Singer-songwriter and guitarist Alejandro Escovedo is a punk rock pioneer and veteran of Latino rock scene whose career has spanned almost 45 years. But the San Antonio-native and now-Austin resident is not the only one in his sprawling musical family to write a song or pick up a guitar; encouraged by their parents, especially their father who also played played, eight of the 13 siblings in became professional musicians.
Escovedo's path to music took a jump forward when he moved to New York City in 1975 and by the late 70's, things started to move fast. In 1978, Escovedo and his band, The Nuns, opened for The Sex Pistols' final show at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom. Reflecting on his early days on the scene, Escovedo said, "Punk rock was more about expression than it was about technical abilities, so here we are 45 years later." Escovedo moved to Austin in the 1980's and played the bands Rank & File and The True Believers — and has since carved out a successful solo career with over 15 albums.
Now 67, Escovedo's latest record, the 2018 concept album, The Crossing, is a cinematic ode to Texas. Although recorded in Italy, the songs were inspired by the stories of immigrants he met in Texas while on the tour with his co-writer, Antonio Garmantieri of the Italian band Don Antonio. The record tells the story of two boys who discover their love for American punk music as they work together in a Texas restaurant.
In a conversation at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, Texas with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg, Escovedo discussed how music became the family business, his punk rock roots, and his album, The Crossing.
Inspired by his love of surfing and French cinema, and his own big musical family, Escovedo is challenged to a round of This That Or The Other, where he chose between three categories — surfing lingo, title of a French New Wave film, or a band featuring one of his brothers.
On how Escovedo and his siblings got into the music business:
"My father was a man who came from Mexico, he crossed when he was 12. He loved music and he played guitar very punk rock — very crudely. He loved to sing, and he loved to dance. He thought of himself of a croner, so there was always music in our family."
On a health scare that almost changed his life
In 2002, Escovedo collapsed on stage during a play about his father's life called By the Hand of the Father. He was later diagnosed with Hepatitis C.
"It was the late '90s and I began to get very tired and very sick. And so I went to a doctor in Austin. And at that time, they didn't know what Hep C was. They called it Non A, Non B. When I last saw [the doctor], she told me, 'I'm going to tell you what I tell my AIDS patients, and that's to go out and live the best life that you can.' So I was depressed, and the more I read about that stuff, the more I read I was going to die very soon.
"Through some kind of miracle, I found Tibetan medicine. I found these monks that were traveling through. I started taking Tibetan medicine that kept me alive up until four years ago, when they finally came out with a medicine that has a 99 percent success rate, and I took it, and now I no longer have Hepatitis C."
On the inspiration behind his latest album, The Crossing:
"[The album] is very much [biographical]. I wrote this with Antonio Garmantieri from [the Italian band] Don Antonio... But yes, the esthetic values that they go in search of are very much our own... We went and hit the back roads of Texas in my pickup truck, and stopped a lot of restaurants and ate, and met a lot of people here in Dallas who were [DACA] DREAMers. And we interviewed them and listened to their stories. And a lot of their stories helped shape the record and songs."
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia coming to you from Dallas, Texas.
COULTON: I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's a singer and songwriter whose career has spanned almost 45 years. His latest album is called "The Crossing." Please welcome Alejandro Escovedo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONICA USA")
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO: (Singing) I saw the Zeros and they looked like me. This is the America that I want to be. Anarchy and Hollywood, land of the free. I saw the zeros and they looked like me. Feel the power...
EISENBERG: I know.
ESCOVEDO: It's gorgeous.
EISENBERG: This theater is amazing. Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER. Thank you so much for joining us.
ESCOVEDO: Well, thank you for having me.
EISENBERG: I mean, your life story is quite amazing. You were 1 of 12 kids.
EISENBERG: Thirteen. There is a new kid I did not...
ESCOVEDO: There was a lost kid...
EISENBERG: ...Know about.
ESCOVEDO: It's a lost kid. We just found him recently, actually.
EISENBERG: Eight of you became professional musicians?
ESCOVEDO: I'm sorry.
EISENBERG: Eight of you became...
ESCOVEDO: Eight professional musicians, yeah.
EISENBERG: So what was it about the atmosphere in your house that was so creative, I imagine, that created eight professional musicians?
ESCOVEDO: Well, my mother and father - my father was, you know, a man who came from Mexico. He came from Saltillo. He crossed when he was 12. He loved music and he played guitar very - you know, kind of very punk rock guitar player...
ESCOVEDO: ...In a way, but very crudely. But he loved to sing. He loved to dance. And he thought of himself as a crooner. So there was always music in our family.
EISENBERG: And the five others that didn't become musicians, what do they do?
ESCOVEDO: Oh, you know, they have great jobs, I'm sure.
ESCOVEDO: They're the ones who made the money in the family.
EISENBERG: They're fine. They're doing fine. But you didn't just end up being a musician, you started in a very unconventional way. You were a filmmaker. You're living in San Francisco - it's 1975 - and you start playing in a band, from what I understand, not by wanting to play in a band, you were making a film about the worst band ever.
EISENBERG: This is a film that you were writing and putting together...
ESCOVEDO: Right. Yeah.
EISENBERG: ...With some other people.
ESCOVEDO: Yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: And you just decide to cast yourself.
ESCOVEDO: Well, we thought we looked really cool. So, yeah, we thought we'd be the band.
ESCOVEDO: And since we couldn't play, we figured we were perfect for the roles, you know.
EISENBERG: And then, all of a sudden, you start playing and you just - you're...
ESCOVEDO: Well, we were fortunate in that punk rock kind of happened at the same time.
ESCOVEDO: So punk...
ESCOVEDO: ...Rock happened. And punk rock was really more about expression than it was about technical ability. So...
ESCOVEDO: So here we are 45 years later, you know. Yeah. But it was a wonderful introduction to all of that, yeah. The only claim to fame for The Nuns really was - we opened up for the last Sex Pistols show in San Francisco. And that's when we decided we would go to New York, and we lived at the Chelsea Hotel.
EISENBERG: Oh, my God.
ESCOVEDO: And Sid Vicious came to hang out with us the night of the Winterland gig in San Francisco. And so when I was living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York, they became my neighbors - Sid and Nancy, you know.
EISENBERG: How long did you live at the Chelsea Hotel?
ESCOVEDO: Oh, about a year and a half or so.
EISENBERG: With Sid and Nancy still there?
ESCOVEDO: Well, Nancy eventually left, of course.
ESCOVEDO: But - yeah.
EISENBERG: And you were there?
EISENBERG: Oh, wow.
ESCOVEDO: I lived there. I remember - I'll never forget that day. It was quite an impressive, you know, day in my life. Because I came up out of the subway at 7th and 23rd and walked towards the Chelsea and we couldn't get in. And a friend of mine was standing outside, asked them what happened. And...
ESCOVEDO: ...He said they say that Sid killed Nancy, you know. And that was kind of the end of that group of people living at the Chelsea.
EISENBERG: So you go from The Nuns - you are in a cowpunk band, Rank and File - and then later the True Believers. And then in the early '90s, you decide you're going solo.
ESCOVEDO: I went solo.
EISENBERG: Now, during a show in 2002 - you're touring constantly, and then there's a show in 2002 where you actually collapse onstage...
EISENBERG: ...Because you were experiencing internal bleeding...
ESCOVEDO: Mmm hmm.
EISENBERG: ...In three separate places in your body.
EISENBERG: I mean, leading up to that, did you have any idea that you were maybe not...
EISENBERG: ...Feeling well or?
ESCOVEDO: ...Here's what happened exactly. I was touring - it was the late '90s actually, and I began to get very, very tired and very sick, you know. And so I went to a doctor in Austin and at that time they didn't know what Hepatitis C was. They called it non-A, non-B. And when I last saw her, she told me I'm going to tell you what I told my AIDS patients - and that's to go out and just live the best life that you can, you know. So I was depressed.
EISENBERG: Oh, my God.
ESCOVEDO: And the more I read about this stuff, the more - all I read was that I was going to die very soon - right, you know. In 2002, like you said, I was doing a play based on my father's life...
ESCOVEDO: ...Called "By The Hand Of The Father." We were in Tempe, Ariz. And that's when it all really kind of came crumbling down. Through some kind of miracle, I found Tibetan medicine. I found these monks that were traveling through, and I started to take Tibetan medicine. It kept me alive up until about four years ago, when they finally came up with a medicine that has 98% success rate, 99. And I took it, and I no longer have Hepatitis C, but that all happened here in Dallas, so...
EISENBERG: So you said that you wanted your latest album, called "The Crossing," to sound like Texas.
ESCOVEDO: Very much so because the story is about two young boys.
ESCOVEDO: One is from Italy. His name is Salvo, and he's from southern Italy in Calabria, Puglia. And the other boy's name is Diego, who's from Saltillo in the state of Coahuila in northern Mexico. And they both meet. These are young boys, and they both meet while they're working at Salvo's uncle's Italian restaurant in Galveston, Texas.
ESCOVEDO: It's where they meet. And while they're working in the kitchen there, they began to discuss all the things they love about America, and they find that they share a passion for American punk rock music. It's what they love.
EISENBERG: I mean, the album is a narrative arc, just as you described.
EISENBERG: It sounds somewhat biographical.
ESCOVEDO: It is very much in that I wrote this with my - the other writer with me was Antonio Gramantieri, who's from a band called Don Antonio. So I used an all-Italian band.
ESCOVEDO: And I recorded it in Italy, you know, and - but yes, it's very much - the aesthetic kind of values that they go in search of are very much our own, yes.
EISENBERG: So you go to Italy to record an album with an Italian...
ESCOVEDO: About Texas.
EISENBERG: ...Band about Texas.
ESCOVEDO: Yes. It was - I know it's kind of backwards, but...
EISENBERG: I don't know. It might be exactly...
ESCOVEDO: But it seemed to work for us in that Antonio came to Dallas and stayed with me, and we went and hit the back roads of Texas in my pickup truck. And we stopped at a lot of restaurants and ate and met a lot of people here in Dallas, too, who were DREAMers. And we interviewed them, and we listened to their stories. And a lot of their stories helped shape the record and the songs.
EISENBERG: That's very cool.
EISENBERG: Alejandro, are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
ESCOVEDO: I'm sorry.
EISENBERG: Would you like to play an ASK ME ANOTHER game with me?
ESCOVEDO: Oh. Yes, I would. Of course I would.
EISENBERG: Of course I would. So you're going to play a version of one of our favorite guessing games. It's called This, That or the Other. It's very simple. I'm going to give you a word or a phrase, and you just have to tell me which of three categories it falls into.
EISENBERG: Is it surfing lingo, the name of a French New Wave film or a band featuring one of your brothers?
EISENBERG: I don't know about the 13th one - no idea. OK. We call it Epic Wave, New Wave or Sound Waves.
EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, listener Andy Colvin from Fort Worth, Texas, will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: OK, here we go. Surf term, French film or brother band - Azteca.
ESCOVEDO: That's my brother's band.
EISENBERG: That's your brother's band. That's right. Which brother is this?
ESCOVEDO: The - well, actually two of them - Pete and Coke Escovedo. Yeah.
EISENBERG: And what kind of band is it?
ESCOVEDO: It was a great - one of those great Chicano rock bands from the '70s - big band, very large band. They made great records. They were wonderful contemporaries of Malo and Santana. You know those bands.
ESCOVEDO: Thank you.
ESCOVEDO: I'm doing pretty good.
EISENBERG: You're doing great.
ESCOVEDO: "Lola" was a French New Wave film.
EISENBERG: Yes, it was a French New Wave film.
ESCOVEDO: Jacques Demy, I believe...
EISENBERG: Yeah, Jacqes Demy - that's right - about a bored young man.
ESCOVEDO: Yeah, a bored young man who falls in love with - I believe it was about a girl that he had met earlier in life and then falls in love with her again.
ESCOVEDO: It happens.
EISENBERG: The one that got away...
ESCOVEDO: The one...
EISENBERG: That's right.
ESCOVEDO: ...That got away - exactly.
EISENBERG: How about tailslide?
ESCOVEDO: Tailslide's a surfing maneuver.
EISENBERG: You're correct. I like the way you said maneuver. A surfing - it's not a surf term. It's a surfing maneuver.
EISENBERG: All right. You tell me. What is the maneuver?
ESCOVEDO: Well, I mean, it's a trick that you do. You know, you'd slide the tail of the board so that you turn or whatever.
EISENBERG: To, like, slip down the wave on the side kind of thing?
ESCOVEDO: Yeah, yeah. Slip down, tailslide - yeah.
EISENBERG: Very cool. How about M-80?
ESCOVEDO: M-80 - wow. M-80...
EISENBERG: Surf term, brother band or French New Wave film?
ESCOVEDO: Well, it's not my brother's.
ESCOVEDO: I'm going to take a wild guess. Is it a surfing term?
EISENBERG: Well, according to what we have right here, it's a brother band.
EISENBERG: This is the band that your brother Mario was in prior to his time with The Dragons.
EISENBERG: I know.
ESCOVEDO: That's the funny thing about a large family, you know?
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly.
ESCOVEDO: I can't keep up with all of them.
EISENBERG: Yeah. We called him, and he says you don't call him.
ESCOVEDO: That's hilarious.
ESCOVEDO: That's a French New Wave film.
ESCOVEDO: Jean-Luc Godard.
EISENBERG: Jean-Luc Godard - that's correct. It is about a thief who thinks he's a Humphrey Bogart type.
ESCOVEDO: Yeah. Belmondo.
ESCOVEDO: Jean-Paul Belmondo.
EISENBERG: But he just sucks at being a criminal.
ESCOVEDO: Yes, he is.
EISENBERG: He's not good.
ESCOVEDO: He looks great, though.
EISENBERG: Well, that's...
ESCOVEDO: Very stylish.
EISENBERG: Very stylish.
EISENBERG: This is your last clue - caught inside.
ESCOVEDO: That's a surf term.
EISENBERG: That is a surf term.
EISENBERG: So basically, you got them all right, and we...
ESCOVEDO: Except for my brother's...
EISENBERG: Except for your brother's (laughter) - which...
ESCOVEDO: I'll pay for that later.
EISENBERG: I would say we would cut it out, but I really...
EISENBERG: ...Am going to fight to keep that in.
ESCOVEDO: No Christmas present from him.
EISENBERG: Congratulations, Alejandro. You and listener Andy Colvin both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CASTANETS")
EISENBERG: Alejandro will be back later in the show to play another game. Give it up for Alejandro Escovedo.
EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.