Music Preview: Having nearly died twice, guitarist puts his life in his songs

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Alejandro Escovedo has always written autobiographical songs.

Marina Chavez
Alejandro Escovedo has translated his dark days into music showing optimism and hope.
Click photo for larger image.

Elejandro Escovedo

Where: Club Cafe, 56-58 S. 12 St., South Side

When: 8 p.m. tonight

Tickets: $16 and $18

Information: 412-431-4950

To hear excerpts from two Alejandro Escovedo songs, click on the links: "Died a Little Today"

"Arizona"

Since 1992, the guitarist has been singing songs about love and loss. His latest recording, "The Boxing Mirror," is just as emotional and personal. Infused with uplifting lyrics of recovery and mortality, the recording more than anything else is about how one moves forward after nearly dying -- twice.

"When someone tells you they've had a near-death experience it's really something you can't understand," said a candid Escovedo from his home in Austin, Texas.

"But now, I understand. Now I see life and death in the same way. I don't have as much fear as I did in the past because I came so close to dying twice. I understand what that process is like. People might think that this is going to be a downer record, but there's love and joy and optimism in it. I went through some pretty weird stuff, and I hope people get something positive out of the record."

For the past five years, Escovedo has had to deal with the death of his father as well as his own protracted battle with hepatitis C.

In the mid-1990s, he was diagnosed with the disease, but he continued to tour and drink and smoke until he collapsed on stage in Tempe, Ariz., in 2002.

"I did not do the right thing," he said. "I stopped drinking for a while, but I started again, thinking that if my spirits were up I would feel better. I was really depressed at first. Then the old habits turned into what I had always done. Smoking and drinking."

The night he collapsed was the most terrifying experience imaginable.

"It was unbelievable the amount of blood I vomited," he recalled.

Escovedo was told by doctors that he had advanced cirrhosis of the liver, a tumor in his abdomen and problems with his esophagus.

"I was a mess," he said. "At that point they wanted me to get on the liver transplant list."

Escovedo eventually returned to Austin and found a doctor in Dallas who treated him with the medication Interferon.

"It was devastating to me," he said. "I was supposed to be on it for a few months, but I stayed on it for about a year, and I became ill again. I was shriveling away, not producing any muscle mass, and my immune system was gone. I decided to stop the medicine, and I started feeling better within a month."

With the aid of his wife, Buddhism, Tibetan medicine and acupuncture, he picked up his guitar and started performing and recording again.

And "The Boxing Mirror" is arguably his strongest recording to date.

Produced by Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale, the recording is a convergence of punk, garage, Latin, pop-rock and country.

"I think getting Cale to produce was awesome," said Escovedo, who has known Cale for decades. Cale also produced albums by the Stooges and Patti Smith. "He is so wonderful to work with."

The son of Mexican-American parents, Escovedo was born in San Antonio, Texas but spent his youth in Southern California.

Most of the members of his family were musical, including his father, who played in mariachi bands. His older brothers played in the bands Santana and Azteca, and his niece, Sheila E., was the drummer in pop icon Prince's Revolution band.

"My father and brothers were a great influence on me," said Escovedo. "But growing up in Southern California in the 1960s exposed me to a lot of different music. Back then, radio was free and liberated. You could be listening to surf music, flip the dial, and you would hear Sun Ra, the British Invasion stuff and the low-rider music."

All of those styles helped to shape Escovedo's music.

In the mid-1970s, he formed the Nuns, a punk band based in the San Francisco Bay area. After moving to New York, he formed Rank & File with Chip and Tony Kinman. The group eventually relocated to Austin, and Escovedo formed True Believers.

In 1992, he launched his solo career with the release of "Gravity." The tellingly titled "A Man Under the Influence," released in 2001, was his last release before "The Boxing Mirror."

"I wanted this record to take me to new places without abandoning the places I had been," he said. "This is my first recording in nearly five years. Three of those years I spent recuperating. I spent a whole year without playing the guitar. The record addresses a lot of the things I went through, and some of it doesn't have anything to do with it."


Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.


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