The Darkness to Ricky's Light

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Times staff writer

Speak of Robi "Draco" Rosa, and you're speaking of the anti-Ricky Martin.

For in the beginning, businessman Edgardo Diaz created Menudo. And Menudo was without form, and void. And Diaz said, Let there be Ricky. And there was Ricky. And Diaz said, Let there be Robi. And there was Robi.

And Ricky rejoiced and was good and went on to appear on Broadway and in soap operas and broke forth in singing and conquered the Earth.

And Robi quit Menudo, then the world's reigning teen pop group, in disgust-- because Diaz wouldn't let him write songs. And Robi read French poetry and painted and wandered for a thousand days and a thousand nights through Brazil and grew a long beard and recorded albums of thick, eerie rock and got into fistfights. And Robi held court in his massive hotel room with two pianos, sculptures, poets and troubadours and artists. And so Robi was declared talented but weird, and bought a motorcycle and did get tattoos.

And in the 10th year of his defection, Robi was called forth by Ricky, who had heard the haunted songs and said they were good and wanted some.

And Robi co-wrote and produced Ricky's hit "Maria," and the people said it was good. And Robi co-wrote and produced Ricky's hit "The Cup of Life," and the people said it was also good. And Robi co-wrote and produced Ricky's first English hit, "Livin' la Vida Loca"--and much of the rest of the album it is on--and the people have so far bought more than 3 million copies in the U.S. alone.

At first, Robi used a fake name, Ian Blake, to write Ricky's songs, ducking from happy pop as a vampire slinks from daybreak. But fans and critics noticed an unusually dark edge to "Ricky's" music, and many called it impressive. And Robi reclaimed his name.

And it is precisely this striking artistic vision that has many industry insiders predicting that long after Menudo's golden boy, Ricky Martin, has faded from the public eye, Menudo's bad boy, Robi Rosa, will be the one with staying power--as a writer, producer and artist.

Rosa is late, but only a little. Unhurried, he strolls into the lush, nearly tropical lobby of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, a place where John Belushi died, where Sting has frequently stayed, a place that--like Rosa--is fashionable without being self-conscious, classic in its clay floor tiles, dark wood, white plaster and green, fringed plants.

His curly black hair is pulled into a ponytail, his face that of a younger, prettier Che Guevara. He wears jeans and a dark shirt, made just for him by designer Henry Duarte, his buddy.

Rosa's smile shocks, because in his tortured music videos he writhes in Lenny Kravitz-like agony and wears metallic black powder corpse-like above and below his eyes. In a painted self-portrait, he points a gun to his head. But in person, he sparkles, attentive and cordial, laughs a lot, and brags whenever he can about his 4-year-old son, Revel Angel, and his actress wife, Angela Alvarado.

In all, Rosa, 30, has made five solo albums in three languages in the past decade. Although critically acclaimed, none has met with commercial success, and Rosa couldn't care less.

If you ask, he'll talk about the more famous projects he's recently done with Martin. But not excitedly. He does not describe Martin as a close friend. And the people Rosa does call friends say Rosa did the Martin projects mostly to finance many less-commercial personal projects, including two solo albums, 1994's "Frio" and 1996's "Vagabundo," both in Spanish and released by Sony Latin. An English version of "Frio," called "Songbirds & Roosters," was released last year.

The morose, orchestral rock songs of "Vagabundo," his favorite work, straddle the razor wire between metal and mysticism. Rosa's sexy, plaintive voice growls and wails through lyrics about slow death, pain and perpetual outsider-dom--but across instinctively catchy melodies with well-defined hooks that could easily sell as commercial pop--if recorded in that idiom.

While some call Rosa's solo work dark, he shrugs off that definition. "To me, it's not dark. Look at Beethoven, that's dark. And when I sit back and listen to his pieces, I feel embraced by the warmth. It's so sad and beautiful. . . . I love the intensity. It just wreaks love. That music opens an endless abyss to an amazing place. I try to get to that place in my music, in a humble way."

Rosa just signed a lucrative co-publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music, whose senior vice president for Latin music, Ellen Moraskie, signed him years ago to a one-album deal when she was in Sony Music's publishing wing. She, like many, says Rosa is a "genius."

According to Moraskie, Rosa's success via Martin has labels suddenly clamoring for a piece of Rosa, a man "they used to basically ignore."

Of his new suitors, Rosa says, "I see these guys all the time in airports. You know, they're so full of [expletive] and they're so cheesy. They say, 'Hey, Robi, write me a song, I'll call ya babe.' "

Rosa pantomimes someone winking and pointing a finger like a gun. "What the hell do they think I am? I never call them."

The only artists other than Martin for whom Rosa has written and produced are Julio Iglesias and Puerto Rican singer Ednita Nazario, whose voice Rosa adores.

Rosa's time is occupied with his new rock band, Gringo Star, whose album is due out next year, and with a new foundation he set up to help surfers in Puerto Rico. He also has his own label, Phantomvox, and an Internet portal of the same name.

He's also readying an exhibition of his paintings in Puerto Rico, and is working on a feature-length animated movie about a superhero, with music for a 130-piece orchestra composed by Rosa. The superhero in the film must rescue a woman jailed in old San Juan, Puerto Rico, whose hair is in flames.

Rosa's connection to Puerto Rico, birthplace of his parents and site of his second home, is strong.

Though he was born on Long Island, he returned to Puerto Rico at the age of 7 after his impulsive father, Norberto Rosa, a jeweler, grew furious that his three children could not speak Spanish and moved the whole family to the small village of Penuelas.

Rosa says he suffered greatly because he didn't want to leave New York, where he was the star of his school drama program, and because the kids in Puerto Rico called him a "gringo" and beat him up. He resented his father for moving him, and left home at 13 because of tension between them.

Rosa moved in with an uncle in San Juan in 1983. Shortly after that, another uncle suggested his nephew try out for the group Menudo, which was holding auditions in San Juan.

Within months, Rosa was standing in front of thousands at Radio City Music Hall, alongside a short kid named Ricky.

"That was my first show," Rosa says. "I remember I was scolded by the manager for dancing too much. I was out there and I was doing my thing. I had my one chance to go nuts and I did. I threw myself on the floor. I lived the moment."

Rosa was given lead on 14 of the group's 21 songs and was, according to former fan club members, the most popular. He remembers driving with the group from an airport in Brazil to the city, and "there were people lined up on the streets all the way, about two hours, that kind of sick kind of thing."

After five years of touring the world with Menudo, Rosa started to write songs, only to have the managers laugh at him, he says.

And that was the beginning of the end of him in the group.

"I started getting bored," Rosa says. "I was running into great literature, all the French poets. . . . I had a different ear to music. . . . All of the sudden I became more and more detached from Menudo and what it symbolized and what it was all about. . . . The only time I was having a good time was when I wasn't being a Menudo."

Rosa quit the group during a tour of Brazil, where he stayed, partly because it was rumored he would be killed in Puerto Rico, where abandoning Menudo was seen as "spitting on the plate that feeds you, or whatever," Rosa says, and partly because he wanted to see the world on foot.

At the time he left, he was singing 90% of the leads. Panicked, a promoter for the group offered him $100,000 to stay. He did not.

Rosa used the money he saved up to travel and landed a solo contract with BMG Latin America in Brazil. He recorded two rock albums in Portuguese.

After he witnessed a murder in Brazil, however, Rosa moved back to the states, traveling between New York and Los Angeles. He became the lead singer in a short-lived metal-funk band called Maggie's Dream but quit in order to "clean up" his life.

After that came the solo deal with Sony International, which produced "Frio," "Vagabundo," and "Songbirds & Roosters," albums that led to a cult following in the Spanish-language rock world, and respect among rockers across the pop spectrum.

"Rob is an amazing singer and dancer and writer," says Gringo Star's Rusty Anderson, who played guitar on "Livin' la Vida Loca." "But he's erratic and artistic and hard to nail down, shy one minute and a flailing madman the next."

Rosa's relationship with Sony eroded because, he says, "I didn't jump through the hoops they wanted me to." Translation: He got into fights in Spain; he trashed hotel rooms; he refused to go on an important TV show in Argentina to promote his album because, he says, the show was "infantile." The president of the label ended up going on the air to apologize for his absence, saying Rosa was ill, and the promotional money soon dried up.

Worst of all, say those who know Rosa, he was honest, all the time, to everyone, in a business where "diplomacy" (read: lying) is something of a survival skill.

Then Rosa ran into Martin, who asked him to write some songs. Thinking primarily of sending Revel Angel to college, he did.

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And the songs took wings and flew around the world, and the melodies and sounds of the very soul of Robi wore the chiseled face of Ricky. And yet they could have worn Robi's face, couldn't they? For the universe made it that Robi sings as well as Ricky, looks as good as Ricky, writes and produces better than Ricky.

Why wasn't it Robi on the cover of Time and Rolling Stone?

Because Robi does not want that and says certain people are cut from the pop idol cloth, and says Ricky is one of those people and says he is happy for Ricky and says that Ricky "was born for what is happening to him," and says that he, Rosa, would never trade places with Ricky in a million years.

And could it be, that in the most biblical sense, Ricky's time, as is said in that book, is "a very shadow that passeth away, and after his end, there is no returning, for he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted upon" (just like Rico Suave, Hammer and Vanilla Ice)?

While for Rosa, who greeted 30 not with the terror of the mirror-conscious, but with the peace of the spirit-based, because, he says, art flowers from here to the end, for him, for this angel fallen from Menudo, it appears there will be life everlasting.

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