Alejandro Escovedo no longer takes anything for granted. Always a courtly gentleman with a soft-spoken manner, he begins the interview by asking, “How are you?”
Fine, Al, great. Couldn’t be better. And you? How are you feeling?
“I’m doin’ very well,” he replies, with a moment’s reflection. “Very well. I’m limping around a little bit. Something happened to me last night. I don’t know what. I had something in my pocket and slept on it. Or sat on it. But no, I’m fine. Doin’ good.”
After what Escovedo’s been through, a little limp is nothing. But he acknowledges that asking him how he feels is more than a standard greeting. And it requires something more than a pat, perfunctory response. People want to know how he feels, and he’s finally ready to tell them. Because he’s learned the lessons of the deathbed. Each day is a gift. Each breath is a blessing. Tomorrow carries no guarantee.
Following his April 2003 collapse from hepatitis C, cirrhosis of the liver and internal hemorrhaging, Escovedo spent much of his extended recovery avoiding such questions, laying low, refusing all requests for interviews.
For what could he say?
How are you feeling?
I’m feeling awful.
As someone who’d long enjoyed living in the spotlight — he was a star in Austin years before the rest of the world caught on — he now wanted no part it. After returning from his emergency-room hospitalization and subsequent convalescence in Arizona that spring, he stayed away from Austin. He lived on the outskirts of San Antonio and then moved to the small Texas Hill Country town of Wimberley, about an hour southwest of Austin, where he’d lived for more than twenty years as one of the city’s most prominent and accomplished musicians.
Austin had too many people he knew, too many memories, too many temptations to which he’d frequently succumbed and now knew he must avoid. To drink meant to die. He felt weak, and he had no confidence that he would ever feel any stronger. He had to focus all his energies, his entire being, on getting better.
Questions could wait. Music could wait. A career could wait. Maybe there would be no more career. At least not in music. But if music was no longer an option, what would a guy in his 50s possibly do? He’d spent a few years working at Waterloo Records during his holding-pattern disillusionment between the late ’80s disintegration of his band the True Believers and the solo recording career he would launch in the early ’90s. But he didn’t have any interest in going back to being a middle-aged clerk, selling other peoples’ CDs.
Making music had become so much more than his livelihood. For three decades, music had been his mirror. It had given him his identity, or at least determined how others perceived him.
Attracting and expanding a rabidly loyal fan base, he’d become accustomed to being the center of attention. Not demanding that attention — his charisma was more the quiet, understated kind — but commanding it. He was a performer at heart, and the performance extended well past last call. Wherever he went, wherever the party led, Alejandro held court. He was the coolest guy in the room. And it was music that had made him so cool.
Few had bought more deeply into the rock ‘n’ roll mythos than Escovedo: the reckless excess, the boys’ club bravura, the endless nights, the trash-flash romance of the bands he loved most, from the Faces to T. Rex to Mott The Hoople. Another margarita, another shot of Jagermeister, another party, another dawn — that was rock ‘n’ roll. Music wasn’t something you played. It was how you lived. It was who you were.
“It’s a weird world we live in, where desire, passion, and all these temptations, if you want to call them that, are abundant,” says Escovedo, now 55. “And I totally threw myself into that life. You know this; you knew me when I was living in that little room [in Austin, during the early '90s, a period of turmoil and tragedy that would inspire much of the material on his early solo albums]. I experimented with a lot of stuff. And I never wanted to shy away from having a good time.”
So, Escovedo had lived for his music, and the music had killed him. Or was threatening to. During the first stages of what would prove to be a lengthy and expensive recuperation, he felt betrayed. He had no desire to even touch a guitar, let alone write a song. He had no idea who he was or what he could become, only that he no longer could be who he’d been. That man was a dead man.
“I turned my back on me, and I faced the face of who I thought I was,” he sings in “Arizona”. It’s the first song he wrote months after his collapse, the first song on The Boxing Mirror, the album he didn’t think he’d live to record.
Produced by John Cale, The Boxing Mirror — released May 2 on Back Porch Records — teams Escovedo with one of his earliest and deepest musical inspirations. Cale’s viola work with the Velvet Underground represented a seminal attempt to combine the avant-garde dissonance of chamber strings with the chaotic surge of rock ‘n’ roll, a synthesis Escovedo has extended through his solo career.