About 40 years ago, four musicians in a high school rock band decided to learn the Mexican standard “Las Mañanitas” to regale one of the band member’s moms on her birthday. Daunted by how difficult that proved to be — they had underestimated the complexity of their musical culture — the young East LA born-and-bred Chicanos decided to frame their Mexican roots music in rock ‘n’ roll and R&B grooves. And so, the iconic, multi-Grammy-winning band Los Lobos was born.
At the core of many of Los Lobos’ magical songs are the lyrics created by founding member, songwriter, percussionist and guitarist Louie Pérez, also an innovative visual artist. Many of those songs, along with previously unpublished poems and short stories as well as paintings, sketches and photos, are collected in a uniquely curated memoir, Good Morning, Aztlán, published by Tía Chucha Press late last year. A companion double-CD for the memoir with versions of Pérez’s songs and poems, Joy Ride, is also available.
Chatting on the phone from Chicago while on tour with Los Lobos, Perez describes how the visual art and the music paths of his life developed practically in unison. An introverted child, he retreated “into his head” at 8 years old when he lost his father suddenly and delved into reading and drawing. Throughout his childhood, he also remembers being immersed in the traditional Mexican music his mother enjoyed and even recalls seeing icon Miguel Aceves Mejía live in concert, at a venue where the artist came out onstage on horseback decked in silver ornamentation.
At about 11 years old, Pérez taught himself to play on a guitar his mom had bought for him. Just a few years later, he discovered Jimi Hendrix and saw him play at the Hollywood Bowl, at which point, Pérez exclaims, “Every brain cell in my head was rearranged!” He devoted himself to rock ‘n’ roll.
Good Morning, Aztlán collects a selection of the fruits of the four decades of Pérez’s writing, drawings and paintings. Pérez organized the book around lyrics rewritten to read like poems on the page, accompanied these with his artwork, and then categorized them into several themes, like “joy,” “love and love lost” and “magical surrealism.”
The results are a lovely and lyrical vision of Mexicano life in Los Angeles, with many of the songs and writings resembling short stories. An avid reader, Pérez notes that he has always been influenced as a songwriter by the short-story format — efficient reading for an artist on the road — and his longtime love of haiku poetry and Japanese literature, discovered thanks to the beat poets and Allen Ginsberg.
Of all the 250-plus songs Pérez wrote, “Saint Behind the Glass” is among those he holds the dearest. The song is about life in the little house where he grew up — where the two beds for two siblings and mom were so close to each other that he describes with a chuckle, “You had to walk sideways in between the beds at night” — and tells the story of what goes on in that room through his eyes.
That song in particular describes the essence of who he was as a child and life in America: “the disappointments and the hope that still remains despite any kind of obstacles that happen in our lives.”
Ultimately, Pérez muses, all art is a journey back to the rich inner-life we have as children. Unfortunately, he adds, society seems to want nothing else but to extinguish that part of children’s lives.
“Imagine a kid who wants to be a musician, wants to be a painter or whatever — and their parents are like, ‘Gee, how you gonna make a living doing that?’”
Yet as an artist, Pérez says, “We never grow up. I’ll finish with this: A little kid goes up to his mom and says, ‘Mom, I wanna grow up to be a musician.’ And she says to him, ‘Honey, you can’t do both.’”