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"There was something in us that made us want to look a little bit further," recalls Guaderrama. "We were like, 'OK, today we're going to play the Stones.' And then we'd say, 'Who wrote that? Oh, Willie Dixon.' That kind of thing. After a while, we said, 'Maybe we should try to write a song.'"
The band finally came together more than a decade after high school. During the late '80s, the group would perform mostly '50s and '60s covers for five hours a night at the Bell Casino, providing the entertainment for inveterate card players. The band used money from the gigs to finance their first single, which they would in turn use to get more shows. "We started dreaming of what it would be like on the road," Gonzalez says. "We did a weekend thing in Blythe [California], and were fantasizing, 'We're on the road!' on this little two-hour drive. Little did we know it was more grueling than that."
Though it was difficult to leave the regular paycheck provided by the casino gig, the Blazers knew there was something bigger out there than playing for hustlers. "We felt we had something to offer the musical world, and we didn't know if it was valid enough until we tried," Gonzalez says. "We had to go up to the plate." Finally, in 1988, they landed a regular gig at the original Raji's on Wednesdays--playing at midnight, most nights to no more than four people. Yet soon enough, the band didn't have to depend on covers to get them through the night.
If, in the long run, the Blazers share anything with Los Lobos, it's the sound of tradition: The echoes of weddings and barbecues and neighborhood gatherings resonate through their songs. They're the antithesis of another L.A.-based, Chicano-fronted band--Rage Against the Machine--that chooses to preach to the preachers, often promising solutions they can't provide. The Blazers aren't about the political, but about the personal: They'd never write a song about watching the city burn around them, but they might write one about "taking care of your kids so they wouldn't go out and riot," Guaderrama offers. "More basic."
"We're just doing something that makes us feel good," Gonzalez says. "We keep our opinions to ourselves. If people just treat each other good and right, and respect and love, like they should, that makes more of an individual impact."
"Who did we vote for?" Guaderrama proclaims. "We don't want to talk about that in an interview. I'll talk about that to friends and family. I'm a guitar player who just tries to write songs. The political thing...we're out."
Proof of that philosophy is found in Just for You's title track, which was born in a Vegas hotel room from a ditty Gonzalez sang to his girlfriend: "I needed a shower, and I said, 'I want to look good, feel good, smell good, just for you,' " he recalls. "I thought, 'That would be a good song,' but I didn't have my tape recorder! I wrote down the lyrics, and my girlfriend gave me the idea to call my answering machine and sing into that."
"It's such a sort-of-innocent song," Guaderrama says. "We wanted to bring it down to basics, as simple as we could make it."
But that's not to devalue the musicianship: If Los Lobos have become bored with the simple, experimenting with studio trickery on their last few records until the machines have become as important as the men playing them, then the Blazers have refined the art of the unembellished; Just for You swings from slide blues to garage rock to back-yard folk. Yet even though they were born into the music--Gonzalez's uncle, a jazz player in the Bay Area, taught guitar to Creedence's Tom Fogerty--Guaderrama and Gonzalez still feel they're not up to the task of penning a cumbia, an essential part of the Blazers' repertoire that goes over as well in Belgium as it does in East L.A. The record's two stabs at the form, "Las Clases del Cha Cha Cha/Los Marcianos" and "Tabaco Mascao," were written by others.
"We haven't written a good enough cumbia to compare to Mickey Larra," Gonzalez says. "He's the cumbia king. He wrote 'em all."
"It's like trying to write a blues song," Guaderrama explains. "In their world, if you're going to write a blues song--and now you're in the world of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters--those guys laid down the law. You have to be prepared to be that deep. To be that good."
In the end, Pete Anderson was brought in to "make a hit record, a more radio-friendly record," as manager Rick Jones explains. It was Anderson's job to pick the songs, to arrange them, to hire out for help (from the Tower of Power horns to John Logan on harmonica to Skip Edwards on organ), even to play a little guitar. The Blazers looked to him to nurture their sound, to give them a push in the right direction; he, after all, had given Yoakam's sound its golden, polished form. Being local heroes--neighborhood heroes--is one thing; but in the end, the Blazers and their manager share rock-star dreams that transcend East L.A...even if it just means being big on the West Side.
"This is the year," asserts the East Coast-based Jones, who takes good-natured ribbing from Gonzalez for his lacking "a tan." "Everything is just building in a good way. It feels right."
The Blazers play the Sons of Hermann Hall on Saturday, October 18.