has become more grateful than ever for what he’s got. “What do you have in life?” he asks. “You have yourself and you have your family, and really, that’s the most important thing.”

Now more than ever, Escovedo believes that music isn’t necessarily incompatible with “the real world,” that being in bands can be a viable career option as well as a late-night hobby—even in your fifth decade. “I think that you can make it your life,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m not acting my age to still love rock and roll the way I do. I still love putting on suede pants and high-heeled boots. Maybe to a lot of people that seems ridiculous, but I don’t want to give up on the party.”

Austinite Jason Cohen is a freelance writer.

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