More than a decade ago, I was getting burned out with American rock. As music critic for the San Jose Mercury News, the bands were all starting to sound the same.
The brief revolution started by Nirvana and the Seattle grunge bands had been snuffed out. Radio was filled with cookie cutter groups like Bush and Limp Bizkit that commercialized what energy was left of the once underground movement.
Rock was nearing its 50th year, but I was thinking it was time for it to retire.
Then someone turned me on to Rock en Espanol, the rock scene in Mexico. I heard the disc "Fin de Siglo" (End of the Century) by El Tri, and the lightbulb flashed.
From the first crunchy chords, it triggered the feeling I got when the Stones were starting out, when the Who were moving up from the clubs, when Nirvana blew the walls off a small room in San Jose, when Led Zeppelin shamelessly crocheted rock and blues together.
This was rock played for pure passion, not for big bucks. I was in love at first listen, and I broadened out to other Spanish language bands, including Jaguares, Liran'roll and crusty Javier Batiz, who taught Carlos Santana to play guitar in Tijuana.
When you look at the history of Mexican rock, you see why it's more true to the roots the 1960s music that birthed the English and American rock of today, than most of the music being put out here now.
Rock musicians were never big stars in Mexico. They never earned the $100 million a year jackpots of bands such as the Stones, U2 or Pink Floyd.
In fact, 40 years ago from Saturday, they staged Mexico's answer to Woodstock, the Avandero Festival which drew 600,000 fans, and rather than open a market, it got the government to shut down rock, ban it from clubs and TV and make it outlaw music. El Tri headlined that gig.
Anyway most Mexicans preferred pop and its versions of country music – ranchero and banda – to rock, which stayed grungy, dark and on the fringes.
Alex Lora, who started El Tri when he was 15, has soldiered on for four decades, playing as many as 240 concerts a year and releasing 44 discs. If rock has a face in Mexico, it's his. He was on the cover of the first Spanish-language Rolling Stone and this year, finally, he's getting his first Latin Grammy, a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Like their English protegees, the Latin Grammys were slow to recognize the pioneers and then they go full bore. The Rolling Stones were ignored by the awards for decades, finally winning a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985.
Lora has been picked to carry the Mexican flag in the Olympics next Summer in London – a long way from his role as outlaw.
However, in the States, they are largely unknown, except by immigrants here. They sell out in more and more cities, with giant followings in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but have also added tour dates in formerly unlikely places such as Iowa, Nebraska, Washington and Minnesota, where ever Mexicans are working hard, which is now just about everywhere.
Check out how crazy the fans are in the video to the right...and keep in mind, their fan base ranges from kids to grandparents, singing along and moshing with every song.
They sell out with little or no mentions in the English-language press, as was the case Saturday at the Salinas Sports Complex.
They don't have a major record label or a manager. They do it themselves, keeping with the old DIY attitude of the punk movement. They produce their own recordings, book their own concerts and even sell their own El Tri mescal and tequila.
A decade ago, I interviewed Lora and had an amazing experience. He pulled out a video of the band playing and I watched him watch it like a fan, not the guy on the screen. He was dancing around the room and he grabbed a guitar and started playing along.
It reminded me of the great scene in the Rolling Stones'movie Gimme Shelter, when they were dancing to a tape of the song Brown Sugar on a boom box, long before anyone else would hear it.
Next thing, Lora asked me to play harmonica along with him, and with tequila flowing, we jammed for six hours, until 4 a.m.
"Tomorrow night at Shoreline, we'll play it the same way," he said. My first live appearance with the band was in front of 20,000 people in Mountain View.
What I didn't know, was that while we were jamming he was writing songs and one of them was a tribute to the fallen undocumented Mexican workers in 9/11, Las Victimas Invisible de Nuevo York.
Lora's songs often highlight the impoverished, overlooked members of society and some of them are calls for them to rise above. He turns the racial epithet, chillango, used to describe the poorest Mexico City residents, into an anthem of pride.
So what's he doing playing with a gabacho (white) journalist? It's a throwback to the 1960s ethic, when music was made for pure pleasure and musicians jammed for inspiration and fun. Go back and look at all the people Jimi Hendrix had sit in with him. Check the history of the Grateful Dead.
Lora jams for the sheer joy of it and I was lucky enough to appreciate him when few other English speakers did. In fact, it was his music that inspired me to learn Spanish and do immersion courses in Mexico, the same way that people in other countries learned English to appreciate the Beatles, Stones or Snoop Dogg.
I always wondered, what if those bands had played in Greek or Czechoslovokian? Would we know them? What would our rock history be like if we didn't?
There's certainly reluctance to try something alien. I had Lora on my KSCO-AM (1080) radio show last Wednesday and I got this hateful email from a listener:
Please enough of the mexican music. I dont care about really shx$@y mexican music. It is not good at all and what is playing right now sucks!!!!!!
I dont speak spanish and I turn to KSCO to not hear this crap.
This Brad Kava guy has to go! For Christ's sake this is a really horrible show.
I DONT SPEAK SPANISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
For me, Alex Lora and El Tri are among the best songwriters and performers in the history of rock, anywhere. I'm glad my ears were opened enough to hear them.