Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Alejandro Escovedo, named artist of the decade by the alternative country magazine No Depression in March of 1998, stems from an illustrious musical family, but he has made his own mark in a variety of incarnations—from punk to roots rocker to singer-songwriter—producing an impressive and eclectic body of work that, at its best, shows an incomparable commitment to emotional honesty while never betraying his rock roots. Escovedo’s voice can, at times, resemble Mark Eitzel, at others, Bob Dylan; his orchestrations can evoke John Cale or Nick Drake; his lyricism, Lou Reed. After two decades of working in bands, Escovedo struck out on his own, creating a surprisingly rich, melancholic tapestry. As David Fricke, writing in Rolling Stone, said, Escovedo “brings his experience in punk and be-jeweled-guitar jangle to bear on the poetic introspection of his solo records.” Yet, despite the critical accolades that he has received throughout his career, he has never achieved mainstream success.
Born on January 10, 1951, in San Antonio, Texas, Escovedo was raised in a musical family. His father, a native of Saltillo, Mexico, played in swing and mariachi bands. Older half-brothers Pete and Coke (from their father’s first marriage), played with West Coast Latino rockers Santana, Azteca, and Malo. His younger brothers Javier and Mario formed bands of their own in Southern California. Pete’s daughter, Sheila E., became a star in the 1980s as Prince’s percussionist and as a solo artist.
Escovedo moved with his family from Texas to California, settling first in Orange, then Santa Ana. He attended high school in Huntington Beach, a coastal town south of Los Angeles. He immersed himself in the music scene, seeing the Seeds, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Buffalo Springfield, and Janis Joplin. His father gave him his first guitar, but Escovedo had little interest in music at that time. The instrument was picked up by his younger brother Javier, who would later found the Southern California punk stalwarts, the Zeros.
Escovedo married and fathered two children, but the union did not last. He moved to Hollywood in 1973 at the beginning of the Glam era when bands like the Stooges and the New York Dolls played regularly on the Sunset Strip. He hung out at clubs like Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco and the Whiskey A Go-Go and, at an early Patti Smith concert, met his future wife Bobbie Levie.
The couple moved to San Francisco in 1975 where Escovedo planned to study filmmaking. There he and schoolmate Jeff Olener began a cinematic project about a band that couldn’t play, casting themselves in the film. This eventually became the seminal San Francisco punk band the Nuns. The pair later teamed with Richie Dietrich, Jennifer Miro, and Jeff Raphael to become the first Bay Area punk band to play larger venues; at their peak, they were a bigger local draw than visiting bands like Blondie. Escovedo told Peter Blackstock of No Depression, “We were just there at the right time. We started playing this place called the Mabuhay Gardens. We told them that we had a huge following, and we didn’t have any following. Our following was basically transvestites and drug dealers. In fact, the first show was with the Dils.” The Nuns wound up playing a part in one of the key moments of early punk history when they opened for the Sex Pistols’ infamous “last show” at San Francisco’s Winterland in January of 1978.
A tour of New York proved to be the band’s undoing. As Escovedo told Blackstock, “The first night we were there, we went to Max’s Kansas City to see the Heart-breakers play, and we sat at a table with Andy Warhol, and George Clinton was there, and Richard Hell.” Escovedo decided to stay in New York and the band returned to San Francisco without him. Bobbie soon joined him and the couple lived in the famous Chelsea Hotel—whose other residents included Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Before breaking up, the Nuns released a single “Decadent Jew/Wild”; a posthumous LP was released by Bomp Records in 1980. (The band would later re-form, without Escovedo, and still exists with mainstays Olener and Miro, as a kind of S&M sideshow.)
Escovedo was performing with Judy Nylon when Chip Kinman of the Dils called him. The Dils had recently broken up and Kinman wanted to know if Escovedo
For the Record…
Born on January 10, 1951, in San Antonio, TX; married twice; four children.
Began musical career as guitarist with the Nuns, 1975; played with Judy Nylon, 1980, cofounded Rank and File, 1980; left Rank and File, began True Believers with brother Javier, 1983; True Believers disbanded, 1987; performed with Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, the Setters, and Buick MacKane, 1987-90; released first solo album, Gravity, 1991; Thirteen Years, 1993; With These Hands, 1996; More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96, 1998; Bourbonitis Blues, 1999; and A Man under the Influence, 2001.
Awards: Austin (Texas) Music Awards, Musician of the Year, 1993.
was interested in forming a band. Kinman moved to New York and Rank and File was formed. The band had a distinct country flavor, seasoned with a hard rock edge. They became pioneers of the nascent cowpunk movement and quickly developed a following in New York. On their first tour they passed through Portland where Tony Kinman—Chip’s brother and former Dils band member—joined the band as bass player and, eventually, codirector. After the tour they lost their drummer and decided to relocate to Austin, Texas.
There they found Slim Evans, a Texas native who had been playing in local bands. With the lineup complete, they honed their sound, taking gigs wherever they could, from rock clubs to honky-tonks. It was not as easy a transition as anticipated, as Escovedo told Blackstock: “We were too country for a rock club, and the country clubs wouldn’t book us because we were too rock for the country clubs. So we didn’t have a home anywhere; we were in no man’s land.” The band eventually built a following and, on tour of the West Coast, came to the attention of Slash/Warner, with whom they signed a record deal. Their debut album, Sundown, influenced countless roots rock and alternative country acts but, at the time of its release, sold modestly. Escovedo grew increasingly dissatisfied with his position in the band, now dominated by the Kinman brothers. In 1983 he left to found the True Believers with his brother Javier.
The True Believers developed a harder, garage rock sound. Their greatest strength lay in their live performances, from which they quickly built a following. The True Believers signed with Rounder/EMI and, for their first record, went into the studio with the legendary Jim Dickinson, who had worked with Alex Chilton’s Big Star, Ry Cooder, and the Rolling Stones. The self-titled debut was released in 1985. The band toured relentlessly to support the album, becoming the subject of a feature story in Spin by roadie Pat Blashill, a tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll that put a strain on Escovedo’s marriage.
The band recorded their second album with Georgia Satellites producer Jim Glixman in 1987. It was scheduled for release that summer, but as the band prepared to tour they were dropped from their label. (The album remained in limbo for seven years until it was issued on Rykodisc.) Javier Escovedo went on tour with Will Sexton and, in 1988, announced that he had left the band. The True Believers ceased to exist.
Escovedo returned to Austin and took a job in a record store. He began playing with his “orchestra,” which would contract and expand in size according to the availability of musicians. His marriage to Bobbi began to unravel and the couple eventually separated. Bobbi gave birth to their second daughter in 1990 although attempts at reconciliation failed. On April 24, 1991, she committed suicide.
Escovedo dealt with his grief by burying himself in work. His first album, Gravity, released in 1991, consisted of songs he wrote while still in the True Believers as well as his first attempts to address his bereavement. The album closes with “Gravity/Falling Down Again,” a heart-wrenching epic. Thirteen Years, his follow-up album released in 1993, more fully developed the themes first broached in Gravity. A concept album of sorts, the title cut addresses the 13 years he spent with Bobbi. Both albums received critical praise and signaled Escovedo’s maturity as a musician and songwriter.
With These Hands, Escovedo’s third album, was issued in 1996. A less somber collection than its predecessors, it included guest performances by Willie Nelson and Jennifer Warnes. On the title cut, written in homage to his father, Escovedo was joined by his brother Pete and niece Sheila E., among other family members.
Escovedo’s relentless touring is documented in More Money Than Miles: Live 1994-96, released in 1998. This collection includes a medley of “Gravity/Falling Down Again” and Reed’s “Street Hassle” in which the two songs are seamlessly intertwined. In an interview with Joshua Klein for the Onion, Escovedo explained his commitment to the road: “I love playing live. That’s really the most important aspect of all this music-making stuff to me. It’s really kind of the hardest road to choose, because you have to travel so much, and it’s hard on relationships and what-have-you. For me, it’s the most immediate response. I don’t want to become a recluse in the studio. I like the interaction between the songs and the audience.”
Bourbonitis Blues, released in 1999, included both original songs and covers. The album is a synthesis of Escovedo’s eclectic musical history and incorporates punk, cowpunk, garage, and roots rock, melded together with his distinctive, atmospheric sound. It was followed by A Man Under the Influence, a melody-laden collection of new tunes that further plumbed the depths of loss and redemption. It has been compared to both the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet and John Cale’s Paris 1919. Writing in Rolling Stone, David Fricke said “With this album, Escovedo’s own pilgrimage out of the shadows continues—with power and elegance.”
Gravity, Watermelon, 1991.
Thirteen Years, Watermelon, 1993.
With These Hands, Rykodisc, 1996.
More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96, Bloodshot, 1998.
Bourbonitis Blues, Bloodshot, 1999.
A Man Under the Influence, Bloodshot, 2001.
(With The Nuns) The Nuns, Posh Boy, 1980.
(With Rank and File) Sundown, Slash, 1982.
(With True Believers) True Believers, EMI/Rounder, 1985.
(With True Believers) Hard Road, Rykodisc, 1994.
(With Buick Mackane) The Pawn Shop Years, Rykodisc, 1997.
Metro (San Jose, NM), May 30-June 5, 1996.
No Depression, March-April 1998.
Rolling Stone, April 26, 2001.
Village Voice, May 5, 2001.
“Alejandro Escovedo,” Bloodshot Records, http://www.bloodshotrecords.com (March 11, 2002).
Alejandro Escovedo Official Website, http://www.alejandroescovedo.com (May 28, 2002).
“Alejandro Escovedo: The Last to Know,” http://www.bayarea.net/%7Efloor13/music/alejandro.htm (March 11, 2002).
“Nun But a Rocker,” Metroactive Music, http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/05.30.96/escovedo-9622.html (March 11, 2002).
“The Hardest Road,” Onion, http://www.theavclub.com/avclub3317/bonusfeature13317.html (March 11, 2002).
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
From his origins in the arts community of San Francisco in the 1970s, where he was influenced by such grungy art rockers as Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground, Alejandro Escovedo has forged a “cow-punk” style that is part earthy hard rock and part country and western. Currently, in his artistic maturity, he has taken his moody and powerful music in a new and artful direction by working with a string quartet and creating folk chamber music. Although he has been recording since 1978 and has six albums to his credit, commercial success largely eluded Escovedo until the release of With These Hands (1996). This recent work has sold well and garnered positive critical response from such leading publications as Rolling Stone, Billboard, and the New York Times. As his career approaches the 20-year mark, Escovedo’s style has ranged from crude punk rock, pioneering cowpunk, and hard-edged searing guitar rocker to an experimental fusion of chamber orchestra, rock ballad, and Latin styles. His later work is edgy without being juvenile and mature without being sentimental. In an era of world music, he stands on the edge of commercial success with a musical style that crosses the boundary between art and pop, with clear cross-cultural appeal.
Alejandro Escovedo was born in 1946 (although he has claimed to be up to five years younger) in San Antonio, Texas. He was the seventh of 12 children. His father Pedro, who had come to Texas at the age of 12 years from the northern Mexican town of Saltillo, was an amateur mariachi performer in the 1940s and 1950s. When Alejandro was in his teens, his family moved to Huntington Beach, California. His older brothers Pete and Coke became successful percussionists who played with Santana in the 1960s. Alejandro thereby gained an interest in making music; he hung around Hollywood’s glam-rock scene and listened to music such as The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, although he didn’t start playing until he was 24 years old.
Joined San Francisco Punk Scene
Escovedo moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, when he was briefly married. As a college film student, he began making a film about a punk band that couldn’t play, and wound up forming his first band with schoolmate Jeff Olener, vocalist Jennifer Miro, and Richie Dietrich. The film was never completed, but the group became the Nuns, a punk rock band that developed a large cult following in the area and performed as the opening act for the Sex Pistols’ final gig at Winterland. The Nuns released one single, Savage, in 1978. By then, however, the musician had grown dissatisfied with the group and decided to leave The Nuns, moving with his new wife, Bobbie Levie, to New York City. Critical of the band’s subsequent work, Escovedo later described it as “trying to beat a very dead horse” to Jason Ferguson in Magnet magazine.
Escovedo soon teamed up with Los Angeles-based punk rockers Chip and Tony Kinman to form the influential cowpunk group Rank and File. The band released the album Sundown in 1982. He and Bobbie had their first child, Maya, in that same year. In 1986 Escovedo again sought a new direction in music and formed the True Believers with his younger brother Javier. The band was more of a pure rock act, geared toward live performance, and featured a three-guitar climax. They put out one critically well received album, True Believers (1986) and recorded another that was not released. The group was dropped by EMI and subsequently dissolved.
Disenchanted with the music business and concerned that the rock musician’s lifestyle was hard on his wife, Escovedo took a job as a record clerk at Austin’s Waterloo Records. He soon had a reputation for being the hippest record store clerk in the city. When one of his older brothers died in 1987, Escovedo cautiously returned to music with solo performances and, in late 1988, began performing with an informal improvisation-al group, the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra. Hardcore
For the Record…
Born in 1946 (some sources say 1951), in San Antonio, TX; son of Pedro (an amateur mariachi player and plumber) Escovedo; brief marriage in early 1970s; married Bobbie Levie, 1978 (committed suicide, 1991); married Dana Smith (a musician with the three-woman garage rock group, Pork), 1994; children: (With Levie) Maya, (with Smith) Paloma, Paris.
Formed punk rock group The Nuns with Jeff Olener, Jennifer Miro, and Richie Dietrich, 1987; formed country-punk band Rank and File with Chip and Tony Kin-man, 1982; with brother Javier, created the True Believers, 1986-87; began solo career in 1988, performing with the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra; also performed in rock quartet Buick MacKane and with Walter Salas-Humara and Michael Hall as The Setters.
Addresses: Home —Austin, Texas. Record company —Rykodisc, Shetland Park, 27 Congress Street, Salem, MA 01970.
fans who relished Alejandro’s earlier hard-driving guitar work were surprised to hear that he was working with a string section. Nevertheless, the musician’s utilization of a chamber music quartet was utterly in keeping with the avant-garde background of his youth.
Escovedo’s second daughter, Paloma, was born in 1991—a time when his 13-year marriage to his wife, Bobbie, was already troubled. Following a six-month separation, Bobbie committed suicide. Escovedo directed his mourning into songs that would make up his first solo album, Gravity, in 1992. His next album, Thirteen Years, was released in 1993. The title song was about his marriage to Bobbie; full of grief and guilt, it also voiced themes of survival and recovery. Escovedo toured to support the release of Thirteen Years and made several critics’ best-of-the-year lists for 1993 and 1994. In 1994 Escovedo won several Austin Music Awards as well.
Escovedo’s professional and personal catharsis was followed by a series of collaborations with new musical colleagues and old. He entered into a musical collective with Walter Salas-Humara (The Silos) and Michael Hall (The Wild Seeds), releasing an album as the Setters. And, in a counterpoint to his orchestra, Escovedo also performed as part of Buick MacKane, a noisy, beer-rock, tongue-in-cheek ensemble. At the Waterloo Record shop, Escovedo developed a relationship with Jim Bradt, who worked in Rykodisc’s marketing department. This led to the 1994 Rykodisc issue of Hard Road, which contains the original True Believers LP plus the unreleased second album. Escovedo’s personal life also featured a new “collaboration” in 1994, when Escovedo married long-time friend and fellow rocker, Dana Lee Smith. The couple had a son, Paris, the same year.
Escovedo’s third solo album, With These Hands, was released in 1996. Although still brooding and thoughtful, it emphasized a cautious optimism and family themes. While working on the album, Escovedo discovered that his brother Peter was in the same building, working on another record. As a result, Peter played on Alejandro’s album, as did Peter’s wife, Juanita, his son Peter Michael, and daughter Sheila E—the spirited percussionist who had previously worked with pop star Prince. Alejandro’s brother, Javier, also joined in, as well as daughters Maya and Paloma. Alejandro’s father, Pedro, then 89 years-old, served as the inspiration for the title song, “With These Hands.” Willie Nelson also performs on the album; although they had never previously met, Nelson was a fan of an old Rank and File video. Escovedo explained to Tim Stegall of the The Austin Chronicle, “It was this Village People western…. I’d heard that Willie and his boys would get out there to his country club, smoke beaucoups amounts of ganja… They’d have it on auto-rewind, just so they could watch it over and over and over again, and laugh and laugh.”
With These Hands synthesizes a diverse range of influences, including Latin percussion, country and western, hard rock, and the avant-garde. The avant-garde element is most obvious in the song “Tugboat,” a tribute to Escovedo’s friend, the late English professor Sterling Morrison, who played guitar for the Velvet Underground. In Request, Tristram Lozaw described Escovedo’s work on the album as balancing “delicate melody with rock ‘n’ roll animalism, the harrowing with the uplifting.” Lozaw concluded, “While Escovedo’s increasingly sanguine outlook may signal that the dull ache of his emotional baggage has lifted in favor of loving contentment, his piercing insights into heartache remain.”
(With the Nuns) “Savage” (single), 415, 1978.
(With Rank And File) Sundown, Slash, 1982.
(With True Believers) True Believers, Rounder/EMI, 1986.
Gravity, Watermelon, 1992.
Thirteen Years, Watermelon, 1993.
The End (EP), Watermelon, 1994.
Hard Road (contains an unreleased second album recorded in 1987 for EMI), Rykodisc, 1994.
(With Walter: Salas-Humara and Michael Hall) The Setters, The Setters, Watermelon, 1994.
Broadcast Vol. 2 (compilation album), KGSR, 1995.
With These Hands, Rykodisc, 1996.
Austin Chronicle, April 12, 1996.
Billboard, February 10, 1996.
Huh, March 1996.
Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1996.
Magnet, April/May 1996; February/March 1996.
New York Times, April 9, 1996.
Request, April 1996.
Rolling Stone, April 18, 1996; May 2, 1996.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Rykodisc press materials, 1996.