By Alex Distefano
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Alejandro Escovedo has 49 years' worth of history stuck to him, and it's a long, rich, beautiful book. Start with his large, musical family, including his father, who sang in mariachi and swing bands in his native Mexico before emigrating to the U.S.; his older brother Pete, a veteran of the Santana band; his cousin Sheila, better-known as '80s pop star Sheila E.; another brother, Javier, who was in the early LA punk band the Zeros before he and Escovedo hooked up years later to form their own band, the True Believers; and still another brother, young Mario, a member of San Diego punkers the Dragons (OC connection: the Dragons are on the Cypress-based label Junk Records).
Escovedo has built his own impressive résumé. Raised in OC in the 1960s and early '70s (and high on the Velvet Underground and the Stooges), he bailed for San Francisco, where he started the Nuns—who, by most accounts, were a completely wretched punk band but good enough to open for the Sex Pistols at Winterland in 1978, in what was supposed to be their final show.
The Nuns splintered, and Escovedo found his way to Austin in the early '80s. Smitten by the city's soon-to-be-famous music scene, he has lived there ever since. He formed Rank and File; were they still around today, they would rightly be branded "alterna-country" but were then usually dubbed "cowpunk," a term that often wound up scaring away both cowboys and punkers. Only when the next band, the True Believers, fizzled did Escovedo start earning overdue attention.
He was nearing 40 then, working solo gigs at Austin clubs, when a few local musician friends started sitting in with him, morphing the solo performances into an awesome aural machine that would be dubbed the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra. He released his first solo album, Gravity, in 1992, but only on 1994's Thirteen Years did everything really start smoldering—members of the Orchestra are featured prominently, and there are violins and cellos on almost every track. It's a work of profound, ambitious, deeply affecting beauty mixed with great rock & roll, made all the more heartbreaking when you realize that most of the songs were written after the suicide of his wife, Bobbi, whom he met when they were students at Huntington Beach High School (they were married for 13 years).
Perhaps to balance the album's heavy themes at live shows, Alejandro's orchestra began performing what would become one of their most anticipated tunes, a full-on orchestral-rock take on the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The song built with such intensity, drama and fury that you expected the cellists and violinists to finish up by smashing their instruments onstage, Pete Townshend-style. (Escovedo won't be bringing the Orchestra to his shows this week—as if you could squeeze an orchestra into the Doll Hut—but he does have a cello player in the band, who'll do his best to re-create that classical-punk clash.)With These Hands followed in 1996 on the mini-major label Rykodisc, but its sales disappointed the Rykodisc people. Escovedo won a release from his deal and moved to the more artist-friendly imprint Bloodshot, which put out his last two records, More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96 and last year's Bourbonitis Blues. Bourbonitis Blues is a mix of new Escovedo songs and covers from as diverse a clan as you could imagine—Ian Hunter's "Irene Wilde," Lou Reed's "Pale Blue Eyes," Jimmie Rodgers' "California Blues," the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce's (he of the influential LA punk band the Gun Club) "Sex Beat." It represents Escovedo's essence: if classical instruments and punk aren't really supposed to work together, consider that Escovedo goes further still, throwing rock, blues, R&B, country, soul, and Mexican folk music into the same blender. It's like a Pollock painting; it only seems like a sloppy, chaotic mess; look a little deeper, and you'll find where the universe is hiding.
Escovedo makes you want to cry, fall in love and get hammered, all at the same time. Listen to the opening line on Bourbonitis Blues—"I was drunk/I was down/I was wandering 'round my bed/Called out your name." Alcoholism, depression, uncertainty and unrequited passion, all within the first few seconds. That's part of his evocative, mood-setting genius: he scoops out those awful, buried memories of every tragedy you've suffered through and asks you to face them. And then he snatches them back, flips them over and blows them up with some of the nastiest, gnarliest Stones-style rock & roll songs, stuff that the best bar bands can only dream of pulling off. It's as if he puts you down just to bring you back up—he lets you wallow in your despair and then rejoice in the possibilities of tomorrow.
No wonder his records don't sell much; the cat just ain't meant for everybody. The downside of meager sales is that Escovedo has to spend nine to 10 months of the year on the road. That's where he's calling from now, at a Kansas City stop off the day after the Fourth of July. On this leg of the tour, he has his 8-year-old son—one of his six kids—with him, which makes the traveling a lot easier, he says. "Being away from my kids all the time, it's always a concern. Either I chose this life or this life chose me, I'm not quite sure," he says. "But this is what I do, and they seem to understand that, though it's difficult for all of us."
Difficult, too, for us rabid Escovedo freaks. With all those miles he logs every year, he somehow hasn't played a show in his old home county in four years (it's been even longer since he last visited Long Beach, with the True Believers on an opening slot for the Replacements at the old Fender's Ballroom).
Now's a good time to hear Escovedo. He's wrapping up a new album (A Man Under the Influence; he's a huge John Cassavetes fan), songs from which he'll likely play at this week's gigs. For much of the past two years, he's also kept busy writing songs and music for a play called By the Hand of the Father, a multimedia presentation of the lives of several Mexican-born men who cross the border into Texas and how they deal with assimilating into a new culture. After several work-in-progress performances, it formally premiered in LA in June and next year will head out on a proper tour. If you nudge him a little, he might play something from it at these shows, too.
"[The play] changed my life," Escovedo explains. "Musically, it gave me a better understanding of the performance of music. I've always been drawn to English rock bands, who I think have a better understanding of performing than American rock bands. But until this, I never really got into that theatrical thing—for me, it was always about just playing the songs, performing in the same way that Miles Davis used to—not really catering to the audience but drawing the audience into the music. And, of course, the subject matter is very close to home—a lot of it is about my father. It's a very rich, emotional story."
Escovedo's family moved to OC from Texas in 1958, when he was 9. He still isn't sure about the reasons for the move, a subject he touches on in a section of By the Hand of the Father titled "Secrets." "It asks the question, why did we move? Why were we suddenly in California? We've been told so many reasons over the years," he says. "You have to understand that when we left Texas, we left under the guise of 'going on vacation,' and we never went back. We left everything there. My father originally told me that we moved for several reasons. One is that Texas was a right-to-work state, and he could work as a plumber and join unions in California. The other reason is that Texas had so much prejudice that he just wanted to keep us away from it. I think it was maybe a little of both."
He lived in OC through the '60s, first in Orange, then Santa Ana and finally Huntington Beach, where he became part of the surf scene. "I was a real surfer dude," he says. "It was interesting, though, and I talk about this in the play, too: even though I was a surfer, I was Mexican, and that was kind of an odd cultural thing, the whole 'all surfers have blond hair' mystique. So on the beach, I got a lot of you-don't-belong-here attitude. And then I really didn't belong with the low-rider culture, either, so it was really strange."
So maybe Escovedo's creative eclecticism is somehow his own way of still trying to fit in. Maybe. Mostly, he's just carrying around what influenced him during his wild, untamed OC youth, including all the bands that came through the Golden Bear, the storied Huntington Beach club near the corner of PCH and Main Street (demolished in 1986 to make way for the retail complex that stands there now). Mention the Bear, and it seems you can hear Escovedo grinning through the telephone. "I saw some of the most wonderful things there, like Paul Butterfield, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters—and there was a little place downstairs called the Salty Cellar, and that's where all the local garage rock bands would play. In fact, I got a brick from the building after they tore the Golden Bear down. I finally got to play there, too, when the True Believers played with Los Lobos. I remember I met Dwight Yoakam there for the first time that night. He said we were 'some revved-up Texas kinda deal.' That was a very rich place."
Escovedo says he hasn't been back to Main Street since, says he's afraid to. Too many paved-over memories. "But it was the '60s, and it just kicked. It's amazing what else I saw—Ike and Tina Turner, Lefty Frizzell, all sorts of music. It was a great time living in Huntington. It pretty much influenced my record collection for the rest of my life."
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO performs WITH JIMMY CAMp AT LINDA'S DOLL HUT, 107 S. ADAMS ST., ANAHEIM, (714) 533-1286. FRI., 9 P.M. $7. 21+; AND WITH THE MAJESTICS AT THE BLUE CAFE, 210 THE PROMENADE, LONG BEACH, (562) 983-7111. MON., 9 P.M. $5. 21+.