Today in The Globe & Mail, I have a profile of Alejandro Escovedo, on the mend from Hepatitis C thanks to an extraordinary series of tribute concerts and albums put together in his aid by other musicians, after he had a brush with death without benefit of health insurance. The U.S. health-care situation is madness to me, the main reason I would find it forbidding ever to live there, but the jeopardy in which it places artists really arrests me, since you can be a reputable and quite successful artist like Escovedo and still be royally fucked when it comes to health care - with a large family, he says, he couldn’t even afford the reduced-cost health packages offered by the Musicians’ Union. The fact that the Democrats haven’t addressed this problem effectively is disgraceful (and yes, I remember what happened in the first year of the Clinton admin., but why was that able to happen except a failure of political will/strategy?). I think Americans in some ways don’t even know what they’re missing. A U.S. visitor came to a party in Toronto with me a couple of years ago and was shocked by the fact that almost everyone there was some kind of freelancer. That couldn’t happen in Chicago, she said - most people hold onto a job for the health insurance. The foreshortening of options that represents is severe.
All that said, what Alejandro’s been able to make of his plight is inspiring. His work deals so bravely and lyrically with hardship in general that it’s not wholly a surprise that he is able to illuminate his own suffering in his art. But it’s a real model, somebody who doesn’t find easy epiphanies in pain but something much flintier, an earned transcendence.
If you’ve never seen him, you owe it to yourself to catch him on this tour (he’s in Toronto at the El Mo on Oct. 4, as listed in the updated Zoilus gig guide) or whenever possible.
If you have seen him, you already know that. [ ... here's the piece ... ]
The body is weaker, the soul is stronger
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Fri., Sept. 30/05 Page R25
In his urgent, Springsteen-style anthem Five Hearts Breaking, Texan musician Alejandro Escovedo discovers his lost-lover characters under a sky gone black and pleads, “Believe, believe, and everything will be fine.”
There have been times the past few years that it was difficult to take his own advice. But he has caught up with the story now.
Hailing from a large musical family, Escovedo began in early California punk band the Nuns, which staked a place in rock legend by opening for the Sex Pistols’ notorious final concert. He went on to help invent cowpunk with Rank and File as well as the True Believers, and as a soulful solo artist found his niche in the alt-country boom of the 1990s.
That movement’s periodical of record, No Depression magazine, named him Artist of the Decade against stiff competition from the likes of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle.
Like those cult figures, Escovedo, now in his mid-50s, has been through trials. There was divorce and the subsequent suicide of his first wife; months on the road away from his seven children; and his diagnosis in 1996 with hepatitis C. That condition eventually brought on his biggest crisis: He collapsed, vomiting blood, after a show in Phoenix, Ariz., in April of 2003.
He survived, but had to begin a punishing treatment regimen he could ill afford — because, like many mid-level U.S. musicians, Escovedo had no health insurance. It’s a plight Canadians can scarcely imagine. “Universal health care seems to be a dirty word in this country,” Escovedo says.
His salvation was the respect of his fellow musicians, beginning in Austin, Tex., where Escovedo is part of the musical pantheon of saints. Benefit concerts were organized across the continent, and two tribute albums were released: Por Vida, with the likes of Earle, Williams, Jennifer Warnes and the Cowboy Junkies doing his songs; and a Canadian equivalent, Escovedo 101, featuring members of the Sadies and Blue Rodeo, among others.
“The benefits were incredible,” he says now. “Community is kind of a lost art, so it was really impressive how the musical community came together and showed themselves a force to contend with when it comes to dealing with tragedy, whether it’s the hurricane victims [the keyboard player in Escovedo's band is a displaced New Orleans resident] or individuals. I’m forever grateful.”
Yet he had to humble himself to accept that help, Escovedo says. “It was hard to take the money. I always felt like I was the guy who did benefits for other people. Eventually my wife convinced me that not only was it helping me, it was helping other people also, just by bringing attention to the disease.
“We need to take care of each other. That’s really the core of it.”
Some of the artists who pitched in were Escovedo’s youthful idols, such as John Cale of the Velvet Underground and Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople. “When I began playing, I tried to emulate what they were doing, knowing it was unattainable to tap into that kind of magic. And then these people play my songs, making them sound like I always tried to but never could.”
They found fresh nuances in his writing, and made him feel promoted from student to peer. Now Cale is producing Escovedo’s next album, including new songs he believes are his best ever.
But returning to the stage was still an intimidating proposition, with his own appearance and stamina so altered. His jet-black hair had fallen out, his muscles weakened. “I’d always been the one who wanted the band to look sharp and present a real presence,” he says, as anyone who ever witnessed his marathon performances knows.
The shows and tours will be briefer now, but he has found another kind of intensity. “I think I’ve been thrust deeper into the music than I ever was, with a certain determination I didn’t have before.”
It’s an energy at odds with the death-wishing rock romanticism that claimed the likes of the Sex Pistols. “It’s like Keith Richards says - if he’d done all the things he’s accused of, he’d be dead. Rock ‘n’ roll does require abandon, but I’m not sure the lifestyle is where you should focus. It’s in the music, and the mind . . . to find new ways to say things about society and life.
“To have that near-death experience has given me a perspective I probably never would have had. . . . It has been a blessing, really.”
Alejandro Escovedo appears with Jon Dee Graham, Oct. 4 at the El Mocambo, 464 Spadina Ave.