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Calexico’s Literary Influences

[Editor's note: See Calexico perform in Portland at the Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell, on Monday, June 19. Click here for more details on the show.]

Calexico, the crosscultural band from Tucson, Arizona, is known around the world for their unique synthesis of pop, mariachi, and spaghetti-Western. Less widely known are their diverse literary influences. While their sound pulls from such varied sources as bossa nova, flamenco, Link Ray, and Tom T. Hall, Joey Burns and John Convertino (the band's primary songwriters) have found lyrical inspiration in distinctly Western writing. Here's a breakdown:

Their earliest literary influeces are the famous Cormac McCarthy and the less widely known Lawrence Clark Powell. McCarthy's Border Trilogy (which consisted of the books All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) gave a real theme to Calexico's second album The Black Light. The songs are, according to Joey, "tied together"; if we storyboarded them, they would tell a tale of a hotel porter that works the graveyard shift, later leaves with the circus and gets into trouble with a local gang where shots are fired before a woman gets him across the border. The songs' lyrics are so thematically linked that The Black Light has even been described as a concept album.

In a 1998 BOMB magazine interview ("Calexico" by Fionn Meade), the band members said:

Convertino: Well, I was reading McCarthy's Border Trilogy at the time [of the recording] and showed it to Joey and he picked it up and got inspired to respond. It gave a real theme to The Black Light lyrically.

Burns: ...listening to the initial guitar and drum tracks...I thought, Why not bring in the lap steel, violin, and mariachi. It...reminded me of an updated McCarthy novel where worlds and styles come together.

Tied with Cormac for his influence is Southwestern icon Lawrence Clark Powell. This lesser known Arizona and California scholar provided inspiration for the songs "Glowing Heart of the World," "Man Goes Where Water Flows," and "El Morro."

Although not widely known outside of the Southwest, or even within in it for that matter, LCP was so prolific that the University of California-Los Angeles published a "Checklist of the Writings of Lawrence Clark Powell." He was, in his heart and professionally, a librarian (at UCLA). He loved information, mostly of the historical Southwestern and Californian variety, and many of his books are meticulous collections of historical and biographical information. Being a voracious reader, LCP also wrote books about books, including Books in My Baggage: Adventures in Reading and Collecting, A Passion for Books, Books Are Basic, and Little Package: Pages on Literature and Landscape from a Traveling Bookman's Life. It was his regional works, dealing with water and historyand Southwestern culture, that were his greatest contribution to western literature and that influenced Calexico.

The band took the title of their song "Man Goes Where Water Flows" from LCP's book Where Water Flows: The Rivers of Arizona. This photo-essay book, published by Northland Press in 1980, deals with the rivers of Arizona, a subject that had never before occupied a single volume. The text deals with Indians, white settlement history, the taming of the rivers and subsequent environmental and economic results. The photos include revealing aerial shots of the upper Gila River and Mount Baldy, as well as the Salt River and much covered lower Colorado River.

Calexico's song "Glowing Heart of the World" was borrowed from a phrase LCP turned in his tiny 1990 book The Southwest: Three Definitions. On page 39 of that book, he says specifically, "Man goes where water flows."

In addition to his classic nonfiction, LCP published three novels, but to me, fiction wasn't his strength. Calexico named their song "El Morro" after a book of the same name, which was even more obscure than his first novel The Blue Train.


Mexican novelist, essayist, and political writer Carlos Fuentes wrote the novel from which the band took the name and lyrical inspiration for the song Crystal Frontier.

Born 1928, Fuentes works are a mixture of social protest, realism, psychological insight, and fantasy. Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories concerns people, rich and poor, who all have something to do with the family of Leonardo Barroso, a powerful business tycoon of Northern Mexico who successfully exploits his connections to the United States. Barroso controls the fate of strangers as well as family members, and his decisions — whether to marry his son to his goddaughter and future mistress, whether to sponsor a young gay medical student for his studies at Cornell, or whether to fly weekend janitors to New York City to avoid American labor costs — carry long-term effects for anyone within his web. Fuentes mingles generations and classes in this memorable novel, vividly illuminating the cultural conflict that rages between Mexico and America.

The band discusses Fuentes in the BOMB article by Fionn Meade.

Fionn Meade: Social critique has become a theme on your most recent releases. You have a song, "The Crystal Frontier," that was inspired by a somewhat searing Carlos Fuentes' novel of the same name, as well as a number of songs about urban sprawl. How has your portrayal of the Southwest and the border evolved?

Burns: "The Crystal Frontier" describes the history of the Southwest as always having been a crossroads. A place of illusions and even delusion. The first verse follows Fray Marcos setting out to find Cabeza de Vaca's seven lost cities of gold and running into the Zuni instead. The second verse is about a maquiladora worker in Juarez trying to support her family by working in a tire factory. And the last verse is from a story I read in a Tucson paper about kids that live on both sides of the border and have access to both sides. They're kind of players that can get you whatever you want cheap, drugs or sex if you're coming from the U.S. side, and Air Jordans, Nike garb, and label stuff back over to the Mexican side. This place has always had a quality of struggle.

Meade: As Fuentes writes in The Crystal Frontier, "That great canvas of imitations and metamorphoses, the desert." There is a lot of shape-shifting in the desert.

Convertino: The burning sun day after day can be a brutal reality for anyone trying to hide. If you choose to live in the desert, things eventually come out into the open. I think it's kind of like monkey see, monkey do. With McCarthy and then Fuentes it was the same thing. You're reading books, you're living here, you're seeing the reality. And then when you're on the road for hours driving, what do you do? You start to talk about this stuff. And it really becomes a choice of what are you now going to sing about.

Calexico culled two songs from Luis Alberto Urrea's book titles. First, is the song "All across the Wire" from a book of that title; second is a line in that song that uses another book, By the Lake of Sleeping Children, as a lyric.

Born of a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea wrote the award-winning author of Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border which takes a compelling and unprecedented look at life on the other side of the U.S.-Mexican border. Despite the numbers of people crossing over to the U.S., hundreds more remain behind in abject poverty. Urrea worked closely with them and provides a compassionate and candid account of their lives. In sixteen indelible portraits, Urrea delves into the post-NAFTA and Proposition 187 border purgatory and illuminates the horrors and the simple joys of people trapped between the two worlds of Mexico and the United States — and ignored by both.

By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border is novelistic portrait of Tijuana garbage pickers and dump dwellers is variously funny, sad, and startling. Americans who think that they have encountered real poverty in the south Bronx will be in for a shock when they read this book, but it is not a story of desperation. Urrea does not ask pity for his subjects. Neither does he repeat childish political slogans about inequality. Rather, he reveals the fascinating lives of resourceful Mexicans living along the border.

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"Sunken Waltz" is the first track on Calexico's fourth CD, and the first line reveals two literary influences:

Washed my face in the rivers of empire. Made my bed from a cardboard crate / Down in the city of quartz.

The first reference comes from American history professor Rivers of Empire.

Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West discusses in detail the history of Western U.S. rivers in the 20th century and their inextricable link to irrigation, agriculture, animal husbandry, real estate and the West's increasingly problematic water supply.

The second reference comes from one of Mike Davis's classic Los Angeles books. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles tells the hidden story of L.A. through a revealing study of the metropolis' urban planning. Davis shows us where the city's money comes from and who controls it, while also exposing the brutal ongoing struggle between L.A.'s haves and have-nots.

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From genre-bending inspiration to artistic cutting and pasting, Calexico has created music that resembles nothing we have ever heard before, something that is greater than the sum of its parts and that, beyond the visually evocative soundscapes and toe-tapping beats, reveals a rich tapestry of Western literature. Listen to the songs. Read the CD inserts. They provide a reading list for anyone interested in learning more about the West.

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One Response to "Calexico’s Literary Influences"

    Samps June 19th, 2006 at 4:59 pm

    I like this idea. You should write a whole book about bands literary influences. Interesting stuff.

    I haven't heard much of Calexico but my friend, who is in town from Las Vegas, is going to this show tonight.

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