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Alejandro Escovedo's Joyous Rebirth

Three years ago, Alejandro Escovedo almost died. His latest album The Boxing Mirror, charts his harrowing descent into illness, his slow recovery and the life-affirming love of music, family and friends that brought him back from the edge. "I'm not the same person I was. None of us are. But to have a near-death experience, you come out of it with new lines, you know?" Escovedo said. "It's almost like you come out of it as a new human being, a new person, a new spirit."

Long a cult figure revered for his soulful blend of rock, country, jazz and Latin music, Escovedo got his start with the 1970s punk rockers The Nuns. Still, he is better known for his rootsier outfits — the early cowpunk band Rank and File, and the True Believers. By the early 1990s, Escovedo had started recording his eclectic solo albums: Gravity in 1992, Thirteen Years in 1994, With These Hands in 1996, the live More Miles Than Money two years later. Bourbonitis Blues followed in 1999, then A Man Under the Influence in 2001.

Escovedo was performing his musical play In the Hands of the Father in Tempe, Arizona in April of 2003, as he had many times before since being diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1996. This time, though, he collapsed after the show, bleeding internally in three different places. After being hospitalized for over a week, Escovedo retreated to the Arizona desert with his wife and young daughter, where he began the slow process of recovery. A month later, in Texas, a doctor started him on interferon therapy, a standard treatment for hepatitis C, but one which, Escovedo says, again almost killed him. "I was supposed to be on interferon for about a year or a year and a half," he said in a recent phone interview. "I only lasted six months because it began to kill me. I had another kind of near-death experience."

So, weakened for the second time, he began to seek out natural healers, finding relief in Tibetan and Chinese medicines, acupuncture, meditation, yoga and abstinence. Slowly he began to heal, and when a coalition of friends and acquaintances put together the tribute album Por Vida to help defray medical expenses, he began, for the first time in months, to begin to think about making music again.

"I didn't play guitar for about a year," he admitted. "The medicine puts you in a state... it's pretty shaky ground you're on. So psychologically and physically, I wasn't in that great of shape. It was really more about just trying to survive the disease. I still loved music, but I didn't really listen to it even."

But the outpouring of support, through cards and letters and especially through Por Vida, gave Escovedo the strength to start again. "When Por Vida came out, I really got inspired to want to play again," he said. "I think it was during that time that I realized that I had a lot to write about, but I was kind of clogged up emotionally. It was almost as if there was too much to write about. I felt too much, you know? I kind of had to filter all that through.

"I remember speaking to Chuck Prophet about this, because I just wasn't sure how I was going to approach it. And he agreed that it was a tough task to write about death, near death, survival — so I really didn't want to sound maudlin and I didn't want to sound like I had a lot of self-pity."

A Boxing Mirror, out now on EMI's Back Porch imprint, is anything but self-pitying. Even its darkest moments — like the opener "Arizona" — are charged with a defiant joy, a triumphant celebration of simply being alive. Other tracks — the hard-rocking "Sacramento & Polk," "Take Your Place" and the wonderful title cut — are varied in style and tempo, but seem full of irrepressible joy.

"I think the songs, the more you listen to them, the more someone will hear that there's a lot of joy in these songs," Escovedo said. "It's about having gone through this experience and finding true love in this experience, and finding a lot of love from an extended family that taught me that my family is not about blood. It's about all of the people that I love and that love me. The respect we have for each other as a musical community."

To make The Boxing Mirror, Escovedo enlisted the production assistance of John Cale, a longtime friend who was one of the first musicians to contribute a track to Por Vida. Cale and Escovedo had first met in New York in the 1970s, but they had grown closer over the years, as Escovedo contributed "Tugboat" to a tribute for Cale's fellow VU-alum Sterling Morrison. They had played SXSW together a couple of times, as well.

Escovedo said Cale has been an influence for decades, dating back to his teenage years when friends would fight about The Beatles versus the Stones, and Escovedo would insist that the Velvet Underground were better than either. "I loved the Velvets. And everything that he did after that, all John's solo albums, all the Nico albums, the Jennifer Warnes records, The Stooges and Patti Smith, those were all very influential for me," he recalled. "I love his sense of orchestration and arrangement. I love the way that he developed this... kind of this folk style with avant-garde dissonance. So ... and I love his... he's fearless and that's a wonderful thing to possess when you're a musician and songwriter."

Cale's influence is particularly strong, Escovedo explained, on cuts like "Looking for Love" and "Deerhead on the Wall." "'Looking for Love' particularly has been a very difficult one for us to play," he said. "We had never found the right groove or the right arrangement for it. We had done it in every single variation we could dream of, but none of them seemed to work." In the studio, with Cale's assistance, however, it finally clicked. "And then John comes in and totally nails it," Escovedo remembered. "He came up with an arrangement that sounds very much like him, in a way, and reminds me of the best of that kind of mid-1970s music that was coming out of Brian Eno, John Cale, Phil Manzanera, stuff like that."

Escovedo assembled a great band for The Boxing Mirror from such long-time collaborators as drummer Hector Munoz, cellist Brian Standefer, Susan Voelz (Poi Dog Pondering) on violin and Jon Dee Graham on guitar. Of Munoz, perhaps the longest-standing member of Escovedo's band, he noted, "We have a relationship kind of like what Mingus and Danny Richman had. You know, we've talked a lot about drumming and I've forced him to do things that he didn't want to do. But in the end, it's really worked out and it's tailor-made for the music that I write." For this record, for instance, Escovedo insisted on no cymbals. "I think that cymbals have a sonic presence that eats up guitars, especially acoustic guitars. So I wanted the guitars to kind of jump out more," he said. "By taking away the cymbals, he's challenged to kind of reinvent himself. Almost to learn how to play the drums all over again."

There were also some new faces, such as David Polkingham, a guitarist whose background was almost entirely in jazz and Latin music. "We've spent long, long nights of conversation, just talking about the whole attitude, the approach to rock 'n' roll guitar," Escovedo said. "But he's brilliant, you know. We just taped Austin City Limits for the first time on Monday night, and he just totally ruled it, completely." Mark Andes (ex of Spirit) plays bass and Bruce Salmon adds the Eno-esque keyboard lines and sampling.

Behind the scenes, too, Escovedo had another important collaborator: his wife, the poet Kim Christoff, who contributed lyrics to several of the songs, including the title cut. In the past, Escovedo has simply gone through her notebooks, looking for words, phrases and images that he can incorporate into his songs. More lately, she has started bringing him poems specifically written for music. Escovedo said that working with his wife's lyrics has changed the way he approaches songwriting. "Her poetry is so free that at times it's difficult to fit into some kind of verse or chorus. But what's interesting is that it's made the songs... it's kind of broken down the walls of what a song should be. Now anything that I sing... If I just sing one stanza of her poetry, to me it's good enough to become a song, because her images are so strong," he said. "The Boxing Mirror," for instance, takes an image from Escovedo's childhood, training in the boxing gym with his father, and uses it as a metaphor for reflection that changes everything about what you're doing.

The songs on The Boxing Mirror are typically varied in style, with ballads next to all-out rockers and mariachi flourishes abutting Eno-ish soundscapes. "I've been hearing lately that a lot of people tell me I'm kind of foolish for not sticking to one thing. You know, record-industry people think that I should try to write a hit song," Escovedo admitted. But it sounds like that's not going to happen any time soon, given his diverse interests and influences. "When you go over to somebody's house and they have a great record collection, it's never just one thing," he added. "They have great jazz records and great classical records and great rock records and great garage rock records. Whatever it is. So that's what I always tell people. It's just a product of my great record collection that I have."

And, in fact, since his days with the Nuns, Escovedo has sensed a link between great music from all genres. "The thing about punk rock for us was that we wanted to kind of pay homage to all the great people who were punks," he said. "Miles Davis was as much punk as Jerry Lee Lewis as Bob Marley as Joe Higgs as Burning Spear or whoever. The attitude was about spirit, the spirit to do it yourself and not to listen to other people. Not to be shaped by mass consumption. Just to go out and follow your heart. To sing the truth."

Escovedo will be touring steadily this year in the U.S. and Europe, his wife and daughter in tow, trying to balance the requirements of his career with the health regimen that saved his life. "I take all my Tibetan medicine with me. I follow my practice every day, and try to go to bed earlier than I used to. Since I don't drink anymore, I have more energy. So it's all good. My band really looks out for me, and my manager," he said.

Escovedo wouldn't have it any other way. "When I finally came out of it and wanted to play music, it made me really love music again, in a way that I hadn't in a long, long time," he said. "So now I really value the opportunity to play, and I value the opportunity to have such great friends and family. And to have found an even larger family in my life. It's really humbling, you know." — Jennifer Kelly [Tuesday, June 6, 2006]

Alejandro Escovedo's Joyous Rebirth

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