The club manager gets onstage, beneath the blue neon glow of a Budweiser sign. "Kill the jukebox," she says. "It's so cool to have this band here. Marco Polo was, like, the first rockabilly guy in Phoenix, since, like, the '80s. Please welcome Curse of the Pink Hearse!"
Behind her, Marco Polo smiles. He's wearing sunglasses and gripping an upright bass that's almost as big as he is. It's painted to look like a spotted cow. When the band starts to play, Polo assails his bass with fast finger work and half-sings, half-growls into the microphone. "The devil is woman, and the devil have my soul . . . "
Polo's accent is so thick that it's hard to understand what he's singing most of the time, or even whether he's singing in English or Spanish. But it doesn't matter to the crowd inside Chopper John's, because the beat has got their souls. A young, raven-haired woman in tight jeans and a tank top grinds around on her boyfriend's lap at the bar, then grabs another woman in a clingy dress and starts writhing all over her. When an unsuspecting blond woman walks out of the restroom and accidentally bumps into the dancing dames, they grab her and sweep her up into the dance. Even people sitting on bar stools are bobbing their heads and wiggling in their seats.
The beat that moves them is a Latin rhythm, a variation of the habanera, with sharp snare drums punctuating what should be the "weak" or unstressed beats in the rhythmic pattern. The result is a popping, knee-cracking beat that even the most rhythmically challenged can move to.
Onstage, Polo is possessed. The cow bass he's playing once belonged to the late Bruce Hamblin, of The Varmints and The Cowbillies, bands that were at the forefront of the '80s rockabilly revival in Phoenix. Hamblin was one of Polo's heroes — when Polo, now 40, moved here from Mexico City in 1987, he saw The Cowbillies playing on a corner on Mill Avenue in Tempe, and was inspired to start Curse of the Pink Hearse. Hamblin died in 1996 of liver failure; he believed in Polo enough to will his bass to him.
Polo views the cow bass as a portal to the soul of rock 'n' roll, and tonight, it really looks as though he might need an exorcist. With sweat flying from his hair, he bangs his head in time with the breakneck rhythms and makes contorted, grimacing faces that express a combination of pain and ecstasy. He leans over and turns the bass sideways, furiously plucking at the big steel strings and almost mounting the instrument. It looks as if he were wrestling with a heifer.
His passion is earnest — after all, Polo's had to fight hard for a place in the rockabilly scene. "When I first started playing, people told me I couldn't be rockabilly because I wasn't American," he says. "They said, 'You don't have the southern accent, like Elvis.'"
Mexican rockabilly sounds like a strange idea to most people. The pervasive view, even today, seems to be that rockabilly bands comprise white guys with pompadours who drive classic cars and play twangy, reverb-drenched guitar.
But both the rhythm of rockabilly and the custom cars so big within the scene actually have roots in Latin dances and Chicano lowrider culture, so it's really not shocking that the Mexican rockabilly scene is thriving in Phoenix.
Latino artists dominated last weekend's three-day Arizona Rockabilly Festival, dubbed "Tres Días (Three Days) in the Desert." Marco Polo and his bands Acapulco Five-O and Curse of the Pink Hearse played for thousands.
For Marco Polo (born Marco Saldana), being a Mexican who makes rockabilly music isn't so strange. The lifelong rockabilly enthusiast says the genre crosses all cultures. "I've got records from the '50s of Mexican rockabilly, German rockabilly, Japanese rockabilly," he says. "The thing is, everybody told me I couldn't be rockabilly, even though everybody adopted rockabilly, right? Because when people think of rockabilly, they think of country music. But as a Latino, I don't care so much about the country part."
So, Polo says, he took rockabilly and gave it his own twist. "A lot of Latino rockabilly will mix cumbias and norteño music with country music," he says. "What I came up with was a mix of . . . Spanish guitars — like flamenco guitars — and Central American guitar with the rockabilly standup bass and snare and crash cymbal. It's all about the flavor you want to bring."