BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON
Slash/Warner Bros. 25523-1
It is late at night, let’s say. The house is as quiet as a moonlit field, but the mind is full of commotion; it’s an ornery, unsatisfied old cuss, and it’s used to its freedom, including the freedom to move about, which has nothing to do with headphones. Technology, thank god, has considered such moments. Walkmen can be augmented with small speakers, the size of large fists, that play either loud or soft as the occasion demands. My Walkman, however, is relatively old for such things — almost two years, which puts it in the twilight of Walkman life — and in the quiet moments between songs it chirps like crickets below the window. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of postwar rhythm and blues from the late 40s and early 50s, music so close to rock ‘n’ roll in style that it easily passes for it today, even though the attitudes are wrong — submissive where they ought to be daring, not in keeping with the revolutionary sound of the music itself.
The tape I choose most often, however, is the new Los Lobos album, which is somehow fitting. It sounds good played either loud or soft — always a positive sign — and it sounds not merely good but right under these circumstances. It sounds contemporary, but in tone and atmosphere (and with the Walkman quietly chirping), it harks back to the best early rock ‘n’ roll music — the stuff that crossed that line from R & B to rock, like Elvis’s “Mystery Train” — which promised to release all the freedom of the land simply by denying the constraints. Los Lobos, I think, wish it were that easy, and that is certainly the music they love, but they aren’t about to claim the easy privileges of those days as their own; in admitting that the constraints exist, they find the resources to face them anew, and that’s what gives their music its honesty and its tension. It is music of that moment that people in the U.S. are raised to believe is uniquely theirs: of that moment, usually in adolescence, when, looking out the window in the middle of the night, one sees the horizons of the land as being almost limitless, when one comes closest to believing what one has been taught about the possibilities of the country, rather than the restrictions one has found to be true in one’s own experience.
As Robert Christgau pointed out recently in the Village Voice, it’s not a good time for roots movements in popular music. The roots of rock have been tapped so often of late, and with such poor results, that there is no longer any inherent gain to be had from the process. The original rock music, the music of the 50s, promised freedom by definition; that was what separated it from what had come before. No matter what the song was about — and popular songs then, as now, were usually about love — it promised freedom in the freshness of the music and the liveliness of the beat. We, on the other hand, live in a time when someone like Huey Lewis can make music that sounds fresh by rock definitions but that undermines whatever freedom the music once promised. In “Working for a Living,” “Hip to Be Square,” and “Stuck With You,” Lewis sings not of freedom but of benign resignation, and in the Age of Reagan he makes it sound like a pretty good life. His popularity is simply symptomatic of a music scene that has recycled itself so often that the music has ceased to mean anything, where even the most obnoxious form of rock, heavy metal, can in a band like Stryper be used to sing gospel music.
So Los Lobos would be in trouble if they derived anything more than the bare skeletons of their music from the 50s. One friend of mine, unsatisfied with By the Light of the Moon, said it sounded like the Fabulous Thunderbirds to him; but he is, himself, in a band and is preoccupied with how the music comes together. Los Lobos, like the Fabulous T-birds (like Huey Lewis), are putting flesh on the same skeleton, but their powers of composition and invention are much greater than those of a glorified cover band like the T-birds. Where the T-birds are patching bits of pieces of their past together into something resembling new music (the way Frankenstein’s monster resembled a human), Los Lobos are taking the past as a whole and dealing with it from there. Which is to say, simply, that where the T-birds patch an old riff onto a new song, Los Lobos simply invent a new riff to work in the old way, which gives their music its freshness. They also have different and more unusual roots than the T-birds.
Los Lobos made their name, in fact, on their first EP and album, by the way they adapted instrumentation and melodies from traditional Mexican music to rock ‘n’ roll. One of the things I believe my music-playing friend was most disappointed about in By the Light of the Moon is its more straightforward approach to rock. The accordion and hidalguera are still there, but less idiosyncratically than in the past. The hidalguera fits neatly into a Motown rave-up like “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee),” and the miracle is not that it does so so effortlessly, but that the group has found a new source to draw from — the lively singles of the Motown era. Aside from a straightforward reading of the traditional Mexican folk song “Prenda de alma,” Los Lobos seem not merely willing but eager to subsume their own folk roots to the requirements of rock radio, which might otherwise mean “sellout.” Except that Los Lobos know that the same sources have been mined many times, that rock music no longer promises, inherently, the freedom of the land. There is nothing to sell out. Likewise, they forgo conceptual moves, such as deliberately muddying the production. The Rolling Stones may have gotten away with that on Exile on Main Street, but that was 16 years ago, halfway back from now to Elvis’s move to RCA Records. Since Exile, that sort of “spontaneous” production has grown hackneyed. Under the hand of T-Bone Burnett, Los Lobos deliver an album that is crisp and clear, relying on the songs themselves to draw on any early rock ‘n’ roll influences. So they play the music that has lost almost all its former revolutionary qualities, and they sing about the freedom and the constraints, and most important they ponder what the music itself means. No mere love songs will do. The music no longer says anything in itself so in order to deal with their concerns — which are the traditional concerns of Robert Johnson and Hank Williams and (at least originally) Elvis Presley, men who saw the horizons as limitless but realized that the problem was getting from here to there (Elvis was the only one who achieved those horizons, but having achieved them he found there was nothing to distinguish a land without limits from an abyss) — Los Lobos must sing about those concerns, overtly, and they do.
From the opening song, “One Time One Night,” Los Lobos expand and refine their concerns away from those of a typical roots-rock band. They are singing about the music itself and what it says about the country. So that in that moment of first awareness, looking out the window in the middle of the night, there is also — as there has been throughout the century — a radio playing.
A quiet voice is singing something to me
An age-old song about the home of the brave
In this land here of the free
One time one night in America
The tone is not mournful nor dismissive but matter-of-fact. The melody walks downhill as on a curling path. David Hidalgo’s high tenor — one of Los Lobos’ trademarks — is as convincing in its emotion and concern as the lines around an old woman’s eyes. People are described, usually accompanied by their failed hopes, the unfortunate circumstances of their lives, but the song wanders on. Here and elsewhere Los Lobos are concerned not with themselves but with the quiet lives around them. It’s a most empathetic record for a rock band to make, and in this almost conservative. Parents are cited with reverence on several occasions.
Los Lobos make the same points — about freedom and betrayal — only more forcibly, on “Is This All There Is?” where they make a brief appearance of their own.
Climbing high to the mountaintop
Reaching up to the sky above
Asking to myself Is this all there is?
It’s a good point for this band to be making, glorified independent record-company heroes that they are, remaining on Slash Records but distributed by Warner Brothers and on the verge of the breakout they nearly achieved with their first album, How Will the Wolf Survive? A brief glimpse of their high ambitions is all that we need to make their empathy for the common man sound earned and sincere and more than that — meant. Because Los Lobos are taking on a lot of material here; they are directly confronting what artists like Robert Johnson and Hank Williams usually only confronted implicitly — the promise of a continent, especially when measured against the reality of cities dangerous as cut glass, small towns stifling as a prison term. By the Light of the Moon is an album that asks the big American questions.
Having established these aims, these expanded concerns, the meaning of the music opens up like a congressional investigation — all findings and hints connect — so that in the middle of the night a seemingly innocent and humorous love song like “All I Wanted to Do Was Dance” begins to sound like a soliloquy by Ronald Reagan.
Why did you turn on me?
I’m the same man that I used to be
Did you forget who I am?
I’m the man with the master plan
I didn’t ask for much
I maybe didn’t ask for enough
I maybe should have forced your band
But all I wanted to do was dance
This is where the album works at its best, where having set the tone with songs like Hidalgo and Louie Perez’s “One Time One Night,” the new ambitions of the music make Cesar Rosas’s rockers like “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” echo with new meanings. Side two opens with a quote from Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” and having touched base with one of the timeless blues songs, the band then begins to play games with the context. The freedom that is desired in “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)” comes to be feared In “My Baby’s Gone,” both up-tempo rockers that are working as something more. It is to Los Lobos’ credit that even here they are not satisfied with the ground they’ve established as their own; they want something more.
With the last three songs, Hidalgo and Perez expand their empathy to those limitless horizons they so desire. Here, they are out of their depth, but by this time the music is carrying the album at such a steady pace that the songs pass unnoticed at worst, and at best they leave the listener wondering over their grand ambitions. Not only do Los Lobos concern themselves with bombs “bursting in a far-off land,” but in “Tears of God” they find themselves confronting the mistakes and regrets of the supposedly omnipotent God. There are times when this music strikes me as overreaching its abillties; there are times when I believe this to be one of the best records of the decade. What I know is that even that most cynical of beings, the American atheist, can — in the middle of the night, with the invisible crickets of technology chirping away — find empathy with a God that cries over his mistakes.