The Los Lonely Wolves, Los Lobos, Is Still Brilliantly Defying Classification

It's hard to imagine an American band that's more inventive, death-defying and affable as Los Lobos. A new book and record reveal why.

If we take Americana as a confluence of folk, rock, country, the blues, and various ethnic musics, then Los Lobos is the quintessential Americana band. Lord knows they’ve never really fit anywhere else, so plugging the East L.A. wolves into yet another slot is just another futile attempt to classify a band that eludes the easy and stands—like Randy Newman, Little Feat, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Tom Waits before it—on its own.

Like Ronald Reagan’s hair, this band could survive a nuclear apocalypse and start a new civilization on its own, a fact inadvertently highlighted not only by Chris Morris’ excellent new book, Los Lobos: Dream In Blue, but also by the band’s 24th album, Gates of Gold. The former is not intended as a biography, but rather a critical study of the band from its spermatozoa days to the Grammys, to moments of crisis to a long line of sweet victories. Morris writes in such a way that you can almost smell and taste the smells and tastes of East L.A. in the boom of the psychedelic era and its aftermath, as the young wolves joined up in a succession of configurations that, in 1973, saw them hatch into what we know as Los Lobos.

What’s remarkable about the story is how long of a climb the band took to rise to national prominence. In a world where bands such as Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot bemoan the time they spent slugging it out in clubs and waiting for that elusive record contract, Los Lobos also slugged it out for just as long and suffered just as many—maybe more—indignities as their heavy metal counterparts. And yet you never hear Louie Perez complain.

Morris follows the band’s immersion in Mexican folk music—something, he points out, that was not necessarily native to them—to their entry into the clubs that hosted shows from a range of cowpunk (Remember cowpunk?) bands and beyond. From the start there was a kind of eclecticism that allowed for rockabilly and Fairport Convention to coexist in the record collections of David Hildago and Caesar Rosas.

By the time the under-appreciated EP …And a Time to Dance came out in 1983, there had been numerous weddings, restaurant gigs, a handful of recording sessions, and a television appearance here or there. The EP format never really caught on in the US despite some good intentions back in the early ‘80s, but this one did help Los Lobos claim its first Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance via the track “Anselma.” It also featured a Ritchie Valens cover with “Come On Let’s Go”.

Keyboardist/sax man Steve Berlin wasn’t yet an official member of the group when sessions for that EP began, making him the new guy to this day despite his having joined more than 30 years ago now. What’s evident on those songs is evident on the streak of excellent albums that rolled out for over a decade to come (and that includes 1990’s The Neighborhood, a record neither Morris nor the band seems too keen on, though this writer adores it with an almost unhealthy abandon) is that this was a band of rare passion—one that didn’t attempt to keep track of trends simply because it wasn’t aware of what the trends were. That, dear reader, might very well be the definition of cool.

A year later came the full-length How Will The Wolf Survive?, a record that grabbed the attention of listeners outside Los Angeles, including notoriously fussy critic Robert Christgau, who wrote, “”Their debut LP makes it sound as if they invented the style. Who did the original of that one, you wonder, only to discover that you’re listening to the original.”

Waylon Jennings loved the track “Will The Wolf Survive?” so much that he covered it and made it the title of a pretty successful 1986 album of his own. The Hildago/Perez team also came up with the heart-wrenching “A Matter of Time” (try listening to that and not having your eyes well up with tears). You might have thought that the band couldn’t top that, but 1987 brought the excellent By the Light of the Moon, a portrait of two Americas; one that was, sadly, vanishing and another that was, despite hopes and prayers otherwise, was emerging. This album was released during the time when many American dreams had become nightmares . The joy that there was, and the sadness of that time, is captured in the grooves of a record that chronicles the lives of immigrants (“River of Fools”, “Is This All There Is?”) and the unholy zeitgeist (“One Time One Night”). It even captured a Los Angeles that was vanishing as quickly as the middle class (“Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)”). Lke Van Morrison before them, Los Lobos touched on spiritual matters in a way that could move even the most hardened heart (“Tears of God”).

Though many have credited T-Bone Burnett’s production as being a significant factor in the album’s artistic success, Morris writes that Burnett had essentially disappeared from the picture by the record’s end. The mood wasn’t especially ebullient, however, when the quintet was called in to fulfill a favor to a friend and deliver the music for the film La Bamba. Curiously, Morris doesn’t entirely portray the success the band had with that music as a kind of albatross. Instead, he points out, Perez, Hildago, Berlin, Rosas and Conrad Lozano moved in an unexpected direction with La Pistola y El Corazon, a collection of Spanish-language songs that was either baffling or endearing, depending on whether you were at this particular film from the opening credits or you walked in in the middle of the first major scene.

For a life that isn’t supposed to have second acts, Los Lobos had already entered its third—or was about to—after coming off the road in support of The Neighborhood. Morris and the band dismiss it as not being as refined as its predecessors but it has memorable gems, including “Angel Dance” (later covered by Robert Plant), the moving “Little John of God”, as well as the titular number and the gorgeous “Emily” and “Be Still”.

Soon, Los Lobos had nothing to lose because it had essentially lost everything. Deep into the financial hole and seeming to have exhausted the creative well it had drawn from, the next move—the one that would catapult the group into the category of iconoclasts—was as much a surprise to the fans as it probably was to the guys behind it. Morris writes about this turning point with great care in Dream In Blue, chronicling how Perez and Hildago rented a room at the back of book store, sharpened their pencils, if you will, and dedicated themselves to the art of songwriting.

Joined by the Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake production/engineering team—at the suggestion of Warner Bros. boss Lenny Waronker—the group retreated to the studio and began making what would have been a great album by any band what would become a monumental one in the hands of these creative musicians. That record, Kiko, transformed Los Lobos in the way that LSD is purported to transform the human psyche. All the stuff that had made Los Lobos Los Lobos for close to 20 years was there: ethnic music, R&B, early rock ‘n’ roll, country, tales of life in L.A., tales of struggle, a social conscience that didn’t always lean in the ways you’d expect, and an impressive stock of songs. What was different, then, was that it was filtered through dreamlike sonic treatments, performed in ways that were atypical, and delivered with the same nonchalance everything Los Lobos had delivered to that point: If you want it, here it is. Come and get it..

Not only did it work on an artistic level, but Kiko deepened the well of fans. Those who could appreciate Tom Waits’ transformation to avant guardian in the ’80s had reason to embrace Kiko, and those who could see the connections between Captain Beefheart at his most outrageous and the blues understood what was going on in the magical realism-drenched world created on Kiko. And so Los Lobos stepped into another dimension and forever solidified it as one of America’s greatest bands.

What followed was a decade of artistic highs (1996’s Colossal Head) and personal lows (the kidnapping and murder of Rosas’ wife), but there doesn’t appear to have been a time when Los Lobos considered packing it in. In fact, one might argue that with 1994’s The Ride — which saw the group playing The Band at something that was almost everything The Last Waltz was supposed to be—as a celebration of all that had helped blaze the trail, whether they knew it or not. Mavis Staples got on board, so did Bobby Womack, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. Dave Alvin turned up. Everyone had a good enough time covering Los Lobos material that the good vibes spilled over onto an EP titled Ride This that saw the group covering Womack, Waits and Richard Thompson.

So begin a fourth act, of sorts, one that included a kind of concept album about immigrant life in America, 2006’s The Town and the City, a Disney LP (predictably titled Goes Disney, another record that the group have distanced themselves from; although far from perfect it has its charms, including an excellent reading of “Not In Nottingham”), and 2010’s Tin Can Trust. This last album demonstrated that there was still vitality in a group that had weathered many storms, and marked another remarkable collaboration—this time with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. All the eclecticism of previous Los Lobos records is evident there as it is on 2015’s Gates of Gold. It’s not entirely a look back but it touches on many of the places this veteran group has been and a few places where it may be going.

Morris’ book ends just as word of this new album was coming to light, but it’s not any less necessary for it. Although he didn’t intend to write a biography of Los Lobos, he did write a biography of a time—or several times—and place—indeed several places—that are as elusive but intriguing as the music of Los Lobos and will no doubt endure just as long. In the end, there’s only one thing to say—the same thing you’ll hear at any gig from the band in questions, a cry shouted from the front and the back, from the floor and the balcony, and sometimes from the stage itself: Viva Los Lobos!