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Austin Chronicle By the Hand of the Father

Alejandro Escovedo's Foray Into Theatre

By Michael Bertin

JUNE 19, 2000:  Last Friday, on a small stage at the Margo Albert Theater in Plaza de la Raza east of downtown Los Angeles, Alejandro Escovedo ventured into the world of theatre for the first time. That By the Hand of the Father, which memorializes Escovedo's father Pedro, was the Austin musical icon's first foray into theatre is not surprising. Given the local singer-songwriter's well-known penchant for melancholy compositions about family, a play about anything else might have raised a few eyebrows. La familia, after all, has been an integral part Escovedo's lifelong musical narrative in every way possible.

"I remember when my mother found the first Velvet Underground album in my bedroom," recalls Escovedo. "She was listening to it, and there was that song, 'Heroin' on it. She broke it."

It's almost a necessary condition that for something to qualify as rock & roll it should frighten or irritate your parents. But that single episode was actually contrary to the bulk of Escovedo's formative rock experiences and his parents' involvement therein while growing up in Southern California in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

"My parents bought me my first records," he says. "They were always really supportive. So I grew up listening to music, and in the Fifties and Sixties, I went crazy. My parents bought me all those early Beatles and Stones records. And we'd sit together and watch the whole experience develop."

While Escovedo's parents nurturing his budding rock & roll jones might be slightly atypical, what kid growing up in the Sixties didn't tune in to see Ed Sullivan usher in Beatlemania? And since his parents were mostly complicit in abetting the formative stages of his magical mystery tour, Escovedo's clash wasn't as authoritative as it was perhaps cultural.

"I was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1951," begins Escovedo. "We moved to Southern California when I was eight years old. I assimilated into the culture pretty heavily, the California beach culture. I was always Mexican, because that's what my family's home was, that was the food we ate, that was the way we celebrated holidays, that was the way my parents spoke; they spoke Spanish at home.

"But I grew up big into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds and the Pretty Things. And I surfed. It's a really odd place to be in Southern California at that period of time, because I wasn't a low rider, I wasn't a cholo, I wasn't a gang member. I was a guy that spent a lot of time wanting to enjoy music and life on the beach."

Fast forward a couple of decades. Almost as if to prove Lou Reed's claimabout the record Escovedo's mom broke ("not many people bought it, but everybody who did started a band"), Alejandro began playing in punk and post-punk bands before he and his brother Javier, along with Jon Dee Graham, formed the core of the True Believers. Along with the Reivers (aka "formerly Zeitgeist"), the True Believers helped put Austin in the same sentence as Athens, Georgia, and Minneapolis in the mid-Eighties heyday for what was then called "college music."

While in the True Believers, Escovedo wrote the song "With These Hands" about his father, a mariachi musician-turned-plumber. It wasn't until years later, however, that Escovedo finally recorded the song with help from his brother Pete and his family and made it the title track to his 1996 release on Rykodisc. Now, a dozen years after it was written, and another few after it was finally recorded, "With These Hands" represents the seed that finds Escovedo on an L.A. stage as a player in a performance piece that's part music, part stage play, and part videography.

"From that song, I had this idea to do a song cycle based on my father's life and his immigration from Mexico into Texas and then to California and back to Texas," explains Escovedo, one in a family of eight children, "[connecting] it then to all the musicians that came from my family and my father's contribution to American culture -- how he contributed in that respect."

Escovedo shared the idea with Paula Batson, who became excited about the prospect of somehow staging it. Batson, who spent time at both RCA and MCA and has histories with similar CenTex faves like Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, introduced Escovedo to Theresa Chavez of the L.A.-based theater group About Productions. Through Chavez, Escovedo came in contact with the project's eventual co-writers Eric Gutierrez and Rose Portillo. When the four of them sat down and started exchanging stories about their respective families, Escovedo quickly discovered that the project was larger than just him or his father.

"We all realized we had similar stories," he explains. "So it became the story of five men instead of my family and my father alone."

So the group sat down to write, right? No. First they sat down with pictures and exchanged more stories to get an idea of what kind of story to tell. Okay, so then they wrote? No, then they did some exercises, such as sentence completion: "When I think of [blank], I feel [blank]." Escovedo admits that it was a learning experience for him.

"At first, it was intimidating in that I've never really written with anyone else," he explains. "I've written all my own songs, so it's pretty rare that I go to someone to co-write. And that was also interesting; the second session we had were these exercises, which I had never done. They were funny, but it was intimidating for me, because I don't have to get up and explain to anyone my motivation for a song."

Despite the mild peculiarities, which give Escovedo pause to chuckle when recounting them, the songwriter maintains that working with the trio wasn't difficult in the end, because not only did they all have similar stories from within the same time frame, but many of them also knew the same people that he did, making the experience akin to meeting distant cousins for the first time.

The result is a multidisciplinary work that traces the lives of men of Mexican heritage born roughly in the teens of the 20th century. Telling their stories through nine separate vignettes acted out by Portillo and actor Kevin Sifuentes, By the Hand of the Father uses a mini-orchestra headed by Escovedo, whose music provides the base on which the story is told. Such as it is, much of the soundtrack will be familiar to fans.

Besides "Ballad of the Sun and Moon" from Thirteen Years, and obviously "With These Hands," By the Hand of the Father also finds an outlet for a song like "Wave," which, while not written for the play specifically, was penned with this story in mind. And even though the production's musical numbers were written at some point in the past, the songs used -- "Hard Road," "The Rain Won't Help You When Its Over," etc. -- are songs Escovedo had written about his father.

One of the ironies is that while Escovedo's father still lives in Southern California, he will likely not get to see the production performed. At 93, he doesn't travel well, and Chula Vista, where he lives, is sufficiently far from L.A. to make his appearing all but an impossibility. Austin is a bit luckier.

Though the complete production won't make it to town until sometime next year, Austin has already been lucky in that the show was previewed as a work in progress at Las Manitas during South by Southwest 1999. Escovedo is not likely to beat Ben Folds to Broadway, but additional shows are slated for New York, San Antonio, Seattle (part of this year's Bumbershoot festival), and Chicago tentatively before more dates in L.A. Then, according to Escovedo, that, as they say, will be that.

"I think this pretty much sums it up for me," he says casually. "I hope I move on to write about other things. I'd love to write my mom some songs. It's kind of sad that I haven't really written a lot a lot of songs for my mother. It's funny, because she was really the one I was closest to when I was growing up. And I think that's another question I kept asking, 'What about my mother?'"


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