Héctor Ramírez

 

Interview with The Premiers, American Bandstand (1964)

An Erased Mural


LOCATION: East of the L.A. river, in the air, every time a cover comes on the radio


Dick Clark asks Frank Zuniga for his first name. It is likely that Frank knows that this is because you can’t say Zuniga on television.

 

After the interview, the studio audience and the viewers at home will know only that The Premiers, whose single, “Farmer John”, will remain a Top 20 hit all summer long, is composed of: Frank, Johnny, Lawrence, and George. It is likely that most of the studio audience and the viewers at home will die before learning the band’s family names: Zuniga, Perez, and Delgado.

 

It is likely that most of the band could pass for Italian if they keep their answers short. At least, until they are betrayed by their Chicano accents. But it is also likely that their accents come through in the song already, that they can be detected by a careful ear. And it is very likely that Frank, the shortest and brownest of the four, by now knows only too well that he can pass for nothing but Mexican—on American Bandstand and anywhere else in America.

 

Is passing a privilege that Frank desires, or a version of betrayal he despises? Or both? What does it mean for him, Frank Zuniga from San Gabriel, to be on American Bandstand right now? Frank may not be asking himself these questions, now, as the fake-live recording comes in over the speakers, and he moves his fingers nervously along the strings in time with the track, and he shuffles his feet from side to side in sync with George and Lawrence the best he can; but he does wonder, definitely but just for a moment, if he still really wants any of this, or if he ever did.

 

Frank does not, most likely, worry about how white audiences will react upon discovering the extent of the Mexicanness of The Premiers, a band made famous for their version of a song containing the lyrics: Farmer John / I’m in love with your daughter. / The one / with the champagne eyes. At least, not yet.

 

Frank doesn’t remember this, but every night for the past three weeks he has had the same dream. Right now, Frank is not thinking about his restless nights or wondering about his dreams—he is just smiling, swaying, waiting for the song to end.

 

In the dream, Ritchie Valens leans over Frank’s bed, his face inches away from Frank’s. He shouts in Spanish: Give it up! Give it up! Then the ghost of the L.A. river cracks the glass of Frank’s bedroom window, and torrents of black water flood the room. The water rises, buoying furniture and soaking the sheets. At this point in the dream, Frank realizes he can’t move his arms or legs, and that his jaw has clamped shut. Ritchie presses his palms into Frank’s shoulders, grits his teeth...

 

Dick Clark does not ask if this song, “Farmer John,” is a cover of another song. The studio audience and the viewers at home will most likely never know that this song is, in fact, a cover. The original version, recorded by Don & Dewey in 1959, will remain a forgotten rock and roll footnote. It will be erased like a mural, over which this mural will one day be painted and, most likely, erased again.

 

Meanwhile: Sra. Pérez is throwing an American Bandstand viewing party at her San Gabriel home. She strides into the living room, refilling glasses and chatting with guests, bursting with pride at the success of her sons and their friends—after all, she was the one who came up with the name for the band; it was her backyard that the boys practiced in when they were just getting started; and she was the one who hired their manager, Billy Cardenas, to book them better gigs and get them on the radio. The Zúñiga and Delgado families families will be invited to the party, of course, as will all the neighbors, friends, and relatives on the block. There will be plenty of food and music, but: what kind of music? Will they be listening to “Farmer John”? Or will somebody’s cousin say he’s tired of that song, que ya me cansé con esa pinche canción can we put on something else already? Will they argue over it for long? Will the mothers all insist on playing the single at least three more times? Or: will they have a record player at all? Will there be live music? A mariachi band? Or will they all just sing: Farmer John, a handful of rancheras, and maybe their favorite Ritchie Valens tunes, off key, until the boys take the stage?

 

Dick Clark does not ask if The Premiers consider themselves a Chicano rock band. Nor does Dick Clark ask if The Premiers consider themselves to be the first Chicano rock band to really “make it,” in the white American rock and roll style of obscuring black artists.

 

At this moment, as he stands sweating on stage in front of a visibly unimpressed studio audience, trying to avoid Dick Clark’s eyes and questions and, probably, thinking about his mother watching him on television back home, it is not likely that Frank is considering his role in this racist American musical tradition. If anything, Frank is more likely wondering if Dick Clark, the studio audience, or the viewers at home will ever discover that their live recording of “Farmer John” was not, in fact, recorded live at the Rhythm Room in Fullerton; it was actually recorded in a small studio in Hollywood, overdubbed with the cheers of a group of girls from the Chevelles car club, who were brought in to scream as if they were at a Beatles concert, to mimic a live recording that never happened.

 

“And away we go with American Bandstand on a Saturday! It’s guest time and this of course, I guess, is uh, along with the Bobby Freeman record certainly one of the hottest records of the last few weeks: ladies and gentlemen, here are The Premiers with ‘Farmer John!’”

 

Dick Clark says these words, and the boys begin their lip sync performance, and their families, perhaps, are squeezed together in a living room watching it all on a small television set. But are The Premiers really performing? What are they performing, if you could call it that? What does it mean to lip sync to one’s own phony live recording on American Bandstand, holding guitars that aren’t plugged in mouthing air into cold microphones? What do you call a fake live recording of a fake live recording? This is what Frank wonders, as he shuffles his feet and sways his bass guitar, wishing he was home.

 

Dick Clark does not ask Frank if he has been sleeping well since the success of “Farmer John.” He does not ask what Frank dreamt of the night before the Premiers flew to Philadelphia to appear on American Bandstand. It is likely that Frank hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, that he lies awake wondering about his future in ways he never thought possible before, that his sleep is restless and anxious and full of excitement and a kind of terror.

 

Frank's mother leans against the arm of the couch in Sra. Pérez's sala. She watches her son shift his weight from left leg to right and inch his way closer to the edge of the stage, away from the camera frame. She can hardly see him on Sra. Pérez's television, but she can tell he is trying to hide behind his bass guitar, which appears almost as big as he is. She wonders: what has my son been dreaming about these past few weeks? She has noticed that it’s been more and more difficult for Frank to wake up in the mornings. Lately, she’s had to enter his room three, four times to wake him before he could finally pull himself out of bed.

 

She hasn’t told him this, for fear of worrying him too much before all his touring and recording, but Frank has been screaming in his sleep. The screams are short, explosive little yelps, followed by rapid breaths. As if he is being held underwater and struggling to break the surface. The first time this happened, Frank’s mother ran into his bedroom and threw the lights on shouting: Ay, mijo, ¿qué pasó, qué pasó, qué tienes mijito? But Frank didn’t wake up. Drenched in sweat, blankets knotted at his feet, he just rolled over onto his side, whimpering, until his breaths slowed.

 

Dick Clark does, however, ask this: does Frank Zuniga know how far away his hometown, San Gabriel, CA is from where they are now: the West Philadelphia studio where American Bandstand is recorded?

 

How far is it from where you're from to where you are? When Frank does not answer, Dick Clark mocks him: I look at him and there’s a vacant expression on his face. He doesn’t have any idea—don’t you live there? Frank tells Dick Clark that yeah, he lives there, and laughs, but it is almost certain that Frank does not want to be on that stage in that moment.

 

Back at the party: when the Premiers finally take the stage, will everyone crowd around the small television in the sala and listen? Or will they be too busy cheering and drinking to hear their boys lip sync to the song of the summer? When the interview starts, will they hear Dick Clark not ask for their family names? Or will they be too excited to care? Will a politically active uncle launch into a speech about the difficulties faced by Mexican-Americans today? Or will there just be: more dancing, more cheering, more drunk neighbors challenging each other to see who can sing Farmer John the best?

 

I’m in loooove with your daughter // Oohh-ohhhhhhhhhh!

 

When Dick Clark mocks Frank Zuniga, will Frank’s mother see it? If she does, will she take offense, or will she focus on: her beautiful, small, brown son, performing and smiling on national television? Does Frank have a cousin at the party who is making fun of him right now? Saying something like, Híjole, Frank doesn’t even know where we live, damn cousin you’re making us look bad on TV! But really, who could answer such a question: how far is San Gabriel from here?

 

How far is it from where you’re from to you are? Would Dick Clark know, if he was shown a map? Is Dick Clark asking for this information as an exact distance? In miles? In kilometers? In songs? In accents? How far is San Gabriel from Philadelphia, really? How many distances are we tracking? ¿Qué es lo que apartan las distancias? Las disatancias apartan las ciudades, pero: how far is the Philadelphia of Dick Clark from the San Gabriel of The Premiers? Or the Pacoima of Ritchie Valens? Or the Mexico of their parents? And where is the ghost of Ritchie Valens now? Is he in the record player at the Perez home in San Gabriel, waiting for Frank to dream again? Is he possessing the Fender Jazzmaster bass guitar in Frank’s hands? Is he hovering in the airwaves? Or sitting in the studio audience, watching Dick Clark ask Frank about distance and home?

 

When Dick Clark mocks Frank Zuniga's vacant expression, when he says, sardonically, Don’t you live there, he is most likely not insinuating: that Frank Zuniga is not really from San Gabriel, and that, by extension, he is from somewhere else, and that he is really an illegal Mexican immigrant thrust into fame without license; or that Frank’s expression is vacant because he does not understand the question because he does not speak English; or that when he and Lawrence Perez are, years later, to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, Dick Clark will live the rest of his life
forgetting he ever met them, or ever learned their first names, or ever learned where they were from, or ever asked how far their home was from where he stood that day. This is because Dick Clark was most likely the good man that he is, and forever will be, remembered to have been. Yes, Dick Clark will be remembered by many. And Frank Zuniga will, most definitely, remain just as unremembered.

 

Héctor Ramírez is the son of a formerly undocumented immigrant father from Tijuana, México and a Mexican mother from Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. He is a Xicano writer and educator from Covina, California, currently living in Colorado.

 

Héctor received his B.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University in 2012 and his MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2018. Currently, he works as the Assistant Director of the CU Boulder Upward Bound program, and he also co-curates the Bettering American Poetry anthology series along with Sarah Clark and Amy King. His work has appeared in LIT, Apogee, Muzzle Magazine, The Café Irreal, American Book Review, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and elsewhere. 

 

"Interview with the Premiers, American Bandstand (1964): An Erased Mural" is an excerpt from a novel in progress about muralism, memory, music, family, identity, and death in & because of Boyle Heights.

 

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