• U.S.

Music: The Long Way Round to Home

4 minute read
Jay Cocks

They looked around and suddenly didn’t know where they were.

This is not an uncommon occurrence on a rock tour, but Los Lobos is a band that has always stuck pretty close to home. Their music is a unique blend of roots rock, Latino spirit and introspective lyricism. Their new album — their best so far — is a kind of homage to the homey spirit of regeneration. It’s called The Neighborhood, and just recently the band found itself quite a distance from it.

“We’re in Spain!” drummer Louis Perez Jr. realized after a moment. “Wow!” Well, maybe they weren’t quite so far away after all. Spiritually, Los Lobos has always dwelt midway between Los Angeles and Garcia Lorca, playing hard, dreaming darkly, finding a somber poetry on the sunny streets of the Mexican-American area the band called home. That’s The Neighborhood.

This is a place populated by castoffs from the American Dream who still manage, against stiff odds, to hold on to some small scrap of spirit and some little bit of hope. Los Lobos can find a flinty spirituality in some unlikely places, including the gaze of a damaged child in Little John of God: “You can say with your eyes/ What others only say inside.” Los Lobos has weathered its own internal trial, a loss of direction that followed the group’s greatest popular success, and it is by going back to The Neighborhood that the band has finally pulled itself back together.

Los Lobos has been together for 17 years, gigging at first, in the words of lead singer and co-writer David Hidalgo, “for a case of beer.” Mexican American by birth, the band’s original members took their initial inspiration from the guitar-monster music of Jimi Hendrix and Cream, the uptown scampery of the Stones, the folk-inflected harmonies of Buffalo Springfield. Mexican music didn’t count. “We didn’t want to hear that when we grew up,” says Perez. “We wanted to hear James Brown.”

When they finally started fooling around with mariachi sounds in the mid-‘ 70s, the band members found another ingredient for its unique sound, as well as a further source of income: with a repertory of Mexican favorites, they could work the local wedding circuit. Eventually the coming of punk and the revitalizing of the Los Angeles music scene lured them out of the barrio and over to the Sunset Strip, where they found the beginnings of an audience that would turn them into a critics’ favorite (they were 1984’s Band of the Year in Rolling Stone) and a campus-radio cornerstone.

At first there was a bit of culture shock for both band and audience. The punkers, who held rather prescribed, even fashionable ideas about anarchy, were surprised to see a band of brooding barrio boys in plaid shirts who sang tunes with suspiciously literate overtones. The band, which includes guitarist-vocalist Cesar Rosas, bass player Conrad Lozano and sax man Steven Berlin, found itself looking out into a Chinese restaurant with black walls and a rankly aromatic carpet. So much for crossover dreams. But that grungy club gave them an enthusiastic constituency that remained faithful even as it grew.

It was the 1987 release of La Bamba, the disarming biography of Latino rocker Ritchie Valens, that launched them into the full glare of the big time. They performed superb renditions of Valens’ classics for the film and had a No. 1 single with the title cut, as well as a sound-track album that spent two weeks at No. 1. “That kind of eclipsed everything else we had done up to that point,” says Perez. But as Hidalgo recalls, “we didn’t know if we were going to be an alternative novelty thing or just a flavor of the month.”

They handled the problem by doing some musical soul searching, first into the past for La Pistola y El Corazon, a 1988 album of Mexican folk music that won a Grammy, then, for The Neighborhood, into the world outside their door. Or, more accurately, outside their doughnut shop, a Winchell’s just south of Los Angeles in Whittier, where Perez and Hidalgo meet to talk business, do interviews and check out the street action. Their old neighborhood in East Los Angeles is impassable. “We had a strong sense of community,” says Perez. “But with all the drugs and gangs, the neighborhood is turning into a battlefield.” The Neighborhood, playing off images of despair against cameos of humble valor, is part front-line report and part benediction. “We’re really starting over,” Hidalgo says, and it sounds like they have found their way. In The Neighborhood, they’ve come up with a fresh direction and, with it, their finest hour.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com