Alejandro Escovedo: Always a Friend
You bust your ass in the margins of the music industry for as long as Parker and Richman have and there are bound to be ups and downs. One night you’re pouring it all out for apathetic boomers at an overpriced tourist trap—or passing out pamphlets to jaded hipsters in a glorified garage. The next you’re up on the silver screen, America’s favorite elder statesman of indie rock. (When Parker appears in Apatow’s This Is 40, he’ll be following in the footsteps of Richman, who served as a musical Greek chorus in the comedy smash There’s Something About Mary.) Mostly, though, you’re just working, flogging your latest album and merch at whatever venues you can reliably fill and will reliably pay you. As the Texas singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo puts it, “More miles than money / Look at our lives and it’s so funny.”
But the consequences of life as an aging cult act are no joke, as Ecovedo himself discovered. After living with hepatitis C for several years, he collapsed onstage in 2003. He was near death and uninsured. It took a string of benefit concerts and a tribute album featuring famous friends like Lucinda Williams and his niece Sheila E. to pay his medical bills.
I knew Escovedo’s reputation as a Zelig of Americana. His punk band the Nuns was the opening act for the Sex Pistols’ last-ever concert. As a member of Rank and File and the True Believers in the ‘80s, he was part of the roots rock movement that also spawned Los Lobos, the Blasters, and Green on Red. He collaborated with Whiskeytown on their 1997 y’allternative landmark Strangers Almanac. I’d given a few of his early solo albums a spin out of curiosity, but I wasn’t a fan. There was a formal quality to the lyrics I associated with other revered Texans like Townes Van Zandt, a sense of high seriousness I found alienating. The ballads, on first listen, were a tad snoozy. His gimmick of covering Stooges songs with a string quartet struck me as, well, gimmicky.
Hardcore Escovedo’s devotees would object strenuously to this characterization, and I’ll concede that the older stuff has grown on me. But Escovedo has been the first to admit his recovery from illness marked a major shift in his career. In 2011, he told the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era—when you’re an aging cult hero, you always have time for the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era—“After I was sick, my musical life changed completely…It became something else entirely. And it’s not like I hadn’t made good records up until then, but I don’t know that I had the focus and the desire to really get turned on by it.”
The transformation began with 2006’s The Boxing Mirror, produced by John Cale, who probably holds the patent on Escovedo’s blend of jagged rock and chamber music. My conversion happened a couple years later at a street fair, the kind where you can stock up on tube socks and funnel cake. At the CD stall, the cover of 2008’s Real Animal caught my eye. The photo—by Mick Rock, the man behind iconic images of Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, and Davie Bowie—depicts Escovedo against a white backdrop, sitting on an amp with his legs splayed. He’s clad in black, with black sunglasses and a red scarf, clutching a guitar that matches his wickedly pointy oxblood boots. It’s impossible to overstate how badass he looks in this picture. Once I noted the equally badass title and the presence of producer Tony Visconti, who defined the sound of ‘70s glam, I was in.
Alejandro Escevedo - “Always a Friend”
To say “Always a Friend”, the first track on Real Animal, is the best rock song I’ve heard since “Roadrunner” is to make a statement so sweeping and subjective as to be nearly meaningless. Yet any caveats or qualifications and I’d be selling it short. From the unaccompanied snap of the opening guitar chords to the lilt of the violin and cello (the first time Escovedo’s use of traditional string instruments has served his rocker instincts to a T), from the locked-in drumming of Hector Munoz on the breakdown to the revved-up refrain—“Oh oh oh oh oh oh!”—“Always a Friend” is an unstoppable hook machine. It cries out for an open stretch of highway, a last, reckless play for the one that got away. The lyrics, and how Escovedo sings them, strike a rare balance between passion and cool (“Every once in a while, honey, let your love show / Every once in a while, honey, let yourself go / Nobody gets hurt”). He jives his way through the verses (or what passes for verses in the song’s ingenious sequence of interlocking parts) and you can picture his woman rolling her eyes:
But if I do you wrong
Take the master suite
I’ll take the floor
Sleep in late, get your rest
I’ll catch up on mine
But when he hits the last line of his mea culpa—“Still be your lover, baby!”—he lets himself go, with that wide-open yowl he lets his love show, and while I don’t get hurt exactly, I do get the complacency and cynicism knocked out of me, and I’m jumping up and down like a kid again.
The rest of the album isn’t too shabby either. By the time of its release, I was a married homebody. I rarely managed to drag myself to shows. But seeing Escovedo live had climbed to the top of my to-do list. Lucky for me, he came to town in 2011 and played a show just a ten-minute walk from my Park Slope home. Even luckier: my wife, an old man rock skeptic whose favorite artists—Wilco, Radiohead, Built to Spill—are fast becoming old man rockers themselves, loved “Always a Friend” as much as I did and was excited to go with me.
The venue, a club called the Bell House, opened in 2008. Now, unlike Williamsburg, my neighborhood isn’t a haven for statement beards and lady-mullets; in fact, it’s well known as an enclave of uptight parents and pushy liberals. Socks and sandals everywhere you look. The Bell House, however, is situated in an industrial no-man’s land near the Gowanus canal, a safe distance from the strollers and artisanal cheese shops. (There used to be a rock club called Southpaw in Park Slope proper, but the Bell House siphoned off the best bookings until all that was left was Baby Loves Disco, a monthly dance party for all the little Jaspers and Fionas.) Housed in a converted 1920s warehouse, it’s a special space, unpretentious and intimate, but just large enough to make a concert feel momentous. There’s air conditioning and a lounge in the front in case you feel like sitting out the opening act, but those are about the only concessions to delicate flowers like me. Not a $35 burger in sight. Perfect.
Escovedo didn’t look quite as cool in person as on the cover of Real Animal—he wore a flowered shirt and no sunglasses—but it was close. From the start, his performance was masterful. It wasn’t just the singing and the interplay with his band, the Sensitive Boys. It was his gentle handling of an overzealous fan who squawked out a request (“No, we’re trying to do a bit of a program here”). It was in the self-deprecating way he confessed he was sick of playing the song “Castanets” (with its tart refrain “I like her better when she walks away”) without denying us the pleasure of hearing it. It was the disclosure that “Down in the Bowery” from 2010’s Street Songs of Love isn’t a love song, or rather it is, but the girl he wants to see “out on the street making a scene for everybody” is his daughter. Those snoozy ballads felt less snoozy when I could see the conviction in his face as he delivered them to us.
He saved “Always a Friend” for the home stretch. The song had been a hit on my mind’s radio (maybe you’ve heard it in a commercial for Payless Shoes. They must have liked the line about burying his “snakeskin boots somewhere I’ll never find.” That man needs new shoes!). I didn’t know it was a favorite of the faithful, though, until he struck those first switchblade chords and everyone screamed and threw a fist in the air. I could tell you I lost myself in the moment, but that isn’t true. As we grooved and “oh oh oh”-ed along with the band, I got to thinking—about Graham Parker and Jonathan Richman, about my dad, who has health problems of his own and often feels like his best days are behind him, and about me, too. Now that I’m the grounded, knowing grown-up I always aspired to be, it’s hard not to dwell on what I might have lost along the way. But then there are nights when it all comes together, and you need to have lived a little to know how rare that is and how blessed you are to be there. If you’re really lucky, you won’t even realize how tired and sore you are. Not until tomorrow, anyway. Because rock‘n’roll, no matter how gray and august it gets, will always be about rejuvenation. The night is still young, even if we’ll never be again.