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East Los Lobos!

Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

Photographer Gregory Bojorquez and I roll down Atlantic Boulevard in East Los, bumpin’ 2Pac through the speakers of Greg’s fat pale-yellow ’78 Coupe de Ville. We make a right on Sixth Street, then another quick right on Frasier, and pull up next to a metallic-green ’66 El Dorado. The ranfla belongs to Conrad Lozano, bassist for Los Lobos. Celebrating their 12th album, The Ride, and 30 years as a band, the group have returned to reminisce at Garfield High School, where founding members Lozano (class of ’70), Louie Pérez (class of ’71), David Hidalgo (class of ’72) and Cesar Rosas (class of ’72) got started. It’s been 20 years since the four and Steve Berlin, who joined in 1983 and is also here today, released their major-label debut, How Will the Wolf Survive?

“I remember metal shop used to be right here,” says Lozano, pointing to an empty classroom by the entrance gate. Laura Alvarado, one of Garfield’s assistant principals, walks us over to the lunch area, where all the food fights go down. Hidalgo gestures toward the new school layout: “All of this was just grass, none of this was here.”

Word quickly gets out that Los Lobos are on campus. Interim principal Onofre di Stefano shows up with a poster, and the group sign it. But before this becomes an autograph session, we walk into one of the buildings for a photo shoot.

“My locker used to be right here,” says Pérez, tapping on one.

“Do you remember the combination?” someone asks. The band, eager to see the rest of the school, can’t stand still while being photographed.

“Hey, is Woessner still around?” asks Lozano.

“Yes,” says Ms. Alvarado. “His class is just down there.” I’m amazed — Tom Woessner was my A.P. European-history teacher when I was a senior (class of ’90). “Man,” says Lozano, “I was late to Woessner’s class all the time. I got thrown out of his class.” He strolls down the hall to pay a surprise visit, and student and teacher reunite — a nice moment.

Band, principal, vice principal, teachers and students crowd over to the field bleachers, where students are jogging around the track.

“I remember running around the track,” says Rosas, sporting his signature black shades. “And then when we got to the ROTC building, I’d stick my middle finger out at all the preppies.”

Steve Wright, the longtime cross-country coach, approaches. He remembers seeing Los Lobos at a dive called Manny Lopez’s on Atlantic. “Right there,” he says, pointing. “Me and, like, three other people. They played every Thursday for a $1 or $2 cover.”

Since we’re right above the cafeteria, the topic quickly moves to Los Lobos’ favorite subject, food.

“Remember the grilled cheese?”

“Oh, how about the Bulldog Burrito, all deep-fried.”

“How about those breakfast cinnamon rolls — and the coffee cakes, man, those were good.”

The varsity football team is out on the field for spring practice; I ask if the guys ever went to the East L.A. Classic. (The Garfield-Roosevelt football game is the largest high school rivalry west of the Mississippi.)

“Oh yeah,” says Pérez. “We’d go to Shakey’s and throw chingasos” — punches, that is. “You’d walk in and the whole place was throwing.”

In the bleachers, before we begin our interview, Los Lobos decide to grub on a big, fat, brown-stained bag of tamales and other Mexican goodies Pérez has picked up from his old neighborhood. I bust out my microcassette.

“Let’s test it out,” says Hidalgo. He pulls out a chicharrón and snaps it into the recorder. Pérez takes it up a notch, biting down on a chicharrón. I rewind and play back.

Cccrrrrunch!

 

Eighth-grade plastic shop at Stevenson Junior High, just down Whittier Boulevard, is where Hidalgo first encountered Rosas. “We were both sniffing laminating fluid,” jokes Hidalgo. Pérez and Lozano lived a block from each other, but wouldn’t meet till they got in trouble together at Garfield.

The four finally converged in an art class, discussing rock & roll instead of drawing & painting.

“We were all silly troublemakers,” recalls Hidalgo.

Hidalgo, Rosas, Lozano and Pérez were members of different neighborhood rock groups. “We all had bands,” says Rosas, who played in a Tower of Power–style crew. Lozano was in the Chicano Eastside outfit Tierra. The four friends jammed out as Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (the Wolves of East L.A.), a name derived from the norteño band Los Lobos del Norte. When Lozano began spending more and more time with Los Lobos, Tierra gave him an ultimatum. You know his response.

Los Lobos began to play Mexican folk music they heard around their parents’ house: corridos, rancheras, norteños.

 

“No one else our age was doing it,” says Hidalgo.

They performed everywhere — restaurants, backyard parties, quinceañeras. “We played all around the neighborhoods for 10 years, and we played for anyone that would hire us. We played a lot of weddings around East L.A. and Montebello,” says Rosas.

“Mole and all the beer we could drink,” adds Hidalgo.

“We could go to any barrio, and somebody knew who we were,” says Lozano. (In the Bloods-and-Crips film Colors, Los Lobos’ music shows up in South-Central.)

The band started doing shows at Cal State L.A., and at East L.A. College, which they attended; young professors used them to re-introduce Mexican folk music to their peers and the younger generation. Los Lobos’ folkloric outreach was so successful that PBS taped a 1975 special on the group.

In 1978, Los Lobos recorded their first album, the independent release Just Another Band From East L.A., which contains classic folk songs such as the Mexican bolero “Sabor a Mí.” That disc is so rare, Pérez doesn’t even own a copy. “We printed a total of 600 to 800 copies,” he says. “The last 400 printings had side one on both sides.” “Those are real collectibles,” laughs Hidalgo. “They’re worth, like, 50 bucks.”

After 10 years of acoustic playing, the band turned to some of their musical influences — Curtis Mayfield, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix — and plugged their electric guitars back in.

Two momentous events would change their lives. In 1980, a group called the .45s canceled on an opening slot for John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. at the Olympic Auditorium. A friend from another band on the bill, Tito Larriva of the Plugz, got Los Lobos the gig. They were pelted with everything that wasn’t tied down, but they got their name out there.

Then one night at the Country Club, they met Phil Alvin of the Blasters and gave him a five-song tape of music they had recorded in Lozano’s garage.

“We’re from East L.A.,” Hidalgo told Alvin. “What part of East L.A.?” Alvin asked — then he recognized them from the PBS special. A month later, he called them: “Hey, you wanna open up for us?”

The Blasters were the hottest band in L.A. at the time, doing five nights at the Whisky. On January 22, 1982, Los Lobos blew away the packed punk crowd. The guys from the other side of the river were now part of the Hollywood punk scene, where they would bill with the Germs, X and the Circle Jerks, even opening for the Clash.

Steve Berlin, with the Blasters at the time, met Los Lobos at the Whisky; they told him their music had a saxophone tradition and invited him to jam. He performed with both bands for a while, but “I thought life would be a lot more fun playing with these guys.”

Everything moved quickly. In 1982, Los Lobos signed to Slash Records. “Slash was it,” says Berlin. “Everybody was on Slash or SST. All the punk bands signed with SST. We weren’t quite punk, so we signed with Slash.” In ’83 they recorded the EP And a Time To Dance, and won a Grammy for the song “Anselma.” Warner Bros. scooped up the group, and How Will the Wolf Survive? was released in 1984. By the Light of the Moon, which included the killer “One Time One Night,” followed in 1987.

In 1988, the band returned to their acoustic tradition with La Pistola y el Corazón, which won them a second Grammy for the title song. 1990’s full-on rock album The Neighborhood followed. In 1992, having “nothing to lose,” says Berlin, Los Lobos took a leap and began experimenting with different sounds on KiKo. 1996’s Colossal Head continued in a similar adventurous style. 1999’s Hollywood Records premiere, This Time, was a collection of eclectic R&B. The multiflavored Good Morning Aztlán dropped in 2002. The new one, The Ride, mixes exciting new material with old songs featuring legendary performers.

 

Los Lobos’ schedule is full today; they’re due in Echo Park for another photo shoot. Signing copies of The Ride, they accept Garfield T-shirts from the student body — “These are extra-large, right?”

Berlin suggests I jump in the car with him and Pérez and finish up the interview on the ride to Echo Park. Berlin drives, talking about his days with the Plugz and the Blasters, and the challenges of a Philly-born Jewish guy playing with four Mexicans: “I had no exposure to the folk music they were playing — it was very exciting.”

Berlin also comes up with some insider history: “Slash signed Los Lobos and a band called Green on Red on the same day. Bob Biggs [president of Slash at the time] said he was more excited about signing Green on Red. He thought Green on Red would be big stars.”

 

At the Jensen Recreation Center on Sunset Boulevard, the guys have pressing matters to attend to before the shoot. From a Mexican street vendor, tour manager Armando Tavares has bought them all fruit salads with powdered chile, which they devour immediately — the tamales were obviously not enough. But they’d rather be eating tacos from King Taco on Third Street in East L.A., or burritos from El Tepeyac in Boyle Heights. Wolves are carnivores, after all.

Tavares says it’s not uncommon for Los Lobos to drive to an East L.A. taquería after a show at the Greek Theater; he demands that Hidalgo tell “the tortilla story.” It seems they were touring in Switzerland, and Lozano was the only one carrying prepackaged Mexican food — hard to find in the Alps. Hidalgo got a craving and nudged a tortilla out of Lozano. They went to a restaurant, but Hidalgo couldn’t make the waitress understand that he wanted the tortilla heated up to complement his bacon and eggs. So he shouldered his way back to the kitchen griddle and flipped it himself, bewildering the staff and cracking up the band.

Posing for their pictures, Los Lobos look like rebels — hair slicked back, black T-shirts, cuffed 501 jeans, black shoes and boots. But what’s underneath? Tavares has known them for years; I ask him to describe them.

“Dave’s the jokester.” Not to mention that he’s the lead singer, and plays the guitar, the violin, the accordion and numerous Mexican acoustic instruments. “Conrad is the guy everyone knows and loves; everyone has a Conrad story. Louie is the artistic one; he does all the album covers.” He also co-writes the majority of the songs with Hidalgo. “Cesar is the soulful one, and Steve, he’s the eclectic one — he brings different music to the table.”

A dog walks into the picture. “Where’s the food, bitch?” Hidalgo demands of it. Wolves are related to dogs, and they hunt in packs.

Moving to Lozano’s Cadillac, which is parked next to the fruit-vendor cart, the shoot begins on the sidewalk but quickly proceeds onto the street; Los Lobos are stopping traffic. Lozano’s license plate reads “HEALERS” — he tells me it’s the name of his son Jason’s blues band. Hidalgo’s sons David Jr. and Vincent play with Suicidal Tendencies and, with Pérez’s son Louie III, in a punk band called Los Villains. Like East L.A. acts such as Quetzal and Ozomatli, Los Villains have gotten the chance to open for Los Lobos.

“That’s what it’s about — giving opportunities, to help and give a hand,” says Hidalgo.

“I wish we could do it more,” says Pérez with a straight face. Then he adds, “But most of the bands suck out there.”

Los Lobos laugh so hard, they’re howling.


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