Los Angeles

Cheech and Chong: Alice Bowie and the First Chicano Punk Song

Cheech

It opens with an alarm clock waking up a heavy sleeper. Then you hear coughing and groaning as a teenager turns on a bedside turntable. A long guitar riff opens the metal-fused song, rebellion for waking up in time for school. It's "Earache, My Eye," a 1974 Cheech and Chong sketch on a 45rpm single that featured a song by Alice Bowie (Cheech Marin) poking at the commercial record industry.

Cheech also voiced the father that belts the sleeping teen, voiced by Tommy Chong, who can't go to school because he has an earache. Alice Bowie was a cross -- and cross-dress -- of proto-goth hard rocker Alice Cooper, before the release of "Welcome to My Nightmare," and David Bowie during his orange-haired glitter turning glam Ziggy Stardust period, before "Diamond Dogs."

It could be considered an indirect link to the movement that is the source for Cheech's Chicano Art collection. Does Alice Bowie become a nod to Los Angeles performance art, specifically East Los Angeles' Asco?

"Absolutely," says Cheech from his home that also has a private Chicano art gallery. "Gronk, Pattsi (Valdez) and that whole Asco scene. They were provocateurs. They were street and performance artists, who with Pattsi, kinda learned to paint after."

It was a period "when those barriers were being broken down, and hip kids from East Los Angeles could discover Hollywood and music," according to Cheech, comparing shared backgrounds in mining material. "I was the same way. I was a little bit older, but I discovered hippie music. I used that, plus rock and whatever what was happening with my Mexican roots."

Under the banner of Pacific Standard Time, the performance, public art, and multimedia by Gronk and Patssi Valdez, along with other founding members, Harry Gamboa Jr. and Willie Herrón III, were subject of "Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective 1972-1987" at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2011, which surveyed visual arts as a component of activism, sometimes heavy with the use of glam rock imagery.

Music is not a stranger to that art era. In the days when Asco was forming, Herron played in bands combining progressive rock with "a Santana sensibility," he said during an oral history conducted by Archives of American Art in 2000. "[I]t was the early stages of trying to come up with again a new sound, which then didn't take off until '79 when I officially formed Los Illegals."

Herron himself advanced the idea of Chicano art having a punk sensibility, sometimes as a media mash-up with content produced during Asco initial years. "[W]e started to incorporate costume. We were incorporating a superimposing of slides of Asco work, of the murals, of our performances on top of Los Illegals performing," Herron said.

As Chicano Art moves forward in its documentation, some artistic consideration may have to be made for "Earache My Eye Featuring Alice Bowie," which was released as a single before the 1974 "Cheech and Chong Wedding Album." It reached number 9 on the Billboard charts Oct. 12, 1974, and later appeared in "Up in Smoke" (1978).

If you consider Cheech's comedy stage work formed with a viewpoint defined as Chicano, the adolescent rage of Alice Bowie that came during the growing pantheon of East Coast punk rock in 1974 -- packaged as a comedy commercial mix of metal, glitter and glam - may be the first Chicano punk song.

"It wasn't just a parody," adds Cheech, not so much about his place in Chicano art punk music, but for the composition written by Canadian composer Gaye Delorme, who also played the solo guitar. (Delorme passed away June 23, 2011). "It was the real stuff."

"It captured the heart and soul while it had the attitude of hard rock music. He played it on acoustic for me in my kitchen," says Cheech. "I thought 'that's it!' He knew exactly what he was doing."

"We were this anomaly; a comedy act with top ten hit singles. Our competition wasn't other comedians to sell albums. It was the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin," said Cheech. "It always intrigues me that the icons of counter culture were a Chicano low-rider and his half-Chinese Canadian friend, a quintessence of the American hippie movement."

And that puts music in a broader stroke of what Chicano Art is about. "Chicano really stands in for that Culturalization -- a mix between Mexicans and mainstream culture. That's the base of it," said Cheech.

The recording is also a period piece about days when stereo equipment were personal altars of pop and counter-culture. Personal spirituality pieced into towering temples that allow the liturgy of selected deity to be heard with proper balance of high and low range frequencies.

Before the 1979 interference and blasphemy of portable Sony Walkman cassettes players, with headphones, moving the church of rock into the streets like a roving preacher with a fellowship of one.

By 1974 standards, a self-proclaimed Chicano comedian was radical enough. Alice Bowie was a comment on that era's wave of cross-dressing, its generic symbol of female performance was a ballet tutu with strategic tassels accessorized with a mask and theme park mouse ears.

Cheech and Chong have been touring again on occasion, and Alice Bowie has appeared on the sketch comedy playlist. The ensemble has an updated look. Cheech wears a skin body suit that shows Alice Bowie has undergone over 30 years of being tattooed.

There are also updated versions of the song. Groups like KORN, Rollins Band and Soundgarden who have covered the song. "Now every band that I ever do a benefit with, Yellow Jackets, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, they introduce me with . . . " as Cheech hums the riff. "It's amazing. It's been covered four or five times. It was a real exchange of generations."

"My son, when he was 14, KORN was his favorite band. He could play all the tunes," said Cheech with a hint of the regional East Los Angeles cadence. "I said to him, 'You know that band KORN? They worship ME as a living GOD.' "

Did it change the relationship with his son? Did his kid do his chores a little bit more? Or wake up for school faster?

"No," said Cheech with that infectious laugh, then saying his son's attitude "was more like 'Yeah, whatever.'"

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Top image: Cheech Marin as Alice Bowie at the Reading Performing Arts Center, March 7, 2009 Photo: I Tj Delikat of Delikat Photography.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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