Sometimes it feels like I’ve spent two-thirds of my life listening to music and the other one-third writing and playing songs. Sometimes even in my sleep. Since I was really young, records were huge for me. I would look at those 45s and wonder how they were made and what made them sound so magical. I still feel that way. No matter how many years I make music, I still feel like it’s the one constant in my world that makes the most sense. I hope I always feel that way. Listening to and writing about these songs was a rush of so many memories, and where I was when I first heard them and who I was with. It’s really how I store history in my head: what music was around then. It’s like we’re all part of one big family of songs, and sometimes certain ones make the most sense. Then things change, and other songs take over. I hope it will always be that way for me and everybody else who loves all these sounds. —Alejandro Escovedo
Chris Bell, “I Am The Cosmos” from: I Am The Cosmos
Big Star still comes through loud and clear from more than 40 years ago, and a big reason for that is Chris Bell. He had a cosmic touch he brought to rock ’n’ roll, and coupled with Alex Chilton’s more streetwise sense, they formed a complete whole. Because Bell didn’t get to stick around as long he became a bit of an unsung hero, but to everyone whoever really listened to Big Star, it was obvious that Bell was a big part of what made that band so unique and unequaled. On this solo song, he almost sounds like he knows his time on the planet is limited and he’s getting ready to depart. Right into the cosmos.
John Cale, “Paris 1919” from: Paris 1919
There’s only one John Cale, and there won’t be any more. Here’s someone who had heavy classical training, came to America to work with a symphony under a Leonard Bernstein fellowship and ended up changing rock ’n’ roll forever in the Velvet Underground. He, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker didn’t last long as a band, only two albums with Cale in it, but nothing was the same after them. It was Cale who brought in so much of the musical experimentation into songs like “Heroin” and “Sister Ray.” And then he was gone. By the time he made Paris 1919, he was ready to add a lot of his classical influences and bump them right up to rock ’n’ roll. This song still feels like it’s part of a bigger picture, almost like a movie, and Cale is pushing away at all the boundaries to get as many influences in as he can without it being cluttered. John and I worked together, and it changed my life. He showed me there is nothing to ever be afraid of in music. It’s always a friend.
13th Floor Elevators,“I’ve Got Levitation” from: Easter Everywhere
There was never a band like the 13th Floor Elevators. Their main lyricist, Tommy Hall, also just happened to play electric jug. He was on a one-man quest to elevate the world through the use of LSD and thought he could do that by starting a rock band in 1965 in Austin. He enlisted 17-year-old Roky Erickson to sing his lyrics, and put him with a band called the Lingsmen. “I’ve Got Levitation” is a call-to-arms for the Elevators’ quest. The manic bubbling of Hall’s jug, which was played with a microphone held up to the top of it while Hall blew away feverishly, still perplexes listeners. “What is that sound?” It was the sound of the music of the spheres, and it’s highly unlikely anyone will ever do it quite like this again. The band had a small hit with first single “You’re Gonna Miss Me” in ’66, but after that it was police harassment and mental hijinks that finally did them in. Some went to jail, some went insane. Either way, the 13th Floor Elevators were over before they really got started. To hear them now is to be amazed at how passionate and powerful they were. They really believed their music could change the world, and for those who heard it and agreed, it clearly did.
Calexico, “Falling From The Sky” from: Edge Of The Sun
Whenever I drive from Texas to California and I go through New Mexico and Arizona, I think of Calexico and then try to listen to one of their albums as quick as I can. They capture the wide-open mystery of so much of that land and remind me what an endless melting pot music can be. The way their voices blend with the horns and guitars is something all their own. Sometimes it makes me want to go find them and sit in and feel what a luxury it is to play with musicians like that. One of my dreams is to someday make a whole album with them in some out-of-the-way town; maybe even record it outdoors so the landscape seeps into the songs. “Falling From The Sky” feels like a song that arrived completely written when it came down from the clouds. Calexico is definitely one of America’s treasures.
The Dandy Warhols, “We Used To Be Friends” from: Welcome To The Monkey House
Portland is such a great music city and has been for a long, long time. One of the bands I always think about when it comes to Portland is the Dandy Warhols. They have that proud Portland edge of playing rock with plenty of bite to it. Starting with their name, which immediately flashes feelings of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, the band has an uncompromising vibe that the Velvets helped invent 50 years ago. When we were recording last April in Portland, I thought about the Dandy Warhols and what the scene there must have been like when they started. I’m a big fan of finding about how different cities can cause different styles, like when I came to Austin in ’81 and we started Rank & File. I always feel like Portland gave that impetus to the Dandy Warhols: the rain, the coffee, the trees, the river. Everything around the city blends together to give groups their soul.
Sheila E., “Girl Meets Boy” from: single
You can absolutely tell from the first notes in this song dedicated to Prince how heartbroken Sheila was about his passing. I know how close they were and how strong their musical connection was going back all those years. There’s no way this music could’ve been anything different than what it is: a woman pouring out her feelings about someone she loved. As someone in my family, I share Sheila’s pain when she’s singing and also feel all that she’s remembering about her years with Prince. The Escovedos all have a similar spirit in our sensitivity, which no doubt dates back to my parents Cleo and Pedro Escovedo and the way they raised us, which Sheila got directly from her father and my brother Pete. It doesn’t get any deeper than family.
Ryan Adams, “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” from: Heartbreaker
What’s so great about Ryan Adams is how he can mix up wildness and sophistication. Bob Dylan was the king of that in the mid-’60s when he first went electric. That kind of music jumps up the excitement level because it delivers everything. It’s also so hopeful and beautiful. What really comes through is how the singer is out there on a limb and isn’t joking. He’s been sad and he’s been high, and you can immediately hear that in the words, in the voice, in the music, in everything. Pure inspiration.
Neko Case, “People Got A Lotta Nerve” from: Middle Cyclone
Some singers are inspirational from the first note. They convey such a deep compassion that it’s like they’re opening an upbeat way of looking at things. Neko Case has always had that in her voice and songs. She sings about a lot of different things, but somehow always comes through as offering more than what was there before the songs started. Plus, she has Kelly Hogan in her band, which gives her extra points immediately. Kelly came to Portland to sing on my new album and took it all to a whole new level. So hooray for both of them, and for this right-on song that says so much about the modern world.
Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball” from: Wrecking Ball
There’s one thing that’s a given: Bruce Springsteen will always surprise you. It’s mind-blowing about the depth and breadth of the music he’s created and how it never stops. He might go quiet for a minute or two, but you know he’s coming around the corner that’s going to knock you out. “Wrecking Ball” did that to me. It’s like a folk song that has a steam engine attached to it, pushing it forward in a way that turns it into a modern fable. I remember when he first got going and reading the line Jon Landau wrote about seeing the future of rock ’n’ roll and its name was Bruce Springsteen. I never would’ve guessed back then Landau would one day be my manager or that I’d end up onstage singing with Springsteen. But that to me has always been the beauty of rock ’n’ roll: There’s no way to predict what’s possible. “Wrecking Ball” is one of those songs that makes everything seem possible. Whenever I need a shot of energy to get me past a roadblock or brainlock or some other kind of lock, this one always comes to the rescue with flying colors. I hope he sings forever.
David Bowie, “Lazarus” from: Blackstar
David Bowie is probably the most influential musician I’ve had. Something about his approach to what he did got so deep inside me, it’s like he’s always been there. Every time he’d shift styles, I was right there with him. If I had to pick one artist I could listen to for the rest of my life, it would probably be Bowie. When he died, it felt like the world had lost a big part of itself—especially when I heard this song. It seemed like his death was part of his art, which you’d almost expect it to be. Now I go back and listen to all his albums, and each one has a world of memories for me: what I was doing when they came out and what was happening in the world then. It’s like I see history through David Bowie’s songs. I love his voice, I love his writing, I love everything about him. Sometimes I’ll play one of his songs in my sets, and the choice will change depending on how I’m feeling. He really was the ultimate chameleon in rock ’n’ roll, but it was never an act. It felt like that’s who Bowie was at the moment. Whether it’s one of his last songs like “Lazarus” or one of his first, it’s one long line of sheer greatness. I think that will never change for me.
Roky Erickson, “Starry Eyes” from: Don’t Slander Me
When Roky Erickson got out of the Rusk State Hospital for the mentally insane, he was lost. His years in the 13th Floor Elevators had been exhaustive, much of which was due to the massive amounts of LSD the band took. He’d been arrested for marijuana in 1968 and pled insanity to escape prison. Rusk was probably worse. When he finally was free and back in Austin, Doug Sahm set up a recording session with Roky and his band Bleib Alien. They recorded two songs for Sahm’s indie Mars Records, and “Starry Eyes” is one of them. It’s such a pure blast of Texas rock that it’s impossible to see why it didn’t become a big hit. It sounds like something Buddy Holly might have done if he’d lived long enough, and Doug’s chiming guitar and Bill Miller’s electric autoharp create their own Wall of (Austin) Sound. The single got a little airplay here and there but disappeared pretty fast. The vocals are so pleading and pure that to this day, it might be one of the very best things Roky ever recorded. The other side of the single was “Red Temple Prayer,” with the unforgettable chorus “Two-headed dog, two-headed dog/I’ve been working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog.” Roky was to go on to a whole new career, some of which worked and some didn’t. He’s one of the greatest rockers ever out of Texas and still playing. He even has his own flavor named after him at Amy’s Ice Creams: Roky Road. They should rename a street there Roky Erickson Avenue and turn his birthday, July 15, into a city celebration every year.
Steve Earle, “Transcendental Blues” from: Transcendental Blues
What I’ve always loved so much about this song is that while it could only be by Steve Earle, it’s like he took a time machine back to the ’60s and dropped by a Byrds session in Los Angeles and asked them for help. The backward-sounding guitar solos, the echoed beats and the way he sings might have been inspired by their “My Back Pages” track, but then again Steve is such an unpredictable artist, there’s no way to tell what inspires him. It might be something he cooks up completely in his own head. Either way, there’s a relentless power to this song; at the same time, there’s such an undercurrent of sweetness that runs all the way through it. Maybe even a little Allen Ginsberg. I was born in San Antonio, and Steve is from around there, too, so who knows: We might have bumped into each other as children downtown by the Alamo. And even if we didn’t, it’s still cool to dream about such a meeting of two really little guys looking at each other across the plaza and trading transmissions about sometime ending up in the same racket. But back to “Transcendental Blues.” It’s one of the best songs of the past 25 years and always sends a chill up my spine.
Skip Spence “Cripple Creek” from: Oar
When Moby Grape’s first album came out in 1967, it was one of the best things I heard that year, which included Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and so many other timeless releases. There was something so appealing in all those songs. Two really stuck out: “Indifference” and “Omaha.” When I noticed that each was written by Skip Spence, I knew something amazing was happening. Then I read about how Spence’s mental problems caused him to leave the band and end up in Bellevue’s psych ward in New York. When an Alexander Spence solo record titled Oar arrived in 1969, I couldn’t believe how unique it was. He played all the instruments himself, recorded it in Nashville in three days and then disappeared. All those songs were like listening to someone losing himself but struggling to hang on. I’d for sure never heard anything like it. “Cripple Creek” could have been on the Band’s second album, but only if Richard Manuel had dropped all his defenses and come out the other side. Skip Spence was someone who’d been imbued by brilliance and visions but was battling what came with it. I’ve still never heard an album like Oar. Fifteen years ago, there was a tribute album to Oar called More Oar, and I got to record the song called “Diana.” It was cathartic trying to get inside Spence’s mind to try to find the heart of that song. I gave it my best, like the other 16 people on More Oar, including Robert Plant, Beck and Tom Waits. I heard that Skip got to hear the new versions when a nurse played him the tape of the whole album in his hospital room in Santa Cruz, and when it ended, he passed away. I still get chills thinking about that, and how he had lived on the streets and in group homes all those years after he recorded Oar in 1969 and rode his motorcycle back to California from Nashville. And that was pretty much it for Skip Spence: a rock ’n’ roll hero.
Uncle Tupelo, “Gun” from: Still Feel Gone
Having been in a band with a brother, I know what it’s like. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo always felt like they were brothers. They had a submerged warfare going on that supplied so much tension that it was impossible not to think they weren’t related. You had to be related to be so dramatic together. This song could have been Jeff’s call to freedom in the band and maybe an early sign he would head off on his own. It’s definitely a rocker that shows his love of rock ’n’ roll, even when he says he sold his guitar to the girl next door. There’s also such a strong undercurrent of something sinister getting ready to happen, maybe it’s him knowing fireworks are coming for the band. When Uncle Tupelo split in half to make Son Volt and Wilco, it’s like fans got a bargain: two great new bands. “Gun” shows what Tweedy had in him and also showed he was only getting started when he did it.
The Velvet Underground, “What Goes On” from: The Velvet Underground
When I bought the third Velvet Underground album, I wasn’t sure what was going on except that it took my breath away. It was a lot quieter and was missing all the wilder instrumental sounds that John Cale brought to the band with his electrified viola. It seemed like the band had turned a corner into almost a folkier era. Of course, I was wrong. They were still the pioneers they’d always been; you just had to listen with open ears. “What Goes On” stood out immediately as one of the highlights. It had a relentless beat from Maureen Tucker’s jungle drums and a hypnotic rhythm guitar pattern, sometimes slashing and never slowing down. There was also this persistent organ playing chords in the background that got completely under my skin. Then there was Lou Reed’s voice. He sounded sweet and angry at the same time, which was one of his specialties. The lyrics were Reed at his best, like a missive from Manhattan that had to be reckoned with. When he broke into what he once called his “ostrich guitar” lead, it felt like a million bees had been let out of their hive and trying to sting you all at once. It was the Velvets at their best. More than 10 years later, I was working at the big Harry Ransom library at the University of Texas in Austin, and on the first day, a grad student came in and brought back all these dozens of books he checked out over the past 10 years. Turns out it was Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison, who’d been working on his doctorate there. We got to be friends later, and he loved coming to our shows and talking. And he could really talk. I wrote a song for Sterling called “Tugboat” after he died in ’95 because he’d ended up working on tugs in the Houston Ship Channel after he got his Ph.D. I never could figure how that happened, but that was so Sterling: enigmatic to the end.
Lucinda Williams, “Are You Alright?” from: West
A great Lucinda Williams song can smash your heart into a million little pieces almost without trying. And this is a great one. She tiptoes right up to the mystery of love and makes it seem like something you can understand, and before the song is over you realize you’ll never realize what it all means, and it’s going to be one of those things where you just have to live with the mystery. And Lucinda does that with such a beautiful voice that sounds like she knows so much more than anybody else. There are times when Lucinda writes like she’s made some kind of deal with a being from the beyond that lets her know everything while we know nothing. She was around Austin when I first got there in ’81, but it was obvious she wouldn’t be there forever. “Are You Alright?” is so direct and disarming, it’s like there are all these laser beams being zapped toward you and there’s no escape. She’s reaching out and asking the one question we all want to hear from someone we love: “Are you alright?” That says it all.
Sir Douglas Quintet, “Mendocino” from: Mendocino
No matter how much time you spend in Texas, whether you’re born there or you end up living in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, El Paso, wherever, Doug Sahm’s music is going to get into your bloodstream. It’s like he’s in the air there, and it’s just a matter of time before songs like “Mendocino,” “She’s About A Mover,” “Groover’s Paradise” or even “You Never Get Too Big And You Sure Don’t Get Too Heavy That You Don’t Have To Stop And Pay Some Dues Sometime” (that’s a real song title) will start bouncing around in your head and your heart. Doug Sahm is Texas music. That should designate him State Musician and put his picture up in the capitol. This song was his comeback from two years of tripping in the Haight-Ashbury with Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and all the others, and brought him back to the top 10. It’s got that far-out vibration that Doug loved so much but also was tight and compact and delivered the pop goods. It was also his last hit single, but that didn’t matter to Doug. He was always in it for the groove and had about as much fun as any human that ever lived. Whenever I want to reconnect with my true roots, I listen to Doug, in the Quintet, the solo albums and right on through the Texas Tornados. He was a guiding light forever and still is. Sometimes I think it’d be fun to get with the Quintet’s Vox organist Augie Meyers to make a whole album in one day. Just doing Doug songs we both love. I did “Too Little Too Late” for a tribute album a few years ago and was so happy to take one of Doug’s later and lesser-known songs and really do a trip on it. Doug would’ve been happy about it for a few seconds, would’ve told me he liked it, but quickly added his original was better. That was Doug, and that’s why we loved him. I miss him every day.