By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
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By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
"Freddy Fender, he's badass," says Gaborno of the Tex-Mex legend known for his sweet croon, chubby features and magnificent Mexi-mullet. The man born Baldemar Garza Huerta was a staple of Mexican-American households during the 1970s, including those of Soto and Gaborno. "Him and the Texas Tornadoes, they were like the MC5. They were originals, doing their own thing."
But it was all talk until one day, when Soto's band at the time, Joyride, had to cancel a show at the legendary Linda's Doll Hut. At the Doctor Dream offices, Renfrow, Soto, Gaborno and Torres—then a roadie for the Cadillac Tramps—discussed what they should do. Rivera passed by the office. He was Mexican; the band was done. The show was obvious.
"There was no way we could learn any new songs," Soto says. "So we just decided to do punk songs we all knew by heart, but Mexicanize them."
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They picked some of their favorite punk classics, decided to dress as cholos, named themselves Manic Hispanic after the Manic Panic brand of hair dye, and would let the performance dictate itself. No one from the band can remember that first night, but Doll Hut doyenne Linda Jemison recorded it. The tape circulated through the OC scene, and their following show at Cal State Fullerton's on-campus pub was "packed." For their third performance, at Club Mesa, they convinced Lujan, road manager for the Tramps, to join them. Lujan had never played in a band. "I kept saying, 'I can't do it. I can't do it. I can't sing a song,'" he says. "Then someone said, 'Don't be a pussy.' Then it was on!"
After that sold-out show, the group figured they should create personas to only further the merriment. Rivera became Chino "because he smoked so much weed that his eyes were closed," Lujan says with a laugh. Renfrow picked Oso; Torres transformed into Mo Grease, befitting his rockabilly tendencies. Lujan turned into Tío; Soto, as the whitest member, picked Hoakie; Gaborno—naturally—was El Jefe. They looped in another Mexican punk, Steve Acevedo, and christened him Mad Ralphie because Gaborno thought he resembled Ralph Macchio.
One day, after another band canceled a recording session at Doctor Dream, Soto got Manic Hispanic together to record a demo in a day and a half. That eventually turned into a record. Filled with hilarious asides, furious note-for-note covers, skits, shout-outs and Spanglish, The Menudo Incident was the Manic stage show captured. There was even a remake of "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" as a memorial to the original Freddy Fender cover-band idea. The record sold well, and Manic became a fixture on the OC punk scene through the 1990s, playing festivals and dives alike. "Any time they wanted to play, we'd have them," says Jack Martinez of Black Flys sunglasses. "They were our house band. Cinco de Mayo, backyard, private parties, public parties—all of it. It's legit punk rock. It can turn into a riot at any given minute. They're like the ultimate OC cult band."
But the band's popularity never extended enough beyond Orange County to warrant full-fledged tours. And the idea that Manic Hispanic could've been more if only they took themselves more seriously stuck to them them almost immediately. A Los Angeles Times critic in 1994, just a year into their existence, dismissively wrote that Manic Hispanic seemed "far less concerned with incisive satire or parodic musical transformation than with having a good, rowdy, no-brainer time with songs they grew up loving. . . . [They] didn't indicate much thought or effort given to reshaping these oldies into something distinctly new or especially funny."
Manic plead guilty as charged to accusations they could've been bigger. "Aspirations? None," says Torres, scoffing at the very notion of respectability.
"We were all in different bands back then," Soto says more philosophically. "If we had really cracked down and tried to make a run of it, who knows how far we could've gone?"
* * *
In December 2009, Soto was touring with the Squirrel Nut Zippers when he received a call: Gaborno had suffered a stroke. Just a couple of days earlier, he underwent open-heart surgery.
"I felt sick to my stomach," Soto says. He let the other members know, and they rushed to Gaborno's bedside to hold vigil.
The 2000s had been good to Manic. They released three more records: The Recline of Mexican Civilization in 2001, the 2003 effort Mijo Goes to Jr. College, and 2005's Grupo Sexo. Each was a comedy classic and expanded their repertoire to include Green Day ("Welcome to Paramount" instead of "Welcome to Paradise") and Minor Threat—"Out of Step (With the World)" became "Out of Step (With La Raza)". Their Cinco de Mayo shows, alternating between what's now the Observatory (where they'll play this Sunday) and the House of Blues, became as much an annual OC tradition as the swallows returning to Capistrano and perhaps the only place in America where whites and Mexicans could smash into one another and not take it personally. And if they did? Gaborno would stop the shows, get the culprits onstage and make them kiss.