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From punk to the Boss and beyond

Alejandro Escovedo
Alejandro Escovedo COURTESY PHOTO

It should have been a warning when Alejandro Escovedo saw police lead a handcuffed Sid Vicious from the Hotel Chelsea.

Inside the famous New York City hotel, Vicious’ girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, lay dead, the victim of a fatal knife wound — and, more broadly, the victim of a wild punk rock lifestyle that Escovedo also experienced.

“None of us who lived in the Chelsea believed that Sid did it, really,” said Escovedo, whose band The Nuns had opened for Vicious’ The Sex Pistols nine months earlier. “I don’t know. Sid was his own worst enemy. But when someone said that he did kill Nancy, and he came out of the hotel, there was a sense that we should all clean up.”

Vicious wouldn’t clean up — he’d commit suicide before his trial ever started. And Escovedo wouldn’t heed the warning from that day for a few more decades — after a bout of hepatitis C nearly killed him.

“Everything changed for me,” said Escovedo, 61, who performs at SLO Brew on Friday. “I stopped drinking. I stopped partying as much.”

And once he cleaned up, he became more successful — then in his 50s and reinvented as a rock and alternative country act — than he’d ever been.

Of course, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Escovedo has had more success later in life. After all, he got a late start, having taken up guitar at 24. But that in itself is surprising, given that he came from a musical family, which includes two brothers that played in Santana.

“My brothers were brilliant musicians,” said Escovedo, who is also Shelia E’s uncle. “And I was such a music fan — I was a fan of bands, I was a collector of records. I liked that part, but I was into other things. I wanted to make films. I loved surfing.”

Escovedo was born in San Antonio, and his family moved to Orange County when he was 8 years old. While many of his 11 siblings took to music, Escovedo wound up crashing film courses at San Francisco State University. But while making a film in the ’70s, he unexpectedly became a musician.

“When we were making this movie about the worst band in the world, that band became my first band, The Nuns,” he said.

At the time, punk rock was still new, and The Nuns were one of the first West Coast punk bands. In 1978, at the height of their career, The Nuns opened for The Sex Pistols at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.

After leaving The Nuns, Escovedo lived in the Chelsea, home of many famous artists and personalities. And he would eventually join other bands Rank and File and The True Believers before becoming a solo artist in 1992.

He had critical acclaim — but relatively little name recognition — for the next decade. Then, in 2003, Escovedo nearly succumbed to his hard lifestyle, coughing up scary amounts of blood. During his long recovery, Escovedo — who had no medical insurance — was confronted with daunting medical bills. But then a group of fans, including the Jayjawks, Sun Volt, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, recorded a tribute album, “Por Vida,” consisting of Escovedo covers, to help raise money for his medical costs.

“I was lucky because maybe that also opened the eyes of other people that hadn’t heard me before,” Escovedo said. “Or they listened to the records because of the Jayhawks or Lucinda. It really did help me quite a bit. I mean, I can’t tell you how humbling it was to have all my heroes — all the people on that album — do my songs. It inspired me greatly. I’ve said this before, but that was the medicine that saved me.”

It also marked the beginning of a continuum that revitalized his career.

From there, he got connected with Jon Landau Management, whose only other client is Bruce Springsteen. And Springsteen himself gave Escovedo a huge boost when he invited him to perform onstage with him before 18,000 fans in Houston.

Escovedo, recently signed with Landau, was driving to the show with his wife in 2008 when he got a text message, saying Springsteen wanted to perform his song “Always a Friend Tonight” — “Can you be here in 45 minutes for sound check?”

Unfortunately, he was two hours away. Yet, while there was no time to rehearse, Escovedo did join Springsteen and his E Street Band onstage, and they pulled it off.

“If I had had time to think, I would have run in the other direction,” Escovedo said. “I was so scared, so nervous. But once I got up there, it was like being on a stage with a Maserati or a Ferrari. That’s a very powerful and finely tuned machine. It was like dropping into a huge wave — you’re committed — and you just have to go for it. And you’re telling yourself the whole time, ‘Don’t f--- up.’ ”

Springsteen would join Escovedo onstage others times, including an appearance at this year’s South By Southwest Festival. Meanwhile, Landau — credited with saving Springsteen’s career in the ’70s — has garnered Escovedo several national TV spots while offering sage advice.

“I go to Jon Landau quite often when I’m starting to write the record and when I’m about to go into the studio,” Escovedo said. “I really get his input because he’s a great writer, and he sees things in the songs and the records that I don’t see.”

Escovedo’s writing has also benefited from partnering with friend Chuck Prophet, who has worked with him on his last three albums, including the latest, “Big Station,” released in June.

Past collaborations between the two featured autobiographical tunes, including “Nuns Song,” about Escovedo’s time with The Nuns, and “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” which refers to Spungen’s death.

The new album — with nods to punk, jazz and Tom Petty-style classic rock — was inspired by a trip to Mexico. And, once again, it was released to critical acclaim.

While Escovedo chose music over film, movies do influence the way he writes, which is why he sometimes maps out songs like filmmakers map out movies, writing out characters, their timelines and interests.

“A good film, like a good book, has to have a strong opening line and a strong closing line,” he said. “A song has to have a brilliant opening scene that sucks you in and a gorgeous closer.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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