Juan Gabriel has been trading on his lifelong success for the past couple years, but you can’t say he was coasting when he died last Sunday. On August 19th he’d embarked on a tour, playing his final show a week later at the Los Angeles Forum, capacity 17,500. In some ways he was more popular than ever. On Billboard‘s Top Latin Albums chart, he had just scored a record fourth #1 album in the past 18 months with Vestido de Etiqueta por Eduardo Magallanes, an album of ornate remakes of his old songs. (The new intro for the already elaborate groover “No Quiero” now approaches full blown symphonic pomp rock — you expect to hear Christopher Lee start talking about dragons.) The other chart toppers included the two volumes of Los Duo, where Gabriel sang duets of his catalog with a panoply of pan-Latin stars from across different genres.
That’s where NorteñoBlog caught up with Gabriel: in a video that’s easily as mind-melting as any by Peter Gabriel, a new version of JuanGa’s 1980 12-bar-blues “La Frontera.” Crossing whatever musical borders you care to name, it features the continent’s best singer Julión Álvarez, the new Zelig of reggaeton J. Balvin, a four-bar breakdown for tuba and funk guitar, an impeccably tiled studio wall, a whole lotta eyeliner, and an uncredited gospel choir. (“I knew that if God was listening, he was listening to African American music,” Gabriel once told the LA Times.) You owe it to yourself:
But keeping JuanGa’s story in the present does a disservice to a man whose life and music affected millions of people. He was an unfathomably prolific writer, like Dolly Parton or Prince, and just as beloved a performer of his own material; a robust challenger of his fans’ sexual hang-ups, like Dolly Parton and Prince with their own fans; and he could transform regional genres into universally beloved national pop music, like — you guessed it — Bruce Springsteen. (Also Dolly and Prince.)
Here’s what some better JuanGa fans have written:
At OC Weekly, hero of the blog Gustavo Arellano has picked his 20 favorite Gabriel songs (including the remake of “La Frontera” — “it gets goofy” but “JuanGa DGAF”), resulting in an essential career-spanning playlist with explanations that often reach Peak Arellano:
8. “La Farsante”
Every mariachi singer tasked with being the Juan Gabriel of the group — you know, the “gay” guy — tackles this one, so this might be one of JuanGa’s most-heard songs for the gabacho set — I’ve heard it sung everywhere from weddings to Tlaquepaque to even the goddamn Balboa Bay Club, with clueless gabachos whooping along. Despite this, it’s a miraculous synthesis of flamboyancy and machismo that only JuanGa could do, as he absolutely savage the titular phony with high, mocking notes of heartbreak.
Flash forward to Sunday, when I learned that Juan Gabriel passed away of a heart attack at age 66 in Santa Monica. I immediately searched YouTube for the opening song to “…Con Amor Eterno”: “Con tu Amor” (“With Your Love”). It’s my go-to JuanGa song, because it makes me cry, a combination of shame at my ignorant past and wonder for the song. As I heard its timpani-like bass, tinny keyboards and tinkling chimes — hey, it was recorded in the 1990s — the tears flowed freely.
The Times also re-posted a rich 1999 profile by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, who explained how Gabriel’s enormous popularity could be almost invisible in his adopted state:
For instance, a West Hollywood antique store owner panicked recently when Gabriel and his manager came in, intending to drop a big — and we mean big — wad of cash.
As Gabriel’s manager tells it, the owner saw Mexicans (God forbid!) and requested they leave the store. Gabriel, who grew up in a Juarez, Mexico, orphanage, did not waste time explaining to her that he could probably buy the entire block. He just left graciously, he says, and spent his money elsewhere.
The store owner can surely be faulted for her prejudice, but maybe not for her ignorance of Gabriel’s fame. After all, Gabriel remains a fiercely patriotic Mexican, even if he does pay a lot of taxes in the United States. And in spite of persistent pleading by his record company, he remains utterly uninterested in “going gringo” despite the added millions that a crossover smash would mean.
At La Bloga, journalist Sam Quinones directs readers to a story he’s collected for his “Tell Your True Tale” project. In the story, a musician named Diego Rentería tells about an especially sad performance of Gabriel’s universal song of love and loss, “Amor Eterno”:
They started crying as we started to sing. I stopped paying attention to who cried when. We mariachis exchanged glances to distract us from the mourning. Everything seemed to stop. No glasses clinked, no laughter punctuated the song. Everyone started singing to their son, their nephew. His mother broke down in tears on the couch, comforted by his madrina. A man who seemed to be his father stood against a wall, stone quiet.
Jonathan Bogart has been writing well about Gabriel for years at his blog Bilbo’s Laptop, where he explains every #1 single on the Hot Latin chart. His favorite Gabriel seems to be 1988’s “Debo Hacerlo”:
Structurally, this song is a complete mess, following Gabriel’s own circuitous route through whatever sections he apparently felt like singing at the time. There’s no particular chorus, although everything gets repeated more than once; there are about five different main hooks, and though it’s compulsively danceable throughout it changes tempo so many times and so abruptly that I’d imagine it would be a DJ’s nightmare…
It was only at the top of the chart for a week. You could hardly expect more from a nine-and-a-half-minute camp techno-tropical suite.
What a life. Here’s the original “No Quiero,” a little less pompy but no less great.