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They're an American Band

From East L.A. to the East Coast, Los Lobos Holds aSpecial Place on the Pop Landscape By Oscar Garza

June 06, 2004|Oscar Garza | Oscar Garza is deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

They have stayed together longer than any of the groups commonly identified as "quintessential L.A. bands"--The Beach Boys, The Doors, The Eagles, X--so, on longevity alone, it can be argued that Los Lobos is undisputed holder of the title. But the band is about more than simply persevering in an industry that is always looking for The Next Big Thing.

At their beginning 30 years ago, Los Lobos were three Chicano sons of East L.A. and one Mexican-born member raised in the U.S. In the early '80s, they were joined by a Jewish, Philly-born sax player recruited from the Blasters, another signature L.A. band.

The title of Los Lobos' new album, "The Ride," refers to the band's three- decades-long journey. There are no liner notes in the CD package, but there is this simple statement accompanying a photo of the band: Los Lobos still are Louie Perez, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, Steve Berlin.

Still.

"We were friends before we were musicians together," Perez says. "We met in high school. All our moms knew each other. If we ever thought of breaking up, our parents wouldn't have allowed it.

"I really don't know what our secret is. Bands fall into ruts, they have artistic differences. But we've maintained our enthusiasm and sense of discovery."

The Wolves have mixed their influences into a distinct sound that possesses the primary hallmark of great popular music--timelessness. And the music isn't tied just to Southern California, or even the border region. Like The Band (another group they've long outlived), the Lobos make music that resonates throughout the land, their songs--in English or Spanish--often addressing themes that define the commoner's struggle for survival and a place to belong. And so it can be argued that Los Lobos isn't just the definitive L.A. band--it's the quintessential American band.

That claim is cemented on "The Ride," on which they revisit some of their older songs--featuring collaborations with artists whose work they have long admired.

On "Is This All There Is" (originally on "By the Light of the Moon," 1987), Little Willie G -- a veteran of the East L.A. music scene whose '60s bands inspired Los Lobos -- provides a soulful vocal to the poignant tale of working-class hardship:

Fifteen years on a sewing machine

Where twisted hands don't mean a thing

Wondering to herself/ Is this all there is?

And they all came to talk about it

They came to cry and laugh and fight about it

All searching for the promised land

Tired souls with empty hands

Asking to themselves/ Is this all there is?

Seventeen years after the original version, the song conjures a different possibility: the sweatshop could now be a high-tech company; the seamstress a lowly word processor; her sewing machine a keyboard; her twisted hands the result of repetitive stress.

The song title mirrors "Is That All There Is?" -- the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller composition (made famous by Peggy Lee) that, oddly enough, includes lyrics that identify a defining characteristic of Los Lobos' music:

Is that all there is?

If that's all there is, my friend

Then let's keep dancing...

Many of the band's socially minded songs are set to music that makes it impossible for the listener to sit still. This is the soundtrack to the workingman's weekend cry of release: Dance your blues away. That mind-set was established with Los Lobos' first album for Slash Records, " . . . And a Time to Dance" (1983). The album cover features a snapshot, by L.A. photographer Gary Leonard, of a young couple dancing. It was taken in the early '80s at a club in Echo Park, but the black-and-white image belies space and time. With the young man's short hair and button-down shirt, and his partner's bouffant hairdo and high-waisted skirt, it could be a Friday night at a blue-collar club anywhere in the country, anytime in the last 50 years. And they look as if they're dancing to a band that sounds a lot like Los Lobos.

Also on "The Ride" is "A Natter of Time" (from 1984's "How Will the Wolf Survive?"). Here Elvis Costello turns the original's twangy swing into a poignant ballad:

Speak softly, don't wake the baby

Come and hold me once more, before I have to leave

'Cause there's a lot of work out there, everything will be fine

And I'll send for you, baby, just a matter of time.

And I hope it's all it seems, not another empty dream

There's a time for you and me, in a place living happily.

Costello once sang the song to striking miners in his native England, but it was originally written about a Mexican migrant worker headed for the U.S. border. Twenty years later, the song maintains that resonance. Mexicans continue to leave their families behind. Crops must be picked. Food must be put on the table -- theirs and ours.

in "wicked rain" (originally on "kiko," 1992), r&b stalwart bobby womack lends a gritty vocal to the bluesy lament:

Father, father, father/Why do you let your sons go astray

Brother, brother, brother/Why must we go on this way

There's a storm off in the distance/And it looks like it's here to stay

Next time you're watching the news from Iraq, turn down the TV and listen to "Wicked Rain." Again, a Lobos song echoes an influence. Here it's Marvin Gaye's Vietnam-era classic, "What's Going On?":

Brother, brother, brother/there's far too many of you dying

You know we've got to find a way/to bring some loving here today

Father, father/we don't need to escalate

War is not the answer/for only love can conquer hate.

"What's Going On" is in the wide repertoire of cover songs that Los Lobos perform in concert, along with "Good Lovin'," "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," "Not Fade Away," "Cinnamon Girl," "Born on the Bayou." But there's one perfect song they should add: Grand Funk's "We're An American Band." Sure, it's cheesy, and the band's die-hard fans might laugh. But no one would argue.

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