Mon 8 Jul 2013
I was asked by Marissa Lopez, my colleague at UCLA, to write the introduction to a symposium (really just a public chat session with music critic Nikki Darling and Jose Maldonado of the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, a Smiths tribute band) concerning Latinos and Emo, probably because of my love of all things Morrissey. This is it, pretty light stuff and written rather quickly but I hope you like:
Introduction to Lat/emo
May 31, 2013
Over the past three or so years I’ve been researching the LA post punk scene, collecting whatever free music is or was available online, going through the used record bins at Amoeba and Counterpoint and various other places in LA, and making a ton of online purchases at sites like Discogs and Musicstack.
My interest in post punk as a genre of music was spurred by Simon Reynolds Rip It up and Start Again which charted the histories of such bands as Joy Division, Devo, The Associates, Scritti Politti, Pete Ubu and others that formed on the cusp of, or in some cases prior to, the punk music explosion of ’77.
My knowledge of LA music, outside of the mainstream either of the early 70s (Fleetwood Mac, Tom Waits, Jackson Brown, etc.) and of the later hair metal era (Mötley Cru, Guns n Roses, etc.), was mostly confined to some punk and hardcore, and even at that it was quite limited — Black Flag and X might have been the only LA punk bands I could have named when I got here.
Soon I discovered such lost gems as the Screamers, Suburban Lawns, the very obscure Null and Void and the even more obscure Wild Kingdom — whose only recording was published as a flexi disk insert for a music fanzine (Brad Laner has a rip of it on the website for his radio show).
From Pasadena, most of Wild Kingdom was made up of Latinos — you can see them on YouTube from their appearance on Peter Ivers new wave theater (the sound is awful) — but that is only worth noting for the rather elaborate pompadour, leather jacket and suede shoes of their lead guitarist. Wildly experimental, I don’t hear too much Chicano influence in their music; the track, “Roma/Destiny,” starts as ebullient space music with one of the most unusual drum beats I’ve ever heard, to something like carny music, then back to space music again.
[The video below is from their appearance on New Wave Theater with horrible sound. The track "Roma/Destiny," their only studio recording, is a thousand times more interesting but you get a sense of their appearance and instrumentation here.]
I focused on post punk also because that’s kind of the music of my youth — and not punk, which predates me a bit and besides was a little too aggressive for my sensitive poetic soul in my teen years (I was also an MTV kid, and punk never really broke there). So my goal, really, was to uncover whatever music in LA that matched up with that post punk aesthetic — experimental, sophisticated but still DIY, at once political and concerned with emotions and solitude, and wildly imaginative (costumes, make-up, synths and videos shot in exotic locations — and which didn’t make it across the country to New Jersey.
I was surprised at how many musicians of color — Latino but also a fair amount of Asians (Dianne Chai of the Alley Cats, Susan Rhee of Susan Rhee and the Orientals, a woman who goes by the name of Cyrnai) and even black presence (notably Pat Smear but also a ska band called the Untouchables and, of course, Fish Bone) — were on the scene, if not at the start, then later.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was really in the Latino music (with the exception of Fish Bone) that one heard a real cross cultural mix — not in every song, perhaps, but overtly at moments and maybe as a subtle undercurrent of pining after, or critique of, the American Dream that is buried deep in the mix and the lyrics but which decidedly reflects the attitudes of generations of Latino US culture. Not nihilism but an allusive poetry, not just critique from the outside but politics from within the margins.
East LA had its own club, The Vex (started by Willie Herron of Los Illegals) partly to address the fact that most east LA bands outside of the Plugz and, later, Los Lobos couldn’t get gigs on the Strip. The Vex clubs became a meeting place for the punk bands and the more traditional Mexican music that had a young audience (a good compilation of this music is Los Angelenos – the Eastside Rennaissance, which includes the Plugz, the Brat among other obscure acts).
Probably the Chicana musician most associated with the LA punk scene is Alice Bag, born Alicia Armendariz, front woman of the band the Bags. I haven’t read her autobiography, Violence Girl : East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story, but reviews show her story to have been, indeed, quite violent and not a little inspirational.
Bag might better remembered as a great charismatic figure in the early days of punk — she did in fact wear bags — though the recordings of the music I’ve heard (mostly live tracks) seem to fit the punk, and not post punk mode I was looking for. She’s featured in Penelope Spheeris documentary about the LA punk scene The Decline of Western Civilization though after the band had broken up — she left music to become an educator.
But I think the most important bands for the purposes of a conference on Latino emo would be the Plugz and the Brat. The Plugz were far more accomplished — their first LP, Electrify Me, which features their punk version of La Bamba (which figured in the Repo Man soundtrack) was full on electric guitar-bass-drum punk. I’ve lost my copy of this LP so couldn’t review it (neither the Plugz nor the Brat feature — surprise! — on Spotify).
Their second, Better Luck, features better production and more accomplished songwriting — Tito Larriva, their lead singer and songwriter, could fit easily among the “angry young man” post punk generation of the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello — as well as the inclusion of horn sections, entire songs in Spanish, complex harmonies, and pastiches of various styles of music such as reggae, a kind of jerky Devo-ish beats, jangly pop and traditional Mexican.
Larriva’s lyrics are poetic, including humorous reflections on So-Cal life in the 70s such as waiting on a gas line — the outro to that tune pleads “Don’t light a match! Don’t light a match! Don’t light a match!” etc. — watching unattainable, if slightly sketchy, girls on a hot day on the street (which he recorded for an important album of spoken word poetry in LA), the tale of an American who “took the bait” (I think a critique of mindless capitalism), and somewhat gruesome evocations of having a brother involved in violent street crime, slot throats and all.
This sort of mix seems not inimical to Morrissey himself, who could often mix politics, ethics, infatuations with the life of crime and erotic longing in a single song. Larriva — who also had a great voice, not the most versatile tool but distinctive, an urban existentialist singing through the clenched teeth of a gangster — went in to form Cruzados, Tito and Tarantula and others and he is also known as an actor in Roberto Rodriguez films and elsewhere. He’s also scored films.
Lesser known is Teresa Covarrubias, lead singer of the Brat (other members included brothers Rudy and Sidney Medina), which only managed to record an EP for Larriva’s own label, Fatima records. Covarrubias is described as being introverted and yet dynamic on stage – one website states: “Covarrubias remembers that sometimes audiences were surprised by her off-beat yet alluring stage presence and didn’t expect much from someone so petite, brown and seemingly timid.”
Covarrubias’ lyrics (I’m assuming she wrote them, I don’t have credits for the LP) could also vear from the political to the personal quite quickly — one song called “The Wolf” has as its refrain “The wolf and the lambs… we are the lambs” and sings of “democracy laced with hypocrisy” while “Attitude” could be a high school anthem — it seems entirely about declarations of personal identity, an emo theme if there ever was one — and “Starry Night” is a love song.
The structures aren’t quite as sophisticated as the Plugz — very much four part punk (one track clocks in at 54 seconds) with some X influence — but are terribly effective, especially due to Covarrubias’s clear but expressive voice rising over the hard electric din (it resembles Belinda Carlyle’s in this way, a little flavorless but, in juxtaposition to the intense lyrics and clanging music, just right), some nice rhythm guitar work and background vocals. It would be truly a loss if they were able to work past this early sound in later years and yet never found a contract.
Los Illegals are also a hugely important East LA band but maybe I don’t see their connection to emo as clearly. Formed as a wing to the art/political collective ASCO, they seem a little less personal, less vulnerable than the Plugz or the Brat. No less imaginative – some of their songs have a sci-fi apocalyptic or noirish intensity — they are never personally introspective, though of course I think introspection of a sort — social introspection based on communal fear and rage? — lies at the heart of their most satiric songs, like The Mall and Guinea Pigs.
Besides, I’ve spoken long enough! I’m eager to learn more about the infamous Latino fanbase for the music of the Smiths and Morrissey — it all makes sense to me now but I confess it was surprising when I first learned of it back in new York!