El Pollo Loco (M.Steele)
Album: Neighborhood Rhythms
First Live Performance: N/A
Last Live Performance: N/A
About a month ago Freddy and I were on our way to see the Crawdaddies. They were playing somewhere downtown. And we stopped for Mexican food at this place called El Pollo Loco. Well right after we pulled up, parked and headed for the door, out of nowhere, like he drops from the sky or something, this little bum was standin’ in front of us, real drunk, talking in slurred Spanish. He was saying he was hungry. Freddy looked at the guy for a moment, and then, because he’s Freddy, said ‘Ok fella, come with us–We’ll get you something to eat’. And then he turned to me and said ‘This oughta be interesting’.
The little guy followed us into the joint, lookin’ a little scared, and holding a shopping bag. Fred went off to place the order, and the bum and me went and sat down at a table nearby and kinda stared at each other. He seemed upset. His eyes looked all watery and weird, and then he started talking to me, in near-perfect English. ‘I’m a good man,’ he said, ‘I just drink too much, you know’. By the time Fred got to the table with the food, this guy was uh, holding his head in his hands. He looked up and thanked us, but he wouldn’t eat. He just stared at the food. Fred tried to lighten things up and asked him to talk about himself. He said;
‘My name is Hernan. I’m a good man, I just drink too much. I had a girlfriend, but she won’t see me anymore. I lost my job, and my mother won’t let me live at home. She brings me food, but she won’t let me go home. I’m from San Salvador, they threw me out of the country. They tortured me. Here, I’ll show you.’ Then he stood and undid his shirt, and opened it up, and Fred was saying ‘No, please man’, and somebody had cut him, very carefully, straight cut lines–lots of em, across his stomach. And there were cuts on his arms, and cigarette burns. And then he sat back down and said:
‘I’m a good man’.
Note: The following was written before learning the actual story behind the piece, but hopefully still provides context.
Despite being under two minutes long, El Pollo Loco (released on the out of print 1984 Neighborhood Rhythms LP) packs a great deal of meaning into its brief narrative, and I intend to try unpacking it to give better appreciation of that meaning. Its highly unusual as being perhaps the only recording released by a Bangle (whether in the band or as a solo act) to make a pointed political statement, and is all the cooler for it. As I also want to show, the statement this piece makes is quite left-wing, meaning that Michael was always ‘the political one’.
The first way this left-wing perspective can be seen is in the message conveyed by the narrative. The plot (as such) hinges on Henan, the bum ‘discovered’ by the narrator (whether the narrator actually is Michael or a character she’s speaking for is left ambiguous) and her companion Freddie. Initially presented as a nameless drunk, we later discover that Henan is in fact a torture victim who graphically exhibits his scars. What makes it interesting is that the listener is encouraged to initially see Henan as literally being ‘a bum […] talking in slurred Spanish.’ The twist is when we discover this is not the case and that an initially nameless character has his own history. His repeated ‘I’m a good man’ also changes meaning by the end, as the line initially comes across as being an excuse for his drunkenness and by the end becomes a sad plea.
The message given by this twist is essentially one to avoid stereotyping immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged groups. Who may appear to be a shiftless bum may in fact be a victim of oppression, although the narrator and Freddie only find out through their own act of kindness i.e. taking Henan to the local El Pollo Loco. In other words, look beneath the surface kids, a compelling message in its own right.
To just read the piece in that fashion (i.e. looking for a ‘moral’) ignores the other ways in which Michael makes her political statement. Indeed, I think that EPL loses a lot of its meaning unless you understand the political context in which it was written. While still relevant today, the concerns of the text are rooted in the climate of the early 1980s. Henan being a torture victim isn’t just an abstraction but evokes the institutionalised torture and death practiced throughout several Latin American nations in the period. These practices were often aided and abetted by the Reagan Administration, with the actions of the contras in Nicaragua being the best known example. In El Pollo Loco however, Henan identifies himself as being from El Salvador, a location with particular significance at the time.
According to studies undertaken by international observers not associated with the Reaganites or other cold warriors, Salvador (and Guatemala) was by the 1980s considered to be the worst violators of human rights in South America, overtaking the junta then in power within Argentina. For example a 1980 report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs declared that:
More people have died in El Salvador during the past year, largely as the result of government-condoned right-wing “death squad” killings, than in all other nations of Latin America combined…. The death toll reached almost 10,000, with the vast majority of the victims falling prey to the right-wing terrorism sanctioned by key government officials… These countless killings have gone unpunished and even uninvestigated as the government’s own military and police forces are almost always involved in them.
To put it mildly, Salvador was not a pleasant place to be. Although the full dimension of what went on there can’t be evoked in a two minute spoken word piece, the nature of Henan’s torture becomes much more disturbing when read against this background of widespread terror. It should also be noted that contemporary descriptions of this torture frequently mention cigarette burns and cutting among many other horrible acts inflicted upon its victims.
The reference to Henan being ‘thrown out of the country’ also implies that this ‘careful’ (a detail that is particularly telling) torture was carried out by government agents. I mention this because the exact nature of torture in El Salvador was subject to a campaign of misinformation in the early 80s. As described by Noam Chomsky in 1982, “The general picture of El Salvador presented in the U.S press as of early 1981 was that of the U.S government: a moderate regime is attempting to carry out reforms in the fact of left-wing violence.” (Chomsky Reader, p.339)
Through a very brief reference, we can see that the picture of Salvador presented in El Pollo Loco does not match official conservative visions, but more closely resembles the more accurate interpretation of left-wing figures such as Chomsky. (Note: This may be the first time anyone has ever referred to Michael and Noam in the same paragraph. Somebody had to do it.)
In short, El Pollo Loco is a piece that skillfully addresses contemporary political concerns such as governmental torture and anti-refugee prejudice through a spoken word narrative. Its concerns are utterly different from Bangles lyrics, but this is part of what makes it so interesting. I personally think it would have been fascinating had Michael carried over her political beliefs into her songs, but that may not have gone down so well with the conservative 80s mainstream.
“It’s all very true. Michael’s spoken word piece is rather explicit, but this is what I remember of it. Michael had just joined The Bangles and she and I had recently reconnected when I saw her play with the band. I saw her at parties and such and we would chat. We got to be friendly and I asked her out to see a very hip band called The Crawdaddys. I always had a crush on her and I was hoping that this date would go well.
The show was somewhere near downtown. On the way, Michael said she was hungry so we stopped for a bite to eat at a place called El Pollo Loco (Spanish for The Crazy Chicken–I thought it was a basic Mexican restaurant but it turned out to be a sort of Mexican style chicken place).
In the parking lot of this fine establishment we were approached by a late middle-aged, weather-worn Hispanic man who asked for money so he could by some food. He said he was hungry. I didn’t want to give him money, but if he was hungry I thought I should help him out. I invited him into El Pollo Loco to buy him some food.
The idea was for him to get a meal and be gone. I did not think he would sit with us, but he did. He sat across the table from us. At first it wasn’t that big of a deal. Then he started saying he was a good man. He pulled up his shirt and showed us some scars on his stomach and on his arms where he had been tortured in El Salvador, where he was from.
Michael Steele is a very sensitive person and this really upset her–well, it was an upsetting turn of events, that’s for sure. Needless to say, we never saw The Crawdaddys. Michael asked that I take her home and I did. I didn’t realize it had such an affect on her until I heard her piece “El Pollo Loco.”” – Phast Phreddie
[…]”Neighborhood Rhythms” contains 105 poems read by a wide variety of people, from literary poets such as Dennis Cooper and Wanda Coleman to rock performers such as the Blasters’ Dave Alvin, the Minutemen’s D. Boon (an exceptionally good, clear writer), X’s Exene Cervenka, and Henry Rollins.
This massive project, overseen by executive producer Harvey Kubernik, is at once a traditional affair and a novel one: On one hand, what could be more old-fashioned than a recorded version of a poetry reading? On the other, what could be more unusual than trying to interest 1980’s rock fans in poetry derived from such 1950’s sources as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso?
As might be expected from such a sprawling collection, “Neighborhood Rhythms” is uneven. A lot of the poetry is mere self-indulgent grandstanding, much of it not even poetry at all, but stentorianly intoned prose. Charlatans abound, none more obvious than Ivan E. Roth, a failed stand-up comic who is inexplicably on his way to becoming a cult star in Los Angeles.
But there are many surprising, funny performances, and a few beautiful ones, such as Dave Alvin’s “Prayer,” and “El Pollo Loco,” a meticulously detailed poem written by Bangles bass guitarist Michael Steele. At moments like these, the idea of rockers as poets makes perfect sense. – Ken Tucker, ‘Some Modest Milestones in Rock-And-Roll Poetry’, The Record 18 Jan 1985 p.18.