The past is revered--well, referenced--to an unprecedented degree by pop culture today; roots and history are important in a way that would've been unthinkable a decade ago. Chalk it up to pop's voracious need for product--ideas for which have to come from somewhere--and it's particularly true in music.
That's often a good thing: We're better off if 20-year-olds know about Tony Bennett, or a 30-something Fab T-Birds fan can buy the Charlie Patton box set, but sometimes it can raise some troubling questions. As we run around borrowing willy-nilly from any and every era and culture, do we betray a certain winner's arrogance? Are we giving props or taking plunder?
Thinking about these issues has engendered some of the most tedious writing this side of the Playboy Philosophy, but issues they remain. You don't want to be insensitive, but you also don't want to be some P.C. weenie worrying about the implications of Mrs. Potato Head's not getting her own pipe.
Los Angeles' Royal Crown Revue is a case in point. The seven-piece band, heavy on horns, references the dance-band swing of the '40s and has created its own little hometown scene, heavy on the "noir martinis 'n' cigarettes" vibe so popular these days. The Revue created a persona for its tunes, sort of a cross between the pachuco of World War II-era East L.A. and David Johansen playing Officer Toody in Car 54, Where Are You? This character informs much of the music on the Revue's first major-label album, Mugzy's Move, appearing like a carnival barker between songs and choruses.
The playing is sharp, and the tunes are fun, but there's a dissonance that creeps in around the band's borrowings, particularly where the pachuco comes in. The pachuco of '40s L.A. was a tough guy, possibly but not necessarily a gang member or gangster. A child of the great northern migrations Mexicans made in the first quarter of the 20th century, he was likely the first of his family to be born and raised in America. His style was embodied by the zoot suit, an exaggeration of almost every aspect of men's haberdashery--giant lapels, way-baggy pants with high waists, and astoundingly wide-brimmed hats--that had been borrowed from the jitterbug fad on the East Coast a few years earlier.
The pachuco's high profile made him a lightning rod for specific oppression that mirrored a widespread discrimination, and there were numerous riots in Southern California during the war as a result. The best known of these, L.A.'s "pachuco riots" of 1943, were called "the ugliest brand of mob action since the coolie race riots of the 1870s" by Time and featured marauding servicemen pulling pachucos--or those they took for pachucos--out of theaters and off of street cars and beating them up. It's hard to know what the pachucos themselves would think of their current role in Hispanic history--they've been politicized, made into symbols of a militancy they may or may not have felt--but they live on in many aspects of Latin style, particularly lowrider culture.
How available should the pachuco be to the blindly spinning wheels of pop commercialism? To be Hispanic living in L.A. during World War II doesn't read like much of a party: discriminated against yet drafted to fight, economically disadvantaged in a time of rationing, and recalling with fear the mass deportations of the '30s. If Hispanics were to resent the appropriation of that time--especially to be used as party fodder for a bunch of affluent idiots who mistake nicotine for irony--it would be understandable. The first reaction to Mugzy's Move is along the lines of: "If this is a bunch of white-boy studio guns and Berklee grads, this sucks."
Well, what if it isn't? What determines the bond between a band and its music, and the validity of that bond? In terms of authenticity, how many Hispanics would have to be on board to balance out the studio guns? What if one of the studio guys is African-American but not really all that good? Where do Polynesians fit in, pointwise, or Caucasians with dreadlocks?
For the answers to these and other pressing questions we turn to academia, where people with giant brains sit around all day, thinking. Are we taking all of this too seriously? Should a white guy from the 'burbs who cut his teeth on the Marshall Tucker Band worry about such things? Can he afford not to?
Dr. Cheryl Keyes, an assistant professor with UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology, says to study up. "It's a valid concern for scholars who want to give credence to the roots of music. The mainstream [music] industry has been doing this for years, substituting white faces for black or brown ones in the name of commercialization:Think of Little Richard and Pat Boone."
The guys in the Royal Crown Revue, however, haven't a clue; they just play the music. If anything, they're flattered that someone could hear Mugzy's and worry about heartless studio types. Eddie Nichols, who founded the band in 1989 with tenor saxman Mando Dorame and guitarist James Achor, bursts into laughter.
"Man!" Nichols says, laughing again. "I can assure you, pal, that was the furthest freakin' thing from our minds back then. We didn't even know how to play our instruments!"
He's highly amused, thinking back on the underground and punk paths that led to the Revue. "We didn't know jack. I was into punk, but I was also into doo-wop and Sinatra. I knew a little, but we had to reinvent everything. We had no idea what'd gone before. It wasn't until about three years later, when we started actually researching, that we started to learn [about the history]."
The band had the usual uphill struggle, starting out as as something Nichols calls a "weird skiffle burlesque" and absorbing other influences while playing gig after gig. The Revue gradually picked up steam, signing to Warner Brothers early last year and appearing in The Mask, playing "Hey, Pachuco!" off of Mugzy's Move.
And the sociology? "When you live in L.A., it's all around you," Nichols says. "I was there for the [Rodney King] riots. I know what goes on."
"Most people hear 'zoot suit' and they think of Cab Calloway," adds trumpeter Scott Sheen, "so it's kind of a history lesson, but we look at it as fun."
"We didn't plan to [arrive] here," explains Dorame, who grew up in Watts and has played the juke joints of East L.A. almost since childhood. "We just grew here." Dorame confesses to not having contemplated the sociology of the band before, but he thinks it's interesting, and he's glad someone's considering such things. In that vein, he suposes that the Revue "...revives the forgotten [and] lets people know where they come from...and that things haven't changed that much."
Neither are things reducible to yes/no certainties, according to Douglas Monroy, a sociology professor at Colorado College whose uncle was a pachuco until he was drafted. "The pachuco is a symbol, and there is no one way of seeing a symbol...The pachuco stood for defiance, both of the dominant culture and of the traditional culture [of his parents]."
Monroy isn't too focused on color issues. When asked if he's Chicano, he replies, "Yeah, like that makes me an expert?" in an unmistakably tired tone. He finds the line between affirmation and affectation as ill-defined as anyone, finally employing an oxymoron in an attempt to express the ineffability of such distinctions: "It's like a very fine line that is also very fuzzy. It's tricky. A band like Los Lobos have the heritage to back up their act; someone else doing exactly the same thing might not be able to pull it off." In the end Monroy finds the pachuco a vessel; anyone can use him. "It's like the [early] Beatles and Rolling Stones co-opting working-class [music and attitude]; the defiance of the pachuco is the defiance of rock 'n' roll."
Dr. Keyes doesn't feel like the audience or the act should worry overmuch about such issues. Legitimacy is like pornography: You know it when you see (or hear) it. "Individual artists' validity is determined by the community," she says. "If you're of it, welcomed and appreciated by it, [you're] valid. The problem comes when commercial success becomes the only validator."
Although commercial success is a validator that the Royal Crown Revue would love to land on the happy side of, Nichols does not define the band so narrowly. "We're painting a picture we started years ago, and we work hard--over 200 gigs a year. We're entertainers," he maintains, "and we believe in what we do: Draw 'em in, make 'em smile, and make 'em forget."
The Royal Crown Revue plays the Velvet E. July 6.
Doosu fans, take heed: The band's Friday appearance at Trees--as part of a multi-act lineup that includes Caulk and UFOFU--will be its last for approximately two months. "It's KISS vs. Doosu," jokes Casey Hess, who founded Doosu with Eric Shutt in 1992. Hess is going into Presbyterian Hospital July 8 for surgery to correct a leaky heart valve that was discovered in the sixth grade. "They're going to repair or replace it," Hess explains. "If they replace it, they'll put a titanium-and-carbon valve in." Although he confesses to a certain amount of apprehension, Hess--who is planning on getting a lot of writing done during his six-to-eight-week recovery period--is looking forward: "If I get the valve, I'd actually tick," he reports wonderingly. "I'd have the beat, and I'd tick, too."
Lockjaw headlines KEGL-FM 97.1's band-a-rama the night of July 4 on the Green Room roof; showtime is 10 p.m. and the show is free...Brave Combo has a new drummer, Greg Beck; catch the new lineup at Club Dada July 5.
Street Beat welcomes whatever via email at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.
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