Even if you’ve heard “Sacramento And Polk” a hundred times, it’s worth the price of The Boxing Mirror just to learn the song’s real power. With production in the hands of The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, and Alejandro Escovedo’s performance in the hands of his own deliverance, the new recording makes previous versions sound like a mere bonfire.
Appearing: May 18 & 19 at Martyrs’ in Chicago.
Escovedo first recorded it for his 1999 Bloodshot release, Bourbonitis Blues, but the lyrics recall his punk music beginnings in the ’70s, when he was living in transient, San Francisco hotels. The imagery is hallucinatory, grisly, and visceral.
The Boxing Mirror version rocks unexpectedly hard for a man still haunted by health issues. “In ‘Sacramento And Polk,’ I can really understand and hear it even more because I think it’s purer,” he explains. “It’s not coming from an alcohol-induced state. It’s coming from a really clear point of view where I can really see the images, now, and I can really focus on what it’s like to be where I was when I wrote that.”
Although he recently graduated to non-alcoholic beer, Escovedo quit drinking in the wake of his near-death experience, when complications of Hepatitis C overcame him in April 2002. He was hospitalized following an Arizona performance of his stage production, By The Hand Of The Father. “They found that I had varises [swollen veins caused by liver disease] in the esophagus, advanced cirrhosis of the liver, and tumors in my abdomen and they were all bleeding at the same time,” he says.
“I remember hearing, ‘If we don’t do something immediately, we’re gonna lose him,’ and I started to fade. People talk about this all the time, but I really went somewhere else out of my body. I was surrounded by my kids and I was surrounded by [my wife] Kim [Christoff]. Then Norman Dubie who is this very famous poet who was [Christoff's] mentor at [Arizona State University] he came, and he’s Buddhist, so I remember hearing Norman’s mala [beads] as he was reciting mantras for me, and when I came back, the first thing I remember was the sound of the malas still clicking.”
Escovedo was back among the living, but the damage was done. “As I started to feel better, more options came up, but they really weren’t about recovery, in that they were never really about me being like I was before. They were about me either having a new liver, a transplant, or a shunt.”
When he emerged from the hospital, he recuperated for a month at the Arizona home of Christoff’s parents. “We did nothing but walk in the desert. I started to eat really well and drink nothing but water and things that were gonna help me.”
He also began a regimen of Interferon, of which he says “caused me to go through bouts of erratic behavior, almost like being insane. I was insane.” And, with his wife, a long-time Buddhist, he sought experts in Tibetan medicine and acupuncture, and began striving for a higher level of consciousness through Buddhism.
Medicating, meditating, and healing eventually brought new focus to the recording project he’d begun before his collapse. He had two songs written for a new record — “Break This Time,” a co-write with Christoff, and “Looking For Love” — both about his relationship with his wife. He’d also begun work on another, “Dearhead On The Wall” for which one of Christoff’s poems provided the lyrics.
“What I love about her poetry,” Escovedo says, “is that it connects images that you wouldn’t think of in normal linear thought at all, but when you look at them, and you feel them, it’s so beautiful. There’s a lot of pain; there’s a lot of sorrow, but there’s a lot of beauty looking at the world through her eyes. It’s very easy for me to sing her words. I just think her writing ability is amazing.”
Christoff contributed another lyric to the album, “Notes On Air,” and the title track is based on yet another. “I knew that poem would make a great song,” Escovedo says, “[But] when it came time to do the performance in the studio with John Cale, tape’s rolling and John’s intense, and so you have to produce. I hadn’t brought the lyrics with me on that day, so I just had key phrases popping through. Everything else I had to ad lib around those lines. That take that you hear is totally a first-time performance.”
Cale may be a taskmaster, but the results are spectacular. Unexpected treatments are integrated everywhere, most noticeably, perhaps, on “Sacramento And Polk.” Cale turns it into a pressure cooker, hypercharging the urgency in Escovedo’s vocals and pushing them to the forefront. Cale’s influence also shines on “Take Your Place,” which he pumped with Devo/Cars-like keyboard action. For comparison, listen to the more conventional, alternate version that serves as a hidden track.
The Boxing Mirror’s opening track, “Arizona,” is loaded with the dark drama of Escovedo’s sojourn there, but it’s cut through by guitar parts as bright as the desert sun. The song is a story of ending and beginning: “I turned my back on me/and I faced the face of who I thought I was.” “The Ladder” is a border ballad Escovedo calls “a devotional” to Christoff, but its opening imagery comes from the memory of a bizarre street character the pair encountered in Venice, California. Subsequent verses refer to an oceanside blowhole, La Bufadora, a popular Mexican tourist attraction, and to the Mexican national bird, the cara caras. “I Died A Little Today” is based on Escovedo’s own experience, but he says it’s also about “how we all die every day and we become different people and are constantly changing.”
Escovedo has made plans to play live dates in the U.S. and Europe behind The Boxing Mirror, but he acknowledges, “My energy is still evolving, and I guess in a way I am back, but I’m a much different person than I was.” Most of that difference is owing to his illness, but he’s also been fortified by the way his friends and fans responded to it — with a tribute compilation and more than a dozen benefit shows throughout the country to help pay his medical bills.
– Linda Ray
To read the rest of this story, pick up the May issue of Illinois Entertainer found througout Chicagoland.
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