Noché de la Tarántula
By Raoul Hernandez
DECEMBER 22, 1997: Fast. We were going so fast. Racing through the jungle in my uncle's gold Datsun like Spanish soldiers running for our lives. Out on the carretera that runs through Muna, a little Mayan village not far from the ruins at Uxmal in Yucatan, there are no lampposts to light the roads. All you see is what your two headlights throw out in front of the car. My father nudged me, "Mira," he said pointing out into the darkness. "Mira las tarántulas." And there they were, suddenly, hundreds of them -- thousands of them, making the highway come to life. Who knows how long we drove over them -- one minute, two, three -- but when they were no longer in our path, everyone in the car turned back to see them in the glow of our red taillights. In the blink of an eye, they were gone, and the only evidence we had that they were ever there were the looks on our faces. No one had any explanations, but then none were needed. In the jungle -- this jungle, where the earth grows over anything that stands still long enough -- there are always things like tarántulas creeping about.
The whole night was like that. Visceral. Alive. When the sun had gone down at Uxmal and they started the light show (Sonido y Luz) for the tourists, its soundtrack of Mayan voices rising out of the jungle, you knew this is how it had always been here. When the night turned black and all you could see was darkness on either side, you knew you were no longer in charge. All bets were off. It was like the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones finds himself in the Egyptian tomb crawling with thousands and thousands of snakes. Crawling. Slithering. Alive. Sorry, amigo, but you won't be home for dinner.
So was it on one midnight hour down on Sixth Street, on the Wednesday evening in March that kicked off this year's South by Southwest. While most folks were back at the Austin Music Hall watching Jimmie Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton put the finishing touches on another Music Awards extravaganza, something was going on down at Steamboat. Something so visceral and in-your-face, that everyone who witnessed it is not likely to ever forget it. Robert Rodriguez caught a piece of it in Desperado, more in his collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn, but what happened down on the street that night was not something out of the movies.
Remember the first time you heard Led Zeppelin roaring through "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You"? Once a melancholy folk lament perhaps best associated with Joan Baez, in the hands of young Jimmy Page, the song builds on a black forest of acoustic guitars until it bursts apart -- is literally ripped asunder -- by a titanic deluge of roaring Les Pauls. Chills down your spine. Hammer of the Gods time. Well, that was Tito & Tarantula on the Steamboat stage that night (and at Stubb's last Sunday).
For 40 minutes -- and seated in chairs no less (!!) -- this Los Angeles quintet roared like napalm ripping through a jungle. First quiet, then loud, then soft with Lyn Bertles' violin (and mandolin) -- or Jennifer Condos' bass line -- then suddenly guitarist Peter Atanasoff is out of his chair in a half-crouch making his slide scream like some poor animal being butchered. All the while, there's Tito Larriva in the middle, menacing, looking like some Mexican gargoyle straight out of some Rodriguez/Tarantino vampire movie. And right in the middle of all the fire and brimstone, Larriva delivers the punchline.
"I'm from Texas," he says, the sweat pouring down his face. "I haven't been here in a long time."
Ohhhhhhhhhhh. No wonder.
"Hey man, let me tell you," says Larriva from his Los Angeles home nine months later, "I've been dying to go to Texas to play. I've been telling the band, 'You don't know what a real audience is like until you play Texas.' Some of them had played in Texas before, but Peter, our lead guitar player, had never played in Texas. And I kept telling him, 'Pete, you just don't know how they love guitar players in Texas.' And he couldn't believe the response.
"I couldn't, either. I was like a pig in shit."
Oralé. That's what happens when you come home, hombre. Tu tierra. And a border baby from El Paso doesn't quickly forget, either, not when he has a brother in San Antonio and a daughter in Dallas, and most of his large family still lives in this state's westernmost outpost. Not that he hasn't been gone a long time; Larriva says that the Wednesday night SXSW showcase was his first gig in Texas since he last played Austin -- 10 years ago when his band the Cruzados were opening for Fleetwood Mac. Ten years!?
"Hey, I couldn't get arrested for five years after the Cruzados broke up," says Larriva. "I couldn't even get work at Los Burritos. I don't know what happened then. It was the late Eighties."
In the late Eighties, then, Larriva found himself scoring cartoons and landing small parts in films like Roadhouse, True Stories, Boys on the Side, and Born in East L.A., the latter film being instrumental in bringing him and Cheech Marin together. It was Marin who introduced Larriva to another border baby from Texas, Robert Rodriguez.
"We were in L.A. at a fundraiser for Latino kids -- a college fund," says Larriva. "And there were a bunch of Latinos -- Martin Sheen, Raul Julia. And Robert's film, El Mariachi, had just been out that year. I hadn't seen it yet, but Cheech called me over and said, 'This guy wants to meet you.' I met him, Cheech made a couple of jokes, and then Robert says, 'You know, my brother and sister were big fans of yours, the Cruzados.' And I went, 'Wow, cool.' Then he says to me, 'I'm gonna put you in my next movie -- you and Cheech are gonna be in my next movie, and you're gonna do some music for it.'
"I shook his hand and walked away, thinking, 'Yeah, right.' I'd been in Hollywood a long time, and didn't realize this kid was from Texas. And when he called me a year later, to him, it was just like a matter of fact. So, it was off to Texas."
Off to Acuña to film what is quickly becoming a Lone Star legend, Desperado. Hard to imagine playing shoot-up with Rodriguez, Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, and a host of others wasn't fun.
"Oh yeah. I had a great time," says Larriva. "My first scene in the movie is me chasing Antonio down the street with two guns. I think I had just had a steak tampiceña and fries and I can barely walk, much less run, and hold two guns in my hand," he says laughing.
"On the sixth take, I fell kinda weird and my shoulder came out. I had to go to [the hospital in] San Antonio. They had to put me in a harness. Antonio kept apologizing: 'I'm sorry, man. Are you okay?' He was getting me chairs, drinks. He was really cool to me."
Hanging out with Antonio Banderas helps the social life, yes?
"What happens is that women come up to me and talk to me for a long time, and I'm going, 'God, I'm twice this girl's age. Why is she talking to me?' And then, of course, when they go to leave, 'Do you have Antonio's number? Do you know where he lives?'"
He laughs. Larriva laughs merrily about many things, perhaps because for the first time in a long career, his is on the upswing. With the back-to-back success of Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn -- not to mention the nice turn recently in Nick Cassavetes' Penn/Travolta romp, She's So Lovely -- Larriva says it's like winning with consecutive lottery tickets; rather than win $2 here, then go 50 weeks before winning another $5 ("just enough to keep you going"), he's pulled down two $20 winners in a row. And not just because he's getting roles in good films. Try the fact that he and his band are landing songs on good soundtracks -- soundtracks that just might sell a few.
"That's the real icing on the cake," says Larriva. "When we got back from filming Desperado, Robert says, 'I'm gonna start cutting this film. I need some music just to cut to.' So I gave him a bunch of stuff. And then when I went up there, he said, 'I want to show you your scene -- the first scene I shot,' and he had 'Strange Face of Love' under it, and it was really strange to watch my head being blown off while I was singing."
Like "Back to the House That Love Built," Tito & Tarantula's "Strange Face of Love" not only landed on the Desperado soundtrack, it sounded great -- as good as "After Dark" and "Angry Cockroaches (Cucarachas Enojadas)" sounded on the soundtrack to From Dusk Till Dawn. All four songs appear on the group's recent debut Tarantism, which, if not entirely capturing the group's raw stage presence, does capture their sound. And all with the help of Rodriguez, who receives co-production credit.
"We were doing the record while Robert prepared for Zorro," recounts Larriva. "And every now and then, he'd go off to talk on the phone and come back, and you could tell something was going on with Zorro and Steven Spielberg and Robert. You didn't wanna ask. Then, two weeks before we were going to Mexico, we were in the recording studio and he just came in and says, 'We're not going to Mexico. That's it. It's over.'
"I was the sidekick to Zorro, I was the fat guy...."
"I'm not totally sure what happened. The story is Antonio [Banderas] takes Zorro's place, and there's an old Zorro. And the old Zorro has a daughter, and Robert wanted Salma, and Steven wanted a white woman instead. And Robert said, 'But she's Spanish.' There was something about that. He re-wrote the script, where everyone was Mexican and the bad guy was a white guy. I don't think Steven liked that. Something like that. But the script was amazing. There were heads being cut off and blood everywhere. The script was fantastic.
"Then something happened -- whatever happened -- and when it all fell through, our record was sitting there, and nobody wanted to talk to us about it. It was all connected, sort of. I don't know if it had something to do with the film, but it seemed like a coincidence to me that all of a sudden we couldn't talk to anybody. And they kept saying, 'There are no singles' -- you know, all that kind of record company hogwash. And then it sat there for a year and we put it out ourselves."
Mixing new material for the movie he's currently at work on, Isn't It Romantic, starring Lauren Hutton, Rachel Hunter, Kimberly Williams, and Alison Eastwood ("yeah, it's pretty amazing"), Larriva doesn't even pause when I suggest working with la raza must be pretty nice in a notoriously white industry.
"People get scared from a marketing stand-point: 'There are no 'White People,'" he says, laughing as usual. "I'll be honest with you. Coming from Texas, and coming to L.A. and living here for so many years, I never felt in Texas that I didn't fit. Then when I got here, suddenly the Plugz, my punk band, are from East L.A. I must have told the L.A. Times and the L.A. Weekly 200 times, 'I'm not from East L.A. I live in Hollywood. Hollywood. H-O-L-L-Y--.' They even started calling us 'Los Plugz.' I gave up.
"It's different in a lot of places. But I think growing up in a border city -- like Robert -- having eight kids in my family -- he had 10 -- we're really kinda connected. It's just kind of there."
Like thousands and thousands of tarantulas on a dark highway in the middle of the jungle.
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