POV: Calavera Highway

Calavera Highway considers the point where it becomes impossible to distinguish between reality and myth, experience and narrative.


Airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET
Cast: Armando Peña, Carlos Peña, Luis Peña, Lupe Peña, Raul Peña, Robert Peña, Junior Peña, Rosa Morales, Aunt Adela
Subtitle: Calavera Highway
Network: PBS
US release date: 2008-09-16
The film is really about traveling from one ruin to another, literally and emotionally.

--Renee Tajima-Peña

"I always felt one of us had the obligation to fulfill the empty spaces left by the absence of our father." As Armando Peña remembers it, growing up in a family of seven boys was a mix of raucous, small pleasures and hardship. By the time he was born, he recalls, his father Pedro "had vanished, like an apparition." He and his brothers "grew up like street urchins," seeking direction and finding unconditional love and support in his mother, Rosa.

In the six years since her funeral, Armando says at the start of Calavera Highway, the brothers have not seen much of one another. And so, he and his older brother Carlos undertake to reconnect with their family, to seek out the background they mostly ignored or repressed when Rosa was alive, to ponder "the unanswered questions" left at the time of her death from cancer. The catalyst for their journey is the decision to take her ashes to the small town in Texas where she grew up. The trip, which takes them up and down the west coast, from Washington state to Nevada and New Mexico to Texas, grants Armando and Carlos a chance to look back on their parents' divergent paths in order to discover their own stories.

On its face, the documentary, filmed by Armando's wife Renee Tajima-Peña (Who Killed Vincent Chin?) and Evangeline Griego, appears a personal diary, a series of observations accompanied by illustrative photos and footage. Each of the brothers speaks to the camera, revealing his own trajectory while offering his perspective of the family's fortunes. But the movie is also an investigation of Mexican-American histories. As Carlos and Armando discover, Rosa's choices were shaped by serial adversities. Abandoned by Pedro in 1954 and "outcast" by her own family, she did her best to raise her sons alone, working multiple jobs, exhausted at night. "My mother," says Carlos, "she was very tough with us because we were all men and she was always working." Armando remembers, "She was like a working stiff, she was like a mom and a dad. She would just come home and crash."

The boys found their own sorts of structure in the streets and, in Armando's case, in his studies. While Carlos had to quit school early in order to support the family, and other brothers, like Lupe, wound up in prison, Armando was the "bookworm." Carlos calls him a "burro," eliciting Renee's on-camera question, "He was a donkey?" Carlos smiles, "A donkey with a degree."

The difference embodied by Armando underscores the brothers' efforts to be men, to understand the expectations and parameters of masculinity without a grown-up man in the house. These efforts become visible in the form of Renee and Armando's young son Gabe, who rides along during the trek to Texas. At times Gabe appears as himself, meeting his uncles or Rosa's sister Adela. At other points, he stands in for a more abstract and mythic sort of memory, a beautiful child playing with bubbles or an umbrella, sharing riddles with Armando, a poetic emblem of idealized childhood, at ease with his parents, open to experiences "on the road."

As the brothers recall working as boys in cotton fields, their memories are illustrated by footage of workers and trucks, circa the '50s. Armando says, "I remember playing with cotton but also prickers in my skin" (a concise image of tensions throughout his youth) while Carlos jokes about the painful experience of being treated like resources rather than people ("What I miss is the pesticide that they used to drop on us from the plane while we were picking cotton"). The film recalls as well the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service program put in motion at the time of Pedro's disappearance, "Operation Wetback." It targeted Mexican nationals, rounding up and deporting over 130,000 in just one year, without regard for their families or specific situations. A U.S. citizen, Rosa remained in Texas.

Carlos and Armando travel to their father's village in Mexico, Real de Catorce, where they meet an uncle for the first time and listen to stories of Pedro and Rosa's rocky first year of marriage. "We had heard rumors of what became of him," says Armando, "that he had settled in the mountains and drank himself to death, that he was a hardworking stone mason living in some tiny village, and that he'd started a whole new family in Monterey with five daughters. Or was it 10?"

Another road takes them to visit Rosa's sister Adela, still sewing wedding dresses for a living. A brief sequence shows her at work, bent over her machine and then standing to hold a dress to her chest, swirling the skirt in slow motion. Armando sees her as an example of the "strong women in the family. Our great grandmother Petra Salinas claimed that she fought alongside Pancho Villa during the revolution. But then again, with my family, you never know where reality ends and myth begins."

Calavera Highway repeatedly considers this point, where it becomes impossible to distinguish between reality and myth, experience and narrative. The film mixes Renee's footage of the family (including Rosa during her final years), old photos and home movies, and archival evocations of the struggles of Mexican-Americans in the States during the 1940s and 1950s, to show what the brothers have forgotten, willfully or not.

The connections between past and present come into focus when the film reveals that Carlos is a social worker who, with his wife Libby, helps to organize migrant workers. He and Armando find their own sense of social and political activism rooted in Rosa's. In the eighth grade, Armando recalls, he and his classmates staged a walkout to protest what a CBS report at the time (1968) terms "Anglos dominating Latins." While the other parents encouraged their children to apologize for making trouble, Rosa showed up at school with "boxes of sandwiches," encouraging her son to agitate.

At the same time that they admire Rosa's energy and ethos, the boys also recognize that her experience was both typical and particular. "I don't think it's a question of whether we're trying to embarrass our mother," Armando says when they find she had at least one son with a man who wasn't Pedro, "as much as trying to appreciate how complex her life was." If, as Armando says, "There was barely a chance toward the end to get mom to talk about the past," the film recovers memories unspoken, if not quite forgotten, piecing together history in order to comprehend and build the present.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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