Weâ€™ve been hearing the â€œrock is deadâ€ pronouncements for so many years now that we donâ€™t even listen anymore. â€œIt is what it is,â€ we blithely proclaim, pretending not to care. But if youâ€™re like me, in private moments you sometimes find yourself in despair thinking that it might really be true this time. These moments usually come after hearing the new Paris Hilton single, or the latest hip-hop sensation, or some hot emo band with bad haircuts and too much eye makeup.
Fear not: as long as Alejandro Escovedo draws breath, there is rock â€˜nâ€™ roll. It should be mentioned, however, that in 2003, Escovedo nearly stopped drawing said breath. He collapsed on a stage in Tempe during a performance of his theater piece By the Hand of the Father. He had been living in denial about the Hepatitis C that had been dogging him for seven years. At St. Lukeâ€™s Hospital he was diagnosed with varices of the esophagus, cirrhosis of the liver and tumors in his abdomen. When he was admitted a nurse told him that he didnâ€™t have long to live.
A long hospital stay was followed by a month of recuperation in Arizona before Escovedo was strong enough to return to his home in Wimberley, Tx., near Austin. But even then he was so heavily medicated that he could barely walk around and certainly couldnâ€™t play music. All that was left for him was songwriting, and so he began to craft some new material. The first song he wrote, reflecting his newfound but hard-won sobriety, was called â€œArizona.â€
â€œHave another drink on me
Iâ€™ve been empty since Arizonaâ€
Like most musicians, Escovedo had no health insurance. His managers decided to ask some musicians to record songs for a fundraising album, and the response was overwhelming. The album, Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, ended up as a two-disc, 32-track effort. It included contributions from Steve Earle, The Jayhawks, John Cale, Son Volt, Los Lonely Boys and others.
Escovedo told me in 2006 that the tribute album made him realize that people cared. â€œNo one phoned it in,â€ he said. â€œThey were amazing versions of my songs.â€ He was moved that artists who had been an early influence on him, such as Ian Hunter and John Cale, had contributed strong tracks to the album. At times he found the attention embarrassing, but his wife convinced him that the album was not only helping him, it was helping the musicians that cared about him by giving them the feeling that they were doing something positive.
After a four-year absence from recording, Escovedo returned with The Boxing Mirror in 2006. The John Cale-produced album was a strong step in the right direction, but Real Animal finds Escovedo all the way back with his best album since his 2001 masterpiece A Man Under the Influence. This time out, Escovedo has enlisted the aid of the legendary producer Tony Visconti. Visconti is best known for his efforts on some of David Bowieâ€™s greatest work, including the Berlin trilogy of Heroes, Low, and Lodger. He also did a number of albums with T Rex, and more recently, Visconti has worked with Manic Street Preachers and The Dandy Warhols, among others. He knows that you donâ€™t need a lot of sounds to make a record sound great, you just need to make the sounds you do have as powerful as possible, and having great musicians goes a long way towards that goal.
Some years back, influenced by John Caleâ€™s album 1919, as well as Lou Reedâ€™s Street Hassle, Escovedo developed a signature sound that blended electric guitar, drums, and bass with strings. While strings had certainly been used on records for many years, they mostly served as an orchestral sweetening. The strings on his albums are as much a part of the ensemble as any of the other instruments, and they are a key part of his live performances as well.
What sets this album apart,in addition to the accessible production, is a very strong set of songs from Escovedo and co-writer Chuck Prophet. The album is an autobiography of sorts, tracing Escovedoâ€™s journey through a life in rock â€˜nâ€™ roll. That journey included important bands like The Nuns, Rank and File, and The True Believers. In fact, Real Animal includes a track titled â€œNuns Songâ€ in tribute to that seminal San Francisco punk band. â€œThere was really a crazy assortment of characters in The Nuns, which was more of a dysfunctional gang of misfits than a good band,â€ says Escovedo.
â€œSister Lost Soulâ€ is an homage to all the musicians that Escovedo knew that didnâ€™t survive the rock â€˜nâ€™ roll life. â€œChuck [Prophet] and I got thinking about all the people we met along the way or who had influenced us in some way and their passing. Itâ€™s a song about how a lot of people donâ€™t survive this rock â€˜nâ€™ roll thing and buy into the myth in a way that is very difficult to hang onto for a long period of time.â€
So donâ€™t despair. Alejandro Escovedo is back with a strong new album, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The next time anyone tells you that rock is dead, play this album for them.