Out of the East L.A. Barrio Stalks Los Lobos, the Best Band You've Probably Never Heard of

updated 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

When they stepped onstage to open for the punk band "X" at Santa Barbara's Arlington Theatre last January, they looked like a strolling mariachi troupe that had gotten lost and ended up at the wrong fiesta. Four pudgy Mexican-Americans—plus one gringo—bearing Tinkertoy-like box guitars, accordion, sax and guinto, they seemed dwarfed by the electronic wizardry and thunder-rousing machinery of the main act. Out front, 3,000 rock fans—many of them lowriders with orange mohawks and green spikes sticking from their scalps—stirred impatiently, poised to scream for blood, or punk, or God, or life, whichever came first.

No problema. This was Los Lobos, gentlemen rockers from Monterey Park in the barrio of East L.A., where young musicians receive their baptism by fire in late-night band battles in which licks are delivered with all the politeness of a slam dunk "in yo' face." For Los Lobos, disarming a crowd like this would be like taking candy from a muchacha. Four encores and one standing ovation later, the spikeheads were roaring for more home-cooked Mexican folk, raw Texas blues, sizzling rock and black-eyed peas R & B. Forget punk. "It's amazing," marvels lead vocalist Cesar Rosas, 30. "I'm really happy we're fooling everybody."

Not since 1958, when the late Ritchie (La Bamba) Valens climbed out of the same East L.A. barrio, has a group that synthesizes passionate Mexican melody and driving hard rock commanded so wide an audience. After 10 years of scuffling, Los Lobos—Rosas, David Hidalgo, 30, Louie Perez, 31, Conrad Lozano, 32, and 28-year-old saxophonist Steve Berlin, the group's self-described "Jewish Svengali"—finally exploded on the critics' consciousness last year. Breakthrough No. 1 was a Grammy for best Mexican/American performance for their song Anselma. Breakthrough No. 2 was their second album, How Will the Wolf Survive?, which despite modest sales of 135,000 thus far was picked as one of the year's best by publications ranging from TIME to the Los Angeles Times. But the big one came last month, when Los Lobos was named Band of the Year for 1984 in the prestigious Rolling Stone critics' poll, tying the sainted Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band for that honor.

Los Lobos began as a pack of hungry wolves in 1973 in the backyards of school chums Cesar, David, Louie and Conrad, who quit soul and funk bands to play in the acoustic tradition of "norteno," the passionate music of northern Mexico. Later that year they went pro, playing their first gig—a party at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Compton, Calif.—for $2.50 per man. The next few years were nonstop dances and "weddings every weekend," says Rosas—$400 to $600 per, "depending on if we included the photographer or not," says Perez. "For a little extra a friend, Skunk, would take pictures and we'd put together a wedding album."

Not surprisingly, the guys were finding it difficult to advance their career playing Mexican folk songs. So they began incorporating the commercial, electric elements of rock, blues and soul into their homespun material, traveling in a wreck of a van up and down California in the late '70s on the college and small club circuit. The four—all married in the mid '70s, all with cubs of their own—worked as plumbers, gardeners, teacher's assistants, gas pumpers and auto parts salesmen to make ends meet.

In 1981 a well-known L.A. rock band, the Blasters, invited Los Lobos to open for them at the Whiskey A Go Go in Hollywood. Among the thoroughly impressed that night was Philadelphia-born Steve Berlin, the Blasters' saxophonist. In the words of Rosas, Berlin was "soul-vaccinated," and a year ago left the Blasters to join Los Lobos.

Despite their recent successes, the Founding Four still live in East Los Angeles and plan to stay there. (Berlin lives in trendy Venice, because "there're no Mexicans there.") Down-home to the end and proud of it, they still wear blue jeans and T-shirts, drive battered cars, rise in the early a.m. to help with the child raising and household chores, and gather in Rosas' house—the only one with cable—to watch their two MTV videos. "We're now able to pay our bills a little quicker—like on time," says Rosas. "But we're still basically poor."

Probably not for long. With steadily rising album sales, a possible European tour and more cross-country dates than any self-respecting family men need—they were on the road 240 days last year—the question posed by their album is no longer open-ended. How Will the Wolf Survive? Answer: easily.

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