"Always a Friend" from the album Real Animal
Few bands influenced Alejandro Escovedo like the Stooges. And few guitarists played such a pivotal role putting the Austin-based musicians on a path to a four-decade career in the biz as Ron Asheton — the man with his hands on the six strings on such definitive tracks as "Down on the Street," "Funhouse," and "I Wanna Be Your Dog."
Unfortunately, two weeks ago Asheton was found dead in his home. He was 60.
"It's a shame, you know. Probably the first things I learned to play on guitar were Ron Asheton licks," Escovedo says. "That music is essential for me."
He adds, "It's a drag, you know?"
On Escovedo's latest release, Real Animal, he pays tribute to Asheton and the rest of the Stooges — specifically that stringy jean genie with a penchant for on-stage acrobatics and getting naked — his former bands, the punk rock outfit the Nuns, the cowpunkers of Rank & File, and the True Believers, a band he formed with his brother Javier.
The album has earned the nearly 60-year-old Escovedo plenty of raves. Influential alt-country mag No Depression named it the 2008 album of the year and horror-meister and Entertainment Weekly columnist Stephen King placed it in his top five discs of the year. It is, hands down, a highlight — if not the highlight — of the Austin musician's career.
And for good reason. The album is a solid collection of perhaps the most heartfelt odes Escovedo's ever written and the most raucous rockers he's laid down. In fact, listeners will be hard pressed to find songs as raw and unclawed as "Nuns Song," "Chelsea Hotel '78," and "Real As an Animal." These tunes bite back in a way that today's pop punk bands don't.
The inspiration behind the songs surely plays a part in this, as does Escovedo's experiences as a punk rocker in the early days of the scene. In those days, Escovedo managed to meet future rock legends — David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Sid Vicious. "Chelsea Hotel '78" centers around Sid and Nancy Spurgen, while "Real As an Animal" sets its sights on Pop and the Stooges.
"Iggy was going to produce the Nun's record, the first single, but it was really a lost weekend. That's all it was," Escovedo says. "I don't think we ever even got to the studio."
The year and a half that Escovedo's spent at the Chelsea in New York City was similarly lost. "They were wasted times. They were good times. They weren't great times," he says. "I don't remember a lot of laughter. There was something dark about it in a way and I don't mean that in some creepy goth way. If I had to color it, it would be grayish. A lot of shadows."
But as dark as those days might have been, writing Real Animal was anything but. According to Escovedo, the recording sessions for Animal, which was produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T.Rex, Thin Lizzy), were a blast. Some of that was surely due to his songwriting partnership with Chuck Prophet, formerly of Green on Red and an established solo artist himself. Prophet plays guitar on the disc and sings background.
"We laughed probably more than we wrote songs," says. Escovedo is also a member of the glam rock inspired band Buick MacKane as well as the appropriately named Alejandro Escovedo String Quartet. "We told a lot of crazy stories to each other," he says of Prophet. "We were both very free with it, making fools of ourselves. I feel like we got such great songs. It shouldn't have been that much fun."
Although the pair didn't begin a songwriting partnership until 2007, Escovedo and Prophet were in bands at the same time and frequetly crossed paths.
After Escovedo and Prophet joined forces, the Austin musician began making regular treks to San Francisco, the former stomping grounds of his old band the Nuns. "We would walk around, and I'd show him different places. That brought a lot back, and we got to talk to a lot of people from that time," Escovedo says. "It's like Chuck and I said — we want to roll around in the mud and the clay. It's sort of like we got back into it but with a different perspective now of course, but realizing how important those times were."
Over the course of those trips, Escovedo and Prophet decided upon a vision for Real Animal — the new album would be sort of a memoir put to music. As a result, the album touches on all the genres Escovedo has tackled over the years — from punk to alt-country to rockabilly. There are also touches of soul and R&B. "Once we had the context, it was easy to fill in the characters because we had an abundance of characters and bands and music," Escovedo says. "We treated it like creating a movie."
And while the album does talk about Escovedo's earliest days in the music business, it doesn't avoid some of the more recent events of his life — most notably his well publicized battle with Hepatitis C. Following that nearly fatal experience in 2003, Escovedo released the well received The Boxing Mirror, his eighth disc as a solo artist.
Aside from all the critical raves, the one thing that Real Animal has accomplished for Escovedo is that it has provided him with a way to look back at his life with a newfound appreciation, especially his years as a punk rocker. "It just naturally happened as a result of what I had experienced through those years and what I learned through those years and what I had to kind of peel away. I had to leave a lot behind," Escovedo says. "Through all of that, these remembrances become nothing more than that. It gave me distance, but yet I appreciated it more somehow."