Surfing The Rio Grande

11/02/2009 05:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's hard to say exactly what inspired me to record my new CD ¡Let Freedom Ring! in Mexico City amidst warring drug war lords, brown-outs, CNN swine flu hysteria, 6.4 earthquakes and shakedowns by the policia. But it's also easy to explain: the songs themselves lead me there.

"It's like the 60s down here. It's a musical revolution down here," my friend Jason said. And he lives in what the ex-pats and the natives call 'The Big Shitty' - not to denigrate that beautiful place but to recognize the airborne human coliform bacteria in the air.

The crew suggested itself: old pal Rusty Miller put his singer songwriter career on hold, borrowed a bass and jumped at the chance to play with Ernest "Boom" Carter (the man show played drums on Springsteen's "Born to Run"). Tom Ayres didn't take much convincing to play guitar.

We went chasing the songs.

Ten years ago in Mexico, when the MTV filters where in full effect, the typical Chilanggno's exposure to new music might not extend past the Rage Against The Machine or mega platinum Hip Hop music. Now thanks to My Space, MP3's and social networking, the filters are switched off. These days in Mexico, the most obscure music is available to anyone and everyone -- and they're going nuts with it. There's energy in the air. Bands sprouting up out of the cracked sidewalks. These days any kid can find the weird culture that suits him on the Web. It's surreal, but a delight, to see gangs of kids walking down the street in the Roma Norte district dressed as if they were in Kings of Leon.

Last summer, I caught an inspirational virus during a rare San Francisco heat wave, and with the windows open wide during what was remains as raw a time in the American Experience as I can remember, and with a stack of Class of '78 power pop records on the hi-fi (reminding me why I got into this lunacy in the first place), I pulled a batch of tunes out of the air.

The songs that spilled out were filled with capitalist hustlers, immigrant strugglers, widowed mothers, and the terrible freedoms of a free market economy run riot. Songs like "Sonny Liston's Blues," about a man with a heart few saw, whom many thought a monster, equal parts myth and reality -- much like the American Dream.

To wake up excited about anything is a rare gift where I hail from. I began to refer to the songs as "political songs for non-political people." Not being much of a political person myself, when I stood back and squinted, what seemed to tie all the songs together was the fact that they were all really just photographs of people living in an anxious time.

I needed the right ship of fools to surf the Rio with. This wasn't Graceland. We weren't after Mariachi horns or some musical hybrid. We were just after the energy of the place.

With this combination of old and new friends, it all came together when I charmed Greg Leisz to co-produce this tight four-piece outfit. Greg and I go back. When Greg's behind the glass I know I can't con him. [I'm a hustler after all]. He counters my manic energy with his cool presence; Greg Leisz is seizmo-cool. Steady as a rock. I'd need his calm presence. I played Greg some songs and I sheepishly made the pitch about Mexico. After a pause, Greg said, "That could work."

Now with a stack of IOU's printed down at Kinko's and five plane tickets for the Big Shitty, we were off and running. MC, only four hours by plane but might as well be the other side of the moon.

I got lucky. I had a kite and the wind was shifting.

So, just as the bottom was falling out of the wet sack of the American Dream here at home, what better vantage to aim the telescope downhill than from an ancient city 7,000 feet high, the "city of eternal spring?" Chilangos were my teachers and now my friends. It's good to have friends in uncertain times.


In today's shrinking economy the cheap rates for a studio was also making more sense.

Estudio 19: a state of the art studio (for 1958 or so) I discovered with it's tight bamboo lined room replete with Eisenhower era equipment was perfect for what the songs needed,; perfect for the minimal twin guitar, bass, drums sound we were going for. We arrived and proceeded to beg, borrow or steal whatever amps and extra guitars we could find. And yes, we did get shaken down by the cops, but maybe that's how much of the world sees us: the cops who shook 'em down. I shrugged my shoulders and paid.

Then came the Swine Flu and all the CNN hysteria that came along with it. The National Guard shut the city down and we had to wear blue surgical masks just to fit in. We'd go around at night and tap on restaurant doors of the tamale joints, hoping to get inside. Suddenly a city of 27 million was a ghost town.

What were you doing when the plague came and the world cracked in two?

The chaos wasn't just in the studio; there was chaos at every turn. Getting that ancient gear to behave took some doing. Here's my Twitter entry from 6:47am, AM Apr 26th: Deadly flu virus, power goes out mid-take, studio blows up two hard drives. All in all I'm a charmed SOB.

The sessions got tense. Fraught even. One night while our driver waited outside for an hour with the meter running in the taxi, we circled in on a final take only to get stalled with one technical interruption after another. After too many broken headphone connections or power outages in the middle of the song, I threw my headphones down, turned to one of the engineers and said, "Man, the power keeps going out, we've got to do something!"

He said, "Yeah, I know, but it's back on now and the music sounds beautiful." I decided to believe him. I learned a lot there. These people were my teachers.

Then the rumors began circulating that we may not get out of the country. It was true. They were checking people for temperatures at the Aeroporto.

And my surgical mask at this point wasn't smelling so hot. And as a matter of revenge and admiration combined, I should point out that the writer Guy Neal Williams bugged out and boarded the last departing plane before the clampdown. I told my wife, "I'll catapult my way back in if I have to!"

Let Freedom Ring.

It made a band of us, not just a bunch of musicians mowing through chord changes. There was strain and triumph in every take. Mexico was magical. What do you expect?

Mexico introduced chocolate to the world.

You can make friends and lose them. You sing a song together. You get them back.

Chuck Prophet
Somewhere in England
October 2009