By Eleni P. Austin
The new Cruzados album came about because one day Tony Marsico’s girlfriend brought home a boombox (remember those?). “I popped in an old Cruzados cassette I hadn’t heard in a long time,” he said. “It sparked things, I got the urge to play my old songs solo and quickly set up a Facebook Live performance.” That whet his musical appetite and soon enough he was writing new Cruzados-flavored material during the Covid shutdown.
Tony Marsico is one of those protean musicians who can leapfrog from one genre to the next, without breaking a sweat. Along with his siblings, he grew up above his parents’ Italian restaurant. All three kids were musical from the jump. Tony started on bass, Frank played drums and their sister Patty had a squeezebox she wore on her chest, long before The Who fetishized such behavior.
Tony made his bones playing in the usual cover bands and relocated to Los Angeles just as the Punk Rock was gaining a foothold. The scene was as sprawling and diverse as the city itself. Bands like X, The Weirdos, The Germs and Fear began making a name for themselves in dingy clubs like The Masque, Madame Wong’s and The Music Machine. Alongside them were The Plugz.
Tito Larriva (vocals/guitar) and Charlie “Chalo” Quintana (drums) formed The Plugz (sometimes known as Los Plugz), in 1977. Along with The Zeros, they were one of the first Latino Punk bands in L.A. By the time Tony hit town they had released their debut, Electrify Me. Tito and Chalo connected with him just as The Plugz original bassist quit. So, he stepped in and guitarist Steven Hufsteter completed their new line-up.
Their sophomore effort, Better Luck was released in 1981 and received rave reviews and respectable sales. Pretty soon the band contributed a couple of indelible songs for the soon-to-be cult classic film, “Repo Man,” starring Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton. Not long after that The Plugz were playing a gig at the Music Machine when none other than Bob Dylan caught their set and became an ardent fan. He invited the four-piece to his Malibu estate to play music with him. Sometimes jam sessions lasted days. When Bob agreed to perform on “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1984, it was The Plugz that backed him for an incendiary three-song set.
By the mid ‘80s, Punk Rock was being edged out of the L.A. scene by Hair Metal groups like Motley Crue, Poison and Ratt. X had already outgrown the narrow confines of Punk and were filtering Country, Blues and Folk into their sound. Bands like The Blasters had been accepted at Punk clubs, even though their inspirations hewed closer to the Blues and Folk. Los Lobos took it a step further, honoring their Mexican heritage by including traditional Nortenos and Corridos into their high-voltage sets. That confluence of styles appealed to Tito, Chalo, Tony and Steven. Soon enough they ditched The Plugz moniker and became The Cruzados.
They began honing their sound around town and record labels took notice. They inked a deal with EMI Records and actually made an album, but it was shelved during a regime change at the label. Relocating briefly to New York City, they played at the venerable Punk club, C.B.G.B.’s. Back in Hollywood they organized a showcase at Club Lingerie. Arista head honcho Clive Davis was in the audience and signed the band. At that point, the label was best known for milquetoast acts like Barry Manilow and Air Supply. But Clive earned some street cred in the ‘70s when he signed Patti Smith and Lou Reed.
Their self-titled debut arrived in 1985, despite solid reviews, sales were modest. However, a number of well-connected fans like David Byrne, Brian Setzer and John Fogerty began singing their praises. In turn, they were added as an opening act for heavy-hitters like Joe Cocker, Billy Idol and INXS. Two years later they released their second effort, After Dark. Steven Hufsteter had left the band (for love) and taking his place was guitarist Marshall Rohner. Some of Cruzados rough edges had been smoothed over, but the record featured their patented blend of Roots Rock, courtly Spanish accents, and heartfelt vocals. Stevie Nicks became so infatuated with the song “Bed Of Lies,” that she invited the band to be the opening act for Fleetwood Mac’s epic “Tango In The Night” tour. Although the music press consistently hyped the band as “the next big thing,” when that prediction failed to come true, they decided to call it quits in the early ‘90s.
Tito went on to make a name for himself scoring soundtracks like Desperado and From Dusk To Dawn. Steven was a sporadic presence on the music scene, forming his own band Shrine and later playing in Division Men. Chalo formed The Havalinas which made one superlative record. He spent years playing drums in Bob Dylan’s touring band before joining Social Distortion. Sadly, he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2018. Marshall played in T.S.O.L. and Jimmy & The Mustangs. Unfortunately, an addiction to intravenous drugs led to arrests, jail time and an A.I.D.S. diagnosis. He died from A.I.D.S.-related causes in 2005.
Tony’s career has never really slowed down. He’s been a session bassist for artists as disparate as Pee Wee Herman to Willie Nelson and Neil Young. On the road he’s handled bass duties for Matthew Sweet, Roger Daltrey and Marianne Faithfull. He’s played musicians in movies like “L.A. Story,” “Georgia” and “Roadhouse,” He’s also written a few books, recently recorded two albums as half of the Americana duo, Cisco & Dewey and released a solo record. As leader of his Jazz/Swing combo, The Martini Kings, he’s recorded over 20 albums, their music has been featured in television and film. An in-demand live act, constant touring has found them playing for Presidents, Captains of industry and a Kardashian or two.
While he hoped he could record these new songs with Tito and possibly Steven, geography and the lockdown made that nearly impossible. So, he decided to form a new iteration of Cruzados. Reaching out to guitarist Mark Teralgia, he in turn reconnected Tony with his and Chalo’s old Little Caesar pals, guitarist Loren Molinare and vocalist Ron Young.
Signed to the Geffen imprint DGC, Little Caesar’s eponymous 1990 debut eked out a place on the charts thanks to a ballsy-but-soulful take on Aretha’s “Chain Of Fools.” There was just one problem, the guys were less then, um, telegenic. MTV was wall-to-wall pouty, pretty boys, bedazzled in scarfs, spandex, lipstick, leather, lace and hairspray. The Caesar guys didn’t stand a chance. They lost crucial label support and broke up after two albums. But the Little Caesar flame never fully extinguished and the band has remained active on and off since the dawn of the 21st century. Recently, they added Mark and drummer Rob Klonel to their line-up. Tony was hoping to find a drummer with the skills and finesse that Chalo possessed, Rob quickly passed the test.
The record opens with the one-two punch of “On The Tilt a Whirl” and “Across This Ghost Town. “…Tilt..” is propelled by a pile-driving beat, slashing guitars, search-and-destroy bass and menacing keys. Ron’s whiskey-soaked rasp wraps around lyrics that equate falling in love to a carnival ride; “Hold tight, round and round we go, feel the fire my dead-end girl/Tonight all the dreams that you sow, come alive on the tilt-a-whirl.” Guitars crash and drums thunder on the break, bass lines navigate the circumference of the melody, feinting between pounding piano notes. On the final verse stuttery guitar feedback corkscrews beneath the vocal as the song shudders to a stop.
Hot on the heels of “…Tilt A Whirl’s” Bluesy bluster, “Across…” executes a stylistic 180 and sticks the landing. Shimmery rhythm guitar partners with tensile bass, stinging lead guitar riffs, a kick-drum beat and a tambourine shake. The melody is a Countrified, California cousin to Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” as well as the Band classic, “The Weight.” Lyrics spin a spooky yarn worthy of Louis L’Amour and Stephen King. A stranded traveler stumbles across a deserted boom town; “Heard about the saints and sinners trying to strike it rich, living in the devil’s playground, found dead in a ditch, tonight the souls of a thousand men, they weigh heavy on me they stripped the lives of the innocent, in the name of prosperity.” Sandblasted guitars intertwine on the break, locking into a spectral groove that buzzsaws across this phantasmagoric tableau.
For this Cruzados effort, the Latin influences have receded a bit, allowing for a more raw, stripped-down Blues-inflected sound to emerge. That is especially true on two tracks, “Nine Million Tears” and “Long Black Car.” The former has a Garage Rock urgency powered by souped-up guitars, vroom-y keys, wily bass lines, Voxx-ified organ colors and a batter-ram beat. Lyrics limn the frisson of physical attraction; “Feel the fire, the touch of her fingertips, her desire, the lure of her tender lips, a naked kiss, a kiss of sorrow/A rush of air a blinding light, the final breath up a winding flight, the pain you feels like pleasure” It’s like one of those Penthouse Forum letters set to music! Guitars rev briefly on the break before reaching supersonic heights.
The latter, co-written with one-time Fleetwood Mac guitarist, Rick Vito, locks into an infectious Blues-Boogie that echoes ZZ Top’s epochal “Tush” (R.I.P. Dusty Hill). A locomotive rhythm connects with muscular guitars and roiling bass lines. A Noir-ish narrative tracks a couple in love and on the lam. Their ending isn’t pretty; “When we opened our eyes, everything was fine, felt the cool night air and your hand in mine, looked down below through the smoke and the fire, while the tunnel of light kept pulling us higher/A crowd gathered ‘round the crash in the night, the twist in the road where the moon shone bright, there in the front seat, two faces I could see, when I realized it was you and me.”
This album is packed with superlative songs, but four stand out. “Wing And A Prayer” growls like a junkyard dog. Feral guitar riffs and prowling bass lines are shackled to a punishing backbeat. The lyrics find a condemned man counting down his time, defiant one minute, penitent the next; “I been counting, counting down the days, I’m going out now, down in a blaze/I sit and wait now like a loaded gun, till my time is up and my debt is done.” Slashing guitars bookend each verse and on the break Mark unleashes a torrent of licks that snap, crackle and pop.
The title track is fully locked and loaded. Chunky power chords and serrated bass lines are wed to an insistent Bo Diddley Beat. The lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a sly femme fatale who wields her physical attributes like a weapon; “There’s a cold-hearted woman and she’ll make you plead, she’s gonna make you beg, she’s gonna make you bleed, she’ll make you drop down to your knees, and make you lose all reality.”
The action slows briefly for “Sad Sadie.” Chiming acoustic notes lattice over ringing electric riffs, burnished piano and weepy pedal steel. While Sadie’s pain is real, it’s source remains elusive; “It was a two-lane bumpy highway that led you to heartache, and you just cry now in a river of tears, enough to make the levee break.” Tony’s old friend, John Doe, lead vocalist of X, adds some plaintive harmonies to this lonesome lament. “Let Me Down” is another “you done me wrong” song, but the pathos is leavened by a crisp melody and combustible arrangement. Prickly guitars are matched by flinty bass and a walloping rhythm. Ron’s vocals are suitably morose as he unspools this sad-sack saga; “You left the backdoor open with a note up on the bed, reminding me that what we had is over and dead, you even left the cupboards bare not even a crust of bread, I’ve been dying inside this house of hell, just hanging by a thread.” Luckily Dave Alvin lightens the mood with a whipsaw guitar solo and Los Lobos’ own David Hildalgo is also on hand, providing some conjunto-flavored accordion.
Other interesting songs include the punchy “54 Knockouts” and the gutbucket see-saw of “Son Of The Blues,” the album closes with “Rock The Boat.” If it were possible for Blues great Billy Boy Arnold and Psychedelic Pop Rocker Tommy James to have a musical love child, it might sound like “Rock The Boat,” as it lands somewhere between “I Wish You Would” and “Hanky Panky.” Anchored by sidewinder guitars, smoky harmonica, and lanky bass lines, Rob rides the hi-hat atop a hard-charging backbeat. Lyrics flip the script on Noah’s apostolic origin story; “40 days and 40 nights, the rain came down with all it’s might, God told Noah to build a boat, get two chickens and get two goats/He said get some rum and hold on tight, it’s gonna be a hell of a night, listen now or you won’t get far, get some drums and two guitars.” If you’re thinking that maybe this was how Yacht Rock was invented, well, you’d be wrong. Guitars and harmonica careen from port to starboard, bow to stern and it’s all hands on deck. “Tonight we we drink, tonight we stand, full speed ahead, turn up the band.” It’s a rollicking end to a great record.
Along with Messrs. Alvin, Doe and Hidalgo, several well-known pals added their talents. From Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin, ex-Graces vocalist Gia Ciambotti, Buck Johnson (Aerosmith, Hollywood Vampires) on keys, and Janelle Frese on percussion, to Greg Kuehn (T.S.O.L., Bob Dylan) on piano, Bill Maresh (Dwight Yoakam) on pedal steel, Melanie Vammen (formerly of the Pandoras and the Muffs) on organ and Jimmy Z. (Eurythmics, Tom Petty, Dr. Dre) on harmonica.
She’s Automatic is carpe diem music. Tony Marsico has seized the day, and along with Ron, Loren, Mark and Rob, he’s recalibrated the Cruzados sound. This is full-throttle, 21st century Roadhouse Rock. Somewhere Chalo and Marshall are smiling.