Taking a break was the furthest thing from Alejandro Escovedo’s mind. Never mind that he was 52 years old. Never mind that he had a brand new wife and daughter. Never mind that he had been diagnosed with potentially fatal hepatitis C a few years earlier.
It was 2003, and he was touring on the heels of his album A Man Under the Influence and the semi-autobiographical song-driven theater piece By the Hand of the Father. He was the enjoying the most critical praise of his 30-plus-year musical career. He was determined to bear down and take on the toil of an unreasonably rigorous touring schedule.
His had become a routine of ignoring; a routine of not facing what was happening to his body. He was staying up late. He was drinking and smoking. He was doing all of the things we expect career rock ‘n’ rollers to do, but doing it with a liver so damaged by hepatitis C that a mere drink or two often left him feeling abnormally sick.
As the wear on his body mounted, Escovedo kept pushing it. Maybe he was acting out a part he thought he was supposed to play: a career rebel who had cut his teeth on punk rock with the Nuns in the ‘70s, pioneered cowpunk with Rank and File and the True Believers in the ‘80s, and was named Artist of the Decade by No Depression in the ‘90s.
He was one of 12 children of a Mexican immigrant named Pedro Escovedo, who’d fearlessly crossed the border, joined the American Army, become a boxer, and sired 12 children in the United States. Maybe Alejandro Escovedo imagined himself a boxer of sorts; a fighter who could vanquish his illness without the aid of proper medicine or rest.
But while on tour in 2003, Escovedo learned how the truth can come down on a man unwilling to acknowledge the insidious reality of serious illness.
“I could tell that something was not quite right, but most of the time, I felt like I could carry on,” he recalled. “We were getting so much done, and we had that record, A Man Under the Influence, which I really loved; it just all felt like it was working. But toward the end, when we were touring in the South and in Louisiana, we ended up in North Carolina to make some demos with Chris Stamey, and I got really sick.”
Escovedo managed to get over that spell. He continued to press forward with touring, until about a month later, while preparing for a show in Phoenix, Arizona, his illness announced itself again.
“We were performing at Arizona State University in one of the last buildings Frank Lloyd Wright designed, a gorgeous hall,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling well, but I felt like I could get through it. So I got dressed in my suit and went to the venue. My wife and child were with me.
“About 10 minutes before curtain, I began to vomit blood. I vomited a lot of blood, and then—I know this sounds very irresponsible—I felt better. So I went on and I did a performance. And I had to walk offstage a couple of times, because I felt like I was going to collapse. And then I finished, and was rushed to the emergency room immediately after.”
In the ensuing hours, weeks, and months, Escovedo was escorted on a journey by his sickness that forced him to face his condition—and potentially, death—head on.
“That’s when I lost it,” he said. “And by lost it, I mean that’s when everything kind of hit me. I was in the emergency room, and I could tell by the expressions on the faces of the doctors that it was critical. I could tell that my body was really starting to revolt. That began a week, and maybe even up to four or five months of fear; not being very sure of what the future was, and having to find alternatives to all these things that we had to deal with, and not being able to perform anymore.”
His week-and-a-half hospital stay was followed by a long period of treatment with Interferon, a natural protein Escovedo described as a steroid that “attacks everything in your immune system. My bone marrow was being eaten away. I had no white blood cells, I had no red blood cells. I was withering away. I had no muscle mass, and I had what would be called premature aging disease. Not to mention all the psychological and spiritual damage as a result of taking that stuff.”
It was both during and after the treatment that Escovedo began working on the songs for the recently released The Boxing Mirror, his first album in four years and, according to several early reviews, his crowning achievement. The first track on the album, “Arizona”, describes a man who has by necessity put alcohol and other recreational chemicals behind him, and, what’s more, has gained a new understanding of why they were never necessary at all: “Have another drink on me / I’ve been empty since Arizona / I turned my back on me / And I faced the face of who I thought I was.”
With haunting arrangements courtesy of producer John Cale, the keyboard flourishes, plaintive strings, and Escovedo’s tired yet assured delivery combine for a bold proclamation of renewal, and sets the tone for an album that reveals a man reborn.
“It was just a matter of me really seeing a lot of things for the first time,” Escovedo said, “and letting go of a lot of what I had that I thought that was important in the makeup of me, which doesn’t even really exist. Certain things really came into focus and other things became blurred in the whole landscape. It was just as easy as that, and it helped me embrace a lot of things—my family, my children. It’s funny, because it becomes so simple, in a way. Things become very simple.”
From the rollicking roots-rock of “Break This Time” to the accordion-aided Latin balladry of “The Ladder” to the stirring, life-affirming confessional “I Died a Little Today”, The Boxing Mirror moves in several sonic directions as a quiet reverence for life bobs quietly beneath the surface. This is not an album of quick and easy pleasures; it’s the rich and textured work of a songwriter who has seen things that most listeners, if they are lucky, haven’t.
Lucky for both Escovedo and his fans, he’s doing much better now. He no longer smokes or drinks, and has changed his diet dramatically.
“I’ve got to learn how to manage it,” he said. “And I think I’m on a pretty good path for that. So I feel good, you know. Gained weight back and all of that stuff.”
Now he spends his days on his remote ranch in Wimberly, Texas, which he shares with his wife, daughter, two toy Chihuahuas, and about 40 chickens. On the day we spoke, he was sitting on his deck overlooking a dry creek bed, surrounded by junipers, cedars, and live oaks. His roosters crowed in the background, while Mexican chickadees and cardinals moved about in the air. Escovedo said he rarely leaves the ranch. When asked if the new routine is a difficult adjustment, he responds with incredulity.
“Are you kidding? I wish I never had to leave. If there was a beach break, I would never leave. You’d have to dismember me to get me out of here.”
Matt Gonzales is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Ind.