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The battered '84 Blazer parked in Keith Secola's driveway looks out of place in his suburban Tempe neighborhood. Yet it's fitting that the vehicle is there--it could be the model for Secola's nearly famous song "Indian Cars."
That single song--a fusion of folk-rock, Indian chanting and the heartbeat pulse of the powwow drum--has colored his career for 14 years, changing the direction of his songwriting and earning him faithful audiences on Indian reservations from the Grand Canyon to Hudson Bay as well as a cult following in Europe.
Secola's mother was an Anishinabe Indian (better known as Chippewa in the United States and Ojibwa in Canada), his dad was an Italian immigrant and, like his wheels, he looks a bit out of place in placid suburbia. His long, straight hair, held in place by a bandanna, frames a full, craggy face. The left side of his lower lip droops slightly, giving him a hard-bitten edge. His tough looks belie a gentle manner, though, the way his Tempe home masks its Indian ownership (although inside are such giveaways as a wood flute, an adobe oven and an Ojibwa war club).
Secola's signature song, "Indian Cars," begins with an insistent, pounding beat and a wiry electric-guitar line that sounds like rock 'n' roll, but not quite. As Secola coaxes a melody derived from an Indian chant out of his guitar, it becomes clear the insistent beat is powwow drumming. He sounds like an Indian Bruce Springsteen as he sings "My car is dented/The radiator steams/One headlight don't work/The radio can scream/I got a sticker that says 'Indian power'/I stuck it on my bumper/That's what holds my car together."
The lyrics and sound were taken to heart by Native audiences the way that "Born to Run" galvanized white working-class listeners, and the song got airplay on college and Native American radio. (Enough so that Norman Jewison incorporated the song into his Indian-themed movie Dance Me Outside in 1994.)
"He's right on in his lyrics," says Tim Giago, an award-winning columnist for Indian Country Today, based in Rapid City, South Dakota. "You almost have to be a reservation Indian to understand what he's talking about. Among ourselves, we say the best mechanics are Indian mechanics because they can take baling wire and fix anything."
Giago, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, notes that his own paper held a contest in which readers were asked to send in photos of the ugliest Indian car. "It's a big joke!" Giago says.
Secola says the lyrics to "Indian Cars" may sound funny, but they're about "the richness of being poor." He sees the ironic humor as a means of deflecting the bitter realities of poverty by celebrating the spirit of survival. "You operate with what the environment gives you, and then you truly live as a spontaneous man," Secola says.
A performer who likes to lend his services to environmental and social causes, Secola seems politically aware. So, does he worry that the song could reinforce racist stereotypes?
"You have to, as an artist, sometimes rely on the intelligence of people," Secola says. "I don't really worry about that because I think that people have to come to their own understandings of music and art."
He employs a similar ironic humor in calling his touring group Wild Band of Indians, and in the song "Fry Bread," another popular tune.
Secola admits that one reason he attracts listeners in Europe is because American Indians are a novelty there. "That makes them curious enough to come out and hear Native performers. Then, I think, the passion and the likability of the music takes over. It has to be more than a novelty to have staying power. You can't just show up in your chief outfit. That's something I want to stay away from--'chiefing!'"
But isn't presenting a song like "Indian Cars" to an audience that far off the rez a bit like chiefing--pandering to the crowd with a stereotypical image?
"We're not wearing beads and feathers," Secola says. "We're deeper than beads and feathers."
The success of "Indian Cars" helped Secola establish his own record company, Akina, in 1988. He has sold more than 10,000 albums in Europe and hopes to sell another 4,000 this summer.
Yet the Tempe resident remains a well-kept secret here in the Valley. There are two reasons for this: 1) He doesn't play the four-set-a-night bar-gig game, the primary route to local stardom; and 2) The cult popularity of "Indian Cars" hasn't translated into a mainstream hit or recording contract, although, at age 39, he still holds out hope for a hit record.
He says that although he'd welcome the money that accompanies a hit, it's not his primary motivation. "Ultimately, you want to get your music to where it can be art, where people can buy it, where people can commonly see it," he says.
Still, Secola's work can be pretty eccentric for a mainstream audience. Although he wears his Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Springsteen influences on his sleeve, Secola's addled-by-the-heat quirkiness sometimes recalls Giant Sand and the Meat Puppets. A good example is "ND Waza Bat." Scary in an Ed Wood sort of way, the song recasts kindly Andy of Mayberry as a vampire. "Some people have talked about that song as symbolizing the moral decay of America," Secola says, "but when I was writing it, I was laughing. 'This is stupid! How ridiculous!' But it was fun."