As a central destination for musicians, actors, filmmakers and artists, Los Angeles has more than its share of unsung, forgotten or behind-the-scenes figures who have made a significant mark on the city in the course of their careers. In this category, one of my favorites is Tito Larriva, who readers might recognize if they review their pop-culture consumption over the last couple of decades. For many, Larriva is the henchman or bandleader in several Robert Rodriguez films. Punk rockers may remember his band the Plugz, who contributed a handful songs to the Repo Man soundtrack, including the unforgettable “Hombre Secreto,” a Spanish-language version of the 60s nugget “Secret Agent Man.” Scholars of Latino culture associate the Plugz for their unconventional version of “La Bamba” and their influence on Chicano rockers of Southern California. 80s music fans may remember Larriva from his coulda-been-a-contender band Cruzados, or from his role in David Byrne’s movie, “True Stories.”

photo by Ann Summa

Despite or because of this active output, Tito Larriva gets overlooked because he’s hard to pin down. Is he a punk rocker? Is he a Chicano rocker, an East L.A. musician, or even an Angeleno at all? I think of Larriva as a fantastic songwriter, a singer of emotional urgency with a weathered, virile voice, and a frontman of several great L.A. bands. Frequently cited as the key Chicano musician involved in L.A.’s late 70s punk-rock explosion, Larriva has made the feelings and experiences of Chicanos, Mexicans, and immigrants a major theme in his work. The way his work has evolved in relation to chicanismo, and the adaptations and opportunities he pursued across a still-active career in the music and film industry, highlight the ways that L.A.’s complexity and dynamism make for remarkable urban stories and, occasionally, some great art.



Larriva’s biography, or what I can reconstruct from published and Internet sources (where all the quotes below come from), is a fascinating story. It’s generally established that he was born in Ciudad Juárez, and that his family moved across the border in El Paso by no later than his adolescence. Otherwise, Larriva’s early background remains shrouded in some mystery (for instance, I’ve seen no date of birth for Larriva). From a 2008 interview, he had this to say.

TITO LARRIVA: My childhood was great. My parents were really supportive, and they really helped me decide—or they encouraged me to be an artist, or a singer or whatever. And my parents were very soulful. They loved music. They danced really well together; they were really good dance partners. And this, I think, made them happy that their children, some of them were artistic. They enjoyed that. There were eight children; there were eight of us, yeah. And so I had a really good childhood, no complaints. And having a lot of brothers and sisters doesn’t make it less fun; it makes it more fun because you’re always—something’s happening. Somebody’s always in trouble, or somebody’s always doing something funny. So, it’s good.

This is a nice testimony, redolent of a romantic Latin strain found in Larriva’s music, but it’s also decidedly imprecise. A brief Wikipedia synopsis hints at almost singular background; since it cites no references for this information, I reprint this Wikipedia passageas is.

WIKIPEDIA: Larriva was born in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and El Paso, Texas. As a child he played the violin in the school orchestra and sang in the church and school choirs where he met his wife Janet Carroll. In 1972 Larriva snuck into Yale University for a full term without being noticed. After being kicked out of the Ivy League university, he moved to Mexico City and in 1975 moved to Los Angeles, California.

Who knows how much of this is true? Elsewhere, George Gimarc’s Punk Diaryreports he was playing in garage bands with drummer Charley “Chalo” Quintana, his first important musical partner, “when they were eleven years old and living in El Paso.” If that were the case, then some inconsistencies in Larriva’s biography are apparent. If he and Quintana were both eleven (as Geimarc’s passage implies), and if Quintana was born in 1962 as his own Wikipedia page indicates, then Larriva would have been ten years old by the time he “snuck into Yale University”! More likely the Geimarc quote has the years wrong; Larriva was probably born in the late 1950s and is older than Quintana by a number of years.

In a 1998 L.A. Times interview, Larriva said he studied music, drama and modern dance in high school and performed his own songs in local coffeehouses. “I just wanted to do anything that had to do with creative living.” Apparently he also went to high school with Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. the Night Stalker serial killer who is the partial inspiration for the 1998 Tito & Tarantula song, “Killing Just for Fun.”After high school, Larriva traveled to Mexico City, where he landed a singing slot on a television variety show; this may be the basis for the claim by Brendan Mullen, the late club owner and historian of L.A. punk rock, that Larriva was a “child entertainer from Mexico City.”

Whatever the facts, it seems Larriva was already on a bohemian journey of self-discovery when he came to L.A. (Adding to the storied quality of his background, the L.A. Timesinterview also says “a short-lived dalliance with the estranged wife of English glam-rocker Marc Bolan,” June Child, was part of the reason Larriva came to L.A.) His background would seem to support the perspective of reflexivity, of someone trying to wrest personal meaning and biographical agency out of the travels and experiences that life and family have put before him, that would be a dominant frame in Larriva’s art.



However he made it to L.A., it seems Larriva was soon in the thick of it when Hollywood became the city’s center of punk rock. The Plugz started up in Los Angeles in 1977, which places them in the vanguard of first-gen Hollywood punk. The liner notes on a 1983 Rhino Records compilation, Los Angelinos: The Eastside Renaissance, say the band “relocated from El Paso,” but drummer Charley Quintana apparently wasn’t in the first line-up of the Plugz, at least based on the evidence of the band’s first recording, the 1978 “Move” EP (on Slash Records, the label’s second release — which features Joe Nanini (later of Wall of Voodoo) on drums and Barry McBride on bass. (Larriva and Nanini are also found on the 1978 original demos of the Flesheaters, the band led Chris D.) Before McBride, originally there was Blank Frank, the street hustler who joined the band in their first year, then resurfaced around 1980 with the doomed Rock Bottom & the Spys. Quintana was brought into the fold at the latest by 1979, when the band recorded their debut album, Electrify Me.

Punk rockers of Chicano descent being in short supply in Hollywood, Larriva’s Plugz got pegged early on as Mexican punk, Chicano punk or Latino punk—labels which have stayed with the band’s history ever since. However, the facts are a little more complicated than the label suggests. Notably, the musicians who joined Larriva and later Quintana in the Plugz’ early lineups weren’t apparently of Latino descent; the Plugz’ all-Latino band wouldn’t materialize until 1981. Another confusing association is with East L.A., e.g., the Plugz were “East L.A.-based punks,” in reference the city section synonmous with its Mexican barrio. East L.A. had—and continues to have!—a vibrant punk rock scene that’s usually thought to have found its center with the 1980 establishment of the Vex. But in fact the Plugz were never really based in East L.A. This geographical tag was a way for gringos, punk or otherwise, to get a simplistic fix on the band, as Larriva explained in a 1997 interview with the Austin Chronicle.

TITO LARRIVA: 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 [to Los Angeles], 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.

photo by Ann Summa

The recent crop of oral histories on the early L.A. punk scene don’t give the Plugz extensive coverage, but where they do, the picture they draw is one of the band living and hustling (sometimes literally) in or around Hollywood, like so many other punk rock bands of this generation. The X song “We’re Desperate” (“Get used to it”) could be the soundtrack to this period in Larriva’s life.

TITO LARRIVA: I’d pick Blank Frank up for rehearsals with the early Plugz while he was turning tricks on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica Boulevard. That was how he got his junk. He’d just suck a few cocks and then go out and get high. I’d pick him up there ’cause I knew that’s where he was. I’d pull up to the corner and say, “Hey, Frank, you wanna rehearse?”

ALLAN MACDONNEL: Man, early punk in L.A. was a rough, hardcore street-hustlin’ scene. Blank Frank moved from there to the Canterbury; he was in the Plugz for a minute—then after that he was just turning tricks.

TITO LARRIVA: Danielle’s coffee shop was another one. It was primarily a transvestite had out. For a while, I worked there . . . fed the Plugz there. They’d come in at night and I’d get them free dinners or steal steaks from the fridge. I worked the night shift and I saw someone die at my station one night. This pimp staged a fake fight in the back, and while they were throwing shit, he shot this transvestite under the table with a .22. And she was so high on Tuinols that she didn’t even know she was shot. We thought she was asleep.

TITO LARRIVA: I was in the parking lot of the Whisky one night with Joan Jett and some other people and everybody was sniffing from this bottle of amyl nitrate and Darby came up to us and I handed it to him and said, “Here, want some?” And he just took the bottle and downed it in one gulp without even asking what it was and I guess he hadn’t seen us sniffing it ’cause he immediately went “Ahhh! Ahhh!” Screaming and choking and puking everywhere. Everybody was laughing at him. He was fucking sick as a dog.

No question, the Plugz were at the center of the maelstrom of noise and chaos coming out of Hollywood’s punk rock scene. If Larriva’s place at the center of this has been forgotten, a key reason is the Plugz’ exclusion from the major filmic document of this era, 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization, Part 1.

JOHN DOE: The only regret is that the movie didn’t show the true picture of the Los Angeles scene at the time. Penelope [Spheeris, the director] was very selective in the bands that she chose. The Screamers and the Weirdos were huge bands then. The Plugz were also very popular. They were much more musical and artistic in a a pop art sort of way, but she picked all the really hardcore bands, the element coming out of Huntington Beach, and everybody in the original scene hated that crowd because it was all about uniformity and pointless violence.

DON SNOWDEN: My take [on the early L.A. punk scene] was always more musical so I was far more impressed—no, make that totally amazed—at how on earth Chalo Quintana managed to find the beat to count of “A Gain, A Loss” in mid-drum barrage so his Plugz-mates Tito Larriva and Barry McBride never missed their entrance. Or how the Plugz absolutely, totally, utterly CRUSHED Link Wray’s “Rumble” opening for Public Image at the Olympic.

A definitive gig list remains to be assembled, but the Plugz took part in a number of famous events. On February 17, they traveled to San Pedro to play with the earliest incarnations of seminal groups from the South Bay and Orange County: Black Flag, the Reactionaries (who became the Minutemen), and the first performance by the Descendants. On March 17, the Plugz were on the bill at the Elks Lodge along with the Go-Go’s, the Plugz, the Alley Cats, the Zeros, the Wipers and headliners X when the LAPD stormed in to beat up punks. Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s recalls the so-called Saint Paddy’s Day Massacre: “After us the Plugz played, and that was when the cops came in and tore the place up all right.” On April 5, they opened up for Public Image Limited at the Olympic Auditorium, in what would have been John Lydon’s first-ever performance in L.A. The show was also notable for being Los Lobos’ debut before a Hollywood punk audience, as recalled by their drummer.

LOUIS PÉREZ: We hung on for about ten minutes until serious projectiles began hitting the stage; finally we were run off. They threw everything they could at us. We felt this incredible rush of adrenaline. We had smiles on our faces, actually. It was like, “Wow, this is different.” Most people would have seen it as an incredibly negative experience. We could have just run back to East L.A. to hide, but we were like, “Let’s keep going with this,” while our poor families and friends were almost in tears. Talk about diving right into the deep end of the pool! It was Tito Larriva’s idea for us to play that show, he pitched it to the promoter, and maybe he just thought that this would be funny or something, but it was cool. I’ve never confronted him with it, and I don’t think I would ask him what exactly was on his mind.



The Plugz’ 1979 debut album on their own label, Plugz Records, is sometimes cited as a landmark for the Hollywood punk scene, as it was a visible (the only?) instance of an L.A. punk band of significant popularity adopting the DIY ethos at the level of self-distribution. Otherwise, Electrify Me isn’t mentioned too often as a classic album of early L.A. punk. I guess that’s understandable. The band didn’t introduce an unexpected combination of musical elements the way X did, nor did they have a charismatic, they’re-gonna-start-a-riot stage presence like the Germs; they weren’t musically ahead of their time like the Screamers or visually arresting like the Weirdos and, again, the Screamers. The listener today winces at the occasional artistic misstep (is that a Cockney accent I hearon the line “You’re brainwashed and don’t know it”?) that’s symptomatic of an early American punk band in the shadow of its higher-profile British counterpart.

But as signaled by Quintana’s thundering drums on the opening track “A Gain A Loss,” the Plugz brought a level of musical fire and artistic vision to the punk scene that still sound great today. Electrify Me charges through 11 tracks that admittedly sound almost all the same, reflecting the sonic economy of the Plugz’ early guitar-bass-drum format in all its glory. With their stop-on-a-dime beat (Quintana proves himself to be one of the great drummers of L.A. punk) and Larriva’s surprisingly deft guitar solos, frantic songs like “Adolescent”go toe to toe, I think, with any song by X or the Weirdos. Lyrically, Larriva tosses scribbled manifestos and sarcastic observations from the underground, pausing for an occasional pop-art exercise (the dada vocal of “Wordless,” the refrains of “Do the Watusi” etc. that would have recalled Patti Smith’s “Horses”) or the intimate observation of the title track, which unexpectedly breaks the album’s pace with a seductive reggae skank.

And then there’s “La Bamba.” This traditional Mexican son jarochowas most famously introduced to rock’n’roll audiences by Richie Valens in 1958, but it’s likely the song would have fallen down into the mainstream (white) unconscious by the time the Plugz reworked it. (Los Lobos’ hit-single version would arrive six years later.) The tempo is adrenalized; the song’s three chords are reduced to two; new lyrics (“yo no soy capitalisto”) are added; the usual instrumental section is jettisoned in favor of Larriva spewing out wiry guitar flourishes as the rhythm section catches its breath before each verse. (Scene filmmaker Eugene Timiraos captured a 1980 performance of this song, which still makes the rounds at special showings, most recently at L.A.’s Pacific Standard Time festival.) Signifying chaotically with punk abandon and spanglish hybridity, this is not your abuela’s “La Bamba,” as Latino culture scholars have delighted in explaining:

The popularity of “La Bamba,” both the song and the movie, may signal a small step toward the acceptance by other Americans of Chicanos and their culture. For Chicanos this may mean having a better chance of integrating into American society while at the same time proudly retaining their cultural heritage. In a sense, this means one can cultivate one’s roots (like Los Lobos and Linda Ronstadt have done recently, and Vikki Carr and Joan Baez did earlier), while allowing the tree above to blossom with a new culture (e.g. Ritchie Valens, the Plugz, and numerous other Chicano musicians, writers, painters and other artists).



The Electrify Me line-up put out another single, “Achin'”/”La Bamba”, on a new label, Fatima Records, set up by Larriva, Chicano printmaker Richard Duardo and music promoter Yolanda Ferrer (the source of the initial capital). An anonymously-authored websitegives an undated quote from Larriva on the venture.

TITO LARRIVA: I looked in the yellow pages… and found the Alberti pressing plant. Manufacturing each single cost 29 cents, and sleeves cost a penny. It was a mom and pop organization, with two Latinos in the back pressing records by hand in what looked like a tortilla press. We ordered 500 right off.

[Note: this website also claims that the collaboration of Larriva, Duardo and Ferrer were responsible for the release of Electrify Me. However, it makes no mention of Plugz Records, and I found no other source to connect the Plugz’ debut with Fatima Records.]

McBride left the group after Electrify Me, to be replaced by John Curry of the Flyboys, a Pasadena group whose distinction was to record the first album on independent L.A. label Frontier Records. The new Plugz lineup played a number of notable shows in 1980. One was the March opening of the Vex, where the group headlined over (actual!) East L.A.-based bands Los Illegals, the Brat and the Fender Buddies. The Plugz also had a June 17 gig at the Fleetwood with the Germs, at what would have been the Germs’ last gig before the ill-fated Darby Crash Band. I say would because, as Brendan Mullen notes in Lexicon Devil, the oral history of Darby Crash, “It is uncertain whether [the Germs] played this gig at all, and wether [sic] [original Germs drummer Don] Bolles or [hapless replacement drummer Rob] Henley played drums. No one remembers.”

Having proven himself behind the desk for Electrify Me, Larriva turned briefly to producing other acts, beginning with the Brat’s 3-song debut EP for Fatima Records. Alongside the shared bills with the Brat and others, this production work comprises the basis for the claim by music historians that the Plugz “helped launch the East LA punk scene”—a statement that skirts the issue of the group’s geographical base. Commenting on the scene’s appeal for the many Latinos involved, Larriva has said, “I think the ‘f— you’ attitude of punk was great for Latinos. You could assimilate into a new culture that was evolving without compromising who you were, or having to be segregated.” However, in unfortunate contrast to the Plugz, the Zeros and Alice Bag, many of these later Chicano bands “were instantly barrio-ized by the clubs [in Hollywood] into only playing on East L.A. Nights, except when bands like X used their power and had them open their gigs,” as L.A. punk historian Don Snowden recalls.

Fatima Records was also the vehicle by which Larriva got rolling one of the most important L.A. records to come out of this era. On the Gun Club’s debut album Fire of Life, Larriva produced six tracks, laid down an unsteady violin on “Promise Me,”contribute to its final mix, and gave inadvertent birth to Chris D’s Ruby Records to boot.

TITO LARRIVA: I found Jeffrey Lee Pierce after he threw a tape in the back of my amp, a tape of his band jamming with Kid Congo. I said, “What is this? I fuckin’ love this thing.” I said, “Where is this band from?” I’d never heard anything like that in L.A. And I played it for everybody and Exene [Cervenka, of X] said, “Oh, that’s Jeffrey.” And I said, “Where can I find him? I wanna do a record with him.” She told me he was working at Slash, so I called over there where he was boxing records and said, “I wanna do this record with you. I’ll put up the money.” I worked with Jeffrey for two fucking weeks, on the lyrics, on the structure of the songs, we broke it down. I tore that whole thing apart.

JEFFREY LEE PIERCE: Little did [Bob Biggs, Slash Records owner, who had expressed vague interest in recording the Gun Club] know that my fellow Latino, Tito Larriva, had already arrived on the scene. Recording for the Plugz’ Fatima label, we already had six tracks for our debut EP. IRS Records had been doing good business with EP’s and Fatima followed suit. I also enjoyed the comfort of an all Mexican label, since I was raised by a Mexican mother in El Monte and had spent my entire life in her family environment. I was even briefly in a gang at Valle Lindo Junior High School. I understood Spanish and spoke a little. Tito’s label consisted of The Plugz, The Brat and The Gun Club…. Fatima looked like a good home to me, until the news hit. Fatima didn’t have any money. Then, Chris Desjardins came to the rescue.

TITO LARRIVA: Then I took it to Biggs. I’d run out of money and I couldn’t put it out myself. I said, “Do you want it?” He said no, but Chris D. liked it. We were in the office and Chris said to Biggs, “Well, let me have my own subsidiary label and we’ll put it out on that.” That was the beginning of Ruby Records.



Contender for the most surprising entry on Larriva’s resumé is probably his appearance in “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” the 1981 stage show based on Paul Reubens’ character. Reubens had introduced his Pee-Wee Herman character to a national audience in 1980’s Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie. However, “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” was the first to present Pee-Wee in his signature kitschy 1950s/60s playroom setting, which Reubens developed with production designer Gary Panter, an L.A. illustrator associated with Slash Magazine. The show had an eight-month run starting at L.A.’s Groundlings Theater (then-Groundling member Phil Hartman appears as Captain Carl) before finally closing at the Roxy Theater, where it was taped for HBO.

In the show Larriva played Hammy, neighbor and brother to Pee-Wee’s prepubescent obsession Susan. As their scene together illustrates, “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” had a ribald humor that might shock fans of the children-targeted show, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. No doubt Larriva’s performance surprised many L.A. music fans unaware of his acting ability. Yet the show was very much an L.A. punk undertaking. For example, the character of Susan was played by Nicole Panter, manager to the Germs and then-wife of Gary Panter. This experience not only revealed Larriva’s interest in pursuing acting; it also typified the importance of connections in his career. Notably, Gary Panter would go on to illustrate the Plugz’ next album cover.



By 1981, the Plugz and indeed most of the original Hollywood bands had left behind the generic confines of punk to explore a wider range of sounds, styles and moods. The Plugz’ shift in musical direction was already evident on their 1979 “Achin'” single, which they re-released in 1981 (the single is usually dated erroneously to this second pressing in most Plugz discographies). Also in this year, John Curry then exited the group, and evidently Larriva and Quintana didn’t have time or make much effort to fill his place before they recorded a second album, Better Luck, also on Fatima Records.

As on their debut, the first seconds of the opening song (the album’s title track) announce the group’s ambitions, but the contrast to Electrify Me is stark. “Better Luck” introduces minor chords, a slower pace, and the backing of a South American charango to drive a mid-tempo reflection about migration undertaken for unspecified reasons: maybe economic, political, or romantic. On guitar, Larriva trades in the squall of ringing chords heard on the first album for staccato chording; the addition of keyboards and horns on several tracks further reveal the influence of power pop and new wave. Yet Better Luckis no teenybopper party record. Themes of adult love, longing and heartbreak prevail, and a heightened degree of observational detail sharpen Larriva’s social commentaries.

Better Luck saw Larriva dive deeper into Mexican/Latino musical styles. The main example here is “El Clavo Y La Cruz,” a racous Spanish-language number that draws on norteño dance rhythms, although the Plugz still sound like a garage band here when compared to, say, Los Lobos’ command of this genre. But throughout the album, Larriva explored minor keys and acoustic textures characteristic of Latin American styles. Quite possibly this was at the prodding of his guest collaborators, most significantly the Argentian musicians Gustavo Santaolalla and Anibal Kerpel. Santaolalla is best known in the U.S. as the Grammy-winning film composer for Brokeback Mountain and Babel, and in Latin America for his production work with the cream of rock en español groups, but in 1982 he was an Argentinian musician/producer who had fled four years prior to escape political persecution. Kerpel was another Argentinian, a member of 70s progressive rock group Crucis; by 1982 he too was in the U.S., playing with Santaolalla in a group called Wet Picnic when they joined Larriva and Quintana in the studio. On Better LuckKerpel plays keyboards while Santaolalla plays bass, guitars, charango and co-produced. Another key contributor on the album is Steve Berlin, saxophonist from the Blasters and Chris D’s Flesheaters. (In 1983 Berlin would guest on the Los Lobos EP And a Time to Dance before joining the group full-time the following year.)

I’m of the thinking that Better Luck is Larriva’s best work. I’m not alone in that assessment; Byron Coley included it in his “80 Excellent Records of the 80s” list. Certainly the album expanded Larriva’s compositional and thematic scope as a songwriter and revealed him to be a narrator of fearless, heartfelt emotion. I’ll be forever knocked out by “Blue Sofas,” a simple R&B ballad that evokes the image of sitting outside an un-air conditioned apartment, nursing a bottle of beer on some nameless stretch of L.A.’s Eastside on a hot summer night spent. With its hotblooded tale of everyday adult desire, the song puts Larriva alongside the other great troubadours of prosaic Los Angeles who emerged out of the Hollywood punk explosion: Exene Cervenka/John Doe of X, Phil Alvin of the Blasters, and Los Lobos.


The studio line-up for Better Luck having dissolved, Larriva and Quintana secured a new bassist in Tony Marsico. The new line-up gigged further to promote the new album, but 1982 appears to mark a crucial period of rethinking and reformulation for the Plugz. In 1983, the Plugz licensed their song “Adolescent” to a UCLA student film, Scarred. A fictional tale of teenage prostitution shot on location around Hollywood Boulevard, this largely forgotten film was the first feature-length production for Alex Cox, another UCLA film student who served here as assistant director and “subject matter consultant” (he also appears in the cast as the unnamed “Porno Stud”). It’s unclear whether Cox knew Larriva beforehand or not, but their shared experience on “Scarred” probably put the Plugz firmly in Cox’s mind as ideal candidates to work on the soundtrack for his upcoming project, Repo Man.

TITO LARRIVA: Alex was a big Plugz fan. We hit it off. We’d sit around talking about Sergio Leone and [Ennio] Morricone. We were big fans of their films.

By 1983, the Plugz line-up was expanded with the addition of lead guitarist Steven Hufsteter. Still in his 20s, Hufsteter brought considerable experience and reputation as a songwriter and guitarist for the Quick, a power-pop band out of the San Fernando Valley who was active in L.A. clubs from 1974-78. The Quick had a minor KROQ hit with their fanclub-released “Pretty Please Me” single, but they never managed to get signed to a major label or produce a full-length album. Less well known is that Hufsteter was also of Latino descent, something he only clarified in the 90s when he incorporated his mother’s surname into his professional name, Steven Medina Hufsteter.

This Plugz line-up recorded two new tracks for Repo Man, their Spanish-language cover of “Secret Agent Man” and an original instrumental “Reel Ten”; they also licensed “El Clavo Y La Cruz” to the soundtrack. The film’s production involved a number of L.A. punks, most notably the Circle Jerks; bassist Zander Schloss was given a substantial role, while the rest of the Jerks were filmed in a memorable nightclub scene performing their fake-lounge number, “When The Shit Hits The Fan.” But the Plugz’ musical participation in Repo Man was particularly momentous for Larriva, who described it in 2008as the beginning of his career in the film industry.

TITO LARRIVA: As an actor, I started early. I did some short movies. But in the music business, the film business, composing music, our first film together together, with Stevie [Medina Huftsteter], we did a film called Repo Man. It was a cult film, not unlike the phenomenon with Quentin [Tarintino] and Robert [Rodriguez], but it was a punk movie. It got a lot of attention in the 80s, and this kind of put us on the map as film composers. And since then we’ve been in the business.

Beyond the original recordings, it seems Larriva had some hand in helping Cox select the pre-recorded tracks that would be used in the film and go on the soundtrack album. Certainly, his stature in the L.A. underground scene would have been valuable in securing the consent of the other musicians, like Iggy Pop, Black Flag, Fear and Suicidal Tendencies, whose contributions helped make the Repo Mansoundtrack album an 80s college-radio classic. A 1997 article on Larriva underscores the importance of this soundtrack for the film industry.

More interesting still is the approach to scoring films that Larriva, through the Repo Man soundtrack, helped establish. He’s among the first—and arguably the most successful—to create an evocative assemblage of music pairing archival gems with new releases from little-known bands. One need look no further than the success of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack for proof that this approach has become the soundtrack signature of these indie-feel flicks. (There is, by the way, a website that speculates that Pulp Fiction is actually a continuation of Repo Man. Hint: aliens in the briefcase.) It’s also a great means for monolithic corporations to pad their pockets on film projects all the way around. Even if a film doesn’t do well, the soundtrack may break a song by a band that’s signed to a subsidiary label owned by corporate—you get the picture.

Shortly thereafter Larriva licensed another Plugz song, an alternate recording of “Electrify Me,” for use in the adult film New Wave Hookers. No word on how this opportunity came about, but it’s interesting to note that the film had its 1985 world premiere at Hollywood’s famous Pussycat Theater, which stood atop the old (and by then defunct) Masque club, ground zero for the Hollywood punk explosion. Larriva and Hufsteter also contributed music to Jonathan Demme’s “Survival Guides,” a 1985 TV play starring Rosanna Arquette and David Byrne that was broadcast on PBS on the heels of the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense.

For the Plugz completists, a review of 1984 isn’t complete without mention of their participation in a Bob Dylan session much beloved by his diehard fans. Quintana and Marsico joined guitarist Justin Jesting (a.k.a. J.J. Holiday) as the back-up band for Dylan’s March 22 appearance on the David Letterman show. Several sources report that Larriva and/or “the Plugz” backed Dylan on this date, but the video makes very clear that only the band’s rhythm section is present.

TONY MARSICO: A year before (the show), Dylan had invited Charlie up to his house to jam. I also started going up there. It was great. I mean this is Dylan, man. He’s always looking around for new, young players.

We never rehearsed songs with Dylan—we just jammed and screwed around for hours. On Letterman we did “Jokerman,” “Sweetheart Like You” and a blues number called “Don’t Start Me Talking.” We didn’t know we were going to play those songs until we walked out there.

Dylan is different. He doesn’t want it prepared. He’ll do anything to make sure you don’t know the songs. We thought that was fun, because we’re not perfectionists either. But we know our songs tighter than that.



At the end of 1984, the Plugz left Los Angeles for a 3-month tour of clubs in the Northeast. Frustrated with the diminishing commercial returns after five years of slugging it out in L.A., the group sold all its equipment to pay for airfare and lodging. They returned literally a new band: Cruzados.

TONY MARSICO: We went to New York because at that time we just needed to get out of LA. We needed a new audience. It was the last straw for the Plugz. It was do or die.

I don’t know how we pulled it off. We arrived with no amps, no equipment and at every gig we kept hitting up every band on the same bill to borrow their stuff. We did that for three months. It was the No Budget Tour.
We worked up new songs there and changed our name there. The reception to our music was great. We found new energy doing shows in Boston and New York.

These gigs generated interest from major labels, and they recorded an album in 1984 for EMI on the basis of the label’s expressed interest, but no contract. (These recordings appears in a 2000 compilation, Unreleaed Early Recordings, distributed via the Cruzados’ website.) A January 1985 showcase gig before music-industry mogul Clive Davis finally secured Cruzados a deal with Arista Records. The band went into several L.A. studios to record the Cruzados album with veteran producer Rodney Mills (who had previously worked with Lynryd Skynyrd, Journey and .38 Special among others). Before the album came out, they hit the road to open for INXS and the Alarm—without Hufsteter, who expressed resistance to extended traveling but continued to write, record, and appear in promotional videos with the band (he was replaced on tour by Marshall Rohner).

The Cruzados debut marked another radical departure for Larriva, one that confused or turned off many fans of the original Plugz (not that there have ever been many Plugz fans to speak of). One major change is that Hufsteter and Marisco contributed substantially to the songwriting; Larriva only wrote two of the ten tracks by himself (compared to all but one of the tracks on Better Luck), while Hufsteter wrote three, including the second single “Hanging Out in California.” That said, there’s a general convergence of approach among the writers. The songs wrap twangy electric guitars steeped in blues and spaghetti western styles (recall the Plugz’ early love of Link Wray) around fairly structured songs (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, outro) set at mid-tempo or slower pace; lyrics testify to love, heartbreak, and the occasional allusion to dissolute lifestyles. As this description suggests, their approach wasn’t miles away from, say, the Eagles’ songbook.

Undeniably, Cruzados is a slick album by a band in search of a wider audience that never materialized. It’s easy in hindsight to second-guess the change in direction, but it should be remembered that the Plugz weren’t alone in making such a move. Many other American groups who came out of the club scene in this period with a comparable “roots” sound also released second or third albums that were commercially minded—think of X’s Ain’t Love Grand and the Blasters’ Hard Line, or think of later groups like Lone Justice, the Del Fuegos, Jason & the Scorchers and most of the so-called Paisley Underground groups. Having spent several years in the underground with little to show for it, it’s maybe understandable that such Larriva and other early 80s musicians would be unpersuaded by the indie-rock ethos emerging out of a newly consolidated network of DIY labels, college radio stations, concert promoters and music media.

TITO LARRIVA: I don’t think about it anymore. I used to (during my tenure in The Plugz). There were all these great bands—whether I helped the Go-Go’s tune their guitars or I was hanging out with X, making tattoos at their house, that was sort of the thing I belonged to. After that we were just a band on the road and the punk scene was dead.

In hindsight, what’s more important about Cruzados is how it charts out the musical route that Larriva would follow for the rest of his career with greater commercial success and critical appreciation. With the resources of a major label and a big recording studio at their disposal, the group pursued a highly refined, ‘visual’ sound that extended logically out of the methods of the “Repo Man” soundtrack. When they succeeded at this pursuit on Cruzados, it’s nothing short of magic. The first single “Motorcycle Girl” remains an exciting track now lost in the MTV archives; recycling the syncopated riff associated with ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” the song travels through the revving of a 1937 Indian motorcycle, a chorus worthy of a drunken barroom and two riveting instrumental passages in the bridge and outro, the latter punctuated by a classic Larriva grito. The torchy Spanish-language ballad “La Flor de Mal” uses the sounds of flamenco rhythms and a Mexican string section to evoke musically a sense of place and romantic entanglement tha Larriva would previously have narrated lyrically—the song feelslike Mexican cinema.

In fact, Cruzados introduced a highly original sound for a group trying to hit the AOR charts, and some critics gushed over their “soaring, epic” sound. Others associated the group with a “Chicano” or “Latin” sound shared with Los Lobos. Larriva was ambivalent about this label, as Latino culture scholars have noted.

Los Lobos and the Plugz provide an interesting contrast. Los Lobos presents itself as a Chicano band that performs both roots-oriented rock ‘n’ roll, and straight ahead Mexican and Chicano music in both traditional and contemporary styles. Tito Larriva, however, both with the Plugz and The Cruzados [sic], has insisted that his group should be viewed as a rock ‘n’ roll band. Larriva has publicly rejected the label that the Cruzados are a Chicano band, and does not want to be compared to Los Lobos, who he sees as a “roots-oriented” traditionalist band. There are, however, Chicano musicians in the Cruzados, and the group has explored Mexican/Chicano themes in some of its albums released during the 1980s (e.g., “Cruzados”, Arista AL8-8383). Thus, Los Lobos have forced to look back, to see where we have come from, to examine our traditions, and appreciate the rich cultural heritage that Mexicanos brought from Mexico and that Chicanos have developed and continue to develop in this country. The Plugz, on the other hand, force us to look into the future, to focus on a new musical form that extends, and is to some extent outside, Chicano culture.

I interpret Larriva’s so-called rejection of the Chicano label as a bristling under the crude marketing tactics of the corporate record industry (the refusal of groups like the Brat to go along with such tactics led to their break-ups) but also a disinterest with the aesthetic realism associated with 80s roots rock. In fact, with Cruzados Larriva began elaborating a spectacular style of chicanismo that would become a hallmark of his later work. Take the album cover, for instance: posed in front of an unspecified adobe exterior, the four musicians wear assorted Latin and Western styles of clothing that don’t really comprise a coherent Chicano fashion style. The bolo ties three of them wear on the back cover could signify vaquero, but they just as likely nod to cowpunk groups like Rank & File or Wall of Voodoo. The overall aesthetic, which could be called “zoot suit meets Mission Revival,” reflects a contradictory jumble of style origins and cultural connotations—but, if I can put on my 1980s-tinted glasses once again, it looks great. Or take the “Motorcycle Girl” video, which was probably Larriva’s first experience making a promotional music clip. The roadhouse set design and the extras’ styling reek of mid-budget MTV production values of the era, but it nonetheless makes a first pass at the aesthetic/narrative genre that Robert Rodriguez would do much better (with Larriva’s help) in his Mariachi-period films.



It’s been some 25 years since Cruzados released their debut album, and since then Larriva’s music has obviously continued to evolve. It’s a tough call, but I think the arc of his musical development in the first ten years of his career as a professional musician—using punk’s license to signify as a Chicano musician, finding his narrative voice on Better Luck, and pursuing a cinematic style of music-making with Cruzados—were the most significant in shaping Larriva’s musical aims of the last two decades. The final piece of the puzzle is how acting and soundtrack recording were added to his repertoire of expressive media.

Probably by late 1985, David Byrne offered Larriva a substantial role in Byrne’s directorial debut, True Stories. Tito (a.k.a. Humberto Larriva on some credits) played Ramon, norteño bandleader and resident of the eccentric town of Virgil, Texas; his appearance includes a performance of “Radio Head,” one of Talking Heads’ original songs for the album. The film showcases the comedic ability that Larriva demonstrated years before with “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” but it also suggested a template for his future roles, which typically lean toward representations that draw on his background as Chicano, musician and Chicano musician.

TITO LARRIVA: People see me perform, and they come up to me and say, “I’m doing a movie; you can play the Mexican in it,” or whatever.

The entire Cruzados line-up even appeared as themselves in two films, 1985’s Static (directed by Mark Romanek, who would find greater success as music video director) and Patrick Swayze’s 1989 film, Road House.

Meanwhile, Cruzados toured and recorded substantially through 1990. A recently released album, Live at the Roxy, captures the band back in Hollywood on February 24, 1986, only a couple of months after the album’s release. By the end of that year, they began recording their second album in several studios with a handful of L.A. music industry-proven producers. Larriva wrote or co-wrote the lion’s share of songs, and Marshall Rohner had now fully assumed Steven Hufsteter’s role on lead guitars. The resulting album, 1987’s After Dark, largely abandoned the distinctive spaghetti-western for a more accessible style of Mellencamp-esque heartland rock; Don Henley, Pat Benatar and J.D. Souther supplied guest vocals on a few tracks. “Small Town Love” and “Road of Truth” suggested that extensive touring had given Larriva opportunity to reflect on the Texas life he had left behind, and a new version of the Plugz’ “Blue Sofas” added lyrics and a bridge. Otherwise, there’s sadly little in After Darkthat holds up to repeated listening.

To reach that elusive bigger audience, Cruzados hit the road opening up for the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Billy Idol and Joe Walsh. By 1988, they prepared to record a third album for Arista that the label declined to release. I’ve never heard this material before, but concert reviews from this period indicate the band had moved into a Hollywood metal/hard rock direction. Gigs in this period included an appearance at Farm Aid; no internet sources give the year, but it would have been 1990 if the oft-repeated claim that the band played “This Land is Your Land” behind Neil Young and Arlo Guthrie is right. By 1990, hard living and commercial failure led the band to throw in the towel.



The 1990s started out uncharacteristically quietly for Larriva. He took some small parts in movies long forgotten. He served on a panel of judges alongside members of Los Lobos, John Avila of Oingo Boingo, and salsa musicians Tito Puente and Celia Cruz for the first Nuevo LA Chicano Musicworks song context, sponsored by L.A.’s Plaza de la Raza. But otherwise this was a period of serious decompression back in Los Angeles.

TITO LARRIVA: Hey, I couldn’t get arrested for five years after the Cruzados broke up. I couldn’t even get work at Los Burritos. I don’t know what happened then. It was the late Eighties.

TITO LARRIVA: I was in my PJs, literally, for a year, and was a zombie for two years. I’m constantly doing a lot of different things, and doing the one thing [Cruzados] for so long was too much for me.

Larriva has cited the 1993 foreclosure of his house and birth of his daughter as the goad to musical productivity again. Under the title Tito & Friends, Larriva began playing a moodier, more sensuous stripe of Latin-flavored roadhouse music, layered with acoustic rhythms (including violin) and percussion; characteristically, a rotating group of musicians (including guitarist Peter Atanasoff and former Oingo Boingo drummer Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez) performed sitting down and came unrehearsed, which gave Larriva’s music new space for instrumental texture and solos. These sessions drew the interest of film director Robert Rodriguez, who at the time had just released his first film, the independent hit El Mariachi. Over the next two decades, Rodriguez would be Larriva’s most significant collaborator. The partnership began on 1995’s Desperado, in which Tito played the bar bouncer Tavoand contributed three original songs to the soundtrack, which were recorded by the newly named Tito & Tarantula.

TITO 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.

Larriva would be cast in and contribute music to Rodriguez’s other Mexican action films: 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, 2007’s Grindhouse and 2010’s Machete. The boundaries between his acting work and soundtrack contributions on these projects often blurred. In From Dusk Till Dawn, he’s found on stage leading the members of Tito & Tarantula onstage as the house band of the Titty Twister bar, playing the song “After Dark” as Salma Hayek hypnotizes the crowd with her seductive dance. (Are you confused yet? “After Dark” was the name of the 1987 Cruzados album, but Tito & Tarantula use the title [and the song itself?] for a film released nine years later. At least fans of Robert Rodriguez have become accustomed to the recycling of stories, characters and collaborators.)

Larriva’s work in Rodriguez’s filmed generated visibility and interest for the music of Tito & Tarantula, which by now had settled on a line-up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rodriguez then served as co-producer on the band’s first album, 1997’s Tarantism.

TITO LARRIVA: Robert’s a lot more organized than most producers I’ve been with. He comes in with a little map of what he wants to do that day. It was a piece of cake. He’s real musical, real positive. When it didn’t work, we didn’t waste too much time. We’d throw it out and move on. He’s got a real punk approach to music.

I don’t know if there’s a Mexican-American equivalent to the Italian-American Civil Rights League, but I could imagine many Mexicans and Americans would object to the stereotypes about Mexican criminality and violence in the genres and themes that Rodriguez and Larriva have worked in together. Larriva has offered some justifications suggesting these themes emerge as social commentary, e.g., “I think it’s the bombardment [of violence] living in Los Angeles.” They also provide suitable material for the band’s dynamism and Larriva’s vocal performance; referring to the mariachi music that influenced him as a child, Larriva observed, “A lot of the balladeers take it all the way, until they’re practically in tears.” But such assertion of authenticity should be balanced against the generic traditions of fictionalization and glorification that Larriva’s work stands in (like the violence exploitation films of the 70s) and alongside (Mexican pop-culture genres like the narcocorrida, for instance). As in the formal conceit of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the lurid, pulpy subject matter gives Larriva license to revisit, obsess over, rewrite and revise the themes, motifs and moods of Chicano rock and film.



Larriva has put out five albums with Tito & Tarantula, contributed music to some 20 film/TV projects, and acted in approximately 25 film/TV projects according to his IMDB page. Now in what has to be his early 50s, he shows no sign of slowing down. While his music has probably peaked in terms of popular reception in the U.S., Tito & Tarantula tour Europe extensively to ever larger audiences, and he probably enjoys greater commercial reward from his music than ever before.

Undoubtedly, some part of this success reflects broader changes in the economics of musical distribution. Larriva began recording music as a no-budget DIY operation, then moved on to the realm of corporate record labels that notoriously hold the strings over recording artists with disadvantageous contracts. Through trial and error, Larriva’s generation of musicians have learned how to self-distribute more effectively, earn better royalty rates (always an incentive for re-recording older songs) and secure lucrative publishing and licensing deals via film soundtracks and advertisements.

As in Rodriguez’s films, Larriva’s art across music, acting and soundtracks characteristically returns to specific styles, roles, songs, motifs and collaborators. (In this vein, I shouldn’t forget the one-off Psychotic Aztecs record from 1998, which reunited Larriva with Steven Medina Hufsteter and the former Oingo Boingo rhythm section for a higher-octane, Spanish-language version of what he does with Tito & Tarantula. Hufsteter went on to join Tito & Tarantula for much of the 2000s.) Some fans and critics might be disappointed by this recycling. How many more dimensions of the sensuous, turbulent Latin-flavored roadhouse rock that Larriva has played for the last 20 years are there to be discovered? The music on his albums continue to evolve, but his work will probably never exhibit the great advances in style and approach that marks his albums with the Plugz and early Cruzados.

If it’s easy to conclude that Larriva’s most creative years are behind him, this discounts his crucial innovations in articulating, re-coding and giving new platforms of expression for the musical, visual and narrative codes of Chicano pop culture. Larriva is an unsung pioneer of postmodern popular culture, blazing paths in reflexively revisiting and mythologizing a given tradition of musical and symbolic creativity via the medium of one’s own art and career. The closest comparison to Larriva’s career (I’m surprised this connection hasn’t been made) is Chris Isaak, another canny musician-as-aesthete who has reflexively mined a pop-culture genre (in his case, the late 50s/early 50s rock romanticism of Orbison, Presley, and Nelson) for a career as songwriter, recording artists, actor and TV host. But whereas Isaak can reasonably be accused of what Simon Reynolds calls “retromania,” or pop culture’s addiction to its own past, Larriva comes to this endeavor from a different position as a Chicano artist who can access a longer tradition of revisiting… tradition.

Larriva has been living in Austin now for about a decade, so far as I can tell. It’s no doubt a better place than L.A. for his career—close to family, collaborators like Rodriguez, and audiences enthusiastic for the well-trodden musical genres that Larriva draws from. But Larriva is a quintessential L.A. artist. He was there at the center of the Hollywood punk scene, yes, but it’s his artistic trajectory out of the scene that remains more significant, shining light on the dead-ends and new opportunities of the L.A. music and film industry as it moved over the 80s and 90s from rejecting underground culture and independent production to incorporating them deep within its economic being. This shift in L.A.’s economy can be told in analytical models, but also in human relationships. Contacts and collaboration were essential to the shifting fortunes of Larriva, who seems to have played his rolodex as well as his guitar. Those relationships can be said to have helped build L.A.’s Chicano rock scene of the 80s. They might even be said to have shaped, in their own minute way, the ways we consume genre, aesthetics and tradition today.



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