IT WAS A HOT and steamy day in the summer of 1987 when two young immigrant kids stuffed dirty dishes into the silver industrial dishwasher at Mario’s Italian Restaurant in Galveston. They turned the kitchen’s radio up loud so they could hear their favorite punk rock station over the whirr of the washer. As they danced, sliding around on the sudsy, greasy floor, they shouted, “We love the Stooges, and we hate U2!”
They were a different kind of immigrant. They hadn’t come to America looking for green lawns and shopping malls; they’d come for punk rock, gangster movies and beat poetry. Diego had snuck across the Rio Grande River from Mexico, and Salvo had arrived from Calabria in southern Italy on a visa about to run out. But they’d listened to the same American records and had read the same American books as kids. Now they wanted to find the sources behind those 45s and paperbacks, and as soon they saved enough money, they were going to buy a car and hit the highway.
Diego and Salvo had something else in common: they weren’t real people — they were fictional characters created by Alejandro Escovedo and his co-writer, Antonio Gramentieri, for Escovedo’s latest album, The Crossing, his best album in a decade. The 15 songs and two instrumentals tell the story of Diego’s and Salvo’s adventures and frustrations as they “followed a path,” Escovedo writes in the liner notes, “that had been worn by footsteps seeped in their DNA, that ran through their blood. What they found was an America that no longer existed.”
“As I tell this story about these two boys,” Escovedo says from a tour stop in Bilbao, Spain, “I’m trying to tell a story about my life and about the things that set me on my voyage: the soul of America — the blues, baseball, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. A lot of the musicians I meet in Europe and America got started with the same love for American culture. A lot of kids I meet overseas love that culture and want to come here to see where it all began.”
Gramentieri was one of those Europeans fascinated by American artists. Though he never moved to the U.S. from his home in Modigliana, Italy, he visited repeatedly, drawn by the same lodestars listed by Escovedo. Gramentieri’s all-instrumental band, Don Antonio, was a savvy blend of American rock ’n’ roll and Italian folk and film music. When Escovedo heard the band, he immediately hired them for a 2017 European tour. On their second tour together, the Texan singer and the Italian band visited the Italian South, not so different from the Tex-Mex border.
“As in the United States,” Escovedo says, “when you go south in Italy, it’s a little less affluent, the streets are tougher, the weather is warmer, the food is spicier, the people are friendlier. They even had a food like menudo. It reminded me a lot of Mexico.”
It was on that visit that the two songwriters hatched the idea of telling a different kind of immigrant story — not the usual one of the poor seeking a better economic lot, rather one of rebel artists seeking out the sources of their inspiration. On the long trips crisscrossing Europe in a crowded band van, the two fleshed out the story.
“These days, you can’t just create a collection of songs and hand it to the label,” Escovedo explains. “There has to be a story that can be told. So we created this story. I chose the name Diego, because it’s my son’s name. Antonio chose Salvo and Calabria because he had connections there. We talked about their families, the clothes they might wear, the restaurant where they work, the music they might like, a wedding they might attend.
“After the tour, Antonio came to Dallas and spent three weeks with me writing songs. A lot of that time was spent going around to various restaurants and record stores and talking to kids who were Dreamers. Some of their stories were harrowing, like the kid who had his sister on his shoulders while his mother was swept away in the river.”
Escovedo was born in San Antonio, but his father Pedro grew up in Saltillo, Mexico, Diego’s hometown. Alejandro told the story of his father’s northward passage on the brilliant 2002 album By the Hand of the Father, based on a stage play of the same name. That journey had been driven by economic need, and songs such as “Wave” and “Rosalie” evoked the heartbreak of families disassembling on the Mexican side of the border and trying to reassemble on the American side.
“For that record, all I could go by were the stories my father told me,” Escovedo recalls. “The life he’d led was what he was trying to protect us from. He worked 60 hours a week to provide for a lot of growing kids who needed a lot of clothes, guitars and surfboards. When we lived in San Antonio, we lived in Mexican neighborhoods, but when we moved to California, we lived in middle-class, integrated neighborhoods. When we moved, we left everything behind, even our clothes and dog, so the move was all the more jarring, especially for my older sister Dolly and myself, who’d grown up in San Antonio. There was no immersion program; the only way to learn English was off rock ’n’ roll singles.”
But The Crossing is as different from By the Hand of the Father as Alejandro’s encounter with America is different from his father’s. Pedro was born in 1907 to Mexican farmers, but the family could barely feed itself, and the parents crossed the border first. The 12-year-old Pedro jumped on a train going north, confident that it would take him to his parents — and it did; he found them picking watermelons in Luling. But Alejandro was born in 1951 to working-class American residents. He wasn’t looking to feed his belly when he set out across America; he was looking to feed his imagination. Diego, born circa 1965, is on the same quest.
“Like me, Diego is a seeker and traveler,” says Escovedo. “He’s not afraid to pack up and go in search of what he wants to find. Unlike me, he didn’t get to experience American culture directly as a kid. He was reading about all these things, but he was on an island he couldn’t get off. He had to leave to find these things. Whereas I was in California, at the epicenter of American culture from surf music to psychedelia. I heard [the rock band] Love at a skating rink, and my cousins dragged me to R&B revues where we’d dance to Solomon Burke and Ike & Tina Turner.”
As he and Salvo start out on their trip from Galveston, Diego describes his own harrowing trip across the border on “Footsteps in the Shadows” and “Texas is My Mother.” Over Gramentieri’s Morricone-like, spaghetti-western music, Escovedo narrates the memory as if it were a black-and-white noir film. “Shadows dance across the tree line,” he sings softly, “thunder’s rolling in. They’re closing in.” It could be the border patrol, it could be the robbers who prey on illegals — but the dread is unmistakable.
Diego and Salvo don’t have many possessions, so they toss their guitars and pillow-case bags of clothes in the trunk of their third-hand, 1964 silver Impala, and their box of beloved cassette tapes behind the driver’s seat. It’s 1987, and they stop at Waterloo Records in Austin for the new albums by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and the Minutemen. They don’t buy the new U2 record. They stop for barbecue at Cooper’s in Llano and notice that “the hills roll like waves of grapes,” not unlike the hills near Saltillo and Calabria.
They keep heading west: Lubbock, Clovis, Santa Fe, Gallup, Flagstaff, Yuma, Riverside and Hollywood. Sometimes the rock musicians they run into, guys who should be their most sympathetic allies, prove the most narrow-minded of all. “You think you know me?” Escovedo shouts. “You’ll never know me. You’re just a bigot with a bad guitar!” Late at night, when they’re going to sleep beside the car beneath the desert stars, they think of the lovers and loved ones left behind in Italy and Mexico. In the form of three richly melodic ballads — “Waiting for Me,” “How Many Times” and “Cherry Blossom Rain” — they send out prayers of great longing for those absent.
Contrasting with those ballads are high-octane, full-throttle garage rockers. These sound like the songs Diego and Salvo could have been listening to on the car’s tape deck. Not only does “Teenage Luggage” sound like a song from a Stooges greatest-hits cassette, it also namechecks the band and features the Stooges’ James Williamson on guitar. Not only does “Sonica USA” sound like a track on an MC5 greatest hits tape, it too namechecks the band and features MC5’s Wayne Kramer on guitar. Songs such as “Outlaw for You,” “Fury and Fire” and “MC Overload” are all in the same vein, a reminder that Escovedo once led the blistering garage-rock band Buick MacKane from Austin and is still as capable of those sonic blasts as he is of the folkloric songs on By the Hand of the Father.
“Those garage-rock songs are the kind of music that Diego and Salvo want to hear — rock’ n’ roll in its wildest form, that sense of abandon in a sweaty club with 150 other people dancing while the band is rocking out,” Escovedo explains. “They don’t want to go to auditorium shows, they don’t want reunion shows or revival shows. But the ballads are what they feel in their hearts when they’re homesick. You need both kinds of music, because these boys come from very romantic cultures. They don’t hate their cultures, but they also want to rock, because they’re young boys. One doesn’t imply the rejection of the other.”
When Escovedo and the Don Antonio band performed the new album’s songs during September’s Americanafest in Nashville, the six musicians filled the small stage at the Local, a bar that backs up on Centennial Park, where Tennessee’s concrete replica of the Parthenon stands. Escovedo wore a black blazer, black denims and a red-print shirt; his dark hair was combed straight back, and an orange kerchief was tied around his neck.
They began the set with a quiet and lovely “Wave,” a nod to the earlier immigration album, and then launched into “Outlaw for You,” built around the immortal organ riff from Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears,” bolstered by a baritone sax figure and Gramentieri’s guitar solo. After a hard-rocking version of “Teenage Luggage,” they shifted gears again to the folkloric longing of “Something Blue” and “Texas is My Mother,” evoking echoes of two other rock ’n’ roll groups with family roots beyond the border: Los Lobos and the Band.
Escovedo and Gramentieri wrote all the tracks on The Crossing except two: “Rio Navidad” and “Silver City.” The former is a spoken monologue over atmospheric music about a racial confrontation at a San Antonio wedding, with a text written by Willy Vlautin and delivered by Freddy Trujillo. The latter is a story song by Joe Ely about internal migration, where a hopeful young man from the rural West travels to one of the East Coast’s gleaming metropolises, only to be beaten, robbed, impoverished and imprisoned. On this new version, Ely sings close harmony behind Escovedo. “It fits in perfectly with the other songs about leaving home to find a new life,” Escovedo says.
“Joe was someone I watched when I was younger, someone I really studied to learn how to be a songwriter and a performer,” he continues. “He took me on tours when he didn’t have to. He’s become more than a mentor; he’s a musical brother. Now that Doug Sahm and Townes are gone, Joe, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore hold that role. When I presented the Townes Van Zandt Award to Joe at the Austin Music Awards last year, they asked me to sing one of his songs. I chose to do ‘Silver City,’ one of my favorites. My wife Nancy was sitting with Sharon Ely, and Sharon leaned over and said, ‘He needs to record that song.’”