Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Money (That’s What I Want)

This piece originally ran as an Origin of Song column in Crawdaddy! in the Spring of 2010.  It’s time to play it again, man.

These unprecedented times of bail-outs and world economic crisis have me thinking a lot on money: Who’s got it, who doesn’t, how they got it, and how I can get my hands on some of it. Money. That’s what I want. Which is how I’ve come to consider the case of Barrett Strong.

Born February 5, 1941 in Hard Times, Mississippi, you know him as the songwriting partner of Norman Whitfield and all those right-on Motown hits: “War” (“Good God! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing”); “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (“They don’t tell the truth”); “Psychedelic Shack” (“That’s where it’s at”), “Cloud Nine,” (“I’m doing fine”); “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and “Heard it Through the Grapevine.” The guys were geniuses, Songwriting Hall of Famers and all that, but, before the string of hits, he was strong out the gate:   The Beatles knew him as the guy who sang “Money (That’s What I Want).” He was the one who came up with the riff and scored the first hit record for a then-brand new little label called Tamla, and chances are you’ve heard the rest. If not, check this:

Tired of earning pennies on the dollar for writing songs for Detroit’s R&B pride, Jackie Wilson, songwriter Berry Gordy switched over to music’s business side. In competition with his sister Anna and the record label that was her namesake, he formed his own label, Tamla, his roster consisting almost entirely of kids from around the way, with a few notes from his own songbook. Distributed by Anna, by June of 1960, “Money (That’s What I Want”—written by Strong, with credit taken by Gordy and Janie Bradford and performed by Barrett Strong—was the company’s first national hit, reaching number two on the R&B charts and crossing over to the Top 40. It turned out to be as prophetic as it was strong: “Well now give me money (that’s what I want)… I wanna be free.” Not long after that, Gordy’s friend and label VP, Smokey Robinson, sold a million copies of “Shop Around” with his group the Miracles. The self-contained, family-like, black-owned business from the Motor City delivered “The Sound of Young America” to the world with its especially designed blend of pop and R&B, intended to steer the singers away from the sounds of the stratified R&B chart ghetto and into the spotlight, where American Dreams were made. Sadly, many of Motown’s own were shorted on their share of their contributions—and those details are being worked out and worked over to this very day.

Back then, people used to love the idea of made-in-America music and all that American dream stuff, especially in England, which is how the Beatles fit in: The song first showed up in their sets during their stay in Hamburg, Germany as a crash-bang encore. In the Beatles Anthology, George recalls first hearing Strong’s single in Brian Epstein’s record shop; Ringo notes they all had the same records anyway, and “Money” was likely one of them. Included on their famously rejected demo for Decca Records, it was eventually released and closed their second album, With the Beatles, alongside two more Motown songs: “Please Mr. Postman”, originally cut by the Marvellettes, and Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me” (adding up to a bonus for Mr. Gordy). Listen and you’ll hear Ringo playing just a bit heavier as the band emphasizes the riffing—which is how it got to be known as one of the original hard rock songs. Perhaps it sounds quaint these days, but just listen to how they rock it, especially in the final choruses: In comparison to their songs at the time, “Money” was nuts—and people like nuts—and it was even a bump up the nut scale from “Twist and Shout.”

More on “Money” and how it came to define the Beat sound of the early ‘60s can be discovered at this quick one stop source for Beatle stuff. Additionally, the in-your-face essence of “Money (That’s What I Want)” suited John’s image as the impatient, angry, and snotty head Beatle, and earned him a rep as the group’s rocker; it was a fact that got up “the cute one” Paul’s nose since he too was capable of ripping it up, Little Richard style, as in his performance of “Long Tall Sally.”

Meanwhile, back in Dee-troit, as he famously called it in one of his songs, John Lee Hooker came out with “I Need Some Money”, the very same Barrett Strong song, releasing it the same month that Tamla was having a national hit with it, and delivering it in John Lee mostly one-chord boogie-style.

As time went on, they were doing the “Money” dance in London (the Who and Led Zeppelin), up in Washington state (Pearl Jam and the Sonics), and don’t forget the motor city—where there was dancing in the streets to versions by Strong’s Motown labelmates the Supremes and Junior Walker and the All Stars.

In the ‘70s, it became cool to bad-rap greenbacks—something to do with the cynicism of the decade’s great recession, which was—as surely you remember or perhaps as you’ve heard—the worst since the Great Depression (ha!). In 1973, Pink Floyd went Biblical with it: (“Money is the root of all evil”) in their “Money”, with its cash register ka-ching sound effects. And oh, the sarcasm: “New car, caviar, four-star daydream, think I’ll buy me a football team.” So, too, to the Bible did go, the  O’Jays (“I know that money is the root of all evil”) when they Gamble and Huff-ed their way through “For the Love of Money,” an anti-song to the “lean, mean green,” also from 1973.  A couple of years later, still suffering from the post-recession-boho-blues, Patti Smith wrote about dreaming of winning lotteries and robbing banks in “Free Money.” Even Abba took the rich man to task in “Money, Money, Money.”

But by 1979, memory of the oil crisis and resulting ecological awareness that marked the ‘70s was starting to fade and money madness was coming back in style. The spirit of Gordy and Strong’s song came back in an ultra-cynical form as performed by the Flying Lizards, with a version that bridged the gap between punk rock desperation and the go-go ‘80s. Of all the renditions, it seems to be the one that enjoys the most spins today, turning up in movies and on television. The usages, as they say in the business, all generate a lot of green for Gordy. From then until now, there were plenty of money-positive songs going around, songs about material girls in the material world, and tough guys getting paid in full, making bank. I personally liked “Gimme Some Money,” Spinal Tap’s send-up of “Money (That’s What I Want).”

Sometimes I regret not boarding the gravy train, but most days I’m happy to feel like Paul McCartney did (‘til he became rich) when he supposedly wrote “Can’t Buy Me Love”, to counter the cash-grabby “Money (That’s What I Want).” But when times are hard, who doesn’t like to dream about free money? So try saying it out loud with me: “Money (That’s What I Want).” It worked for Berry Gordy and Barrett Strong, the Flying Lizards and the Beatles. Say it again: “Money (That’s What I Want).” I like to tell myself, like Swamp Dogg says, “I’m not selling out, I’m buying in.”  So say it, one more time y’all: “Money (That’s What I Want).” I think I like the sound of that tune.

Filed under: Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, Swamp Dogg, , , , , , , , , ,

The Nightwatchman’s Songs of the Free

Last month, Harry Belafonte passed the torch of singing activism to Tom Morello and presented him with the Officer’s Award from the Sidney Hillman Foundation, honoring excellence in journalism in service of the common good. From Libertyville, Illinois and Los Angeles, California to Madison, Wisconsin and Occupy Wall Street, this weekend Morello, also known as the Nightwatchman, brought his songs to Chicago, where he stood with the National Nurses United and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War and is scheduled to play a Woody Guthrie Centennial celebration.  Earlier this week, Bill Moyers took the time to speak to Morello, a discussion that will surely solder his status as a link in the chain of the tradition of singing for justice—though his actions have already spoken loud and clear.

Filed under: Harry Belafonte, Interview, Occupy Wall Street, ,

Songs for the Occupation

Tuesday May 15 saw the release of Occupy This Album, a 4-disc collection of 99 topical songs, with all proceeds going toward supporting the Occupy movement. I have not yet read a review of the album that makes any sense to me, which is reason for me to get busy listening and to write one of my own (though if you have read anything thoughtful and well-rendered, please bring it to my attention). Until I’ve prepared my piece, I thought I’d repost a column I wrote last fall titled Songs for the Occupation—a kind of call for topical songs and a roll call of musicians who declared themselves 99 percent friendly from the start. No doubt the good people at Paste won’t mind if I post the previously published article here, since it pertains to a good cause and all.

NOVEMBER 2011—Early last month, when the Occupy Wall Street movement was still building, an East Bay punk rocker asked me what I thought people had hoped to achieve by occupying city centers and marching in the streets. Since the movement is without spokespeople, it wasn’t my place to say, but personally, I was taking it as a good sign that people are finally coming together in the name of social and economic justice. “I think it’s time to bring compassion back into style” I said. “Good luck with that,” he replied, and no, he wasn’t being sincere, which took me aback for about a minute until I remembered that punk rock is supposed to be snotty, cynical and nihilistic and he was just doing his part to keep the franchise alive.

Michael Franti at OWS

It must be said that plenty of punk-rock people are as interested in building things anew as they are in tearing down the old down, and that music people of all orientations have always brought soul, sounds and heart to social and political movements. So far, only the true lionhearts of contemporary music have turned out for the Occupation, though each week brings more surprises: Ever-ready artist/activist Michael Franti showed up in the first week of October to “Yell Fire.” Talib Kweli, longtime resident in the trenches of conscious hip hop, dropped by to drop some rhymes and weigh in with a powerful new piece he called “Distractions”: “Skip the religion and the politics and head straight for the compassion, everything else is a distraction,” he rapped. Tom Morello, who as The Nightwatchman, shows up with his ax wherever injustice is served, came out to lead a chorus of “This Land is Your Land,” the old Woody Guthrie song that’s easy enough to sing along to, even if you don’t know the words. And the generally apolitical Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel delivered a rare, impromptu set of songs to the delight of park dwellers. In particular, the line “we know who are enemies are” from the fan favorite, “Oh Comely,” drew cheers from the crowd. Mangum’s appearance, if not his topically unspecific songs, provided the people with entertainment and support, the kind of unique companionship that only a song can provide in the cold, cold night. Sure the protesters have each other for company—for now—but as rousts and arrests increase, winter sets in and the drum circle decibels rise, the park may see fewer folks willing to stand strong, and that means fewer professional musicians out there, leading the singalongs.

“Our idea was to go down and raise their spirits,” said David Crosby, who with Graham Nash sang for the Zuccotti Park crowd in early November. “What music is doing is unifying the people, bringing them together,” Nash told Rolling Stone.

“Everybody has a point, everybody has an idea everybody has a perspective on the world,” said rapper Lupe Fiasco when asked about musician participation in OWS. Stressing that celebrities are just like the rest of the occupiers, except in a higher tax bracket, he noted, “The leader is Occupy; it is the movement.”

Simmons and West, OWS

Hip hop organizer and mogul Russell Simmons is among those on the street with the 99 percent; part of his role there has been shepherding visitors like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Kanye West through the Zuccotti Park encampment. During the week of West’s and Jay-Z’s Madison Square Garden concerts in November, Simmons was pictured with Jay-Z wearing an “Occupy All Streets” t-shirt, manufactured by his line, Rocawear (it’s unclear where the proceeds are going, though one can only hope the merch is made in America).

The Occupy movement for social and economic equality has been called by scholar Cornel West a “democratic awakening,” while those less enamored with the movement call it a disorganized mess. Call it what you like but whether the occupiers maintain their ground at the park or are forced to leave it, songs—the kind with roots, that are built to last—will provide some sustenance through the winter. Truth is, the people can always use a few more good tunes (or at least some remixes of old ones) to sing on the long march home.

Back in the salad days of protest—the ’60s civil rights, free speech, anti-war and black power movements—rewriting the old songs with the intention of forging something new was common practice—it’s called folk tradition. Rewriting and reviving spirituals for the secular world—or at least a world in which all faiths and traditions get equal respect—was an area mined by Pete Seeger, who along with Joan Baez, helped to turn “We Shall Overcome,” into an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement (most memorably, Baez sang it at the 1963 historic March on Washington; Seeger recently sang it at OWS).

Originally based on the gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” composed by the Rev. Charles Albert Tinley and dating back to the African American Methodist Episcopal Church of the early 1900s, “We Shall Overcome” has changed shape through the years; also contributing to the version as we know it were elements of the spiritual “We’ll Overcome (I’ll Be All Right)”, another hymn from the immediate post-slavery period. But it wasn’t long after its arrival in church hymnals that “I’ll Overcome Some Day” was picked up by striking miners and laborers who went on to use it throughout their organizing fights in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Sung by miners in the North as well as tobacco workers in the South, “We Shall Overcome” became a staple at the Highlander Folk School, the training ground for civil rights workers. Highlander teacher Guy Carawan helped to popularize the song among the forming Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and the song was spread far and wide by Seeger who changed up the verses a bit. By and by, the melody to “We Shall Overcome” came closer to echoing another slave time spiritual, “No More Auction Block” (once sung by Paul Robeson and Odetta and used by Bob Dylan as the tune for “Blowin’ in the Wind”) than Tinley’s “I Shall Overcome” did. In essence, two folk standards emerged from one spiritual.

Crosby and Nash, OWS

But more than its fairly tame melody, the strength of “We Shall Overcome” lies in its extraordinarily bold lyrical affirmations: We are not afraid/the truth shall make us free/we shall live in peace. These sentiments are as ripe for the current moment, as they were when the United Farm Workers used it in their fight for their rights, as when South Africans sang it in their struggle against Apartheid, and when Czechs sang it during the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism. “We Shall Overcome” has been deployed in struggles in India and Ireland. It’s been sung by Bruce Springsteen and was recorded for his Seeger Sessions; Seeger, now 92, is still singing it. Though I’d say it’s time for someone from the youngest generation of American singer/songwriter/activists to adopt and adapt it, and lead the singalong. “We Shall Overcome” needn’t be consigned to folk’s moldy or buttoned-up past; rather, it’s protest gold, a song that hasn’t lost its value for over 50 years and counting. If it seems strange, update it. If it seems square, give it a beat (djembe will work just fine). But traditional songs need to get sung and sung loud, as if your life depended on them because in fact there are people whose do: Overseas wars cost not only money but lives; poverty is killing people here at home. Workplace and housing discrimination, poor schools, environmental degradation, job disintegration—these are just some of the grievances that will end up in songs as the movement keeps moving on.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew what music could bring to a non-violent protest effort: he asked gospel great Mahalia Jackson to accompany him and Harry Belafonte to help organize his efforts. Belafonte’s life is a demonstration of just how important a role a singer can play in effecting change as well as how education in the arts can save young lives (Belafonte tells his own story in the new film, Sing Your Song, and new book, My Song: A Memoir). Nina Simone; Curtis Mayfield; Bob Marley; Peter, Paul and Mary; Sam Cooke; and many, many more singers and musicians contributed to positive social change and quite possibly political change with their music. You may laugh at this notion of change, like the East Bay punker I talked to last month did, but it’s not so funny when you think about Oakland: People from all walks of life, all genders, all religious backgrounds, colors and sexual orientations, there and elsewhere, are standing up to the indignities served up to their communities: It’s one nation time—under a groove.

So here’s to you, Occupiers and musicians: To Michael Franti, Jeff Mangum, Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, Joan Baez, Crosby and Nash, Joseph Arthur and Talib Kweli in NYC, Boots Riley in Oakland and Ozomatli in L.A. The hearts of Joe Strummer, Nina Simone, Phil Ochs and Paul Robeson are on your sleeves now. Every movement, from abolition to women’s suffrage to labor and civil rights has its songs, and this moment in time has its songs too. Thank you—to the singers and your songs—songs that one night might be the only thing between the darkness, cold, tear gas and rubber bullets raining on someone’s soul. Thank you for occupying—so that we shall all overcome, someday.

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street, Songs for the Occupation, , , , , , , ,

Julia Ward Howe: Another Mother For Peace

About once a year you hear the name Julia Ward Howe: She gave us Mother’s Day, declaring it first in 1870. Howe was primarily a writer and an activist; her work included poetry and lyrics, and she rallied for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and peace. Born in 1819 in New York City, most famously she adapted the lyrics to “America” to fit the women’s suffrage cause. In the Civil War era, in folk tradition, she rewrote the words to the existing songs “Canaan’s Happy Shore” and “Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us” as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (which also provides the melody of abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body,” circulating at the same time). In her memoir, Howe wrote of the poem coming to her in her sleep, and rising to transcribe the words: “I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper,” she wrote.

A century later, the song was repurposed by Len Chandler for the Civil Rights Movement as “Move On Over.”

You promise us the vote then sing us We Shall Overcome

Hey but John Brown knew what freedom was he died to win us some

And the Movement’s moving on

One of the singer-songwriters on the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene (one of his original melodies was borrowed by Bob Dylan), Chandler stuck with topical songs and movement building, and went on to put “Move On Over” to work in the anti-Vietnam War effort, updating it again and performing it for troops throughout Southeast Asia. What a striking example of how a song can travel the miles, from one movement to another, to another, without losing authority or missing a beat of its heart—or its intention to preserve humanity, and the life of some mother’s daughter or her son.  Glory Hallelujah, Len Chandler and Julia Ward Howe: Your mothers would be proud. And to all the mothers—including my own–along with the stepmothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and others it takes to get the job done: Happy Mother’s Day. Love and thanks for birthing and raising your children and helping them through.

I thought you mothers (and others) would like this image–it’s a lithograph by Charles White (1918-1979). The Chicago-born artist made his name mid-career and later, largely on the work created and shown in Los Angeles during the ’60s. This work from 1976 is titled “I Have A Dream,” and was included alongside White’s politically-charged and socially conscious-works in the Hammer Museum exhibit, Now Dig This! (I’ve heard it will begin traveling soon). I think moms will also dig this well-known song but lesser-seen clip of  “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye, performing at the Save the Children concert event in 1973.

More on Len Chandler, Julia Ward Howe and Marvin Gaye in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , , , ,

Para Todos Mis Amigos Latinos: Muchas Gracias por El Rock ‘n’ Roll

It all started with Ritchie Valens and “La Bamba” in 1958, though it would be another decade before Santana took Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” and freaked it out in 1970. Los Lobos brought Spanish language to LA punks with “Anselma” in the early ’80s and to the masses in 1987 with a remake of “La Bamba”; in 2002, they tore it up Chicano style with “Good Morning Aztlán.” Of course, these names of Latino rock royalty can twist a phrase en español—it is their birthright. But what about los gringos without Latino roots who’ve attempted to bring a little Mexican vibe to their rock ‘n’ roll? And the bands that feature lesser known Mexican-Americans or who are conquistadors of south-of-the-border sound? Well, they are the subject of this Cinco de Mayo post, claro que si.

There are any number of starting points I could choose to begin the story of Latin rock and the use of Spanish language in rock ‘n’ roll, but since I’m not a scholar of the stuff and just an admiradora, I’ll apologize upfront for any mismanagement of details, mangling of the language, and my Anglo-centric survey of the music. Let’s just say for the sake of ease we start with 1948 and Don Tosti’s recording of “Pachuco Boogie”, a swingin’ tune about the rebellious zoot-suiters featuring a conversation or street rap in Caló, the urban dialect of the Pachuco subculture. The Pachucos donned the zoot suit and started a ’40s fashion and attitude riot that asserted individuality and anger in the face of having been stripped of a cultural identity. What, you are asking yourself, does this have to do with music? Well, Southwestern Chicanos adopted the baggy trouser/knee-length jacket uniform that had previously been seen on the Harlem jazz scene, and Don Tosti earned the nickname “the Godfather of Latin Rhythm and Blues.” Alongside Lalo Guerrero, “the Father of Chicano Music,” who also sang of Pachuco life as well as farm laborers’ rights, Tosti opened the door for an ethnocentric brand of music to cross into the mainstream (“Pachuco Boogie” was a massive seller), though it wouldn’t be until the late ’60s that the Chicano Movement would come to organize in the name of cultural identity. “Suavecito”, the 1972 hit by Malo (the group led by Santana’s brother Jorge), is an example of Caló y Latin rhythms coming together in one classic R&B/rock ballad. But what happened between “Pachuco Boogie” and the day when Santana threw down at Woodstock before even releasing a debut album?

Well, that would be the invention of Latin rock by California son, Ritchie Valens, a rocker whose “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna” are ’50s standards, but who happens to be most remembered for the music of his cultural heritage. As we know, the music died on February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Valens, and the pilot died in a plane crash in Iowa, yet “La Bamba”, the el hefe of Spanish language rock songs, lives on. Starting out as a hundreds year-old Mexican folk song, Valens rocked it up and delivered a three-chord wonder that eventually any garage or punk-rock band could play. The Plugz, an LA band by way of El Paso, featuring Tito Larriva and Charlie Quintana, self-released their cranked-up version of “La Bamba” in 1981. The Plugz also recorded two long-playing rare classics, Electrify Me and Better Luck, before morphing into the Cruzados and then eventually going their separate ways, but not before their “El Clavo y La Cruz” and “Hombre Secreto” (as in “Secret Agent Man”) gave the right touch to Repo Man, the punky midnight movie about “the LA experience.” Larriva went on to work as a solo act and got into movie scoring; Quintana did a stint drumming for Dylan and continues to work with the big names in rock. Speaking of Dylan, aside from his film Masked and Anonymous featuring a wicked Spanish-language version of “Like a Rolling Stone”, as well as a Lobos version of “On a Night Like This”, Dylan is an on-the-record fan of Sir Douglas Quintet, famous for Augie Meyers’ Vox Continental organ sound.

Meyers met Doug Sahm as kids in San Antonio, Texas; when their band got together, they were among the handful of US groups who brought the spirit of the British Invasion (English musicians doing American music), back into the hands of Americans by tricking the public into thinking they were playing British-styled music like the Beatles and the Stones, rather than American music by Americans. Ha! So Sir Doug had officially added the Tex-Mex sound to the American music mix, while Sahm would also go on to sing of the border and other Mexican concerns (“Michoacan”). In later years, Sahm and Meyers would also join forces with Mexican-American rock and genre-straddling songwriter Freddie Fender and accordion virtuoso Flaco Jimenez as the Texas Tornados. But it all began with the Sir Douglas Quintet’s greatest hit, “She’s About a Mover”, released in 1965.

The Farfisa organ sound and the count-off uno, dos, one-two, tres cuatro would become recognized around the world that same year as the opening to “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Led by a Texas-born son of Mexican immigrants, Domingo (Sam) Samudio, the song is about nothing really and was said to be named after his cat. Domingo worked as an itinerant musician and reportedly as a carny before forming the Pharaohs, who took their name from Yul Brynner because he looked tough as the character in The Ten Commandments, one of those epic 1950s Bible movies. “Wooly Bully” became a staple of the frat-rock genre though it was more distinctive than just serving as the soundtrack to Animal-House-style hijinks. The song spent an incredible 18-week stand on the charts, and by the end of 1965, it was named Billboard magazine’s Number One Record of the Year and had helped dislodge singles on the charts by the aforementioned pesky British bands of the era. Sam the Sham’s “Li’l Red Riding Hood” was certainly another fine moment for the band, but it lacked the Tex-Mex organ sound that would crop up on the great singles of the ’60s made by another legendary group of Mexican-Americans: “96 Tears” by Question Mark & the Mysterians, who hailed from Michigan and were fronted by Question Mark aka Rudy Martinez and featured a teenaged organ player, Frank Rodriguez, Jr. The organ riffing would also inspire the group’s “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby.” In 1998, Smash Mouth from the Mexican-American-populated San Jose, California, had a hit with the song alongside their hit remake of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” by War, a mixed-race funk band whose big hit “Low Rider” was a hats-off to cruisin’, Chicano style.

Of course, when it comes to cruisin’ Chicano style, the band for that is East LA’s Thee Midniters. Known for their instrumental jam “Whittier Boulevard” (Let’s take a trip down Whittier Boulevard—Arriba, arriba!), the band and their especially soulful singer Willie Garcia, better known as Little Willie G, was a big inspiration to the future members of Los Lobos. The song was a natural to cover for Los Straitjackets, the contemporary (mostly) all-instrumental band that performs in Mexican wrestler masks.

Okay, so copping a Spanish name and wearing a mask does not make a Mexican rocker. But by virtue of using the article “los” in their names, Los Straitjackets, as well as Texas rockers Los Lonely Boys, are filed in American record stores with the other “los bands,” like Los Bravos, the rock group from Spain whose 1966 hit, “Black Is Black”, did not contain a word of Spanish. Nor to my knowledge did the Zeros, the Mexican-American band from San Diego, ever sing in Spanish, though as members of the class of ’77,
they are distinguished as first-wave punk rockers; they also sprung Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Somewhere, there exists a single of their anthem “I Don’t Wanna” backed with “Li’l Latin Lupe Lu”, a cover of a Righteous Brothers song made famous by Mitch Ryder.

I have only scratched the surface of the Latino influence on rock and never even got to disco. There is so much to uncovers, from Devendra Banhart’s musings en español on Cripple Crow and the Mission District’s #1 son, Jerry Garcia (that is if you don’t count figure #1a, Santana). I had planned to wax on about Beck Hansen’s Mexican-American neighborhood origins and the exact definition of un perdedor as heard in “Loser.” I wanted to touch upon that great Spanish-lover, Joe Strummer, whose Mexico City childhood allowed him to open his corazón to the Spanish-speaking world, and they to him. I had hoped to remind you to remember to forget U2’s lame-o uno, dos, tres, catorce countdown to “Vertigo”, but who am I to talk when all I can offer are my own gabacha sign-offs, ay, caramba y que lástima. Yo no soy una roquera, lo siento. Pero, in the hands of the Mars Volta, Ozomatli, Zack de la Rocha, y todos los músicos, La Raza rocks on.

(A good 99 percent of this column published  in Crawdaddy!, some couple of years ago…).

Filed under: Mexican American/Latino Rock, , , , , ,

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