Los Lobos & The Songs That Take You Back
April 26, 2000
'Torn and faded photographsA chestful of old goodbyesTear-streaked faces by the light of the moonHere on a river of fools'-- "River of Fools"There's a street in downtown Los Angeles called Toberman. A long block with a short fuse, eclipsed by a couple dozen beautiful skyscrapers that form a tight fit on this Latino stronghold of tenements, wood-carved houses, and a row of bars and restaurants screaming out for the homeland: El Parian, Club Jalisco, and Lucy's Taco y Drive-thru. In this Pico-Union, or la union de Pico en el centro, a green station wagon is parked in our driveway.On Friday nights, after Dad cashes his check at Kay's Pastrami stand at Central and Fifteenth, we hop in that old piece of metal and drive down to el double feature at Floral Drive-in, en el este de los. You can see the big white screen looming over the Long Beach Freeway as we jam down the gentle curve on the Eastern exit. We are already in our pajamas as Dad backs into our spot and hooks up the little speaker to the driver's window.Before the sun sets so that the movie can begin, a stream of Americano hits wafts through the speaker. Usually Dad turns the sound down and plunks one of his Mexicano classics into the eight-track stereo, so the wailing of Lucha Reyes or a romantic ballad by Vicente Fernandez floods our already drama-filled vehicle.There is always a fight about the concession stand. That cool concession stand with the instant pizza, hot dogs, and the boy in a little paper chef's hat, who's always too nervous and sweaty. Mom says it's too expensive as she unwraps bean, egg, and nopalito burritos for the Friday-night movie dinner. Maybe later we'll go in for some Lemonheads or black licorice sticks, but our parents know we'll tire of these Tijuanero movies way before the second feature and will fall asleep in the back, next to the spare tire.On the drive home, the bumps in the road keep me half awake as Mom and Dad harmonize on something familiar. Not so familiar as "Sabor a Mi" or "Volver, Volver," but right up there with the recognizable melodies you hum to yourself as you stand in line at Zamora Brothers buying carnitas. Some tune that makes you wish so hard for summer that you can feel your heart falling somewhere in your chest. A cancion that makes you wish you were back in Tijuana, running through el centro with Grandma. Wishing for something familiar and fantastical that takes you to a place where you recognize your parents in a portrait, sitting on a donkey with sombreros on their heads. And you're there, too. Somewhere in the picture, recognizing that you both have that same smile.An accordion plays in the background. A conjunto strolls by, and Dad, all red-eyed and cerveza'd out, pays them five dollars to join them in a solo. And we stand on some dirt road with Mom looking all gorgeous in her push-up Gato on a Hot Tin Roof look, forcing a smile as we kids kick up clouds of dust with our brand-new Wallabees and Dad sings on the solo.It's that song. La cancion that takes you back. Back to a border town, a row of empty beer bottles, and a green station wagon with a makeshift bedroom next to the spare tire beyond the back seat.'Sounds across the nationComing from young hearts and mindsBattered drums and old guitarsSinging songs of passionIt's the truth that they all look forSomething they must keep alive!Will the wolf survive?'-- "Will the Wolf Survive"There's a house on Toberman Street with a green station wagon in the driveway. Next door, my Aunt Romie and Uncle Bob, "Mr. Vietnam," wearing his trademark fatigue cap, live out their Delano memories with a row of plants and trees sprouting everything from tomatoes to yerba buena, as the ears of corn line up in the backyard like a platoon of soldiers at atencion. On the other side, my Aunt Tita and Uncle Tony complain about the seven little mouths they gotta feed, as his finger draws a romantic imaginary little circle on her back and she speaks under her breath, all irritated, ai Tony, stop baby stop. Este muy caliente, give it a rest, hombre! On this block of relatives and familiarity, we have all kinds of cousins, and they all look at my brother and me and say, why you so white? Like we're less Mexican 'cause we're not brown. Like we can do something about it. They say, why you so white, and sometimes I think they mean more than our pocho skin.'The moon is telling me one thingWhile the stars are telling me anotherBut the morning light is singingTo me this sad, sad song'-- "La Pistola y El Corazon"There's an album on the big console stereo. One of those big wooden coffin-like things that only fits in the living room and that every family in Pico-Union buys at Deardens on Main Street or Central Electric on Washington. I hold the album cover in my hand and try to imagine the woman in the sky blue mohair sweater, with her hair up, a wisp over the left eye, and the Liz Taylor Cleopatra eyeliner, hanging out in our living room. She is an American icon and the voice of a generation of Mexicans who, with arms extended, long to claim this country as their own. She has a loyal following of mujeres, Mexicanas, with names like Ginger and Mona and Beatrice, who spend their Saturdays at a Montebello beauty salon dying their roots blonde and struggle into hip-huggers a la Loren, la Lollobrigida. Las housewives who work at the five and dime, who enunciate todo, who become den mothers, who sit silently at the Knights of Columbus Hall while los hombres make community decisions, who always volunteer to read at Sunday mass, who try so hard to look like the woman on the album cover with the blue mohair and the beehive.This woman with the eyeliner and the tight blue sweater is the role model of assimilation, and she is a constant guest in our schizophrenic house of velvet "Last Supper" paintings and ceramic American bald eagle ashtrays. A sweet honey melody drifts through la casa: the refrain of "Sabor a Mi," and all the mujeres, hanging clothes on the line outside, hum along. The voice belongs to that of the crossover queen, Miss Eydie Gorme. Honorary Chicana. Honorary Mexicana. Honorary Sanita, who has recorded the infamous Blue album in espanol. If Eydie Gorme can have a hit with the Blue album, there's a feeling we'll make it in this country after all. If Eydie Gorme can cross over to the other side of the border for her inspiration, we can cross over and become Americanos like la Eydie.'A quiet voice is singing something to meAn age-old song about the home of the braveIn this land here of the freeOne time one night in America'-- "One Time One Night"One night Dad got drunk with the other fathers in the neighborhood. They were playing late-night dominoes over a bunch of upside-down trash cans in the backyard. Some soccer team from Tenochitplan-something-or-other won, and in the backyard they had killed a pig they got at the Farmer John plant in Vernon. Back in the days when they used to sell you live little pigs at that plant in Vernon. That poor little porker was slow-roasting in a copper cazo, while los hombres downed a kegger and had us kids eagerly pumping up the beer at the bottom of the Budweiser barrel. Somewhere in the middle of that long night, my brother and I, along with our twelve cousins, pitched one of Uncle Bob's Vietnam tents in the backyard and ran inside to get our sleeping bags for an impromptu slumber party under the stars. As darkness fell, one by one my cousins and brother dozed off to the smell of carnitas in the air. But I stayed awake, listening to the father conversations that worked their way through the tent and the lonely night.The one thing I could count on when the dads got drunk was that the conversation would always end up in and about that place. That faraway, mythic place they called the homeland. The place they all despised but all wanted to be buried in. Soon one or another would get teary-eyed and pull out a guitar, which would always be handy in someone's garage, waiting for the moment.This moment, with a flood of memories, would come crashing over the party and reclaim them all as little boys, the sons of peasants and farmers, the workers of the land who somehow got carried away in a dream or got lost on the way to somewhere else and ended up here, in the city of the angels. And the darker the night, the heavier their souls. And always lagrimas, tears. They would weep and wrap their arms around each other's shoulders. And the most sober one would pluck away with an assured hand and try at a key, any key, as they wailed up at the luna one of those songs that resonated in the bones. The tune so familiar that it took you back to that place. So far away. A place that I had never been to, but longed to come from.But I was born here. Why was I always thinking about that place? Because of a song? Una cancion, a moment in music that screamed, do you remember that time? That time when it was not so hard, and you sat in the rancho thinking about this place, this nueva frontera, and how it called, sang, to you?And my father always seemed to sing and cry the loudest. Always seemed to throw the longest grito over a downtown skyline. And the song formed an image, a memory, of Mom dragging Dad inside and breaking up the party. Of sending all the drunken fathers home. Pushing them off with an old broom, those curlers in her hair, yelling sin verguenza! And the night was one big Mexican musical number that always played itself in somebody's backyard in Pico-Union. What was that song?'Thank you Lord for another dayHelp my brother along his wayAnd please bring peace to the neighborhoodGrant us all peace and serenityThey're just songs sung on a dirty streetEchoes of hope lie beneath their feetStruggling hard to make ends meet'-- "The Neighborhood"It was the grandma on Dad's side, Socorro, who taught us the songs. Told us the stories. Grandma Martina in Delano was born-again before they called it that, and she mostly prayed and read the Bible. But Grandma Socorro from Mexico, from Michoacan, smoked cigarettes and wore pants. Did real worldly things like that. She hated los Estados Unidos, and she had a house in Tijuana where she would meet us halfway during the summer.Away from my parents, Grandma Socorro gave us little sips of beer and took us to the movies and didn't ask us to close our eyes during the nasty scenes. And when she laughed she always did something powerful, like belch or show all of her teeth. Things like that. And the discos, the records, she had: thick 78s and eight-track cassettes on an old machine lent to her by a boyfriend she never talked to again.On Saturday nights, we would hang out on the porch in the colonia in Tijuana. And Grandma Socorro would drink beer and tell stories with bad words in Spanish, and everyone would laugh. The night was so hot that the vecinos stayed up real late on that porch telling cuentos, waiting for some gossip about an article in Alarma. Or they would wait for someone to die so that they could talk real nice about them. And eventually people would give the despedida and head on home, and there we would be with our drunken old dirty grandma, who would put on those records and make us dance with her. And, oh, what fun that was. She would always fall or trip or something. Knock something over and laugh. Let in the chickens so we could chase them. Or a goat! And those songs, with their oom-pa-pa German roots, always laughed at love and life, or they'd go slow and beg forgiveness and offer a take me back, baby please in espanol. And I'd think, one day, I'll be dedicating one of these canciones de amor to a lover somewhere. And maybe even we'll have a fight, like every telenovela you've ever seen, and we'll make up and I'll play one of these songs. These histories of ours.'Dreams wash down the gutterAll my hopes in vainCrows up on the rooftopLaughing out my nameHere I am on the short side of nothing'-- "Short Side of Nothing"It's 1978, and I think I'm the coolest motherfucker out there. I've been eating American apple pie like there's no tomorrow. And it's never quite enough. I start to get into what's happening in England with the punk scene. I know it's fashion, but it's the closest that I can get to in terms of how I see myself. Somewhere in the middle of high school, I go from Luis to Louis, from living on the East Side to thinking of Pico-Union as living on the West Side, from "Si, senora" to "Yes, ma'am." Little changes to mark the differences away from the neighborhood. This place that never seems to change.I look at all those old fathers in the backyard, with their dark blue factory shirts and pants, having yet another pachanga where they play dominoes or cards and pull out that stupid guitar. They keep talking about that place, back there. A place I start to resent. I make fun of their nostalgia. Where did those stupid songs get you, I scream at my father. I start going through interesting self-created haircuts and color schemes. There is absolutely nothing cool about being Mexican, I think to myself. All the other brown faces in these clubs I go to are denying it, too. I start hanging out at the Whisky and a bunch of little underground places. I start getting into the Germs, Black Flag, The Blasters, Circle Jerks. It's an unpredictable and exciting time in the L.A. music scene. And the one thing I'm sure of is that I am from here. Not over there.One night I go with some friends to the Cathay de Grande in Hollywood, and there is a band opening for somebody. Los Lobos -- although I think they had a longer name back then. They are introduced as being from East L.A., and all I remember is there was a bunch of guys on stage, hombres, and they looked an awful lot like me. I was kind of embarrassed, because I thought they seemed out of place, like I was, and that they were going to do something foolish. That night, they played everything from the cowpunk music of the time to revved-up rancheras. And I went home and thought about how much the father I was having such trouble communicating with would have dug these guys. I looked at my stupid Laurie Anderson haircut in the mirror and thought about getting a personality.'And they all came to talk about itThey came to cry and laugh and fight about itAll searching for the promised landTired souls with empty handsAsking to themselvesIs this all there is?'-- "Is This All There Is?"In school, they were talking about movements, a Chicano art scene. I had no connection to it. I didn't get it. Something Mexican, but not from there. From here. And there were anchors. A group called ASCO that included Patssi Valdez, Gronk, and Harry Gamboa. There were clubs on the East Side. Filled with people like me, Americanos. Young Chicanos at the rough beginnings of definition in community. I went back to see this band from East L.A., and I got it.They were speaking my language. One part there, but a whole lot from here. And I started to follow the music. And the center of the music, of the artistic impulse, was its roots, but also just as important, its American-ness. It was rock 'n' roll, but it was definitely rooted in the country of Los Angeles.I started to think that the evolution of this band, Los Lobos, mirrored that of my generation of Latinos. Not only were the members -- Steve Berlin, David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez, and Cesar Rosas -- becoming better musicians, they were also becoming more fluid as artists in their experiments. Instruments traveling from member to member. In the same way, our identities as members of the society were becoming more fluid. Multiple identities and allegiances. They got noticed in a big way by the music industry: Grammy awards and Rolling Stone profiles. Although they are not the pioneers of this, they forged a larger profile and identity in music, in the same way that we, as Chicanos, have fought for and gained a national visibility and acceptance.'We've got no moneyBut we've got our livesA voice that's louder than any picket signDon't take away what is ours to keepThis very land that lies beneath our feetDon't know about this mess we're in'-- "The Mess We're In"One night my compadre and comadre hired a babysitter, and we went to the Greek Theatre to see the Wolves. Ai, my comadre said, I hope they do "La Bamba."It had been a few years and a few albums since I had seen Los Lobos do anything. It was a warm Los Angeles summer night, and the place was packed with young and old Chicanos eager to celebrate the hometown band. It seemed like everyone was there: from the young Chicano nationalists to the old abuelas in their knit sweaters; from the chuppie to the ex-Victory Chapel recovered cholo. It was a far cry from those years at the Cathay and the Whisky. I looked out and saw the neighborhoods we had grown up in. Our eagerness to claim the group as one of our own is understandable when you consider the lack of visibility Chicanos have in the mainstream media. Next to Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada, who I personally would be happy to throw back to the sharks, Los Lobos is among the few American Latino acts that have received widespread critical acclaim and acceptance.They opened with straight, no chaser, rock numbers and went into some nortenos that got the crowd on its feet. Midway through the concert, they did a cover of an old Midnighters song, "The Town I Live In," and I started to think of my dad and those lyrics. There was something I missed in all of that music I grew up with, something that had obviously inspired the Lobos to do the kind of music and experimentation they do now. That song spoke to me in the same way, I imagine, as how those old rancheras speak to my parents.We were always told that the music was a way to communicate within the culture. That some of the most profound lessons to be had, in terms of community, were to be found in the language and lyrics of a song. I started to think about how oldies served a general purpose within the culture of the early Chicano community. From "Sitting in the Park" to "Angel Baby," the language of our people has always been tied to a passion and love explicit in the poetry of the lyric, that was maybe unspoken in some of our other speech.'Watches me sleepWatches me sleepSaint behind the glassWatches me sleep'-- "Saint Behind the Glass"Last year at an artist residency in Mexico City, my assistant, an art student from the universidad, tells me about his influences. A rockero, his two favorite groups are Rage Against the Machine and Los Lobos, both Los Angeles bands. He has the T-shirts to prove it.In Minneapolis, at a street festival called Ribfest, everyone is blond and Nordic. I notice a big, burly man with a Lobos "By the Light of the Moon" concert shirt. Suddenly I think that, as a culture, we've made our impact everywhere.'Standing there by the windowStaring out at the nightYou got so many troublesOn your nervous mindBut don't worry babyIt's gonna work out fine' -- "Don't Worry Baby"It's a Friday afternoon, and I am having a bout of anxiety. I am going to interview the Wolves. After weeks of phone tag and cancellations, the band members have a window of forty-five minutes in which to meet with me. Promoting their new album, Colossal Head, they run from interview to interview, meeting every journalist eager to get at them.I sit in the big wood office building at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank, which reminds me of a summer-camp lodge. I sit next to a guy who really looks prepared: large Italian leather bag, cool microphone, big recorder, camera, separate flash. I have my generic walkman and two extra batteries.When I get to the interview room, I don't recognize the band members. They look smaller than their CD covers. I can't explain it, but it's true. And I don't get to talk to them all, which is fine, as my nerves have gotten the best of me and I am having trouble breathing. I watch Cesar Rosas, dressed all in black with his trademark goatee, walk by in the hall. Louie Perez, who in some ways acts as the group's leader, greets me with a shy hello. They look positively real. Not at all like rock stars. They look more like UCLA professors. Steve Berlin is talkative and friendly, a shoot-the-breeze kind of guy, while Conrad Lozano sits back, listening carefully, rarely speaking.Let me tell you that I tried. I really tried.I had a million great questions about their lyrics, Chicanismo, the artistic impulse, political agendas, marketing, the music industry. But something terrible happened. We became friendly.A hey don't I know you from Louie prompts a discussion about friends we have in common. We spend fifteen minutes talking about the great East L.A. poet Marisela Norte, whom we both admire. Then we talk about actress Diane Rodriguez and director Lisa Peterson, with whom the Lobos worked at the La Jolla Playhouse, creating music for the Tony Kushner adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Good Person of Setzuan. Before you know it, the world of Chicano artists seems very small.Well, it doesn't stop. I relax and let down my guard. We start talking about Seattle, where Steve Berlin lives. About raising families, tours, the children's album they made with Lalo Guerrero, the differences in making movie soundtracks. Before you know it, all my time is up. Lunch arrives. A woman walks in and encourages me to wrap it up.I didn't get a chance to ask the big questions. The stuff about race and about the politics of making music. There was so much to talk about. Forty-five minutes would have never been enough time.In the end, it wasn't even about any of that. It was about something deeper. It was about art as a way of life. About doing what one does because there is a joy in knowing you are doing what you love to do. It's about five guys having a time of it, who are humbled by the process and intrigued each time with the experiment. It's about having a life, a relationship with art, and getting paid for it. It's about telling the truth through music. About playing. In the end, they are just another band from East L.A.I wanted to say something about growing up with them and watching the change in my own life, through the changes in their work. About the sometimes deep relationship between artist and audience. But I was already at the guard's gate, and they were already on to the next interview.That night I put on the new album, and I went down to the old neighborhood. Sometimes I pass by the old house and stand across the street, looking toward the backyard. So many memories. Stand there remembering those urban camping trips and parties in the back. Remembering all those people.My head is bobbing to the cool new music on the CD, and I'm feeling really good riding this groove. The tenth album, I'm thirty-four, and I'm remembering every minute of it. I'm pretty darn happy to have some new Lobos songs for the upcoming backyard Easter with the extended family, the friends, and the godkids, who I will make dance with me. And I will sneak little sips of beer to, and belch and make them laugh, and I'll talk endlessly about the grandmas and grandpas and that place, that place over there, where it all came from.'Last nightI got loadedOn a bottle of ginOn a bottle of ginBut I feel alrightI feel alright...'-- "I Got Loaded"