Music » Song of the Week

Alejandro Escovedo's "Chelsea Hotel '78"

Escovedo on walking among ghosts, anchoring your life and laughing extensively

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The music of Alejandro Escovedo is a kind of haunted folk-rock, fueled by the ghosts of glam and visited by the spirits of everybody from The Band and Townes Van Zandt to The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. He's a master of dynamics, a king of moving from a whisper to a freak-out, with the uncanny ability to find the beauty inside a maelstrom created by a half-dozen sets of strings. So, wait, strike that "haunted folk-rock" thing. The music of Alejandro Escovedo is orchestral punk rock.

However you label it, Escovedo's music overflows with ideas and history and outsider art and insider emotion. To listen to Escovedo's work is to witness him alternately dancing with pleasant memories and wrestling with memories painful enough to qualify as demons. (Cue the stunning, cathartic Thirteen Years.)

And all that could bring to mind Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, a place equally full of brilliant noise, ghosts and untamed ideas. Thus, writing a song (or, in this case as well as on the rest of the recent Real Animal, cowriting one with Chuck Prophet) about the Chelsea makes perfect sense for Escovedo. But more than that, Escovedo put in his time at the hotel, living there for over a year in the late '70s and encountering firsthand "The poets on their barstools/ They just love it when it rains/ They comb their hair in the mirror/ And grow addicted to the pain." Granted, the landmark was past its epic prime, but the spirits still prowled.

The Independent Weekly talked with Escovedo about inspiration gained and lessons learned during his time at the Chelsea.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Can you share some thoughts about the Chelsea Hotel and its reputation?

ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO: Hmmmm...

OK, how about the Chelsea Hotel as metaphor?

The Chelsea was a mythical epicenter of the bohemian life that I had read about, and I wanted to experience it for myself. Of course, when I got there, it was well after the heyday of those times, so just to live there and walk amongst the ghosts was inspiring in itself. The song starts out "I lived in the Chelsea once," but the "I" in a song isn't always the singer or the songwriter.

What is your personal experience with the Chelsea?

The song is my personal experience in the Chelsea. I lived in the Chelsea Hotel in the summer of '78 through the fall of '79. The Nuns were touring the eastern seaboard, and we made the Chelsea our homebase while we traveled by train. I ended up living there and began playing with Judy Nylon, and the Chelsea became a centerpoint of my social life in New York.

As for the recurring lines, "And it makes no sense/ And it makes perfect sense": What's the "it" in those lines—art, life, whatever we want it to be?

The "it" is a reference to our lives and the craziness that surrounded us while we were living in the Chelsea. Once the Sid and Nancy incident played out, it became apparent that there was a need to anchor our lives in a way that I had never really considered before.

"Chelsea Hotel '78" is an orchestral-glam rocker with a snarl. Could the song have worked as a quiet mood piece with the same lyrics?

I think that a great song can be presented in a number of variations regarding tempo, mood and instrumentation, but it does require a strong song to be able to endure any sort of abuse you may expose it to in that.

What decides a song's tempo and dynamics for you?

I don't believe that a song's tempo is ever set in stone. I love to try to sing songs at tempos that are completely alien to the original form. Sometimes you fly, sometimes you crash, but you never know until you take the chance.

Chuck Prophet, who wrote all of the songs with you for Real Animal, did one of these "Song of the Week" features with us a few months back, and we talked about "Always a Friend." In general, do you like to cowrite? Do you have a standard process for cowriting? What was it like writing with Chuck?

In general, I don't like to cowrite a whole, complete record. This was my first experience doing that, and I did it only because it was Chuck. There is no standard process for cowriting; every individual is different and every experience is different. Writing with Chuck was extremely enjoyable, so fun. We laughed extensively. We ate well, told each other stories, and I think the end result reflects how great of a time we had.

Alejandro Escovedo and his band play Cat's Cradle Thursday, Oct. 23. The show starts at 8:45 p.m., and tickets are $18-$20. Opening is The Satin Peaches.

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