Westgate Hotel, San Diego
I call them "Mexicans," but they may have been American citizens, they have been visiting, they may have been Cuban or Central or South American or Basque or Spanish or illegal -- I have no idea. Perhaps I should say that, to my untrained round Midwestern blue eyes, they were of apparent Mexican ancestry.
They were well-dressed, some casually, some expensively. Middle- and upper-middle-class businesspeople, professionals, and blue-collar types. (Again, all wild guesses, but I would have made the same guesses if a group of whities had entered the place with similar clothing, grooming, and comportment.) No jeans. Groups of girlfrirends, a family or two, couples. All speaking Spanish. Everyone happy, everyone seeming to know everyone else. The barkeep and waiter seemed to know them, too. It was a great scene. A roomful of laughing, well-turned-out Mexicans out for a fun evening. And the elderly Anglo banquette couple and a couple of other honkies, the latter of whom seemed slightly bewildered by this Mexican tsunami. And me.
As the room filled, I noticed what looked like a family group looking for some space together. I gestured to them that I would scoot over on the banquette to make room. They gratefully accepted. Turned out to be a family celebrating a 40th wedding anniversary. I found myself between a young woman with the family on one side, and a couple of girlfriends out for the evening on the other.
At this point, you may be saying Steverino, you have mentioned that this was a bar. Bars customarily serve alcoholic beverages, which you have not hitherto mentioned. Do alcoholic beverages play a role in the remainder of this story? No. I limit myself to two drinks when I go singing, because more than that and one tends to forget lyrics and become more annoying than is one's natural custom. I had had my two before I knew that Julio, whoever the hell he was, would be arriving. I switched to Diet Coke.
Promptly at 7, there was a slight commotion and into the bar walked a tall, very handsome Latino man with a carefully volumized pompadour. Perfectly cut light-grey double-breasted suit. Maybe fifty. He paused to greet almost everyone in the place, and when he got to the elderly Anglo couple he bent down to speak to them. Julio de la Huerta, one of the ladies told me. He reminded me of a much better-looking, Latino version of John de Lancie, who played "Q" on Star Trek: The Next Generation:
John de Lancie, not Julio de la HuertaThen the elderly man pointed at me and said something to Julio. Julio came over and introduced himself and asked me if I wanted to sing. I told him I didn't know any Spanish-language songs, just standards. That's OK, he said, we'll do a standard. (At this point, I had no idea what the musical setup was going to be.) Then I thought of something. "I know a couple of Jobim tunes," I said, "'Dindi,' and 'Insensitive'." His eyes registered surprise. (Antonio Carlos Jobim is the Brazilian composer who wrote "The Girl from Ipanema," "Meditation," "Quiet Night of Quiet Stars (Corcovado)," many others.) Jobim's original lyrics were Portugeuse, but both of those tunes were bossa novas, so I figured even an English version might fit better with this crowd than, for example, "I've Got You Under My Skin." "I'll call you up later," he said.
Julio, it turns out, plays Spanish guitar and sings. He performs with a another guitarist named Ramon, who was not so dashing and wore a hat that somehow didn't fit with the Julio experience. They set up two chairs and began their performance. Julio was the star, the exclusive contact with the audience.
I pause here for a moment to take us back to the political. I thought: In this superheated political climate, when we think of Mexicans in the United States, we think of the ones rushing the border crossings, the ones wading across the Rio Grande, the ones killing each other while they terrorize large parts of Los Angeles, the ones stacked up dead like cordwood in the back of a locked Chevy Astro van in the middle of the desert. We don't think about these folks, who show every sign of being productive humans, yet here they are, yukking it up and paying high drink prices and tipping responsibly and checking out the tunage, which consists of what sounds to me to be pretty traditional popular love songs. This is something I needed to see and I'm happy to be sitting here in the middle of it.
But it was more than that. I've worked with Latino attorneys, judges, clients, so it wasn't like it was stunning to see this group of accomplished Mexicans. What was striking about this tableaux was the portrayal of prosperity and accomplishment and the suggestion of rather conventional values reinforced by what gave every appearance of being a highly responsible community. These weren't folks who had gotten dressed up because it was expected in their Anglo-dominated workplace. They had come to this place as they had because this was a part of the kind of life they wanted to lead. Can one reach such a grandiose and comforting conclusion from one evening in a bar? Maybe not. Maybe I was being sentimental, or merely wishful. But when I asked myself whether there was in this group anything subsersive to any of my own values, or those of American society generally, all I can say is that, under the influence of two martinis and two Diet Cokes, it didn't seem that way to me. Rather, it seemed to me that I had a fair amount in common with these folks. I even entertained the zany thought -- and this may have been the martinis talking, that plus the fact that this was San Diego County -- that a fair chunk of these folks might vote Republican.
I hope this does not sound patronizing. I intend it to sound like a learning experience.
I can't remember whether Julio spoke any English at all after he and Ramon were seated with their guitars. I'm thinking there was some at the outset, but that pretty soon the whole evening was in Spanish. He and Ramon began to play their guitars. Julio sang the first number or two and was the showman of the pair. He was the better guitarist, but Ramon, a rather less romantic figure, had the better voice. The bar crowd was getting what they came to hear and responded with noisy enthusiasm and laughter at gags I could not understand.
After awhile, he called some audience members up to sing. It was a revelation. Some of these guys (they were mostly guys; one young woman you'll see below) had incredible voices, amazing talents. I asked the young woman to my right if these were professional singers.
In Mexico, she said.
I heard rumbles about an opera singer. Sure enough, after awhile a large young man appeared at the door of the bar and was recognized by the crowd. Julio beckoned him up. This guy not only had a beautiful voice, he had one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard, and I consider myself an excellent judge of vocal beauty. The guy blew the doors off the joint.
Then a guy improbably named Jimmy came up to sing. He was talented too, but he had a little trouble getting off the stage. Eventually Julio persuaded him to yield, and Julio and Ramon took a break.
When they returned, Julio gestured for me to come up and take the microphone. He wanted me to sing "Dindi." ("Dindi" is pronounced jin JEE, with the j pronounced like the middle consonant sound in pleasure.) He spoke English to the crowd, asked them to be quiet, which they were happy to do to see what this outlier was going sing to them. Then he said get your tomatoes ready, and he laughed, and the crowd laughed, and then he and Ramon started right in. The song has no instrumental intro -- the singer begins with the first note of music. Didn't look for a key, just started playing the verse. I was ready. "Dindi" has a lot of lyrics, but I'd been going over them in my head while I was waiting to go on, and I picked it up and sang it through. At the end of the song I go out with a coda where I sing O, Dindi repeatedly in a higher register, and Julio and Ramon picked up what I was doing and brought the song to a conclusion the same time I did.
The house went nuts.
Julio asked me to stay up to do another song. We tossed a couple of suggestions back and forth, and in a few seconds it was one, two, one-two-three-four and I did Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin." My friends, I am very doubtful if Frank Sinatra ever saing IGYUMS with two Spanish guitars, but we swung it pretty hard and the response was gratifying. Oh, I admit that it may have been polite enthusiasm, but I was grateful for it nonetheless. I took my bows and sat back down.
[I am amazed that I can't find any still pictures of Julio de la Huerta on the Internets. However, here he is playing at a private party in a different room at the Westgate. He and Ramon are accompanying a young woman who also came to the stage that night. She is not going to make you forget Astrud Gilberto but she makes up for this deficiency with some very impressive underpinnings.]
He called me up later in the evening for another song, something simple like "Unforgettable." But before the evening got late, the crowd began to thin. It was a Monday. These people had to get up the next morning and go to work.
So did I.
As I walked down Broadway back to my hotel, I understood that I'd had a very cool evening. Unlike "Cheers," I'd been somewhere where nobody knew my name. But it didn't matter.
Meandering anecdote finis.
[PS: The more courageous among you can check out my version of "Dindi" on iTunes, recorded in 2003 in Chicago.]
And I have a request.
Julio still plays on Sunday and Monday nights at the Plaza Bar at the Westgate. I reckon I'll be back there someday. And when I do, I'd like to honor that crowd by singing a Spanish-language love song. Who out there knows one they can recommend? Not one that was a hit stateside, but one that would surprise and please a crowd not expecting to hear it. Many thanks.