The Moose Lodge lounge is rocking. On this recent Saturday night in Whittier, rockabilly culture is alive and well. You know the look: The ladies are in classic polka-dot dresses and signature Bettie Page hair, flirtatiously stirring their drinks. The guys have rolled-up pant cuffs, rolled sleeves, cigarettes and pompadours.
Everyone is dancing to the stand-up bass, drums and reverb guitar in this spacious hall. It's like a scene out of Grease, with one major difference: Nearly everyone here is Latino.
Rockabilly started with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in Tennessee and was thought to be mainly the domain of whites. But the culture and the music have exploded in the past decade here in L.A. Why have young Latin kids embraced this music of the Eisenhower age?
Nicholas F. Centino, a writer and doctoral candidate in Chicana and Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara, says it's simple: The scene creates an identity for them. Not only is it different from the ranchera music of their parents, it's different from the EDM and Taylor Swift the white kids are listening to. It's something that's all their own, and, despite being more than a half-century old, it feels fresh.
Not only that but, despite popular conceptions, Latinos have been part of the scene all along. “If you look at the history of the genre, you will find that Latinas and Latinos have been die-hard rock & rollers since the early years,” Centino says. The most famous, of course, was Ritchie Valens, of “La Bamba” fame. Born in the San Fernando Valley and fond of the pompadour hairstyle, he shortened his name from Valenzuela to Valens to broaden his appeal. Centino calls him, along with Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, a founder of rockabilly — hillbilly rock & roll, if you will. (Both Valens and Buddy Holly, while touring together, died in a plane crash in 1959.)
During the '70s and '80s, rockabilly went through a transformation; punk and goth influences changed it from the '50s do-wop sound toward the faster-paced, horror movie-inspired subgenre of psychobilly, led by The Cramps and
The Misfits The Meteors.
After a relative lull, rockabilly and psychobilly have gained speed in the L.A. area. Local indie Wild Records started in 2001 and features mostly Latino musicians. Its artists and others have performed at area rockabilly events including the Rumble on Pine Festival and Ink-N-Iron Festival in Long Beach — as well as venues like the Moose Lodge, the Five Star and the Airliner — before primarily Latino audiences. The men (in jean jackets) bring their women (in tight dresses) in their classic throwback cars. Everyone's tattooed from head to toe, smoking and drinking Sailor Jerry's.
“The newness of rockabilly is attractive because it goes against all the social norms of pop culture,” says Johnathan Albarran Palomino, guitarist for Long Beach psychobilly band The Gunz, whose members are all in their early 20s. “Punk is getting too old, ska has stagnated, and electro is just a fad.”
Rockabilly is a fairly new scene for many here, which is part of the attraction. Of course, at base it's all about the nostalgia, for the era of hot rods, pin-up girls and a Jack Kerouac type of rebellion. It's not Mom nor Dad's music from south of the border; in fact, it's a way to claim Americanness for the next generation, especially during the turbulent battle for immigration reform being fought in national politics.
Then there's the fact that the music is simply raw and energetic. It kicks ass. Bands like The Spoofs or Tres Muertos play with a take-no-prisoners attitude that their grandparents would not have recognized.
Back at the Moose Lodge, paintings of Johnny Cash, Elvis and John Lennon hang on the wall. In a way, this cramped venue feels not unlike an old high school gym where someone like Valens might have performed when he was just starting out. (Minus all the booze and the smell of weed.) The main difference is that the next Valens won't need to change his name to find mass appeal.
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