The guitar strap ate into Steve Soto's shoulder as he stood with his hands up, seconds away from a hail of bullets ripping him apart.
It was Cinco de Mayo, 1999, at the Foothill Club in Signal Hill. Soto, the guitar legend whose bands Agent Orange and the Adolescents helped to define OC's punk scene, had just minutes earlier torn through a set with his side project, Manic Hispanic. The group of friends were like him, two-time outcasts in Orange County who grew up as a minority within a minority: punks in a Mexican community, Mexicans in a punk community. Although only 6 years old and a part-time indulgence for everyone involved, Manic Hispanic were already punker's punks, their take on classics—next-to-no change in the musical structures, but with lyrics satirically transformed to reflect their Chicano upbringing, performed while dressed as though on a casting call for American Me—delighting audiences across Southern California and beyond.
But no amount of goofball goodwill was going to get Soto and his band mates out of this mess. Right before the show, Foothill staff told Manic Hispanic lead singer Mike “Gabby” Gaborno—most famously of the Cadillac Tramps, exuding vato loco style with his buttoned-up Pendleton, mad-dogger sunglasses, wifebeater, fedora, lilting voice, teardrop tattoo and Folsom jeans—to not smoke onstage, as was his custom. Gaborno's response? He opened up his flannel shirt to reveal a gun tucked into his waistband, scaring the nanny-staters off.
The show went on. The crowd, a mix of whites and Mexicans of all ages, social classes and punk familiarity, moshed to refried hits such as “Barrio Land” (a take on the Clash's “Garage Land”) and X's “Los Angeles,” now a tale of a Chicana leaving East LA by “crossing the Orange County line,” the classic lyric “Every Mexican that gave her lotta shit” reappropriated as a point of pride. When fans weren't slamming into one another, they laughed at the interaction between Gaborno and his carnales, full of in-jokes for punks and Mexicans and especially Mexican punks alike. At one point, Foothill staff tried to flag down singer Sonny Lujan, asking if he knew if Gaborno was still packing; Lujan couldn't hear over the roar of the crowd and thought they wanted them to wrap up the gig. “Three more songs!” he pleaded.
And then the lights went out.
The Signal Hill Police Department had cut the power. Outside, a SWAT team readied to raid the place; a Long Beach police helicopter swooped above, its spotlight straight on the Foothill. Someone had called 911 about Gaborno's gun.
The cops stormed the venue and ordered everyone out except Manic Hispanic and their crew. The group had stopped midsong, frozen in their positions. It was fine for a couple of minutes, but the weight of Soto's Telecaster hanging from his body was proving too much as the cops moved from Mexican to Mexican, demanding to know who had the gat.
“No one knew what the cops were talking about,” says Soto, laughing at the memory. “I looked at one of the officers, trying to be nice. So I look at him, nod down to my Telecaster, and say as nice as possible, 'Officer, I've got this guitar . . .'”
“If you move,” the cop yelled back at Soto, “I'll fucking shoot you.”
The police eventually cuffed Manic and their friends and gave them a full pat-down—still no gun. They didn't find Lujan's knife, which he had forgotten to put away after a day working at the docks in Long Beach. And they never found the gun, either: Gaborno had thrown away the water pistol before the show, never telling anyone he had brought one in the first place. This crucial detail didn't emerge until about an hour later, after he finally realized what the fuss was about and 'fessed up.
The police were disgusted. “I could've shot one of you guys over a toy gun,” one spat out in disgust as he left the scene.
Manic Hispanic have howled about the moment ever since.
Even a few days after the raid, the Foothill fiasco had entered local lore: the Weekly wrote that people were denying the police raid even happened, that “the show is now destined to be relegated to the bin of embellished nostalgia. If you weren't there, tell all your friends you were” [Rebecca Schoenkopf's “Extreme Madness,” May 13, 1999]. But more than a decade later, on the eve of their 20th-anniversary show, the remaining members of Manic Hispanic, now all adults with children, mortgages and, well, adult lives, laugh at that memory.
“They wanted us to pay the bill for the SWAT, for the cops, for everyone,” says bassist Warren Renfrow. “Yeah, right!”
It was, like them, one big comedy of mistaken identity that underscores their status as OC's greatest cult band ever—and our finest Mexicans, period.
* * *
If you ask a loco (like me) who wants to ascribe political motivation to everything, I'd say Manic Hispanic are one of the most subversive expressions of Mexican identity in American culture. I'd maintain that Manic are the finest chinga tu madre to racist Orange County of them all. I'd tie the group to a proud tradition of Mexican musical tricksters, from El Piporro to El Vez, Tintan to Cheech and Chong, Cantinflas to Culture Clash. I'd describe “The INS Took My Novia Away” (their homage to the Ramones' “The KKK Took My Baby Away) as their attack against the county's anti-Mexican policies and note that their pronunciation of Santa Ana as “SanTana” shows their understanding of regional argot. I'd say that “Brown Man in O.C. Jail,” based on the Clash's “White Man (in Hammersmith Palais),” is as searing an indictment of our county's brutal jail system as Moxley's exposés. Why, I would rank Manic Hispanic alongside the Pyramid of the Sun and the Sonora dog among Mexico's crowning achievements, even better than the Mayan calendar.
But ask Manic to place themselves in the pantheon of socio-political musical activism, and they'll ridicule such analysis.
“When other people try to write social commentary about us, like say that 'My Homeboy Is a Joto' [their scabrous take on DI's “Johnny's Got a Problem”] is a commentary about homophobia in Mexican communities, I just laugh,” says rhythm guitarist Maurice Torres. “Everyone tries to be so political and righteous for the cause. It's just a funny song!”
The band are sitting in the well-kept Fountain Valley house of drummer Ruben Rivera. Framed concert posters line the walls, along with “Rivera” written in papel picado, the arabesque paper-cut decorations most frequently seen during Dia de los Muertos. Lujan arrives late from his job as a foreman with the International Longshoremen of the World Union; bassist Warren Renfrow and Gaborno aren't around because they're still at work, as a crane operator and concrete inspector, respectively. At one point, Rivera's son comes home from a Little League game, tow-headed and happy.
“In Mexican culture, you can either go with Cesar Chávez or go with Cheech and Chong,” says Lujan. “We went with Cheech.”
Perhaps they're not as political as people want them to be. But as a reflection of who they are—Mexicans who grew up in Orange County during the 1970s and '80s, who had one foot in the barrio and another in the mosh pit, working-class stiffs who made it without selling out who they were—they're the ultimate embodiment of what it means to be brown and down in Orange County, a place where too many still look down on the brown.
“We altered the punk scene,” says Gaborno. “We made it more okay for Mexicans and whites to have an equally good time.”
“They were one of the people who taught you it was cool to be Mexican,” says Joe Escalante, longtime bassist for the Vandals and a Mexican punk himself. “I always knew it was cool, but they taught other people that.”
The band members reflect the rainbow that is the Mexican-American experience. One of Soto's grandparents was from Guanajuato. Singer Efrem Schultz's father was an illegal immigrant; Renfrow's family is Californio; Torres' familia comes from Brownsville, Texas; Rivera's parents were of Yaqui and Mexican extraction. Lujan and Gaborno are New Mexicans. Soto, Schultz and Renfrow grew up in and around Fullerton; Rivera and Torres hail from Fountain Valley, Gaborno from Westminster, and Lujan from San Pedro.
And they all exhibit roles that anyone familiar with Mexicans in Southern California will immediately recognize. Rivera and Torres are as even-keeled as Chicanos from Montebello; Renfrow is the kindly uncle, while Lujan—who sports a magnificent salt-and-pepper goatee out of Lowrider Magazine pencil drawings and has a gravelly voice that sounds similar to a concrete mixer but is always cracking jokes—is the crazy tío, which is also his stage name. Schultz, the youngest member of the band, is all smiles and enthusiasm; Soto, the one person who makes his living full-time from music, is all business. And Gaborno, one of the most charismatic front men in OC music history, is the curandero, the witch man tasked with saving crowds from becoming PC pendejos and reminding them to laugh.
From these varied backgrounds and personalities arose two common threads: They grew up punk, and they grew up Mexican. And they were proud of both because each subset was one and the same to them.
“The punk rockers and the eses just hung out together—we were the outcasts,” Gaborno remembers of growing up in the 1980s near Westminster's West 13 barrio. “The eses in the hood were way cooler than the jocks. Jocks would drive by and call you a punker and a cholo in the same breath. But the punkers were more accepting of Mexicans. It was as if they thought, 'You guys are as nutsy as us. And it's all right.'”
“Being punks, you were outcasts,” Rivera adds. “If you saw another punk, the catch-phrase even there was 'Where you from?,' like cholos. But being punks with Mexicans—they didn't know what to do with us. One time, I was with some girl, and some cholo wanted to get at me because he didn't know who I was. The girl was like, 'No, no, don't ask Ruben where he claims—he's from the white part of town!'”
“All the Mexican kids are misfits,” says Schultz. “OC's an uptight place to be a Mexican. Punks in those days were the only ones who understood us.”
The seven became tuned into one another by the early 1990s, weaving in and out of more bands than they can remember (the bigger names include the Adolescents, Agent Orange, Cadillac Tramps, Joyride, Grabbers, Los Infernos). Orange County music was about to break out nationally via Sublime and Social Distortion, and soon-to-be titans such as No Doubt and the Offpsring were playing the same gigs as the guys' bands. As day jobs, Soto and Gaborno worked at the warehouse of Doctor Dream Records, the legendary Orange indie label; to pass the day, they shot the shit about their childhood, cracking up at how their punk and Mexican lives were becoming intertwined. More Mexicans in la naranja were starting punk bands; meanwhile, the OC punk and surf scenes had adopted barrio fashion—Dickies and Ben Davis khaki pants, Pendletons and wraparound shades, even lowriders—as their own. To celebrate this mestizaje, Soto joked they should do a Freddy Fender cover band.
“Freddy Fender, he's badass,” says Gaborno of the Tex-Mex legend known for his sweet croon, chubby features and magnificent Mexi-mullet. The man born Baldemar Garza Huerta was a staple of Mexican-American households during the 1970s, including those of Soto and Gaborno. “Him and the Texas Tornadoes, they were like the MC5. They were originals, doing their own thing.”
But it was all talk until one day, when Soto's band at the time, Joyride, had to cancel a show at the legendary Linda's Doll Hut. At the Doctor Dream offices, Renfrow, Soto, Gaborno and Torres—then a roadie for the Cadillac Tramps—discussed what they should do. Rivera passed by the office. He was Mexican; the band was done. The show was obvious.
“There was no way we could learn any new songs,” Soto says. “So we just decided to do punk songs we all knew by heart, but Mexicanize them.”
They picked some of their favorite punk classics, decided to dress as cholos, named themselves Manic Hispanic after the Manic Panic brand of hair dye, and would let the performance dictate itself. No one from the band can remember that first night, but Doll Hut doyenne Linda Jemison recorded it. The tape circulated through the OC scene, and their following show at Cal State Fullerton's on-campus pub was “packed.” For their third performance, at Club Mesa, they convinced Lujan, road manager for the Tramps, to join them. Lujan had never played in a band. “I kept saying, 'I can't do it. I can't do it. I can't sing a song,'” he says. “Then someone said, 'Don't be a pussy.' Then it was on!”
After that sold-out show, the group figured they should create personas to only further the merriment. Rivera became Chino “because he smoked so much weed that his eyes were closed,” Lujan says with a laugh. Renfrow picked Oso; Torres transformed into Mo Grease, befitting his rockabilly tendencies. Lujan turned into Tío; Soto, as the whitest member, picked Hoakie; Gaborno—naturally—was El Jefe. They looped in another Mexican punk, Steve Acevedo, and christened him Mad Ralphie because Gaborno thought he resembled Ralph Macchio.
One day, after another band canceled a recording session at Doctor Dream, Soto got Manic Hispanic together to record a demo in a day and a half. That eventually turned into a record. Filled with hilarious asides, furious note-for-note covers, skits, shout-outs and Spanglish, The Menudo Incident was the Manic stage show captured. There was even a remake of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” as a memorial to the original Freddy Fender cover-band idea. The record sold well, and Manic became a fixture on the OC punk scene through the 1990s, playing festivals and dives alike. “Any time they wanted to play, we'd have them,” says Jack Martinez of Black Flys sunglasses. “They were our house band. Cinco de Mayo, backyard, private parties, public parties—all of it. It's legit punk rock. It can turn into a riot at any given minute. They're like the ultimate OC cult band.”
But the band's popularity never extended enough beyond Orange County to warrant full-fledged tours. And the idea that Manic Hispanic could've been more if only they took themselves more seriously stuck to them them almost immediately. A Los Angeles Times critic in 1994, just a year into their existence, dismissively wrote that Manic Hispanic seemed “far less concerned with incisive satire or parodic musical transformation than with having a good, rowdy, no-brainer time with songs they grew up loving. . . . [They] didn't indicate much thought or effort given to reshaping these oldies into something distinctly new or especially funny.”
Manic plead guilty as charged to accusations they could've been bigger. “Aspirations? None,” says Torres, scoffing at the very notion of respectability.
“We were all in different bands back then,” Soto says more philosophically. “If we had really cracked down and tried to make a run of it, who knows how far we could've gone?”
* * *
In December 2009, Soto was touring with the Squirrel Nut Zippers when he received a call: Gaborno had suffered a stroke. Just a couple of days earlier, he underwent open-heart surgery.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” Soto says. He let the other members know, and they rushed to Gaborno's bedside to hold vigil.
The 2000s had been good to Manic. They released three more records: The Recline of Mexican Civilization in 2001, the 2003 effort Mijo Goes to Jr. College, and 2005's Grupo Sexo. Each was a comedy classic and expanded their repertoire to include Green Day (“Welcome to Paramount” instead of “Welcome to Paradise”) and Minor Threat—”Out of Step (With the World)” became “Out of Step (With La Raza)”. Their Cinco de Mayo shows, alternating between what's now the Observatory (where they'll play this Sunday) and the House of Blues, became as much an annual OC tradition as the swallows returning to Capistrano and perhaps the only place in America where whites and Mexicans could smash into one another and not take it personally. And if they did? Gaborno would stop the shows, get the culprits onstage and make them kiss.
They never changed their supposedly simplistic schtick—and no one minded. In fact, bands began asking members when Manic would record versions of their songs—and flipped out like fanboys when they did.
“I was pretty shocked. I didn't expect it,” says Dexter Holland, lead singer for the Offspring and a punk cholo in his own right with his sartorial stylings and hawking of his Gringo Bandito hot sauce. For The Recline, Manic remade the Offspring's “Come Out and Play (Keep Them Separated)” as “Get Them Immigrated.”
“Their humor is on the genius level matched only by the Vandals,” Holland adds. “Their version of 'Keep Them Separated' was hilarious! It was an acknowledgment, and it was flattering.”
“You don't feel like you're anything unless Manic Hispanic takes one of your songs for their treatment,” says Joe Escalante of the Vandals. The group turned “Urban Struggle,” the Vandals' ode to the fights between punks and cowboys outside Costa Mesa's Cuckoo's Nest during the 1980s, into “I Want to Be a Cholo” for the closing track of Mijo, whose title and cover art are a spoof of the Descendents' Milo Goes to College. “They were nice—they asked for permission to [record 'Urban Struggle']. I said, 'You do whatever you want. You do your deal—it's an honor.'
“Too many Mexican comics—they're funny, but after a while, you run out of jokes about your abuelita's chanclas or the Virgin of Guadalupe,” Escalante adds. “But with music, you don't need a new set every time. And they're making fun of punk culture as well. They're smart and never tiring.”
Internally, though, Manic had to deal with what Renfrow charitably describes as, “certain people slipping back into old behaviors that were detrimental.” Occasional breakups happened; members came and went. Any ambitions to expand their profile never materialized. But Gaborno's stroke put everything into perspective.
Gaborno's battles with addiction, and subsequent phoenix-like rebounds, are the stuff of Orange County legend. “Gabby's so tough that I didn't think he'd ever die,” says Lujan. But the stroke left Gaborno partially paralyzed on his left side and with memory loss. OC's punk community rallied around him; just weeks after the stroke, the House of Blues in Anaheim hosted a fund-raiser featuring all of their bands—Manic, the Adolescents, Cadillac Tramps, the Grabbers—as well as other guests. Even Gaborno made a cameo to thank everyone for their support, proudly showing off the fresh scar on his chest.
Through all the ups and downs, Gaborno was the only person to have never missed a Manic Hispanic show. “Without Gabby,” Schultz says plainly, “there is no Manic.” No one thought the band would ever reunite—Gaborno's recovery was more important than the band. For six months, he gritted through rehabilitation just to relearn simple things, never mind saunter as he did in the days of old. There was no Manic show in 2010, the first time the band ever skipped a holiday. Finally, an offer came for a comeback: Warped Tour at the Pomona Fairgrounds.
“I was a bit leery” of letting him return, Renfrow admits of a friend he's known since each was 17. “But he told me, 'Bro, I want to do this. I need to do this.'”
No one knew whether the old Gabby would return. “His banter wasn't as good,” Torres admits, “but he was on that day. He was ready to play.”
“He was just awesome,” Renfrow says. “You see it onstage—he belongs there. And if he was rough that first time, I really think it was because we really hadn't played in a while.”
“I'm really lucky to be vertical,” says Gaborno. He's now sober and the father of a 3-year-old boy whom he calls “my buddy.” “What I love to do is make people smile and make people laugh. When I realized I still have that ability, that's what I did. Nowadays, every day that I wake up that I'm on this side of the dirt, I know I'm blessed. And if I can make someone happy, then that's what I'm going to do.”
* * *
“Make him skinnier,” Renfrow bellows at the makeup artist who's working on Soto outside Alex's Bar in Long Beach. Soto, who's sitting down, just smiles as Renfrow cracks up. “Oh, never mind!”
Manic Hispanic are drifting in and out of Alex's, readying for their Sunday-evening photo shoot. On trucks and chairs are their costumes—flannels, fedoras, tejanas, shorts; the Chucks and tight haircuts are part of their day-to-day fashion. After a couple of drinks with their pal, bar owner Alex Hernández (who was at the infamous Foothill show and said of the night, “The police rounded up every fat Mexican they could find, including me”), everyone dresses up to play. Soto is a proto-zooter in black pants, white long-sleeved shirt, black suspenders and mad-dogger sunglasses as dark as the '56 Chevy they'll lean on for the shoot. Torres sports a skater hat; Rivera has his Pendleton completely buttoned up; Schultz pulls at his knee-high socks. Renfrow wears a narco-chic outfit because just as “everyone has a cousin who's a cholo, everyone has an uncle who dresses like this—straight outta the Anaheim Indoor Swap Meet.”
A fan passes by. “You guys don't dress like that every day?” he asks. The guys just laugh.
Everything is back to normal since Gaborno's stroke—back to the parenting, back to the jobs, back to this sweet release. Manic are writing songs again, preparing to record another album. They have eased into the role of veteranos of the OC punk scene. “When we started this band, we were kids,” Rivera says. “Now, I have teens. My daughter is in the front row of the show. There are kids who know only our version and not the originals.”
“Showing up to practices is like salvation for us,” says Soto. “In the early days, we were all in bands. Now, everyone has families and careers. But maybe that's why we've stuck around for so long and still like one another.”
Cars stop to gape. Actual cholos literally rub their eyes in admiration. Gaborno is two hours late (“Gabby has a new drug,” Torres says proudly. “Burritos”), prompting the photographer to wonder if maybe they should reschedule. “Two union guys, taking the day off for a photo shoot?” Lujan snaps. “NAH!”
Finally, Gaborno shows up, as impish as ever. He was at Leisure World Seal Beach, listening to a roots band, and forgot about the shoot. Now, everyone leans like a cholo, glowers like punks. And then, just five minutes into it, with no prompting whatsoever, they all hum in unison “El Jarabe Tapatio,” the legendary Mexican song better known stateside as “The Mexican Hat Dance.” Simple, effortless, natural. Mexican. American. Orange County to the core, ese.
“I would like to give you some righteous explanation of what we mean, but ultimately, it's so much fun,” says Gaborno, trying to explain Manic's ultimate legacy.
Renfrow is more prosaic. “Some guys golf on the weekends; some guys sit around and watch sports,” he says. “Me? I play music with my friends.”