A cartoon strip by Brian McFadden that ran in The New York Times on Sept. 6 depicted a forlorn Statue of Liberty greeting a boatload of immigrants with a sign reading “Huddled Masses No Longer Welcome.” It’s timely, considering a new groundswell of build-a-border-wall, anti-immigrant politicians, and it all raises the question: What does it mean to be an American?
Here in the roots music sphere, the great Mexican-American band Los Lobos raises the same question, as well as others. Especially: What would this country be without its deep, meaningful roots in many other nations?
Los Lobos’ brilliant new album, Gates of Gold (released Sept. 25 on 429 Records), speaks volumes toward defining how America’s complex roots music culture feeds into the backbone of our national identity. It is possibly their best since 1992’s Kiko, and it reflects our national presumption of exceptionalism. Indeed, few American music groups embody “American exceptionalism” – in the best sense of that fraught term – more than Los Lobos. All its longtime members are second-generation Americans. Without the 14th amendment, enacted in 1865 to guarantee birthright citizenship, there might never have been a Los Lobos. Luckily, the promise of America has granted us their artistic legacy and their centrality to American culture.
The Wolves at the Door
Formed in 1973, Los Lobos remains amazingly vital and defiantly resourceful in their reimagining of American roots music. “The Wolves” have comprised the same men for decades: frontman Louis Perez; keyboardist Steve Berlin; singer, lead guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo; singer-songwriter/guitarist Cesar Rosas; and bassist/guitarron player Conrad Lozano. They are too mature and knowing now to produce something like the innocent jubilation that bubbles up from their cover of the traditional “La Bamba” – a teenage rock and roll hit for Richie Valens during the “happy days” of the 1950s.
In the early 1980s, trailblazing roots music producer T Bone Burnett, who scouted them in Los Angeles for Slash/Warner Bros. Records, was struck by Los Lobos’ potential.
“They were the killingest band in town at that point,” Burnett recounts in Chris Morris’s excellent first-ever critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue, published this year by University of Texas Press.
“With David Hidalgo,” Burnett continues, “you knew immediately that this was one of the most amazing guitarists, musicians, ever. That was not hard to tell. Cesar [Rosas] was such a bad, bad man. The whole band was great. Louie [Perez] is a killer writer.”
Burnett’s musical viewpoint and sensibility have helped shape much of the best of American music since that time. And Los Lobos dwells at the center of that whorl of roots, fed by a wellspring that has sustained them well, and for much longer than many others.
The personal story of the band’s primary lyricist, Perez, illustrates much of this, as do the songs that he’s created with co-songwriter Hidalgo since 1984, when their astonishing debut album, How Will the Wolf Survive?, was surpassed only by Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain for best album in The Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll. Rolling Stone‘s critics’ poll declared them both band of the year and best new artist.
No question, they were – and are – a great rock band with magnificent strains of multi-cultural music genres and masterful songwriting. In the title song from that ’84 debut, Perez cast a scenario of fear and determination in the image of a wolf, which resonated metaphorically and asserted the band’s identity as Mexican-Americans.
Standing in the pouring rain
All alone in a world 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
The song asked Americans to help keep hope and truth alive, as did the same recording’s more hopeful immigrant song “A Matter of Time.” Few songwriters have addressed the American immigrant experience so well since, though Perez says that the title song from Gates of Gold is another worthy metaphor:
Far away beyond those hills is a mystery untold
Far off almost out of sight, there’s beauty to behold
Which way to go, can’t say that I know
Mama, come gently rock my soul
and tell me please, what we’ll find behind those gates of gold.
Over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Perez told me he doesn’t want to reduce the song to any single interpretation. Yet the notion of the “gates of gold” as signifying the American dream for a Mexican immigrant underlies the song’s genesis.
“It is evocative but not deliberate,” Perez says. “But I can’t deny I was thinking of my parents. They were immigrants from Mexico, so I had that sense of their experience as a challenge. I saw what they went through, and my father’s early death had something to do with that.”
Though it clearly speaks to the immigrant experience, the gates of gold image can be understood in a broader sense, Perez believes, considering any human’s journey through this life, which is universally laden with both potential glory and disaster. The uncertain path of an undocumented immigrant reflects that of every man, woman, and child. Despite the gilded image it presents, the music in the album’s title song is unpretentious.
It opens with plaintive but chipper mandolin by Hidalgo, and then a funky shuffle beat unfolds. It’s a road song, and sounds like a person plodding toward destiny in a beat-up car, or riding a burro, or trudging on foot. The music evokes not the proverbial dream, but rather the persistence and perseverance of the human spirit. Maybe the dream is tucked away in a tattered back pocket.
Over the song’s rhythm, Hidalgo’s sweet tenor voice sings hopefully yet warily: “Some say it’s a place where you never grow old.”
The album’s cover, a photograph by Perez himself, shows a humble dirt road curving toward a magnificently radiant sunrise. Inside, another photo on the CD itself – this one by Noe Montes –provides a hazy, atmospheric aerial view of a smog-covered Los Angeles freeway. This is the same place that singer-songwriter Guy Clark famously hoped to escape – a road to the future, in another richly metaphorical American song.
Perhaps there’s no chart-topping hit like “La Bamba” on Gates of Gold, but the album brims with musical texture, surprise, ingenuity, poetry, and melodic and harmonic intrigue. One might imagine it as a great, heaving American banner: as if Betsy Ross had re-woven the nation’s symbolic fabric with 300 years of history – all the strands of glory, suffering, and tragedy that America has become.
‘The Gears in this Engine’
Perez notes that a huge actual American expulsion of Mexican immigrants happened right after The Great Depression, the mass deportation of up to 2 million Mexicans, more than half of them American citizens, by some estimates.
“That’s something overlooked in history,” Perez asserts. “Later, Mexican people were invited here through the bracero [manual worker] program initiated during World War II to import workers from Mexico to work in agriculture and railroad, a lot of manual work that a lot of American males had done who were fighting in the war. And yet, my father was a soldier fighting in the Philippines, and he earned a medal for valor. Latinos fought right alongside white Americans.”
I mention that John Kennedy won a Purple Heart for his celebrated heroism on PT 109. “As I like to say about it,” Perez quips, “JFK got a book and a movie out of it; my father got malaria.”
“Mexican-Americans have been here for a long, long time,” Perez says. “Our presence in the U.S. has always been a point of contention. Part of it is the proximity – we’re a chalk line away from Mexico. People don’t look at migration coming from Asia or Europe … [as posing] a threat. In the bracero program during World War II, they reached out for the best, most skilled workers. Americans learned a lot from those Hispanic workers. So we pay our taxes. People lose sight of how we make the gears in this engine turn.”
Which brings Perez to Los Lobos: “The group’s legacy reflects what it means to be an American band with a tradition that drew from our own contemporary experience. We made a tapestry of music, which somehow we made our own.”
Gates of Gold extends that tapestry like a stunning artifact wrought by master song and story weavers. The mastery shouldn’t surprise, but the group’s creative ingenuity continues to bear extraordinarily felicitous moments of music and Perez’s lyrical turns of phrase and idea. He even has a forthcoming book of various lyrics, prose, and drawings. The working title is Good Morning Aztlan, the same as the 2002 Los Lobos CD, “because that title song was a bittersweet portrait of people and life in East Los Angeles.”
Perez’s roots as a storyteller “go back to my family,” he says. “My mother played her folkloric Mexican songs a lot. My dad died when I was eight of a heart attack, in the family kitchen. So I needed to find something to fill a gap. I started thinking about things and imagining and writing little stories, about our life in the barrio.”
Perez met Cesar Rosas in middle school, but his songwriting began “when David [Hidalgo] and I were in high school and we were sort of hippies and both interested in the same kinds of music, especially left-of-center things like Ry Cooder’s Into the Purple Valley and Fairport Convention.
“We formed [our] band to do traditional Mexican music, which was really unusual for the time, for young kids to be doing music of a previous generation. So this gave us a foundation in terms of musical roots.”
Los Lobos also loved much of the new rock fermenting in the era, including Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and the Grateful Dead, as well as the blues greats. Hidalgo was a prodigy of sorts, adept at guitars, mandolin, fiddle, accordion, and melodica. That helped cement the band’s sound, but it also had to do with growing up in East Los Angeles, which was a rich wellspring of experience to respond to creatively.
“Boyle Heights, just east of the L.A. River, before it became primarily Mexican-American, was a Jewish community,” he adds. “I remember the Cantor’s Deli and pickle barrels and the Jewish Community Center. Mexican-American and Jewish communities merged to a certain degree. My uncle Jimmy Santiago married a Jewish woman named Ida Ginsberg. I have a half-Jewish, half-Mexican cousin. There were Russian, Serbian, and Japanese communities. I have Japanese friends. We all co-mingled, like in New York City.
“We created a barrio, which is Spanish for ‘neighborhood.’ Mexican restaurants arose, but the process can become a multivalent thing, or a bad thing. Sometimes you can draw a chalk line around yourselves, which can be unfortunate, though you feel comfortable and safe.
“There was a lot of oppression early on,” he continues. “My mother never wanted to talk about her experience because it was too painful. They’d rather have their parents and children become part of the American scheme of things.”
In the early ’60s, Perez’s mother put him in a Catholic parochial school, partly because the public school system discouraged, even punished, young people for speaking Spanish. As the cultural renaissance of the 1960s began, young Mexican-Americans in East L.A. joined in a huge walkout to protest the way the system was working in schools. The high schools seemed to overlook minority students as college-prep material, Perez says.
“They just sent them to shop classes, put them on the track to become laborers. But the white high school kids were college-bound.
“Today there are Latino political leaders all over the country,” he adds. “The entire American system has to take a look at who we really are. We are a cross-pollination of many different cultures.
“It was a rich community because we had all this tradition. I grew up listening to Mexican folkloric music because my mother loved it. I grew up across the street from our Lady of Guadalupe Church, which had many devotional songs. Mexican music on the weekends wafted through the air. Like many kids growing up in the U.S., we wanted to reject anything that represented [our] parents. But a lot of kids now, more than ever in East Los Angeles, totally embrace their culture. And now people like me have children who realize we need to be proud of our culture rather than sanitize ourselves. Unfortunately, political messages today say we pose a threat, that we’re criminals.”
Like a Family
The final member in the band’s lineup, Steve Berlin. arrived in 1982, with a Jewish Russian-American experience not unlike the East L.A. Chicanos.
Largely self-taught, as a teenager in Philadelphia Berlin played in a band that he says was “fairly advanced for the time.” They never recorded anything, but several of his bandmates later played with Frank Zappa. Berlin landed in Los Angeles with a version of the group called the Soul Survivors. When he encountered Los Lobos, Berlin had been working with Dave Alvin’s Los Angeles-based band the Blasters – which introduced Los Lobos to L.A.’s punk scene.
Berlin felt as though he was being underutilized by the Blasters, and his presence in Los Lobos flowed more easily. As the group’s only non-Hispanic member, Berlin feels profound kinship with his Chicano bandmates and the stories underlying Perez’s numerous songs about the culture.
Berlin’s Russian father was the last of 11 children and the first born in America. The elder Berlin could have been derisively deemed an “anchor baby” by politicians like Jeb Bush and Donald Trump; his son Steven grew up in the middle of America’s McCarthy-era Cold War versus Russia.
“We grew up in a typical second-generation American household, trying to do [the] best we could,” Berlin says. “We saw our parents struggle and they figured out how to make our lives way better than theirs were. [They emphasized] the idea of sticking with it.
“You see your parents live through shit and you resolve to do the best you can,” he adds. “In a weird way, it may reflect why [Los Lobos is] still together after all these years.”
To the band’s credit, when Berlin joined, it was a nearly seamless fit for the Jewish musician from Philly. Berlin’s saxophone played with Hidalgo’s accordion in a way that has become a signature Los Lobos sound, like a vocal trait that’s almost genetic.
“It was always kind of amazing to me, even in the early days,” he recalls. “There was no hazing process or anything. We spoke a musical language that surpassed whatever cultural differences [existed]. They went to school together, so my experience was different. But they always made me feel very at home.
“Like a family,” Berlin adds, “not every day was a picnic and we had our squabbles, but somehow we muddled through and are still here 40-odd years later.”
Roots and Branches
And, 40 years later, Los Lobos is well-loved both in Americana music and the Latin-American music community. They own four Grammy Awards and have recorded and performed with many major artists and at numerous major festivals. This year, the Americana Music Association presented them with a Lifetime Achievement Award for performance.
Perhaps a more palpable sign of their influence is the Los Lobos Cinco de Mayo Festival, begun in May 2012, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, where the band played some of its first gigs. Groups performing with Los Lobos at the inaugural festival included La Santa Cecilia, a young East L.A. group that follows Los Lobos’ original neo-folkloric model and won a Grammy award in 2014 for their first album, Treinta Días. Also present was Mariachi El Bronx, which blends traditional mariachi and punk rock and has included David Hidalgo Jr., who played drums on Gates of Gold (although Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez remains the band’s touring drummer).
Other participants have included roots-gospel-rock steel guitarist Robert Randolph and Los Super Seven, a Tex-Mex super group that included Lobos among their personnel. A third Cinco de Mayo event occurred in 2014 with popular Los Angeles Chicano rock band Ozomatli.
One younger group that Los Lobos has profoundly influenced is Quetzal, which won a Grammy for their magnificent 2012 album Imaginaries, produced by Berlin.
“Four homies from the neighborhood sticking it out for over 40 years has been inspiring to witness,” says the group’s founder, Quetzal Flores. His group, which radiates a strong feminist ethos, also thinks of themselves as a kind of family.
“The relationships built as a result of the music and band are based on a deep-rooted love and respect for each other.” Flores says. “Band members don’t always agree or see eye to eye, but there is a general understanding that gives us the space to participate and support one another in music and life.”
What first impressed Flores about Los Lobos’ music is how “their seamless embodiment of the Chicano experience through sound and poetry is in a stratosphere of its own. I remember the first time I heard ‘Be Still’ [from The Neighborhood]. I was getting hit from all sides. The complexity of growing up of Mexican descent while absorbing the beauty of the black American traditions resonated with my core. It gave birth to how Quetzal has imagined and reimagined itself.”
Last October, Los Lobos chose to perform their 1988 album, the all-Spanish La Pistola y El Corazon, in its entirety during a concert in Milwaukee’s Sharon Lynne Wilson Center of the Arts. The concert brimmed with joy, passion, and darker emotions. One sensed these compadres reaching deep inside themselves, giving it all up to the audience, even if many didn’t comprehend the Spanish lyrics.
When I asked Perez about the decision to deliver that full album in Wisconsin, his answer was matter-of-fact: “We thought it was time to revisit this recording because this was an important part of who we are.”
Los Lobos made the La Pistola record right after they had a number one hit with their cover of “La Bamba.” “Some writers said we committed professional suicide with La Pistola,” Perez adds, “but we felt it gave us the freedom to go back to what we have done in our earliest days.”
“When we created La Pistola, we had to make a decision. Were we going to be a pop band and play ‘La Bamba’ and sell corn chips for the rest of our lives and live comfortably? No, we couldn’t do that. I like the idea of La Pistola because the record would be available all over the world, like somebody in Kyoto listening to norteῆo music. So it was great.”
Los Lobos developed the ability to reach deep back into their Latino roots while still feeding their ever-potent musical impulses, thanks to a crucial under-recognized figure, Jesus “Xuy” Leyba, Berlin says. Leyba, who managed Los Lobos for a number of years, was “the band’s patriarch. He was the guy who, in his way, told the guys to dream bigger. He was one of the first Chicano studies professors. He was an amazing human being, like a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King – a genuinely gifted soul.”
Guided by a larger light, Los Lobos’ winding road led to an artistic peak, the 1992 album Kiko. The landmark album was partly a reaction to the laborious and unsatisfying experience of creating the previous album, The Neighborhood. Despite guest spots from such notables as John Hiatt and Levon Helm, The Neighborhood suffered from over-production.
“At that point,” Perez remembers, “we had to clean the slate. We approached the next project, which became Kiko, and we went into it with abandon. … We met producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake, who were interested in the same thing: a very eclectic and artful production. We wanted to do something completely different, that wasn’t tempered by somebody saying ‘this is what we need to do.’
“That record was a way to open up a channel for pure expression. I didn’t have to feel oppressed by the technology. We went in to use the studio as a musical instrument. Rather than laying down tracks, we tried using the studio as its own medium.
“I was reading a lot of Japanese literature, and the song ‘Saint Behind the Glass’ is based on a Japanese thing, with repeating echoes, round and round. A lot of reviews talked about Kiko having a magic-realist quality, like [Colombian novelist] Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I thought was cool, but I don’t know if we could live up to those standards. It was a heady thing.”
They decided to tackle Gates of Gold, their first studio album since Tin Can Trust in 2010, with a similar philosophy.
“We were getting closer to the recording date and David called me and said, do you have anything yet? And I said, ‘I was going to ask you the same thing,’” Perez laughs.
With pressure mounting, these old pros knew how to respond: First, they huddled in a rented writing room behind a nearby bookstore. Perez and Hidalgo began creating songs. They set some aside unfinished, while others came quicker, right in the studio with the blinking recording machines, bandmates, studio musicians, engineer, and assistants hovering. They did this in six different studio locations across North America, in California, Texas, Nashville, and Ontario.
For the fairly wrenching yet arresting album opener, “Made to Break Your Heart,” Perez says, “we agreed this was [going to be] a kind of retro thing. David was listening to Stephen Stills’ Manassas and Quicksilver Messenger Service bands and Mike Bloomfield’s innovative instrumental ‘East-West’ [with the Butterfield Blues Band]. So the slow section becomes this guitar opus. It was a lot of fun.”
Indeed, Hidalgo’s guitar solo on that track travels light years in just a few bars – the thick, bluesy guitar texture bespeaks Stills’ brilliant short-lived Manassas group, and the song transcends its failed-love theme with an expansive mood akin to “East-West” and the tides of time, where the sea “washed away our names in the sand.”
The hippest-sounding tune on Gates of Gold is “When We Were Free,” with its slippery, jazzy backbeat provided by guest percussionist Marcos Reyes and guest drummer David Hidalgo Jr., who plays throughout the recording. Berlin’s sax blows sultry and sweet amid the song’s deliciously complex rhythm.
“There were early L.A. clubs that combined R&B and blues in a certain way, with such names as Johnny Otis and Bobby Blue Bland,” Berlin explains. “So David said, ‘I kind of hear it as that sort of thing.’ That put me in mind of the Jazz Crusaders. So we [asked], ‘How would the Jazz Crusaders play it?’”
Another song with ingenious sonic magic reminiscent of Kiko is “There I Go,” driven by an intriguing electronic smear sound that dances around Hidalgo’s vocals – something that Berlin conjured up from his electronic keyboards.
Meanwhile, roots-genre maestro Cesar Rosas peppers the album with two Spanish-sung romances and two heart-bloodied blues, “I Believed You So” and “Mean Mis-Treater Boogie Blues,” which rides a ZZ Top-style boogie groove, like a man driving his lovelorn frustrations into the night.
A Perez-Hidalgo mini-epic, “Song of the Sun” bears a mournful melody and imagines a dystopia one might fear in the nightmare of the realpolitik-run-amok, terrorist extremism, and climate change toward which the globe seems tilting. Perez decided to grapple with the daunting perspective by employing a literary device – a creation myth.
“Yes,” he says. “The song evokes where we are now and where we come from. It starts with the notion of a creation myth, which begins with an element, like water or fire. It also is not necessarily talking about [the] environment.”
In unrhymed free verse, the narrator depicts a scene as an attuned reportorial witness:
When fire came to be born
and it felt so hot on me
then burned the flesh of men
from their bones
and left their souls to wander…
“It gets a little heavy, but if I think too much about it I might change the truth of it,” Perez says. “So we left well enough alone.”
The song redeems its bleakness with a beautiful closing water image. And we should be thankful, because these wolf survivors can see the fire next time, right through the rain. They can see what humanity might face, what it might lose, if it doesn’t change its ways with the world. The dream-like gates of gold also flicker with flames.
If Perez prefers to address his sense of the world through lyric and metaphor, his disciple Quetzal Flores sees how the Los Lobos method emerges as socio-political truth. “So much of the immigration debate is driven by political agenda in the electoral sense,” Flores says. “Los Lobos is driven by the human agenda. This is why a song like ‘A Matter of Time’ is as relevant today as it was when it was written.”
Steve Berlin minces no words. “You look at Donald Trump and Scott Walker and most everybody else in the Republican Party, and what they’re saying is both politically impossible and physically impossible,” Berlin says. “To deport 11 million people and to get the Mexican government to build a wall … . Obviously they’re trying to appeal to the least-informed people in this country, and they think that’s a ticket to success.
“God help all of us if any of them get close to the levers of power,” he adds. “Not only do I think they don’t have a clue, they don’t have a single policy success to point to. Some of these governors have wrecked their own states.”
“And right now, Mexico’s economy is doing so well,” he adds. “If you look more than an inch deep, the so-called immigration problem is that many Mexican workers are going back to Mexico, because they can get better work there than they can here. The economic problem is nothing like what Donald Trump is presenting.”
But a billionaire real estate-mogul-turned-politician is light years away from the immigrant experience. America has millions of stories like those of Los Lobos, which underscores the band’s essence to this nation’s culture, especially in a political season clamoring for “outsider” leadership. For this band, such inspiration might come from someone like the goddess invoked in the album’s final song. Named “Magdalena,” she possesses a Madonna’s grace, suggesting our deliverance may lie in the hands of a woman. With chest-heaving power chords, singer Hidalgo implores a woman with “midnight eyes black like coal” to help him in his spiritual quest. “Take my clothes,” he sings, “give away my jewels and all the gold. Let me walk along the holy road.”
The long artistic pilgrimage of Los Lobos has demonstrated that they’re not in it for the money, especially with the decisions made after “La Bamba.” The stunning new recording reminds us they’ve succeeded on their own terms, taking their place among the greatest of a true creative class that believes in the power of la familia in the largest sense, that which “takes a village,” as one more reflective American presidential candidate once said, quoting an African adage.
“There is so much trust and intuition we have between each other through 40 years,” Perez says. “I give so much credit to the rest of the band. We’re family. My son says, that’s Uncle Conrad. That says that Conrad is my brother. All we’re trying to do is make music and make some difference in this tiny space in this world, and bring joy to it.”
Burnett, in Los Lobos: Dream in Blue, sums up the group’s legacy: “I think Los Lobos have written some of the best social commentary music of the last half-century. They carried out a very courageous tradition, extraordinarily gracefully. … By their very existence, they were a social comment, and they lived up to that.”