By Greg Cahill
America is a land of ghosts. From the spooky pine forests of Maine’s lake region to the streets of Sonoma, where hundreds of dead Indians sleep beneath streets lined with posh bistros and art galleries, this is a nation frozen in the twilight between the living and the dead.
Singer and songwriter Alejandro Escovedo—a longtime peddler in heartache and despair, and the subject of Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo (Or Music), the great 2004 two-disc tribute album—is no stranger to the spectral nature of existence.
On this intimate Acoustic Guitar Sessions performance, he recounts his past in three songs from throughout his career: “Five Hearts Breaking,” one of the first songs he ever wrote; “Chelsea Hotel 78,” about being at the New York landmark the night Sid Vicious killed girlfriend Nancy Spungen; and “Bottom of the World,” an homage to his adopted hometown Austin, Texas.
Born of Mexican immigrants, the wayward son of San Francisco’s first family of percussion (his half-brother, Pete Escovedo, played percussion for Santana; his cousin, Sheila E., made a big splash with Prince), Alejandro Escovedo began his own music career in the mid-’70s with the seminal San Francisco punk band the Nuns. He later moved to New York, where he cofounded the legendary cowpunk band Rank and File, along with ex-Dils Tony and Chip Kinman. The band moved to Texas, where Escovedo had once dreamed of becoming a bullfighter and later a baseball pitcher. But he left the band after the release of their classic eponymous debut and started a promising roots-rock outfit called the True Believers.
The record industry proved a faithless lover.
Capitol Records dropped the True Believers after one critically acclaimed album and shelved a follow-up that didn’t see the light of day for a decade.
“After the True Believers broke up, I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Escovedo said a couple of years ago, during a phone interview from his home outside of Austin, Texas. “I wasn’t sure that I’d ever even play music again, because I’d put so much time into that band and then to see it taken away the way it was . . . it was really devastating.”
He grew disillusioned and fell into a six-year limbo, working at a local record store and playing in a garage band in Austin. “I believed in the rock ‘n’ roll dream—to some extent,” he said. “But I really got a sense of how corrupt and fucked up and what a lie all that really was. It gave me a different perspective on music.”
Escovedo would bounce back several years later to become the patron saint of the then-emerging Austin roots-music scene. But it was a hard road. And, somewhere along the way, Escovedo contracted a blood-born virus that had come back to haunt him.
After a show in Phoenix in 2003, he collapsed and was hospitalized, his body weakened by a cirrhotic liver infected by hepatitis C. Friends in the music industry rallied to his aid, performing a series of benefit concerts to offset the cost of care for the uninsured musician.
In 2004, the stunning Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo (Or Music) gathered covers of Escovedo’s often mournful ghost stories performed by such rock, blues, and roots-rock luminaries as Lucinda Williams (who opens the tribute CD with the bluesy “Pyramid of Tears”), Steve Earle, Peter Buck of R.E.M., John Cale, Calexico, the Cowboy Junkies, the Jayhawks, Los Lonely Boys, Charlie Musselwhite, Howe Gelb, Rosie Flores and many others.
At their best, these artists evoked the depths of Escovedo’s sometimes grim and claustrophobic songs, several of which were inspired by the 1992 suicide of his estranged wife. Those particular songs, first recorded on his solo debut, Gravity, earned him Musician of the Year honors at the 1993 Austin Music Awards.
Escovedo’s own albums are cloaked in lush chamber-folk arrangements that he says helped reinvigorate his creative drive through their blatant noncommerciality, but these covers often rocked; check out the snarling desperation of Steve Earle and Reckless Kelly’s “Paradise” or Jon Dee Graham’s vulnerable “Helpless” or the boho groove of Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb’s “She Towers Above.”
Still it was Bob Neuwirth’s sparse, wistful rendition of “Rosalie”—a plaint from a man ruminating on a stack of faded love letters from a woman “across an ocean of powder and dust”—that best capturesd the exquisitely forlorn nature that is at the heart of so many of Escovedo’s songs.
Escovedo has gone on to record a half dozen strong albums since then, including 2008’s rough-and-ready Real Animal, a collaboration with Chuck Prophet, and the recent Body of Sin. But as a body of work, those 32 tracks, written during a 13-year period and filled with brutal honesty, represent a remarkable achievement by a songwriter who refused to let the music industry bury his love for his art. It is sad and ironic that it has taken this latest tragedy in his life to bring a wider audience to the doorstep of one of rock’s finest and most underappreciated songwriters.
Yet it’s clear that Escovedo, who revisited the blistering track “Break This Time” to close the tribute album, wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. “Whoever told you,” he sang, “there’d be no danger, nothing to fear, in this house of pain?”