Saturday, November 6, 2010

In Praise Of Inauthenticity

Hey, want to know a little secret?

Here it is: I hate to spend money. Not because I'm cheap or a miser or anything as interesting as that but because there are so few things I'm interested in buying.

The few things I do buy tend to end up severely disappointing me.

One quick example: I recently went out and bought a pair of lounge pants and even though I thought I bought the exact same brand and style and size as the lounge pants I already have and love, it turned out that the company is now making them different and... they just don't feel right. They're not as soft. The pockets don't fit my hands as well. And I can't trust the fabric not to crawl up my butt when I least expect it. I mean, come on - if you can't trust a simple pair of $10 lounge pants to provide you with a few moments of satisfaction, what incentive do you have to spend even $20 on a new car?

Well, despite this extreme reluctance of mine to hand over my cash to a world apparently intent on perpetually disappointing me in ways I can't even begin to imagine, I was recently persuaded to buy an Ion turntable - and I love it!

I now have the magical power to translate my vinyl records into digital files that I can play and manipulate on my computer and burn unto disks (hallowed be their technology). If I had an iPod, I probably could transfer these digitals files to that, too, but I don't. Maybe someday. Which will probably be several years after everyone else has moved on to a new format or gizmo....

But to keep focused on the positive: I've now successfully transferred most of my all-time favorite LPs to my computer.

And by "all-time favorite LPs" I mean my collection of 40-year-old Baja Marimba Band releases.

Yes, seriously.

Want to know a second little secret? I've been unapologetically in love with Muzak for as long as I can remember.

I was certainly in love with it in high school when my peers were in love with Kiss and Led Zeppelin and I brightly come out with "Julius Wechter and the Baja Marimba Band!" whenever I was asked who I might like best.

For some reason, my peers always thought I was joking.

For my part, I could never understand why anyone might prefer "Stairway to Heaven" to Julius's incomparable arrangement of "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?"

Julius was quite a guy. He played on Herb Alpert's first hit, "The Lonely Bull," back when Herb was still recording in a garage, then went on to write one of the Tijuana Brass's all-time biggest hits, "Spanish Flea" (which Julius had mischievously originally entitled "Spanish Fly"). After that, a place for a Julius composition was reserved on virtually every Alpert album. Most were infectiously catchy in a way an Aerosmith or David Bowie tune could only dream of being (though I've always been a fan of "Fame").

Oddly enough, Julius eventually got an advanced degree in psychology and became a marriage counselor. I've also learned in recent years (thanks to the miracle of the Internet) that he had Tourette's Syndrome. Try as I might, I can't stop smiling as I try to imagine which might make the better Monty Python skit, a marimba player with Tourette's or a marriage counselor. My bad.

Sad to say, the Baja Marimba Band - which was never very popular despite many appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" after the plate spinners and before Topo Gigio - fell completely out of favor circa 1970. Part of their shtick was their outfitting themselves as a bunch of dirty, stupid Mexicans. Admittedly, that probably wasn't the best idea anyone ever had - and it probably was an idea made even worse by the fact that Julius and the band members were about as authentically Mexican as bagels and lox, as LA Times music reviewer Charles Chaplin good-naturedly put it in the liner notes he wrote for their humorously entitled "Greatest Hits" LP - but... it worked for me.

Just like Bill Dana's Jose Jimenez character worked for me.

And Frito-Lay's Frito Bandito.

I didn't think these ethnic stereotypes were cruel racist putdowns - I just thought they were funny.

My consciousness has since been raised.

My love of the Baja Marimba Band's music endures.

None of which I had planned to write about today.

Then I sat down, picked up my copy of Time dated November 1, and read a story entitled Ballads For The Bad Guys.

Here are a few brief passages:

In Rialto, on old route 66 just outside Los Angeles, young Mexican Americans in sharp cars and glittery, cowboy-goth clothes are pouring into a hangar-size nightclub to hear El Komander sing. Brawny, buzz-cut and with a midnight pallor, El Komander looks as if a Mexican drug cartel might have sent him on a summer internship with the Russian mob.... His narcocorridos — narco ballads — are about the gunfights and beheadings going on south of the border: the word asesino (murderer) figures heavily in his lyrics. "Trashed with drugs," he croons in a deceptively sweet voice. "Blowing heads off those who cross us."

Driven by a tuba, an accordion, drums and a guitar, narcocorridos sound like polka pumped up on meth. By turns frenetic and mournful, the songs celebrate the violent lives — and grisly deaths — of Mexican drug lords. The genre's popularity has spread quickly from Mexico, and dozens of singers now routinely tour the U.S., finding huge audiences that are not limited to the nation's 47 million Hispanic....

The music's appeal is tied to its association with danger. In that sense, the narcocorrido has something in common with 1990s gangsta rap, complete with the fast and ferocious lifestyles of its performers. Many balladeers receive money from drug lords to write paeans about their exploits; some are paid to perform at gangs' private parties in secret hideouts. But being one gangster's favorite singer can make you a target for his rivals: nearly a dozen musicians have been killed since 2006....

The music has also given rise to a film genre. According to Baja Films Internacional director and producer Oscar Lopez, every month big-box stores sell tens of thousands of DVDs of gory Tijuana-made direct-to-video movies whose scripts are based on the latest narcocorrido hits....

In the last four years, some 26,000 people have been killed in the drug wars in Mexico. Stories about the latest slaughter down there that's worse than the infamous Valentine's Day Massacre in 1920s Chicago now appear almost every day in my newspaper. The situation, as one story I recently saw put it, is significantly worse than the much better reported war in Afghanistan.

And bands are now singing songs dedicated to the perpetrators of all this violence?

And listeners are eating it up??

Wow.... I'm beyond stunned.

You know, if Bill Dana tried to revive his Jose character on national TV, I'm sure the outrage would be deafening. And maybe it should be.

But... a whole industry has popped up in celebration of regular mass beheadings and mutilations as Mexico descends into a narco-civil war and there's *no* outrage?

Indeed, if Time is to be believed, the narcocorrido craze is actually being exploited by the likes of Subway and the Ford Motor Company as a way to appeal to Hispanic youth.

Dear Julius! Please wake me up from this post-apocalyptic nightmare and help me understand why *I* ever should have had to be the one required to defend his taste in music....

[EDIT: A guy by the name of Harvey Perr actually wrote the liner notes to the Baja Marimba Band's "Greatest Hits" LP. Perr was affiliated with something called FM & The Fine Arts. His actual words: "Best of all, it turns out that they're damned fine musicians who really play and so what if they're as Mexican as bagels and lox? Or lasagna? They are beautiful." The LA Times's Charles CHAMPLIN wrote the liner notes to Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass's "Greatest Hits" LP at a time when Herb's A&M Records company was based in the former film studio of Charlie Chaplin at 1416 North La Brea in Hollywood, California. I'm sorry for the confusion - and even sorrier about an aging process that scrambles memories the way a blender can scramble eggs and ants.]


  1. One of my favorite tech celebrities of the 90s was a woman who started a one-hit company she called Marimba with a product called Cast-A-Net.

  2. It's funny because while you were writing this, I was writing a diary entry, which I subsequently saved as Private, about how I had a Frank Sinatra record in ninth grade (courtesty of Columbia Record Club) where he sang Yesterday and I never knew it was originally a Beatles song until I was in college.
    This thing doesn't allow private comments, does it?

  3. Music romanticizing narcocorridor atrocities seems like a natural next step for people bored with Death Metal bands mutilating themselves on stage.

    Death Metal always seemed ridiculous to me, but I have to give it credit for bringing us the song, "God Hates Us All."

    If you really are a theist, I don't think you can find any better explanation for meaning in aging, diseases and disasters.

  4. RYN: Thanks, it was a little better. :) How have you been?