The epic saga of Tito Larriva, the Plugz and the “St. Paddy’s Day Massacre” at the Elks Lodge, 1979

By on March 16, 2017

Every St. Patrick’s Day we’re reminded once again of the “St. Paddy’s Day Massacre,” an infamous night of LAPD police brutality which took place nearly forty years ago, in 1979, at the Elks Lodge Hall, located near MacArthur Park in downtown Los Angeles.

The last band to take the stage that night, right before everything went to hell, was the great L.A. band, the Plugz, led by Tito Larriva, who are seen here during one of their appearances on everyone’s favorite Night Flight staple, New Wave Theatre.”

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The Plugz at the Cathay de Grande, Hollywood, circa February 1982 (photo by Vincent Ramirez)

Before we kick off this epic saga and tell you about what happened that fateful night in March ’79, we’re going to take this opportunity to suggest to the citizens of Los Angeles that they seriously consider erecting a statue to honor the contributions of one-time resident Tito Larriva, who has certainly made his mark on our city in many, many ways.

At the time, the local L.A. music press and fanzine writers always seemed to identify the Plugz as a Mexican-American punk band from East L.A., but this seems largely to have been a lazy or perhaps easy way to distinguish the Plugz, and perhaps set them apart, from other L.A. bands.

It should be pointed out, however,  that not all of their early lineup featured musicians of Latino descent, and they weren’t from East L.A., either.

Their fans will tell you that they appealed to a wide swatch of L.A.’s punk rock community, and sure, you’d see a loyal following of cholos, vatos, and more than a few pretty Mexican girls in vintage dresses at their club gigs, but you’d also see a lot of gringos, too, including me, your humble writer, as I was a big fan of the band back then.

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The original lineup of the Plugz — who had first formed in 1977 — featured its two core members, Tito Larriva (guitar/vocals) and Charlie “Chalo” Quintana (drums), along with the only Anglo in the group, Barry McBride (bass/backing vocals).

At the time, both Larriva and Quintana could arguably be described as Chicano — a term that was particularly popular in the 60s and 70s, more than it is now — which was frequently used to describe a person of Mexican origin or descent (but not necessarily to describe someone born in Mexico).

Cheech Marin — of Cheech & Chong and “Born in East L.A.” fame — once described a Chicano as “a Mexican-American with a defiant political attitude that centers on his or her right to self-definition.”

The thing is, none of the Plugz were from East L.A., despite what you’d occasionally read about them.

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Larriva, however, was born in Mexico, in Ciudad Juárez, usually just Juárez, on the border of Chihuahua and Texas, across the Rio Grande, just south of El Paso, Texas, which is where Quintana says he was born.

Larriva — born Humberto Lorenzo Rodriquez Larriva — and his family eventually came across the U.S. border to live make a life for themselves in the United States.

In this fascinating 2008 interview we found with Independent Rock Television, broadcasting from Vienna/Austria, Larriva talked a little bit about his childhood, and what it was like to grow up in a very supportive family who encouraged him to be an artist and follow his passions, which early on were both acting and making music.

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The Plugz performing at a club in Hollywood, April 16, 1982 (Photo by Gary Leonard/LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection)

We can’t be entirely sure that any of the details about Larriva’s early life are actually verifiable truths, because there are some fascinating factoids which don’t quite make sense to us.

For instance, he says he lived for a time during his childhood in Fairbanks, Alaska (one of the places he’s also rumored to be currently living, true or not; Wikipedia says he lives in Austin, Texas, though, which makes more sense) and that he snuck into Yale University for a full term before he was kicked out (which also sounds like something you’d make up for a fun bio).

These facts could, for all we know, also be 100% accurate.

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Larriva has also claimed that he and Quintana began playing in garage rock bands in El Paso when they were eleven years old.

He’s also claimed to have attended high school in El Paso with Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. the Night Stalker serial killer (he would later partially inspire a song by one of Larriva’s later ’90s-era bands, Tito & Tarantula, called “Killing Just for Fun.”

There are also some biographies which detail how he traveled to Mexico City in his twenties, where he ended up singing on a televised variety show (when we first met Larriva, many years ago, we do recall having a conversation with him about Mexican payaso Ricardo González Gutiérrez, better known by his stage name, “Cepillín,” who had a TV show at one time, so who knows?).

The late Brendan Mullen, a former club owner and historian of L.A. punk rock, once recalled that Larriva was a “child entertainer from Mexico City,” although he may have been playing along with Larriva’s joke for all we know.

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Move (1978)

Whatever the case, ee do know that by 1975, Larriva was living in Los Angeles — according to another interview we found online, he’d followed a girl here before she split on him to be with Marc Bolan — and at some point he presumably met up with Quintana, or maybe even encouraged him to join him in L.A. the left coast, in order to play music together.

However, an early single by the Plugz (1978’s Move EP) actually features Joe Nanini (later in Wall of Voodoo) as the band’s first drummer, and Larriva and Nanini also played on Night Flight contributor Chris D.‘s 1978 demos too.

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The Plugz in 1978: Joe Nanini, Tito Larriva, and Barry McBride

Larriva pursued music and acting, simultaneously, and began appearing in plays and on TV shows, all of it happening right at the same time that his band, the Plugz, began playing their first shows.

By the time the band were recording tracks for their debut album, Electrify Me, Quintana was definitely one of the best drummers around town (just listen to “A Gain-A Loss” for evidence.

Despite not being included in Penelope Spheeris’s 1981 documentary about the L.A. music scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, Part 1, just ask anyone who was around at the time and they’ll tell you the Plugz were definitely one of the very best bands in L.A., reigning supreme over dozens of lesser bands in Hollywood’s punk rock scene.

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OK, so on to the “St. Paddy’s Day Massacre.”

On Saturday night, March 17, 1979 — which was St. Patrick’s Day that year — the Plugz were just one of the bands on a bill for a show taking place at Elks Lodge Hall, which was located at 607 S. Park View, across from MacArthur Park, a city block west of Alvarado between Sixth and Wilshire, near downtown L.A.

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The venue had originally been built in 1925 for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, who designated Elk’s Lodge 99 as a memorial for members who lost their lives during World War I.

Conceived in the Gothic Revival architectural style, and vaulting up like a jazz-age cathedral, the beautiful neo-gothic building also features a swimming pool in its basement, the sight of indoor swimming events during the 1932 Summer Olympics.

It was later sold by the Elks — at the time the MacArthur Park was a pretty crime-riddled neighborhood — and transformed into one of the most coveted luxury hotels in L.A., the Park Plaza Hotel, before being used as a popular venue for underground punk rock shows (for Scream concerts, for instance), and also hosting rock concerts by Ministry, Jane’s Addiction, Iggy Pop, Soundgarden, the Sugarcubes, and many, many others.

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Interior view of the Lodge Room at the Elks Club on 607 S. Park View Street

Today, the Elks Lodge is called the MacArthur and while the venue/hotel is exclusively used only for events and filming, it is also being restored to its original grandeur.

As it occasionally happens, there were multiple events going on at the Elks Lodge that night — a wedding was being held in either the Gold Room or Bronze Room, whichever is the one located on the second floor — which certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the nearly six hundred L.A. music fans who were heading up the venue’s grand sweeping staircase to the Grand Ballroom, on the third floor, where the actual concert was taking place.

As you might expect from seeing these photos, with its high-vaulted ceilings, ornate statues and mellow gold-brown lighting, the Grand Ballroom felt like it was located within a lavish temple.

If you’ve seen David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, you may recall the gruesome fight scene that takes place early in the film, between Nic Cage’s Sailor Ripley and a hitman named Bobby Ray Lemon, which was filmed on the grand staircase, described by Exene Cervenka in We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk as being “wide enough that twelve people could walk across it in a row.”

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Six bands had been scheduled to play that night — X, the Alley Cats, the Plugz, the Go-Gos, the Zeros and the Wipers (who were from Portland, Oregon) — represented the many nuanced styles of first wave of L.A. punk.

Law student Paul Sanoian and some of his friends were the concert promoters who set up the St. Patrick’s Day show, and the $5 cover charge enabled them to host an all-ages crowd for what was has been described as a highly anticipated show featuring a cross-section of the city’s best bands.

After the Zeros played, the Go-Gos — their lineup still featuring founding members Margot Olavarria (bass) and Ellissa Bello (drums) at the time — played their full set, and they were the last band of the night to do so.

The Plugz, who played next, were actually supposed to be followed by two of L.A.’s best loved bands, the Alley Cats, and X.

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The Go-Gos onstage at the Elks Lodge Hall, March 17, 1979 (photo found here)

It should be mentioned that these were some of the great first wave L.A. punk bands of the mid-to-late 70s, and not the violent so-called “hardcore” punk rockers (who became even more violent as the 1980s dawned, a topic widely discussed by the participants writing for Tom DeSavia’s and John Doe’s Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, published in 2016 by Da Capo Press).

What happened next might depend on whether you can trust the memories of people who were actually there, but from the accounts we’ve read, the LAPD put out a story afterwards saying that there were a couple of undercover cops — wearing denim jeans and jackets and flannel shirts, looking strangely out of place — who were on hand to make sure things didn’t descend into a night of raging punk violence.

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A few of the participants noted that the two obvious undercover cops were down on the ballroom’s main dancefloor and had assumed rather defensive positions as dancers slammed into them, as if they’d never actually been to a punk rock club show before. They later also claimed to have witnessed fistfights in stairwells and punk kids throwing bottles.

The cops may have thought they were witnessing the beginning of some kind of punk fracas and called in reinforcements, and there was also a story going round that someone outside had thrown a beer bottle against the wall of the lodge, which prompted the manager of the venue (Tito has said he thought it was his band’s manager), or the concert promoter, or someone, to call the cops.

Then, the undercover cops apparently left for a brief moment, possibly to go back outside and coordinate their assault with several dozen other riot-geared cops who had showed up.

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Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks — writing in his 2016 memoir, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor — recalled seeing cops preparing for trouble when he was outside the venue:

“I hit the street and turned left and saw dozens of cops lining up on the sidewalk. It looked like it went on for at least a block. They were strapping on their riot gear. The helmets were going on and the plastic shields were coming out. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was about to go down.”

Just as Morris describes, a gang of a half-dozen uniformed LAPD cops began marching into the venue, wearing riot helmets with faceshields, and stormtrooped their way to the third floor ballroom.

There, they began telling everyone seated in theater-like seating on three sides of the main stage, not to mention those gathered in the large middle open space in front of the stage, to leave the premises immediately. Now.

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Keith Morris (left) and Peter Ivers, introducing the Plugz on “New Wave Theatre”

Tito Larriva, who was onstage with the Plugz at the time, was watching what was happening, then grabbed the mic and reportedly telling the crowd, “We’ll play one that the pigs can pogo along with,” before they launched into another song, possibly “The Cause.”

The Plugz had opened their show, if everyone’s memory is correct, with their punked-up fast-paced version of Ritchie Valens rockin’ 1958 hit, “La Bamba,” which actually starts off at a moderate, jaunty pace — the traditional Mexican folk song is kind of a Veracruz sea shanty, after all (“Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán”, or “I am not a sailor, I am a captain”) — before it explodes into a full-blown SoCal Chicano punk anthem (Los Lobos’ hit-single version would arrive six years later).

Typically, it was either the first or the last song of their set, the many times your humble writer saw them play downtown at Al’s Bar (they also played punk clubs the Masque and Madame Wong’s, among others).

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Tony Marsico and Tito Larriva of the Plugz, at Al’s Bar, December 12, 1981

Not that anyone would have noticed unless they knew actual lyrics to “La Bamba,” but one of Larriva’s modified verses had a particular ring of truth to it that night, considering what happened later in their set:

“Surrados capitalistas, surrados capitalistas, mas bien fascistas, yo no soy facista, soy anarchista.”

(Google Translate probably isn’t accurate, but here’s their English translation: “Surprised capitalists, shabby capitalists, rather fascist, I am not a fascist, I am anarchist.”).

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Larriva’s microphone was cut off, but the Plugz continued playing “The Cause” as an instrumental, while out on the dancefloor, the cops began to use their nightsticks to crack the skulls of the fans who had simply come out to see a bunch of great L.A. bands play on St. Patrick’s Day but weren’t complying to their request to leave.

We’ve read that more riot-geared cops — some accounts say there were some sixty officers sent to deal with 600 punks — began pouring up the stairs, lining both sides, past the wedding on the second floor, ordering everyone out.

Once everyone was outside, the LAPD — who had set up a blockade at Sixth and Parkview, forcing everyone to go south, towards Wilshire, despite the fact that the fans may have parked their cards on 6th — began raining down with their police batons in an overt and extreme use of violence against unarmed music fans.

A few of them, retaliated, of course, and began throwing rocks and bottles and whatever other bits of garbage they could lay their hands on, which drew even more blood, which by now was showing bright crimson in the spotlights of the LAPD helicopter that was now illuminating what the LAPD were calling a “riot,” even though pretty much everyone who was actually there says its a ridiculous misuse of the word.

Eight of the concertgoers were arrested (a relatively small number when you consider how many were attacked by the cops for absolutely no reason), and one LAPD cop even went on Rodney Bingenheimer’s KROQ radio show that same night and blamed the punks for causing all the problems.

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Within a day or so there was a press conference, held at the Masque in Hollywood, with both sides presenting what had happened.

The story just didn’t die off like many of the familiar LAPD “police brutality” stories do today, which is why we’re still writing about it all these years later.

A lot of L.A.’s best known music journalists — many who were in attendance that night — wrote about what they’d seen, about the completely unnecessary police brutality, claiming that what they’d witnessed first-hand was instigated entirely by aggro cops bent on beating up kids for apparently no reason.

Night Flight contributor Chris Morris (who was then writing for the L.A. Reader, an L.A. Weekly rival periodical), in an article titled “A New Wave of Police Brutality,” wrote that the audience was “one of the most placid, polite” he’d seen at a show, and that the mood was “largely festive and celebratory” before things turned ugly:

“The only people who were out of control were the police. The LAPD was clearly looking for any excuse to close the show, and, without even the feeblest of pretexts, they came in and did what they do best and enjoy most – busting heads open. It was a classic example of an unmotivated small-scale police riot.”

Read the rest of Chris’s first-hand account here.

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Several different writers for the L.A. Times also wrote about what they’d seen, including Kristine McKenna, who famously chronicled the early L.A. punk rock scene for the Times between 1977-1998:

“The only time I saw people throw bottles was after police had angered and frightened them by their rough tactics. Usually, when you deal with the police, you can establish some dialogue or logic with them. This time there was none.”

Kenneth Freed in the L.A. Times claimed that the LAPD had said they hadn’t targeted the punk kids beforehand, and Robert Hilburn, a few days later on March 20, 1979, devoted a lot of ink to the story for his article entitled “Police and Fans Disagree on Raid at Rock Show: Concertgoers Outraged but L.A.P.D. Defends Tactics.”

(The Times also reported that an officer-in-charge said they’d only gone into the lodge because it was a “real life-or-death situation”).

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Flipside fanzine’s Al Flipside — in an editorial published in July ’79 and accompanied by photos of people who’d been beaten by cops without provocation — said that the Elks Lodge police riot was followed by what he said were “two grim months,” during which the collective L.A. punk scene became a “recognized sub-culture,” no doubt a more violent one that attracted aggressive crowds who came to punk rock shows pretty much expecting to fight with the cops.

From that point on, the police tried to blacklist everyone who’d been on the bill that night at the Elks Lodge, and L.A. club owners were told they’d lose their liquor license if they booked those vile, troublemaking bands.

The L.A. fire marshall also began regularly coming to shows and shutting the down for violating fire codes, while the LAPD also ended a lot of club shows early by citing and enforcing club capacity limits.

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Violence did indeed become fairly commonplace at L.A. punk rock shows thereafter, depending on who was playing that night, but none of the fans of the bands on the bill at the Elks Lodge on March 17, 1979, were really ever that violent, not even X’s fans.

By the way, we were in attendance a few times at some of these shows which often provoked brutal cop intervention, including an infamous show by Black Flag at a venue called the “Hideaway” (actually it was a storage unit), which also ended with cops in riot gear showing up after a car was pushed through the wall of the “club.”

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What actually happened on that pivotal night at the Elks Lodge Hall — which came to be known as the “Saint Paddy’s Day Massacre” or the “Elks Lodge Riot, ” among other descriptive names — became the veritable “talk of the town” for many weeks thereafter.

A few L.A. bands even ended up writing songs about what happened on St. Patrick’s Day in ’79 (like the Gears’ “Elks Lodge Blues,” seen here during a performance on “New Wave Theatre,” the lyrics for which were printed up in the October 1980 issue of Flipside, a year and a half after the actual event), an infamous night during the last year of the decade that became a kind of watershed moment and actually likely served to create even more violence in the L.A. punk scene thereafter.

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The Plugz backstage at the Olympic, May 1980 (photo by Michael Hyatt)

Barry McBride would leave the Plugz sometime after the release of Electrify Me, their debut album on the band’s own label, Plugz Records, and by late 1980, Tony Marisco was the band’s permanent bassist.

Larriva — along with Chicano silkscreen printmaker Richard Duardo and music promoter Yolanda Ferrer, who provided some of the initial funds — would soon have a new label, Fatima Records, in order to release the Plugz recordings, including their subsequent self-released single, “Achin'”/”La Bamba” (it was eventually re-released in 1981, which is why the single is usually dated erroneously to this second pressing in most Plugz discographies).

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Fatima founders Richard Duardo and Tito Larriva of the Plugz stand with Dan Segura in the Zero Zero Gallery, where Latino new wave art is on display, circa 1980 (LAPL archives)

The single featured great cover art and design by production designer Gary Panter, an L.A. illustrator associated with Slash Magazine.

Panter would go on to illustrate the cover of the Plugz’ next album, Better Luck, which was released in December of 1981.

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It should be noted that the band’s second album represented a considerable growth and was a much more restrained and polished effort, and came after a long period during which the band began to mature.

Quintana would, at the time of its release, tell the L.A. Times that they’d recorded an entire album’s worth of songs prior to its release, but they hadn’t released any of those recordings, believing that too many of their fans would have written them off as sounding “one dimensional.”

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We should end this epic blog by mentioning that — in addition to making appearances on “New Wave Theatre” — the Plugz, and specifically Tito Larriva, have been involved in many projects near and dear to Night Flight’s heart, if there is such an organ.

On May 4, 1980, the Plugz (billed as “Los Plugz”) were one of the bands who played with Public Image Ltd., the confrontational quartet fronted by John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, at the Olympic Auditorium.

Also featured that night was an early performance by Los Lobos, and you can read all about what happened at the concert in Chris Morris’s 2016 book, Los Lobos: Dream in Blue, published in 2016 by the University of Texas Press. (Read an excerpt here).

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The official poster for the Public Image Ltd. show before Los Lobos were added as a replacement for .45’s

Larriva also produced acts for Fatima Records (including the Brat’s 3-song debut EP) and other labels, and in particular he produced some of the best recordings by Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s band, the Gun Club, later released on their iconic album Fire of Love, including “She Is Like Heroin To Me,” “For the Love of Ivy,” “Cool Drink of Water” and “Goodbye Johnny.”

(Chris Desjardins, a.k.a. Chris D., produced the other songs on the album, which was released on Chris D.’s Ruby Records imprint, distributed by Slash Records, where Pierce worked during the day, boxing up record shipments).

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By 1981, Tito Larriva would also become known — especially to many of his fans in L.A. — for his role as “Hammy,” the ham sandwich-eating friend of Pee Wee Herman, appearing on “The Pee Wee Herman Show,” which had an eight-month run starting at L.A.’s Groundlings Theater (then-Groundling member Phil Hartman appears as Captain Carl) before finally closing at the Roxy Theatre, where it was taped for airing on HBO.

In 1983, the Plugz — whose lineup by this time had expanded with the addition of lead guitarist Steven Hufsteter — licensed one of their songs (“Adolescent”) for use in a student film, Scarred, which was the first feature-length production for Alex Cox, another UCLA film student, which may be how Tito Larriva and Cox originally met.

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Their friendship would lead to Larriva and the Plugz working on the soundtrack for Cox’s upcoming film project, Repo Man, recording two new tracks — “Hombre Secreto,” which was their Spanish-language cover of “Secret Agent Man” and an original instrumental,” Reel Ten” — and licensing an older tune, “El Clavo Y La Cruz,” for the soundtrack.

Larriva would later describe working on Repo Man as the beginning of his career in the film industry.

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Then, in 1984-’85, Larriva and his band contributed music to the infamous adult film starring a jailbait Traci Lords, New Wave Hookers, our most popular blog ever, which we told you about here.

Their tune “Electrify Me” was also featured on the soundtrack to its first sequel, New Wave Hookers 2, and not only that, but the Plugz music can also be heard in The Devil in Miss Jones 3 and 4 too.

Larriva and Hufsteter also contributed music to Jonathan Demme’s 1985 TV play “Survival Guides,” which was broadcast on PBS and starred Rosanna Arquette and David Byrne, right around the time that the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense was screening in theaters.

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In 1984, Bob Dylan performed “Jokerman” on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman,” with a band that featured two members of the Plugz

Quintana and Marsico, meanwhile, joined Bob Dylan’s backing band for his March 22, 1984, appearance on David Letterman’s NBC talk show (they performed three songs, “Jokerman,” “Sweetheart Like You,” and a blues number called “Don’t Start Me Talking”). You can read more about that here.

By the 1990s — after the Plugz had already morphed into the Cruzados, who released two mainstream rock albums on Arista Records, featuring a more theatrical sound, with an emphasis on spaghetti western bravado — Larriva would strike up an ongoing relationship (as an actor and musician both) with director Robert Rodriguez.

He was memorably cast as Tavo, a Mexican bar bouncer thug, in 1995’s Desperado, which was a sequel to an earlier film of Rodriguez’s, the low-budget indie film El Mariachi.

(You may remember, if you’ve seen the film, that Larriva gets to murder a character played by Rodriguez’s good friend and producer, Quentin Tarantino).

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Larriva and Cheech Marin in Desperado

Larriva’s musical output continued to evolve, and he would end up fronting a number of bands and musical projects — including Psychotic Aztecs, Tito & Tarantula, and Tito & Friends — but it was his cinematic career that truly flourished.

He joined the cast of David Byrne’s directorial debut film, True Stories, as “Ramon,” the norteño bandleader and resident of the eccentric town of Virgil, Texas, who claims he has telepathic powers.

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Umberto “Tito” Larriva, True Stories

Larriva appeared in several of Rodriguez’s other Mexican action films — 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, 2007’s Grindhouse and 2010’s Machete — and contributed music to the soundtracks for some of these projects, but it would be impossible for us to mention all of the film and TV projects he’s been involved with (check his IMDB page if you’d like to know more).

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Check out the Plugz on New Wave Theatre — we’ve got the Best of “New Wave Theatre” up on our Night Flight Plus channel — and stay tuned for more historically-themed posts about L.A. bands who were featured on the show.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.