LA People 2009: Renaissance Man Ruben Guevara
Ruben Guevara’s mercurial pedigree, as groundbreaking Los Angeles performance artist, Chicano sociocultural Zeitgeist, theatrical director, poet, activist, journalist, classically trained composer and on-again-off-again rock & roll star, is one of dizzying degree. This freewheeling résumé only hints at the depth Guevara’s passions plumb, and from his late-1950s start, crying doo-wop with the Van Teers and Apollo Brothers, to his award-winning mid-1990s Urban Chicano mythology performance piece “Aztlán, Babylon, Rhythm & Blues,” to current persona Funkahuatl (the leopard print–clad Ancient Aztec God of Funk), Guevara has undergone a series of artistic, intellectual and personal epiphanies that have been consistently transmogrified and extrapolated into telling, critical and uniformly well-accepted stage presentations.
Low-key, dignified, learned and funny as hell, Guevara holds forth at his simple East L.A. bungalow headquarters with an engaging mix of cerebral discourse and earthy rock & roll insight. Conversation spins through his alliances with the likes of Richard Berry, Frank Zappa, Lalo Schifrin, Cheech Marin, poet Kate Braverman, artist Patssi Valdez; a scattered, chaotic mosaic of triumphs and misfires, each glittering shard ultimately playing a keystone role in the unusual soul composition Guevara has created. It ain’t been easy: After the Apollo Brothers’ 1961 debut disk “My Beloved One”/“Riot in the Quad” (“very R&B, lots of reverb on the guitars”) got them a gig at the fabled El Monte Legion Stadium, Guevara began hustling it up Hollywood style, and was eventually offered a regular spot on big-beat TV showcase Shindig! Despite the rather uncool fact that they wanted him to replace P.J. Proby by billing Guevara as J.P. Moby, he agreed, only to see the twice-weekly series canceled. He landed a job at Chicken Delite on the Strip the followng week. “So I’m back there battering the chicken,” Guevara says. “And this delivery guy comes in and says, ‘Hey, man, didn’t I see you on Shindig!? What are you doing here?’
“What the fuck does it look like? Trying to pay the rent ... now that’s a rock & roll story.”
Guevara was a stone R&B cat — during the height of Beatlemania — and after a few years, he gave it up, enrolled at LACC and studied composition. It enabled him to fulfill his aim, scoring motion pictures, when Lalo Schifrin brought him in to collaborate on Clint Eastwood’s offbeat, psychedelicized 1968 flick Coogan’s Bluff (“Lalo was great, always very relaxed. In fact, I just got a royalty check for that — $17,” he recalls). Not long after, Guevara stretched further, writing, directing and performing in his antiwar-themed “experimental–dance theater/gospel-rock cantata,” “Who Are the People?”
“It was R&B Primal Theater,” he explains, “a little ragged, but it was all right.” The following year, he attended a concert by Frank Zappa’s doo-wop novelty side dish, Ruben & the Jets. “I went backstage, wanted to compliment him for doing doo-wop at the height of the psychedelic era. Told him my name was Ruben and I’d sung doo-wop; he asked for some demos, but I wasn’t interested, I wanted to compose, write scores.”
A subsequent meeting at Zappa’s house a few years later proved fateful; they were up until dawn spinning old 78s, and after the conversation turned to classical music, Zappa was impressed with Guevara’s spectrum of knowledge. Finally, he asked him to join and front Ruben & the Jets. “I don’t want to do rock & roll anymore,” Guevara told him. “There are too many detours.”
Zappa’s reply? “Build your own roads.”
That was all it took. For the next three years, and two albums, Guevara went full tilt, sharing bills with Zappa, T.Rex, sometimes playing to crowds of almost 50,000, or, at Max’s Kansas City with the Troggs, less than 200. But the life was mad: “Too much of the high jinks ... we were blackballed from Holiday Inns coast to coast. The band became unmanageable, and all this in a world where you want to share your soul, but what you get is grief. After the second album, I was ready to leave.”
Busted flat sooner than later, Guevara had a déjà vu after taking a job at a wholesale-record distributor. “I had to unpack my own record; all these boxes came in, we open them up and it’s Con Safos, the new album. My co-worker is saying, ‘Hey, that’s you!’ Record buyers are coming in asking, ‘What are you doing here?’ What could I say? The Jets crashed.”
By 1975, he reached a turning point. “I didn’t have any cultural consciousness, but at LACC, I was taking a Chicano-studies course and one day I decided to sell my car, take off for Mexico. Turn myself over to fate and just go. My dad said we might have Mayan blood, so I wound up in Palenque, where everyone called me ‘El Americano.’ That was weird because in America, I was Mexican. I couldn’t figure it out, but I climbed this pyramid one day and ended up proclaiming myself to the universe, shouting, “I’m not Mexican — I’m not American — I’m Chicano!”
Back in Los Angeles, his awakening fueled a new round of Gil Scott-Heron–inspired spoken-word pieces, which led to his role spearheading a radical performance-art style, equally based on spiritual, political and historic issues. He assumed a wild series of new personas — Aztec Watts, El Indio (a 500-year-old undocumented guy selling oranges on the side of the freeway) — always “trying to mix theater, poetry and dance into a cohesive aesthetic.” Guevara was at the center of many memorable presentations, as either performer, artistic director, ringmaster or curator, mounting events everywhere from UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall and the Japanese American Cultural Center to Club Lingerie.
He’s not exactly P.C., deriding the mid-’70s Brown Power movement as “Red Power — it was all Mao and Marx, there was no spiritual indigenous consciousness, except in a superficial ceremonial sense.” He battles to tear down “the Pocho Wall, which is a real division between Mexicans and Chicanos. The whole issue of ‘pochismo’ is ridiculous — we’re not betrayers. The fact is, Mexico was a mess after the revolution; that’s why we left, you couldn’t get anything done there.”
Guevara’s passion and creativity have taken him far (“There’s an Aztlan Center in Paris — can you believe that?”), and despite his tireless mentoring and stewardship of a dozen or so upcoming East L.A. bands, he allowed all of it to keep him away from his own music. Finally, on New Year’s Day in 2008, he had an epiphany on a remote mountaintop. “I try to get to Joshua Tree every year, take stock — a soul assessment. I was asking myself, ‘What do you do? Who are you? You’re a singer, you started out that way and that’s who you are.’ And that is who I am.”
Thus was born his current bandstand character, Funkahuatl, performing a new set of freshly baked material, almost all of it centered on the subject of love, with inspirational boosts from Tantric Buddhism and Guevara’s idol, the sixth Dalai Llama. Regularly performing at exquisite joint Eastside Luv, with a crack band and drop-ins like the Doors’ John Densmore, Guevara has reignited the R&B-soul fixation that began his career. “I had a meltdown on that mountaintop,” he says, “but I bounced back and realized that everything is interconnected; plants, rocks, love, the soul, and now I’ll take that into the outer world and share it.”
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