Mexico City Blues: José Agustín

This talk was presented during the Hispanic Transatlantic Studies symposium that was organized by José Luis Venegas (WFU) and José María Rodríguez García (Duke U) on Wake Forest University campus in April 2012. My thanks to them and to the members of my panel: Manuel Gutiérrez (Rice U), Ignacio Sánchez Prado (Washington U), and Oswaldo Estrada (UNC Chapel Hill), as well as to all who came up afterwards to shoot the breeze about rock and roll.

Mexico City Blues: José Agustín and the New Classical Music of Counterculture

José Agustín (Cuautla, 1994) was Mexico’s original drooling fanatic, an elite category of music listener defined by Steve Almond as “wannabes, geeks, professional worshippers” who are driven by a Benjaminian compulsion for collecting new albums and a Pauline zeal for preaching the gospel of their musical preferences to other people whether they are interested or not.[i] At 23, having already established his credentials as a talented novelist, Agustín took a job writing three articles a week on music and literature for the cultural section of El Día. In so doing, he effectively became Mexico’s first authentic rock critic. While Agustín is most well-known for novels like La tumba, Del perfil, and Se está haciendo tarde (final en laguna), or short story collections like Inventando que sueño where adolescent characters filter their perceptions of urban experience through the lyrics of American and British music, this morning I want to address his nonfiction writing about rock ‘n’ roll. I have chosen this approach because critical appreciations of Agustín’s narrative works have almost universally used rock as a cypher for the holy trinity of 1960s counterculture—sex, drugs, and rock and roll—instead of studying his approach to music as an autonomous category of analysis which allows for the construction of an ideal space for reimagining Mexican culture.[ii] My study of Agustín’s rock journalism borrows from Paul Gilroy’s assertion that, because national culture and identity projects are oftentimes grounded in and constructed through the deployment of popular music and “the broader cultural and philosophical meanings that flow from its production, circulation and consumption, music is especially important in breaking the inertia that arises in the unhappy polar opposition between a squeamish, nationalist essentialism and a sceptical, saturnalian pluralism” (Gilroy 185). To this end, as Susan Manning and Andrew Taylor have suggested, we might appropriate a Deleuzian notion of the open-ended rhizome as the guiding principle for the study of transatlantic cultural transactions, as a place where lives and cultural elements flow across borders without necessarily adhering to the standard routes of trade and commerce that have shaped our understanding of the region. Such a perspective allows us to look beyond the traditional lines of cultural influence that flow back and forth across the Atlantic between Mexico and Spain in order to see other connections or to imagine a new series of spatial relationships that mediate cultural production, diffusion, influence, and reception in the Mexico.

It is this Atlanticist theoretical concern for mapping social, cultural, and national spaces that leads me to think about how Agustín participates in remapping the musical geography of Mexico’s countercultural movement by invoking Josh Kun’s clever neologism “audiotopia.” Building on the Foucauldian notion of heterotopia—or the juxtaposition of several irreconcilable sites of meaning within a single real geographic place—Kun argues that audiotopias are “sonic spaces of effective utopian longings where several sites normally deemed incompatible are brought together not only in the space of a particular piece of music itself, but in the production of social space and mapping of geographical space that music makes possible” (259) by questioning “the one-to-one equivalencies of music, nation, and culture” (260). This proposition is seductive both for its ability to account for the processes that establish affective communities of listeners across geopolitical boundaries and for its dismantling of nationalist paradigms. Within the context of this conference on transatlantic studies, then, I want to argue that Agustín does not simply ape the simplified triune tenets of US countercultural radicalism but rather uses music as a tool to construct an idealized space where freedom of expression, artistic innovation, and cultural openness become the paradigm for resisting repressive forms of political and cultural nationalism. I will suggest that the central article of faith of Agustín’s rock journalism maintains the authenticity and autonomy of national rock music despite its early imitation of foreign models, as if anticipating American rock critic Dave Marsh’s dictum that “rock performers over the past twenty-five years have struggled toward and have occasionally actually achieved one of the most interesting and valuable postwar popular arts, and one that is (for all its British influence and attraction) at best uniquely” Mexican (ix).

Before continuing, a few words about the history of rock ‘n’ roll in Mexico are in order to contextualize this discussion. Rock made landfall in Mexico in the mid-1950s around the same time that the cha-cha-chá and mambo were introduced from Cuba. It was initially composed by adult musicians, performed by large orchestras, and marketed to a middle-class audience as a new dance style.[iii] Almost immediately rock ‘n’ roll films like Blackboard Jungle (1955) and King Creole (1958) and music were censored, coopted, and domesticated in an attempt to neutralize messages of social deviance and adolescent rebellion. But what seemed another passing dance fad in the 1950s was considered a dangerous, frontal assault on the imagined community that was imposed by the time Agustín started publishing. This largely due to cultural tide changes: urban adolescents who felt disenfranchised by the rigid modernizing efforts of the federal government began experimenting with other means of cultural identification and expression. The countercultural movement of the 1960s—oftentimes referred to as la Onda—developed as a direct result of dislocation and return, of crossing boundaries, of encountering other forms of cultural production and refashioning them for the Mexican context. Agustín notes that in this process of going and coming, young people acquire “discos, casets, devedés, que expresan otros gustos musicales y nuevas formas de vestir y de hablar…poco a poco, sin que nadie lo proponga, se inicia una contracultura, o una cultura alternativa, de resistencia, que trata de eludir y compensar la aplastante maquinaria cultural del régimen, el cual, a través de las escuelas y la televisión, de músicas y películas, establece los patrones de ‘modernización’ en el país.”[iv] The Onda, then, originated from an exploration of musical spaces not defined by official culture and offered, as Eric Zolov has argued, an alternative to the familial metaphor espoused by the post-revolutionary state.

Mexican rock in the 1960s came under fire from xenophobic nationalist intellectuals of all ideological stripes who considered adolescent yearnings for the gyrations of Elvis, the antics of Little Richard, and the strutting of Mick Jagger as yet another sign of invasive cultural imperialism. Cultural critics in Mexico laid accusations of being progringo and desnacionalizado at the feet of authors like Agustín, Parménides García Saldaña, Federico Arana, and an early Gustavo Sainz for what they perceived to be rejections of Mexican icons and institutions, and preferences for American music, customs, and culture. At the heart of critical opposition to Mexican rock counterculture is the matter of authenticity: Monsiváis perceived the musical tendencies of the Onda as depoliticized derivations of foreign cultural trends that were artificially substituted for a rich homegrown cultural heritage and Antonio Jiménez—largely taking cues from Monsiváis—has recently argued that the countercultural movement, as the product of American cultural invasion, effectively eroded its political potential for societal change by adopting passive notions about love and peace from the American hippies and became a pacifying partner of global capital.[v]

Within this context of transnational experimentation and on the eve of the Tlatelolco massacre, Agustín published Mexico’s first book of rock criticism, The New Classical Music.[vi] It was a singular work for its time: no professional popular music criticism had yet developed in the rather austere climate of official artistic culture. He was not oblivious to the presumption implicit in his book’s title because he recognizes in the opening lines that “El título de este libro es una exageración”, that it should have been “una nueva forma de la música clásica, o algo así, más cercano a la objetividad”, but that rock nevertheless constitutes an honest, meaningful, and revolutionary aesthetic experiment that has earned accolades from luminaries like Leonard Bernstein.[vii] Taking this high praise from recognized authorities, coupled with interdisciplinary studies from all over the world, as the rationale for his study, Agustín viewed rock as a means of cultural mapping that expanded the imagined community beyond the geopolitical boundaries of the nation proper to embrace a audiotopic community of listeners and fans. In his words, “el rock no puede circunscribirse a fronteras, sino que se desarrolla en todos los países aclimatándose a sus características. El rock no es patrimonio de Estados Unidos, aunque allí haya surgido. Se da en todas partes y existen grupos estupendos en Inglaterra, Estados Unidos, Francia, Alemania, Suecia, Australia, España, Italia, México y muchos países más; el rock no se riñe con el temperamento de un pueblo en particular, sino que se identifica con los sentimientos de progreso, amor y alegría de la juventud de cuerpo y espíritu” (5-6). Those who are young in body and spirit are naturally those who, regardless of spatial location, object to “la hipocresía, la mezquindad, el egoísmo, la mojigatería, el fanatismo, el puritanismo, el patrioterismo, la guerra, la explotación, la miseria social e intelectual” and defend “la paz, el amor, la creatividad y el cambio de todo lo obsoleto” (6-7). This preemptive gesture to offset criticisms of being extranjereizante or desnacionalizado prefigures Appadurai’s suggestion that “the United States is no longer the puppeteer of a world system of images but is only one node of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes” (31) by shifting attention away from the US as the sole producer of rock towards other countries in Europe and the Pacific that also produced good rock ‘n’ roll. It is noteworthy that of all the countries mentioned here, only the US, England, and Mexico receive any mention in The New Classical Music. This is due, in part I believe, to a question of relativity. There were good bands coming out of Spain and Germany but for a number of reasons related to commerciality, production, and distribution which we don’t have time to discuss here, they failed to gain much international airtime. And what Agustín is really trying to do here is highlight bands that are radically experimental, phenomenally popular, and in tune with cultural tide changes in order to provide a pattern upon which Mexico’s musicians can begin to build.

Despite Agustín’s uneasiness with the seeming bravado of his introduction, it quickly becomes apparent exactly how tuned in he was to contemporary musical trends. The New Classical Music is presciently instep with the all the major bands, all the latest technologies, and all of the most daring sonic innovations. In the section entitled “Flashback w/ apologies to old Rabelais”, Agustín offers an crash course in rock history that begins with folk singers like Leadbelly and Arlo Guthrie and blues giants like Muddy Waters and B. B. King, moves through Elvis Presley and the introduction of black music to white audiences, exalts the virtues of British bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and brings it all back home to Mexico. I read this both as an ersatz table of contents for the book—since this is precisely the order that his analyses follow—as well as a makeshift genealogy, a means of recognizing a new set of precursors for young Mexican musicians like Javier Bátiz, the Dug Dugs, and Angélica María. The actuality of the text becomes apparent his thoughtful appreciation of the most up-to-date happenings on the world music scene. He notes that Cream—the British power trio that brought Ginger Baker, Jackie Bruce, and Eric Clapton together for a brief but remarkable two year career—had become the most important rock band in the world. This comment is noteworthy, of course, because Cream disbanded shortly after the publication of the text due to creative differences. This is to say, then, that Agustín was fully aware not only of the historical process leading up to the present but that he was also able to identify cutting-edge world-class excellence. The New Classical Music also reveals Agustín’s knowledge of developing sound technologies which made important leaps throughout the 1960s. Since the 1950s guitarists had been tinkering with their amplifiers by pushing volume limits or tweaking vacuum tubes as a means of distorting the sound of amplified electric guitars. The first fuzztone stomp-box was designed in 1962 and the first wah pedal hit the market in 1966 which allowed musicians like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa, and Jimi Hendrix to begin a period of radical experimentation with the expressive potential of the electric guitar, to which Agustín alludes when he mentions that the recent advances made by experimental rock had no parallel in music history. In his analysis the Stones’ 2000 Light Years from Home, for example, Agustín notes that Jagger’s vocals are propped up by a Moog synthesizer, which made its first major public appearance the year before La nueva música clásica was published at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival.

Beyond the contemporariness of The New Classical Music’s appreciation of musical goings-on to the north and across the ocean, the most striking and possibly overlooked part of the book is that which deals with Mexican rockers. While it is true that Agustín offers a detailed dissertation on American and British artists, the final third of the book is dedicated to national musicians with whom he enjoyed a close relationship: Jávier Bátiz, the Dug Dugs, and Angélica María. If his decision to include these artists in the book seems stilted by his personal entanglements—he was separated from his second wife, Margarita, and living with Angélica María at the time he wrote the book—he nevertheless offers accurate descriptions of their talents and flaws. Bátiz is depicted for readers as the most talented lead guitarist in the country (“Ya es famoso su calidad para improvisar y obtener sonidos desgarradores y profundos a la altura de Eric Clatpon, Jimi Hendrix o Robin Trower”)[viii], the quintaessential blues and soul man who has “asimilado la mejor onda de Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Sam and Dave, Ray Charles, Aretha y toda la onda Stax.”[ix] But his judgments are not uncritical: Agustín worried that Bátiz’s unwillingness to stop playing covers and produce original material would ultimately hamper his creativity and ability to move beyond the national rock scene. Agustín was right on the money. Not only did Bátiz stick to singing primarily in English, playing cover tunes, and touring mostly in Mexico, but a young Jalisco musician who is rumored to have studied lead guitar with Bátiz in Tijuana—you may have heard the name Carlos Santana—crossed the border, blended rock with Afro-Caribbean sensibilities, and became an international phenomenon.

Lest we think that the Onda’s detractors are correct in recognizing an unpatriotic zeal in La nueva música clásica, we should remember that Agustín and Bátiz co-wrote on a song as part of the marketing ploy for the launch of Agustín’s short story collection Inventando que sueño. The idea was to release a rock ballad single for airplay on all of Mexico City’s radio stations. Agustín penned the lyrics and Bátiz recorded the song with his band, The Finks. Years later Agustín relates that “en vez de una balada rock, ‘Inventando que sueño’ resultó un bolero, pero como me gustan los boleros no había problema. Eso sí, me hizo pensar que Javier y yo, rocanroleros empedernidos, acusados de progringos y desnacionalizados, en el fondo éramos unos mexicanazos, pues a la hora de componer nos salió un boleriux.”[x] This anecdote in fact reveals one of the central aspects of Agustín’s later writing about rock: he always comes home to Mexico. If music can function as an audiotopia, a sonic site of powerful imagining that allows us to renegotiate questions of nation, then we should not be surprised to find Agustín identifying foreign influence in Mexican rockers. What does strike me as an exceptional gesture on Agustín’s part, however—especially in later essays—is his Borgesian willingness to find unusual affinities among musicians and styles that may or may not have had anything to do with each other. Two brief examples will illustrate this point. Writing about Texas-born Janis Joplin, Agustín observes that she, like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin, is “profundamente mexicana” because she achieves “la perfección artística, la fusión de lo negro y lo blanco, de yin y yang, así como la expresión exacta del espíritu de sus tiempos, pero también, o más bien, de los que vendrían y que ya nos han alcanzado” as well as “la capacidad de ejercer la libertad hasta sus últimas consecuencias, aunque éstas impliquen, como en tono buen rocanrolero, ‘ser libre para cantar desafinada mi propia canción.’”[xi] By the same token, José Alfredo Jiménez, the paradigmatic figure of Mexican popular music and author of songs like “El rey” and “El hijo del pueblo”—two songs that Agustín claims speak more to his sense of national identity that the national anthem (“pura retórica desangelada y sin talento que mandó hacer Santa Anna, así de jodidos estamos”)—is a world-class blues singer. On this subject Agustín relates that en 1973, recién muerto José Alfredo a los 48 años de edad, fui a uno de los programas más populares de la televisión que esa vez se dedicó al gran compositor. Me invitaron ya que mi rocanrofilia supuestamente me haría hablar pestes de él y eso le pondría interés al debate, ¡sangre, sangre! Pobres. Ignoraban que yo siempre fui josealfredista y que sus rolas son blueses y por lo tanto están mucho más cerca del rock de lo que parece (¿qué tal la coincidencia, casi textual, de la piedra que rueda?)” (45-46).

Allow me summarize the foregoing discussion of Agustín’s rock journalism with a few brief comments about one final essay because it exemplifies to my mind the type of inclusive thinking about music, culture, and identity that characterize both his work and some of the primary theoretical questions that have surfaced throughout this conference. The short essay deals with Ry Cooder, possibly one of the most under-appreciated session guitarists of rock history. He made his early career backing musicians like Captain Beefheart, the Rolling Stones, Randy Newman, and Arlo Guthrie and, in his later years, became a pioneer in world music by recording albums with African, Pakistani, Cuban, and Mexican artists, and actively promoting the talents of others, most notably through the Academy Award nominated film Buena Vista Social Club. As with many of the essays that I have discussed up to this point, Agustín simultaneously recognizes the achievement of an iconic figure who, while lacking the superstar accolades afforded to the Stones, nevertheless embodies the ideal combination of talent and cultural openness, and brings his meditations on music back to Mexico. In this case he specifically praises Cooder for producing an outstanding version of the “Volver, volver”, one that “para nada habr;ia objetado José Alfredo” (112), as well as playing the melancholic “Canción mixteca” for the film Paris, Texas in “la más pura tradición de Antonio Bribiesca”, Mexico’s most celebrated guitarist (Hotel 113). In his promotion of other musicians, Agustín notes, Cooder never attempts to impose his own musical point of view, “como lo haría cualquier otro superestrella de chafa, sino que comprende que desde la esencia de la música de otros y la enriquece con su creatividad y su virutosismo” (114).[xii] To conclude I would like to suggest that what Agustín accomplished in shaping the musical map of Mexico’s countercultural movement was nothing less than a reconfiguration of cultural space. Since The New Classical Music rock journalists like Federico Arana, Óscar Sarquiz, Víctor Roura, Juan Villoro, Jordi Soler, and Xavier Velasco have followed suit, finding within the sonic space constructed by rock a redefinition of the national that looks beyond Mexico’s border.

[i] Almond, p. 7

[ii] See the introduction to Christine Henseler and Randolph Pope’s volume Generation X Rocks: Contemporary Peninsular Fiction, Film, and Rock Culture, where the authors offer what is, to my mind, a fair rationale for thinking less about the behavioral aspects of counterculture and more about the music itself.

[iii] See the first chapter of Zolov’s Refried Elvis for a more complete discussion of the introduction of rock.

[iv] Agustín, p. 108

[v] Monsiváis, Amor perdido, p. 37

[vi] Reflecting upon the book in his autobiography, El rock de la cárcel, Agustín notes with some embarrassment that “El libro, por toda una serie de razones, me salió de la patada, y sólo sirvió para dar un panorama global y relativamente confiable, para enfatizar que el rock no era ni moda transitoria ni penetraciónimperialistachico; su única virtud consistió en presentar la idea de que el rock es una nueva clásica, como también lo es el jazz; ambos constituyen auténticas formas artísticas y abarcan lo mismo el estrato popular, accesible, y el más culto y elaborado. Sin embargo, no me satisfizo nunca y dieciséis años más tarde escribí un nuevo libro sobre rock, por la vía autobiográfica muy sui géneris, y lo publiqué otra vez como La nueva música clásica, aunque el contenio era enteramente distint” (114).

[vii] Agustín, La nueva música clásica, p. 5

[viii] La nueva música clásica, p. 64

[ix] La nueva música clásica, p. 63

[x] La casa del sol naciente, pp. 50-51

[xi] El hotel de los corazones solitarios, p. 51

[xii] Coincidentally, Cooder returned to Mexican music in 2010 for the album, “San Patricio”, produced by the Chieftains in collaboration with national artists like Chavela Vargas, Lila Downs, Los Tigres del Norte, and others. Music in general and rock in particular are in this manner constructed as an inclusive space.


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