Three Stars

Another blogger recommended a book, which got me started on a series of music books. I just finished “Dream in Blue” by Chris Morris, about Los Lobos. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know I’m a fan.

Los Lobos were kids at Garfield High in East Los Angeles. They were playing in various rock bands until they coalesced around Frank González and began playing traditional Mexican music. Frank left the band before they hit the big time.

They got involved with the LA punk scene via Dave Alvin and The Blasters, from whom they “stole” sax player Steve Berlin, the one guy not from the neighborhood.

I first heard them when my friend David gave me a copy of their EP “And a Time to Dance”. He was a classmate of theirs at Garfield High, and of mine at Immaculate Heart College.

From the EP, they moved on to “How Will the Wolf Survive?” which garnered some national recognition, and followed up with what I consider their masterpiece, “By the Light of the Moon”. An Amazon reviewer called it “rock and roll literature; a serious contender for the best rock album of all time; it is an album, not just a bunch of songs thrown together, nor is it a pretentious ‘concept album’. In the days of trade guilds, a young journeyman put his heart and soul into one project to showcase all of his skills in order to advance from journeyman to master. This is that piece for Los Lobos and why they call it a masterpiece!” Chris Morris (in the book) called it “one of the quintessential albums of the Reagan era…[it] gave the lie to the Reagan administration’s bright, hollow vision for the country.”

They co-wrote (without credit) and performed one song on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album and were then tapped to perform as Ritchie Valens for the film “La Bamba”. Lou Diamond Phillips played Ritchie except for the musical parts. Ritchie Valens died at age 17 after just a six month recording career. He went down in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, immortalized by Don McLean as “The Day the Music Died”. But well before “American Pie”, Carol Kay and Tommy Dee sang of that day on the ballad “Three Stars”. I grew up with that single. Though I was pretty young in 1959, I knew every word of this song. We had the 45 of The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” and a couple of sides by Buddy Holly (including “Peggy Sue”). Mostly I remember the posthumously released album “The Buddy Holly Story”, amazingly put together and released in just three weeks (2/28/59).

Carol Kay and Tommy Dee

Lest you think that this is just another Los Lobos entry, here are those three stars.

Ritchie Valens (and another guy you might recognize) from the movie “Go, Johnny, Go!”
The Big Bopper on American Bandstand – what we all watched after school

It followed me home when I asked for The Big Bopper. Since we’re talking about dead musicians, here is Luther Allison from his debut album (1969) with “The Sky is Crying”. Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins on second guitar.
Speaking of rockabilly (The Blasters), Buddy Holly with “Rave On”.

And since I couldn’t resist, Gary Busey played Buddy in “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978) and did his own singing.

Buddy Holly & The Crickets at the Apollo Theatre (Gary Busey as Buddy Holly)
Buddy Holly & The Crickets on Ed Sullivan, 1957. The guy who brought you the Fender Stratocaster.

Rather than continue in the vein of the single “La Bamba” (a rock version of an old folk song), they went back to their roots with an all-acoustic rendering of traditional songs, with two originals, for “La Pistola y el Corazón”.

Oops. The plan was to embed one song. I got the whole album. Oh, well.

Never ones to rest on their laurels, they launched into a new experimental era. With production by Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, using ambient sounds, backward masking, and obscure instruments like the Chamberlin and the Optigan, the new records, starting with Kiko and getting stranger with Colossal Head, often sound muddy to my ears, but definitely take the band in a new direction.

They wrote and performed the score to the Robert Rodriguez film “Desperado”, David Hidalgo and Louis Pérez went on to record as “The Latin Playboys”, César Rosas recorded a solo album, and they were all part of various incarnations of Los Super Seven.

For their 30th anniversary they took the route of The Band for The Last Waltz and called a bunch of friends and influences and performed as back up band to take them all along on “The Ride”. Singers included Little Willie G (Thee Midniters), Dave Alvin (The Blasters), Mavis Staples (The Staples Singers), Tom Waits, Bobby Womack, Ruben Blades, Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention), and Elvis Costello, with Café Tacuba, Garth Hudson (The Band), Lonnie Jordan (War), and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

Mavis Staples with Lonnie Jordan (Hammond B-3) and Los Lobos

Fifty years after they first got together under the leadership of Frank González, Los Lobos are still making music and still touring. They count among their influences Mexican and Chicano music (Los Tigres del Norte, Lalo Guerrero), blues (Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed), punk, rockabilly revivalists (The Blasters), and farther out there (Captain Beefheart). Here is 2021’s “Native Son”.

No commercial potential

I had another demo tape in my archives. In 1986 I was driving from Oakland to Santa Clara and heard a familiar voice on the radio. The lyrics had to have been written by the inimitable Pat MacDonald (who now writes his name pat mAcdonald). When I got home I called the DJ and was told it was a new band from Austin called Timbuk 3. I raced out to a record store and bought “Greetings from Timbuk 3”. It contained the hit single that went over most people’s heads, a jaunty tune about nuclear annihilation, “The Future’s so Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”. The tune was adopted as a theme song by Silicon Valley newly-rich kids who had no idea they were being punked. (I saw it on t-shirts at an Apple Computer company picnic that year. The picnic featured music by The Tubes, speaking of one-hit wonders – “White Punks on Dope” was their biggie.)

It appeared on the soundtrack to “Tommy Boy”, starring the late Chris Farley of Madison, WI and Saturday Night Live. [Editor’s note: Farley’s character of the motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river was created by Bob Odenkirk of “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”.]

Timbuk 3 was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy that was won that year by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. They recorded a few more albums but never hit the big time.

Before the brief shot at fame, Pat was a singer/songwriter from Sturgeon Bay, WI. He moved to Madison before forming a band that played locally and released the album “Lowdown” on Mountain Railroad Records (which includes the great “Einstein at the Pool Hall”. With a song like “Assholes on Parade”, how could you fail to attract major label attention?) The LP was followed by the EP “Essentialist Propaganda” in 1983 (Counter-Pop Productions). Personnel include: Pat MacDonald, vocals, guitar; Bill Roberts, Guitar; Sarah Hastings, saxophones; Barbara K. MacDonald, vocals, violins; Jerry Brucaya, bass; Pete Obbink, drums.

“Too Much Sex (Not Enough Affection”)/”Lookin’ for Work” copyright 1983 Pat MacDonald

Sorry for the cutoff of the fadeout. I accidentally had the software set to automatically separate into tracks, so when it got quiet enough, the software split it into tracks prematurely.

As I continue the stroll down memory lane you may be treated to other unreleased or only locally-released gems, including one by my former lawyer.


This was the first WNBR (Wednesday Night Bike Ride) potluck of the season. It was cold after a string of 80 degree (27 C) days. Bundling up against the cold wind, it seemed that this first potluck is always cold. Or is that a myth because it’s the cold days we remember? Legend has it that we “always” get a blizzard the weekend of the boys state high school basketball tournament in March. A look at weather records debunks that quickly. We remember those years with big snowstorms.

It is chip-seal season. We rode past multiple freshly chip-sealed roads, glad that we weren’t on them. [Chip-sealing is the process of spreading oil or tar on a road, then spreading pea gravel over it. The weight of traffic is supposed to press the gravel into the sticky substrate to renew the surface. With tar and a steamroller it works pretty well but is not a pleasant place to ride for a few days. I once rode a freshly sealed road and had to throw away my tires after the ride; they were so thickly coated with tar. With just gravel and no tar or oil and no roller, it’s a lot cheaper and results in a horrible surface to ride on for weeks until the gravel washes into the grass at the edge of the road.] Today’s roads featured oil and gravel, with the sound of pebbles being tossed against the downtube. One advantage to a steel bike is that the “ping” of gravel on steel tubing is more pleasant than the sound of gravel hitting carbon fiber. Either way, it’s a test of the quality of the paint job.

We made the next-to-last turn and found ourselves on fresh chip-seal. It was mostly a climb. Standing on the pedals doesn’t work very well on chip-seal, as the unweighted rear wheel tends to slip. That meant sitting in, putting my head down, and making steady work of it. The last 50 feet or so get really steep, but that’s okay when you know it is coming. The only thing worse than climbing on fresh chip-seal is descending on it, so we had that in our favor. Those of you who ride on gravel for fun probably have no sympathy.

Dinner was at Brigham Park. The May potluck means I’m baking a rhubarb pie (strawberry-rhubarb this year) and is supposed to mean Hottie is bringing his famous asparagus braised in a cayenne-spiced garlic soy sauce. Alas, Hottie has retired from riding, so we we had to make do with Lou Grant’s jalapeño cornbread. That and a fire helped to keep us warm. Hottie grows a lot of asparagus so I don’t know who eats it all for him now.

Final climb to the park, on a day when it was warm enough to sit on the bench and watch.

Nica songs

I made my way to the public library’s archiving lab the morning after the ride. If you read the last couple of weeks’ posts reprinting my letters home from Nicaragua, you may recall that I found Keith’s demo tape. Keith Greeninger is a singer/songwriter from Santa Cruz, CA. We worked together in 1987. During the brigade, Keith had a run-in with a chainsaw. The chainsaw won. As a result, he could not go out to the woods for a few weeks and used the time to write songs. Some of those songs were subsequently released by the trio City Folk or by Keith on his solo albums. Most are still in print and available here.

The cut which follows was never released. The first building we built on each site was a dining hall, which became our HQ while we completed the rest of the work. It was timber-framed with a concrete floor and tin roof, but was open to the air. A generator provided power for a couple of hours each evening, during which we could receive news of the world via short-wave radio or read by electric light. When the lights went out, the silence was deafening and gradually we began to hear the night sounds. Keith and Jed would play songs from the US and try out the new material Keith was writing. Then the Nicas would take over and we would hear Nicaraguan folk music.

This song captures, for me, the feeling of those nights out under the stars, listening to the insects between songs. I guess it lacked commercial appeal.

“Another Nicaraguan Night” copyright 1987 by Keith Greeninger

If I remember correctly, Keith is accompanied by guitarist, brigadista, and carpenter John Bartolero (we knew him as Jed). In 1987, the Nicaraguan people lived by the slogan “Aquí No Se Rinde Nadie” (No one here surrenders). Keith used that slogan to write another song with, as was said about Frank Zappa, “no commercial potential”.

:Aquí No Se Rinde Nadie” copyright 1987 by Keith Greeninger

Last in a series – letters home from Nicaragua

Nicolás and I sizing up a Pochote log for our next cut. We used Pochote for framing. It is incredibly hard and we had to use it wet or it bent our nails. It secretes a watery red sap and my shoulders were stained from carrying the freshly-cut lumber. (This must be an early photo, as I don’t see the red stains on my shirt.) If you didn’t keep your head slightly to the side when pounding a nail, you could get squirted in the eye.
Brent and I making a 4″ slice with an Alaska mill to make the next batch of 4x4s. The mill is a chainsaw with depth guide. For large logs, we had a mill with motors on both ends.

Links to prior posts: Mole Poblano, for the tale of the trip with Ken noted above. Tribute, for a recent post about Ken. Equinox includes a tribute to Keith Greeninger, a singer-songwriter from Santa Cruz with whom I worked in 1987, with one of the songs he wrote during our time there. What to Read While You Recuperate includes a brief review of a book by Jane McAlevey, with whom I also worked in Nicaragua, as well as another photo of the work in progress.

P.S. After staying with Rob for the summer (and helping remodel his bathroom), I found a job as a plumber in San Francisco and quickly moved there, since I was 50 miles away at the time, and my job was starting in a few days. I was soon to discover the joys of commuting by bike in San Francisco, in a neighborhood with 20% grades.

After two history courses that were mostly within my lifetime (Black Music and American Cultural History, and History of the Cold War – which included this period in Nicaragua), and sorting through a box of papers last weekend, I realized I wanted to be sure these letters were preserved. As I continue digging, you may see more.

I just came across a cassette of Keith’s demo tape of songs he wrote in Nicaragua. Some were subsequently recorded and released by City Folk. Some were never released. I also just learned that my local library has an Archiving Lab, where one can digitize audio cassettes and VHS tapes. I’ll go in for training next week and I hope to digitize Keith’s demo and post the song I have mentioned more than once in these posts.