With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
March 12, 2006. My second big punk show. The Adicts at the Showcase Theatre in Corona, California. Way the fuck away from my home in La Puente.
I was supposed to see them a week prior, not too far away at the British Invasion festival at the Orange Pavilion in San Bernardino. The show got shut down after I had been there for two or three bands. A skinhead demonstration had led to a stabbing, tear gas, looting, and riot police. I was fourteen.
My dad had been nearby listening to KFWB in his old Datsun, heard about what was going on, and came back and swooped me up. I was extremely disappointed to have missed the Adicts, essentially the only band I came to see, until it was announced that they were playing another show a week later, for half the price. I took a flier with me to school. The older, hippie punks I knew, who had claimed to smash a cop’s windshield that night said, “Oh, it’s at Showcase.” They didn’t seem too surprised, and smiled slightly.
At what? At where? I had only heard of punk shows happening in backyards in the San Gabriel Valley, clubs in Hollywood, and this lame coffee shop in Azusa called Smart City Grinds where Cheap Sex played once. The bell rang and I headed to class while the hippie punks returned to their hacky sack game.
It seemed like all of a sudden the Inland Empire was the place to be, before I even knew of it’s reputation. In my mind, that’s where Mexican and white punks gathered in mass numbers, stood together against fascists, smashed fast food restaurants, and where the Adicts played whenever you wanted to see them.
I pleaded with my father to take me again. This time, he wasn’t just dropping me off. Two tickets it was, and a ride down two freeways I’d never heard of.
We drove out from La Puente on the 91 and the 71 on a school night. My dad excitedly reminisced about visiting his aunt in Corona in the early 60s, riding mini-bikes in empty fields, and eating hamburgers at Hi Spot. It sounded like some redneck shit to me.
We got off on Main Street and arrived to what seemed to me like flat-in-the-middle of fucking nowhere. A Del Taco to our left, a 76 Station to the right. In spite of some charming old buildings and a curving line of trees, the place felt somewhat sad. It was getting dark in downtown Corona.
We went another block or two, past the city library, and then I turned my head to see hundreds of kids surrounding a frumpy brick building next to the 99 Cent Store. It was like they had taken it over.
We parked beside some girls hanging out in a blanketed truck camper, slyly drinking forties. My old man seemed more accustomed to this kind of scene than I was (after all, he saw the Doors in the 70s). As we walked up to the building, he snapped a picture of the building’s cheesy marquee: The Showcase Theatre.
The parking lot was alive with girls and boys with blue and pink hair, spiderweb tattoos, painted leather, and cheetah print everything. They screamed at each other, played grab-ass, while the older ones smoked cigarettes. There were also a few middle aged people there too, just as punk as the rest.
This Corona was redneck shit indeed, and my sheltered Mexican-mom-having adolescent self was about to get his first taste of it. I met a 19 or 20-ish year-old guy who’s name I don’t remember. He had the tallest spiked hair I’d ever seen and the most thrashed, moldy Cramps shirt. It gave those hippies at school a run for their money. He said he lived around the corner. I asked if he came to all the punk shows. I had just become aware of hardcore, metal, and “scene kid” music and eyed it with distrust. He said he came to the Showcase Theater every night, no matter who played, just to fuck around. He made eye contact with the tallest, scariest bouncer and called “Waddup Big Ron?!” Big Ron’s scowl turned into a huge grin.
At seven o’clock sharp, the bouncers snapped into authoritarian mode and shouted us into lines. Everyone mostly complied. When I got to the box office window, ringed with stickers and faded graffiti, a middle-aged blonde woman with Coke bottle glasses and a green cardigan asked me, “Tickets or Will Call?” Not understanding the question, I blinked at her. She sternly repeated herself and then gave a look to a Mexican goodfella in skate clothes standing by the door. He told me to empty my pockets, took my ticket, and sent me inside. He was the club’s talent booker and stage hand, Joe Case.
I felt like Bilbo Baggins entering the back door of the Lonely Mountain under moonlight. There was a dark hallway covered in posters for upcoming shows: UK Subs, The Meteors, Avengers. It was probably only 12 or 15 feet long, but it’s burned into my memory like the slow pan-up at the beginning of a movie that takes place in a Chuck E. Cheese for punks.
Traffic lights and an old bicycle hung from the ceiling. There was a small, round stage, no more than three and a half feet high, flanked by huge speakers, and a little cage next to it for the sound guy. The wooden dance floor in front of it was soaked in years of sweat, and framed by a squared, corral-like rail that separated the pit from the loading ramp, the entrance, and the snack bar with its Christmas lights. The old crust punk tíos and lifers leaned up on the rail with slushies and popcorn while their young ones ran up and down the staircase to check out t-shirts and CDs on the balcony. Underneath the balcony was the chill out – or make out – area. Behind the snack bar, past the world’s loveliest bathroom, was a red naugahyde couch, arcade machines, and a water fountain that never worked.
The show started quickly. My pop and I went up the balcony to watch the opener, the Giggaloops. They were locals, mostly girls, four or five years older than me, and they were playing their last show ever. First song and the kids were already pitting and singing along. I couldn’t believe a band this young had a following and could open for legends like the Adicts. I think one of their moms might have worked in the snack bar. I was enamored with their lead singer’s pin-up style and cool vintage microphone. They thanked Showcase numerous times – that’s what everyone called it, Showcase – and when I got their free CDR later, it had live tracks recorded at the Showcase that actually sounded better than their demo.
The Adicts as I would find out, played the Showcase many times a year. It was where they had made their return from hiatus in 2002, before they moved to California. They’d released several records with a label co-founded by the venue’s owner, Ezzat Soliman. These British legends made Corona their home base, and were huge in So Cal. The tight confines of the club (capacity of 450, I think), gave the perfect conditions for the band to explode confetti and throw out beach balls to a swaying crowd of teenage heathens.
After that first show, I kept making the trip out to Corona any chance I got over the next two years, meeting new friends, eating the pizza next door, and pissing off the 99 Cent Store staff. I saw more and more that the Showcase had its own scene of artists who were making (or trying to make) their careers in music largely off the opportunities that this little place and it’s community afforded. Not only was it the spot to see Vice Squad or TSOL, but there were hordes of young people honing their chops on locals-only bills that were generously provided by Joe Case and Ezzat Soliman.
The stereotypical skeezy Inland Empire element was there. I remember a middle-aged, leather-faced crew called the Runt Punx. They had names like Spit and Weasel, and dressed sorta like GI’s or Gestapo. One of them slapped my best friend Garrett in the titty as we crossed paths in the doorway. Boy was he pissed. The Corona City Bootboys were a skinhead group that came out and busted up a D.I. show. I once saw a methed out guy who looked like Matthew Lillard push a revolver in a fresh cut baby skin’s face and ask him if he wanted to “play with bullets” while the kid pleaded, “I’m not a fuckin’ nazi man, please don’t shoot me, I’m not a nazi man!” This happened about a block south of the club. My sister and I watched with bewilderment from the bushes.
But I met a lot of artists and intellectual types there too: a family with a record label whose kids ran food drives and became train hoppers. A guy from Temecula who printed Patti Smith and other poets on his shirts. All the photographers. Of course, there were all the politically-minded bands and fans spreading messages about police, war, and animal rights. And just a lot of friendly people who loved to dance and didn’t mind getting crashed into.
I’m not totally sure where everyone came out from, and how many people were Corona locals. Many came from Riverside, where the Showcase’s predecessor, Spanky’s, resided in the late 80s. Garrett came out from Rancho Cucamonga. Recently I learned that my cousins, who had moved from Alhambra to Ontario to Mira Loma, had gone to Showcase with their aunt and gotten drunk for the first time in the parking lot. All the while, the IE felt like such a nebulous region to me.
In 2008, the Showcase shut down pretty quickly. I didn’t know what exactly happened – a lot of pressure from Corona City Council apparently – but I had gotten my taste of what punk rock was supposed to be, and spent many more nights in search of it in backyards in the SGV, galleries in Echo Park, and bars in Orange County.
As I ventured further into rock scenes enabled by the bull economy and gentrification of the Obama years, the happy times I spent in the circle pit at the Showcase didn’t feel quite as hip. I drank in some of the high brow, anti-hick, and apolitical sentiments that swirled around some of the more affluent garage rock and art punk shows. Showcase wasn’t a place I brought up anymore, and I’m ashamed to say I even cringed a time or two when my father mentioned it years after.
More recently, I just about completely lost interest in the bulk of what goes on in the LA rock scene, as even the bands who are supposed to be super punk mostly just play in clubs with sideways fences that seem to have been built to serve as backdrops in commercials. Everyone’s gotta make a buck. It’s not to say something isn’t happening somewhere that means something to someone though. In fact, geographically, I started to notice something funny.
Maybe it was just nostalgia that caught my peripheral vision, but I started noticing that old school punk, with all of its trappings, still exists in the boonies like Corona. Marla Ríos-Hernández’s dissertation on punk made the papers. A gigantic fair for punk street vendors was happening yearly in Upland, until Covid. And Alta Loma’s Dr. Strange Records is still going strong 22 years later. I hadn’t seen an honest-to-god punk family walking the street in the SGV in ages, until I went to see Logan Colby’s 2019 documentary “If These Walls Could Sing” at the Concert Lounge in Riverside. It was a rowdy and emotional evening. The audience cheered younger versions of themselves jumping off the stage, as the Soliman family sat tearing up in the back row.
Now, 12 years since the Showcase shut down, the Inland Empire has taken on a clearer identity in my head. It’s a place without pretense, where people do what they have to to survive and thrive. The IE, and Corona, are punk.
Chris Greenspon is a radio journalist from La Puente, California, and the host of the public affairs podcast SGV Weekly. His work has been heard on KPCC, KCRW, Latino USA, and Marketplace. Listen to a radio version of this story here.
A few months after Who Are the People? closed, I ran into keyboardist Bob Harris as I was leaving a phone booth that doubled as my office on Fountain in Silver Lake. I knew him from the days when we hung out with John Beck, lead singer with the Leaves, while he was in a relationship with folk singer/songwriter Judee Sill. We talked about what we were doing and I told him about the musical I’d just staged. He had just returned from touring with Zappa, I think it was the Billy the Mountain tour. I told him I’d met Frank a few years earlier, and he suggested we pay him a visit, since Frank and I both seemed to be on a rock theater kick.
As we drove up Laurel Canyon I had flashbacks of working at Chicken Delight back in ’66. We passed the notorious Log Cabin where Zappa and his clan once lived along with the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously, about whom I’ll say more later). I don’t know how I survived speeding around those curves, stoned and in the rain, delivering boxes of chicken. But hey, it meant at least a couple bucks tip if you got the chicken there hot. So now, just a few years later, I’m on my way to see the wild wizard of rock. Life’s a stone trip, all right.
We got to his tree-shrouded home, and surprisingly he answered the door himself. “We met a few years ago at the Shrine for the Cruising with Ruben & the Jets album release show,” I said. “Yeah, I remember you. You’re Rubén.” “Right. Sorry I never took you up on your offer to drop off some demos, but I went back to college. I wanna write music for films.” He didn’t say anything, just “Come on in.” We walked into his studio, which burst with guitars and sound equipment.
“So, you used to sing a little R & B, huh?” “Yeah in high school in the ’50s, then I put together a trio, the Apollo Brothers. We cut a single in ’61, sang around town, and did a little TV. We played the Legion once.” “The El Monte American Legion Stadium?” “Yeah, with Richard Berry, and the Olympics too.”
That led to an all-night session of listening to his collection of R & B oldies. Here we were, a couple of grown men tripping on old records like we were teenagers. That was the beginning of our bond: our love of L.A. rhythm and blues.
Then we talked about my discovering modern music composers at LACC, Bartók and Stravinsky in particular. We talked about how they weaved ethnic folk music into new musical and theatrical forms, which was how I interpreted his Ruben & the Jets garage doo-wop band. I saw it as Mexican American rock-theater, though in a very primitive form, which was cool with me.
I took a copy of Billboard with me that had reviews of Who Are the People? and his recent collaboration with the L.A. Philharmonic at UCLA next to it. That got his attention. As the sun was coming up he made a proposal: “How would you like to stage a real Ruben & the Jets? I’ll produce the album, and you can tour with the Mothers as an opening band to promote it.” I told him, “Thanks, man, that’s a damn groovy offer, but I’m not interested in going back to rock ’n’ roll. I don’t want to move backwards, and besides, too many detours.” He stared at me for a few long seconds with those dark eyes, then said, “Take what you know and build your own roads.”
I said I’d think about it and get back to him. It sounded cool, but still, the question kept coming up: could I trust rock musicians to pull off this great opportunity? Could I even work with flaky rockers again after working with serious classical cats? Then again, it wasn’t like I’d be starting from scratch. There was already an audience for Zappa’s Ruben & the Jets. To have an album produced by him and a spot on a tour sounded too good to resist. And I’d be creating a rock-theater piece right in line with my new direction. However, another burning question kept coming up: Was I honoring my sister’s memory with this project? Was I keeping my word to create art as a spiritually educating experience? Could I use it as a launching pad that would take me closer to my promises? My conclusion: Fuck, yeah! Give it a try.
I called m’ man “Flash,” who had just returned from Vietnam. “Hey, man, get your boogie-woogie fingers warmed up. We’re gonna audition for a once-in-a-lifetime shot!” We went into his bedroom at his parents’ home and rehearsed on the old upright piano that we’d used when we started the Apollo Brothers in high school.
The session with Frank started out a little bumpy. At one point “Flash” stopped playing, and Frank said, “Come on, Flash, this ain’t Carnegie Hall.” “It is for me,” he replied, then nodded that he was ready to play again. That time, we got into it and nailed it. Frank smiled, nodding his head up and down. He asked me to put a band together. I said, “I can have a band together in a few weeks.”
Courtesy of Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara
So I called bass player and vocalist Bill Wild of the Du-Vals, who had backed up the Apollo Brothers at Pandora’s Box and my Shindig! audition. I was reluctant to hire him, what with his history of drugs and booze, but he could play a funky bass and had a soulful voice that I needed for the harmonies. For the sax section I contacted former LACC classmate Clarence Matsui, a Japanese American alto sax cat from Boyle Heights. I also recruited another classmate, tenor sax player Bob “Buffalo” Roberts, and Frank suggested Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, a former Mother, for the baritone sax parts.
Clarence had been playing with a band from East L.A. that he highly recommended, so I went to hear them play. I was impressed and invited them to come to the audition. They included vocalist and Hammond B-3 player John Martinez, probably the best all-around singer ever to come out of East L.A. Not only could he sing bass and falsetto parts, but he was also a killer lead singer. Then there was vocalist–rhythm guitarist–songwriter Robert “Frog” Camarena and vocalist–lead guitarist–songwriter Tony Duran, formerly of East L.A. ’60s greats the Premiers (“Farmer John”). Drummer Bobby Zamora was called in at the last minute. The band sounded great, and Frank dug it.
Zappa was in a wheelchair during this time with a broken leg and other injuries from being pushed off the stage at a concert in London by a jealous fan. This gave him plenty of time to work with the band.
It was my understanding that the members of the band would be signed as “sidemen” and that I would be the leader, sole composer, and lead singer on all material. The band members could be replaced at my discretion. It was also agreed that the project would be a collaboration between Frank and me that would feature original L.A.-style rhythm and blues/doo-wop, jump blues, along with straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll and blues—a kind of musical history and repository of Black and Brown L.A. music all wrapped in Mexican American rock-theater. The band didn’t get the theater part, though, as I would later discover.
Courtesy of Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara
I modeled the Jets’ harmonies on those of the Jaguars, a classic L.A. doo-wop group from Fremont High School. The multiracial vocal group of Blacks, an Italian, and a Mexican American epitomized the L.A. doo-wop style for me. Their recording of “Just the Way You Look Tonight” was the template I used to build on.
My recent composition experience writing gospel parts for Who Are the People? and my early work with the Apollo Brothers gave me the chops to arrange the vocal harmonies for the Jets. Since there were songwriters and great singers in the band, I decided to utilize their talents as much as possible, as both a democratic and a practical musical move. I didn’t realize I was also relinquishing my power. Frank wrote two songs for the band, the up-tempo doo-wopper “If I Could Only Be Your Love Again” (with George Duke sitting in on piano for the recording) and a crazy doo-woppish rocker, “The Weenie-Back Wino Walk,” which unfortunately didn’t make it to vinyl.
We rehearsed the material for the album for several months, then tested it out playing at Louis Stevenson Junior High in Boyle Heights, Garfield High School in East L.A., and at the Montebello Bowl. My plan was to create a buzz in East L.A. first, then bring the new fans to the Whisky in Hollywood for the debut.
In the middle of a series of fascinating interviews with Latin American Los Angeles session musicians, the editor of this volume, Josh Kun, puts a series of questions to the great Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa. In the midst of these, he lets his thesis slip. “You can tell musical history through the artist,” he says. “But you can also tell it from the back end, from the perspective of the session player. How does that change musical history? Suddenly Brazilian music is no longer this marginal exotic sound but at the center of virtually everything people are listening to.”
Finding a new center, or a new listening point, for the history of popular music is at the heart of The Tide Was Always High. Kun’s wide-ranging introductory essay and the more particular contributions from a variety of writers display just what a substantial and ambitious task this book is to undertake. In order to pull it off, Kun asks us to rethink not only what is Latin American about Los Angeles culture, but also what is truly “Los Angeles” about the work of Latin American musicians? In order to make the argument, he is willing to rethink how hierarchies of taste and value are established and revised. In arguing for the pervasiveness of the Latin influence on American music, he is less interested in pitting genres against one another, or even determining critical value within a genre, than he is in showing connections among them all. Los Angeles session musicians like da Costa, whom some in the music press over the years have held in a sort of mild contempt as slick guns-for-hire, provide the intellectual model for Kun’s project. They treat each session, no matter the artist nor the context—whether commercial jingle, Hollywood soundtrack, jazz, pop—as an opportunity to make an important and distinctive cultural contribution, one rooted in their own ethnic backgrounds but functioning as anchor points for someone else’s music. In doing so, Kun argues, they essentially are remaking American cultural expression with a Latin American cast.
But The Tide Was Always High does far more than send music geeks who actually read session credits (this reviewer included) back to their record collections to be reminded of just what da Costa, Alex Acuña, and their compatriots have been doing in Los Angeles studios over the past several decades. John Koegel takes a deep dive into the history of Mexican musical theater in pre-1930 Los Angeles. Walter Aaron Clark’s study of Carmen Miranda and Carol Ann Hess’s on Disney’s Saludos Amigos reveals the ways Hollywood has played with concepts of ethnic or folk authenticity. We learn of Latin music at the high end of the musicians’ union schedule (Agustin Gurza on the Hollywood Bowl) and also at the low end, and begin to understand the very short cultural distance between the two (Daniel F. Garcia on the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights).
The question of what is real and what is not is, of course, fundamental to modern entertainment, from Barnum and coon shows to lip-synched pop concerts. One of the great values of this volume is the ways it reveals the layers of Latin American music in Los Angeles, from the personae of performers—Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda as a representative of exotic Brazil and Latin America in general; Yma Sumac’s Inca princess character defining the Peruvian—to the very permutations of the music and the mixing of audiences for various styles of Latin American sounds. What might be considered the ersatz seems to matter as much as the real thing, if for no other reason than that such categories are made moot by the eclecticism of the musicians themselves, with bandleader and composer-for-all-seasons Esquivel! as a prime example—Hans Ulrich Obrist’s interview with the effervescent pianist, Juan García Esquivel, is especially valuable for this reason alone.
Kun and his talented colleagues—poets, musicians, and journalists are every bit as welcome as scholars here—document a time of racial segregation when musical borrowings and syntheses seemed to be less problematic. The boundaries of cultural territory seem to have been less closely policed in the twentieth-century decades covered by this volume, even as reckonings with racism kept getting pushed into the future. Years ago, Eric Lott published Love and Theft, a book on minstrelsy. The book’s title came to stand for an entire history of white appropriation of black cultural forms. Kun not only comes to celebrate the various pop manifestations of this in relation to Latin American music, but he also names the book after one of the highest-charting examples: Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” (I don’t hold it against Kun at all that it has now become my earworm of several weeks’ standing.)
The catholicity expressed by Kun, the seeming lack of interest in aesthetic judgment that has, for better or worse, determined the character of popular music history, is perhaps appropriate in uncovering a Latin American Los Angeles not dominated by blues-based African American styles. You cannot read the history of music in New Orleans or Chicago or New York without large helpings of African American influence and performance, almost always with the assumption that there are hierarchies of quality and authenticity involved that are almost as clear as Du Bois’s color line. That model, whatever its merits and shortcomings, is a suit that does not fit well on Los Angeles, and Kun is an open enough thinker to find a new way of examining ethnicity in popular music made in Los Angeles by editing a volume where jazz and rock orthodoxies are absent (and Los Lobos, perhaps pointedly, is not mentioned). It is in fact the latest iteration in a long-running reimagining of the place of music in American culture going back at least as far as Kun’s Audiotopia (2006).
Befitting a companion volume to an exhibition, Kun provides numerous album covers and other vibrant visual ephemera that are still stirring up curiosity about the sounds under discussion. There is probably more to say about the imagery associated with Latin American recorded music, but that could easily become another project entirely. Kun’s willingness to listen—to listen deeply not only to music but to musicians—results in a rethinking of his subject and a jumping-off point for new conversations not just about Los Angeles and its cultural history, but about the assumptions and goals of such conversations that encompass implications that go well beyond California.
 Josh Kun, ed., The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 186.
Benjamin Cawthra, Professor of History and Associate Director, Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton, is the author of Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz. He teaches cultural, public, and visual history and has written on Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
Jonathan Gold and Oliver Wang at the Autry in Los Angeles
Food and Ethnicity: A Conversation about L.A. Tuesday, September 5th 7:00 p.m. Dinner
7:30 p.m. Program Begins
Join us in L.A. for our first Fall event! In partnership with the Autry Museum of the American West and their Works in Progress series, enjoy a night of food and conversation as LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold and Cal State Long Beach sociologist Oliver Wang workshop some ideas on L.A. food and ethnicity, which will be published in Boom California later this year. The discussion will be moderated by Boom’s editor, Jason Sexton.
This will be the first in an ongoing partnership between the Autry and Boom.
Undocumented California: An Evening of Readings and Music Thursday, October 5th 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Gather with us in Tijuana at Cine Tonalá for an evening of friendship, readings, and music, entering the complex realities brought to us by the California border. Co-sponsored together with the California Historical Society, we’ll reflect on California border ecology, highlighting our shared identity as Californians, bridge-builders, open to the world.
Come grab a drink, meet Boom writers like Ana Rosas, Tanya Golash-Boza, Zulema Valdez, Ronald Rael, Jemima Pierre, Laura Enriquez, Josh Kun, David Kipen, and others sharing new readings for this Fall’s Boom series on Undocumented California, making a statement together of our collective values as Californians. We’ll close the night with a special set by Tijuana-raised Ceci Bastida who will debut a new collaboration with Haitian refugees living in the city.
Venue: Cine Tonalá, Avenida Revolución 1317, Zona Centro, 22000 Tijuana, BC, Mexico
As music critics release “best of 2016” lists, who can name the most popular musician in America fifty years ago? The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? Wrong. The Supremes or another Motown act? Nope. Bob Dylan? Johnny Cash? The Beach Boys? No, no, and no.
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Brand sold about fourteen million LPs in 1966. Anyone who has rifled through old records at thrift stores and rummage sales has seen his albums. Most famously, Whipped Cream and Other Delights featured a young woman covered in (apparently) nothing but whip cream.
No musician sold more records in 1966 than this pop trumpeter. His first ten albums, all released in the 1960s, reached the Top 20. Even more impressive, in 1966 Alpert had five albums in the Billboard Top 20 simultaneously, a Guinness World Record never since repeated. For one week, four of the Top 10 albums were Alpert’s and three of the top four!
Alpert blended multiple sounds perhaps only possible in his native Los Angeles, a city connecting diverse cultures for a century now, though the cover art didn’t hurt.
The origins of Ameriachi
Alpert combined surf rock, West Coast cool jazz, and Mexican mariachi to create a new pop sound. In the late 1950s, surf emerged as a southern California subgenre of the still-emerging rock ’n’ roll. Think Dick Dale, who graduated high school in El Segundo near Los Angeles, and his scorching, staccato guitar riffs on “Misirlou” (1962).
Cool jazz, especially its West Coast variant, also influenced Alpert. Miles Davis defined the sound on albums like Kind of Blue (1959). A growing Los Angeles-based jazz scene, including Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, adapted cool just as Alpert started playing professionally.
However, those Mexican horns, so distinctive and, at that time, so unusual for non-Mexicans to hear, probably were what listeners heard first.
In 1962 Alpert visited Tijuana where he attended a bullfight and heard a mariachi band. Inspired, he took that sound back to the studio. Playing all the parts himself, he quickly released The Lonely Bull under the name Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. After achieving some success and tour requests, he hired musicians to populate his band.
His style quickly became known as “Ameriachi,” a perfect name for his transnational music. In one 1966 interview, Alpert described it as, “a sort of fusion of the mariachi sound of Mexico with a jazz undercurrent.” His songs included “Mexican Shuffle” and “Spanish Flea,” but “A Taste of Honey” typifies his iconic sound.
Herb Alpert, 1966, via Wikimedia
Perhaps shockingly, neither Alpert nor anyone in the Tijuana Brass Band was Mexican or Mexican American. In fact, he joked in concert that his band consisted of “four lasagnas, two bagels, and an American cheese.” Four Italian Americans, two Jewish Americans, and one Anglo American. Alpert was a bagel.
Los Angeles: cultural borderland
Alpert hails from Los Angeles, home to a rich and diverse set of cultures. In the 1950s, that included a thriving, multiethnic community in Boyle Heights, on LA’s eastside. Alpert’s parents, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, gave birth to Herbert there in 1935. Boyle Heights was known as a multicultural, working class enclave with many Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans cheek to jowl with Jewish folks. The sort of place where Jews in the socialist Workmen’s Circle and garment workers’ union advocated a leftist politics that embraced the diversity of immigrants and working class peoples. Historian George Sanchez goes as far as to argue that Boyle Heights maintained this diverse, radical culture into the 1950s, when Alpert came of age.
Though not literally on the Mexican border, Los Angeles might as well be. Just a few hours drive south sits Tijuana, the definitive border town in the American imagination. Of course, the Mexican-US border is an arbitrary line drawn by politicians far removed from this region. People have crossed and recrossed this border endlessly and still do. Or, as some Mexicans declare, “We didn’t cross the border, it crossed us.”
Los Angeles always has been culturally, demographically, and economically tied to Mexico. The Southern Pacific Railroad—the “Espee” Line—terminated in LA with connections to Sonora down to Jalisco. In his book Becoming Mexican American, Sanchez notes that Spanish-language radio stations broadcast to Mexico from Los Angeles as early as the 1920s. LA remains the unofficial capital of Mexican Americans in El Norte.
Alpert in 1966
Undeniably, Alpert stood at the top of the heap in 1966. Record sales don’t lie. Whipped Cream and Other Delights sold six million platters, the best-selling LP that year. “A Taste of Honey” won the Grammy for “Best Record of the Year.” Also in 1966, Going Places, featuring “Spanish Flea,” and a third album, What Now My Love, all went to #1, the latter for nine weeks. All told, Alpert sold around fourteen million albums in 1966—way more than, yes, the Beatles.
Confirmation of his domination of the pop charts came when Alpert recorded the title track (composed by Burt Bacharach) for the first-ever James Bond film, Casino Royale, in 1967.
For this success, what “right” does Alpert have to “take” Mexican music, shear it of some of its native authenticity, and repackage it for non-Mexican audiences? It’s an important question.
Clearly, Alpert merged Mexican horns into his own sound; but artists incorporate elements of different cultures all the time. Picasso and Gauguin did it. The Talking Heads did it. Dizzy Gillespie and countless other jazz artists did so. Commercial success should not be the measure by which such “mashups” are considered theft or respectful.
As a native Los Angeleno born and raised in culturally diverse Boyle Heights, his neighborhood included countless Mexican Americans and was inextricably twined to Mexico. His visit to Tijuana in 1962 was not his first to that city, but was when it inspired him to incorporate Mariachi horns into his own music.
Alpert’s music even gained some popularity in Mexico. His album Whipped Cream and Other Delights was reported as, “One of the top 10 records in sales in Mexico City.” In 1967, he played a benefit concert in Tijuana before a sold-out crowd of 14,500 people, where he and his band recorded a one-hour program for television’s CBS.
Alpert, of course, was hardly the only American to embrace Mexican and other Latin musical traditions. “Tequila,” a Cuban-mambo slash instrumental rock song by the Champs, a LA session group, reached #1 in 1958 and has been repeatedly covered ever since. The LA-based rock music group, Love, channeled Alpert’s Ameriachi sound to create an iconic hit with “Alone Again Or” (1967), which continues to amaze. Further north, in San Francisco, Mexican-born Carlos Santana had a big hit covering Puerto Rican Tito Puente’s “Oye Come Va.” The long list of country singers, from Marty Robbins to Johnny Cash, who incorporated Mexican horns also springs to mind. Arguably, doing so is an acknowledgement of the impact of and respect for Mexican culture in the United States.
Music hardly is the only site of cultural “mashups,” as the recent LA creation, Korean tacos, confirms. They are a product of a city in which vastly different peoples live near each other and increasingly come together. Who doesn’t love the very idea of the Korean taco? But that mélange does not happen just anywhere. Rather, it emerges in cities like Los Angeles, where peoples and cultures meet and mesh.
Though Alpert’s music was very commercialized—i.e. wildly successful—we need popular musicians pushing boundaries. Whether such efforts are considered “appropriation” or respectful integration remains an ongoing conversation.
After the Sixties
Alpert continued to record, successfully, but perhaps more importantly created and managed a music label, A&M Records, with business partner Jerry Moss. A&M signed, recorded, and distributed an impressive array of musicians including Wes Montgomery, Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones, the Carpenters, Carole King, Cat Stevens, The Police, and many more. He even met his wife, who sang backup for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, via A&M, which first brought Mendes to American audiences.
After selling A&M to Polygram in 1989 for half a billion dollars, Alpert became a philanthropist. He has donated tens of millions of dollars, especially to promote music education in his hometown. According to his website: “The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music focuses on cross-cultural experimentation and musical diversity with an emphasis on music and influences from around the world.” Earlier this year, he donated another ten million to Los Angeles City College that will provide all music majors with tuition-free education, additional private lessons, and additional financial support. In his words, “I love that LACC has helped so many low-income students who have financial challenges but have a strong commitment to education and to self- improvement.” Through such generosity Alpert strives to keep music, the arts, and education alive, accessible, and evolving in his native Los Angeles.
Herb Alpert receiving the Medal of Honor for the Arts, 10 July 2013. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.
Long-forgotten but shouldn’t be
Today, when considering the greatest American musicians of the 1960s, many spring to mind. The Doors in LA. The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead in San Francisco. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in New York. Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 in Detroit. These and many others, much loved and respected, have seen their stars continue to shine.
Still, none were nearly as commercially successful as Alpert in 1966. So, despite John Lennon’s legendary boast that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” Alpert actually was “bigger” than the Beatles if only for a moment. No doubt, he has faded from popular memory. The proof, today, lies in record bins across the land, where it is rare to not find a Herb Alpert album. Believe me, I’ve tried.
So, though every collector has seen—and passed—his LPs, let us not condemn him to the dustbin of music history, “easy listening.” Instead, think of Herb Alpert’s stunning popularity, fifty years ago, as confirmation of Los Angeles as a vibrant city where cultures come together to produce something new and wonderful. Alpert represents the best of an increasingly multicultural America arguably defined, since the 1960s, more by Los Angeles than New York. Proof that borders are meant to be crossed or sometimes even ignored. Proof that it’s better to tear down walls than build them.
Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and currently at work on Dockworker Power: Race, Technology, and Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes extensively on the history of labor unions, port cities, race matters, and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole
Los Angeles is a city made from an assemblage of speculative practices. Spain colonized the region, surmising it was unsettled territory to be conquered—ignoring, of course, the Tongva who had lived here for thousands of years. Later on, as part of the United States, the region went through a stuttering period of growth as boosters proclaimed the magic of Southern California throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, fueling land speculation wherein gullible investors would repeatedly and blindly bid up land prices only to discover more often than not upon a first visit that the real estate was essentially worthless. And, of course, it became ground zero for all the imagination of Hollywood, projecting moving images of fantasy plotlines onto screens around the world. Across from La Placita, the mythical origin point of Los Angeles, is Union Station. The last of the grand train stations built in the United States, it was approved in 1926 and completed thirteen years later during the throes of the Great Depression and a world war. What was then Chinatown was demolished in the process, whitewashing the site of the largest mass lynching in US history1 with gleaming art deco construction. It is the terminus of a city upon which it seemed almost anyone could project their own minor utopia. Sure enough, in 1938, a bigger, better Chinatown was built about a mile away under the guidance of community leader Peter Soo Hoo and with the help of Hollywood set designers in designing its core, Central Plaza. As Edward Soja has noted, subverting the boosterist claim, “It all comes together in Los Angeles.”
To speculate might mean to assume rather than to know based on facts (as in Spain’s assumption of the tabula rasa of California, and later again with Manifest Destiny), or it might mean to envision historical or fictional realities (as in the imaginative work of Hollywood). There are, of course, endless varieties of financial speculation, such as land speculation or the mining speculation in the goldfields of Northern California and the oilfields around Los Angeles. We might read into Chinatown’s destruction an element of racial speculation: that the sullied, foreign, Chinese landscape was envisioned by city boosters as bleached clean, transformed into a gleaming beacon of Anglo LA. But we might also see the inverse of that in a work of speculative fiction: Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, where, again, it all comes together in Los Angeles—“it” being a stunning kaleidoscope of new ethnic formations.
Decades of Anglo hegemony in LA literature gave us Chandler’s hard-boiled noir and Didion’s upper-middle-class neuroses. Yamashita gave us Bobby: “Chinese from Singapore with a Vietnam name speaking like a Mexican living in Koreatown. That’s it.” The book spans seven days, with seven narratives moving between Mexico and Los Angeles, just like its eponymous orange, which a character named Arcangel brings across the border (and, along with it, the Tropic of Cancer). It straddles magic realism and speculative fiction, suspending our disbelief about any number of perfectly plausible alternative realities for Los Angeles: palm trees as flags for the poor instead of street ornamentation for Beverly Hills, a traffic jam on the Cahuenga Pass as a meticulously conducted symphony, NAFTA as a luchador being defeated by el gran mojado…
In the university, speculative work most often involves theoretical development, from physics to philosophy. But there are some today who eschew conventionally understood “academic speculation” for something closer to what Yamashita practices. This form of speculation has something to do with race insofar as it aims to decolonize, and little to do with jumping through the hoops of theory. What we might call immanent speculation, this is the practicing of an inherently unknowable future in order to create the conditions for that future to unfold. In contrast to theory-laden speculative philosophy, or to the incrementalism of design in the built environment, or even to the extreme opposite of ungrounded utopianism, immanent speculation rigorously pulls out latent alternative realities embedded in a place through the method of making. It does so with the consequence that these other worlds—whether or not they are fully realized—expand our notion of what could be. It aims to decolonize the future from the forward march of time, from the imperfect conditions of the present, freeing it to become something just beyond what we imagine to be possible. It is called immanent because it is not pulled from thin air, but rather from the sites and places in which we live. It is undisciplined yet rigorous, intellectual yet artistic. In fact, an imperfect immanent speculation recently found its way into where we began: Union Station and Chinatown.
In October of 2013, the experimental opera company The Industry staged a performance based on Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. Performed in collaboration with the LA Dance Project, the characters were embedded in Los Angeles’s Union Station. Some 100,000 people commute through the station every day, and they continued to do so as the opera was performed. The characters moved fluidly through the building, exploring imaginary spaces and playing out a war of words between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Viewers were given wireless headsets that played the full opera with live orchestra, but were given no instructions on how to view the piece. You could sit down and experience it motionless, you could attempt to catch every exciting moment by recklessly following where you assumed the action was, you could take your headset off to mute the orchestra and listen to the ambient noise, you could share your headset with a curious passer-through, and sometimes you could find yourself in the way of the performers. Donning a headset transported you to a different world that was overlaid on top of this one, in real time.
The opera was lauded by critics. Christopher Cerrone was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for composing the opera, while director Yuval Sharon’s spatially sophisticated interpretation won great acclaim. The performers miraculously transformed from anonymous commuters to fully costumed period characters. Dancers deftly maneuvered between audience members and passers-by like some feat of spatial jazz. Using postmodern techniques of fragmentation and nonlinear space-time, the opera traversed the present world, the age of Marco Polo’s exploration, and the many worlds he described. The technological novelty of listening to the fragmented bits of opera on wireless headsets, synthetically mixed into a whole, was equally impressive, blending the excitement of a full, live orchestra and the contemporary remix-mash-up sensibility of a DJ set.
Most striking of all was the opera’s site-specific deployment of Union Station. Each of the other elements played out in particular relation to the space, history, and essence of the site. Tropes of the traveler, of the explorer, of the grand hall versus everyday spaces were played out in the train terminal. This demonstrated immanent speculation because it was at once speculative—it imagined and performed an otherworldly fantasy—as it was embedded in the messy reality of urban space. At one point, a homeless person noticed the captive audience and began singing her own tune before a nervous stagehand awkwardly ushered her away to receive her own headset. And, of course, the inversion of who is watching and who is being watched cannot go unstated: as much as we privileged theatergoers invaded this space and tried to watch as much of the frenetic and fractured performance as we could, so too were we being gawked at by passers-by. We were a funny-looking mob of confused people with wireless headsets on, providing our own free show. There was none of the unidirectional comfort of a darkened theater. In this strange, ambivalent way, the audience’s discomfort with being implicated by the performance’s dynamics—of power, of privilege, of post-modern obtuseness—became absorbed into the opera, suggesting an alternative, immanent reality that had the potential to come into being.
A performance of Hopscotch.
In 2015, The Industry took on an even more heady and complex project. Titled Hopscotch, the opera was broken into thirty-six scenes that were repeatedly performed at a variety of sites across Los Angeles. Members of the audience could as easily be called participants: they viewed the opera by choosing one of three routes, and starting with a small group of actors, facilitators, and other participants, they would drive to eight of the sites before congregating with the entire cast and audience at a “central hub” for the finale. One of the participants would be responsible for capturing the experience on video, live broadcasting to one of thirty-six screens at the central hub where anyone could drop in and watch the live video for free. To complicate things considerably, the opera was written by multiple playwrights and composers, a few scenes consisted of lines shouted between cars or long quotes from French Marxist theorist Guy Debord, and multiple actors played single roles to manage the logistics of multiple locations—all in the service of a relatively straightforward love story. Loosely based on Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel—which shares the title and nonlinear structure—Hopscotch follows a woman named Lucha who moves through a star-crossed romance only to discover her true love for her longtime coworker instead. As one could imagine, if Invisible Cities was on the verge of crashing down under the weight of its postmodern tendencies, Hopscotch casually blew past any nod to such concerns.
Hopscotch also blew past its predecessor in the cost of a ticket. While there is easy justification for the expense, given the opera’s incredibly intensive resource needs and limited number of seats, with prices in the hundreds of dollars it nevertheless catered only to an elite audience. This was partially remedied by the free viewing experience at the central hub, but the discrepancy between the segregated experiences was striking. In one, you were a participant in an immersive experience, while in the other, you had to wait in line to view a set of screens that could have almost as easily been broadcast online. The central hub was deftly designed by two SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) faculty and located on its campus but was almost certainly underfunded for its wider purposes. The design effectively deployed shape and interior sheathing to create the conditions necessary for both the broadcasting of the various scenes and the culminating act in which numerous cars pulled through the structure. Ticket-holders emerged from the vehicles like awards show attendees walking a red carpet, while many non-ticket-holders were unable to enter because of capacity issues. Their only view was of the exterior of the hub, which was literally wrapped in trash—no doubt the only affordable material after value engineering went its course. A group of musicologists in Los Angeles went so far as to boycott the performance—though tickets still sold out almost as soon as they went on sale. My own viewing experience was possible only by hacking the machine: by analyzing hashtags on social media, I was able to discern where the most popular nonmobile scenes were performed, and I staged my own complimentary private viewing tour. With stops at Angel’s Point in Elysian Park and the Bradbury Building downtown, my tour culminated in a scene that unfolded in Chinatown. That Peter Soo Hoo’s Central Plaza, designed like a movie set, now was the stage for an opera seemed fitting.
The scene involves Lucha, the heroine, receiving some kind of message from a soothsayer, amidst flutists, a pair of characters who bore an uncanny relation to the twins from Kubrick’s The Shining, and handfuls of raining rose petals. While the narrative wasn’t immediately clear, I could certainly sense a bit of the supernatural in it all. A limousine bearing a handful of ticket-holders would roll up to the plaza and the scene would begin, moving throughout the plaza and reaching its apex as Lucha sings them back into the vehicle, which whisked them to their next site. As in Invisible Cities, one of the most powerful elements of the opera was its site specificity, transforming the mundane space of the everyday into one that held speculative possibility. There was no set constructed apart from the preexisting set of the plaza, so characters aptly used benches, lamp posts, and steps to their blocking’s advantage. Bystanders who expected to do little more than buy lunch were presented with this otherworldly performance, generating curiosity and discussion between these happenstance strangers who bore witness to the opera. While this was, for the most part, the standard reaction to these pop-up opera segments, there were instances in which the fourth wall was more violently broken. One segment, which was to be performed in Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, a historic immigrant community in Los Angeles currently under severe threat of gentrification and displacement, was regularly overtaken by shouting protestors demanding that these operatic outsiders leave their neighborhood.
Yet here there was another curious phenomenon that made Hopscotch, for all its issues, the beginnings of a work of immanent speculation. The logistical complexity of the opera made the kind of control found in a theater impossible, and this had the effect of opening up a discursive space within the performance. In between location changes, repeated scene resets, and the space between sites and participant vehicles, conversations between performers, participants, crew, and bystanders unfolded about the opera, the experience of performers and participants, and about Los Angeles itself. This also had the effect of making the plotline—something which oscillated between simple love story and overwrought reflection on postmodernity with the main characters in search of abstract centers—strikingly touching. It made an impact precisely because its simple narrative stood in such stark contrast to the numerous other complexities reflecting and reproducing the tropes of Los Angeles—that it demonstrated underneath all of the postmodern geography was an earnest and hopeful desire for connection. And beyond the narrative, the opera itself performed this relationship through the creation of a network of producers, actors, participants (intentional and unintentional), and places. It drew from this network, looking past and forward, simultaneously creating and suggesting potential for creation, expanding the margins of the possible.
Viewers at Hopscotch’s central hub.
Returning to the university, there are two additional examples worth noting, which demonstrate the budding of immanent speculation within the university. During the summer of 2014, two teams of urban researchers in the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative produced short videos about Chinatown that delved into ethnography, fiction, space, time, narrative, and the future. The first, titled “en-Counter Chinatown,” is composed of a relatively disjointed set of rapidly cut shots of Chinatown, much in the spirit of the early city symphony films of the 1920s. Yet here the subject matter is not frenetically moving transportation systems and flashing urban lights—instead, there are decidedly slow subjects: smoke wafting up from sticks of incense, the gentle sway of red lanterns, old men sitting in a public park, slow pans of a mostly horizontal landscape, a feeding fish. The most intense movement comes from a rapidly spinning seat, part of a twenty-five-cent children’s ride in front of a shop, which instructs, “Enjoy The Ride !!!” We return to this shot several times, suggesting that the ride is, in fact, the video and we its riders. There are subtitles in the film though we hear no dialogue. “How are you connected to Chinatown?” “Those terms don’t apply to us.” A repeated exchange between typical ethnographic interview questions and apparently nonsensical answers devolves to the point where even the questions start to lose stability: “Who is Chinatown?” Indeed, the only audible sounds come from the ambient noises indicative of some kind of commercial space, punctuated with the regular chiming of a singing bowl. Toward the end of the video, a traditional song is played or, perhaps, performed—we aren’t sure because the soundtrack is utterly asynchronous with the image.
Here, much like in The Industry’s operas, we are presented with an everyday space made unfamiliar. And with our estrangement comes the ability to see things previously unseen, to imagine another world very much overlapped upon the one we knew. A question like “Who is Chinatown?” which on first blush sounds ridiculous now begins to make some sort of odd sense. Aren’t these the questions that any critically minded scholar first asks of a situation? For whom is this neighborhood meant? And who else is excluded? There is, again, a touch of the supernatural. Between shots of incense and prayers, the video’s rhythm is maintained only through a Buddhist monk’s tolling of the bells. It asks us to slow down, to read between the lines. Is there another Chinatown present, one that we looked past before? This immanent speculation is easy to brush past because it lacks the didactic quality of a futurist’s homily or the spectacle of an opera on wheels, but given time it is perhaps even more effective, more seductive, because we are the ones who are compelled to complete the task of speculation. We are given time and space with which we can attempt to make sense of the swirling assemblage of images before us.
Scenes from Encounter Chinatown. Courtesy of J. Lee, W. Ren, C. Robertson, A. Shrodes, and E. Yen.
Another video, titled “Welcome to Chinatown,” is perhaps the previous film’s opposite. When the team attempts to explore what the future might hold for the neighborhood, they are met by community members who only have the capacity to look to the past. They turn the film on themselves, setting out to explore the neighborhood. What they capture is a place ensnarled in decrepitude, bereft of life apart from cars passing through, and an octogenarian or two. Deploying the motifs of horror films, the filmmakers find one abandoned shop and empty lot after another in this ghost town, only to flee the neighborhood, running to the safety of a departing train. This narrative was less successful insofar as it presented a singular and straightforward reading of Chinatown as haunted and abandoned. It lacked the interpretability and openness found in the previous film, or even in the operas. Nevertheless, the decision to present Chinatown in this way was certainly an act of speculation: Chinatown, for anyone who has visited, is a largely bustling neighborhood, despite its declining Asian population. You are just as likely to see a hip art opening at one of its many galleries, or foodies photographing their lunch for social media, as the imported tchotchke shops of old. And it was grounded in trends immanent to the site: the Chinese population that remains is one that is in many ways stuck in the past, aging in run-down facilities with little drive for change. The collection of stunningly framed shots of abandoned malls, walkways, and plazas was more than an intentional decision: it was one that most certainly was difficult to fulfill. While this immanent speculation might be a weaker form, it still presents a visually striking narrative that pushes past the static boundaries of description and analysis to which most scholarly work timidly abides. This video may have a reserved view of the future, but it presents it with surety, again forcing us to reconcile this vision with the assumptions we have collectively thought as fact.2
Scenes from Welcome to Chinatown. Courtesy of C. Huang, L. Phan, G. Pugh, and S. Yoshida.
It seems appropriate for immanent speculation, this act long practiced by a subset of artists and storytellers, to find its way into the academy in California’s public university. The city of Los Angeles and, indeed, the state at large were shaped by a network of actors who were practicing the future, so that it would become their reality. Judged on the empirical and positivist terms common to education, immanent speculation might be seen as a trifling waste of time. Yet it is these speculative trifles, appearing ungrounded while actually utterly immanent to the spaces and places from which they rise, which have the capability to construct not only what we imagine to be our future but, moreover, what we might even conceive of as possible in the future. It is this speculative practice that Percy Bysshe Shelley saw in poetry when he proclaimed, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In a day when cynicism and fear appear to shape public discourse in a way not seen in decades, it seems ever more important to have intellectuals at all levels of society—in the university and out—practicing the future.
The Chinatown massacre of 1871 is widely believed to be the largest mass lynching in American history, where a mob of around five hundred white men chased down and killed around twenty Chinese immigrants. While the purported cause was vigilante justice after a local rancher was killed by a Chinese gang, the massacre coincided with increasing anti-Chinese sentiment throughout California, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act passed eleven years after this event. A trial was held for some of the killers, but no punishment was ever served out.
Jonathan Crisman is project director for the Urban Humanities Initiative at University of California, Los Angeles; director of No Style, a design and publishing practice; and with Jia Gu he forms LA-BOR, an interdisciplinary art and architecture studio.
Punk rock, hip-hop, reggae/dub and world music burst forth simultaneously and marked the receding waves of worldwide revolt that, in 1968, appeared on the verge of “changing the world.” They were an enunciation of failure and a denunciation of surrender… They carried forward a militance and internationalist spirit into the next phase of musical and political contestation, while exposing jagged rifts left by unsuccessful struggle.
—Mat Callahan, The Trouble with Music
We didn’t know it at the time. The revolution we thought was on the horizon was not going to overthrow capitalism or usher in an era of solidarity and mutual aid. On the contrary, the word “revolution” in the mid-to-late 1970s held a much darker potential. By the time Reagan got elected in 1980, the process of reasserting the power of capital over a recalcitrant and rebellious American working class was well underway. The “revolution” we would experience in the 1980s produced a massive U-turn, a return to the savage dog-eat-dog, everybody-for-herself, go-go capitalism that first emerged in the late nineteenth century. With several decades of hindsight, we can see now that we were at the dawn of the neoliberal city in those bleak days that for some of us felt so full of potential.
In San Francisco, we danced ourselves into a frenzy to the deafening punk rock of the Avengers, the Dils, the Mutants, the Dead Kennedys, and dozens of other bands, including touring British bands like The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, Gang of Four, and many more. The music—brash, anthemic, compelling, and urgent—was the soundtrack of our time, a time we thought would finally banish the daily banality of pointless work and hollow consumerism, ubiquitous corruption, and imperial hubris that was at the heart of the tottering United States. The shows were in strange lost corners of San Francisco, the Deaf Club on the second floor of a Valencia Street building near Sixteenth; the Temple Beautiful, a huge abandoned Synagogue on Geary just west of Fillmore, next door to Jim Jones’s People’s Temple; Valencia Tool & Die, in a basement under Valencia near Twenty-first; the Mabuhay Gardens (Fab Mab), a Philippine eatery tucked among the strip clubs on Broadway in North Beach; 330 Grove Street, a fabled home to radical left and black political groups. But the epic sounds of revolt, the declarations of refusal, the hilarious ridiculing of the powerful and rich, the pointed satire of the emerging technosphere, turned out to be more of a last anguished demand to seize the moment between the lost utopias of the 1960s and early 1970s and the capitalist triumphalism that dominated the rest of the century.
Michael Stewart Foley gives us a particular window on that musical revolt in his very enjoyable Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables about the Dead Kennedys’ first album of the same name—Foley’s contribution to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of “books about albums.” Having their album as the spine of his narrative arc, Foley necessarily puts the Dead Kennedys at the center of the era. I loved the Dead Kennedys and saw them many times between 1978 and 1981, but I remember them rather differently than his account has it. They were part of a much larger and strongly politicized culture that flourished in San Francisco during that mostly forgotten interregnum between what we might call the “long sixties” and the Reagan restoration. The punk/new wave scene was a very visible and dynamic element, but radical politics were percolating in many forms and places alongside the punk music scene. Copying machines were finally becoming cheap and accessible, and many people began putting their collages, screeds, and cartoons on the poles and walls of San Francisco. Underground radio gained new life on local college stations KUSF and KALX, providing vital airtime for obscure bands from near and far. DJs like George Epileptic filled three hours every weekday morning with the biting satire and the angry sounds of dozens of new bands basically saying “Fuck you” to mainstream America. Meanwhile, the antinuclear Abalone Alliance was mobilizing thousands to block PG&E’s plans to build a nuclear power plant on the coast at Diablo Canyon; Nicaraguan revolutionaries and Iranian students crisscrossed the Bay Area urging support for the overthrow of the US-sponsored dictators in their respective countries; tenants were organizing for rent control in the wake of the violent eviction of the I-Hotel in 1977; and strikes at local oil refineries, trucking operations, insurance offices, and restaurant chains dovetailed with a national coal miners’ strike. President Jimmy Carter moved steadily rightward throughout his presidency, and being a former Navy nuclear engineer, in fact, rather than the “peanut farmer” of his mythology, he was increasingly seen, at least in our circles, as a deeply reactionary tool of the military-industrial complex. For many of us, the prospect of Carter losing to Reagan was inconceivable, the country having slid so far right under his regime that there was no way it could go further—add this to a long list of our badly off-the-mark prognostications! One local street theater group took the name “Reagan for Shah” to dramatize the absurdity of his campaign.
Reading Foley’s Dead Kennedys book brought me back into those first years of my life in San Francisco. It’s hard to imagine now.
I arrived in San Francisco from Sonoma County where I had tried “country living” during a couple of years in college, after growing up in Oakland. In the last days of 1977, I was fired for trying to start a union at a Books Inc. store in Santa Rosa, so I decided to move to San Francisco where I was spending a lot of time anyway, and I found a job canvassing for an environmental group. Like a lot of young adults I’d grown up listening closely to rock ‘n’ roll, but was weary of the overproduced stadium bands and glam-rock sounds that dominated mainstream radio and album sales. New Wave was breaking, and whether one preferred edgier “punk” or peppy, exciting, and minimalist new wave, the music germinating in small clubs and on tiny labels in San Francisco wasn’t just fresh and pleasingly “unprofessional.” Bands went nowhere if they didn’t also have something angry and subversive to say, and in late 1970s San Francisco most of them did.
In January 1978, I moved to the Haight-Ashbury. Like many twenty-year-olds, I gravitated to that neighborhood because I figured that’s where it was “happening,” unaware that whatever was happening there had petered out years earlier. I discovered I was in a relatively derelict part of town, living near the corner of Haight and Cole in winter 1978. The “upper Haight,” close to Golden Gate Park, was about 50 percent boarded up, and the street was dominated by alcoholics and junkies. A few cafes, restaurants, and shops traded on the neighborhood’s reputation, and the I-Beam was a popular night spot for disco, but by all accounts the Haight was in bad shape.
I found an apartment to share via the index-card-based Roommate Referral Service, an indispensable resource in those pre-Internet days. My rent was $125 a month for half a large one-bedroom apartment, and my windows opened onto a view of the three-story, graffiti-and-poster-covered wall of the abandoned Haight/Straight Theater. At the corner on the topmost part of the facade was a blue and red Vietcong flag, it being only three years since the United States ignominiously decamped from its embassy in Saigon as Vietnam was finally reunified under communist North Vietnam. Across Haight Street I could see the Theater Club, a grungy bar from which patrons would spill out nightly into often brutal and sometimes fatal fights.
The lower Haight between Divisadero and Market in those days was considered part of the Fillmore and was overwhelmingly African American. The east-west Page Street was mostly black from Market Street all the way to Golden Gate Park. The 1960s urban “renewal” bulldozers had leveled a large swath of the Fillmore, displacing thousands—and many of them ended up in the dilapidated Victorians of the Haight. I was part of the first trickle of young whites, many of us students, who were enthusiastically moving back into cities because we liked city life. In the following years, it became a trend and then a torrent. In the wake of this demographic shift that became gentrification, the black population of San Francisco fell from its 1970 peak of about 100,000 to less than 40,000 today—and the exodus/eviction continues.
The year I landed in The City, 1978, was also the year that President Jimmy Carter announced that he would reestablish draft registration. I, like most of my peers, had anxiously watched the ping pong balls of the draft lottery bounce during the early 1970s, imagining if we were old enough that the lottery number would matter. By the time it would have been my turn in 1975, the draft had been halted, and the war had been definitively lost. Thus, I was never subject to the draft, nor the registration that started three years later, a lucky window through which all of us 1957 babies fell—around 3.2 million young men.
President Gerald Ford had told a bankrupt New York City to “drop dead” in 1975, refusing to rescue the scourge of middle America from the crescendo of landlord arson, racist redlining, epidemic drug abuse, soaring violent street crime, and its collapsing industrial economy. The emergence of the “Rust Belt” in the once mighty industrial heartland had pushed organized labor into xenophobic reaction as unions scrambled to defend their members’ vanishing status as “middle class Americans.” In San Francisco, a parallel process was underway, exacerbated by more than a decade of urban renewal engineered by a modernist, social engineering philosophy at the city’s Redevelopment Agency with the support of big capital and local unions. Social movements erupted to oppose the neighborhood wreckers, movements that were augmented by radicalized students from the bloody San Francisco State Strike in 1968 and 1969. Earlier campaigns to block freeways and stop nuclear power seeded strong citizens’ organizations with ecological and Jane Jacobs–like urbanist values. Campaigns to block high-rises and prevent “Manhattanization” merged with neighborhood and architectural preservation efforts. Combined with elements of the New Left and community organizations, a progressive majority elected George Moscone mayor in 1975 and a year later voted in district elections for the city’s Board of Supervisors. With district elections, gay activist Harvey Milk finally won election, as did the first elected black supervisor, Doris Ward, and also an unrepentant conservative horrified at the changing city, a former cop and former fireman, Dan White.
By the late 1970s, the powerful dockworkers union had seen its former control of San Francisco’s port disappear when shipping moved across the bay to the new container port in Oakland. Coffee, beer, bread, canned produce, and most of the city’s once-thriving industrial economy were closing down, too, leaving empty factories and warehouses from North Beach through the South of Market to the Mission and farther south. These spaces, emptied of their original uses, were repurposed by the gay leather scene, the punk scene, the lesbian community, artists, computer pioneers, musical innovators, small theaters, and cross-pollinating communities of dissenters and radicals of many stripes.
Punks rallied to support striking coal miners in March 1978 with a big benefit at the Mabuhay Gardens. There was an instinctual solidarity with working class movements at the time, even though the local economy, dominated by the rising tourist and finance economy, was barely unionized. President Carter had ignored his support from labor and done nothing to stop the wave of plant closures across the country while he embraced the “solution” of deregulation. Locally, the restaurant workers in Local 2 carried out a successful insurgency against a corrupt union boss in 1978 and elected a rank-and-file slate only to see the old guard co-opt the newly elected officials.Within a couple of years, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union had put Local 2 into trusteeship, derailing the bottom-up democratic surge that threatened the status quo. In 1981, newly elected President Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers Union, declaring open season for capital to attack long-entrenched unions. A new wave of defeats and rollbacks accelerated from which organized labor has never recovered, a key element in clearing the field for the neoliberal restructuring of the economy.
In fall 1978, I enrolled at San Francisco State, a campus still haunted by the dramatic and violent student and faculty strike a decade earlier. I joined up with some other student leftists, and we realized the state budget shortfall imposed by the reactionary tax revolt embodied in the passage of Proposition 13 that summer was going to shrink available resources for the university. This was during Jerry Brown’s first governorship, and his flip-flopping embrace of the tax revolt fueled a visceral rejection of his pusillanimous politics (one of the Dead Kennedys best tunes was “California Über Alles,” in which Governor Jerry Brown “always smiles and never frowns” and would employ the “suede denim secret police” to engineer a new fascism).
We organized against cutbacks in state university budgets, not realizing that we were at the dawn of a systemic shift to eliminate low-cost higher education. The new, much more expensive model would establish years-long debt peonage for students who took the loans that would allow them to attend college, trapping graduates into accepting any paid work they could get as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the tax revolt became an ideological and populist foundation for the privatization of public goods that is the heart of neoliberalism. The global counterpart imposed as the “Washington consensus” by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank was precipitated by the so-called “debt crises” in the Third World. Privatization and public asset stripping proliferated around the world under the satisfied guidance of multinational capital with strong US military backing.
At San Francisco State in the fall of 1978, we felt far removed from the city and its politics. The Third Worldist shift of left politics meant we paid closer attention to Chile, Nicaragua, Southeast Asia, and Iran. The campus’s location at the far southwestern corner of the city keeps it physically and politically separated from the rest of town. Commuting through the gray Sunset district in my bumper sticker-covered VW bug, I was a college student like the rest; but unlike the rest, I was already committed to avoiding the careerism that dominated curricular choices for most. I read Marx, studied Spanish, and organized with other members of the tiny chapter of the Union for Radical Political Economics to create a minor in political economy, a coded label for a Marxist approach to social sciences. I don’t know if it ever was established, since I quit school after May 1979 and never looked back. By the time I quit college, I was thoroughly dismayed by my fellow students, who, in my view, were sleepwalking toward an empty life. In the wake of the November 1978 People’s Temple Jonestown massacre, many people began to use the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” to characterize people who were willingly going to their own deaths (which we now know was largely false about the victims of Jim Jones). On my way out of the university, I began calling it “Jonestown State,” for the zombie-like way most of the student body seemed to be pursuing business degrees.
It was during that dark fall of 1978 that San Francisco was traumatized by the Jonestown tragedy (hitting San Francisco’s black and left communities hardest—many of the more than 900 dead were well known former allies), and just days later the world really did seem to spin out of control when Dan White murdered Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk in City Hall. Dianne Feinstein, the rich matron politician who had come in a dismal third in the 1975 mayoral contest and was considered to be finished politically, was president of the Board of Supervisors, and thus ascended to the now vacant mayor’s office. Her regime quickly changed directions from Moscone’s liberalism. Feinstein wasted no time in shifting mayoral support to downtown interests, opposing renter protections, and supporting a new office building boom. Foley is good on how much we all hated Feinstein (unlike David Talbot’s weirdly hagiographic treatment of her in his best-selling Season of the Witch), and how the Dead Kennedys’ political lyrics were partly inspired by that vitriol:
By the late summer of 1979, Dead Kennedys fans churned and bounced to any number of favorite songs, including “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.” Given the context of the time and place, though, it might as well have been called “Let’s Lynch the Mayor.” On the one hand, the song, which grew directly out of experiences Jello Biafra and Klaus Flouride had with a landlord when they lived together, provides a description of living in an apartment where nothing works—not the water, the heat, the oven—where the ceiling leaks, there are roaches and some asshole is “blasting disco down below.” On the other hand, it is not a stretch to imagine the mayor lurking in the lyrics as Biafra sings “I’m doubling the rent … you’re gonna help me buy City Hall.” The chorus about lynching the landlord is, therefore, both transgressive and cathartic, particularly if the landlord might have been Dianne Feinstein. In the wake of her brutal crackdowns on punks and open shilling on behalf of real estate interests (including her own), playing a song like that provided a momentary sense of freedom from the kind of cynical, corrupt, and sclerotic political system the mayor represented.
On 21 May 1979, the trial of Dan White culminated in a shocking “voluntary manslaughter” verdict, in what had appeared to everyone as a clear-cut case of premeditated first degree murders. (According to Talbot, White confessed to his former police colleague Frank Fanzon in 1985 that he had intended also to kill Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver and Assemblyman Willie Brown—all in defense of a city that only existed in his tortured imagination.) When the news of the verdict broke, a crowd of angry protesters gathered in the Castro and soon several thousand were marching down Market to City Hall. The “White Night Riot” ensued, hours of violent confrontation between protesters and police, fifteen squad cars up in flames, City Hall windows smashed, small fires around the Civic Center, and finally, late that night, an organized police attack on the gay Castro neighborhood that included dragging people out of their homes and invading the Elephant Walk bar at Eighteenth and Castro.
I was in the middle of the riot for hours and truly thought it was the beginning of a revolution. We had the cops on the run for a long time and dominated the plaza in front of City Hall. Squad cars burned, their sirens wailing in the smoke-filled night. It was eerie and powerful. The demographics of the rioters changed during the night too, starting with thousands of angry gay men and lesbians but swelling quickly with a big influx of young black men from the adjacent Fillmore district, finally seeing their chance to even the accounts with the racist police. The solidarity on the lines was strong, and the euphoria was incredible.
The next morning, the political fantasy was punctured by a return to mundane daily life. A couple of dozen arrests, mostly young African American men, along with my then-roommate, meant that whatever support might have materialized from the gay community was not forthcoming since none of the arrestees seemed to be gay. Our subsequent efforts to rally support through a “May 21st Defense Fund” fell flat.
My personal life took me to the East Coast from mid-summer to the end of 1979, so I missed the Feinstein mayoral campaign and Jello Biafra’s clownish anticampaign. In general, I didn’t put any faith in electoral politics by that time, so even if I’d been in town, I don’t think I would’ve been particularly interested. In Foley’s account of the time, Biafra’s run for mayor is quite important. He cites Biafra’s article in Damage calling for “Creative Crime for the Sober Seventies” and links that to his campaign for mayor. While most people dismissed it as a joke at the time, Foley characterizes it “as political theater, as serious as a heart attack. It was also another example of the utopian performative, puncturing elaborate lies with comedic needles of truth.” Actually, the 1979 Biafra campaign follows a long line of prank electoral efforts, notably one that saw radical attorney Tony Serra run for mayor in 1972 promoting an agenda of a green, car-free central city, and decriminalization of sex and drug crimes, issues that Biafra’s campaign took up again in 1979, issues that are no longer jokes, but, instead, are now practically taken for granted in the city a generation later.
As a liberal arts college dropout, I had few marketable skills beyond my well-honed ability to work in a bureaucratic environment filling out forms, typing, processing information. I was perfect for the new office world that was expanding rapidly in the Financial District. My first gig was a job at the Downtown Community College Center, a public institution dedicated to producing clerical workers for downtown. I learned word processing on an IBM “Mag II” machine, meaning I used a punch-card-sized magnetic card to store the data I typed into what appeared to be a normal electric typewriter. I worked there for the first half of the year, engaging in radical political street theater with my pals in the Union of Concerned Commies in my spare time. Eventually, I was fired for inserting a satirical flyer in course catalogues.
In late summer 1980, I began “temping.” With my new ability to do “word processing,” my wages nearly doubled. I worked through an agency called Temps, Inc., which found me a months-long gig at the Bank of America data center. I worked on a minicomputer through a glowing green terminal, word processing the manuals that would someday soon teach bank workers around the country how to use the Bank of America system. Mind you, this was before interstate banking had been legalized, but Bank of America was sufficiently confident that they’d be able to take over banks in other parts of the country that they were already preparing the systems they’d need to profit from the process.
As I went to and from the high-security data center, and later in and out of various brokerages and Arthur Anderson accounting offices downtown, I was a cog in a much larger machine. My seemingly pointless word processing was helping to restructure the global economy at the dawn of the 1980s. The financialization of the economy that was triggered by Nixon taking the United States off the gold standard in the early 1970s was now altering daily life in San Francisco, too. Not only had container shipping undercut the Port of San Francisco and driven manufacturing out of the city, but now a burgeoning FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) was taking over what San Franciscans did all day, putting us to work in the data mines of far-flung corporate networks that aimed to organize and control production on an increasingly global scale. We were the handmaidens of a new neoliberal economic order. But we didn’t see the big picture, sitting in front of Wang computers, using new-fangled software, enduring the unreliability of the new computerized office systems, all before email and the Web. For us, it was an empty charade. From this tortured experience emerged our underground magazine, Processed World, which we distributed throughout the downtown office world where we found our readers and writers. The most typical response from readers was “thank God I’m not alone!” as they discovered a kindred spirit, or as we called it, a “bad attitude.” This stance allowed the creatively stifled photographers, historians, philosophers, poets, musicians, dancers, and countless others toiling in the white collar world to find each other, to share their “tales of toil,” their wild satire, and poignant and heartfelt rebukes to an empty existence in the new cubicles of modern capitalism.
But this sensibility that we put in print did not erupt suddenly from our heads. It had been brewing all around us already for several years, prominently among the punks. This was decades before the saccharine admonition to “do what you love” came to hypnotize so many new workers in the tech and office sectors, a goal that can only be achieved through daily self-deception for the vast majority. Dozens of songs left little doubt about the repudiation and refusal at the heart of the radical subculture during that time. The Dils called for “Class War,” while the Mutants decried the “New Dark Ages;” The Avengers lambasted the country in “The American in Me.”
Writing about the Dead Kennedys, Foley aptly relates,
“Taken together, the songs on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables added up to a sustained and trenchant critique of not only the familiar New Left target, “the system,” but of mainstream culture. The lyrics show no mercy to any aspect of American life—everything is fair game. It is a no bullshit zone, a place where listeners are confronted to consider their own place in a vapid, venal, and violent society and then ask themselves what they are prepared to do. Will they just insulate themselves from the horrors the way the narrator in “Drug Me” does? Or go off the deep end, as in “Forward to Death,” and “Ill in the Head?” Will they stand by while the poor are drafted, the slums cleared, and while Zen fascists command conformity? Or will they fight back, maybe via some creative crime, the way the narrators do in “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” “Chemical Warfare,” “Stealing People’s Mail” and “Holiday in Cambodia”? … it’s hard to escape the feeling of being put on the spot.”
Our radical aspirations went unmet. The 1980s unfolded and by most accounts seemed to get worse and worse. When Reagan was shot by John Hinckley early in his first term, the president’s plummeting popularity was restored and from that time on, few criticisms would stick to him. It was as though the national media had made a collective decision to surround the presidency with an aura of moral goodness and invincibility. Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America, arming of Islamic Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan, support for Saddam Hussein against Iran, and general military belligerence across the planet was protested regularly in San Francisco and the Bay Area. For all its fakeness, the Reagan restoration enjoyed a carefully manufactured popularity in most of the country, much to the chagrin and confusion of radical activists in my circles.
The economy was good to speculators and financiers, but most people saw their standard of living slowly—or rapidly—eroding during the global economic reorganization of the 1980s. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and China fully embraced capitalist modernization, the self-congratulatory triumphalism of the United States was loudly proclaimed, precluding other views. The radicalism that once pulsed in the emptied spaces of late 1970s San Francisco was largely lost in the following decades as those spaces filled with upscale restaurants, boutiques, “lawyer lofts,” art galleries, and million-dollar condos. New radical impulses would emerge from the Zapatistas in Mexico, to the anti-globalization movement at the turn of the twenty-first century, but San Francisco’s once thriving radical scene was no longer at the epicenter. Instead, the city became the center of the misnamed “tech revolution,” which has displaced tens of thousands, while committing the survivors to a world in which work is the center of all meaning and never stops, going on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, whether you have a job or not. Solidarity and mutual aid are essential to many of us San Franciscans, who survived the past few decades in which a new neoliberal city emerged from the destruction of our hometown. Newcomers seem to inhabit a city in which everything is for sale. If they can’t simply pay for what they want, they react with anger and confusion. This is the city wrought by the brutal marketization of life since 1980—but it feels profoundly fragile. Cracks and fissures are everywhere, waiting for a catalyst that might unravel this dehumanized nightmare.
Photograph of Haight Ashbury in 1980 by Dave Glass, via Flickr.
We asked Josh Kun, associate professor of communication and journalism at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California and author of several books, to tell us about the future of music.
Boom: How will the music industry and artists adapt to declining record sales and online music?
Josh Kun: We are obviously living through a period of great transition; and like all transitions, this is a moment of tremendous possibility and tremendous risk. Artists and companies alike are finding a landscape loaded with glorious pros and perilous cons, neither of which manifest themselves in the same way for either party (certainly one effect is that artists have to start thinking like companies more than ever before). I hope that fewer and fewer people are merely adapting and reacting to a model that was bound to be busted, but instead are seeing this as an opportunity: the old foundation is cracked, shaky, and in many cases condemned, so let’s not try to repair it. Let’s cheer its teardown and then build something new that offers musicians and musical entrepreneurs a more just and ethical platform with which to work.
Boom: What might “songs in the key of L.A.” sound like in 2050?
Kun: K-pop sung in Mixtec from 6 Street. Cambodian punk covers of “Hotel California” from Long Beach. Instrumental Indian 8-chip tunes from Fullerton that sample vintage Rodney Bingenheimer KROQ broadcasts. Afghani hip hop from Laurel Canyon. Whatever they sound like, I hope they carry at least some of the spirit of Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” which is more of a city prayer than a song.
Boom: You’ve written about the intimate relationship between music, identity, and race. How do you imagine different identities developing into the future, and what will they sound like?
Kun: As the national population continues to grow into its soon-to-be-realized majority African American, Latino/a, and Asian American demographics, I think it will be very interesting to see to what extent the new racial and ethnic lines are crossed and to what extent old hierarchies continue to be policed. The post-iPod, post-digital, post-millennial, post-twerk (or whatever they’ll be dubbed) generation of listeners will probably continue to approach music with an increasing lack of responsibility and accountability for its racial and ethnic contexts and histories. (What, if anything, do we download when we download? How deep is streaming’s stream?) The challenge will be celebrating and relishing the horizontality of musical listening and production—the thrilling cross-cultural and cross-genre everythingness of how we listen—while maintaining a critical ear for the lingering verticality, the histories of inequality and hierarchy and exploitation, that remain embedded in the sounds of the future.
Boom: How might music help to forge a more socially just future in California?
Kun: The pressure to forge a more socially just future should, of course, not be put on music. But music can (as it always has) act as a guide for how to think and live differently, how to envision new political futures and not repeat the mistakes of the past. The real pressure, though, is not on the musicians, but on all of us as listeners. What are we refusing to hear? What can we listen for? Los Angeles refused to hear the black music of South Central for decades, music that prophesied and predicted two sets of uprisings. Since at least the late nineteenth century, California has refused to listen to the songs of Mexican California—and now seven years after the landmark immigration marches of 2006, the state could do itself a big favor by listening to contemporary regional Mexican music—one of the state’s most profitable music industries where labor, immigration, biculturalism, drug trafficking, and working-class “American” dreaming are among the key building blocks of some of our most popular music.
Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?
Kun: A Los Tigres del Norte phone card purchased at a Korean market.
Songs in the Key of Los Angeles, by Josh Kun (Angel City Press)
Last year the L.A. band Best Coast appropriated an image from “I Love You California,” a song published in 1913, for their album “The Only Place.” A grizzly bear stands on its hind legs warmly cuddling the state on the cover of Best Coast’s CD as well as the sheet music published a century ago. History doesn’t repeat, it turns out, but it does rhyme. Best Coast’s song “The Only Place” is a catchy burst of boosterism worthy of joining the great catalog of music that has been asking essentially the same question — “Why would you live anywhere else?” — for a very long time.
Josh Kun — an editorial board member and contributor here at Boom — has mined the sheet music collection of the Los Angeles Public Library for a multiplatform project called “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” that explores this musical love affair. One product of the project is this lavish book featuring colorful evocative covers of dozens of songs spanning just over a century from 1849 to 1959. Six songs are featured in their entirety, including lyrics and musical notation.
But it is not the music that grabs you here. The covers steal the show. Kun writes that images of southern California on sheet music covers are “nearly indistinguishable” from historical images found on orange crates, tourism pamphlets published by the Southern Pacific railroad, and the brochures of real estate boosters. The product for sale on sheet music covers was not just a song, but Los Angeles itself, Kun writes, a product made up “of Mission myths, Spanish romance, endless orange groves, and the promise of a healing Mediterranean climate.” Oranges abound, of course, along with flowers, beaches, cozy cottages, lots of sun, and, naturally, plenty of pretty girls. “Summer ever lingers on the air” in one song — “Glorious Southern California” — from 1907. “This is now the only place for me,” the song says. Was Best Coast listening? “This is the only place for me,” they sing more than a century later.
Despite the vivacious art of the sheet music covers, however, the songs in this book seem sadly inert simply sitting on the page in an age when we mostly consume music directly through our ears, often without any text or artwork at all, the album cover having now become a historical artifact, like the sheet music cover before it, with CD covers likely to suffer the same fate. What do these “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” sound like, then? With the help of arrangers such as Van Dyke Parks, who has an essay in this book too, Kun will be bringing some of these songs to life in a series of events this summer in Los Angeles, including a concert July 18 with the band Quetzal at the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library, and a free concert with the band Ozomatli in Grand Park on August 2. Tune in to Kun’s Tumblr blog — http://songsinthekeyofla.com/ — for news of other events and regular postings of additional archival musical finds from the Los Angeles Public Library’s sheet music collection and elsewhere.
This past spring, the exhibition Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles 1945–75 opened at The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative. The show—which featured an audio-visual timeline wall, a digital jukebox, and two galleries of video, music, photography, and historical artifacts—explored the popular myths, social realities, and political upheavals of life in post-WWII LA through the city’s multiple music scenes. The following is the text from the exhibit’s timeline, a guide to the key political tensions, cultural breakthroughs, and musical moments of the period that helped shape the making of this exhibition.
Musician and impresario Johnny Otis improvises a cover of “Harlem Nocturne” onstage at Central Avenue’s Club Alabam. He and his band record it soon after, earning Los Angeles one of its first national R&B hits.
The LA-born jazz producer Norman Granz launches the Jazz at the Philharmonic Tour, part of his attempt to promote desegregated jam sessions.
Journalist Carey McWilliams publishes Southern California: An Island on the Land, a portrait of LA as “a vast drama of maladjustment: social, familial, civic, and personal.”
Elizabeth Short, “The Black Dahlia,” is found brutally murdered in Leimert Park. The gruesome unsolved killing helps earn LA a reputation as a capital of noir and crime.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
The American Council on Race Relations publishes “The Problem of Violence: Observations of Race Conflict in LA,” which finds the city overrun with prejudice and economic inequality.
The Elks Hall on Central Avenue hosts a historic jazz concert featuring a breakout horn battle between Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray that helps cement L A as a laboratory of bebop.
Hunter Hancock, a white radio DJ, debuts his R&B and jazz program “Harlematinee” on KFVD.
John Dolphin opens Dolphin’s of Hollywood, a South Central record store specializing in R&B and jazz that stays open 24 hours, has its own radio broadcasting booth, and its own recording studio for Dolphin’s “Recorded in Hollywood” record label.
Roosevelt High graduate Don Tosti records “Pachuco Boogie,” his hipster ode to zoot suit-wearing pachucos that becomes the first Latin song to sell a million copies in the US.
The Shelley v Kraemer Supreme Court decision abolishes racially restrictive housing covenants, though the practice still continues throughout Los Angeles.
Working as a busboy at Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown, Jerry Leiber hears Jimmy Witherspoon on the radio and dedicates his life to writing R&B songs. He soon partners with Mike Stoller to pen some of the most popular R&B hits of the twentieth century.
William H. Parker III is sworn in as chief of the LAPD and initiates an era of aggressive, racially discriminatory policing. He praises Los Angeles as “the white spot of the great cities of America today.”
Dragnet, a TV series based on the LAPD under Chief Parker, debuts on NBC.
The construction of the LA freeway system begins.
The white Local 47 Musicians Union and the black Local 767 Musicians Union amalgamate after a three-year campaign spearheaded by Buddy Collette, William Douglass, and Mark Young.
Oklahoma trumpet transplant Chet Baker records a classic West Coast bop session for the Pacific Jazz label alongside Shelley Manne, Russ Freeman, Herb Geller, and others.
John Dolphin organizes a protest with 150 Central Avenue business owners against the LAPD, whom they accuse of leading a “campaign of intimidation and terror” against white customers of black businesses.
The “Latin Holidays” concert series, organized by Boyle Heights radio DJ Chico Sesma, debuts at the Hollywood Palladium and features local and national Latin music legends.
The Robins have a #1 R&B hit with “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a Leiber and Stoller tune about a riot in a federal prison.
Walt Disney opens Disneyland, a suburban Utopia and “the happiest place on earth,” in Anaheim.
Marilyn Monroe convinces the owners of The Mocambo to book jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who becomes the first black artist to perform at the legendary Sunset Strip nightclub.
Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean as a white suburban teenager, makes LA synonymous with “the juvenile delinquent.”
The Nat King Cole Show debuts on NBC to great controversy as the first variety show hosted by an African American.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
To avoid age restrictions at LA nightclubs, Art Laboe starts promoting concerts at El Monte Legion Stadium. Drawing a multiracial audience of all ages, they become one of the prime music attractions in the region.
Ritchie Valens records an electrifying rock-&-roll-meets-cha-cha-cha version of the traditional Veracruz folk song “La Bamba” at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. He dies in a plane crash the following year.
The surf rock craze is born, thanks to “Let’s Go Trippin,” an instrumental by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones.
While working as an elevator operator at Bullock’s department store, saxophonist Ornette Coleman records his debut album, Something Else!
Ed Pearl opens The Ash Grove, a “Los Angeles cabaret,” on Melrose Avenue. It is the first LA venue to feature folk, blues, theater, bluegrass, and flamenco under one roof.
Gidget, starring Sandra Dee as a white suburban teenager, helps turn surfing into a national pop craze.
Twenty-seven-year-old R&B star Jesse Belvin dies in a suspicious car accident following the African American singer’s performance at the first integrated concert in the history of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Rampart Records, the Motown of East Los Angeles, releases its first 45 RPM single.
The Hawthorne-reared Beach Boys debut “Surfin’” on LA radio. Despite Brian Wilson’s fear of the water, they become international ambassadors of Southern California beach culture.
In Watts, pianist Horace Tapscott forms the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, dedicated to preserving and performing African American music. Two years later, it grows into the Underground Musicians Association.
The Beach Boys perform on TV, circa 1964.
Guitarist Charles Wright forms Charles Wright and the Wright Sounds, a band that will soon grow into the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, best known for their 1971 hit “Express Yourself,” famously sampled by NWA.
Sam Cooke records the civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” at RCA Studios on Sunset. Cooke is killed the following year at the Hacienda Motel on Figueroa.
Phil Spector produces “Be My Baby” for The Ronettes at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, highlighting his signature “Wall of Sound” recording style.
The Teenage Music International concert film, The T.A.M.I. Show, is filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It features performances by James Brown, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, and others.
Life magazine cover, July 1966. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
Love, led by Dorsey High alum Arthur Lee, begins playing Bido Lito’s, where the audience often includes Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger.
Thee Midniters record “Whittier Boulevard,” their ode to East LA’s main drag, which they base on The Rolling Stones’ instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue.”
After a twenty-one-year-old African American man is pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, a community struggle ensues with LAPD officers that escalates into five days of fires, looting, and civic disturbances that become known as The Watts Riots or The Watts Rebellions. Chief Parker calls in National Guard troops and the ensuing conflicts leave Watts with thirty-four deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests and over $40 million in property damage.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
Frank Zappa watches the Watts Riots on TV in his Echo Park home and writes “The Watts Riots Song,” later renamed “Trouble Every Day” on The Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out.
Robert F. Kennedy in San Francisco, 1968. PHOTOGRAPHY BY EVAN FREED.
The Byrds begin a residency at the It’s Boss club. Art scene regulars Dennis Hopper, Craig Kauffman, Jack Nicholson, and Toni Basil are among those in attendance.
The Doors make their debut at The London Fog nightclub on the Sunset Strip.
Police clash with teenagers up and down the Sunset Strip over curfew and loitering violations. The “Sunset Strip Riots” reach their peak with a confrontation involving over 1,000 protestors in front of the Pandora’s Box nightclub.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
In response to the riots, Stephen Stills of the band Buffalo Springfield writes “For What It’s Worth” three weeks later.
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks begin collaborating on songs for Smile, a new Beach Boys album that Wilson describes as “a teenage symphony to God.”
The Watts Happening Coffee House opens and The Watts Writers Workshop is formed, both important steps in using the arts to rehabilitate community in Watts after the riots.
The first “Love-In” is held at Griffith Park.
Ruben Leon forms the Black and Brown Brotherhood Band with Buddy Collette and members of Eddie Cano’s Afro-Jazz Quartet “to counter black and Hispanic tensions across the schools.”
James Brown records his Civil Rights anthem “Say It Loud—I’m Black, and I’m Proud” at Vox Studios in Van Nuys.
Students walk out of high schools throughout East LA in protest of unequal education.
Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire.
The Watts Summer Festival launches.
Members of the Manson Family commit a series of grisly murders, including a spree that ends at the canyon home of director Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate. The murders are the brainchild of Charles Manson, a struggling songwriter linked to Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.
Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds provide inspiration for the protagonists of Easy Rider, the landmark counterculture film directed by LA art and music denizen Dennis Hopper.
“Blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice,” the Doors sing in “Peace Frog,” from their fifth album, Morrison Hotel. “Bloody red sun of fantastic LA.”
The Chicano Moratorium antiwar movement holds a peaceful protest of over 20,000 people in East Los Angeles that is violently broken up by police.
In solidarity with the Chicano civil rights movement, Mexican American soul band The VIPs change their name to El Chicano and record the hit single “Viva Tirado.”
Berry Gordy opens MoWest Records, a short-lived Los Angeles branch of Motown.
To commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots, the Wattstax music festival—dubbed the “Afro-American answer to Woodstock” and featuring Isaac Hayes, Albert King, and The Staple Singers—is held at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Aretha Franklin records the top-selling gospel album in history, Amazing Grace, live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
The music and poetry group known as The Watts Prophets—Richard Dedeaux, Father Amde Hamilton, and Otis O’Solomon—publish The Rising Sons of Wisdom & Knowledge. The trio met as members of the Watts Writers Workshop, a creative writing collective formed in the wake of the Watts Riots.
Neil Young releases his fifth album, On The Beach, which includes “Revolution Blues,” a song inspired by the Manson murders, and the title-track, which worries that “the world is turning’, I hope it don’t turn away.”
“Before the Deluge,” a song included on Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, muses on the end of Southern California innocence and “the resignation that living brings.”
Long Beach band WAR releases ‘Low Rider,” their tribute to the Chicano low rider scene in East LA.