“A lot of guys my age...they’ve had it with the road,” says 66-year-old punk-turned-roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo. “They don’t want to play the feedback-induced kind of noise I like to make.”
Currently on tour with fellow alt-rock veteran guitarists Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows), they'll stop by The Heights Theater on April 28 to perform and promote Burn Something Beautiful, Escovedo's 16th album as a solo artist. McCaughey, Buck and Escovedo shared songwriting and production duties for Burn, and the result is a raw yet beautifully textured collection of music complementing the contradictory dark humor of Escovedo’s lyrics. This Friday’s show, one of three slated for Texas, will feature several songs from Burn as well as some choice covers. (Don’t be surprised if Escovedo, whose 2008 album Real Animal was produced by longtime David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, sings some songs by English rock group Mott the Hoople.)
Typically dressed to kill onstage in a tailored jacket and dress shirt, Escovedo exudes both real-deal cool and hard-won joy when he performs. Since he survived a near-death experience with Hepatitis C, which left him temporarily unable to play his guitar for more than a year after being diagnosed in 2003, Escovedo has no illusions regarding the transience of life and the inevitability of death. In his new song “Johnny Volume” on Burn, he snarls defiantly about the potential for resurrection.
“'Johnny Volume' is about [New York Dolls guitarist] Johnny Thunders,” says Escovedo, one of the few punk-era Godfathers still standing in 2017. Thunders, who struggled with heroin abuse for years, died in New Orleans under mysterious, unsolved circumstances in 1991. “It’s about Johnny getting it together and doing it again. He’s feeling better, and he wants to make amends.”
For Escovedo, whose first band The Nuns opened for the Sex Pistols at their final gig in 1977 and covered Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” backed by a string quartet, the rise of punk rock was nothing less than life changing.
“Patti Smith, the Ramones, the New York Dolls: Those bands were really pivotal for me,” says Escovedo. “The first time I saw Patti Smith was at Whiskey a Go Go in Hollywood, with just [guitarist and writer] Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl on piano, and Patti singing and reciting poetry. The only people in the audience were The Stooges and my group of friends. Lenny was so supportive...to meet him, and have him encouraging us to form bands and do it on our own was very, very inspirational.”
The influence of Brian Eno, a founding member of English rock group Roxy Music and another punk-era icon, can be heard on Burn in the haunting closing track, “Thought I’d Let You Know.”
“I give full credit for the production to Scott and Pete,” says Escovedo of the track’s incantatory, reverb-drenched atmosphere. “I love Brian Eno, and it’s maybe the most Eno-eque thing I’ve ever done. The lyrics have this spooky, yet very gentle lullaby vibe—it’s one of my favorite songs on the record.”
The song’s haunting refrain, “We are not alone/We are all alone,” is sung by Neko Case's Kelly Hogan. “We all experience the same kind of life in a way,” says Escovedo about the lyric. “I’m talking about a very basic thing where we are born, and eventually, we die. In the end, the things you do as a person that lend something to the fabric of civilization or humankind is what’s important.”
After 16 albums as a solo artist and more than four decades of recording and touring, Escovedo is still compelled to explore new avenues of music, be it with seasoned comrades like Buck and McCaughey, or younger musicians, who he says provide “a certain energy to create the kind of music I like to create.”
“I don’t want to know everything,” says Escovedo about his drive to keep making music. “I want to learn something new every day. And I think that’s what keeps you young in your mind and in your soul, that it’s never done, it’s never finished. It’s always unfinished.”
Alejandro Escovedo plus special guest The Minus 5 will perform this Friday, April 28 at 8 p.m. $20–30. The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th St. theheightstheater.com