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POP MUSIC

The Darkness to Ricky's Light

Menudo's Robi 'Draco' Rosa risked stardom for his own, haunted muse. The man who helped make Ricky Martin a hit still isn't compromising his art.

August 01, 1999|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | 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.' "

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