A Band (or Two) of Brothers
The sign at the rear entrance to Ordonez Mexican Restaurant in Montebello posts an odd warning: “Profanity will not be tolerated.”
Seems unnecessary, considering the family atmosphere in the place. Yet during a long, recent lunch hour, it would have taken more than a sign to enforce the rule at one table.
That’s where the Salas brothers sat, face to face across the chips and guacamole, revisiting old wounds in their long musical partnership like a bickering married couple. Before the cheese enchiladas had a chance to get cold, the simmering sibling rivalry between the veteran Chicano rockers had boiled over once again.
“I was always the leader of the band,” asserted Rudy, 53.
“Because he called himself the leader,” snapped Steve, 50.
OK, let’s just say the Salas brothers co-founded Tierra, one of the most successful of the Chicano rock bands from East Los Angeles from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Like other young activists of the day, they infused their music with an overtly political identity combined with a cool party spirit that blended Mexican melodies with R&B;, helping define the so-called Eastside Sound.
The band, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, had only a brief flirtation with national fame, with its biggest hit, “Together,” peaking at No. 18 on the national singles chart in 1980. But Tierra is still remembered as the East L.A. band that realized everybody’s dream, the Chicanos who made it to Carnegie Hall.
To celebrate the era, Tierra is scheduled to perform Friday in a onetime reunion concert at the Conga Room. If the Salas brothers don’t kill each other first, that is. Like that time in El Paso, years ago when they tried to throw each other off a hotel balcony. They ended up drunk and contrite, sitting on the floor of an elevator with a bottle of tequila between them, arms around each other, saying, “I love you, man.”
Reconciliations never lasted long. Steve, who walked off stage in a huff more than once, actually left the band on three occasions for brief periods over the years, as Rudy recalls.
“I didn’t leave,” Steve retorts. “My own brother fired me.”
About five years ago, Steve quit for good, and the brothers finally stopped talking to each other, for the most part. Same old thing. Disputes about music and money and management.
“He could never accept the fact that I’m his equal,” says Steve. “As far as he’s concerned, I’m still his little brother.”
So Steve formed his own band.
“There’s two Tierras now,” he gloats.
“There’s only one Tierra,” corrects Rudy, “and one terrorist group out there.”
Who’s going to play on Friday, then?
Ah, there’s the rub.
Originally, the Conga Room booked Steve’s band for a three-night stand. But then the club heard from Rudy’s wife, claiming Steve didn’t have the real Tierra. Her husband did.
“Oh, yeah,” replied Steve. “Who’s to say his Tierra is more real than mine?”
That’s when the heavy negotiations started.
Robert Vargas, the club’s booking manager, got between the two brothers on conference calls. The profanity rule didn’t apply, apparently.
“I was ready to cancel the whole thing altogether because it just got a little too sticky,” says Vargas. “And the theatrics and the drama was already draining me.”
Vargas proposed a compromise: Neither brother’s band would play. Instead, they would both put together a Tierra reunion band with as many of the members as possible from the glory days, the hit years which also included “La-La Means I Love You” and “Memories” from 1981.
Fine, they said. Then they started arguing about the lineup. At one point, Steve hung up the phone and backed out of the concert, with just two weeks to go. But he soon apologized.
“All I want to do is get through this thing,” says Rudy, digging through the guacamole. “This is the most agonizing gig I’ve ever had to do.”
“Likewise,” says Steve.
Public fights between the Salas brothers are nothing new.
They’ve been playing together since before their teens, singing mariachi songs at parties and neighborhood events. They started their professional careers--and had their first onstage fight--with the Percussions, later renamed the Jaguars.
“One time my brother punched me in the stomach because I didn’t want to sing a song,” Steve told David Reyes and Tom Waldman, authors of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” a 1998 history of L.A. Chicano rock. “I started crying and ran off the stage.”
Song and politics were always part of the Salas household in Lincoln Heights, recall the brothers, who attended Lincoln High School and participated in student walkouts to protest barrio school conditions. In 1970, two years before starting Tierra in their parents’ garage, the brothers marched in the Chicano moratorium in East L.A., an antiwar demonstration that turned into a violent street riot.
Ironically, write Reyes and Waldman, the riot brought national notoriety to East L.A., and drew the attention of record executives who had ignored the area’s percolating music scene for years. Tierra’s first self-titled album, released in 1973 on Twentieth Century, contains the complex composition “Barrio Suite,” still considered a Chicano classic.
The problem was, the record didn’t sell. And neither did Tierra’s 1975 follow-up album, “Stranded.”
“We had already made a pact, me and my brother, that we were going to be a musical force in this business, but in a Chicano way,” recalls Steve. “Not compromising at all.”
Tierra stopped recording for a spell, but the band remained popular, playing steadily at the Pasta House nightclub in East L.A. With $10,000 from a Schlitz beer endorsement, they gradually put together a new album on their own.
The major labels “all took a very emphatic pass,” on the record, says Steve. At first, Rudy recalls, he had to peddle the record out of his white Econoline van, pressing 500 at a time and selling them on consignment to neighborhood retailers. Then radio play got so hot they couldn’t keep up with demand.
Finally, the late Neil Bogart, the maverick music executive behind Donna Summer and KISS, offered Tierra $100,000 for rights to “City Nights,” re-released in 1980 on Bogart’s Boardwalk Records. Tierra’s triumph at Carnegie Hall came the following year.
“All of our lives everybody would say, ‘Yeah, you guys are good, but this is like the barrio. You’re not going to be able to compete with the big boys in the real show cities,’” recalls Steve about that New York show. “Well, we were so energized, so juiced. ‘Yeah, now tell us we can’t make it!’”
Though the brothers never had another hit, Tierra has stayed together in one form or another for more than a quarter century.
“I ate, slept and drank Tierra ever since I started the band,” says Rudy, whose group recently recorded a bilingual album titled “Two Worlds/Dos Mundos” for Thump Records. “Tierra outlasted my first marriage and I was married 24 years.... I’m very proud that the band has gone on, even with this [fraternal] conflict, and flourished.”
After three hours at the restaurant, the brothers had not settled any differences. But they both promised to set aside the conflicts and put on a good show Friday, for old time’s sake.
Tierra fans still wonder: Whatever happened to them?
“I guess we lost sight that we both needed each other,” concludes Steve.
Tierra plays Friday at the Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 10 p.m. $18 and $40. (323) 938-1696.