ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO & CHUCK PROPHET: Rock’s Odd Couple

Al and Chuck

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Alejandro Escovedo and Chuck Prophet won’t likely ever be mistaken for Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar, but standing next to one another, the two veteran musicians could be rock and roll’s Odd Couple.Al and ChuckAlejandro Escovedo and Chuck Prophet won’t likely ever be mistaken for Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar, but standing next to one another, the two veteran musicians could be rock and roll’s Odd Couple.

Short, lean and clad in skinny jeans, cowboy boots and dark sunglasses, Escovedo is the very definition of cool, exuding a carefree, Keith Richards machismo with the bronzed face of a Mayan sun god. Born in 1951 in San Antonio into a large Mexican-American family, Escovedo was exposed to music at an early age; his father, Pedro, played in mariachi groups to make ends meet, while his brothers all played in bands growing up. The family’s radio was constantly abuzz with the Latin and Chicano music of Escovedo’s parents, along with early rock and roll pioneers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, The Big Bopper and Fats Domino.

Tall, blonde and lanky, Prophet is a self-described “middle-class white boy” with a spastic brilliance that’s the complete antithesis of Escovedo’s uber-Zen demeanor. The guitarist grew up in the mid ‘60s in the town of La Habra, California, a Los Angeles suburb that was once known as the avocado capital of Southern California, and also home to the first law office of Richard Milhous Nixon. While Escovedo dropped out of school before the ninth grade, Prophet attended college, “majoring in financial aid because it was the only way I knew how to continue to be a freak and avoid becoming an adult.”

As different as their appearances and backgrounds might be, Escovedo and Prophet have more in common than meets the eye. When he was a child, Escovedo and his family moved from south Texas to Huntington Beach, a mere 15 miles down Beach Boulevard from Prophet’s home in La Hambra. As teenagers, both were frequent visitors to the local music halls and surf spots that dot the Orange County coast before migrating north to the Bay Area to launch their musical careers—Escovedo with seminal San Francisco punk outfit The Nuns and Prophet with Paisley Underground rockers Green on Red. Both experienced moderate success in their respective bands (often opening for one another on tour) before launching promising solo careers that have been artistically rewarding but never commercially lucrative. And both men are also survivors: Escovedo overcame a near-fatal brush with Hepatitis C in 2003, while Prophet conquered a decade-plus addiction to crack cocaine in the late ‘90s.

These commonalities that Prophet and Escovedo share are celebrated on Real Animal, Escovedo’s ninth solo album which is slated for release on June 24. All 13 tracks were co-written by Prophet, who also plays guitar in Escovedo’s backing band of David Pulkingham (guitar), Josh Gravelin (bass), Hector Munoz (drums), Susan Voelz (violin) and Brian Standefer (cello).

“Working with Chuck on this album was a real gift,” Escovedo explains. “I do most of my writing on my own and haven’t really written with that many people over the years, so to find someone that you can relate to so quickly was incredible. Whenever I would have a reference to something—an album, a band or some place or club—Chuck knew exactly what it was. So the stories on the album are mine, but they’re also part of him, too.”

“When Al and I get in the same room, it’s like touching two live wires together,” Prophet says, holding his index fingers inches apart in a ray of sunlight that’s peaking through the kitchen window of his San Francisco apartment. “It’s just sort of electric. So when he said a few years ago, during a tour we did together, that he wanted me to help him wrestle a new album to the ground, I said sure. It sounded like fun.”

To begin the process, the two convened in November 2006 at Escovedo’s home in the hill country outside Austin, Texas for three days of writing sessions that ended up being time spent catching up on each other’s lives.

“We would sit for hours and talk about these stories from our lives playing music and the people we met over the years,” Escovedo says. “We’d also talk about the records that kind of accompanied those different periods of time. It could have been the first Roxy Music album or Lou Reed or even going back further to the doo-wop stuff that I loved growing up. We had these stories and characters, and certain music that went along with them, so we almost drew it out like a storyboard…like we were making a movie.”

One of the first stories to emerge from the pair’s conversations birthed “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” a song inspired by Escovedo’s time living at the legendary New York hotel after The Nuns left San Francisco—following their gig opening the Sex Pistols’ final show at the Winterland in January 1978.

“Al ended up living at the Chelsea for like a year-and-a-half,” Prophet says. “He was there the day that they pulled Sid Vicious out of the hotel after Nancy Spungen turned up dead. You know that photograph where a cop has Sid by each arm, and he’s got that tuxedo jacket on? Al was standing on the sidewalk with the photographer sharing a cigarette when they heard this commotion and the doors busted open. The guy turned and snapped that picture. When he told me that story, I was blown away.”

“Golden Bear” is the only song on Real Animal that deals with Escovedo’s battle with Hepatitis C, but it also serves as homage to the Huntington Beach landmark of the same name, which opened in the ‘20s as a waterfront restaurant before evolving into a music venue in the early ‘60s. Even before he could get in, Escovedo was captivated by the music inside.

“At first, when I was too young to go in, I’d just sit outside in the alley and listen to the music,” Escovedo recalls. “It was one of the best music clubs I’ve ever experienced in my life, if not the best. Everybody played there, from Muddy Waters to Captain Beefheart to Love to Big Brother & the Holding Company to Paul Butterfield Blues Band to Jimmy Reed…Cheech and Chong and Steve Martin. I’ll always remember those times with the fondest memories because that’s where I really fell in love with music. It was truly a sacred place for me.”

“Smoke” is pure, unadulterated rock and roll, a studio scorcher led by a quintessential Prophet guitar riff and Escovedo’s trademark rock strings that document the nights the latter spent standing outside Rodney’s English Disco, a Sunset Strip nightclub inhabited by the likes of David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Iggy Pop.

“Al was just an unabashed, skinny, Mexican, Johnny Thunders clone,” Prophet says with a wry smile. “He used to hang out in front of Rodney’s English Disco ‘cause the bouncers wouldn’t ever let him in. Lori Maddox was this groupie in L.A. who was friends with big rock stars like Jimmy Page and the Stones. She was also Johnny Thunders’ girlfriend, so she took a liking to Al and used to get him in past the velvet rope. It was a big time moment for Al growing up.”

Three songs on Real Animal speak directly to the bands Escovedo played with early on in his career: The Nuns (“Nuns Song”), cow-punkers Rank and File (“Chip ‘N Tony”) and Austin bar rockers True Believers (“Sensitive Boys”).

“Those songs are like letters to those guys,” Escovedo says. “I think you sometimes look back at certain periods of our lives that were difficult with a negative feeling, but all those memories are still alive inside me. They might have been difficult at the time, but I think of them as good times now because those guys all taught me a lot about life.”

“Slow Down” is the final song on Real Animal and ponders the futility of trying to retrace our personal histories. On an album that reflects on more than 30 years in music, it’s an appropriate closer that finds Escovedo focused on living in the present—and looking to the future.

“My wife is younger than me, so when I take her back to Huntington Beach to try to tune her in to what I felt as a kid—maybe walk out on the pier and see if she can feel what it felt like when I was 15 and 16 years old, surfing and listening to this music—it’s not the same,” he says. “It’s really hard to relive the past, so that song is all about living in the moment. It’s about wanting time to slow down, so that you can really enjoy life for all it’s worth.”

Tony Visconti, who’s worked with such legendary artists as T. Rex, David Bowie and Thin Lizzy, was at the helm as producer for Real Animal and says he believes the album is a completion of the past 30 years of Escovedo’s musical career, not a culmination.

“There’s very much a feeling of now on this album; this is where Alejandro Escovedo is today,” Visconti says. “I think he’s laid his demons to rest. He’s had kind of a tragic life, and he could be a lot more negative about things…but he’s absolutely radiant now. I think this album is a completion of the past, the good and the bad, and I think he shines. There’s nothing artificial about it—Alejandro is on a high right now.”

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