By Mark Guarino
You go to a club. You don’t know who is performing. Maybe you don’t care.
You order a beer. You wait. The performer strides onstage. He checks his guitar. He says hello to some people pressed to the front. You and everyone else haven’t even noticed him yet. The crowd is loud.
Then the band kicks in. They find the rhythm. They ride it until swelling, the performer cued to sing his first words.
When you hear him, you move closer. His voice is calm, but so expressive, it doesn’t hide the scars.
“Don’t love me too much,” he sings. “I don’t think I can take it.” The band warmly wraps around his voice as a fiddle trails each word, mournfully.
The room falls silent, strange for a bar normally noisy with clanking bottles, banging cash registers, and booming drunks. It’s as if a magic wand was waved and everyone fell into a trance, listening.
That’s the way it was when I first heard Alejandro Escovedo perform about four years ago. A former punk rocker who only stopped shouting and started singing proper in his forties, Escovedo is the music industry’s best kept secret, but to the songwriting community he’s a revered touchstone.
In Chicago, there is a protective air around him by fans typically reserved for musical mystics like Van Morrison. People who he’s never met refer to him as simply, “Alejandro.” His shows — an unprecedented four night, four club stand next week — are inevitably always full, with people who come not just to hear some music, but also show up to hear music they consider inherently healing.
“I’ve found there’s this emotional connection to my story,” he admitted in a conversation last month. “A lot of people similar in age connected to the fact that I was playing, struggling and somehow surviving this whole thing I went through. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and tell me how important the records are to them and that the words are like this friend that helps them through certain situations. I love it.”
Alejandro Escovedo’s life can be separated into two stories. The first is his life in bands.
It begins when he was 24 years old — a first generation Mexican American — and living in San Francisco in the early ‘70s. He decided to make a spoof of the classic Fellini film “8 1/2” with his friends. They’d call it “18 1/2” and make it about teenage rockers who didn’t want to grow up. It never got made.
“It kind of sparked this whole creative life,” he remembered.
What survived was the band he and his friends had put together. They called themselves The Nuns and although they didn’t know a note at first (these were hippie actors), they soon learned some chords and became popular around the Bay Area. “Once we started to play, we never looked back,” he said.
When the Nuns fizzled, Escovedo moved to New York and got entrenched with the punk scene, getting friendly with the likes of John Cale, Brian Eno, the Ramones, Sid Viscous and Nancy Spungen and others. But living life that intense led him to one decision: “If I was going to die, I wanted to die in Texas.”
So he moved to Austin, not far away from San Antonio where he was born. Escovedo formed the band Rank and File in the early ‘80s and after that, he and his brother Javier formed the True Believers, an early cowpunk outfit that only lasted one album before breaking up.
His life in bands ended with it. He was 40. He had waited only a few years earlier to write his first song with the True Believers. But because he “had always believed in bands,” the loss was “extremely disappointing.” “I grudgingly started a solo career.”
That’s where Alejandro Escovedo’s second story picks up. It begins with his solo music. “Caught up in so many other things,” he realized he hadn’t taken the time to think about his own life — where he came from and where it was going.
So he began writing intensely. His first album, “Gravity” (Watermelon), came just after the suicide of his ex-wife, leaving him to raise two small children. On that album, and its follow-up, “Thirteen Years” (Watermelon), Escovedo plunged deep into creating often startling images that have marked his songs and given them their power.
Ghosts haunt the music. Glasses fill with dirty water. Wolves howl. Footsteps echo in the hallway. Saint Jude turns his back. One narrator struggles to find his bed at 2 a.m. when drunk. In one song, he does all he can do to reconnect to a woman only to get cut down by a chorus that teases, very child-like, “la, la, la, la, la, na, na, na na na, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.”
Since his wife’s death, Escovedo remarried and is now going through another divorce. “I’ve been through more relationships than one man should have to endure in a lifetime,” he said last month sitting in his hotel room, the morning of the day he played the Third Waltz benefit at Metro. The music, both a “blessing and a curse,” has been “very healing” but has also kept him at a distance from people he’s close to.
“It’s like we live in a house and there’s a room that no one else is allowed to enter and you live the rest of you life being asked, ‘what’s in that room’ and you say, ‘honey, you can’t go in, I’m sorry, that’s my room’,” he said.
Once he began recording under his own name, he recast his sound to have as much depth as the new lyrics he was writing. He expanded the typical four-piece rock band into a 15-member ensemble of horns, woodwinds, keyboardists and percussionists, designed to add grace to his ballads, but blow fire into the gutter punk. In 1998, the Chicago label Bloodshot introduced him to a younger, more rock-inclined audience with “More Miles Than Money,” a live album with songs from his first three albums, plus a cover of The Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” a throwback to his punk roots. Now instead of being left to roam the pastures as just another Texas songwriter unclassifiable by music industry margins, Escovedo’s music was breathing with vigorous new life and heard by an entirely new audience.
The attention gave him the strength to explore his Mexican roots for the first time. Beginning with an early song, “With These Hands,” that featured his family including his brother Pete and niece Sheila E, Escovedo began writing songs about his father’s migration from Mexico to Texas. One song, “Wave,” details his dad as a kid hopping a train to the other side, where “everyone’s got golden hair.”
The songs have since been incorporated into a play, “By the Hand of the Father,” produced by the L.A.-based theatre, About Productions (the show arrives in Chicago May 18-19).
Escovedo’s father, who is 93 this year, was a musician when he came to the U.S. But he also took on a number of other jobs, from cotton picker to prize fighter to plumber. Escovedo interviewed him for details, but was confronted each time with the same question: “why does a Mexican male keep so much inside?”
“Yet he is a very emotional man,” Escovedo said. “The strength I see in my father I’ve never seen in myself.”
Next week, Bloodshot releases its third Escovedo album, “A Man Under the Influence.” It’s the culmination of the highs and lows of his past ten years as a songwriter, a husband and a son. The songs — ranging from the slop rocker “Castanets” to the beatific ballad, “Rosalie” — sound confident and warm, even though the words tread on uneasiness, always.
The influence the man in the album title is under, is life lived.
“It’s always been a struggle. To me, that’s the way love has been. It’s something I’ve always wanted. Now I’m 50. I still don’t have any answers. I really don’t know any more than I ever did,” he said, before pausing. “I think that’s real.”