Masked Marvels

In America, professional wrestling is the province of washed-up boxers, unemployed bouncers and failed actors. In Mexico, wrestling has always been high art, Dada theater on a square canvas stage.

Legendary Mexican wrestlers don colorful superhero masks, and carry their personas so far that they walk the streets in full costume. In some notorious cases, even the wrestler's children never get to see their dad without his mask. In addition to their ring exploits, the great Mexican wrestlers are also movie stars, B-movie titans who battle unspeakably vile monsters on the big screen. In short, if you're a Mexican wrestler, your life is your art. Once you put on the mask, you're in character for the duration.

Danny Amis, guitarist for the Nashville quartet Los Straitjackets, loves Mexican wrestler films, and he admires the gladiators' gaudy sense of couture, but he doesn't share their level of commitment. In fact, he really didn't know what he was getting himself into when he suggested to his bandmates that they try on some wrestler masks before their first gig in 1994, at Lucy's Record Shop in Nashville.

"When we put the band together, we were trying to come up with a unique way to present the band onstage," Amis says from his Music City home. "I happened to have a bag of masks I'd bought at the wrestling matches in Mexico City, and I suggested them to Eddie [Angel, guitarist], and he thought that'd be great.

"We put them on before our first gig, thinking we'd just come out in them and take them off after a song or two. But the audience liked them so well, and they really weren't as bad as we thought they'd be to wear, so we kept wearing them. And we haven't been able to take them off since."

However unplanned their strategy for world domination, Amis and his bandmates found a visual hook that perfectly complemented their instrumental, surf-guitar sound. The great instrumental-rock artists--from the Ventures to the Surfaris to Santo and Johnny--always maintained a sense of mystery; they were blank pages upon which we could fill in any personality traits we wanted. Old pictures may tell us that the Ventures were nerdy-looking guys in matching suits, but somehow, that image doesn't stick.

Vocals connect the listener to the musical experience, and make it more accessible to us, but they also demystify it to some degree. When we heard Billie Holiday, we felt we knew her, but John Coltrane or Lester Young will forever be beautiful enigmas, forces of nature who spoke through their woodwinds. We can enjoy, but never really understand, them.

To this day, if you hear any of the pop vocal hits of the early '60s, you picture the singer--say, Connie Francis or Lesley Gore--and contemplate the lyric's romantic scenarios in your head. But when you hear instrumentals like "Pipeline," "Walk--Don't Run" or "Wipe Out," you're caught up in the manic rush of the performance. There are no faces to connect to the sound. You're left wondering: Who are these guys?

Los Straitjackets take this concept to unprecedented heights. When they kick into "Rampage" or "Fury," or any one of their wild instrumental anthems, you only see four big masked men. The secrets of their true identities remain locked in the echo of their guitar vibrato. They may be aging rock journeymen, but in those outfits, they're ageless and forever weird.

Instrumental rock is currently experiencing its greatest popularity in three decades--and it's none too soon for Amis, who felt like a dying breed when he played bass in the all-instrumental Raybeats from the late '70s to the early '80s. A product of the New York no-wave scene that later produced bands like Sonic Youth and the Bush Tetras, the Raybeats recaptured the forgotten magic of instrumental guitar rock at a time when punk and New Wave forged bold new directions for rock. Even if Angel is right when he contends that 75 percent of all music is instrumental, it didn't feel that way on the American rock landscape of the time.

"It was a very unusual thing," Amis says of the Raybeats' sound. "On the West Coast, there was John and the Nightriders, and we were on the East Coast. Though I didn't know it at the time, Eddie Angel had some instrumental singles on his own. But as far as a group dedicated to instrumentals, it was very rare."

After the Raybeats broke up, Amis felt out of synch with the musical ethos of the time.

"I was living in New York in the early '80s, and it wasn't a good place to be a guitar player because the music was going in the direction of synthesizers and electronics," he says. "I moved to Nashville because it always struck me as a place that was friendly to guitar players."

Ironically, when Amis arrived in Nashville in 1984, he set down his guitar and got a "real job," working in cable-television production for a decade. In 1989, he hooked up with new friends Angel and drummer Les James Lester to form a trio, and they played a few Nashville gigs between Lester's gigs backing up Webb Wilder. Shortly thereafter, Angel moved to Chicago, and Amis again set down his ax.

"We kept that friendship going for several years, and in '94 Eddie moved back to Nashville after living in Chicago and Austin," Amis says. "Just for fun, we decided to get back together, but Eddie suggested we get a bass player and I would move from bass to guitar and play some of my songs. The first time we played together, it really clicked."

The reason it clicked is that Amis and Angel have distinct but highly sympathetic playing--and composing--styles. Angel goes for the straightahead rock of a Chuck Berry or the rockabilly drive of a Link Wray. Amis is the twang-bar king, opting for the trebly, vaguely Hawaiian-sounding licks that immediately stir visions of surfboards cascading through tsunamis.

Even without vocals, after a couple of spins through their albums, you start to figure out who wrote what song. When the band apes Berry's "Around and Around" for "Rampage," it's obviously Angel's handiwork. Likewise, the reverb-drenched "Jetty Motel" has Amis' fingerprints all over it. Unlike most surf-rock bands, which beat you over the head with the same sound on every song, Los Straitjackets find a surprising amount of wiggle room within their instrumental boundaries.

Actually, their new album, Viva Los Straitjackets, suggests that surf rock may be too restricting for them, and that the more general label, instrumental rock, may be more accurate. For instance, Lester's love of Memphis soul reveals itself on "Brains and Eggs," an ultracool Booker T and the MGs homage. Even on their first album, they showed that they could get subdued and melodic, as on "University Blvd.," a gorgeous twist on the Santo and Johnny hit "Sleep Walk." And, of course, they can cut loose with the machine-gun frenzy of a Dick Dale. Surf music may be their base, but they're still mapping their destination.

In their early-'60s heyday, instrumental-rock bands usually formed out of necessity, as local high school dance bands that couldn't find an adequate singer. But what holds a talented band like Los Straitjackets to this pure but inherently limited genre?

"I grew up listening to it," Amis says. "And there are some things, like Link Wray's 'Rumble,' there are so many emotions you can get out of that song that could never be put into words. I think instruments can really sway emotions and feelings."

The band's surreal stage wardrobe also sways emotions from time to time, and not always in the intended ways. When the band came to Phoenix last year for a show at the Rhythm Room, it drew some zealous fans expecting a sporting event, not a musical show.

"That was the strangest one," Amis says of the Phoenix show. "There was an ad that ran in the paper with our photo, and there was a Mexican family that didn't understand English all that well. They thought that these Mexican wrestlers were gonna be at the club that night. They showed up expecting wrestling, and the doorman explained to them that it was us instead."

Los Straitjackets are scheduled to perform on Friday, September 5, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Showtime is 10 p.m.


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