Saturday, June 7, 2014

Los Lobos 1973-1979: An Essay in Discography

This is an essay about collecting Los Lobos.  There are any number of short bios of the band out there, and lots of appreciations.  And I agree with basically every word of them:  they're on my short list of Best American Bands Ever.  But this essay, and the ones that will hopefully follow, is about collecting them;  it turns out that collecting them illuminates their bio, so I'll have some observations on that as we go along.  And as for the appreciation - the subtext of this whole project is that collecting Los Lobos only deepens one's appreciation of them.  They're a very deep band.

All the bios start with Los Lobos' formation in the summer of 1973 as a bunch of like-minded musician friends in East L.A.  They'd grown up on classic rock, but of course their neighborhood was steeped in Mexican-American music, and when they came together it was as a folklorico outfit.  All-acoustic traditional Spanish-language stuff.  They play in this mode for the rest of the decade:  lawn parties, weddings, college assemblies, restaurants, wherever they could get a gig.  They were a working band for a long time before they hit the charts.

There are a number of significant things about this first part of the bio.  It shows that their roots are thoroughly multicultural - or, if you want to put it differently, thoroughly of their time and place.  Throughout their career it's been possible to see Los Lobos in two opposite ways:  as a Mexican-American trad band who decided to embrace rock, or as a bunch of rockers who decided to embrace Mexican-American trad.  Both of these things are true. 

They came by their rock roots the same way that everybody else of their generation did.  From the radio, where they were steeped in things like Cream and the Beatles, who they seem to have idolized like every other American kid did.  And from whatever local scene there was:  in their case, that was the East L.A. r&b exemplified by Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midnighters (a scene that they've managed to mythologize in much the same way that Bruce Springsteen has mythologized the early Jersey Shore scene).  This, by all accounts, was the music of their teen years, and what they were playing in garages and on patios as they learned their instruments.  Which means that when they picked up the folkloric stuff it was a decision.  They came by it not as a chthonic thing but as a learned thing.

And yet of course it's true that, as all the accounts say, the boleros, the norteños, the corridas were part of the culture of their neighborhoods and their families.  So even though they had to apply themselves to learn the stuff, it was not a matter of learning about a foreign culture, but about their own, right?  Reclaiming their heritage.  They weren't Ry Cooder-like musical tourists.  This was where they lived.  And yet:  they did have to study.  It was a body of knowledge, of tradition, that required mastery.  They couldn't just pick up the instruments and naturally play.  Nor could they assume that what they grew up with in East L.A. was necessarily the final word on these songs.  Recall how carefully the style and region of each track is identified on their two all-trad albums.  That's the folk-music scholar in them, the student and educator.

This awakening to traditional music is happening against the background of the Chicano movement, of course, and that's significant.  They're not learning to play canciónes Mexicanas in a vacuum, but in a context where they have a particular meaning and significance to other people like themselves.  It's really cool that early Los Lobos were not just a gigging band but an activist band.  When, nearly twenty years later, they'd sing about "The Neighborhood," it's with a whole lot of lived experience and unquestioned commitment.

But it's also interesting that this journey parallels in a lot of ways those made by other American musicians of their generation or the previous.  Like Dylan they were into electric pop as kids, then when they grew up they embraced traditional folk, then when they grew up some more integrated the two things.  Like the Band they had an extended journeyman period, many years of living together on the road as a band, learning what it means to be a band, before they finally debut with a major label;  and the music they recorded later is vastly different from, and yet constantly informed by, what they played in their journeyman years. 

I've never considered Los Lobos to be an '80s band.  They fit in much more comfortably with '70s artists like The Band.  The closest parallels are probably Springsteen and Tom Petty, actually:  in both cases artists who came along just a little too late to be part of the '60s rock wave, who instead were experiencing that as impressionable young listeners, but who begin their own careers before punk comes along to erase the past.  Springsteen, Petty, and Los Lobos all share this relationship with the whole spectrum of American (and British) pop/rock/r&b, a delight in pulling out an obscure blues number or garage rock anthem or soul grinder and delivering it with authority and glee.  The idea of rock and roll (and rhythm and blues and folklorico) is important to them.

So it's easy to appreciate the importance of this first phase of Los Lobos' career, 1973 to 1979, when they were a trad acoustic outfit.  Easy to appreciate, and yet hard to really assess, because so little has been released from this period.  But there's a little more in circulation than is generally known, and it's instructive. 

In his liner notes to the 2000 reissue of Los Lobos Del Este De Los Angeles, Luis Torres mentions that as a budding documentarian he got Los Lobos to record the soundtracks to a number of small-budget productions.  Tantalizing tidbit: and how come none of that stuff has ever been released?  (That's going to be a constant refrain in Los Lobos collecting.)  Does any of it survive?

I don't know, but the Saints of Youtube have vouchsafed us one priceless document of early Loboism, and it does come in the form of a low-budget PBS documentary.  It's called Los Lobos Del Este De Los Angeles, same as the album, and it's a half hour from a concert the band gave at East Los Angeles College sometime in 1975.  It begins with a brief interview with one of the members, Francisco Gonzales, voiced over film of the band jamming outside on a hill overlooking the city;  then we join the concert.  It's fantastic stuff, including a tremulous early rendition of "Sabor A Mí," as well as a number of songs that weren't included on that first album, such as "Siete Leguas" and "Las Tres Huastecas."  It's good listening.

Wait - Francisco Gonzales?  I thought there were only four Lobos at first.  Yeah, that's one of the things this documentary reveals.  Los Lobos were originally a five-man unit.  The four we know:  David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, Cesar Rosas, and Louis Pérez, plus Frank Gonzales.  He never gets mentioned in the official histories - not in the notes to either of the box sets, at least, nor those to the first album reissue.  And yet not only is he taking most lead vocals, but at the end Louie introduces him as the guy who founded the band.  What happened to him?  It's a mystery.

The second obscure document of early Los Lobos is not quite as obscure, because it was officially released on record, and has in fact been reissued on CD and mp3.  In 1976 they contributed to a United Farm Workers fund-raising/consciousness-raising album entitled Sí Se Puede!  It's not exactly clear who played on what track but it seems that Los Lobos (who still included Gonzales at this point) are the basic unit throughout the album, augmented by a few other musicians and a number of singers.  Basically the whole album, then, can be considered a Los Lobos project, but they don't really step into the spotlight.  They only get one vocal number - "Telingo Lingo," sung by Rosas.  But of course their musicianship is on fine display, behind singers including Carmen Moreno (that's how she's credited here, although on the web she's known as Carmencristina Moreno) and Geree Gonzalez.  Of particular note here is the song "Mañana Is Now," sung by Geree Gonzalez:  it's an original by the album's producer, Art Brambila, and what's interesting about it is that it's a pure '70s pop ballad.  Not too remarkable as a song, but that means that this is Los Lobos' first non-trad recording, and they play it beautifully.  And that's a revelation.  Like, we already knew they could do that (the trad stuff:  "Telingo Lingo" is a trip), but now we know they can do this as well.

The third and last document that I know of from Los Lobos' first period is what I've already mentioned, their real debut album:  Los Lobos Del Este De Los Angeles (Just Another Band From East L.A.).  It came out in 1978, but they had been planning it for a while, it seems;  it's teased in the liner notes for Sí Se Puede, and at the end of the 1975 documentary you can hear Frank signing off with the subtitle - "Just another band from East L.A.!"  That title is, of course, an ironic nod to Frank Zappa, which in itself is forward-looking.  They were playing trad, but rock was still among their cultural referents...  This album is now widely available, because it was reissued in 2000 (with a previously-unreleased bonus track, no less:  "El Bon Bon de Elena").  Good deal.

By 1978 they were a four-piece.  Gonzales was gone, and as I say, there's no reference to him in the
reissue's liner notes.  Cesar is the main lead singer at this point, although the others join in on choruses, and David takes one lead ("Cielito Lindo") and one co-lead ("María Chuchena), and Conrad (!) takes one lead (on "Guantanamera").  Back in the '75 doc, Gonzales makes a crack about David's vocals - "at least that's what he calls them" - and that, combined with his minor role here, suggests that in their early days David wasn't considered much of a singer by the rest of the band.  Maybe it was just that they didn't feel his style fit Spanish-language things - even after he became the band's usual lead singer (and one of the most soulful singers in rock, for my money), he tended to leave the trad songs to Cesar. 

One more telling point to be gleaned from the credits on this album.  They only use percussion on a couple of tracks, and it's played by a guest:  Charlie Tovar.  When they went electric they would prevail on Louie to play drums, but evidently he never really liked it, and when they got big enough to make it possible financially, they started using session drummers.  In fact How Will The Wolf Survive? seems (from a careful study of album credits) to be the only album on which Louis was the sole, or even main, drummer.  And they've been hiring extra drummers for tours at least since the early '90s - first Victor Bisetti, then Cougar Estrada, and now Enrique "Bugs" Gonzalez...  Given the tremendous importance of rhythm and percussion in their music I've always been a little puzzled as to why Bisetti or Estrada were never official members.  Then again, the fact that there have only been two lineup changes (minus F. Gonzales, plus Steve Berlin) in forty years means they must have figured out something on the personnel front, so who am I to question it?  Anyway, that starts here.  So far from being a drummer was Louie that when they needed one for two tracks on this record, they hired one.

As far as I know that's the entirety of what's available from the pre-electric, folklorico-era Los Lobos.  One documentary, one fund-raising album backing up mostly other singers, and one album in their own right.  All of it pretty damn good, but of course all of it very pure folk:  I'll readily admit that as beautiful as I find it, I never would have sought it out if it weren't for what came later. 

P.S. It adds up to a really nice single disc (78 minutes or so) if you do it like this:

From the documentary:  The interview into whatever song that is they're playing first (it begins, "Chicanos somos, señores"); Las Tres Huastecas; Sabor A Mí; Siete Leguas; vamping behind band introductions.

From Sí Se Puede!:  De Colores;  Corrida De Dolores Huerta #39; Telingo Lingo; Mañana Is Now; No Nos Moveran.

The entirety of (Just Another Band From East L.A.), including the bonus track.

1 comment:

Jerry Beacom said...

Excellent essay. I, too, wondered what happened to Francisco Gonzales. He seemed to be the leader of the band in the PBS bit, but is never even mentioned in later stories, like something bad happened and they just don't want to talk about it. Strange.