Even Rock Stars Need A Hug Sometimes*

August 29, 2012

It surely doesn’t suck to be a rock star.

You get to travel to exotic locales, demand waffles at any hour, and stay up as late as you want, as often as you want.

You also get a helicopter.

Having had the chance to meet or speak with some successful musicians, it’s still an abstraction to me to think of them dealing with the things – trivial or not – that we mere mortals must.

But even successful musicians, obviously, do have friction in their lives.

In 2002, I had the opportunity to interview Louie Perez of Los Lobos, coinciding with the band’s then new album Good Morning Aztlan. It was the perennially critically-acclaimed act’s third straight album on a different label.

Mammoth Records, which was issuing the release, would fold a couple years later.

Los Lobos had fifteen years separating them from their brief period of mainstream success with the music from the bio-pic La Bamba.

Since their last album, three years earlier, band member Cesar Rosas’ wife had been abducted and murdered.

As I interviewed Perez, he was courteous and pleasant, giving well-considered answers, but something seemed not quite right. I think I flat out asked him if he was OK.

He noted some of the adversity that the band had endured.

He sounded worn.

“But you’re in Los Lobos, man.”

(I think I actually said “man”)

“How cool is that?”

“Yeah, it is pretty cool,” he agreed, seeming to be re-energized at the thought.

It’s not every day you get to cheer up an integral part of a truly great band.

Impossible to pigeon-hole, here are four songs that hardly scratch the surface of the breadth of Los Lobos’ catalog…

Los Lobos – Will The Wolf Survive
from How Will The Wolf Survive? (1984)

I remember knowing of Los Lobos through the glowing reviews when How Will The Wolf Survive? was released in 1984. And I remember hearing Will The Wolf Survive on Q95, an album-rock station which was among my staples at the time.

I didn’t get it.

(some years later, I would finally catch up)

Los Lobos – Kiko And The Lavender Moon
from Kiko (1992)

Children of immigrants, Los Lobos cut their teeth, in the words of All Music Guide, “playing parties, wedding receptions, restaurants, bars, and anyplace else where someone might pay them for a gig” for a decade before finding success.

Drawing on the music of their Latino heritage, the band incorporated traditional folk, country, R&B, and rock into the mix with virtuoso musicianship.

In 1992, Los Lobos released Kiko, their collaboration with noted producer Mitchell Froom, and proved that they could do experimental rock as well as any of the modern rock bands of the period.

Los Lobos – Tony Y Maria
from Good Morning Aztlan (2002)

With the upcoming election, there will no doubt be folks hopping mad over illegal immigrants. Of course, there would be no work for illegal immigrants if the CEOs of companies hiring them would be held accountable, but that won’t happen.

The lovely Tony Y Maria details the struggle of the titular characters, a couple wanting nothing more than a life together and to provide for their children. It’s a simple, plaintive song that is a reminder that, at the heart of the arguments and debates, there are real people.

Los Lobos – The Word
from Good Morning Aztlan (2002)

Good Morning Aztlan found Los Lobos working with producer John Leckie, known for his work with bands like XTC, Radiohead, and Stone Roses. Not that the soulful The Word would remind a listener of any of those bands.

Instead, The Word simmers and soars, with a groove and socially-conscious lyrics that evoke the spirit of early ’70s R&B.

It’s intoxicating, thought-provoking, and altogether glorious.

Which Way To Cool?

April 28, 2011

Having no older siblings, I had no older siblings to influence my musical tastes or to bequeath me their albums.

My parents would play albums by Roy Orbison, Ray Price, and The Statler Brothers on the wood-grained, late ’60s cabinet console stereo in the living room.

The radio in the kitchen would be tuned to the station in our small town which was ’70s light rock (and, by the ’80s, country), but it was mostly for news and weather.

The earliest memories I have of music is from hearing it on the car radio and the acts that come to mind are ones like The Carpenters, America, Jim Croce, and The Fifth Dimension.

(apparently by the time my folks hit thirty, they had already settled in with light rock)

We had music class in school, but it was a kind of random class that popped up when least expected and never seemed to progress beyond an explanation of quarter notes and measures.

There were scattered moments during those years that music made it into the classroom.

A third-grade teacher was obsessive about Alice Cooper. Though I don’t think she ever played the stuff in class, she sure as hell blathered on and on about him.

(undoubtedly the source of my abstinence from Cooper’s music for many, many years)

A teacher in fifth-grade would play Jethro Tull on occasion.

(I still can vividly picture the album cover to Heavy Horses)

In seventh-grade, we spent several days in one class – religion, if I recall – listening to sides from Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants and I remember being fascinated.

By that time, I knew who Stevie Wonder was and could likely name a song or two. I was starting to listen to the radio and the station of choice for this new world was a Top 40 station out of Cincinnati that was popular with my classmates.

The friends with the older siblings quickly moved on to the cooler album rock stations.

Without such direct influence I made some dubious missteps – believing Asia to be one of the greatest bands in the history of humankind in ’82 – but I also didn’t have someone so close scribbling on my blank slate.

And, along the way, there’s been a lot of music – good and not so good – and a lot still resides on the iPod. So, here are four mostly random songs from shuffle…

Los Lobos – Peace
from Kiko

Los Lobos has a rich catalog of genre-defying music far beyond their smash cover of Richie Valens’ La Bamba. With 1992’s Kiko, the group, collaborating with producer Mitchell Froom, issued what might be their finest album.

Kiko is truly an album best enjoyed as a whole and I didn’t immediately recall the shuffling Peace, but I’ve come to realize that I never listen to a song by Los Lobos and feel it’s been time misspent.

Fossil – Josephine Baker
from Fossil

Paloma gets credit for discovering Fossil, pulling their lone, 1995 release from the stacks of promo CDs I had in my apartment at the time. It’s quite possible that we listened to that self-titled album more than anything else for months on end.

There’s little info out there on the quartet, though the band was apparently signed to a management deal by Hilly Kristal after two gigs at CBGBs. Not that Fossil sounds like any of the bands that come to mind when I think of that famed New York City venue.

Instead, Fossil had an otherworldly, alternative rock vibe, melodic yet quirkly. On the lilting Josephine Baker the lead singer pines for the famous dancer, imagining the pair as the toast of 1920s Paris.

Blondie – One Way Or Another
from The Platinum Collection

Now, Blondie is more what I think of when I think of CBGBs. I wasn’t listening to much music in 1978, but I did know and love Blondie’s shimmering Heart Of Glass and though One Way Or Another was the follow-up single and a Top 40 hit, I don’t really remember hearing it at the time.

I don’t think I heard the frantic song until a copy of Blondie’s The Best Of Blondie arrived in the mail. It was one of my initial dozen selections from the Columbia Record & Tape Club and it quickly became a favorite.

Styx – Half-Penny, Two-Penny
from Paradise Theater

Paradise Theater was one if the first cassettes I owned and one that I definitely wore out back in 1981. I knew it backward and forward.

(but mostly forward because, you know, it sounded more legible that way)

And near the end of side two was the muscular Half-Penny, Two Penny. The song just sounded so wicked with the guitar heroics, anthemic chorus, and James Young’s gruff vocals.