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Retro's been a fad for so long now that it, too, seems almost retro. But cool will always be cool, and Marco Polo Saldana, who sings and plays standup bass for local "psychobilly" band the Curse of the Pink Hearse, knows cool. He carries cool with him in an old professional-style suitcase with big silver tabs.
Saldana brings the case with him to Rosita's Place, a tiny Mexican restaurant on McDowell Road in Phoenix. Opening it, he reveals the tools of his newest obsession -- stacks of trashy, underground rock records of the early 1950s and 1960s and serial spy novels from the same era.
"These are so wacked out, dude!" says an animated Saldana, 34, who can style his thick, black hair into the wildest of pompadours. "See, that's the stuff that I follow."
Saldana first shows me his old vinyl compilations. One is called Filthy, Sleazy '50s Trash. The cover is a penciled illustration of a sexy female motorcycle gang, clad in leather, preparing to rough up a blond girly-girl in a pink dress. The album is divided into "Side Weird" and "Side Drunk" and features tortured rockabilly, surf-punk, weird garage rock and the earliest punk. The other record is called Real Gone Garbage, filled with similar material (sample track: "Rockin' the Graveyard"), and its art is even spookier, depicting monsters as they roam an alley at night searching through trash cans filled with old, discarded 45s.
Then Saldana leads me through the spy novels, the kind once found at supermarket check-out counters, the ones with guys in tuxes suavely sporting guns and a woman on each arm. These certainly are obscure. Who under the age of 50 (besides Saldana) would remember that The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the old Robert Vaughan television show, had inspired a line of spin-off novels? Saldana revels in the cheesy promo copy printed in the books. "Secret Agent Charles Hood makes the scene in his wildest undercover action ever," reads the cover line to the 190-page Shamelady, a 1966 novel by author James Mayo.
The spy movies of the early '60s -- and after the proliferation of 007 films, there were scores of them -- gave home to the kind of music Saldana and his band adore, namely that trashy, minor-key, weird, danceable, up-tempo murder ballad with go-go rhythm and bright keyboard enhancement that fills his beloved vinyl collections. And the aspiring hepcat is turning his hipster romance into product. He's making an independent film called The Spy Who Came From the Ghetto, which promises to be a spirited farce -- Saldana has invested in a new leopard-print suit, a turban, and a 1968 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible. The film, which follows a tough Latino spy named Johnny Danger as he searches the U.S. for his kidnapped lover, comes, of course, with its own soundtrack, and it's a gas.
"If you're going to do something like this, you might as well do something cool," Saldana reasons. "And stop doing the classic rockabilly songs like, Hey baby . . .'" Saldana lowers his voice to resemble an archetypal Western troubadour, and then quickly rolls his eyes in mock disgust. "Don't get me wrong. I love rockabilly. But after you hear the more obscure stuff, you're ready to go out and give something to the people new."
The music on The Spy Who Came From the Ghettoqualifies. It incorporates Middle Eastern guitar, mariachi horns, French go-go swing, Italian spaghetti Western tones and Japanese punk into the Curse's standard blend of rockabilly, steaming punk chords and odd, dramatic surf rock. It swings wildly from the kinetic, Serge Gainesbourg-inspired grooves of the unnamed second song, which Saldana says will be used to augment a dance sequence featuring gorgeous Russian girls, to forlorn, depressed crawlers marked only by distant guitar and horn. And, at least Saldana hopes, it features a potential cult hit, the super-sly "Espionage." The song swings by like a drunken tango as Saldana moans in his thick Mexican accent and cartoonish inflections: "Dig those crazy bumpers/And that rear-end so-spension/Loaded with extras/Just like on a drag strip." Seconds later comes the grinning hook. "Oh, no! Es-pi-on-assssssshhhhh!"
Saldana says he caught the movie music bug early. His mother and aunt, it turns out, took him to matinee theaters in Mexico City as a child to watch B-movies featuring the Mexican professional wrestler Santo. Santo wore a silver mask and cape in the ring and on the screen. Santo Contra Los Hombres Infernales(Santo vs. The Infernal Men) and Santo Contra Los Zombiesare just two of the dozens of titles chronicling the masked man's many adventures between 1958 and 1982. More crucially for Saldana, Santo also attracted a cool soundtrack.
It took him years, but Saldana eventually channeled those wacky sounds and influences into the Curse of the Pink Hearse, which he started as a teen in 1987. Saldana's lineup has changed numerous times over the years, the result of his stubbornness and devotion to recapturing the underground days of 40 years ago. He says he knows what flavor of retro works for him. He estimates he's worked with more than 1,000 musicians -- a slight exaggeration, I'm guessing -- over the course of the past 16 years.