Should I stay or should I go? This was my dilemma last Friday evening as the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings unfolded on national TV and other media. Earlier I’d had the privilege of meeting Alejandro Escovedo, his wife Nancy, and support act, Christchurch’s very own Adam McGrath, at an interview and song session at the 13th Floor, with Marty Duda. It was unreal now to realise that while that was going on, a sublime and intimate moment with an American legend, something unimaginable was happening here in New Zealand, the safest of havens (until now), and in Christchurch, that most traumatised of our cities.
What to do? I have to go, I’m working, my name is on the guest list, and it doesn’t matter if Adam can’t go on, or Alejandro decides not to perform, that would be completely understandable. But just in case, I have to go... Well, when I get there, the audience is building, kind of surreal, and others feel the same way. Roger from Southbound blurts out that he too wasn’t sure whether he should come... but here we are.
And then I see that Adam McGrath is there.
At 8.25, just ahead of schedule, on he comes, explaining how the day had started in Christchurch, then just got better with meeting Alejandro and doing a song on Radio New Zealand and then two songs at 13th Floor, and how tickled pink he was when Alejandro told him he‘s got soul. And then the world fell apart, and the next four hours have been talking to friends and family, trying to make sense of the non-sensical. And he is going to play, but not the set he had planned, just whatever comes to him, and with that, he launches into Lay Down Your Weary Tune in hymnal fashion.
Now I must say I have been ambivalent about Adam’s stage presence in the past, while never denying his talent.
New Zealand’s Steve Earle, is where he [Adam McGrath] sits in my context. He’s big, he’s brash, he’s forthright. Be in no doubt where he sits in the political spectrum. But two things: when you meet him in person, he is humble and polite, (like most artists, in my experience). And tonight, he is nothing short of courageous.
Adam talks about his recent commission, creating music about the civic virtues of Christchurch’s public libraries. Or, in my words, here are a few dollars to write songs about what you see and hear. Like Something and People Like Us ( also on The Eastern album Territory). Then about the extraordinary circumstances of a few hours ago, when someone he knows was filling up her car at a Linwood, Christchurch gas station, only to look up and witness a massacre underway.
LA to Linwood is a less upsetting reference, this time inside the mall, some time ago when Adam noticed a mother and son wearing identical Lakers gear.
A song whose title I didn’t catch follows, and then after a false start, a change of song dedicated to the school kids in Christchurch who had joined the worldwide protest for climate change earlier in the day. Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World. Yeah, that lightens the mood, just a tad…
And finally, a folk singer pays homage to punk, remembering being arrested at the Sex Pistols 1995 gig in Auckland ( I was there!) and launching into Joe Strummer’s Yalla Yalla, which happens to be Arabic for “come on, let’s go”, an everyday phrase which I used a lot in my time in the Middle East in the late 70s (oh, yeah…. big noter!!)
Adam McGrath will be back at The Tuning Fork on June 8th, with a small band, promoting his new solo album. I’ll be there, so should you be!
Alejandro Escovedo was born in Texas in 1951, one of 13 children, 8 of whom grew up to become musicians. Not to forget his niece, Sheila E, who ought to have married Prince, but for life to get in the way. Alejandro’s father was born in Mexico and left behind by his parents, who made the journey north. He, in turn, crossed the border in search of them. His father’s story is told in many of his songs. But the man who could have become Prince’s uncle, actually grew up in Los Angeles, and started his music career as a punk rocker, influenced by the Stooges, who had the (undeserved) reputation as the worst band in the world, and also, in Alejandro’s view, the original punk rocker, Patti Smith. He played in a series of bands (“The Nuns”, “Rank and File”, “The True Believers) before moving back to Austin, Texas where an Americana blend of rock and country emerged as his repertoire. Alejandro Escovedo received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Americana Honours and Awards Ceremony in Nashville in 2006.
Tonight, Alejandro comes quietly on stage, clearly unsettled and uncertain (he later apologises for being “nervous”), and not the same man I had met and conversed with a few hours earlier. Of course, he’s not nervous, just in shock. He and his wife had thought they were leaving behind the trauma of America for a couple of weeks respite in Australia and New Zealand, only to now know that there is no longer anywhere safe, nowhere immune. And he must perform; people have paid to see him.
So what does an artist do but rely on the song, to heal, to soothe, to make everything all right again? And that is what he sets out to do, in a brief but autobiographical set which explains his life journey, in words and in song. It’s just him and his guitar, and a short way through, Adam McGrath joins him to add vocals, harmonica and a little extra guitar.
Alejandro opens with San Antonio Rain, written with Chuck Prophet in 2000, and reflecting on his father’s life and the sudden pack up and go to Los Angeles. He talks about returning to Austin and finding himself amongst the legends of songwriters including Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmy Dale Gilmour. He does a song from the “True Believers” days whose title I did not catch, and then moves on to his current project, The Crossing, which he recorded with an Italian backing band, and which tells the story of an Italian and a Mexican kid, who dream of exploring America in search of the halcyon days of punk rock. The story is a metaphor for present-day America; the search a futile effort to bring back the past. The songs he sings are Texas Is My Mother and Teenage Luggage.
There is a bit of good-natured banter from the audience, but not in a tone or accent with which he can engage, so he calls up Adam McGrath and gets a hand to come down to the floor and mingle. This is intimate, personal, vulnerable. Singing without amplification, and slowly turning as he sings to engage directly with, well just about everybody. Magic!
Adam accompanies him on another song from The Crossing, and one they had done earlier at 13th Floor, Something Blue. Then he does a Mick Jagger song, Evening Gown, before speaking directly to Marty about their shared passion for Mott The Hoople, and his admiration for Ian Hunter as a songwriter, and musician, not only for the songs, but also for his accessibility to the audience, which is just what he is channelling now.
Of course, I know what comes next, because they did it earlier at the 13th Floor, but the old rockers in the audience let out a gasp of recognition as he sings I Wish I Was Your Mother. But this time it is slower, frailer, more like a banshee wail than a punk or rock ‘n’ roll statement. But no less enthralling. Poignant. Almost for the people of Christchurch; sharing their pain.
Rosalie, a true story about two lovers who wrote to each other every day during prolonged absences; Sister Lost Soul, a song for Jeffrey Lee Pierce from The Gun Club, and a song by The Nuns about Sid Vicious and Nancy, called Chelsea Hotel 78 recalls intimate friendships with the early punk rockers and common times in New York.
Finally, and by now back on stage with the guitar plugged in, Alejandro Escovedo closes the very intimate set with a song for his son, about the unconditional love one has for one’s children called Down in the Bowery.
I go back to the merch desk to say goodnight to Nancy, his wife, and suddenly he is there beside her. I shake his hand and say: “Please come back”. What I don’t say out loud is “in better times” but the affirmative nod and the sadness in his eyes tell me he gets my message. It’s been a tough night.
How do you deal with the number 49, or 96, if you count the injured? Is 49 just a number?.
Well, it doesn’t take long to figure it out, as I get in my Uber and ask the driver, who I can tell is Muslim from his name if he knows anyone in Christchurch.” Yes”, he says, “my friend’s brother went to the mosque to say his prayers and we haven’t heard from him since”. Three degrees of separation, already. No longer a number.
I think that this must be bad news but read later of a man who fled from the attack, leaving his wallet and cellphone behind, and therefore unable to make contact with family. This is what you do in the prayer room. You leave your personal effects outside. So perhaps there is hope in this case, as in 90 odd other cases. But the horrible reality is, in 49 of them, it will not end well……..
I am angry because I can no longer describe New Zealand as a safe haven, never, ever again. The world has changed, forever, and not for the better.
Thank goodness for music and the song…