The way-boss East Los Angeles sound of The Midniters, the Premeirs, the Blendells, Cannibal & the Headhunters – one of the greatest-ever eruptions of street-level rock & roll – certainly deserves a serious account of its history and development. Which is precisely what co-authors David Reyes and Tom Waldman had in mind with this rather-too-slim volume, loaded with tantalizing glimpses and patchy recollections of ELA's Chicano pop-music culture. From the early bedrock of prewar singer-songwriter Lalo Guerrero and postwar musician and disc jockey Chico Sesma, straight into the feverish R&B era, when honking saxmen Big Jay McNeely, Joe Houston and Chuck Higgins began drawing thousands of hard-grooving pachucos, it's a fascinating subject.
The early-'50s convergence of black R&B heat and Chicano romanticism was exotic, almost surreal. Higgins recalls how, in response to the ELA preference for long ballads and marathon groove fests, his band would frequently perform only two songs per night, playing one for 90 minutes, then returning after the intermission to play a second tune for another hopped-up hour and a half – an altogether mind-bending concept. From there, the rise of Ritchie Valens and the handful of early-'60s ELA bands mentioned at the top of this review was a natural evolution, into a style tailor-made for the East Los audience. The casual culture of backyard jamming – the music, the dance styles, the threads, the car clubs – that gave way to the glories of El Monte Legion Stadium, to the Chicano rock & roll audience's reverential loyalty to and involvement with every aspect of this music, is one of Southern California's most singular pop phenomena.
Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock 'n' Roll From Southern California, unfortunately, is a half-baked text, peppered with mostly too-brief interview excerpts, clunky pedagogic phraseology (“as we shall see” pops up about half a dozen times) and perfunctory, inconsistent presentations that rush past many of the era's most fascinating aspects and characters. Little Julian Herrera, a charismatic, apparently troubled “wild boy” idol who disappeared “under mysterious circumstances,” is mentioned only briefly, and with no attempt to explain the mystery. The “outlaw” wardrobe of El Monte's Masked Phantoms Band is alluded to but never actually described. Car clubs with names like the Coffin Cheaters – a subculture certainly worthy of more extensive examination, if not its own chapter – float through the book like a cloud of gnats. And when major record deals go sour for various bands at crucial moments in their careers, the reasons go unexamined and unexplained. The authors just roll on with the narrative, excusing their failure to follow up with a lame – and deeply frustrating – “gee whiz, what a shame, but let's not dwell on it” riff.
Another major problem is the lack of a national context: Chicano hitmakers Santana and the ? and Mysterians are mentioned only once, and SoCal-based Chan Romero, whose frequently covered “Hippy Hippy Shake” was even performed by the Beatles, gets the brushoff. Most disturbing, though, are the sloppy research and unaccountable omissions. (There are no notes, source credits or lists of interview subjects – weird for a university-press job.) The authors unquestioningly accept big-band musician Sesma's claim that he was earning upward of $350 a week in the mid-'40s: Only national headliners got that kind of bread; $35 was a high salary at the time. In references to pop singers Patti Page and Johnnie Ray, both names go misspelled. The punk-rock chapter gets the title of the first Plugz album (Electrify Me) wrong, never mentions the Zeros (Chula Vista's “Mexican Ramones”) and even gets Chicana punk rocker Alice Bag's surname wrong (it's Armendariz, boys). The book closes with a celebration of Los Lobos, but fails to mention Ozomatli, the biggest noise to come out of ELA in years.
Minor errors and omissions on the whole, but errors and omissions nonetheless, and with a subject as underdocumented as this, the accrual of questionable data leaves the queasy reader wondering who, if anyone, was minding the store. At 178 pages, this is more like a proposal than a finished manuscript – one crying out for a serious rewrite and a severe edit. Despite its value as a skeletal primer on ELA rock & roll, Land of a Thousand Dances ultimately raises more questions than it answers.