Alejandro Escovedo often speaks about music with the passion of religious fervor. Not the doe-eyed, blind believer sort of unquestioned dogma, but an undeniable, soulful zeal that takes hold and never lets go, instilling a rock-solid belief in something bigger than oneself. This is Escovedo’s rock ‘n’ roll: an unshakable dream that the 61-year-old has been following for the better part of his life. Now, he continues that journey with his 11th solo album, Big Station.
Escovedo’s many admirers—fellow songwriters and rabid fans alike—lionize Escovedo’s long and varied career, making it the stuff of rock legend. He began as a punk kid in San Antonio, Texas, the son of Mexican immigrants and eventually relocated to California with his massive family (several of his brothers are also renowned musicians). Soon he made his way into the Bay Area punk scene there and formed the seminal band the Nuns, which saw little, if any, commercial success, but have since gone down in infamy.
After opening the Sex Pistols’ final disastrous show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in 1978, Escovedo, disillusioned and lost within music, moved to New York and then wound up in Austin, Texas, where he became immersed in the burgeoning Americana scene. He formed the True Believers with his brother Javier, but his first solo album, Gravity, shone a completely new light on his songs gaining him much wider notoriety. Released in 1992 when Escovedo was well into his 40s, the influential Gravity became the first of his 11 albums (thus far) that have found a distinctive niche in the Americana community as he has merged his punk roots with a more classic country-based style. His influence on others runs deep, and traces of Escovedo can be unmistakably heard in Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Wilco and Son Volt, among many others.
Upon first listen to Big Station, released in June, any Bob Dylan fan will feel right at home. The songs are peppered with references to the elder songwriter’s classic period: “San Antonio Rain” echoes 1965’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” with Escovedo’s line: “I think I’ll go back to California, but I don’t think they’d let me in.” And, in “Bottom of the World” Escovedo laments the changing face of his beloved Austin with Dylan-esque imagery coupled with a driving country-folk rhythm.
The following is a small excerpt from a phone interview I recently had with Escovedo.
See Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys Tue, Aug. 28 at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen. New York singer-songwriter Jesse Malin will open the all-ages show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $21 in advance and $24 at the door. For more info, see www.alejandroescovedo.com or call 556-1580.
Alejandro Escovedo: I’m old enough to have been there in the beginning, pretty much. When I was a kid—pretty young—someone turned me on to the very first Bob Dylan album. And I was lucky that I lived in a town—in Huntington Beach, Calif.—where we had a club named the Golden Bear, and it was part of that series of coffee houses along the coast. Of course, Dylan came out … Obviously, Dylan changed the face and nature of what rock ‘n’ roll could be … So, those images and that type of writing was really important to me when I finally started to write songs, much later. I was 30 years old when I wrote my first song.
AE: I’ve known Chuck forever. I’ve known him since he was just a kid when I was in the True Believers. I think I might have seen one of his very first shows with Green on Red at the Club Lingerie in L.A. Back in those days they called him Billy the Kid Prophet. You know how there’s people you see and you know, “Man, that guy’s special. That guy’s got something going on”? And I could tell with Chuck … Obviously, our friendship has really developed and grown through the process of writing these three albums together. We had a strong base to draw from and we had both been through so much. He’s been through the punk-rock wars, as I had, and knew all the same people and had a lot of different experiences, but in a way, the same. We were both still on the road. We still believe very much in the truth and beauty of playing live. So, we’ve got a lot in common, in other words. When we got together we were like two people—you know, sparks fly.
AE: My father was a guitar player and singer. He sang in mariachi bands. He was a very, kind of, a crude guitar player but in our family music was essential. Records were played everyday. From the moment we got up it was always music. And so, he was—really my mother and father were—the first to really inspire us in music. And then, my older brothers, of course, were such great musicians that once I started playing, even though I was in punk rock, their level of music making was something to aspire to.
AE: Career-wise it’s been a pretty major association. His audience is very open to good bands especially if he puts his stamp of approval on someone … As a performer, obviously he’s pretty much, in the rock world, untouchable. He does what he does and nobody else does what he does with the type of spirit, endurance and love for what he does. I can’t think of anyone else who does that. And, as a person, it’s kind of like, you’ve really got to give it up for a person who’s so dedicated to the art form of rock ‘n’ roll and has been doing it for so long and continues to do it with nothing but a smile on his face and a love for the music. It’s really fascinating and just kind of awe-inspiring work. The work ethic too is just incomparable.
AE: I’ll tell you this about it: It was obvious that things were changing, or had changed. Whereas punk rock as we knew it had a lot of women involved. It was very much about expressing an idea or thought regardless of what your technical ability was. As long as you had something to say, it was viable, it was important. Punk rock, for us, broke down the barrier between the audience and the musicians, but at that gig you could see where suddenly it had become a spectacle. There was a lot of suburban kids there, there was a lot more testosterone-driven kind of agro there. It wasn’t the same anymore. And, for me, as a person who had bought into the religion of rock ‘n roll, it was really kind of a difficult time to kind of suss out and accept that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t what I had thought it had been—that people were just selling things. It was a little disturbing for a while. I remember that I didn’t buy records for a while. I just kind of was in shock over the whole thing. But, then again, I realized that I had to move on to something if I wanted to be a musician—if I wanted music to be part of my life for the rest of my life—that I had to open up a little more … It was important but it was a little disturbing.