With The Fauntleroys, he revisits his punk rock days in NYC.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, New York City was the promised land, even in California. “When I was young and living in Huntington Beach and the Velvet Underground album came out, it was everything to us,” Alejandro Escovedo says. He had no interest in Europe; he wanted to go the home of the Brill Building, The Young Rascals, and The New York Dolls. Escovedo performed at The Sex Pistols final show January 14, 1978 at Winterland in San Francisco as a member of The Nuns, and shortly thereafter the band split the West Coast for New York. “We always played with The Ramones,” Escovedo says, and they, along with The Dictators and music writer R. Meltzer were the band’s entree into Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s, and the New York punk scene.
“Those places were mythical to me,” Escovedo says. “We sat at a table with George Clinton and Blondie, and Andy Warhol and Francesco Scavullo were sitting with us, and we’re watching The Heartbreakers play.”
The occasion for memories of New York is the release of The Fauntleroys’ Below the Pink Pony, an EP by Escovedo, Richard Hell and The Voidoids’ Ivan Julian, Nicholas Tremulis, and Linda Pitmon. The EP is a salute to the era of New York rock ’n’ roll that inspired all of their careers, and while some songs have obvious reference points (the Voidoid-like “Suck My Heart Out with a Straw”), others share a directness and economy of thought with songs from that era. They heard the drone in The Incredible String Band’s “Chinese White” and remade it in the Velvet Underground’s ominous image.
The EP gets its name from the now-closed café on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the studio under it where they recorded, and the space had a lot to do with the creation of the songs. They recorded basic tracks, then went upstairs, hung around and wrote lyrics, then went back down to cut them. “In the studio it was like electricity. Ideas were flying in every direction from every person.”
During the time Escovedo lived in New York, he stayed at the Chelsea Hotel—“the ground zero for the bohemian lifestyle.” It was there that one of the distinctive characteristics of punk from New York in the ’70s manifested itself as artists and other creative types were a part of the scene as well as musicians. Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen lived at the Chelsea during that time, as did Neon Leon, fashion designer Charles James, Andy Warhol’s Interview cover artist Richard Bernstein, and writer Quentin Crisp.
The artists made it a scene where the wealthy and the destitute were brought side by side. “You have guys like Jean-Michel Basquiat hanging out at The Mudd Club, then there would be Princess Lee Radziwill elbow to elbow watching the same group.”
The Fauntleroys suit Escovedo's mood.
“I’ve always loved bands. I’ve wanted to be in bands all my life. When I was in The Nuns, we were a true band. We hung out together. We were a gang; we did everything together. We were horrible people together (laughs). We were all as one. Rank and File, we had the same philosophy. We wanted to be a band like The Faces. It didn’t turn out that way, but that was the idea.”
After The True Believers broke up, he became a solo act grudgingly. He didn’t know how to be a band leader, and coming out of punk, he thought of himself more as a player than a musician. He wanted to see the world and have fun, and being in a band had been the vehicle for that. “t was hard for me to tell people what to do,” he says. “It was hard for me to take control of it. I guess I was still out of control.” But over time as he found himself dealing with arrangements, he connected to conversations he’d heard his brothers Coke and Pete talk about in conjunction with their Latin jazz bands.
Escovedo’s way of dealing with the situation for a while was the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, which he referred to as “a workshop”—“People would show up. I’d start playing and they’d fall in behind me. We’d have these beautiful sections of music that I had never dreamed of.”
Today, he has his main band, but he also has satellite bands in many cities in the country so that he can tour more affordably. He sends ahead a setlist, runs through the songs before the show, then goes live with them with minimal preparation. It’s a far cry from developing strong musical connections with the people around you, but it can also be electric.
“It’s a really live situation, and it leads to some really beautiful things,” he says. “You’re reacting to everything that’s happening behind you and around you. I never walk in there feeling tentative. If anything, I just go for it; usually the band is right there with me and sometimes charging so that I have to up my game.”
The Fauntleroys aren’t exactly an extension of that, but it is something that likely wouldn’t happen if Escovedo was still in a band. Being independent also allowed him to collaborate with Chuck Prophet on Real Animal, and to work on his upcoming album with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, The Minus Five’s Scott McCaughey, late R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin, The Fastbacks’ Kurt Bloch, as well as Escovedo veterans Susan Voelz and Bobby Daniel. Working with Buck has been a revelation. “When I sit and write with him, he takes simple ideas and comes up with these hooks and ideas that make the songs blossom.”
Escovedo’s career has allowed him to not just meet but work with many of his heroes, and the significance of that isn’t lost on him. Escovedo asked The Velvet Underground’s John Cale to produce The Boxing Mirror, his first album after his near-death bout with Hepatitis C. At the time, he was still weak, but Cale “was so kind to me and gentle with me,” Escovedo says. “People said he wasn’t usually like that.”
“Cale is one of those men who doesn’t have to say anything. He’s a very powerful personality. Ian Hunter was a strong influence on me on Real Animal. I went to him after people to me that we didn’t have any songs. Chuck Prophet and I thought we had a full story.” He ended up spending a week with Hunter, who’d he’d loved since Mott the Hoople days, and they went over the songs one by one, and when they were done Hunter told him to stand by his songs.
“Tony Visconti taught me how to be quietly strong. He’s so musical. It comes very natural to him. He has exquisite taste and is a very powerful person without being cruel in any way. Very nurturing, but not in a phony way.”
He recognizes that his time with these men would likely have been wasted on him when he was younger, and that he had to face death to get to a place where he could appreciate the experiences. “I don’t think I would have been capable of being focused enough or mature enough to have taken it seriously,” he says. “Buddhism may say these near-death experiences are blessings, and they truly are.”
The Fauntleroys’ Under the Pink Pony is out now.