It’s a bizarre tale involving the importing of an entire Russian orchestra after the end of the Cold War, and fans who acted like guerrilla warriors, fighting in DIY style to establish a beachhead for their music amid the techno, disco and ranchero.
It also involves Mercedes Quinonez, who had tried all her life to find classical voice instruction in Tijuana, only to find it too late, when she was 51. A poignant tale that I’ll never forget. (See photo below.)
Today, opera and classical music are part of the town. Growing from it all, there are today youth orchestras in some of the toughest barrios in Tijuana. (Listen to a radio story I did for LA’s radio station KCRW.)
Opera in Tijuana struck me as completely out of place with the city’s fame and reputation as a town of sin and late-night drunkenness.
But I took opera as a sign of how the town was evolving, with a middle class, an optimism, and an energy — the three of which were hard to find in combination in cities in other parts of Mexico.
That’s why I’ve spent so much time paying attention to it.
Many years ago I also did a report for NPR with my Mexico City colleague Franc Contreras about the phenomenon in Tijuana, which you can listen to here.
There’s also an annual Opera Street Festival in July that is a fantastic event, taking place 150 yards from the border wall, in Colonia Libertad, a place known more for its immigrant smugglers and the artisans who make Tijuana’s plaster Mickey Mouse statues.
Jo Martin is a retiree from the corporate world who now removes tattoos from the skin of people for whom the inked hieroglyphics mark lives of addiction and crime they are trying to escape.
I met Martin when I was recently in Northern Kentucky.
A few years ago, with her children grown, Martin was tutoring jail inmates, most of whom were repeat offenders and long-time drug addicts. A friend told her about a priest in Los Angeles working with gang members.
Father Greg Boyle had begun Homeboy Industries, which offered paths out of gang membership, the friend said. Boyle was speaking at a university in Ohio, so Martin went to see him.
She was especially taken by Homeboy’s tattoo removal service, she told him. Every jail inmate she tutored had them, and the stains were impediments not just to them getting work and renting apartments, but in fully leaving behind a damaging way of life.
Some part of why people remained in addiction seemed to have to do with their tattoos, she said. The markings served to keep them mired in crime and drugs, pulling them back even when their intentions were good. Removing the ink, on the other hand, seemed to imply a commitment from which there was no turning back.
She emailed Boyle later to find out more. “Come to California,” he wrote back. She went, toured Homeboy Industries and saw the organization’s tattoo removal operation.
She returned to Northern Kentucky and formed a tattoo-removal nonprofit, Tattoo Removal Ink. Using the life insurance her late husband had left her, she spent $55,000 on a laser machine – an Astanza Duality – that removes tattoos of black and red ink.
Astanza sent people to train Martin in using the machine. “Never in my life had I touched a laser,” Martin told me. “None of us knew how, but it’s very doable. To practice, we did a whole bunch of people who weren’t incarcerated, charging them nothing.”
In 2016, from a small office, Martin and two nurses began removing tattoos of those leaving the jail where she used to tutor – with particular emphasis on those on the face, neck and hands, as well as the markings of gang membership, and the tattoos pimps apply to brand their prostitutes.
Soon she began to see the bizarre – the man with a Hannibal Lecter mask tattooed across his lower face. Another with a dotted line tattooed down the middle of his face, with one side of his face clean, then other mightily tattooed.
“We take a lot of swastikas off,” she said. “And teardrops.”
I don’t go in for nostalgia much. The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, for example, seems a sad place to end up because it means you and what you created are antiques, dead.
So last night, when I went to the resurrection of The Palomino nightclub (for one night only) in the San Fernando Valley, I was wary.
The Palomino, until its closing in 1995, was part of the roiling, ethnically based music scenes that spawned in Los Angeles in the decades before the Internet and changes in the music industry and club world made such conglomerations rare.
Music is created in a time and a place by people from both and eventually they all pass, and only the records remain, which I figure is good enough.
The excuse for last night was to hold a benefit for a new pop-art museum – Valley Relics. Really, though, it was a chance to remember.
But instead of wallowing in the past, a dozen or more singers showcased the beauty of the music created at The Palomino. True, there were a few too many speeches about how great things were back when. But what I’ll take with me is a raw and simple sweetness, intensity, and longing in the music that I don’t associate with oldies, nostalgia shows.
Three monster backup bands, including one led by guitarist James Intveld, who got his start at The Palomino, were worth paying to see by themselves; his band included the tremendous Marty Rifkin on pedal steel.
Last night, I was finally able to see Rosie Flores, who rocks as hard as anyone. Jim Lauderdale was impeccable and has a voice that, if anything, has improved with age. I first heard him on an anthology album called A Town South of Bakersfield that I found sometime in the early 1990s and was my introduction to L.A. country music.
Most unexpectedly, Gunnar Nelson, of the heartthrob band Nelson, and son of TV-teen-idol-turned-country-act Rick Nelson, showed up to play a Dylan song and two by his late father. He told the story behind his dad’s hit, “Garden Party,” which Rick Nelson wrote after playing a Madison Square Garden oldies show, only now he was playing hippie country music and the crowd hated it. He wrote the song and its chorus (“You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”) in response. Never knew that story. The song took on a power and poignancy I’d never associated with it until his son played it.
(I’ll admit to not knowing until today that Intveld’s brother, Rick, played in Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and both were killed when the band’s plane crashed in Texas in 1985.)
A slide show on a wall reminded us that the great days of The Palomino were the 1970s and into the 1980s. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Those were great years for music scenes in L.A., and thus for the clubs where they found their legs.
In the late 1970s, legions of white punks in Hollywood created their own scene, complete with clubs but also halls rented for DIY shows. That was followed in the mid-1980s by black kids from Compton creating beats in their garages on SP 1200 drum machines, birthing gangsta rap. Not long after that, the narcocorrido scene emerged in the newly forged Mexican-immigrant enclaves of South Gate, Bell, Huntington Park, Lynwood southeast of L.A., growing from the music of Chalino Sanchez, who was murdered in 1992.
All of these had in common a lot of young folks who were initially ignored by the recording industry and mainstream radio, and who thus learned to make their own records and promote them on their own, selling them in swap meets and outside shows.
Meanwhile, out on Lankersheim in the then-largely white San Fernando Valley, The Palomino attracted huge stars of country music – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Tom T. Hall, Marty Robbins, Kris Kristofferson. But the club was also a magnet for young musicians who came to LA from all over to play country music. Some of the best country music in America was created there.
The Palomino offered what all music scenes must have: A venue for young artists and bands to aspire to, a place to hone, to be heard and discovered. Dwight Yoakam was an opening act there. The club was also a hangout for young actors and stuntmen in the film industry.
So last night was a good night. In the end maybe I was affected by some bit of nostalgia. The night made me yearn for the days when I was going to the Hong Kong Café and watching the Germs, the Plugz and the Go-Gos on the same small stage. (I think I once went to The Palomino – can’t remember any more – but I do know that back then a trip to the 818 was, for me, almost like a trip to another country, so it didn’t happen much.)
Today, from what I can see, the era of the L.A. music scene is largely dead. My take is that the Internet has made music so easy to create that the industry has fragmented into a million little pieces and no sufficiently large critical mass of fans, clubs, and media attention can form around a small group of artists doing daring new stuff.
Plus record stores, where like-minded fans and musicians often met, are all gone.
Everything’s so diffuse. Listen to KCRW and you rarely hear the same band twice – they just cascade by, their names quickly forgotten.
I’m sure someone will correct me on this. Maybe I’m not paying as much attention as I used to.
But going out to dive clubs where daring music is played doesn’t seem quite the thing to do that it once was. Without the clubs as centers of community where fans can see musicians and musicians can improve – like, in their day, the Hong Kong Café, El Parral, and The Palomino – it’s hard to imagine that kind of musical effervescence repeated.
New stuff will come along, but it seems unlikely it will be forged in the same kind of community that LA made possible for so long.
A couple weeks ago I was in the Midwest, speaking about Dreamland.
I decided to add a couple days to the trip to spend more time in places where I was visiting than I’ve done in the past.
First stop was Whitehall, a town of about 18,000, next to the airport in Columbus, Ohio.
I got there a little early because I wanted to see a new idea the town had instituted.
Whitehall Fire Department has established its firehouse as a Safe Station – meaning that addicts can come by, no questions asked, and will be shuttled to treatment. This has been tried by police departments elsewhere, but in Whitehall they decided on the fire department, believing that most folks would be more at ease there than showing up to talk to police.
The idea had been in place about six weeks and 54 people had made use of it. Whitehall being part of the Columbus metro area, the vast majority of Safe Station drop-ins are not from the town.
One fellow who dropped by was Matt, who grew up in a fairly difficult family but in a middle-class town nearby. He played football, baseball, basketball in high school. In his town, sports were it, he said. Young men got their identity from their participation, or stardom, in sports.
Readers of Dreamland may feel where this is going.
Our national opiate-addiction epidemic is different from other American drug scourges for many reasons.
It’s the deadliest and the most widespread. It didn’t begin with drug mafias, but through the promotion of narcotic painkillers by pharmaceutical companies to doctors, who were pressured by we Americans, demanding an easy solution
to our pain.
But the epidemic is also remarkable for whom it has forced to its frontlines.
Librarians make up one such group.
I’m in Ohio this week, speaking at four regional conferences of librarians around the state. Today was Gallipolis — pop. 3500, in rural Gallia County, along the quiet, majestic Ohio River.
I stayed after my talk to listen to a panel made up of a university librarian, an elementary school librarian, and a public librarian talking about their experiences with this epidemic.
We heard about needles in the bushes, about how a child who lives in a drug house smells, about calling 911 because a customer had overdosed in a bathroom, about the look of some people who come into the library high. The epidemic has made danger zones of innocuous public places.
One school librarian, I was told, suspects two girls at her school are being abused. They come to school smelling badly. She takes their clothes home and washes them.
I was also struck by the stories many in the audience (80 people or so) had to tell about addiction in their families. Several librarians were raising their addicted relatives’ children.
Librarians are also perfectly poised, though, to be great catalysts for change – community organizers in the fight against this plague. That’s what I believe. They have the spaces, the local trust and credibility, and often small towns need folks like librarians to bring them together — and this is happening.
As I said to the group I spoke to, who better than purveyors of the book to be the leaders in this fight.
Plus, librarians are looking for new roles to play – rebranding libraries as community centers, places where people can come together. This catastrophe is offering libraries and librarians that moment to reinvent themselves towns and counties.
In the afternoon, I drove through the pristine southern Ohio farmland – white houses, white churches, silver siloes, blue sky, and acres of green corn.
I stopped at the Dairy Queen in Washington Court House, another small town with a bunch of opiate addiction problems.
Tomorrow Dayton – then Findlay and, finally, Twinsburg.
Next week I speak in Weber County, Utah, and after that Brunswick County, North Carolina.
All frontlines in America’s epidemic of opiate addiction.
“Always Be Closing” is the motto that salesmen live by in the movie/play Glengarry Glen Ross.
If you haven’t seen the movie, do so. It’s great: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alex Baldwin, Kevin Spacey. It’s about an office of desperate sales guys hawking shady real estate investments. ABC — “Always Be Closing” — is the way each is supposed to approach every sales call.
The suit was filed in May by the office of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. It alleges a lot of things, but in general that Purdue used deceptive marketing practices to push its signature drug, OxyContin. This took place, the suit alleges, between 2009 and 2012, well after the company and three of its executives pleaded guilty (in 2007) to a federal misdemeanor of false branding and paid a $634 million fine, while also committing to a series of measures to ensure they were not marketing to doctors who were prescribing unscrupulously.
The company moved to seal the lawsuit, but a judge in Knoxville recently decided against that idea, allowing the office to send me, and others, a copy.
In general terms, what I find interesting the lawsuit is how it displays the changes in pharmaceutical sales in this country, much of that coming during the life of OxyContin, though not due to it.
Up to the mid-1990s, drug salesmen in the United States were usually older men, often with backgrounds in pharmacy or medicine. They were often from the communities they sold to, knew the doctors they sold to, and became credible sources of information for those same doctors as medicine began to change rapidly.
Then the industry went another route. Those older folks were shown the door. In what can be called a sales force arms race, drug companies hired more and more reps. These reps were usually much younger, very good looking. They didn’t know much about they were selling but they have backgrounds in sales. They inundated doctors with visits and giveaways, of pens, calendars, lunch, sometimes trips for continuing medical education seminars. The companies were aware that by massaging a doctor’s staff, the doctor would soon be an easier mark.
Many companies did this. The numbers of sales rep rose through the 1990s from 35,000 nationwide to over 100,000 by the end of the decade. But other companies were selling blockbuster drugs to deal with cholesterol, hypertension and others. Purdue was among the few that used these techniques, and this enhanced salesforce (numbering eventually 1,000), to sell a narcotic painkiller.
“Always Be Closing” was, apparently, part of that push at Purdue. So, allegedly, was mention of the movie. All of this coming after the 2007 criminal lawsuit.
In Tennessee, (pop. 6.6 million people), the company made 300,000 sales calls to health care providers in the 2007-17 decade, during which time doctors prescribed more than 104,000,000 OxyContin tablets; more than half of those tablets were at the strongest doses the company made: 40mg and above.
Those of you who’ve read my book Dreamland know that, to me, supply is the crucial factor in this, and really in any drug scourge. What the lawsuit describes is a company hard at work at creating a vast new supply of opioids.
Company instructional materials pushed sales folks to “expand the physician’s definition of the appropriate patient” to which opioids might be prescribed; to “never give someone more info than they need to act”; and to develop a “specific plan for systematically moving physicians to move to the next level of prescribing.”
“We sell hope in a bottle,” said one guide for incoming salespeople, who were also instructed to encourage doctors to increase patients’ daily doses.
The lawsuit goes on to claim that Purdue sales reps in Tennessee were urged to make frequent sales calls, as evidence showed that that increased the number of prescriptions. According to the lawsuit, the company urged its salespeople to “focus on doctors who had more patients, less likely to have pain management expertise, and have less time to appropriately monitor patients on opioids.”
During these years, Purdue sales reps, according to the lawsuit, focused their efforts on primary care doctors, nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, whom the company “knew or should have known … had limited resources or time to scrutinize the company’s claims.” Together, people in those three profession prescribed 65 percent of all OxyContin tablets in Tennessee during these years. By 2015, Tennessee had the third highest prescription rate of opioids in the country.
A major part of the lawsuit goes on to discuss specific examples of Tennessee doctors who were leading the state in opioid prescribing, often with signs that their practice was out of control or they were incompetent or unscrupulous, yet who were nonetheless aggressively marketed to by Purdue salespeople.
After many many months of traveling the country, reporting, interviewing, of writing and rewriting and more rewriting, I just turned in the manuscript to my book about the country’s epidemic of pill and heroin abuse.
It’s called DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.
Comes out in April, Bloomsbury Press.
I’m still walking around in a daze.
Writing a book is a process of discovery, I found again to my delight.
This is my third book. It started out very differently than it ended up.
Quite unexpectedly, it became a tale about the country, where we are as America and Americans, about rural America, the Rust Belt and the country’s nicest suburbs, about what excess will do, and the value of community. About what we lose when we undermine that which gives us community.
None of that should have surprised me, because unlike previous drug scourges this one has permeated virtually the entire country – or at least all of white America.
The story’s about drug marketing, and about our belief that we are entitled to feel no pain.
It’s also about Mexico, and the Mexican town that has devised a system for selling heroin like pizza. Making heroin convenient, and cheap and potent, as well.
On one level, the story’s about Mexican drug trafficking, but it’s probably as much about the impulse behind immigration, and the Mexican village, and envy and desire.
I didn’t start out thinking that parents of addicted kids would be part of the mix. But if you keep your mind open, new directions present themselves. So they are now. I love this about journalism.
I belong now to a Facebook site called The Addict’s Mom, where parents write in daily about their addicted kids. So many have died recently. So many people are wrapped up in addiction or the addiction of their children.
It’s amazing that it’s so quiet, because this is happening everywhere.
Given how hard this dope is to kick, it’s going to be with us for a long long time.
The photos are from stories I’ve done in Mexico, Los Angeles, as well as a brief trip to Bogota I took at the behest of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, to do a story on the girl soldiers in the guerrilla militias.
Above are four of the shots: from a story on the emergence of tubas as the region’s emblematic musical instrument; a group of Mennonite kids at a school in northern Mexico, where I went to do a story on Mennonites’ involvement in drug trafficking.
There’s also Grace, a legendary drag queen in the 1980s who is now homeless, and another of a Oaxacan farmworker in the agricultural valley of San Quintin, which is south of Ensenada, Baja California.
Many more are up at Kaldi — hope you like them….They make great Christmas gifts!….:)
Mennonite one-room school house near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua
Time Magazine has published a set of photos of an Old Colony Mennonite community in Durango, Mexico, titling it The Flower Girls. Check them out. Tell me what you think. I find the photos are sweet, delicate, beautiful, and only hint at the disaster that has befallen most of these Mennonite communities, which have tried mightily to separate themselves from the world.
The Mennonite communities in Chihuahua are replete with severe problems of inbreeding, domestic violence, benighted education, alcoholism, and, in the last 20 years, drug trafficking, particularly in the colonies near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua, four hours south of Ciudad Juarez.
Mennonites came to Mexico from Canada in the 1920s, invited by the government that wanted to colonize the north to avoid further US depredations. Those who came to escape the world were masterful farmers and cheesemakers. But in time they suffered from the same problems as other Mexican farmers: drought, lack of credit, etc. Many in the Chihuahua colonies turned to drug smuggling — some full time and some to pay an urgent debt. I ran into these folks in 2003 and included a chapter on the harrowing result — the scariest moment of my reporting life — in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.
I like the Time photos immensely, but from them you’d not guess much of the reality of Old Colony Mennonite life in Mexico.
For many of these world-rejecting Mennonites, it always seemed to me that their very attempt to isolate themselves made them vulnerable to the worst the modern world has to offer. Many I spoke with described their people as lambs, unprepared for what they would encounter outside their community. Some likened it to Indians’ lack of exposure to small pox before the Europeans came.
I’ve included a photo above of a one-room schoolhouse, taught by a man with barely a bad sixth-grade education, which is how Mennonite kids are still schooled in the colonies near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua. Would love your comments on the Time photos.
I had lunch the other day with an old friend, Zeus Garcia.
In his day, Zeus was like the Michael Jordan of Oaxacan Indian basketball – this in the mid-1970s. He and his brothers and cousins formed a basketball team from their village outside the City of Oaxaca and won tournaments for miles around for years. In the 1980s, they all migrated to LA., part of a large Zapotec Indian migration to the area that really heated up during those years. Almost all of them moved to either Pico-Union or Mar Vista or Venice. (More on why not East LA in a later post.)
Zeus, when I first met him in the late 1990s, was a bus boy and intent on bringing a purer form of basketball to the United States, which he felt had corrupted the sport he loved. He coached a team of Oaxacan all stars, which he called Raza Unida.
Oaxacan Indians are basketball-obsessed folks and the sport plays an enormous role in their lives here in Southern California. Tournaments take place almost every weekend somewhere in the LA area. Zeus was kind of the guru of Oaxacan Indian basketball here. I wrote about him in my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico. I later went to the Copa Benito Juarez in Guelatao, Oaxaca, and watched 7000 people take in the tournament at a small outdoor court in the birthplace of the legendary Mexican president, who was Zapotec.
Zeus is now a truck driver delivering for a fruit and vegetable wholesaler near downtown L.A. He told me his brother, Isaias, himself a great basketball player in his day, last year returned to their village to take on a servicio – a public job that is unpaid and that each member of an Indian village must do if he wants to remain in good standing. Some who’ve refused have had their lands taken. Zeus was full of stories of how folks back home seemed from another world to Isaias, mired in gossip and unwilling to try new things or work hard.
This is the story of many Mexican villages, seems to me. The ones with the drive and gumption leave. Those left behind depend on the dollars sent down from El Norte, and the result is a kind of welfare dependency that drives a lot of returning immigrants nuts.
I may do that story. Keep you apprised as it goes along.
Photos: Zeus Garcia then and in 1999, and two shots of village teams from the Copa Benito Juarez.