From the Archives: The American Dream Lives on in Los Lobos
Wherever you turn on the Eastside, it seems you’ll find someone with something to say about Los Lobos. This story first appeared in print on Jan. 25, 1987.
CESAR ROSAS STARTED UP HIS 1953 powder-gray Cadillac, pulled away from the Virgin of Guadalupe statue and flaming red poinsettias that dominate a corner of his Monterey Park front yard and headed back to East L.A.
The paunchy lead guitarist for Los Lobos -- wearing a black satin, gold-lapelled sport coat -- was relaxed as he drove the familiar stretch down Atlantic Boulevard to his favorite Mexican restaurant.
“We just passed the Kennedy,” he said, motioning with his right hand as the car glided past the dance hall’s brick facade. It’s where generations of Eastside teen-agers have danced to bands such as Cannibal and the Head Hunters and Thee Midniters, who in the ‘60s elevated a song about cruising (“Whittier Blvd.”) to an anthem.
But Los Lobos surpassed their Latino predecessors, including ‘50s rock ‘n’ roller Ritchie Valens, by reaching out to national audiences and winning acclaim for their fearless brand of rock, road-house blues, country-flavored tunes and Nortenos, the lively and twangy polkas and ballads of North Mexico and Texas.
Their fame has also established the band as heroes in the community. Like Edward James Olmos (Sgt. Castillo of “Miami Vice”) and Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela, Los Lobos inspire by being at ease with who they are -- rather than posturing for Anglo acceptance. That wasn’t always the case with earlier Latino artists.
Old friends and new fans in the community see in the band a core of Latino values that embraces family, neighborhood and a deep sense of history that identify them with a new generation of Latino heroes.
“Even their shyness is a trait that blossoms in them as a group,” said David Sandoval, co-producer of Los Lobos’ first album (1978) of Mexican folk music played on acoustic instruments. “They not only reflect the values of the community, but they continue to live them as individuals.”
Added John O’Valle, 65, who has followed them since the days 15 years ago when they played records in his garage, about songs like “Will the Wolf Survive?”: “They’re talking about us. We have survived through our generations, through many things ... the Spaniards ... the French ... the Americans. We’re still here.”
All alone in a world’s that’s changed
Running scared now forced to hide
In a land where he once stood with pride
But he’ll find his way by the morning light
-- From “Will the Wolf Survive?”
Rosas pulled into the parking lot of the El Camino Restaurant on Atlantic, two blocks from the Kennedy. He chatted briefly with a passerby who complimented him on his car before going in to meet the other guys in the band.
The original members of the group -- Rosas, drummer Louie Perez, bassist Conrad Lozano and lead vocalist David Hidalgo -- first met at Garfield High School in the late ‘60s when they, along with dozens of young Latino rockers, were propelled into rock ‘n’ roll by the British invasion.
But it would be more than a decade before their first musical impulses led them -- via backyard weddings and neighborhood fundraisers -- to their show-stopping debut at the Whisky in 1981.
Since then, Los Lobos has added sax player Steve Berlin, built an international following, picked up a Grammy in 1984 and tied Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band in Rolling Stone magazine’s critics poll for best band.
They’ve also recorded with some of the pop world’s most respected artists, most recently contributing to a zydeco-flavored selection titled “All Around the World” on Paul Simon’s Grammy-nominated “Graceland” album. Their music has also been featured in a string of films, from the cult classic “Eating Raoul” to the soon-to-be-released “La Bamba,” the Taylor Hackford film about Valens.
At first, they had trouble grasping that they had achieved what for more than two decades seemed impossible: an East L.A. band becoming a success on its own terms. It took someone such as Waylon Jennings to record “Will the Wolf Survive?” to help them see just how much they had accomplished.
“We were so honored,” Rosas said. “We admire these guys. ‘Have you heard,’” he remembers telling his partners, “‘he’s doing our song?’”
They also claim that success, which for them means a recording contract with Slash/Warner Bros., world tours and enough money to buy homes in the suburbs, hasn’t spoiled them.
“We haven’t become callous,” said Lozano. “We’re just a little wiser, a little more responsible. And we’ve seen a lot of world, something I thought we never would have done.”
But in the silence of more than two years since the band released the “Wolf” album, many have wondered if Los Lobos had been seduced by pressures to commercialize their music. Their answer came Tuesday with the release of the band’s fourth album, “By the Light of the Moon.”
Songs such as “One Day, One Night” still draw from their neighborhood experiences, but also go far beyond them in their own vision of the American Dream. “Prenda del Alma” offers an arrestingly sentimental counterpoint to their earlier upbeat Nortenos, while “Tears of God,” a Solomon Burke-styled inspirational, explores a new spiritual strain.
“We’re very religious people,” Rosas acknowledged. “We really believe in our Christianity. We’re just Catholic folks.”
You’ll find out true
What mother said to you
The tears of God will show you the way
The way to turn
--From “Tears of God”
Wherever you turn on the Eastside, it seems you’ll find someone with something to say about Los Lobos.
“Sure, the local boys made it good,” said a scruffy Rick O’Valle, 36, John O’Valle’s son, standing behind the counter of the East L.A. Record Inn, a Whittier Boulevard mecca for customers in search of vintage doo-wop and R&B. “It’s like every day somebody comes in and says, ‘Do you have anything by Los Lobos?’”
Pete Yanez, 28, a gruff-talking RTD mechanic who lives on the Eastside, agreed: “The group is still the same. They still use the same dress. Pendletons. They are not all decked out, like saying, ‘Hey, we made it.’ They are from this community. These guys are proud to say they are from East L.A.”
Yanez’s friend, Ron Martinez, added: “White people have an image of East L.A. that is gangs and violence. But they are saying something that is positive about the community.”
Iliana Lopez, 23, a student at Cal State L.A., who didn’t know that Los Lobos had recorded an album of Mexican folk music, said she felt proud when their “Will the Wolf Survive?” video aired because Latino media presence is so rare.
She said the band also reaffirms what the American Dream is all about: “To me, they show how if you dedicate yourself and you have talent you can go anywhere, in spite of your race.”
Perez, 32, who wears a meticulously buttoned-down Pendleton, understands why some Latinos see the band as heroes.
“People read that into us because they see themselves,” he said. “These guys are actually a product of the community with both the good and the bad. The good being a strong, spiritual sense of the family seasoned with the reality that goes with the territory.”
The most philosophical of the group, he’s a second-generation Mexican born and raised in East L.A. His mother followed the migrant stream up from Mexico City, through Colorado, New Mexico and finally settled on the Eastside. His father, who was also born outside of Mexico City, grew up in New Mexico, later migrating to L.A.
Although it’s not the band’s principal intention, Perez is glad if they can help redefine the way Latinos see themselves and how they are perceived by others.
“For a long time many [Latinos] felt they needed to homogenize their values, even to the way they looked, so they could fit into this big picture,” Perez said. “We’re reaching a point, in our case, with our artistic worth, our educational levels, where we can feel more confident about who we are.”
But Perez said Los Lobos never set out to make a political statement, instead trying to please themselves by doing the music they enjoy. The fact they have the confidence to see universal themes in their own experiences is enough of a statement, he said.
The group also avoided creating music for a narrow audience, a stumbling block in earlier East L.A. bands attempting to reach broader audiences. Timing is another factor, agrees everyone in the group.
“If this [band] would have been attempted in 1975, I don’t know how far we would have gone,” Perez said.
Rosas, however, is certain about one thing. A lack of business experience and proper management stifled the development of other Latino rock groups as deserving as Los Lobos.
“It’s safe to say that they ended up with the wrong management,” he said. “People ripped them off. They got sucked up by greedy Chicanos. A lot of our peers deserved a lot more than what they got. They would have come across to a lot more people with better representation.”
It was meant as a gag when the band titled its 1978 debut album, “Just Another Band From East L.A.” But their fans understood that they were anything but ordinary.
It was an interesting mix of personalities and talents; the tall and quiet Hidalgo with a soulful voice and extraordinary knack for learning new instruments; the self-described sentimentalist Rosas who gives the band its blues colorings; the thoughtful Perez who has co-written the band’s most poignant songs; and Lozano, the elder at 36, considered by some the best bassist to come out of East L.A.
After starting as a party band during the late ‘60s, the group took what must’ve seemed a step backward by setting out to master Mexico’s regional music and its instruments.
But this seeming retreat into the challenging huasteca and jarocho traditions, for example, allowed them to cultivate a versatility and sense of ensemble that would later serve them well.
“I think we were lucky to be immersed in such a definitive style,” said Perez, who at that time played guitar. “Mexican music is so heavy on musicianship. It was almost like a theory course. Most American traditional music (which for Perez implicitly includes the music of all the Americas) is really complex. Not everybody can pick up a vihuela (an unfretted precursor of the modern guitar), a banjo or a fiddle.”
The traditional music also trained their ears to appreciate other strains of American music. “In a sense we’ve become musicologists in our appreciation for all kinds of music,” Rosas said.
The comfortable, countrified side of their music is, in a sense, a reflection of their love of Mexican ranchera and Norteno music. Cajun music, Rosas explained, shares the same joyful “intensity” of Mexican music. “It’s happy music.”
Their are other parallels with Mexican and country music, he added. “There’s nothing like a true song with a verse and bridge. We are really conscious about writing songs. With this whole commercial bull -- the techno-pop -- the song has sort of been lost. That’s why country music is one of the last holdouts.”
Beyond refining their technical skills, their relative obscurity gave them the kind of space to mature as a group and as individuals, said Lozano. “Personally, for me, I learned much more about myself. It did something to our personalities because of the brotherhood,” he added, “it drew us together.”
But this roots period would not have been possible if not for two factors: the increasing commercialization of the rock-pop scene with bands designed in corporate boardrooms, and the emergence of the Chicano political and cultural movement.
In the early ‘70s, Rosas said, a once vital East L.A. rock scene had turned sour. “It was really an ugly time,” he said. “We were subjected to learning [the group] America’s hits. I had to learn ‘Tin Man.’ Musically, our ears were burnt out on the top-40 tunes.”
Filling the void was the Chicano political activism of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, which provided Los Lobos with an audience hungry for their roots and a steady source of income.
“The weddings were really a cool thing to do,” Rosas said. “You got paid and fed well. It was laid back, you got to be intimate with people.” And most important, Perez said, they were pleasing themselves by gradually reinjecting rock into their performing menu.
But as cultural nationalism began to wane in the ‘80s, the group was faced with some hard choices: They could drift off into the obscurity of the cantinas and restaurants or try to find a place for themselves in the L.A. rock scene.
“It was hard to give up the community jobs for the Hollywood scene,” Perez said, about giving up gigs paying as much as $2,000 a weekend. But in the Hollywood rock clubs, he said, they’d only get paid $10 for a night or $50 and some beer. “Sometimes,” he continued, “we’d have to chase the guy with our check down the street. We did that for a year.”
And then Los Lobos opened for the Blasters at the Whisky -- and they were on their way.
Los Lobos’ climb hasn’t been universally applauded. Some members of the Latino community have complained that the band has turned its back on them by refusing to perform at private affairs or fundraisers.
“They’re not accessible,” said an individual who has followed the band but who asked not to be identified. “We are having a fundraiser. Can you sort of drop what you are doing? They say, ‘No, talk to my manager.’ Success has gone to their heads, some people say.”
Perez seemed a bit defensive when the point was raised.
“I feel very poorly about that because it’s not true,” he said. “Maybe they think we’re giving them some form-type of reply,” he said, but the group still performs for community events, including their Cinco de Mayo appearances at Lincoln Park.
Still, he said, the group will never be able to match their former levels of community participation because more of their time is now consumed in balancing their concert, recording and family obligations.
And as for playing weddings or baptisms again, that’s out of the question.
“It’s kind of silly,” Perez said. “We worked real hard so we wouldn’t have to do that anymore.” Looking out the window at the passing scene, he added: “That paletero [Popsicle vendor] is working hard now so he won’t to do that the rest of his life.”
Others, such as Cal State L.A.'s Sandoval, say there is also some lingering resentment among those who used to criticize the band for not being political enough.
But Luis Torres, a reporter for KNX radio and co-producer with Sandoval of the band’s first album, dismissed the criticism as simplistic and unfair.
“They were never political in an overt sense,” Torres conceded. “But they never had to completely define” their politics because their music did this for them. “The pride in their music reflects the obligation we should have to one another. Those threads are still there. It is subtly a statement about pride and identity.”
Los Lobos agree.
Even now, when Rosas sings “Prenda del Alma” with a wide, sentimental vibrato, he is making a statement about a tradition exemplified by Los Alegres de Tehran, a Norteno group they have long admired.
“When they die, it’s going to be the last of the Norteno singers that still carry on the old tradition,” Rosas said. “That was my thinking on that.”
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