Chris Morris is one of the foremost music critics in Los Angeles. His “Dream in Blue” (American Music) is available now through Amazon. We talked to him about the project, which chronicles the history of one of L.A.’s most innovative bands….
DIYConvention: Tell us about the first time you saw Los Lobos and what you thought?
CHRIS MORRIS: I first saw Los Lobos in the spring of 1980, when they were still an acoustic folk band. They were opening, incongruously enough, for Public Image Ltd at the Olympic Auditorium – the whole story is in the book. My plus-one at that show was Steve Berlin, who was a close running buddy at the time. They were booed and bottled off the stage. The experience stayed with me, because I remembered the show when I saw them again, opening for the Blasters at the Whisky in January 1982. They had metamorphosed into an electric rock band by that point. The latter gig was a revelation – there weren’t any Chicano performers working in a roots style in L.A. I became an instant fan. They were electrifying.
DIY: Was the group held back by its popularity on the wedding circuit? Or did that live experience help them when crafting their own originals?
CM: The Lobos who played weddings and backyard parties were a very different band. At that stage of their career, they weren’t working outside of the East Side, and weddings were regular money gigs for them; you can’t really say that work held them back, for their horizons were limited at that point (pre-1980). They were playing their folk repertoire, and obviously they continued to do so even after they were primarily playing rock music. So I suppose you could say they never lost touch with those roots.
DIY: Talk about the early days of the group vis-a-vis breaking out with original music. What obstacles did they face as Mexican-Americans who were playing a hybrid form of music. Compare and contrast the reception in the hinterlands versus the local reaction to them.
CM: When the band “went electric” in the late ‘70s, playing their restaurant gig at Las Lomas in Anaheim Hills, they were inspired by the punk music they were hearing and absorbing. As teens, they had all played rock ‘n’ roll, so this wasn’t terra incognita to them. I think their great revelation was hearing the Blasters ca. 1980. They realized they could play their own variety of roots-rock. They knew they would have to write their own music and commenced to do so; Dave Alvin’s work for the Blasters, which adapted a panoply of roots styles very personally, was a huge influence on them. I don’t know if you could say the band encountered obstacles – by the time they made their splash in Hollywood in 1982, roots bands were well installed in the punk firmament, and people identified with their sound, which added traditional Mexican styles, most prominently danceable Tex-Mex conjunto music, to the blues-rockabilly-R&B mix. The almost instantaneous embrace of the band by critics around the country helped them secure a following outside the L.A. city limits.
DIY: “La Bamba” – a blessing or a curse for the band?
CM: It was certainly a blessing in many respects – it bought houses for the guys, brought them instant nationwide recognition, and broke them out from the L.A. punk pack. Fortunately, they recognized immediately that they could have instantly been imprisoned by that hit, which was a cover of a long-dead rock star’s best-known song. So they restated their identity with the Spanish-language folk EP “La Pistola y El Corazon,” which won them a Grammy and, most importantly, said loudly, “This is who we are.” Los Lobos have always instinctively known how to deal with the twists and turns of their career.
DIY: The Steve Berlin connection – how did that happen? And what was its importance to the group’s development?
CM: Steve got to know Los Lobos when they were opening for the Blasters; he loved the band, and would often tear across town after a Blasters show to play a gig with them. I don’t think the importance of his production work on “…and a time to dance,” “How Will the Wolf Survive,” and “By the Light of the Moon” can be overestimated. He produced the Lobos’ tracks for “La Bamba” (save the single, which was produced by Mitchell Froom). He also greatly expanded the band’s sound with his sax and keyboard work. So he was a crucial addition to the group early on.
DIY: How did you get involved with this book project?
CM: It fell in my lap. In May 2012, I received an e-mail from Peter Blackstock, the co-founder of No Depression magazine, who is now the critic at the Austin American Statesman. With David Menconi, the longtime critic of the Charlotte (NC) News and Observer, Peter edits the “American Music” book series published by the University of Texas Press. He asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book about Los Lobos. I’d already done a lot of writing about the Lobos for various magazines and penned liner notes for the boxed set “El Cancionero Mas y Mas” and the best-of compiltion “Wolf Tracks.” Plus the guys have been friends for more than 30 years. It was an easy call. And now nobody will ever again ask me, “Hey, Morris, when you gonna write a book?”
DIY: I know you’ve done a book on X. What others are on your resume?
CM: I have another book coming out in early 2016, and it was the product of hitting a wall in the mechanical work on the Los Lobos book. In late 2013, I found myself staring helplessly at a stack of untranscribed cassettes, totally enervated and unable to lift a finger. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, and I bought the new boxed set of what was then Dylan’s collected albums. I decided to try and break my inertia by writing a daily Tumblr post about one of the Dylan albums; I called the series, which was highly personal, “A Dylan a Day.” The posts got a big response when I linked to them on Facebook. I managed to shake things off and completed the Lobos book in early 2014. My friend Tosh Berman brought the Dylan posts to the attention of Tyson Cornell at Rare Bird Books, and he will be republishing them, with a couple of new chapters, as “Together Through Life.”
A couple of old friends, John Doe of X and Tom DeSavia of SONGS Publishing, are working on a book, “Under the Big Black Sun,” that will be published by Da Capo Press next fall. John will be writing his own personal history of the X/L.A. punk saga, with chapters by other contemporaries interspersed. I’ve written a chapter focusing on the music from 1977 to 1982. Other contributors include Exene, Dave Alvin, Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters, Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, Henry Rollins, Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Pleasant Gehman, Theresa Covarrubias, and Kristine McKenna, so I’m in very good company.
DIY: Give us some perspective on Los Lobos’s importance to the East Los Angeles community and its music scene.
CM: Los Lobos are the culminating figures in the history of East L.A. music. They are the logical end point of a musical culture that began with the “pachuco boogie” of the ‘40s and continued through the R&B-influenced rock of Cannibal & the Headhunters, Thee Midniters, et al., in the ‘60s and the Latin rock of Tierra and El Chicano in the ‘70s. No ELA band ever attained the national prominence, or the sales, accorded Los Lobos. Furthermore, they expanded the East L.A. sound well beyond its bedrock influences – no Chicano rock band ever made records that sounded like “Kiko” or “Colossal Head.” Those are experimental albums, and I think they stunned even the Lobos’ devoted fans. In terms of their ambition and reach, no one even touches them.
DIY: What did you learn about Los Lobos in the course of writing this that you didn’t know before?
CM: For me, learning about the beginnings of Los Lobos was a true revelation. The early days of the band have never really been completely documented, for one reason or another. I was fortunate enough to interview Frank (now Francisco) Gonzáles, who co-founded the group with Cesar Rosas and was their musical director and lead singer in the early ‘70s. To my knowledge, Gonzáles only gave one interview about the band before he talked to me, and he is mentioned only briefly in the book that drew from it, David Reyes and Tom Waldman’s East L.A. music history “Land of a Thousand Dances.” Though he quit the band just as they began recording, he’s an important part of the band’s story, and I’m happy that he decided to speak to me with such candor. The story of Los Lobos’ genesis is a fascinating thing, about a bunch of Chicano kids essentially learning to play Mexican folk music from Ground Zero.
DIY: What’s next for you, book-wise? Any major projects on the burner?
Earlier this year, my father’s widow gave me the manuscript of an unpublished autobiographical novel he worked on for years before his death in 2002. I’m a character in it. I still haven’t finished reading it – I’m a little apprehensive about it, actually – but I think writing something about it could be a way of addressing my family’s history and my somewhat tortured relationship with my dad. So wish me luck.