How the Wolf Survived 

On the 20th anniversary of seminal album Kiko, a look back at Los Lobos' early days

Thursday, Aug 23 2012

That night in 1980 quickly grew crazy. On the edge of downtown at the Olympic Auditorium, home to hard-hitting boxing matches and hell-on-wheels roller derby, Public Image Ltd. was performing, led by former Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten. Opening was an intriguing quartet from East L.A., called Los Lobos, who played Mexican folk music. One suspected that this would not be easy to pull off in a hall jammed with psycho-punkers looking for trouble, and indeed it didn't take long for the listeners to show their fangs.

Los Lobos members David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez and Cesar Rosas were in their mid-20s, dressed in blue jeans and collared shirts. They easily could have been coming from night-school classes or blue-collar jobs, but once they started playing, their eyes had a different shine. Hidalgo's accordion danced over the notes, Lozano's bass added intensity, and Perez's and Rosas' acoustic guitars filled in the corners. Everyone sang with a joyous glee.

Still, the audience began shouting, and wouldn't shut up. "The crowd started throwing things," Perez recalls, "and we hung in until the serious projectiles started coming. We were exhilarated in a way, but our family and friends were in tears."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEL APARICIO - Los Lobos: Cesar Rosas, left, Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez, Steve Berlin and David Hidalgo
  • Los Lobos: Cesar Rosas, left, Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez, Steve Berlin and David Hidalgo

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The band left the stage early, and their departure was cheered. It was ugly.

The foursome started as neighborhood friends in 1973, finding a common, soulful language performing the songs of rock icons like Cream and Jimi Hendrix, and adding local favorites like Thee Midniters and Cannibal & the Headhunters. Los Lobos discovered the music of their parents and investigated old recordings and instruments found in area pawn shops. Slowly, they were fashioning a language that would eventually take them and their songs around the world.

From their self-released 1973 debut album, Del Este de Los Angeles (Just Another Band From East L.A.), to their more-polished 1984 release, How Will the Wolf Survive on Slash Records (named album of the year by Rolling Stone), the group was on a path to set stages ablaze, careening between blues, rock & roll, Mexican-American anthems and whatever else caught their fancy.

After recording Ritchie Valens' classic "La Bamba" in 1987 for the eponymous film's soundtrack, the Los Lobos cult exploded and the nation took notice.

Yet it was their experimental 1992 release, Kiko, that brought Los Lobos' sound into unexplored regions, and it remains their high-water mark to many of the act's followers. The songwriting pair of Hidalgo and Perez set themselves free of prior restraints and — along with producer Mitchell Froom — began breaking rules in the studio.

Shout! Factory is reissuing the album Aug. 21, in the process putting the work back into the spotlight. It's a treat: Songs like "Dream in Blue" and "Saint Behind the Glass" employ tape delays and near-hallucinatory wordplay; other highlights include rootsy maven Cesar Rosas' gut-grabbing contributions "That Train Don't Stop Here" and "Wicked Rain."

The new version includes two demos and three live recordings, which help bring into focus the fact that this masterpiece caught a great many of Los Lobos' fans by surprise. They weren't expecting a quantum leap, and perhaps neither were the group members themselves. And so, on the occasion of the Kiko's 20th anniversary, here's the story of how Los Lobos became Los Lobos.

Not long after serving as L.A. Weekly's first full-time music editor in the early 1980s, I was Los Lobos' publicist for a decade, beginning at Slash in 1984 and then moving with them to Warner Bros. Records. When the Kiko test disc first arrived, in the spring of 1992, it instantly carried me back to a decade earlier, during a very sweaty night at the Whisky A Go Go. Following a set by roots-rock kingpins The Blasters, their guitarist, Dave Alvin, handed me a cassette tape with the name "Los Lobos" and a phone number scrawled on it.

I'd been promoting sporadic shows at a Hollywood hellhole called Cathay de Grande and was always on the lookout for new music; little did I know I'd already seen these guys perform.

I called the phone number the next day and spoke to Hidalgo, offering $100 for his band to play the Cathay, opening for "nuevo wavo" artist Joe "King" Carrasco. Hidalgo said they hadn't played Hollywood yet but had been wanting to, and the deal was set.

No one in the dark, airless basement was quite prepared for Los Lobos that night. Each of the players (saxophonist Steve Berlin had not yet joined the band) had the zeal of a crusader, trading instruments and powering through a dozen songs while barely catching their breath. A dozen East L.A. friends had made the journey with them, dressed in their Sunday finest and full of a contagious celebration. The dancers filled the floor while the four musicians pushed their instruments into the red zone and, in front of their amigos, acted like they owned the room.

In 1983 Slash Records signed the band, and a track called "Anselma" from their EP And a Time to Dance (a blend of conjunto classics and backroom rock) won a Grammy for best Mexican-American performance. The next year the group took off for a tour on the Texas-Mexico border; a booking agent thought sending them along this unlikely route might be an attention-grabber. It would represent, the reasoning went, a return to the birthplace of the music that had first inspired them, from rancheras to the songs of Santiago and Flaco Jimenez, and the Sir Douglas Quintet.

For reasons that remain unclear, however, Los Lobos were slotted to open for Spandex-clad teenybopper outfit La Mafia, who used a smoke machine. The average show attendee was about 16, staring at Los Lobos like they were from another planet. The short tour took them to spots like McAllen, Laredo and Brownsville, beginning just as a blue norther cold snap gripped the land in near-freezing temperatures.

Suffice it to say the pairing was a bust, but Los Lobos finally played a headline show in the Gulf Coast city of Corpus Christi. Relief washed over the band inside the local club. For the night's encore, Rosas sang the group's hit single "Don't Worry Baby," and the tightly packed crowd exploded.

I spoke with a beaming, middle-aged man who said he'd heard the song on his car radio that afternoon. "I thought, boy, that sounds like 100-mile-per-hour monkey music, and I knew I had to go see what this Lobos thing was all about."

The show demonstrated that the group could excel outside its comfort zones, and that its fans were coming out of the woodwork.

In Corpus Christi that night, Los Lobos found their mojo, one that sustained them through Kiko and beyond. It's now been almost 40 years since the band played its first shows in East L.A. backyards, plugging small amps into garage electrical sockets. The wolf has not only survived but thrived.

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