Alejandro Escovedo was already one of the most beloved underground artists of the last 30 years. His friendly, modest manner ultimately evoked the same qualities in his fans and friends.
I first met the pioneer of '70s San Francisco punk in 1979, when he and the Nuns relocated to New York. After he moved to Austin, Texas, in the early '80s, I frequently saw him leading alt-country trailblazer Rank and File, along with the former Dils, brothers Chip and Tony Kinman.
Turning solo in '92, he enjoyed a decade of success (he was voted the '90s Artist of the Decade by No Depression magazine, an alt-country bible) and put out eight albums capped by two of his best works: the wide-ranging A Man Under the Influence and the astounding By the Hand of the Father. Begun first as a play, Father evolved through songs and voice-overs into a wonderfully rendered story of Mexican-American experience over the past century.
Then, following a show in Phoenix, in April 2003, Escovedo collapsed. He was diagnosed with the potentially fatal hepatitis C, and his burgeoning solo career came to a crashing halt while he fought the disease, at great physical and financial cost.
But the singer-songwriter's many years of goodwill and earnest music elicited a profound outpouring of concern and financial assistance, typified by the 2004 benefit tribute LP, Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo.
While most tribute LPs involve little-knowns, also-rans, and never-weres, his boasted a bonanza of like-minded heavy-hitters: Lenny Kaye, Steve Earle, Calexico, Jon Langford and Sally Timms, Lucinda Williams, John Cale, Ian Hunter, Cowboy Junkies, Chris Stamey, Jayhawks, Son Volt, M. Ward with Vic Chestnutt and Howe Gelb, Peter Case, Minus Five, and Los Lonely Boys.
His relatives chipped in too, including brother Javier Escovedo (of '70s punk legends the Zeros and '80s scorchers True Believers, in which Alejandro also played); another brother, Santana percussionist Pete Escovedo; and Pete's daughter, Alejandro's famous niece, Sheila E.
It took some time and a change in his medical treatment, but Escovedo has finally recovered enough to resume his career -- resulting in a moving new LP, The Boxing Mirror, produced by the legendary Cale -- and a forthcoming U.S. tour. He's feeling a bit like Frank Capra's George Bailey nowadays.
"I see the world with new eyes," he says by phone. "It's just another uplifting experience that makes everything that happened be almost worth it in some way. I see the world and my friends with even more love and compassion.
"In the past, we were always drinking," he says with a laugh. "And it was more foggy or fuzzy. But everything is sharper or more focused. Without sounding more new age, a lot of people who have quit drinking say something similar. I feel better now than even before I was sick. I don't look sick, whereas I did before."
But Escovedo believes he wouldn't have gotten better if he hadn't chosen to go off his doctors' orders.
"Western medicine made me sicker. I was prescribed interferon [which directs the immune system's attack on the virus] with ribavirin [an antiviral medication], and they're steroids. It's like Chemo-lite. I didn't like the side effects, like hopelessness, erratic behavior. Skin turns a funny color from the toxin," says Escovedo. "After six months, I could feel I was dying again. So I had to discontinue, and I started taking Tibetan natural medicine that helped me more."
All rooting aside, Boxing may be Escovedo's finest album, infused, as you would expect, with his new perspective.
In the past, he was known for the pain and guilt found in his early solo LPs, such as his harrowing 1992 solo debut, Gravity, a powerful record dealing with his feelings over his divorce and his ex-wife's subsequent suicide, and 1993's follow-up, Thirteen Years. Boxing is often as plainspoken, honest, and powerful, but amazingly, in light of what he's been through, he's never sounded more upbeat.
"It was different than any other record I've ever made," he says. "It just seemed to be, in writing the record, I was so brimful of emotional stuff. And all these things I wanted to write about, but I wasn't sure how to approach it.
"I didn't make a hepatitis C concept album. I just wanted to sing songs about my experience -- but not exactly about that. I learned so much, just about myself, like I found a family a lot larger than the one I have [he has seven children], all the ones that supported me and wrote me and did the tribute record. There was a lot of positive stuff, so I wanted the record to not only talk about nearly dying, but also all the love that's out there for me."
Even the LP's most affecting song, the opening "Arizona," looks back at his collapse and surmises, "I've been empty since Arizona/I turned my back on me/And faced the face of who I thought I was," but leads to a chorus of "One kiss just led to another/One kiss just fades into lover." The overall mood, sanguine and pretty, is in his unique style, straddling good old country-western, Tex-Mex, rock, and most of all folk with a timeless flair and minor orchestral elements. And one would be hard-pressed, say, to imagine a love ballad like "The Ladder" on Gravity.
"It's funny, because if you look at the record, you can find bits and pieces of my previous records," he says. "But I also can't imagine 'The Ladder' being on Gravity. But maybe the song 'Broken Bottles' is the first version, that attempt at different styles. Even the rockers are more rocking. I really give Cale a lot of the credit; he was a complete collaborator to work with. And my band as well.
"I don't know, I think sometimes people -- even by the nature of the story they read -- sometimes think that it's a downer record. But I do get a lot of positive from this record. That was important for one thing: The band is at a really strong point, and everyone was really happy to make that record," he says.
And now he's happy to tour again, albeit in much smaller chunks than previously. He's moved out to the country, to that oasis in the desert, the genuinely beautiful hill country area to the west of Austin and San Antonio.
"I'm raising roosters out here. Do you hear them in the background?" he laughs again. "I love my new life out here with my family. It's peaceful. The move came at a good time. I was ready for it, and I really needed it. So when it did come, I embraced it with open arms. I just love it. I'm building a studio here."
Which can only mean that his renaissance will be ongoing. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.