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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Urban Ink Magazine covers Tigermask @ Safari Sams

Rebel Beat
The Vintage Ink of LA Rockabilly


LA might be the entertainment capital of the world, but it’s also home to America’s longest-running underground music scene: LA rockabilly.

“My dad always told me I was reincarnated,” says Betty Torres, a petite, dark beauty, explaining a six- inch tattoo on her forearm of the 1940s Mexican movie star, Tangolele.
Betty fell in love with Tangolele when she was four years old. Plopped down in front of the TV, Betty became mesmerized by the sultry dancer whenever she appeared in the reruns of movies from Mexico’s “Golden Era of Cinema” played on the Spanish language TV station in Hawaiian Gardens, California.  Once the hypnotic Tangolele appeared, if anyone tried to change the channel, Betty threw a hearty tantrum. “I was so amazed by the way she danced and moved,” says Betty. “Just watching her dance; her body, her hips.” Even at the tender age of four, Betty was destined to become part of the retro-reality of LA rockabilly.
These days, the LA rockabilly scene is part music scene, part “kustom” car culture scene, and part style scene. It’s filled with people like Betty. Strike up a conversation at just about any LA rockabilly show and you’ll find people like Betty, people who seem to have a strange sense of feeling at home in this bygone era. “Probably a lot of old souls lingering around, I bet,” says Betty. LA rockabillies like Betty seem to identify, even from a young age, with the low-fi, sexy retro, boppin’ beats of vintage Americana pop culture; a time of big-bosomed cars and gals with nice headlights, the smell of vinyl, the rumble of a hot rod.  While you might be bragging about the tune you downloaded to your iPod yesterday, these misfits are bragging about scoring an autograph on their 78 vinyl.  Then they’ll whip it out and play it for you. No fussy collectors here, no, it’s part of the lifescape.
Even 20 years into her infatuation with Tangolele, Betty’s adoration hadn’t waned. At 23 Betty had a portrait of the sexy Mexican dancer inked on her arm.  This was back in the day when tattoos were only seen in Hawaiian Gardens on gangsters, but Betty was ready to use her body to make a statement; “Everybody’s gonna see my arms for the rest of my life. I want people to see what I’m about.”
Betty’s first tattoos (including her Tangolele portrait) were done by popular LA inker, Real. However, Betty also used an up-and-coming female artist named Kat Von D (then 17 and working at Bluebird Tattoo in Pasadena). Of her fellow Latina Betty says, “She’s a good artist. She’s made something of herself, I’m proud of her.”
Betty, a single mom and part time model, fiercely defends her vintage hero Tangolele who, although now 60, still stars in Mexican soaps. “She still has a hot-ass body. There’s no one else like her.” This devotion to old school artists typifies LA rockabillies and their ink. So to find ink that celebrates an obscure 1940s Mexican star on the arm of a pretty young model outside a club on Sunset Boulevard should explain why the obscure culture of rockabilly seems almost immortal, at least in LA.  While other “retro” fads – like swing – come and go- rockabilly just never dies.
Although today the term rockabilly defines a 40s, 50s and even 60s inspired kustom culture scene in LA, the word itself dates back to the 1950s, to a low budget regional music style from the American South.  Rockabilly was the music of country yokels raised on hillbilly swing who wanted to play the sexy R&B of their black Southern neighbors (hillbilly + rock = rockabilly). The strange jump swing hillbilly vibe of rockabilly became an American pop sensation, thanks to Elvis. It didn’t last long as a music craze, but during its short reign on the pop charts, it inspired hungry young farm boys all over the South to crawl out from under jalopies and haystacks, grab a buddy and a bottle of Jack Daniels, and head to the nearest recording studio to make music history. For a brief moment in pop history, their thumping, wailing, hip-grinding sound blew right out of the heat-streaked fields of the South and into the high school cafeterias of white America.
“It was the whole rebellious attitude,” says Dave Gambler of the rockabilly band, Gambler’s Mark.  “First the music definitely, you know that’s where it started. And then definitely the cars and then the style, you know the greasy hair, the cuffed pants, the boots.” And let it be understood that LA Latinos like Dave didn’t stumble upon vintage 50s rockabilly by watching shows like “Happy Days”. “My dad used to listen to Mexican rockabilly when I was growing up, bands from Mexico playing rockabilly, but singing in Spanish,” says Dave. “Growing up as a little kid I used to be like, oh my god, you know, what is this stuff?
Rockabilly is a strange musical genre, a hybrid of swing and blues. It’s like porn: you know it when you hear it. But the easiest way to spot a rockabilly act is by its standup bass. Big, ungainly, and shaped like a curvy pinup, rockabilly’s standup bass is played in a unique way: plucked and spanked. Rockabilly’s distinctive thwackety-thwack evokes the rhythms of its rural roots: freight trains, horse trots, and, well sex.  Yeah, not an emo instrument. It’s crude, sexy and primitive, and takes serious man-arms to play.
“You bop to the music …you’re jiving away, you grab yourself a nice little hot rod mamma,” says Dave. “But definitely out there with a good vibe always…always got your head bopping or swinging or something. That’s what I love about it.”
Back in the day, rockabilly was so wild and untamed compared to mainstream music, it blew the bobby socks off Suburban teens and turned on America like a farmer’s daughter in a low cut dress. Its stars – Elvis, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ricky Nelson – were the garage bands of their day, smashing the big band scene to bits with low budget bands made up of horny, ornery, drunk teens. But the rockabilly craze came to a screeching halt when shows like “American Bandstand” cleaned up the tracks for prime time.  Gone were the sexed-up energy of slapping bass, the growl of the horny farm boy, the hip-grinding R&B of the American South and the lilt of American swing.
Which is exactly why rockabilly fans, just like all fans of unrecognized indie rock, are defiantly loyal to bands that can pull off a pure, roots sound. In recent times, bands like the Neckromantix and Tiger Army have infused the rockabilly vibe into the hipster strains of “psychobilly,” and some roots rockabilly tracks have made it into taste-making movie soundtracks, like when the very, very obscure Charlie Feathers track, “That Certain Female” appeared in Kill Bill (thanks to Quentin Tarrantino’s obsession with 1970s LA rockabilly revival label Rollin’ Rock Records).
But despite its remarkable unfitness for the mainstream, rockabilly, like the pomade stain on your pillow after a hot night with a rockabilly stud, just won’t go away. And it survives even today in LA. Every weekend of the year, somewhere in Southern California you’ll find a roots rockabilly show. And every Easter weekend the annual “Viva Las Vegas” rockabilly weekender, hosted by LA promoter Tom Ingram, attracts 5,000 fans from around the world.
Today LA rockabilly thrives as a homegrown street culture with a kustom strut. On the music side, it's inspired by everyone from Johnny Cash to Dick Dale.  On the scene side, it’s fed by the many pocket barrios of LA attracted for whatever reason to vintage bars, vintage clothing, tattoos and custom cars; a strange orgy of cowboys, swingles, neobillies, and bikerbillies.  But there’s no doubt that the paying customers, who keep rockabilly alive in LA, are the bariobillies like Betty and Dave. And God bless ‘em. LA’s Latinos make the ideal fan base for a retro music scene. LA’s Latinos rock the bar scene, the oldies, the kustom cars, the vintage fashions and are known as rabid fans who devotedly tout their favorite bands all over MySpace.
Take a band like The Moonlight Cruisers, for example.  Everyone in The Moonlight Cruisers has a fulltime job.  Busy with family and work, this band has only released a couple albums in its five-year history. Yet The Moonlight Cruisers remain one of LA’s most popular rockabilly bands. They’re a dream for a 20-something Latino promoter like Brando Von Badsville, who sold out tonight’s 500-seat Safari Sam’s show just by promoting the show with flyers and MySpace blasts. Brando has come a long way. He started his career promoting a “record hop” on dead Monday nights at a dive bar in Rosemead called Spike’s. Now Brando fills Spike’s five nights a week, plus hosts LA shows with his Tiger Mask partner Ralph Carerra. Yet only in the past few months has Brando caught the eye of the LA media. These days they’re saying Spike’s is poised to replace the once cutting-edge LA indie music scene of Echo Park.
But LA Rockabilly remains a rebel, street culture scene, kicking it old school with everything from vintage hot rods to bands releasing albums on vinyl.  In the LA rockabilly ink you’ll see tattoos of vintage microphones and Mexican Day of the Dead self-portraits. And just like the gray primered cars of the rockabilly car shows, the ink on original scenesters like Betty is black and gray. “A lot of people like color,” says Betty. “I mean it's good for them, but I want to keep it old school.”
Don’t expect to see LA rockabilly on MTV any time soon. But if you make it to an LA rockabilly show, expect to see Latinos like tattoo artist “Rockabilly Ray,” born and raised in Mexico City, and now a citizen of the small business community of LA as owner of the Tinta Rebeldes tattoo shop on Hollywood Boulevard. “We’re the number one audience,” says Rockabilly Ray. “Latinos, Mexicanos, en todo. This is the real shit. We have a lot of culture, we have a lot of fucking good music. We’re family, that’s what it is, we’re family.” After 50 years, LA rockabilly is still a street culture, kustom built.  Pull up to the bar at an LA rockabilly show and you’ll still find a bad-ass Latino sporting a nicely pressed gabardine shirt with tattoos bursting out from his wrists and neck like fireworks on the Fourth of July. You’ll still find a gal in a red satin dress that fits so tight it makes her curves look like a ‘56 Buick. You’ll feel the floor bounce under you as the crowd dances to The Moonlight Cruisers, and if your partner pulls you close, you’ll smell the Murray’s pomade in his hair. You’ll squeeze past couples dancing palm to palm and pelvis to pelvis, who are fans of the music and still don’t care if their beloved band ever sees the light of MTV, because they’ll tell you, to their dying day, “the charts are in your heart”.