The flyer promised a tribute to the spirit of recently deceased Mexican rockera Rita Guerrero. A chilango channeling the Mexican Bob Dylan provided the only tribute at the old Bellflower nightclub on Lakewood Boulevard last Friday. Instead I bumped my forehead into L.A.'s Mexico-City/heavy metal scene.
Rita Guerrero was 46 years old when she died of cancer a couple of weeks ago. Twenty years ago her band, Santa Sabina, was among a slew of new rock en español groups that seemed to sprint out of the gate in Mexico City. The government came down hard on youth culture for more than a decade after the 1968 student massacres in Mexico City. What had been a vibrant, if all too U.S. copy-cat, rock scene in Mexico fell silent to most in the country as the government came down on venues that allowed rockeros to perform. You couldn't stop the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Judas Priest and other English language rock records from entering Mexico. You just couldn't find Mexican rockeros on Mexican TV. No dark skinned, mestizo, or light-skinned Mexicanos rocking the nopal on their foreheads; same thing with the big record labels and concert venues.
By the late 1980s, after what appeared to many a blatantly stolen presidential election, rockers in Mexican big cities were ready for a destape, an uncorking like that in Madrid after the end of the Franco dictatorship. Maldita Vecindad, Café Tacuba, La Lupita, La Castañeda, and Santa Sabina were the Mexican rock scene's primary colors. And Rita Guerrero, as the only female rockera among them, was the vibrant red of the bunch. She was beautiful. Her band rocked. And she was articulate as hell about why the band did what they did. The band's lyrics were rich in meaning. Roughly translated, their best known song "Azul Casi Morado" goes something like, "I close my eyes, see blue, nearly purple, the coming and going of the orange camels, skipping street corners, climbing buildings, traveling on fallen bridges, you're always there, hanging, I'd like to know what's inside you, even if nothing, I'd like to know." On stage Rita was La Llorona, Edgar Allan Poe, and Siouxie Sioux wrapped in one.
Miguel Morales was already in L.A. during this musical blossoming in his hometown. While still in Mexico City as a teen he'd been mesmerized - like a lot of the first wave of rock en español bands - by Rodrigo Gonzalez, one of those rockeros on the fringes. Rockdrigo, as he was known, was an acoustic guitar and harmonica troubador. He sang about isolation in the big city. His "Metro Balderas" is about a guy who hijacks a Mexico City subway, distraught after four years of searching for his beloved. He tells the conductor, at gunpoint that he'd seen her drown in the ocean of people at the subway's Balderas station. Rockdrigo died in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake that leveled entire neighborhoods.
Rita Guerrero showed her appreciation for Rockdrigo by recording a cover of "Distante Instante" in a tribute compilation. The lyrics ponder whether lost loves, lost friends, and youthful, long-gone hope would make the big city blues go away.
So that's the song Miguel Morales brought to the Rita Guerrero tribute on Lakewood Blvd. He played it for me in the parking lot before the show started. The Norm's diner on the other side of the street, with its we-never-close sign, was his backdrop. And the giggling bunches of people walking to the Flux Bar, lit by the club's rainbow neon sign, also seemed fitting.
I talked to the members of two other bands playing that night, but I stopped paying attention after I heard Miguel play "Distante Instante" in the parking lot.
Fe D'Ratas and Legacy were also on the bill. Their members are in their early and mid-30s. Most immigrated from Mexico City before puberty but remember listening to Judas Priest, Metallica, and Deep Purple. They were fitting soundtracks to life in working class neighborhoods. By day these musicians are carpenters, out of work construction workers, and mechanics. Really. They're graduates of Lincoln HS, Westchester HS, and Katella HS who as rockeros felt on the fringes of campus culture. Most of the other Mexicans or Mexican Americans on campus, they said, were cholos or from small Mexican towns. A couple of them knew about Rita Guerrero a few of them didn't. Most were indifferent. It was a last minute, Friday night gig. The bar did good business. About three dozen people - dressed in various shades of black, verging on goth - made the club look full.
"Se nos adelanto," Miguel told the crowd as he opened the show just before 11 o'clock. Fighting periodic feedback from the sound system that no one could fix, Miguel - with a harmonica holder around his neck - strummed into his set of Rockdrigo songs and serenaded rockera Rita Guerrero.