Alejandro Escovedo soundtracks life on "Real Animal"

Brian Baker, July 2008

There is a circuitous quality to Alejandro Escovedo's latest album, "Real Animal." The album is essentially a work of autobiography that details, in allusory song form, the cultural, musical and personal path that Escovedo has carved over the past 30 years.

To tell the story of "Real Animal," it becomes necessary to tell Escovedo's story, which he does to a certain extent on the CD. And while the songs offer specific glimpses into Escovedo's long, storied career against a musical backdrop that encompasses roots, punk and glam rock, alt.-country and soulful electric folk, they also simultaneously mark the inexorable march of personal time and earthshaking musical eras.

"If you look at 'Slow Down,' it's about time passing, and 'Golden Bear' was a great metaphor for the music and the passing of time," he says. "In 'Slow Down,' there's that line says, 'Let me take your hand, there's something I want to show you, you can hear the music in the wind out on the pier.' That kind of vibe was so important, that image is so strong as far as my personal youth experience. There's a lot of things that I want to do. From a Buddhist's perspective, you could say that you die every day and every moment, maybe. You watch it go by, and hopefully I've learned a lot. And I hope these stories continue with my children."

Escovedo is no stranger to using his life to inspire his work. His 2002 album, "By the Hand of the Father," was based on the theater production of the same name that Escovedo had written in tribute to his adventurous, storytelling father and the generation of Mexican-Americans who maintained their home country's culture and values while integrating into American life. And Escovedo's first two solo albums, 1992's "Gravity" and 1993's "Thirteen Years," were painful song cycles about his devolving relationship with and eventual suicide of his wife Bobbie Levie. Clearly, Escovedo has never been a stranger to baring his life and his soul in his songs.

"Real Animal" is a bit different because it encompasses nearly the whole of Escovedo's life. Born in 1951 in San Antonio, Texas and raised in Southern California, Escovedo was destined to travel a musical path. His father, Pedro, was an in-demand mariachi player, and his older brothers Pete (father of Prince protˇgˇ Sheila E.) and Coke became high profile percussionists for the likes of Santana and Malo in the late '60s.

As a teenager, Escovedo surfed, partied and absorbed the music scene in area record stores and clubs. It was during this period that Escovedo developed a love for The Stooges, Mott the Hoople, the Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground and T. Rex. After moving to the Bay Area in 1970, Escovedo enrolled in college as a film student and conceived a short movie about a fictional punk band lionized as "the worst band in the world."

To sell that idea, Escovedo and some friends played the band in the movie, but to their surprise, they weren't bad. They christened themselves the Nuns and attracted a decent following; their big claim to fame was their opening slot for the Sex Pistols at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in 1978, the night the Pistols dissolved.

That same year, Escovedo moved to New York where he became a member of Judy Nylon's band, followed by a succession of others. He lived at the Chelsea Hotel at the same time as doomed Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

Escovedo's national profile rose when he returned to California and hooked up with Chip and Tony Kinman, the brothers who had fronted The Dils, a punk band that routinely crossed paths with the Nuns. The trio formed Rank and File, perhaps the first of the true "cowpunk" bands of the '80s; their debut album, 1982's "Sundown," remains a classic of rootsy country rock.

"I always felt like Rank and File never got their due," says Escovedo. "People never appreciated what great songwriters Chip and Tony were, how great that band was, how way ahead we were of the ones that followed. Whenever I read something about the alt.-country thing, Rank and File is rarely mentioned. We just wanted to be a band in the great tradition of bands like the Faces or the Stones that stuck together and hung out together and faced the world together. Like a gang or a club."

After Rank and File relocated to Austin, dissension caused Escovedo and drummer Slim Evans to depart. When the Kinmans returned to California, Escovedo remained in Austin where he formed a new band with his younger brother Javier in 1982. The True Believers became an immediate sensation around Austin with their three-guitar attack (the Escovedos along with veteran string strangler Jon Dee Graham) and glowing critical acclaim of their eponymous 1984 album, a Rolling Stone feature and relentless touring seemed to foreshadow success.

Sadly, the band was flushed in the EMI/Manhattan Records merger and, once again, predicted success ended in dissolution and defeat. Their 1987 sophomore album sat shelved for 7 years until Ryko finally reissued their debut and released their second album together on a CD called "Hard Road." It was a small victory and cold comfort. "It wasn't until I was in that band that I realized the dynamic of two brothers being in a band is very difficult," says Escovedo. "It's very complex and sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes extremely rewarding. I love my little brother so much, and we weren't always getting along so well. Javier is the true rock star in the family."

With the end of The True Believers, inevitably Escovedo began exploring a solo path. In 1992, he channeled the grief and despair of his estranged wife's death into his solo debut, "Gravity," an intense piece that introduced the qualities that would come to be associated with all of Escovedo's works; a brilliant sense of musical history, a chilling and insightful lyrical honesty and an amazing knack for displaying power through raucous volume and relative quiet.

In spite of almost universal acclaim, "Gravity" and its follow-up, "Thirteen Years," sold sparsely and thus began a long pattern of critical praise and commercial rejection of Escovedo's work. Through a number of label affiliations (Watermelon, Ryko, Bloodshot and now Back Porch/EMI) Escovedo produced a string of albums that continually flirted with brilliance ("With These Hands," "Bourbonitis Blues," "A Man Under the Influence"), but rarely rose above cult status sales figures. Still in all, he remained a critic's darling; in 1998, 2 years before the end of the '90s, No Depression famously and prematurely hailed Escovedo as "The Artist of the Decade."

To counteract his lack of commercial success, Escovedo stepped up his touring schedule to an almost inhuman pace since it was his only enduring source of income. In 2002, Escovedo's rapidly declining health was pegged by his doctor as the onset of hepatitis C - a natural outcome considering Escovedo's tour diet of alcohol and drugs - but Escovedo believed he could control with moderation.

In 2003, Escovedo was at a gig in Phoenix when he began throwing up blood backstage, which continued when he started the show. He was rushed to a local hospital where he nearly died; he was ultimately advised to stay off the road for a complete rest and to get sober.

With no touring possible and no insurance to cover the bills, Escovedo's paychecks dried up. His manager, Heinz Geissler, arranged for an all-star group of artists to cover Escovedo's work on a double album called "Por Vida," the proceeds for which would help defray some of songwriter's massive medical bills.

In the course of events, Escovedo divorced another wife and married his current wife, poet Kim Christoff, who was instrumental in getting Escovedo back on his feet after coming so close to the brink.

Escovedo's biography is inextricably woven into the tapestry of "Real Animal." The album' genesis came when Escovedo returned to Southern California to record 2006's "The Boxing Mirror." Inspired by familiar sights, which triggered long dormant memories, Escovedo began thinking in terms of his next album.

"In that period, when I was ill and post-illness, my wife and I stayed in Santa Monica, and that was the territory I kind of hung out in," says Escovedo. "It brought back a lot of the memories of growing up in that area and the different bands and music I heard back then. I thought 'This might make an interesting story.' So that was really the basis for the whole idea to make this record. It was like a musical memoir."

Escovedo didn't carry the memoir concept to the obvious extent of making it chronological, but relied on the pulse of the songs to determine their running order. "The story weaves," says Escovedo. "I think you can kind of connect the dots throughout this whole sequence of songs."

One of the biggest departures for Escovedo is the constant presence of singer/songwriter/guitarist Chuck Prophet, who boasts a cultish fan base of his own. Prophet and Escovedo co-wrote every song on "Real Animal," a new wrinkle for Escovedo.

"I felt that Chuck was the perfect candidate for this because he had grown up in Southern California, he was bands in the '80s when I was in a band - he was in Green on Red, I was in The True Believers - so he knew all the characters, and he knew the history of the music," says Escovedo. "He's a brilliant songwriter and a great guitar player, and I wanted this to be a guitar album. So, I felt he was perfect. It was not just fulfilling as an artistic endeavor, but we became very close and we had a great time making the record."

Beginning in late 2006, Escovedo and Prophet spent a year writing the songs, which was produced by veteran rock producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie), the boardsman behind many of Escovedo's favorite artist's albums. The first song the pair wrote together was the exquisite "Slow Down," which brings "Real Animal" to an elegant close.

"Once we wrote that song, we knew it was a great idea, it could make a great story, it could make a great series of songs, it could even become something more than just a record," says Escovedo. "We got excited right away."

Over the next year, Escovedo and Prophet took turns making trips to Austin and San Francisco to continue the collaboration. "I would call him and say, 'I've got this story about when I met Iggy Pop,' and that would inspire us to want to write a song about Iggy, which became 'Real as an Animal,'" says Escovedo. "At one point, we were both in Austin, and the record company was asking for another uptempo song, and I had this little riff, and we started playing 'People' in his hotel room and I bet we wrote that within 15 minutes. It was a great song to write. Hanging out with Chuck is the greatest time. Every time we would write a song, we would record it, either in the studio underneath his office or at my studio. We were in Austin in the middle of an ice storm, we found some kids who had a studio in their house, and we went over and recorded this song. It was always an adventure, never boring, never dull, never tense."

There is a duality to most of the songs; "Golden Bear" is about the Huntington Beach clubs where Escovedo began his musical education, but it's also about his bout with hepatitis. "Chip and Tony" is about his tenure in Rank and File, but it's also about being in a band in general. "Real as an Animal" is a paean to Iggy Pop, but it encapsulates the visceral thrill of feral rock and roll. "Sensitive Boys" is about the True Believers, but it's also about believing in the promise of rock and roll and the disappointment when it doesn't live up to it. "Sister Lost Soul' is about the Gun Club's late guitarist Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but it's also about the casualty-strewn landscape of rock.

"I don't think you're conscious of these things as you write the songs, and it's never like an immediate thing. Sometimes someone else points it out," says Escovedo. "Is 'Golden Bear' about the music or the disease? Is the disease the music? It's always been that way with songs for me. They've always been kind of a mystery, and I like them being mysteries. It's like making records. You go in thinking you know what you want to do, but it always morphs into something else, and that creative surprise is what I'm addicted to. I don't want to know everything. I'm not Hitchcock who had every scene blocked out with no room for improvisation. I love the accidents, I love the mistakes, I love the messiness. For me, it's important."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •