Raw stories

Jul 8, 1998 at 12:00 am
Songwriters, at least in this day and age, usually come in two breeds. Some make their art by telling topical stories collected from the detritus of newspapers, billboards and images spewed forth from the surface of the cultural scene. Others draw from the lives of friends, family, lovers, enemies and the sometimes harsh reflection found in a cracked, dirty mirror, for inspiration, solace and even spiritual reflection.

Texan Alejandro Escovedo, who is bringing his unusual band -- a string trio and himself on acoustic guitar -- to Detroit, is of the latter pedigree. His musical career has been a journey of critical acclaim, peer admiration (Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Bette Midler, Lucinda Williams, Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell and the late Arthur Alexander have been among his many admirers), aesthetic accomplishment and financial frustration that has left him wiser, more restless and adventurous than ever. Escovedo has been the subject of major stories in newspapers and magazines across the globe. No Depression, the bible of the alterna-twang movement, did a cover story declaring him boldly "Artist of the Decade."

It began for Escovedo in the mid-'70s with the Nuns, a San Francisco-based punk band that opened for everyone from the Sex Pistols to Television, and continued through to Rank and File, the first bona fide alterna-country band way back in 1981, to the ill-fated True Believers, who issued an album on EMI, to his solo career which currently spans four albums and a host of side projects. Escovedo has toured with everyone from Los Lobos to Lou Reed and appeared at the tribute to Woody Guthrie at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performing a duet with Ani DiFranco. They were the surprise hit of a show that contained such luminaries as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Just issued is Escovedo's More Miles Than Money, a live document released on the Chicago-based independent Bloodshot Records that spans transcontinental tours from 1994 to 1996. It's a record of his music as it has evolved from his first album, the haunting, darkly beautiful Gravity, through to his Rykodisc issue With These Hands. It also contains a pair of covers that range in scope from a Bartok-influenced read of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog," to an intimate take of the Rolling Stones' "Sway," to an elegiac fragment of Reed's "Street Hassle."

"I felt it was important, given that I'm going in a bunch of different directions, to sum up what I've done so far. I play in so many different settings, it seemed like the right thing to do to give people a taste of everything," says Escovedo of the album's scope.

Escovedo's use of biography in his work is strategic. He turns the raw material of his life and the lives of others into a way of making sense of the world around him: from the historical reflection of his nonagenarian father's immigrant journey out of Mexico, to his wildly musical family -- his older brothers played with Santana and became well-known jazz and Latin session men in their own right -- to his niece, Sheila E, who made her mark playing drums and recording with Prince, to the joys of his five children and tragedy (the death of his first wife Bobbie, and his own debilitating bout with hepatitis C) and the wonders and struggles of nuptial life (his wife Dana is a Detroit-area native).

He says of his songwriting, "Basically it's a way of finding out just how much things mean to me. ... And I'm willing to bet that my experiences really link up with those of many other people, that mine are just part of a bigger experience. They might be mine, but they're everyone else's too."

The man's work is drenched, even in its angrier moments, with tenderness. He is a master of the love song and holds his memories dear, no matter how painful they are to recall. His songs are not merely vignettes or photographs, but living testaments and celebrations of the precious yet fragile nature of human life:

If you found me hanging

Without a prayer

Would you cut me down

And lay me there

And wash the sins

Off of my hands

So I might get another chance?

--"One More Time"

As his writing has matured, Escovedo has branched out. While at home in Austin, recuperating from his illness, he began to look at ways of telling stories more directly, with other elements to flesh them out and give them weight. He looked beyond the fleeting impressionism of his lyrics to something fleshier and more jagged. To that end, he wrote a play, which will be produced in New York this year. It's about his family's history, one that is typically American in that all American stories begin with immigrants struggling to make their way across an unfamiliar terrain and enrich their relations' quality of life.

"Look, I'm pushing 50 years old. Who knows if I'll be able to do this for the rest of my life," Escovedo says of the rigors of traveling with his music.

"I'm a writer and that means writing everything. I started as a filmmaker, not a musician, so this seems like the next logical step."

Plays, poems, songs, family and gigs are just aspects of a life in the process of being lived. Why the guy is not a household name yet is anybody's guess, but to him it doesn't matter; there simply isn't anything else for him to be. Escovedo is truly a renaissance man in popular culture, using any means at his disposal to keep churning up the stories out of himself, without worrying about what sticks to the wall or what works.

"Life is a story every day, one that gets added to and taken away from. All aspects of my life are in balance, my family history, my children, my wife, my life as a musician. They are all stories," he says of keeping his life's ledger straight.

"I just want to be around to see what comes next."

If the life of an itinerant musician and songwriter serves a purpose for the rest of us, perhaps it is as allegory. Alejandro Escovedo is a navigator on his own journey to the cliff and ledges of the heart. The tunes speak loudly, but they also whisper deep and wide. This is the very nature of aesthetic and personal excellence that equates purpose and redemption with story itself -- the many into one and the one into the many. Thom Jurek is a music writer living and working in Ann Arbor. E-mail [email protected]. follows his own loopy