On America, Xenophobia and Los Lobos: Dream In Blue

los_lobosToday in America, there is a demagogue who spends much of his time whipping pale-faced crowds into a frenzy of fear and hate with xenophobic speeches that have been designed to distort reality. That reality is that we are a nation of many colors that has nourished and embraced multi-cultural influences and diversity for generations. Against a backdrop of nonstop news-tainment that assaults our senses on a daily basis and fogs the political landscape with opinions and analyses from pundits that create much ado about nothing comes a new book about a band of musicians who have spent over four decades making music that has helped to break down the walls between us. Like a pin stuck in a balloon that releases a rush of hot air, Los Lobos: Dream In Blue by Chris Morris is a riveting historical narrative that speaks as much to the American experience as it does to the music.

Morris is a respected journalist, disc jockey, and ethnomusicologist whom I’ve known since the mid-’80s, when he was covering the independent music beat for Billboard magazine. He is an eyewitness to Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles’ early journey into the Hollywood club scene, and the music highways and byways that they’ve travelled down through the years. Using their recording career as his lantern, Morris lets the story of this band be told in their own words, with the inclusion of interviews from collaborators and his own insightful observations and memories. Published this month by the University of Texas Press, it should be of interest to many that Dream In Blue is from the American Music Series whose editors are David Menconi and No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock.

Earlier this summer, on the banks of the Hudson River an hour north of Manhattan, I stood in a steady rain by the side of the stage and felt an incredible energy that Los Lobos unleashed with their afternoon set at the Clearwater Festival. It was impossible to keep still as my feet and body joined those around me in a 45-minute tribal dance of both young and old. The music they create is a language we can all speak and understand, and like using the phrase “rooted and rocked” when I describe them to the uninitiated. If you’ve seen them live, you already know they rock. But if you don’t know their story, you miss the roots.

Dream in Blue takes you back into time, until the light turns on inside your head and you understand that Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, and Steve Berlin are not simply outliers from La Raza, East of Los Angeles (though Berlin grew up in Philadelphia, as did I), but that the music they make is influenced by the same baby boomer FM radio shows and TV shows, like Ed Sullivanand Shindig, that many of us grew up with. Both Rosas and Hildalgo are quoted about what they were listening to as teens, and it mirrors my own East Coast, white-bred exposure. The Stones, the Beatles, Presley, Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Aretha, Sam and Dave, James Brown, Canned Heat, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Incredible String Band. It’s an alphabetical musical soup, the diversion — with my own Deadhead path — occurs in the early ’70s when they tapped into their Hispanic lineage at the height of the Chicano renaissance in Los Angeles and started playing folk music with traditional instruments at parties, weddings, and restaurants.

How Los Lobos navigated the move to performing electric in front of the Mohawk-hair generation, enjoyed success with the soundtrack from La Bamba, dealt with music business missteps and never stopped experimenting and collaborating is a fascinating tale. The book was a fast read for me; I was unable to put it down. Morris excels at keeping the storyline moving with equal measures of factlets and anecdotes.

The book was also successful in getting me to do something I’ve been putting off for too long: taking the time to listen to Los Lobos’ catalog again — including their new album, Gates of Gold — and watching their videos. Perhaps more important, Dream in Blue brings into sharper focus a truer narrative of what growing up and being successful in America looks like. And it sure ain’t about building walls.

This was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music