Rock and Roll and Resistance: A Conversation with Alejandro Escovedo
Mexican-American musician and activist Alejandro Escovedo elucidates on his immigrant roots, his take on the government, his brush with death, and how the stories he feels compelled to compose transcend the genre of rock and roll. Escovedo will be strumming alongside Texan legend Joe Ely at Ardmore Music Hall on August 19th, 2017.
There isn’t much that Alejandro Escovedo has kept private in the past three decades. Huskily crooning the intimate parts of his upbringing, his loves, and the lifestyle that he has led on an ambitious discography has provided him- and his listeners -with a twangy cowpunk diary that goes on for hours. His ability to write these genre-bending tell-all lyrics while dominating the guitar was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association in 2006. Perhaps it was pertinent to have received an achievement for a “lifetime” of work then, for Escovedo’s latest record, Burn Something Beautiful (2016), marks the passing of one life into a new lease on another. For the musician, at age 66, is sounding fresher and more self-aware than ever on his latest thirteen tracks about living in hidalgos hair, missing friends with the heartbeat smile, getting that Sunday feeling in the middle of a Saturday night, heroin’s curse, and that no one can take the beauty of your smile. The frenzy of energy booming from the instrumentals and the poignancy of Escovedo’s reflections could easily be attributed to two new developments in his personal life: marriage, and finally becoming Hepatitis C free after a trying and lengthy battle with the disease.
But while Escovedo is turning a new melodious leaf with health and happiness as his beautiful muses, that does not mean that the artist has bid adieu to frustration or disgruntlement with current affairs, or that he is done trying to find some redemption and a little peace with his ghosts from yore. In fact, Burn Something Beautiful was dedicated to his parents and to “immigrants who have made this country so great”, and beyond the music, Escovedo has continued his penchant outspokenness by becoming a spokesperson for the Prevent Cancer Foundation and being a bastion of anti-Trump resistance in red Texas.
I was able to converse with Escovedo, as he drove along with his crew and tourmate Joe Ely to Jackson, Mississippi, to talk about his album, his tour, and the forces that have inspired his comeback.
The record came out last October, and we were in the midst of the Trump/Clinton campaign, and of course, there were a lot of remarks made by Trump and his urchins about immigrants (especially Chicanos, and Mexicanos, you know?). It’s always been a subject that has been close to me because of my father, who came from Mexico, who actually crossed over the border when he was a little boy. I actually participated in the writing of a play called “By The Hand of The Father”, which I did around the year 2000, and it spoke directly about immigration. It was a story about five different men, and it chronicles their crossing of the border, which back then was an invisible line. It follows them through all the things they had to do in order to survive in America, with their families and their children, in the 60s. It also questions some of the traditions that they brought with them, like the patriarchal system, and the kinds of ways that they treated our mothers and our daughters… The secrets and private kinds of lives that a lot of Latino men seem to live. But in the end of course, we recognize that without their journey, without their sacrifice, without their longing to pursue a life in America, we wouldn't have the lives that we have. So, it’s something that has always been very close to me. I always feel compelled to write about it because of my father, and it isn’t the first time that we have addressed it. It’s an especially important time to address it now because of Trump, and his campaign.
To be honest, I might just quit if that were ever to happen. I pray that nothing like that ever happens, but you know look, even in the campaign nobody would let him use their songs [like Queen]. I would feel the same way. I would have to go into, some sort of self-imposed exile if Trump were to ever choose one of my songs (laughs).
Rock and roll has always been what I’ve sought to create, you know, in one way or another. I had a band before I made my first solo record, we were made up of 10-15 members with all sorts of instrumentalists. It was kind of like a big Van Morrisson type band. The music that my father used to play has always been close to everything that I do, even though I encompass different instruments and genres in my music. Lyrically, though I say I’m a rock and roll songwriter, I write about things that probably a lot of other people don’t bother to consider rock and roll subjects: family, immigration, things like that. But also, the influence of my older brothers, Pete and Coke, who played in Santana, and collaborated with Mongo Santamaría, Tito Puente… Their influence left an indelible mark on me, and it was subliminal. It wasn’t like I was trying to recreate the music that they made, but I certainly used that template for being the musician that I sought to be. The music that I heard around me (my father loved Mexican music, he loved country music, and rock and roll, and my mother loved big-band jazz), left me to appreciate and love all kinds of music and incorporate it into my own work. Actually, if you saw my personal record collection, you would find anything from Ornette Coleman, to The Stooges, to Bowie, to Chopin. So of course, it’s always been interesting that, growing up, there weren’t always a lot of Chicano role models in music… It was somewhat- especially in the rock and roll world -rare. I was always proud to see someone else who was Chicano who was singing and playing, like Los Lobos, who I toured a lot with.
It is a tremendous honor to be a spokesperson for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, not only because of my own struggle with Hepatitis C, but also because I have lost many, many, many friends to cancer (especially liver cancer caused by Hepatitis C). It was something very close to me, and I felt that coming out with this story is important… I’ve always been very open about what happened to me and my life, through music and song, so it wasn’t difficult for me to be able to tell my story. Hopefully through the telling of my story, it will lead other people to seek testing and to be able to cut cancer by leading healthier and fuller lives. The Hepatitis C experience influenced my life greatly. I mean it was a very frightening time, it was a very trying time, it was a difficult time to live through, but I did. When I came out of it, I finally started making records again, and I found almost a new lease on life, you know? And I began to understand the fragile nature of life in a way that I had never experienced before. So I had a lot more respect for my music, for my friends who make music, for other musicians, for the lives that we’ve chosen to lead… I no longer have Hepatitis C, and that was another point where my life took another step forward as far as energy. I’ve been very, very, very fortunate, I’ve been blessed, and I don’t take it light or for granted. I am very much humbled by the whole experience. The opportunity to help other people is a blessing, and I think it carries a lot more weight to actually hear from someone who has gone through it.
I think it’s more being admirers of each other’s music, and both being from Texas, and both being from Austin. We’ve always had a good relationship where our music seems to work really well together. Joe has always been a great person that can accept a lot of different types of music. You know, in Texas we’re really proud of Joe Ely, he’s our Bruce Springsteen (laughs). We put him on a level that is high, and you know, Texan musicians in general tend to have very broad strokes when it comes to the kinds of music that they create. We mesh very well together. I’m very comfortable playing with him, and I always learn a lot from him. It’s always a great pleasure and honor to play with Joe Ely.
I think that they can expect a real intimate, spontaneous evening where we don’t really have a set-list, we just kind of bounce off each other’s stories and songs. We’ve done it a couple of times already before, and everyone seems to really appreciate it and enjoy what happens as a result. I think what you can expect is great stories, a lot of humor, two men who have done this for a while, and you’ll enjoy very much what we do. I think it’s a very, very cool show.
Tickets for the 21+ “special early show” event can be purchased on Ardmore Music Hall’s website for $27. AMH is located in the ‘burbs on 23 East Lancaster Avenue, and can be accessed through the SEPTA Paoli/Thorndale Regional Rail and Norristown High Speed Line from the city.
Burn Something Beautiful can be streamed on Spotify and on Amazon Music.