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Velvet Cowpunk

Crossing Musical Borders With Alejandro Escovedo

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/2/2001

A little more than three years ago, Alejandro Escovedo introduced a new song at La Zona Rosa nightclub in his hometown of Austin, Texas. He was dressed cowboy-formal in a dark Western suit, his black hair spilling over his forehead. The song was "Wave," a deeply personal number that reflected his musical innovations of the '90s and anticipated his new directions in this decade.

"This is a song about my father, who was born in Saltillo, Mexico," Escovedo explained that March night in 1998. "He turned 90 this year. His parents left him when he was very young, and he was raised by his grandmother in Saltillo. As a source of entertainment, they would watch the trains come in and out of town, and they would wave to them.

"When my father turned 12, his cousin, who was 16, told him that they could find my father's mother and father, my grandparents, if they just boarded this train. So he got aboard this train, but he didn't tell his grandmother where he was going. So the story goes, she was waving at this train, and she had no idea her grandson was on the train, and she never saw him again."

Escovedo strummed his acoustic guitar and assumed his father's voice. "Climb aboard the train," he sang in his husky, deadpan tenor, as if he were Lou Reed singing a Mexican corrido. "Turn and wave goodbye again/ Some go north; some go south/ maybe east, some left out/ Some are rich; some are poor/ but everybody's got to wave."

Behind the singer were both a rock 'n' roll band and a string quartet. Guitarist Joe Eddy Hines led the band through the jittery riff that seemed to push the song's characters out of their homes and onto the road north. Fiddler David Perales led the strings and pedal steel through the melancholy harmonies that seemed to tug at the characters' coats like memories of homes left behind. This push-and-pull created a delicious tension that Escovedo refused to release; instead he drew it tauter and tauter.

"Wave" is the lead-off track on Escovedo's brilliant new album, A Man Under the Influence, the centerpiece of his current tour (which comes to Annapolis' Rams Head Tavern May 9), and the inspiration of his new theater piece, By the Hand of the Father, which comes to Chicago this month after a successful run in Los Angeles.

It's one of the great American immigration songs, at once intensely personal and broadly universal. And the cultural collision is described not only in the lyrics but also in the music, which finds the common ground between the fiddle-and-acoustic-guitar story songs of norteño folk music and the violin-and-electric-guitar drones of the Velvet Underground, between the stoic dignity of the former and the ruthless honesty of the latter. And out of that fusion of Latin roots and proto-punk experimentation has come one of the most original new sounds of the past 10 years.

Escovedo grew up in a San Antonio neighborhood that might as well have been in Mexico, because everyone spoke Spanish and newcomers from the old country arrived every day. But in 1958, his father moved the whole family, without warning, to Garden Grove, Calif., where the young Alejandro had to learn English in a hurry and the ways of early-'60s California almost as fast. He became an oddball, a Mexican-American surfer who wasn't entirely at home in either world.

It took a while before he could pull those two worlds together. Alejandro is the step-brother of Coke and Pete Escovedo, percussionists for Santana and top West Coast Latin bands, and is uncle to Pete's daughter, percussionist/singer Sheila E. Alejandro. He got his start playing music in 1977 with the San Francisco punk band the Nuns and co-founded the pioneering cowpunk group Rank and File in 1981. But it wasn't till 1983, when at age 32 he co-founded the True Believers with his younger brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham, that Escovedo began to write songs in earnest.

"Because I started to write when I was past 30," he says, "I wasn't interested in writing about teenage things. My favorite film teacher in college had told us that the best stories are usually family stories, so I started writing about my family. My father had always told great stories, so I guess that had seeped into me. And when my brother and I founded the True Believers, it wasn't a conscious effort to get back to our culture, but the culture was there in our voices and in our memories and it began to leak out."

The True Believers made two albums for EMI/Rounder, one released in 1986, the follow-up unreleased until both discs were included in the 1994 compilation Hard Road (Rykodisc). But Escovedo didn't find his own voice until he unleashed a pair of astounding solo albums for Watermelon Records, 1992's Gravity and 1993's Thirteen Years. By adding strings to his music, he found the beauty and elegance to counterbalance the bleakness in his songs about a marriage that ended in separation, then suicide.

"The Velvet Underground got me interested in strings," he says. "Lou Reed's Street Hassle was the most profound influence, but I also loved John Cale's early albums and Neil Young's 'A Man Needs a Maid.' When strings are used well in rock, they can be as aggressive as guitars and as ugly as feedback and yet sound so beautiful. They sound different from the usual guitar records, and they're very supportive of words.

"And words are important to me," he says. "That's one reason I didn't join the typical Latin dance band. I want people to pay attention to my songs."

A Man Under the Influence, produced by Chris Stamey, is Escovedo's most accessible, most impressive set of songs yet. "Wave" is followed by another song from By the Hand of the Father, "Rosalie," a pledge of love from an immigrant separated from his sweetheart by an ocean of desert. Escovedo revisits his college days, when he fell in love with the Velvet Underground and first learned guitar, on the infectious "Velvet Guitar." "Wedding Day" is a lovely song about his ex-bandmate Graham's marriage. But most of the songs are about Escovedo's own failed marriages. There's the angry kiss-off of the raucous rocker "Castanets," the apology of "Rhapsody," the confession of love for a departing spouse on "As I Fall."

And there's "Across the River," a staggeringly desolate song that asks the unanswerable question, "What kind of love destroys another and sends them crashing through the tangled trees?" Escovedo sings the line without self-pity, as if he's asked himself the same question every day for years, and the violins, cello, and steel guitar behind him amplify that sense of prayerlike supplication.

"I never had any use for self-pity," he says. "My father and my brothers were that way. They had a great dignity no matter what they did, right or wrong. They moved through this world in a real graceful way without every embarrassing themselves. I just watched them and learned from that."

Alejandro Escovedo performs at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on May 9.

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