Troubadour Alejandro Escovedo Brings His American Tales to the Culture Room
"It's like comparing the different women you've fallen in love with," muses journeyman singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. "Some end up well, some not so well, you know?"
But Escovedo isn't talking about romance, per se — rather, he's ruminating over the bands he's played in, a theme that recurs throughout his latest album, Real Animal. A loose memoir of sorts, the album's subject matter and styles span Escovedo's 30-year musical career, touching on some key locations, bands, and relationships that Escovedo has passed through along the way. His second album since a highly publicized bout with hepatitis C that nearly cost him his life, Real Animal sees Escovedo returning to a more rocking approach after his initial return to music with the (understandably) subdued atmosphere of The Boxing Mirror.
This time, aided by legendary David Bowie/T. Rex producer Tony Visconti and cowriter Chuck Prophet, Escovedo clearly sounds energized. He does indeed revisit some difficult memories and fills the songs with plenty of the sobering commentary that only a person who is wise from being wounded can offer. Still, Escovedo's voice carries at least a hint of celebration all the way down to the last track.
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True, the album closes with the lyric, "I want to live in this moment/But I'm tangled in the past." But Real Animal provides that rare example of an artist self-consciously looking backward without damaging the integrity of his past accomplishments. Its life-affirming tone, moreover, suggests a late-life renaissance and says more about where Escovedo is going musically than where he's been. Sure, Escovedo and Prophet were eager to capture the fire of classic Mott the Hoople and Faces records. But as Escovedo swerves from, say, the jazzy elegance and ultrafine arrangement of a song like "Sensitive Boys" to the almost orchestral roots stomp of the next song, "People (We're Only Gonna Live So Long)," it's clear that Escovedo has distilled everything he's learned into a forward-thinking vision.
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With so many open references to the past, however, the album naturally triggers a sense of "what was that like?" And, in a refreshing contrast to musicians who express irritation at talking about their older work, Escovedo expounds on it freely. Which is a good thing, as his career boasts many highlights that wouldn't be evident just from listening to this record.
For starters, there's Escovedo's first band, San Francisco punk outfit the Nuns, which gets immortalized on Real Animal in the form of "Nuns Song." That band opened the Sex Pistols' final show, on January 14, 1978, at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom. For those who might be tempted to romanticize the event, it was in some ways a dubious honor that Escovedo sees with mixed feelings.
"Punk rock as we had known it — the Nuns, the Avengers, the Dils, the Mutants, the Weirdos, the Minutemen, and all those bands that came at that time — was very different than what it became," he says. "Suddenly, punk had become very suburban, more testosterone-based. At the beginning, there were just as many women involved. I had the sense that when the Sex Pistols show finally hit, it was the end of that as we knew it. There was a lot more aggression; people were throwing more things, and there'd be 5,000 people spitting at you. It was a circus. I thought of it more as a spectacle. It wasn't musical. And for someone who'd bought into the whole rock 'n' roll thing so deeply, it was kind of disturbing for me."
After that show, Escovedo migrated across the country and moved into New York's fabled Chelsea Hotel, which also appears on Real Animal in "Chelsea Hotel '78." Now infamous for being the residence of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, for Escovedo, the Chelsea still means a lot more. In the song, Escovedo gives a first-hand account of Spungen's death: "I stood out on the sidewalk/When they busted through the door." However, he also paints a colorful backdrop of poets who like sitting on barstools and prefer rainy days so they can muse, "addicted to the pain."
"For me, that was the epicenter of bohemian thought," he says. "I can see why it's romanticized. It sure was a great place to be until the Sid and Nancy thing happened. That kind of changed the mood of everything that we had known at that time."
Moving on from that time period, Escovedo's next band, Rank and File, played what would later come to be referred to as "cow-punk" or "alt-country" long before such terms came into vogue — or even existed. Rank and File rears its head anew on Real Animal in the song "Chip 'N' Tony," named after the band's songwriting nucleus, siblings Chip and Tony Kinman.
Escovedo feels the band never got its due.
"I remember reading an article in Musician magazine, and it was all about West Coast country punk. They hardly mentioned Rank and File at all. And I've heard other bands talk about Rank and File like it was something less than desired. We weren't trying to be Gram Parsons, if that's what pisses people off. That was not our intention at all. I think our songs were better. We were writing about immigration, the [immigration-smuggling] coyotes and things like that. Tony and Chip were great songwriters."
On "Chip 'N' Tony," Escovedo discusses the sense of camaraderie that brought the members of Rank and File together. "All I ever wanted," he sings, "was a four-piece band." It's something Escovedo still yearns for today. For all of its rewards, he says, being a solo artist doesn't engender the same sense of togetherness he experienced in his various bands. (Later in Escovedo's career, those also included the True Believers and Buick MacKane.)
"Being a bandleader's not all it's cracked up to be. It's tough, because, in a way, you're not part of the band," he says, chuckling. "My solo band has been consistent. Hector Muñoz has been with me 23 years. I've played with Susan Voelz since the late 1980s. So I have this intense relationship with them. David Pulkingham has been with me five years, and Brian Standefer's been with me something like 15 years. So we do have a tight, familial thing, but it's not like when you're in a band.
"With Buick MacKane, we were all for one, one for all. But when it's your name and you front the group, you're kind of — I don't want to say ostracized, but if there's problems in the band, they come to me like I'm the man. Whereas I don't want to be the man. I want to be part of the band. I want to hang out!"
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