ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 5, 1997
BY STEVE NEWTON
It ain’t easy being an old-fashioned guitar-rock fan in the twilight of the 20th century. Techno and dance music are all the rage, DJs are the new music stars, and even the once-mighty Aerosmith has been reduced to formulaic power ballads. It’s getting harder and harder to find a gritty, no-frills rock band that you can feel good about guzzling beer to.
“I’ve been told that a lot as we tour across the States,” says Alejandro Escovedo, on the line from his home in Austin, Texas. “People say, ‘Man, there’s not bands like you guys any more,’ and it’s nice, because there’s a lot of this kinda hippie stuff, and then every girl has a guitar and hates men. And we just wanna rock, you know.”
Lead singer, main songwriter, and coguitarist for the unsubtle Buick MacKane, Escovedo has been rocking out full throttle for most of his 45 years. Although he comes from a family with less rowdy musical leanings—his brothers Pete and Coke were percussionists in Santana, and his niece Sheila E. had a solo pop hit with “The Glamorous Life” after branching off from Prince’s percussion team—Escovedo started out noisy. Shortly after moving to L.A. in his teens he discovered punk, and while making a student film about a loud band that couldn’t play, he decided to form one. “And that’s how the Nuns came about,” he says. “They called it punk rock, but we were just inept musicians making noise, you know—and havin’ a good time makin’ it.”
The Nuns had a short-lived but tumultuous career, which included the distinction of opening the last true Sex Pistols show—the last one before the Pistols re-formed in ’95 to make a bunch more money and run. When the Nuns toured the U.S. East Coast by train, they used the famed Chelsea Hotel as their home base, and Escovedo was living there when the drug-addled relationship between Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his groupie-girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, came to an ugly end. Escovedo feels director Alex Cox’s 1986 portrayal of the punk era, Sid and Nancy, painted a pretty honest picture of the heroin-addicted couple’s last days at the fabled Big Apple hotel.
“I remember seein’ some of the scenes of them when they’re in the Chelsea, and thinkin’, ‘You know, that’s very, very close.’ It was a pretty insane time, very bizarre, and there was a lot of almost surreal incidents that happened at that time.”
Sid and Nancy’s sojourn at the Chelsea resulted in Vicious being charged with Spungen’s stabbing death, then overdosing, and Escovedo has seen a few of his other acquaintances succumb to the rock life’s accompanying vices. He managed to make it through the ’70s, relocating in ’81 to Austin, where he’s been based ever since. Soon after settling in Texas he hooked up with brothers Chip and Tony Kinman in Rank and File, a prime mover in the early-’80s cowpunk genre, but he quit that band to form the True Believers in ’83. Like the Nuns, that band didn’t last long enough to make it into most music-history reference books, but it garnered a wild reputation around the Lone Star State as the best band to get pissed-up and rock out to when the Replacements weren’t around.
Named after a 1972 T. Rex song, Buick MacKane formed in ’89, when Escovedo accepted a casual offer from former Doctors Mob drummer Glenn Benavides to come over and jam with him and bassist David Fairchild in an empty room in the house they shared. They discovered they shared an appreciation of glam-era groups like Mott the Hoople and the New York Dolls, and when the lineup was solidified by guitarist Joe Eddy Hines, the stage was set for some serious good-time raunch ’n’ roll. But many fans in the band’s Texas home base had difficulty accepting Escovedo’s latest incarnation after the brief but intense love affair with the True Believers.
“Here in Austin people looked upon Buick as a very poor imitation of the Believers,” he says, “but we had no intention of wanting to be anything like the Believers—we felt we were better than the Believers, you know. And the whole thing about Buick was that it really started out as more of a party than a band. It became a band, but at first it was just a party.”
Like the best party bands, Buick MacKane uses its art as a means to vent powerful emotions, and that venting can easily be discerned in the band’s new CD, The Pawn Shop Years—especially in a tune like the weirdly titled “John Conquest, You’ve Got Enough Dandruff on Your Collar to Bread a Veal Cutlet”.
“That’s a song we wrote about a rock critic here in Austin,” Escovedo explains. “And ‘Say Goodnight’ is a song I wrote for an old girlfriend that was trying to mess the drummer’s life up. And ‘Big Shoe Head’ is a real person. She lives behind me, actually, and she loves her platform shoes and her late-night soirees with boys in bands.”
On any given night, Buick MacKane might mix its odes to Austin’s flaky journalists and night creatures with a classic track like Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” or the Dolls’ “Personality Crisis”. Once in a while the band even pays tribute to local punk legends the Modernettes by performing “The Rebel Kind”.
“We do that sometimes, especially when we’re in Canada,” says Escovedo, “but it’s a popular song everywhere. I remember when we were touring with Los Lobos, and one of those record-store magazines like Pulse or something asked David Hidalgo what his five favourite songs were, and he said that ‘The Rebel Kind’ was one of them. It’s a great song!”
If that kind of enthusiasm for Buck Cherry’s timeless tune gets around, who knows—maybe the former Modernettes main man will catch the MacKane party mood, forget about his current gig as a theatre critic, and join the band in a raucous rendition of “The Rebel Kind” when it plays the Gate on Saturday (June 7).
Us old-fashioned guitar-rock freaks can only hope.