Los Lobos: The World of Their Fathers
One afternoon in 1974, the five young Mexican American musicians who had recently christened themselves Los Lobos gathered for a rehearsal in the back yard of Cesar Rosas’s house, a small stucco bungalow fifty yards from the freeway in East Los Angeles. And on that day, the members of Los Lobos turned their attentions for the first time from the rock & roll of their youth to the traditional Mexican songs of their parents and grandparents.
Rosas and his friend Frank Gonzales had already begun learning a dance number called “Mil Amores” from an album that Rosas’s mother owned, painstakingly adapting the violin part for mandolin and guitar. Now the other three — guitarist David Hidalgo, bassist Conrad Lozano and drummer Louie Perez — were filling out the arrangement. Over the din of the passing cars, they worked fitfully, running inside the house to listen to a tricky portion of the song for reference, going out for a few more six-packs and, Perez recalls, “training the same fingers that used to play the solo on ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ to learn these mariachi parts.”
When Los Lobos were satisfied, they walked into the house to serenade Mrs. Rosas. Then they played “Mil Amores” over the telephone for Mrs. Perez. “She was close to tears,” Perez remembers. “How would one describe it? Here’s your son, who you’ve seen go to kindergarten, go to play baseball, and all of a sudden he’s playing something that’s a part of you.”
A few weeks later, Los Lobos played their first show, at one of the Chicano afternoon socials known as tardeadas. When they walked into the VFW post in Compton, California, they generated mostly confusion, for their long hair and beards marked them as a rock band, but their acoustic instruments belonged to the Mexican folk heritage. And as Perez and the others knew, the usual Mexican American affair broke into two contentious halves — one set by a mariachi band that left the teenagers’ eyes rolling and another by a Top Forty cover group that sent the adults fleeing. When Los Lobos played “Mil Amores,” though, everyone stayed, and everyone danced. After the show, men bought the musicians drinks, and old women blessed them. Even in that moment, Perez knew the band was onto something important.
“It’s almost as if the genetics are going to get to you,” Perez says now, laughing before he goes on. “It’s like you can’t escape. We come from that sort of traditional situation where parents want to give the children something better, only to find out later you’ve got their identity in you. It’s a funny irony that parents give you something different from themselves, only to find out you are your parents.”
In those two afternoons, when Los Lobos first reclaimed the world of their fathers, they began on the path that would lead them to a place as one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the 1980s. In the dozen years between their casual beginnings and the much-anticipated release of their current album, By the Light of the Moon, Los Lobos assimilated not only several stripes of Mexican music but also soul, gospel, country, blues, Cajun, zydeco and New Wave. Lyrically, Los Lobos found in their past a complete vocabulary, a language for depicting the aspirations, longings and heartaches of the Chicano community, a kind of aural equivalent to the film El Norte.
Although the band’s first album, the acoustic Just Another Band from East L.A., has all but vanished, their 1983 debut on Slash Records, the EP . . . And a Time to Dance, sold 90,000 copies and earned the group the 1984 Grammy for the best Mexican American performance. The follow-up LP — How Will the Wolf Survive? — transformed Los Lobos in 1984 into a national name and became, at 325,000 units, one of the biggest sellers in the seven-year history of Slash. A year of unanimous critical praise culminated in Los Lobes’ being named both Best New Band and Band of the Year (in a tie with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band) in the 1984 Rolling Stone Critics Poll.
Even as Los Lobos returned to their homes last year to relax and begin writing songs for their next album, their influence continued to ripple outward. Musicians as diverse as country star Waylon Jennings and polka patriarch Frankie Yankovic covered Los Lobos’ songs on their albums, and Paul Simon used the band for one cut on his musical Baedeker Graceland. Los Lobos also recorded the music — and filmed a brief appearance as a brothel band — for La Bamba, the forthcoming film biography of East Los Angeles’s first rock star, Ritchie Valens.