Billboard/Kenneth Partridge/September 2018 – As the son of a Mexican immigrant father growing up in Southern California, where his family moved from San Antonio in 1957, Alejandro Escovedo hated the school roll call. Teachers would butcher his name to the point where it became “Alex,” an Anglicization he was kind of stuck with.
“In a culture like California, you either have to adapt and integrate, or you go to the other side, which was gangs and that kind of vibe,” Escovedo tells Billboard. “And I just wasn’t there.”
Escovedo was too busy dreaming. The future career musician and master songwriter loved Beat literature, arthouse cinema, and rock ‘n’ roll—just like the character of Diego in his excellent new concept album The Crossing. Due out Sept. 14 on Yep Roc, the 17-song collection sketches a loose narrative about two young immigrants—Diego from Mexico and Salvo from Italy—who meet in Texas and go looking for the America of their teenage dreams.
As Escovedo and his Italian backing band Don Antonio set the scene with richly textured Texas desert-rock (think Townes Van Zandt and Iggy Pop teaming up for a film noir soundtrack), Diego and Salvo learn that America isn’t always so welcoming to newcomers. “You don’t know me / You’ll never know me!” Escovedo spits on “Teenage Luggage,” a raging roots-punk tune about tussles with unsavory Texans. “You’re a bigot with a bad guitar!”
In writing about the racism awaiting his characters in South Texas, Escovedo might have drawn on stories handed down by his father, who was born in Saltillo, Mexico, the same hometown Alejandro gives Diego. But Escovedo didn’t need to put himself in anyone else’s shoes. The 67-year-old punk-turned-troubadour had plenty of his own nasty experiences to pull from.
“There are guys you meet along the way who you think are cool because they have cool hair and play rock ‘n’ roll,” says Escovedo, who got his start playing guitar for the San Francisco punk band The Nuns in the ‘70s. “We’re all supposed to be doing this for the right cause, the right reasons, right? And you find they can be very racist. They think racist jokes are funny in your presence. And they’re not.”
The music industry can be even worse. Once, while performing in Hollywood with Rank and File, the pioneering cow-punk group he formed in the early ‘80s after his stint with The Nuns, Escovedo was forced to enter a concert hall via the backdoor. The venue staff couldn’t believe he was a musician and not a kitchen worker. And then there were the radio programmers who’d make like Alejandro’s teachers back in grade school. “We can’t even pronounce his name,” they’d say. “How are we supposed to play his records?”
Escovedo underscores the importance of names on “Rio Navidad,” a key spoken-word track on The Crossing. Narrated by Escovedo’s friend Freddy Trujillo, the song finds Diego thinking back to a conversation with a retired Texas Ranger at a wedding in San Antonio in the ‘80s. The Ranger is putting away the beers and looking for trouble. Using an ethnic slur for Mexicans, he repeatedly asks what kind of a name Diego is.
It looks like things are going to get ugly, but then Diego puts the Ranger in his place, declaring his name “just as American as yours” and schooling the guy in Texas history: “You probably don’t even know about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.”
Escovedo based “Rio Navidad” on an actual wedding he attended in the ‘80s. The racist Ranger is modeled after Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff accused of violating the rights of Latinos in order to enforce his hardline immigration policy. Last August, Arpaio was pardoned by President Trump, a man whose unspoken presence looms large over The Crossing. Escovedo admits that the current political climate inspired the story, but he and co-writer Antonio Gramentieri of Don Antonio were careful to avoid Trump-era signposts.
“We wanted it to be timeless,” says Escovedo. “Our story is really not just about what’s happening now. It’s been happening since man traveled looking for food and shelter and better weather or whatever the reasons. It was called migration then. With borders came immigration. Immigration, of course, has been close to me because of my father.”
Escovedo first linked up with Don Antonio in 2017, when he needed a backing band for a European tour. They played more than 30 shows in 45 days, traveling from city to city in a cramped van that somehow fit six musicians and Escovedo’s wife, Nancy. They all became fast friends, and Escovedo fell in love with Don Antonio’s music.
“They weren’t trying to be American in their sound,” he says. “They were sticking to their Italian roots. I liked the idea of soundtrack music and atmospheric music and their willingness to improvise.” The initial trek was so successful that Escovedo went back and played more shows with Don Antonio in southern Italy.
“Traveling in southern Italy, I came to the realization of how similar it was to Mexican culture,” Escovedo says. “It’s desert-like. There’s a lot of Africans there. That gives it a different flavor. The food is spicier. The language, the dialect, is a little different.”
From all of this—plus Trump’s incendiary talk of building walls—came the idea for The Crossing. When it came to write the record, Escovedo invited Gramentieri to his home in Dallas, the first stop on a Texas fact-finding road trip.
“I never told him this, but I wanted to bring him out of his element and put him in a very different situation,” says Escovedo. “My style of songwriting is very laid-back. People would think I’m not really writing songs. We talk a lot. We eat a lot. We travel a lot. We go talk to other people a lot. We just get all this information.”
The pair hopped in a pickup and drove south to Austin, where Escovedo lived for years and launched his career as a solo singer-songwriter with 1992’s Gravity. They returned via the backroads, stopping in small towns to chat with folks along the way. When they got back to Dallas, Escovedo introduced Gramentieri to a number of so-called “Dreamers,” Mexican immigrants who entered the country illegally as children. “A lot of their stories are what fed and fueled the ideas that became the record,” says Escovedo.
By the time Gramentieri went home to Italy, the pair had written most of the music for The Crossing. They recorded with producer Brian Deck (Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse) at a studio in Villafranca, Italy, where Escovedo came up with all the lyrics on the spot. Despite all the heavy subject matter, he never loses sight of what drew Diego and Salvo to America in the first place.