Boxing Mirror (A Biography)
“What does it take to make this man a star?” ponders Rolling Stone critical sage David Fricke of Alejandro Escovedo. The notion both humbles Escovedo and makes him chuckle. “Hey, I’d be happy to just make a good living, and be able to make records and go out and tour in a comfortable way, and know that I can support my family and be sure that they’ll be safe and provided for,” he says. But Fricke’s point is still a salient one indeed.
Stardom isn’t Escovedo’s goal. At this point in his creative and personal life, it’s not even a factor in his music making equation. But throughout his lauded 14-year solo career, Escovedo’s artistic aspirations have always aimed as high as the stars. And all along, his work has inspired the sort of rapturous critical praise that is unequalled for a contemporary artist who hasn’t (yet) achieved widespread cultural impact and fame. He has consistently earned a virtual music press thesaurus of acclamation and enjoys an ever-expanding audience as devoted as any in rock’n’roll, thanks to the stunning breadth of his musical vision, depth of his emotional expression, and the sheer quality and musicality of his work. Or in short, the artistry of Alejandro Escovedo is as good as contemporary music gets.
And his seventh album, The Boxing Mirror, produced by musical master and visionary John Cale, finds Escovedo at his finest yet, exceeding his already remarkable musical achievements. His debut release on Back Porch/Narada Records comes after three trying yet also rewarding years during which Escovedo stared his own death in the face and then struggled and worked to regain his health and continue the creativity that has sustained his soul throughout his adult life.
From the chilling opener “Arizona” to the final classicist grace note of “The Boxing Mirror,” it’s an album that implicitly traces Escovedo’s journey from the brink of death to wellness and an enhanced creativity and wisdom. The varied stylistic hallmarks of his previous albums are found in full force alongside new modes, moods and musical variations. With Cale’s able assistance, Escovedo truly raises rock’n’roll to high art and deepens and expands his gift for personal expression with universal impact and appeal. Arriving just a few short years after a time when it was feared that he might never record and perform again, the album is something of a miracle and well as a prime contender for the title of masterpiece.
The Boxing Mirror was recorded in Los Angeles in December 2005 with Cale contributing keyboards and guitar alongside Escovedo’s band, a distinguished unit that includes such longtime accompanists as drummer Hector Munoz, cellist Brian Standefer and violinist and singer Susan Voelz (also known for her work as a member of Poi Dog Pondering). New to the group are guitarist Jon Dee Graham, a lauded artist in his own right who played with Escovedo in their 1980s band True Believers, and veteran rock’n’roll bassist Mark Andes, who a teenaged Escovedo used to see in concert playing with Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne. The album also includes lyrical contributions from poet Kim Christoff, who is also Escovedo’s wife.
On it, Escovedo delivers some of his most searing rock’n’roll numbers to date “Break This Time” and “Sacramento & Polk” alongside moments of heart-wrenching emotionality and stunning beauty “Evita’s Lullaby” and “I Died A Little Today”, touching romanticism “Looking For Love” and innovative lyricism and musicality “Dearhead On The Wall” and “Notes On Air”. Spanning a musical range from the Mexican-American music of his family heritage “The Ladder” to modernist and even danceable pop-rock “Take Your Place”, The Boxing Mirror is the creative culmination of one of the most artistically accomplished and fascinating musical lives of our time.
“Hard Road” is the title of a song Escovedo wrote (with his brother and bandmate Javier) during his time in the star-crossed band the True Believers. In the early days of his solo career, he saluted that group with another song titled “More Miles Than Money.” Both compositions turned out to be not just expressive but also prophetic, capturing one of the significant skeins of Escovedo’s life and musical career to date.
But Escovedo has been also blessed with a richness of experience, a wealth of intrinsic rewards and untold joys and delights over the years, as well enjoying maybe just a bit too much fun along the way. In addition to the high critical esteem earned by all of his albums, his songs have inspired an acclaimed theatrical work, By the Hand of the Father, and a 32-track tribute album, Por Vida, on which his musical friends, fans and even some heroes recorded Escovedo’s compositions to help raise funds for him during his recent time of need.
He was born into a large Mexican-American family in San Antonio and raised in Southern California. From his birth, music was an essential element of the Escovedo family experience, with the Latin and Chicano styles of his parents’ generation mixing with the thrilling new sounds of rock’n’roll arriving on the radio. His father Pedro was a musician who had played in mariachi bands and labor camps during the Great Depression to eke out a living. Older brothers Pete and Coke are influential percussionists who helped fuse Latin music with rock’n’roll and modern jazz with their work in the bands Santana and Azteca as well as with a pantheon of esteemed artists. Younger brothers Javier and Mario, like Alejandro, both became rock’n’roll guitarists and songwriters.
By his teen years, Escovedo was enthralled with rock’n’roll even though he had yet to seriously take up an instrument. Teethed on the garage bands of the mid-1960s, he was regularly found among the fervent fans at the front of the stage at concerts and clubs throughout Southern California, following favorites like The Faces and Mott The Hoople from show to show. He began to surmise the possibilities for rock’s elemental sounds to express literary and intellectual notions as well as explore darkness and decadence with the emergence of The Velvet Underground.
He finally began playing guitar during his college years in the mid-1970s in San Francisco when he formed a group to play “the worst band in the world” for a student film he was making. That band became The Nuns, one of the seminal groups of the Bay Area punk movement. Escovedo then followed his longstanding desire to move to New York City, arriving at the height of the downtown Manhattan new music scene to play with Judy Nylon and other acts. There he joined forces with fellow San Francisco punk scene veterans Chip and Tony Kinman (from The Dils) in Rank & File, who forged the early 1980s country-punk sound that was the first inklings of what later became known as alternative country.
Rank & File relocated to Austin, Texas, where Escovedo started writing songs after he left the band. He formed True Believers with his brother Javier and Graham, and they quickly became the leading lights of the Austin scene. In 1986, the “Troobs” released their self-titled debut album, produced by Jim Dickinson and recorded on a slim budget of $10,000. They blazed a trail of rock’n’roll fury through the clubs and concert halls of America, often sharing the stage with their West Coast spiritual cousins, Los Lobos. Just a few weeks prior to the release of their second album, True Believers were dropped from their label, EMI Records, and the now legendary outfit sputtered to a halt soon after without ever receiving even close to their just due.
Escovedo continued to refine his songwriting skills while working at Austin’s Waterloo Records, laying the groundwork for a solo career. Gravity, his 1992 debut, was immediately hailed on its release as “a near perfect album of stunning originality” by critic Rob Patterson in the Austin Chronicle. It went on to win Escovedo raves in the national media and “Musician of the Year” honors at the annual Austin Music Awards.
He followed Gravity with a series of albums that continued to earn unstinting high praise from the critical community: Thirteen Years (1993), With These Hands (1996), More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-1996 (1998), Bourbonitis Blues (1999) and A Man Under The Influence (2001). Years of grueling road work in North America and Europe brought Escovedo a devoted cadre of listeners. And even before the close of the 1990s, No Depression magazine hailed him as its “Artist of the Decade.”
In the process, Escovedo created what Rolling Stone’s Fricke calls “his own genre,” describing him as a “folk-blues classicist with a gritty, plaintive voice and an equal fondness for dirty boogie and spectral balladry.” His sound melds such diverse inspirations as Lou Reed, Townes Van Zandt, the “Glimmer Twins” of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, classical string quartets, the Mexican-American music of his home state of Texas and the English glam rock of David Bowie, T-Rex and Mott the Hoople, to name some but hardly all of the colors and hues to be found in his music. He has toured solo as well as with a rock combo, a string quintet and various combinations and permutations thereof, and performed in the mid-1990s with his 13-piece Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra in his hometown of Austin. He also toured Europe and cut an album with Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos and Michael Hall of The Wild Seeds as The Setters and played and recorded an album with his hard rocking foursome Buick MacKane. In 1994, Rykodisc released the True Believers set Hard Road, reissuing the band’s first album in tandem with their previously unreleased second recording.
Yet for all the intimations of greatness, Escovedo’s life and career continued to be a hard road of more miles than money. Throughout 14 years as a solo act in which the rewards of artistic triumph and musical pleasures were leavened by tribulations and personal tragedy, Escovedo has struggled to balance the demands of touring to earn a living and support his family with the commitments of raising his children.. A diagnosis of Hepatitis C in the late 1990s created even further burdens for him to bear.
Towards the end of the decade, he began developing a dramatic work based on his songs about his father with the innovative Los Angeles theater company About Productions. By the Hand of the Father premiered in L.A. in 2000 with Escovedo performing his songs as part of the production, earning superb critical notice on its debut and in subsequent presentations at some of the most prestigious theaters and cultural centers across North America. An album of songs and stories from the theaterwork garnered further praise.
At the dawn of the new century, he was blessed with a new love, poet and college instructor Kim Christoff. The two eventually married and had a daughter, Amala. At the same time, “I was having a really good time playing music and drinking and smoking and living the life.” As Escovedo now admits, he was in deep denial regarding the deadly dangers of continuing the rock’n’roll lifestyle while infected with the Hepatitis C virus.
Then in April 1992, during a performance of By the Hand of the Father in Tucson, Arizona, Escovedo fell critically ill from the effects of the disease and was rushed to the emergency room. “I came close to dying in the hospital and didn’t know if I was going to live or die,” he says, his voice still echoing with a chill at the thought. “I wanted to live. But I really didn’t know if I had a chance.”
His health crisis resulted in huge medical bills that, without insurance coverage, were well beyond his ability to pay. It also rendered him unable to earn a living by playing his music on tour and appearing in the play. But as soon as the news spread of Escovedo’s illness, friends and fans began to spontaneously send funds to assist in his treatment and support him and his family. His peers and admirers in the music community staged benefit shows in more than a dozen cities across the nation. The Alejandro Escovedo Living & Medical Expense Fund was set up by his manager to receive contributions. Harp magazine ran a half-page ad soliciting donations to the fund without even being asked, and Roche Pharmaceuticals generously provided expensive medication for treating his Hepatitis C through an assistance program. Though Escovedo had sometimes wondered if he had been laboring in the margins of contemporary music, the outpouring of generosity proved that he had deeply touched the souls of those who heard and appreciated his music.
The culmination of the benefit effort was Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, a two CD set featuring 31 artists performing his songs, released in the fall of 2004. Some of the featured artists, like John Cale, Ian Hunter, Bob Neuwirth and Ian McLagan, were heroes and longtime inspirations to Escovedo. Others were musical peers: Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Steve Earle, The Jayhawks, Son Volt, Peter Case, The Minus 5, Lenny Kaye and Calexico, to name some but hardly all. Austin friends such as Los Lonely Boys, Charlie Sexton and Jon Dee Graham contributed tracks, as did artists Escovedo had worked and recorded with like Jennifer Warnes, Tres Chicas, Ruben Ramos, Chris Stamey and Rosie Flores. Family members like older sibling Pete Escovedo and Sheila E. — Pete’s superstar daughter and Alejandro’s niece — and younger brothers Javier and Mario (with his band The Dragons) rounded out the critically lauded set.
“I used to sit and listen to that Por Vida album and just sob like a baby,” Escovedo confesses. “And people would send me things in the mail: a card that their kids had drawn, some Buddhist thing — all these forms of love. It was kind of overwhelming at times. I almost felt embarrassed, like I wasn’t worthy of it.”
His struggle over the next two years to regain health and wellness “was just hell sometimes,” says Escovedo. The effects of the medication he took to combat the virus were nearly as debilitating as the disease itself, and for a while it was unclear whether he would be able to make music again. Two appearances while he was still far from recovery during the South By Southwest Music Festival in 2004 proved that he had continued to have the will and spirit to create. Later that year, Escovedo began playing selected shows with his band, which now included Graham whenever he was able to join them outside his commitments to his own career. The rapturous reception of his fans at the shows proved to be a nourishing tonic that further aided Escovedo’s recovery.
Looking back over the last three years, “It’s ironic that out of being so sick so many great things have happened,” Escovedo observes. And the best of them all may be recording a new album with Cale.
“The reason it seems so perfect is that I’ve been trying to rip him off for years,” Escovedo says with a laugh. “I finally got it right; I had to get the master in there to learn how to do it.”
From the first time that Escovedo heard The Velvet Underground in the 1960s, they have been a touchstone musical act for him as a fan and later as a musical creator. He first met Cale in New York in the late 1970s. Later, in Austin during the 1980s, Escovedo also became friends with Cale’s Velvet Underground bandmate Sterling Morrison, who was teaching at the University of Texas.
Escovedo began to get to know Cale better when they both played on a tribute show in Austin for Morrison after his passing. “He was one of the first artists to sign on for Por Vida and the first recording we got was his,” Escovedo explains. “And all the things he did to promote the record afterwards were so generous.”
During 2005’s South By Southwest, Escovedo and Cale performed together at the Austin Music Awards. “While we were rehearsing, I just started talking to him about whether he still produced other artists". He told me, ‘I haven’t in a while but certainly would.’”
Further discussions and Escovedo’s new record deal finally made the collaboration a reality. “It was a leap of faith. I just threw myself into Cale’s arms and I’m glad I did,” says Escovedo. “As I’ve said before about his version of ‘She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ on Por Vida: I never would have thought of anything remotely close to that arrangement. And that’s what he did with most of that stuff on this album. He really turned the songs into something special.”
The recordings started out with just Escovedo and Cale running through his songs and ideas together. “When he sat across from me in the studio, I thought of that opening scene in Songs For Drella, where he and Lou Reed looked at each other, sitting across from each other. Suddenly I’m looking at this man and he’s playing piano in that way and singing with me and teaching me little parts. There were times when it was….” Escovedo’s voice trails off as the sheer immensity of working with Cale hits him once again.
After all, if you’d told Escovedo back when he was a teenaged Velvets fanatic that he’d someday make a record with Cale, “There was no way I’d ever have believed it. But it was all happening so fast that I didn’t have time to be intimidated. I had to step up and play and perform. I had to work on my instincts at the moment,” he says.
The entire experience of creating The Boxing Mirror and being in Southern California again, this time with Kim and Amala along, had a salubrious effect for Escovedo. “We stayed on the beach in Santa Monica, and I got to ride my bike along the beach every day. And it brought back a lot of memories of growing up there, and made me realize how lucky I was to be there and be alive at this point in my life.”
Escovedo proclaims himself “very, very pleased with everything on this album. I learned a lot of things on a lot of levels working with John. I’m definitely outside the capsule a little bit on this album, hanging out there. I feel like it’s really fresh for me again. It’s something new for me.”
In many ways, it all feels new for Escovedo. “When I go out and play now, people are really happy to see us again. And the songs mean something to them, and that’s the greatest gift you can give a songwriter,” he says. As for his sometimes wild ways in the past, “I was just playing Russian roulette. Now I know better. If I had a drink, even one, it could be the drink that kills me. I can’t take that chance.”
With his renewed health has also come a greater clarity of thought and purpose that imbues The Boxing Mirror with a stunning emotional power. “This really sums it up,” says Escovedo. “A friend of mine was over at my house while we were packing to leave for L.A. to make the album, helping me to remember what to bring. And I was playing him some ideas for songs I had recorded at home. And I said to him, ‘Can you believe it? I’m going to make a record with John Cale.’ And he said, ‘You know, that’s really great. But what I’m really happy about and what impresses me more than anything is that you’re just making a record now.’
And he goes, ‘Do you remember two years ago when we were sitting out in the garden and you were trying to help out with the gardening and you couldn’t work for more than five minutes because you’d have to sit down and catch your breath? And you couldn’t even walk to the gate? I’d leave here thinking that I might not see you the next day. This is why it is so important that you’re making a record. Two years ago, it didn’t seem like you’d ever make another record.” And that certainly wasn’t on my mind then. I was just trying to survive and get better.
“It was a long climb up from that deep hole,” Escovedo concludes. “I can’t say that I’m fully recovered yet. But I feel so great about everything right now, especially this album.” And with The Boxing Mirror, Alejandro Escovdeo has created what can truly be called the album of his life.
"Musically, Alejandro Escovedo is in his own genre," notes David Fricke in Rolling Stone. High words of praise indeed, especially at a time when most popular music is boxed into styles and rife with references, influences, and antecedents. Escovedo may possess a miles-wide palette of music that he has absorbed and draws from, yet his own sound defies categorization and transcends boundaries. He is also a consummate storyteller who is held in the highest esteem by his peers, one of who describes him as a "poet of the ordinary event."
Escovedo's music can range from full force rock'n'roll to the subtle delicacy heard from a string quartet, sometimes in the same song. Fricke describes him well as "a folk-blues classicist with a gritty, plaintive voice and an equal fondness for dirty boogie and spectral balladry." That approach has distinguished Escovedo as one of contemporary music's truly original and unique artists, earning him consistent critical hosannas. The breadth and depth of his creativity prompted No Depression magazine to name him its Artist of the Decade even before the close of the 1990s.
His acclaimed solo career follows Escovedo's time in a series of influential bands: The Nuns, Rank and File and The True Believers. Since emerging on his own in the early 1990s, he has released eight albums marked by a stunning variety of music and eloquent lyrical expression, all of them praised by critics for their power, beauty, and sophistication. The diversity of his live performances has been equally broad. Escovedo usually takes the stage within some permutation of a rock band and/or string ensemble, but he has also performed solo as well as with his 13-piece Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, which has featured horns, cello, violin, accordion, percussion, and pedal steel guitar. His songs have even inspired a theatrical collaboration: By the Hand of the Father, which has earned high praise on the stage across North America and as an album featuring songs and stories from the theatrework. Throughout it all, Escovedo has maintained an artistic integrity and dignity rare in these times as well as any other.
One factor underlying the potency found within the music of Alejandro Escovedo is his multicultural heritage. He was born in San Antonio, Texas, the son of an immigrant father from Saltillo, Mexico, who sired 12 children. Pedro Escovedo--whose life seeded By the Hand of the Father and is among the stories the work tells--sang in mariachi bands, boxed, and hustled pool for extra cash, and labored everywhere from the fields as a youngster to a shipyard later in life. Three of his sons became noted musicians: Alejandro and his percussionist brothers Coke and Pete, whose many credits include the seminal Latin rock acts Santana and Malo.
Growing up in California, Escovedo developed an early and abiding passion for rock'n'roll. In his own music, Alejandro has respectfully nodded in style and cover songs to such primal influences as The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, The Stooges and Mott The Hoople. When punk rock emerged during his college years in San Francisco, Escovedo started his first band, The Nuns, when he needed a group for a student film he was making. The band's influential run as founders of the Frisco punk scene includes opening the last show by The Sex Pistols.
Alejandro followed with a stint as the lead guitarist for country-punk pioneers Rank & File, which landed him in Austin. He then started The True Believers, a star-crossed yet notable guitar-driven roots rock band that included his brother Javier and now acclaimed singer-songwriter Jon Dee Graham. When The True Believers broke up in 1987, Escovedo's musical style went through a transition, and he began producing more personal and introspective music in the singer-songwriter tradition that was still as powerful as his rock'n'roll past.
With the 1992 release of Gravity, his first solo album, Escovedo was immediately noted as "a major artist," as the Detroit Metro then described him. To wit, following its release he was voted Musician of the Year in the annual Austin Music Awards. Escovedo's next album, Thirteen Years, was an unflinching examination of the emotions surrounding a marriage coming to an end. With These Hands found him recording with everything from a full string section that included his daughter Maya to a family percussion group that featured his brother Pete and niece Sheila E. More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-1996 captured his stunning live performance style, while Bourbonitis Blues mixed live and studio cuts of both original and cover songs to illuminate the origins of Escovedo's oeuvre. A Man Under The Influence followed with another collection of original material and featured guests like Ryan Adams and members of Whiskeytown, Superchunk, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Over these years Escovedo has also toured and recorded an album with Walter Salas-Humara (The Silos) and Michael Hall (Wild Seeds) as The Setters, and played and recorded an album (The Pawn Shop Years) with his hard rock side project, Buick MacKane.
One theme running through a number of Escovedo's songs was the life and bicultural experience of his father, which he felt formed the spine of a larger work. Uniting with the esteemed Los Angeles theater company About Productions, Alejandro helped write and present By the Hand of the Father, a groundbreaking original theater production that reflects on the 20th Century journey of Mexican-American men who straddled a border and passed on a distinct cultural legacy to subsequent generations. It premiered in Los Angeles in June 2000 and has been performed at a variety of prestigious venues across North America, earning kudos as an "impassioned ode" and "moving homage" with "gorgeous music."
In 2002, Escovedo released the CD By the Hand of the Father: Stories & Songs from the Original Theatrework, which featured such guests as singer Rosie Flores, Tejano star Ruben Ramos (of Los Super Seven fame) and Alejandro's brother Pete Escovedo. The album united older songs that inspired the theatrework with those newly written for it along with dramatic sequences, and earned such praise as "career masterwork" (Oakland Press) and "jubilant, rhythmic… and suffused with joy" (The New Yorker). At the same time, Gravity and Thirteen Years were also re-released in enhanced and newly mastered versions that include bonus CDs of rare material.
Aside from an artistically satisfying music career that for all the high praise has resulted in "more miles than money," to quote one of his song, Escovedo's other passion is his family. He is devoted to seven children and acknowledges the irony of how his life has come to parallel that of his father, whose spiritual presence and inspiration are obviously a continuum in his son's creative works.
Within the frequently indelicate balance or art, life and commerce, Escovedo has managed to maintain his integrity and survive, bolstered at the tougher junctures by the fact that what he creates truly means something to him as well as others. "After all the touring I've done, I've found that there is an audience out there, however large or small, that wants to hear my songs," he says. "And I am willing to go out there and play them."
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