Just another band from East L.A.

I thought I knew the story of Los Lobos (formerly known as Los Lobos del Este – after the famed norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, or Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, which is a mouthful). These guys got together at Garfield High in East LA, the alma mater of my late friend David Okuma. While they were rock and roll fans, they began playing traditional music for their mothers before electrifying and hitting the big time for a short period. While still playing 50 years later, they have not reclaimed their fame of the mid-80s – our loss.

What I didn’t know was the guy who brought them together: their original lead singer, who played harp and mandolin. Francisco (then known as Frank) Gonzáles left the band in 1975, before their first self-released recording Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (Just another band from East L.A.) in 1978, but not before local PBS affiliate KCET aired a video of the band. (The album was re-released on CD in 2000.)

Note the polyrhythmic “El Canelo” beginning at 18:08. A version would later be released on the grammy-winning “La Pistola y El Corazón” in 1988.

Gonzáles first teamed up with César Rosas, then added David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, and Conrad Lozano. He left the group in 1976, according to the LA Times, to continue to play traditional music. He went on to become musical director of El Teatro Campesino and found a company to make strings for traditional instruments.

Los Lobos made only one major personnel change after that. In 1984 Steve Berlin left The Blasters to join Los Lobos after joining them onstage at the Whisky A Go Go, where Los Lobos had opened for The Blasters. Berlin had appeared on the 1983 Los Lobos EP “…And a Time to Dance”.

The influence of hanging out in the LA rockabilly and punk scene is clear here. KCET again. Stick around for David Hidalgo playing “Sleep Walk”, a 1959 #1 hit by Santo and Johnny, on steel guitar over the closing credits. “Sleep Walk” was reported to be the inspiration for Peter Green’s “Albatross” (Fleetwood Mac), which was, in turn, the inspiration for The Beatles’ “Sun King”. It was also the inspiration for Stephen King’s screenplay “Sleepwalkers. And it was a Grammy winner for The Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1998. (Setzer, of course, also started Stray Cats.)

David introduced me to the EP in 1983 and gave me a copy when he saw how much I liked it. In 1988 he called and asked me to meet him in Monterey, CA for a concert with Los Lobos, David Lindley, and the Grateful Dead. He didn’t have to ask twice. The fact that he had backstage passes was just icing on the cake. A Los Lobos concert at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco was the site of my first date with my future wife that fall.

They released the critically-acclaimed “How Will the Wolf Survive?” in 1986. (The single “Will the Wolf Survive?” reached #26 on the Billboard rock chart and Waylon Jennings’ cover reached #5 on the country chart.) My favorite, “By the Light of the Moon” (which I consider their masterpiece), followed in early 1987. Neither the critics nor the record-buying public agreed with me, though Ted Cox, in the “Chicago Reader”, agreed at least in part when he said ” By the Light of the Moon is an album that asks the big American questions.”

The film “La Bamba” (starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens – real name Valenzuela but changed for crossover appeal) was released six months later and catapulted Los Lobos to fame when the Valens family recruited them to perform Valens’ music. The soundtrack album reached #1 on the charts. They followed up with the all-acoustic and mostly traditional “La Pistola y El Corazón”. While winning a Grammy (for “Best Mexican-American Performance”), it probably skewered their chances of a major career as a rock band. (Of note, they previously won this Grammy for “Anselma” from the EP “…And a Time to Dance”. Other winners in the category include Flaco Jiménez – an acknowledged influence on Hidalgo’s accordion playing, Los Tigres del Norte, and Los Super Seven, which featured members of Los Lobos.)

Title track from “La Pistola y El Corazón”, written by David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez.

With the changes evident from the first two videos above, it should be clear that Los Lobos were not ones to rest on their laurels. They teamed with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake to take their sound in a new direction. “Kiko” was both a critical and (minor) commercial success in 1992. They released the children’s album “Papa’s Dream” in 1995 and wrote and performed the score for the Robert Rodriguez film “Desperado” (starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek). The members of Los Lobos appeared on the albums of Los Super Seven, which also featured Flaco Jiménez, Rick Treviño, Freddy Fender, Ruben Ramos, and others. Los Lobos continues to record and perform today. The title track to their 2015 album “Gates of Gold” was dedicated to the memory of our mutual friend David Okuma.

“El Canoero”, Los Super Seven, featuring Cesar Rosas

Francisco González died March 30, 2022. This post would have waited for the anniversary, but the blog Powerpop posted something on the Blasters and I decided I couldn’t wait.

He would have been 70 today.

I was a college misfit. I went to a school that was a mix of (local) East LA kids on scholarship, and east coast boarding school kids. There were four of us from flyover land – two from Kansas, one from Detroit, and me. Scholarship kids, too. None of us could afford private school. And I soon learned I did not belong in LA.

One of the local kids befriended me and every weekend we hit the record stores in his blue Datsun pickup truck, where he would prowl the cutout bins. Sometimes the clerks would alert him to a new arrival. He listened to everything. He was a rock ‘n’ roll fan in a big way. While he never played a note, he moved on from college to working in record stores for the rest of his life.

He would have been 70 today but died in 2015, from complications of diabetes. I did not know until later, but he died with dear friends at his bedside. I wrote about him here. My eulogy wasn’t the only one. As the Coachella Valley Weekly noted about the 2015 Los Lobos release “Gates of Gold”, “the title track is a bucolic back-porch ramble tethered to a galloping gait. The melody is buoyed by honeyed guitar and loping Bajo Sexto notes. The lyrics look beyond the temporal pleasures of this world, focusing on more spiritual concerns. It serves as a sweet elegy for longtime pal, David Okuma who passed away in June.”

Gates of Gold, 2015
One of the best songs ever. The link on my original post has been taken down, so here it is again, from 1987. To me, this album was their masterpiece.

David and I traveled to San Francisco in that pickup. We hung out at the home of one of the rich kids from school at his home in Pacific Heights. Mom and dad had flown to LA for a party, so Gardner said we could sleep over. He sent me down to the kitchen for beers when his parents, dressed to the nines, walked in. Oops. I introduced myself and ran back up to his third floor aerie and told him what happened. Seconds later the phone rang. He said, “That’ll be Mom.” Somehow we passed muster and were allowed to stay. It was David’s first time out of LA. A few years later I convinced him to fly to Wisconsin to visit – his first time out of California. So much for my impression of all Los Angelenos being jet-setters. While he lived on the freeways of LA, he was a small-town kid at heart. His small town was the music world. His jet-setting was limited to chauffeuring his friends to the airport when they went on tour.

David Okuma, 1953-2015 – ¡Presente!

Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day

Our caterer failed to show up in Riverton Tuesday night, apparently thinking we were having breakfast Wednesday and then dinner Wednesday night. We were ferried into town and dropped at a seemingly random intersection, with no restaurants in sight.

I found a Thai restaurant and discovered three other riders there. While the food was good, the service was so slow I think they cooked the rice after I placed my order.

The caterer showed up for a breakfast that I’d rather forget. We headed out of town and were soon on new asphalt for 1/2 mile. It is amazing what a difference the road surface makes. I ride 3-5 mph faster on new asphalt than on chipseal. We hit another stretch of new asphalt later, which lasted longer.

Mountains loomed ahead and our cue sheet said 12 mile descent. It was hard to believe. We turned parallel to the range and continued on some up and down which began to feel like a slog. Leaving a water stop my rear tire began to feel spongy. Before I could get back it had gone flat. I walked the last 100 yards, removed a wire from my tire, changed the tube, used the van’s floor pump to reinflate, and was soon on my way. We turned toward the mountains and into a gap and were suddenly in the beautiful Wind River Canyon. While it wasn’t really a 12 mile descent, it was more down than up.

The third of three closely-spaced tunnels. Note mine shaft openings in wall at right.
Mine shaft a bit closer up.

We only caught glimpses of the river below and never in a spot where photography was an option.

Out of the canyon we came upon Thermopolis which claims to be home to the world’s largest mineral hot springs. Fearing that once I got into a hot spring my legs would turn to rubber with 35 miles left to ride, I opted for an espresso instead.

The ride got long after 85 miles. Arriving in town I spotted 4 familiar faces on the patio of a Mexican Restaurant. Beer was in sight, so I stopped before setting up camp.

I texted a photo of my post-ride beer to my co-workers. It was still working hours. This was their reply.

I set up my tent and clothesline, then took a shower. Storm clouds loomed on the horizon but appeared to be passing us by. They didn’t. Fat raindrops began to fall. Within minutes of hanging my clothes, I took them back down and ran to the tent to batten down the hatches. My head was holding up the tent against the onslaught of gusty winds. Since the last storm bent a pole, I did my best to hold the tent in shape with my body. The rain was minimal but the wind continues to blow. The sun is shining, the weather app says 22 mph winds, but the gusts are more like 40 mph. Each gust flattens the tent against me. At least I feel useful;) Soon I will have to leave the tent to its own devices to go eat dinner.

The camera operator (or director) never seemed to figure out that David Hidalgo was playing the guitar solos, so the camera avoids him.
Happy birthday JU!

Patriotic Music

Today we celebrate the declaration of freedom of one group of white, male, landowning imperialists from the tyranny of another group of white, male landowning imperialists. (I’m writing this on 4 July, but you won’t see it until the 5th, since everything goes live at midnight. As usual, if you just read your email you won’t see/hear the music links, so click the title and open the page.)

Samuel Johnson has been quoted (by Boswell) as saying that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Our current president hugging and kissing a flag immediately comes to mind.

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

In the 1960s, the people who were the equivalent of Trump’s base today had a bumper sticker that said, “America: Love it or Leave it”. Soon another bumpersticker appeared reading, “America: Love is not Enough”. The triumvirate concluded with, “America: Fix it or Fuck it”. I wrote an essay in high school in which I chose the third and concluded, “In my life, I want to be the fixer.” The elderly version of me would say, “I don’t trust any philosophy that can fit on a bumper sticker.”

I have seen other blogs listing “patriotic music” we should listen to today. As I rambled through 50 miles of countryside this morning, a few patriotic tunes ran through my head, so here is my contribution to the day. First, a potential alternate national anthem. I am far from the first to suggest that.

Much music has been written for “important” people. Aaron Copland decided it was time for a fanfare for the common people. (The imagery in the video seems to have been chosen by someone who had a totally different idea of what Copland meant.)

When I heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee perform this song I had a new appreciation for the song and the harmonica, and of the benefits of growing up in a college town so I could see and hear them.

Even presidents who accomplished great things in their tenure can ultimately fail. I always liked this intro, even though the song had nothing to do with LBJ. With a band name like “The Electric Flag” (with the subtitle “An American Music Band”) I had to squeeze them in, with their rendition of this Howlin’ Wolf tune.

Bob Dylan had to make this posting, and this one, while always timely, seems especially so again, with a new generation taking the lead.

Too often in Dylan’s shadow, Phil Ochs was a genius in his own right. It’s hard to pick one song, but this is one that those who don’t listen closely can misconstrue (kinda like “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen).

Richard and Mimi Fariña sang of (not) testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). A live version was recorded at the Newport Folk Festival. I have it on vinyl (the posthumous album “Memories” – beware – the CD version is not the same) but all other versions I can find are a vastly inferior recording, so this is the original studio version, since digitizing my album is beyond my capability. The album was a Christmas present from my sister, who heard it playing at a record store. She told me that if I didn’t want it, she’d keep it. No way was I going to let her have it. It grew on me quickly and I still have it 53(?) years later.

Antonin Dvořák showed that European classical composers can be influenced by the US, not just vice versa. And who can resist a piece that opens with viola?

Much is made of the American Dream. I grew up learning about America as a melting pot; a rich stew enlivened by new additions. But the longer the stew steeps, the smaller the influence of those additions. My kids learned a song in elementary school that told them “My town is not a melting pot/My town is a salad bowl” – that our identities are lost if they are melted together. Folksinger Charlie King taught me that America truly is a melting pot – “The scum rises to the top and those on the bottom get burned.” (One might conclude that we have to stir things up every now and then.)

We tend to forget that “America” includes a huge land mass stretching from about 70 degrees north latitude to about 55 degrees south latitude. The United States is but a small part of America. In Spanish there is a term for people from the US – “estadounidense”, roughly “United Statesian”. English lacks such a term which encourages us to forget the rest of America and think of ourselves as Americans and everyone else as Other. And we conveniently forget that people were already here when it was “discovered”. Not to mention that many think of American as meaning “light-skinned and of European origin”.

Whose version of that dream will be realized? Whose version is snuffed out too soon? Los Lobos asks the question.

Early readers will miss the next link. I forgot it yesterday when I got home. Leadbelly sang of hypocrisy and segregation in “Bourgeois Blues”.

Before hip hop there was Gil Scott-Heron, who taught us that “The Revolution Will Not be Televised”. Sitting back and watching is not enough.

Now that I’m home and can look things up, this list could keep growing. I realize women are under-represented. But I will stay true to the theme (this being a bike blog, not a music blog) of what I thought of and sang on today’s ride – with this one exception. What if we had a president who sang along with the Freedom Singers instead of retweeting White Power? (Oh yeah, we did once.)

I don’t know which should close – Gil Scott-Heron or Sam Cooke – but it’s gonna be Cooke. He started as a gospel singer, became famous to white folks as a pop singer, but I think this was his greatest achievement. It continues to send chills down my spine.

A real American – an oak tree on this morning’s ride