Not All Is Quiet on the Western Front

California dreamin': dios malos
Big Hassle

One night last year I got a phone call. I heard a motor knock and growl behind the second song on the dios malos CD, and then I heard a voice: "This makes me feel like a truck driver thinking about his relationships," said the voice. Yeah, I said, because it was true. That's rock 'n' roll, that lovelorn truck driver: the car on the cruise and the love unrequited, motion and emotion, pop music at its light-dark/yin-yang/male-female heart.

Dios--who changed their name to dios malos after flab-rock washout Ronnie James Dio put the legal on them--was a band from an L.A. corridor city called Hawthorne, and they were going to be huge. They weren't stupid, and they worked hard, and they made music people might actually want to listen to. I used to drive around at night listening to them, so I knew what that voice meant. I asked their bass player J.P. Caballero about the truck driver thing; he laughed and said he wished truck drivers could relate to his band, and then he said he used to just get in his car and drive all night sometimes, too.

To pull it from the press, you'd figure dios malos put on Pet Sounds for breakfast and had their lunchtime sandwiches in an indoor sandbox. Besides sharing Brian Wilson's hometown and a thing for spooky orchestral accents--the same impulse that put a theremin on "Good Vibrations"--dios also had a set of brothers as its songwriting engine, which was enough to turn them into the Mexican Beach Boys for a few months in the magazines. But they weren't all Mexican--drummer Jackie Monzon was from...Venezuela?--and they were just as happy to spend dinner talking about how Black Flag had fought the good fight for so long: To be able to control everything you did, to not have to take shit from anybody... they'd say between bites of pizza after playing miniature golf at the course where keyboard player Jimmy Cabeza de Vaca used to work. (They'd try to pay for it themselves instead of letting the reporter eat the tab.) They used to have T-shirts that showed Wilson with DIOS written across his forehead. But that was right at the end of what singer/guitarist Joel Morales called "summer vacation": five years of crummy coffeehouse shows and the unfocused tension between aimlessness and ambition that a lot of bands never get through. "Yeah..." J.P. would say carefully. "We're trying to distance ourselves from that a little."

On their most recent tour, the songs in dios' van were by Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, T. Rex, and the Beatles, along with some Smile CD-Rs and the Lord of the Rings and Charles Barkley audio books they'd checked out from the Hawthorne Public Library. And the songs they played--except in Nashville, where they got fuck-it drunk and did three Beck covers in a row--were sleepy, loopy, funny, or sometimes sad songs that swirled like snowflakes around the big-eyed kids out in the crowd. They were songs like Emitt Rhodes's or Paul McCartney's (sure he played guitar!) or Van Morrison's: good, honest, kid-with-guitar songs teased and coaxed through samplers and keyboards into... well, not quite teenage symphonies, but into something that could drive you around for hours.

The hit was going to be "Starting Five," the single off their self-titled album on Star Time: Wilson Bros. falsetto in the chorus, a guitar splash like a handshake, a bass line to ride like a playground slide. But they had one called "50 Cent" that I always waited for: Joel drowsily strumming away by himself, the rest of the room flaking away to gray, the rest of dios dissolving into flatness as they tune and cough and crack knuckles and study their shoes. Eventually it'd just be Joel--an acoustic guitar over his shoulder, so quiet you could hear his sweater gnawing at the strap, so quiet you could hear the pick nicking each string. You'd get every word spooned right up to your lips: "Growing old is always hard to do/Empathize and realize that it's happening to you/Just one more day and one more month and one more year until/Your body goes, your mind implodes, your wife's left with the bill..."

They wrote in a tiny space for audience members to catch their breath, just before that last note would flex and uncoil, before they'd all tap a finger or two at once and let it go: "You and I know/You don't understand a thing I say/So I won't go away, no/You don't understand a thing I say/So I..." But you'd never get the last word. Could be lie, cry, try, die--they all work, don't they? Because by then the song would rear up underneath him and Joel would put his back to the crowd and it was slow-mo fireworks that run as long as they want them to run. I guess it made me feel like a truck driver, because I thought about my relationships.

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