I was thinking today it’s been 35 years since we first fell in together. You’d moved to Austin and started Rank & File with the Kinman brothers in ‘81, and I’d taken off for Los Angeles the year before. I knew about your San Francisco punk band The Nuns, and how the group opened the last Sex Pistols show at Winterland there in ‘78. I’d driven down to San Antonio, where you were born, the week before to see Johnny Rotten and his crew try to destroy Randy’s Rodeo nightclub. It’s funny how concentric all the circles become in life when we look back.
When I came to work at Fantasy Records and was asked if I wanted to be the A&R person on a new Alejandro Escovedo album, all I could do was laugh and nod my head yes. What an incredible gift to be given right from the top. Little did I know what a life-changer the album would be for me, and I hope in many ways, for you too. Looking at the history of the great musical artists we both love so much, there are certain peaks when many disparate elements come together to cause a new elevation. That’s when they record a set of songs that become etched in time, never to age but always to inspire. Your new one, Burn Something Beautiful, is surely one of those transcendent moments. As I listen to it now, after having watched you and the band record in Portland, I am consumed with the idea that it’s the kind of music that can fill hearts seeking solace and understanding in what has become a very confusing world.
Alejandro, you have always careened around the music landscape with such an adventurous spirit, but on new songs like “Horizontal,” “Heartbeat Smile,” “Sunday Morning Feeling,” “Beauty of Your Smile” and all the others it’s like you’ve been lifted up to a new place. A huge source no doubt, comes from your wonderful wife Nancy and the realization we are all just passing through this world, and the moments we are given to share our spirits with others are indeed fleeting and finite. I sense such a depth of compassion and courage in these songs. It’s been in everything you do, I think, and it has come together in a total way this time. This is music from a man who knows who he is, is okay with that and is ready to present that presence to the world.
In that beautifully funky studio, down an alley and up a flight of outdoor stairs, it felt like a small coven of magicians had taken over. Producers Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) perfected a yin-yang way of working together, co-writing all the songs with you and then entering into a unique space that Captain Beefheart called “one-head music,” by which he meant everyone had to be inside a single mind or things would not mesh together. It’s like McCaughey and Buck didn’t really need many words; rather it was short phrases and ESPish mind signals. Songs were being recorded, overdubs added, rough mixes done and utter joy expressed in an unstoppable flow. When music like this happens it makes every single molecule in a room explode with visionary glee. And as the rain could be heard hitting the tin roof, it sounded like celestial applause. Even Ringo the studio dog had a sweet smile on his face.
Scott and Peter were in the zone, and with guitarist Kurt Bloch (The Fastbacks) and drummer John Moen (The Decemberists) joining in you molded a formidable combat-ready rock & roll band. It’s a small miracle how in only a matter of a few days the quintet coalesced into a big-time powerhouse, the kind who could assuredly share stages with anyone. You recorded live, sweat on the floor, inventing the music as you went. When singers Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney) and Kelly Hogan (Neko Case) came in later, their voices instantaneously made those tracks soar, turning up the goosebumps to 10. For the cherry on top, Los Lobos’ saxophonist Steve Berlin walked in one afternoon to wail on baritone like very few humans do, and nailed his parts in only a few minutes.
In those moments I flashed back to so many bands and nights listening to you. Those first Rank & File shows when I was working at Slash, and then when you joined with brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham in the True Believers. That outfit practically invented a whole new genre in Austin, and for a brief moment the world looked open for the taking. Reality set in and then you were off on what has become a legendary solo career, one that thankfully shows no signs of stopping. Fourteen solo albums, accolades like No Depression magazine’s Artist of the Decade award in 1998, your play “By the Hand of the Father,” countless collaborations and tribute album appearances have come into view and then passed into history like a careening train ride: up mountains, through canyons then down to the valley and back up again. Sometimes in life the past can hang too heavy on us, like it’s enveloped our abilities to break free and start anew. What I have always admired about you is that you know the traps in rear-view gazing, and through the years have never looked behind you long enough to find anything but encouragement. And then you are on to the future.
Burn Something Beautiful gathers a lifetime of exploring the world inside and outside yourself. It reflects a hard-won battle with hepatitis-C and the never-ending strength you’ve shown being dedicated to making eternal music no matter what the odds. As you and I have spoken about this album Alejandro, we both are 65 years old. We have experienced the entire history of rock & roll and all the other cheers and tears that have occurred on the planet the past six-and-half-decades. It has been a rollercoaster life, no doubt, but also one of, yes, endless beauty. It’s interesting how we both feel the pull of mortality in your new songs, and in the end the unrelenting power of rock & roll to save us from everything. If our lives burn down, still something beautiful survives.
I will never forget flying to Portland to meet you in the studio for these sessions. There you were standing outside the airport doors on the sidewalk, surprising me when I walked down the stairs to the street, a vision wrapped in a long flowing scarf and an incandescent smile. Because we both speak the silent language of rock & roll, we know that sometimes outside words are not needed and everything is explained. The music, such a beautiful, beautiful thing, burns through it all. Forever. (Bill Bentley)