Saturday, June 7, 2014

Los Lobos 1980-1984: An Essay in Discography

The Wolves' story from this point on is better documented - but, surprisingly, there are some holes.  Some pretty big holes.

The story goes that, after having spent the '70s thoroughly exploring acoustic Mexican-American (and elsewhere) folk, they started to get interested again in the louder, rowdier, more physical music of their youth.  They started to play electric occasionally, and to hang out in the Hollywood clubs to see what was happening in rock in L.A. these days.  (As X reminded everyone, it wasn't getting played on the radio:  you had to go to the clubs to find the scene.)  And eventually they started playing those clubs, making converts out of everybody who heard them, no matter how skeptical they were at first.  And then they get signed to a major-minor, Slash, a Warners-distributed punk label, and that's how they get introduced to the world:  as somehow having emerged from the L.A. punk scene of the turn of the decade.  And that's why they get considered an '80s band...

And of course the last disc installment of this essay showed how silly that notion is.  But then again it's not totally wrong.  When they returned to electric music, Los Lobos made the conscious decision to work their way up through an authentic scene.  Maybe they perceived that as their only option, who knows, but the fact remains that, having already put in seven years of apprenticeship at one trade, they started from scratch in another.  And their first label was a New Wave label, and hell, you can even find photos of the band rocking the skinny-tie look.  It just didn't affect their sound in any noticeable way.  But that, too, is something that the L.A. punk scene allowed them that maybe no other would have:  X and the Blasters and Rank & File were also/already conscious of roots in a way that their New York and London counterparts were not.  And meanwhile some little part of the punk aesthetic does seem to have rubbed off on the boys - their early records especially were always short and punchy, no matter what idiom they were in.

And one more thing.  Before they signed to Slash, they put out two D.I.Y. singles, both in 1981. What could be more punk than that?  These were "Farmer John" backed with "Anselma" and "Volver, Volver" backed with "Under The Boardwalk."  And here's where our first big heartbreak comes, as Los Lobos collectors.  They've never been reissued.  Not on CD, not digitally.  And, except for that single youtube of "Farmer John," they don't even seem to circulate.  One assumes that "Anselma" sounds much like it would when they re-recorded it for the ep, and that "Volver, Volver" sounds much like it did when they played it live (and we have a live recording from 1983, as well as one from 1987 that was officially released on the 1993 comp Just Another Band From East L.A.: A Collection).  But what does "Under The Boardwalk" sound like when Loboized?  I would love to know.

The labels were reproduced in the 2000 box set El Cancionero: Mas Y Mas - we even get photos of the sessions.  But not the music.  It kills me.  Thank God the one side circulates, because it's revelatory.  Not least because the arrangement differs so drastically from the arrangements they'd use in live renditions in 1987 (when they played it at a gallop) and 1997 (when they turned it into the heaviest stomper you've ever heard) (neither of these versions have been released either). 

Let's note a couple more things.  First, on the "Farmer John" single they're still crediting themselves
as "Los Lobos Del Este De Los Angeles (Just Another Band From East L.A.)."  Did they actually consider that whole thing their name?  May be.  But on the second single (by the photographic evidence) they're just "Los Lobos."  So 1981 was when that change happened.  Second, both singles paired an R&B cover with a traditional Spanish-language number:  they were determined at this point to present both sides of their musical heritage as a single package.  A determination that has never wavered, although on their albums the English-language material usually predominates.  The point is, from 1981 on they knew what they wanted to do, and they did it.  Eventually the world would catch up with them.

Before we get to the e.p. there are two other early Lobos tracks that have to be taken into account.  In 1982 they recorded one song for a soundtrack that has never been issued on CD, Eating Raoul.  The first of a truly prodigious body of material recorded for soundtracks, tribute albums, and samplers over the course of their career, their contribution was "Diablo Con Vestido Azul," a Spanish-language version of "Devil With A Blue Dress On" first formulated by Mexican garage band Los Yaki.  Los Lobos' version, in true punk fashion, is taken at breakneck speed.  As a gesture it's almost too perfect - it's notable that they've never done Spanish versions of any other English-language tracks.  (The soundtrack also included a version of "How Much Can I Do," which one assumes is distinct from the e.p. version.  But how distinct?  Who knows?)

The other track is easily found because it was included on El Cancionero.  It's an original, "We're Gonna Rock," that was released (according to the box set's liner notes) in early 1983 ( says 1982) on a sampler called L.A. Rockabilly.  Maybe the fastest anybody's ever played anything. 

Note:  it's produced by Steve Berlin, saxophone player for the Blasters at that point.  He'd also co-produce (with T-Bone Burnett) their debut e.p. on Slash, released in autumn 1983:  ...And A Time To Dance.  He'd also play on it, but he wasn't an official member until after it came out.  And:  why debut with an e.p.?  Because they were on a New Wave label that was part of the doomed effort all through the '80s to get Americans to cotton to the e.p. format.  Again:  they're being marketed as New Wave.  (But then again, the title is a Bible quote.  Not very punk.)

This has never been released on CD, but it is available on iTunes and Amazon as a legal download.  Seven tracks, of which four are originals and three are covers, two are in Spanish and five are in English, and all are brilliant.  I never get tired, in particular, of "Let's Say Goodnight" (and how cool is it that an accordion is the first sound you hear on this record?), "Walking Song," "Why Do You Do" and "How Much Can I Do."  "Walking Song" in particular should be sought out - it never shows up on anthologies, but it's an addictive little two-step. 

The e.p. gained them a surprising amount of notoriety, not just because it was awesome, but because
in one of those flukes that Los Lobos' hard work would position them to capitalize on, that year the Grammies had a new category, Mexican/American, and "Anselma" won it.  They spent the rest of the year touring on the e.p., and doing TV when the opportunity presented.

It presented at least twice.  Once was an appearance on late-night upstart Alan Thicke's show, where they performed "Let's Say Goodnight" and "Come On Let's Go."  They sound pretty close to the e.p. versions (and they're gone from youtube now, so you'll never know), but Steve Berlin is with them onstage.  I think we can date fall '83 as when he becomes a full-time Lobo (although it's unclear when they made it official).  A momentous decision, in retrospect, to make him a member rather than just a collaborator like they would go on to do with drummers.  At first it was obvious, because saxophone fit in so well with their material, but as they evolved away from two-steps and '50s style r&b, Berlin was forced to find new ways to contribute.  He did, and the band was better for it.  To this day in interviews Los Lobos talk as if all of them have this shared East L.A. heritage, and Steve very deferentially never disagrees, but ever since 1983 he's been a member, and a huge part of their distinctive sound.

The other TV thing is another L.A. local PBS documentary that has washed up on youtube.  It's named after the e.p., but the striking thing is how many songs they play that aren't on the e.p.  The meat of the program is a live performance from 11/3/83 at L.A.'s Club Lingerie (Steve's onstage, although the anchor introducing the program still says the band's a quartet).  My favorite moments are a galvanizing take on "Why Do You Do," and three non-album tracks:  "Volver, Volver," "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday" (a studio version of this would be recorded in 1985), and "Sleepwalk."  Amazing stuff. 

This period - post-e.p., pre-first l.p. - is the first time we can get a handle on what electric Los Lobos are like.  The documentary is priceless in that regard, because no live album has been released from this period.  That statement immediately needs to be modified, as the second heartbreak of the Los Lobos collector.  In 2006 the band made an abortive start on an official bootleg series, to be called Chuy's Tape Box, and Vol. 1 was a show from 1/14/84 at La Casa De La Raza in Santa Barbara.  If this ever actually was released it was immediately withdrawn, because I missed it in 2006 and have never located a copy.  It's not on the youtube, not on the usual bootleg sites, and not on Amazon at all.  Two key tracks had already been released on El Cancionero, and those are essential.  "I'm Sorry," about as greasy a slab of soul as you could ask for, and "Las Ojos De Pancha," a ranchera that really cooks.

Of course it all culminates with their first full-length (as Los Lobos del nothing) album, How Will The Wolf Survive? In commercial terms it kind of started everything for them, but in musical terms it's a good conclusion to an era, because it sounds very close to the e.p., and the next time they entered a studio they'd be heading off in new directions.  I feel like I don't even need to discuss this record.  It's perfect, every bit as good as every bit of praise that has been heaped on it.  I still feel it's their definitive record.  Not that they wouldn't continue to do interesting work for the next three decades (and counting)...

It came out in October 1984 and was followed by essentially two solid years of hard-core touring to promote it.  That's a story for the next installment.

P.S.  Here's your perfect disc for this period, but if the singles every become available, make room.

From a 1981 single:  Farmer John.

From the Eating Raoul soundtrack, 1982:  Diablo Con Vestido Azul.

From the L.A. Rockabilly sampler, 1983:  We're Gonna Rock.

From the ....And A Time To Dance e.p., 1983:  Let's Say Goodnight, Walking Song, Anselma, Why Do You Do, How Much Can I Do, Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio.

From Thicke of the Night, late 1983:  Come On Let's Go.

From And A Time To Dance documentary, late 1983:  Why Do You Do, Volver Volver, I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday, Sleepwalk.

From 1/14/84 show:  I'm Sorry, Los Ojos De Pancha.

How Will The Wolf Survive album:  entire.

From BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, late 1984:  Don't Worry Baby.

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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Mystery Men (1999)

One measure of a genre's maturity is when it starts inspiring spoofs.  And yes, I guess those count for the project.  So:  Mystery Men

Good premise.  Some good gags.  I don't know, though.  I had the same reaction to this that I usually have when I watch American comedies:  I started wondering whether I really have become just another humorless leftwing academic. 

I mean, I can't stand Saturday Night Live and most of its spawn, and unfortunately SNL has defined the American comedic mainstream for, like, my whole life.  The basic SNL mode is class-clown obnoxious: bullying, smug, high-fiving, cruel, lazy, dumb.  I was about fourteen when I realized that the SNL strategy was entirely built around trying to find the next inane catchphrase that all the kids would be parroting on the bus next Monday morning.

TV sitcoms I avoid like the plague.

And it's no better with the other culture whose filmed production I'm familiar with.  I hate Japanese TV comedians, too.  Manzai acts, "variety" shows, all that shit.  Repulses me when it doesn't bore me, bores me when it doesn't repulse me.

So maybe I am a dour kind of guy.  And yet I can laugh hysterically, without restraint, at things I do find funny.  Coen Brothers.  Mitani Kōki.  Joss Whedon.  So I don't think I lack a sense of humor...

Anyway.  I didn't really laugh at this movie.  Chuckled occasionally.  I wanted to like it.  I like the premise.  I like the idea of sad-sack working-class superheroes.  Superheroes with weird, perhaps embarrassing powers.  I mean, it picks up on something central to the X-Men mythos, the idea that the superhero story is a story about physical or mental difference, and in the real world difference is not celebrated but denigrated.

But it just wasn't funny.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Second thoughts on Terrence Malick

I'm two-thirds of the way through a Terrence Malick project:  to see all of his films in a concentrated period.  In the last week I've watched Badlands and Days of Heaven, both for the first time, The Thin Red Line for the second, and The New World for the first.  By this time next week I expect to have rewatched Tree of Life and seen To the Wonder, which I somehow missed even hearing about when it came out.  I guess there's something to this ivory tower thing.

I expect I'll have more to say then, but for the moment, here's where I'm at.

I think I like Malick when he's at his most untethered.  He's not particularly interested in character or story, so he's at his weakest when he tries to stick closest to those things.  Conversely he's at his best when his material is so mundane that he's able to leap freely into the realm of what he is particularly interested in.  Accordingly, so far I think Tree of Life and Days of Heaven are his best.

I can follow him into the mystic.  Communion with nature, film as religious experience, the epiphany, the world infused with the glory of God.  All okay.  To be honest I'm not there right now in my life, but I was once, and the memory of it is still vivid enough that I will argue for it as an important human experience, and a valid subject for artistic creation.  I never want to get far enough into the material that I stop being able to appreciate Van Morrison or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  And that's the kind of vision Malick has, essentially:  "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."

That being said, I'm not sure that's the proper response to everything.  Proper isn't the word I'm looking for there, though.  I'm not sure that every occasion is created equal as an occasion for that sort of visionmongering.  There are some stories, some subjects, that perhaps might ask (in a polite, querulous tone) for a more conventional treatment.  Even if it might dictate different conclusions.

That's why The Thin Red Line and The New World leave me nonplussed.  The New World is a triumph of technique and feeling, but in the end it repeats the same old myths with the same old noble-savage rhetoric at heart.  The story demands more.  The history demands more.  The Thin Red Line is more promising - the bloodshed-in-Eden irony is rich with possibility - but the actual experience of guys in combat demands a little more respectful hearing than Malick gives it.  Both movies are notoriously filled with actors who are underutilized or even eliminated in the editing, and I think that indicates more than just an inefficient technique:  it indicates that stories are being considered and then discarded.  Suppressed.

Saying that Malick is uninterested in story and character is another way of saying that he's uninterested in people, at least as individuals.  As flesh and blood.  He's only interested in humans in the abstract, or in his own vision, which in the end is the same thing.  His mystic vision is the kind of religion that cannot allow for the messiness of real people.  It's antihumanist.  In a way that makes his films perfect for a particular kind of postmodernist:  a lot of us these days are very comfortable with the idea of humanity's perspective being decentered in favor of something else.  But this is also how the left wraps around and becomes the right:  Malick's diminution of human individuality in favor of the Big Truth isn't so different, in the end, from that behind an overtly religious epic like The Passion of the Christ.  Right?  There's no point in telling John Smith's story, or Private Witt's, really, because the only story that matters is the One Story.

Which is why I find Malick most satisfying when he's not pretending to do anything else.  Tree of Life and Days of Heaven are about nothing but themselves and the vision.  The Thin Red Line and The New World feel, especially the former, like they were supposed to be something else, something altogether more engaged with humanity, before the director gave up and retreated into his private world.

Badlands is the odd one out at this point, which is no surprise since it was his first.  I wish I could have known what it was like to see that without knowing what he'd go on to do.  It feels at first blush much more character-focused, much more invested in its people as people, actually interacting with each other and their environment, then his later movies.  But the archetypal aspects (retreat from man's world into the natural, yearning for the transcendent) are obvious.  And the nods toward a pop-culture-savvy cynicism, which might have seemed quite bracing in the early '70s when this was his only film, are now barely perceptible, and easily neglected because they're clearly not where Malick's heart lies.  Maybe they were then, though.