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.
By the Light of the Moon, meanwhile, is receiving a major push from Warner Bros., Slash’s distributor. On the same recent day when Los Lobos were working with Carlos Santana on some final underscoring for La Bamba, their manager, Linda Clark, walked into the Paramount sound stage with a tally of seventy-two radio stations that had added “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” a track from the album, to their playlists. The takers included not only the college outlets known for their big ears but such heavily formatted AOR strongholds as WLUP, in Chicago, and K-Rock in New York.
Rosas calls Los Lobos’ sound “power norteño,’ and in the seeming contradiction of echoing guitars and border ballads, it is an appropriate phrase for music that anticipates the future while honoring the past, that rocks as hard as it thinks. Populist is the word that comes to a listener’s mind. Like John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, Los Lobos pair their social conscience with an irresistible and elemental live show. In blue jeans and flannel shirts, cowboy boots and beer bellies, they resemble a bar band and play as if they have as much to prove. They will crank a blues as nastily as Son Seals, then entwine Hidalgo’s accordion and Rosas’s guitar with the sweet Cajun lilt of the Baffa Brothers. And their version or “La Bamba,” reserved for special occasions, is not a bad definition of ecstasy. The New York Times critic Jon Pareles has called Los Lobos “the ultimate sock-hop band,” and valid as the compliment is, what is most important is how fat they go beyond the high-school gym.
Past the tangle of freeways, out where the land begins to lift, lies Whittier, California. On the fringes, it is anonymous suburbia, all track houses and franchises, but in the center remains the small town Whittier once was, with shoppers strolling the small town Whittier once was, with shoppers strolling on the main street and trees shading modest homes. In a graceful frame house, with lace curtains and a white picket fence, altogether more Cape Cod than Orange County, lives David Hidalgo. A tricycle sits on the front porch; when Hidalgo opens the door, a painting of Jesus Christ is visible above the mantelpiece. Louie Perez has already arrived from his house a few blocks away. His Jeep is parked outside, a baby car seat in back and a fold-up crib in the payload.
Whittier is best known as the town where Richard Nixon went to college and, for country-music historians, where Merle Haggard did time in reform school. But for Hidalgo and Perez and some of the other Chicanos who have reached the middle class, Whittier represents the comfortable home that success has purchased. It is not too far from East Los Angeles, but far enough that Springsteen Live $19.98 shares a billboard with Tostada Ceviche 75¢, and one eatery advertises the mongrel meal called a fajita pita. This afternoon, though, Hidalgo and Perez are heading back in miles and time, indulging in that favorite rite of American ethnicity, a visit to the old neighborhood.
The car passes over the San Gabriel River. When Hidalgo and Perez were growing up, it was here, not along the Pacific, that Chicanos swam and sunned. In self-deprecating humor, they dubbed its rocky banks Pig Beach. The new housing development on the left, Hidalgo explains as he drives past, stands on the bones of Streamland Park, “the poor man’s Disneyland.” Then it is down Whittier Boulevard, the main shopping street of East L A. In the old days, it offered everything a teenager needed, all within reach by way of a ten-cent bus ride. A fruit stand sold beer and wine to underage customers, and the Boulevard Theater offered unlimited viewings of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls or Monster Zero. And of course there was the restaurant shaped like a tamale.
This trip is no idle excursion, for the focused quality of Los Lobos’ lives comes not only from marriage or maturity (their ages range from thirty-one to thirty-five, and only one is single) but from a powerful and embracing identity, both as Chicanos and as sons of East L.A. Their individual stories may vary — Rosas emigrated from Mexico at the age of six, while Lozano, a third-generation Chicano, did not even learn to speak Spanish until he was twenty — but collective memory and sense of place bind them. “It’s home,” Hidalgo says of East L.A. “It feels like there’s a community here. There are a whole lot of nice places to go. But this is where we’re from.”
When the future members of Los Lobos were growing up, East L.A. was a self-sufficient city within a city. While Anglos naively saw, and continue to see, the area as a menacing ghetto, all low riders and street gangs, it was as much the psychological capital of Chicano America as Harlem was of Afro-America. If the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers were really feeble streams, easily forded, there was nonetheless little to impel an East L.A. Chicano beyond them.
Significantly, popular music was the one force from the English-speaking world to infiltrate East L.A. successfully. Hollywood Records hosted a live oldies radio show every day after school. Touring Hispanic groups such as Tito Puente’s salsa band regularly played the clubs on Atlantic Boulevard, known as the Latin Strip. Bluesmen Johnny Otis and Big Joe Turner often performed at a ballroom around the corner from Cesar Rosas’s house. The radio stations KFWB, KRLA and KGFJ sent a steady supply of acid rock and soul music hurtling into kitchens, bedrooms and cars. “In those days, radio was still healthy,” Hidalgo says. “I mean, Slim Harpo was having hits.”
The young musicians of East L.A., in turn, metabolized it all, beginning with Valens and continuing through Thee Midniters, the Premiers and Cannibal and the Headhunters, who, Los Lobos even now point out, were the opening act when the Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl in 1964. Every weekend saw a dance at the Garfield High gym, a party in the Calvary Cemetery or a battle of the bands at Fayerudi’s Montebello Ballroom, which was upstairs from a clothing store. “And anyone who wasn’t in a band,” Rosas says, “was into dancing.”
The future members of Los Lobos all got their first instruments by their early teens, and music proved one way — sometimes it seemed the only way — of negotiating safe passage between the cliques in school and the gangs on the street. Hidalgo introduced himself to Rosas in junior high school by matter-of-factly reciting a line from Cream’s “Swlabr”: “But the picture has a mustache.” Lozano remembers that the same toughs who beat him up in shop class for refusing to pick up one of their pencils sought him out only weeks later to join a band, having heard that Lozano’s father had just bought him a bass and an amplifier.
All of Los Lobos’ parents held jobs that were working-class even by the skewed standards of East L.A. — truck driver, seamstress, cashier, car painter — and if they did not explicitly endorse rock & roll as a career choice, then they much preferred it to the illicit alternatives. By the end of high school, Hidalgo’s home had become the favorite place to rehearse. “The thing with my mom was she went along with it to keep us off the street,” he says. “She would just go back into her room. We had to go through it to get to the head. She’d fall asleep watching TV, us playing as loud as we could. She was just happy to know where we were.”
The music Hidalgo and the others had grown up with at home was far different from what they were practicing then. Hidalgo family parties would start with Louis Prima jump tunes but, as if by compass, work their way around to norteño ballads, David often falling asleep on the couch to the sound of his father singing in the next room. Rosas’s older brother was an accomplished flamenco guitarist who performed in East L.A. parades. Perez’s strongest memory is of the radio that sat in the kitchen, just outside his bedroom door. Each morning his mother would awaken him by switching on her favorite show, a mix of gossip and Mexican music hosted by — thirty years later he still knows the name — Elenitas Salinas.
But once Mrs. Perez headed off to her garment-factory job, Louie and his sister would turn the dial to a rock station, and he first heard the Beatles’ “She Loves You” on that same radio. Nothing could be less cool, after all, than the music your parents liked. “You just didn’t pay attention to it,” Hidalgo says. “It wasn’t our interest.” Adds Perez, “It was there, but you don’t associate yourself with it. You always build this moat between yourself and your parents.”
In this case, though, teenage rebellion carried with it the potential for ethnic denial. If assimilation was the destination, then the past was a steamer trunk, suitable for collecting keepsakes but unwieldy for travel. All that changed abruptly in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of what became known as the Chicano Renaissance. Cesar Chavez achieved national recognition for organizing farm workers. A 1969 antiwar march in East L.A. burst into a full-scale riot. Mexican American studies courses emerged in California colleges, and young muralists brought the legacy of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros to Whittier Boulevard buildings and billboards.
Several of Los Lobos were directly involved in community programs in the early 1970s, Lozano and Hidalgo teaching English as a second language and Perez counseling youthful offenders. Rosas, only a decade out of the Mexican countryside, needed no reminders of the struggle; his memories of being robbed, beaten up and ridiculed as a TJ — as in Tijuana, the crossing point for thousands of legal and illegal immigrants — were only too fresh.
It was against this backdrop that Los Lobos first came together, bored by their separate tenures in cover bands and eager to explore their antecedents. For the next seven years, they studied Mexican music and performed as an all-acoustic folk group. They bought traditional instruments at pawnshops, burrowed into their parents’ record collections and sought out older musicians who could teach them the difficult tunings and fingerings of the guitarrón, the bajo sexto, the requinto jarocho.
While they became fluent in music from many regions — Veracruz, La Huasteca, Michoacán and Jalisco — it was the norteño of the northern borderlands that proved the most influential. Norteño offered two distinct song styles, each of which still informs Los Lobos’ music. One is corrido, a detailed narrative used for more than a century to describe everything from cattle drives to union campaigns. The other is ranchera, the aching ballad. Or as Perez puts it, “Ranchera is the blues.”
The band became skillful enough to be held up as Chicano role models and even featured in a 1975 public-television documentary. But after hundreds of weddings, baptisms, parades, mixers, Cinco de Mayo celebrations and Thursday nights at Kennedy Hall for $1.25 at the door, life as a folklore exhibit was growing stale. Frank Gonzales left the band in 1976, and by the late 1970s the four remaining band members were reduced to playing what Rosas calls the redonion circuit, those Americanized Mexican restaurants that barely know mole from marinara. To stave off boredom, Los Lobos began bringing along their electric instruments, switching to them for the late crowd, the drinking crowd.
“Someone would call out and say, ‘You know rock songs?”‘ Rosas recalls. “And we’d give it a try.” He pauses. “We got fired.”
“From two restaurants,” Lozano adds.
At about the same time, Hidalgo and Perez had begun to explore the Los Angeles hardcore scene. Hidalgo bought the Blasters’ debut album and, in 1981, went with Perez and another friend, Eddie Zaragoza, to a Blasters show at the Roxy. Impressed by the Blasters’ mix of history and hysteria, the three waited for the band in the club’s parking lot. But when the Blasters emerged, they stood tongue-tied.
“East L.A.!” Zaragoza finally shouted to Phil Alvin, the lead singer.
“Yeah!” Alvin hollered back. “What part?”
“Um, East L.A.,” Zaragoza said.
As Alvin drew closer, he stared at Hidalgo and said he thought he had seen him somewhere. Had he been on television lately? Then it clicked. Hidalgo remembered that the 1975 documentary had just been rebroadcast. Alvin had seen it. The conversation grew easy. Alvin, it turned out, adored norteño and especially the music of Flaco Jiménez, the Tex-Mex accordion master. Hidalgo, too, had come under Jiménez’s sway and taken up the instrument. Alvin invited Los Lobos to send over their demo tape and to see the Blasters play a few weeks later at the Whisky-a-Go-Go.
After hearing Los Lobos’ tape, the Blasters helped them make contact with Slash, which gave them jobs opening for New Wave bands, including the Blasters themselves. The idea was more benevolent in theory than in practice. Steve Berlin, then the Blasters’ saxophonist, saw Los Lobos for the first time warming up a crowd for Public Image Ltd. “It was sort of like a riot,” Berlin recalls. “There were more things being thrown than I’d ever seen.” He shrugs. “I liked it. Hardly threw anything.”
In fact, Berlin liked Los Lobos well enough to sign on as a full-time member and also as a co-producer with T Bone Burnett. “It was a band that seemed to have no limits,” Berlin says. “They were locked into no ideology. If anybody came up with any idea and it sounded good, it stuck. It went into the set list.”
Hidalgo is far down Whittier Boulevard by now, almost to the Los Angeles River, and the manicured lawns and freshly painted houses of the fancier districts of East L.A. have given way to dirt yards and weathered frame shacks. At the end of the block, stuck behind another house and relegated to a number ending in 1/2, is Hidalgo’s childhood home. The warehouse next door occupies land Mexican migrants once worked, and the Hidalgo house is composed of two laborers’ huts glued together. The walls were so thin, Perez recalls as Hidalgo drives away, that leaning too hard left dents.
Hidalgo, as if to apologize, explains that the neighborhood was better when he was a kid. But there is no reason for shame. The ability of Los Lobos to understand and convey that tenuous sense of sojourning in a strange land, to confer a dignity on ordinary lives, is what makes them singular.
Finding a voice did not come easily. Hidalgo and Perez did not even begin writing their own songs until 1981, and Los Lobos’ EP, while impressive in its range, sounded sometimes like two distinct groups, one playing Blasters-style roots rock, the other Mexican folklore numbers — in other words, the tardeada syndrome. But the more Los Lobos wrote, the more their own vision emerged. Rosas leaned toward the rocking blues that stood for release in hard lives; Hidalgo and Perez documented the lives themselves. Like corrido, their compositions were yarns, but they spoke in image and metaphor more than in the almost newspaperish recitation of corrido.
The song that more than any other announced Los Lobos’ ambitions was “A Matter of Time,” on How Will the Wolf Survive? It began:
Don’t wake the baby
Come and hold me once more
Before I have to leave
I hear there’s lots of work out there
Everything will be fine
And I’ll send for you baby
It’s just a matter of time
Like the best of Los Lobos’ songs, “A Matter of Time” succeeds because it trusts itself. If it resonates with the hopes and fears of all immigrant songs, from slave spirituals to Yiddish-theater tear-jerkers, then it achieves that universality through its very specificity. And that is quite true to the writers’ intent. Perez, for instance, expresses little interest in such large political issues as the new federal immigration law or California’s recent declaration of English as the official state language. But it would be a mistake to think of Los Lobos as apolitical.
“There’s a thread of certain politics that comes through the songs,” Perez says. “But the songs end up emphasizing the pressures on the family. We’re not going into flag-waving or banner waving. It’s easier to communicate without hitting somebody across the eyebrows. Just the idea we’re Mexican American and doing something is a political statement in itself. Just the fact we’re called Los Lobos and there are four Mexican Americans onstage and there are people in a small town in North Carolina lined up to see us.”
Los Lobos’ songs generally begin with an idea or a phrase linked to a single scene, real or imagined. Perez conceived the title song of How Will the Wolf Survive? when he saw an article in National Geographic about the looming extinction of the animal — and a few pages beyond it a photograph of an old man with a battered suitcase sitting alone alongside a desert highway. Minutes later he was on the phone to Hidalgo, roughing out chords and verses. Of “The Hardest Time” — a song on the new album — whose doubts pick up where the hopes of “A Matter of Time” leave off, Perez says, “I imagined a young girl pushing a baby carriage. You come to a crosswalk and wonder, ‘Is that her little sister, or is that her baby?’ And she’s at a bus stop with the baby in a T-shirt and it’s cold. Those pictures stay with you.”
By the Light of the Moon abounds in dashed dreams, from the song titles “Is This All There Is?,” “The Mess We’re In” and “River of Fools” to the images of abandoned wives, midnight border crossings, hands holding rosary beads in the hope of a miracle. The album ends on a note of faith in “Tears of God.” This is not a gospel that assumes prayers will be answered but a mystical Roman Catholicism in which all a troubled soul can do is supplicate and await the intervention of the divine. “All the people we write about,” Perez says, “are resilient. They bounce back from what seems like the worst thing that ever happened to them.”
The visit to east L.A. is just about over when Hidalgo turns up a hill in City Terrace, where Lozano and Perez grew up. A Toyota headed in the other direction honks. Perez recognizes the driver as Paul Aguilar, a friend from grammar school and now a mailman in the neighborhood. They kid about Los Lobos’ suddenly high profile.
“Every time I say, ‘I had the Lobos play when I got married,’ people say, ‘No, you’re shitting,”‘ Aguilar shouts to Perez. “Well,” Louie calls back, “we must’ve been doing something every Saturday for the last twelve years. I think we played everyone’s wedding.”
Because Los Lobos have stayed in and around East L.A., they continue to see the scenes and hear the tales. One night, while Hidalgo is eating dinner at a favorite Whittier restaurant, Pollo Ranchero, a friend tells how the farm land he has leased and tilled for years is being sold out from under him. Two days later Perez is driving on the outskirts of town. At a traffic light, a young Chicano, his face caked with dust, sweat and auto exhaust, is selling one-dollar bags of oranges to motorists. He has probably been deposited that morning by a grower, who will pick him up at nightfall, and collect the better part of the take. It is not hard to imagine that the orange seller or the displaced farmer will appear in some way in the next set of Los Lobos songs. And if they do, they will be right at home, two more Chicano portraits in a kind of memory book.
“You grow up in a neighborhood like East L.A., it’s a big struggle,” Rosas says. “I’m not saying it’s a hard-core ghetto, but people have to work so hard at these sleazy jobs just to make the rent. And our families weren’t exactly rich. And so you say you made it, then you step back and realize it was a struggle. You feel it here.” He touches his heart. “And so you write a song.”