The punk philosophy of Alejandro Escovedo

An interview with the Mexican American music legend ahead of a very special Montreal show.

Sometime in the 2000s I was in the back of GMC Safari driving through L.A. The sweet smoulder of a four-week tour had cauterized my wounds and drawn a gauzy haze around me as I gazed blankly out the window. We were stopped at a light when I saw a girl in patent leather shorts, torn fishnets, battered 14-hole docs, a black bra, leather jacket, spiked hair and pierced all to hell. She was pushing a similarly clad girl in a shopping cart, the two of them cackling like they’d just set fire to the establishment. That was punk. And while that’s probably the most recognizable aspect of the genre (let’s call it the Malcom McLaren/Sex Pistols model), punk encompasses so much more than that. Which brings us to the amazing Alejandro Escovedo.

Born into a deeply Catholic Mexican American family, Escovedo was there right from the start, when the New York scene was just coming together in the ’70s with Lou Reed, Patti Smith and the Ramones, to name a few. According to Escovedo, sometimes he and the Stooges were the only people in the crowd. He joined a band early on playing guitar in the Nuns, part of the first wave of snarly San Francisco punk, but it was when he moved to Austin in the ’80s and introduced roots rock into his music that he started to develop what would become his signature sound. He’s toured relentlessly, and while his albums have changed stylistically, his reputation as a firebrand performer gained him legendary status. He’s been a mainstay on the rock ’n’ roll touring circuit for four decades, gets a ton of respect as a songwriter, but most of all he’s beloved for being a great human being.

In 2003, life on the road had taken a toll and he suffered a serious illness that put him in the hospital. Convinced that music was the cause of the sickness, he despaired, lost faith and grew so weak that his life hung in the balance. As he was fading away, he got a track from the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, who’d recorded a song of Escovedo’s as part of a two-disc tribute album. Artists from across the country were recording his songs to raise funds for him, to show how much he was loved and appreciated. Along with Cale’s track there were songs from his idols Ian McLagan (Small Faces), Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople), Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan) and a host of others. Hearing his songs recorded by musicians he adored was a turning point in his illness. Escovedo talks about that moment.

“To get these songs back, that they were done with so much love and respect and beautiful caring for the song, it was so powerful that I said, ‘I cannot let this get me, I gotta get better.’ And the music was the medicine that got me better.”

Back in the early embers of my youth, I had a very narrow definition of what kind of music was cool. It had to be loud, it had to cut like a rusty knife and the singer had to rip your heart out at the show. The first time I saw Escovedo in 1999, he was exactly that. So naturally after the show I hurled my money at the merch table and literally sprinted home to listen to the record. I was jumping up and down with excitement, doing high kicks, expecting a punk anthem like the ones I’d heard all night at the concert. And yet the music coming out of my speakers was just a guy and his acoustic guitar. Bitterly disappointed, I was about to skip the song when the lyrics jumped out at me, “I was summoned by the angels, to be hung beside your picture, not allowed to feel,” and I kind of froze, wanting to know what the hell that meant, and then slowly the song picks up, drums ratcheting up the tension, strings coming on in waves, the rhythm hitting a fever pitch and I start nodding my head, the vibe from the live show returning. I remember saying to no one in particular, “I don’t know what the hell this is, but I fucking like it!”

And that’s what makes Escovedo’s music so great. It’s hard to pin down, with tracks on his albums jumping from barnburners to angelic pleas for mercy, but the constant is that there is poetry magic infused into every one. When asked about the main pillars of punk, he said that the thing he loved most about the Stooges was that they embodied everything that was liberating. And that’s how I felt listening to Escovedo that night in my living room in ’99, and so many nights since. Free. But beyond the music, what makes Escovedo such a beloved and unique person from the scene is how he looked at punk all those years ago, and how he describes what it is today.

“It’s a sea of possibility, being endless. Punk rock is really about being a good person in the community and not allowing injustice to take hold. To create good in the world.”

When punk first crawled out of the gutters of NYC, it was about kicking against norms, spitting in the eye of the masses and saying, “There’s another way to do things.” And in this fractured era of warring tribes, rife with those casting enmity and meanness into the world just for the sake of it, the notion of creating good just for the hell of it does seem like a pretty punk rock thing to do.

There aren’t that many legends left, and I implore you not to miss this one. Escovedo will be performing as part of an incredible line-up of musicians gathered to pay tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Clash’s London Calling. Over 30 musicians will roam the stage for a raucous night of punk and post-punk anthems covering the songs featured on the English’s band’s landmark album, and so much more. ■

Montreal Calling! is happening at the Corona Theatre (2490 Notre-Dame W.) on Friday, Dec. 6, 7:30 p.m., $72