Originally published June 2012. Revised March 2016.
Alejandra Guzmán is known throughout the Western Hemisphere as “La Reina del Rock.” She’s played on bills with The Stones and James Brown, and has recorded with Joe Satriani. La Guzmán has sold millions of records and regularly plays to packed houses everywhere, even in the United States.
And most norteamericanos have never heard of her.
This is largely because she sings in Spanish, which makes her persona non grata on the mainstream music channels in the USA. If you want to hear Alejandra Guzmán you have to tune into stations that cater to the Latino market; if you want to see her, you have to switch over to Univision or Telemundo.
Norteamericanos are so weird.
Norteamericanos have always looked down on their NAFTA partners to the south. Hell, Norteamericanos generally feel sorry for everyone who doesn’t live in the self-proclaimed heaven on earth. With Mexicans, though, the pity is sharpened with disdain. Norteamericanos think of Mexicans as little more than cheap labor, whether it’s the white-coated waiter serving them margaritas on the beaches of Cancún or the undocumented workers tending to their homes and gardens.
And in the 21st fucking Century, leading politicians in the United States advocate the construction of a Great Wall from Imperial Beach to Brownsville to keep those job stealin’, drug dealin’ Mexicans from ruinin’ their country.
So despite the fact that La Guzmán owns one of the greatest female rock voices in history, the chances of recognition in the U. S. A. are about equal to the chances of overturning the sacred Second Amendment—‘cuz you still gotta keep totin’ those guns in case those sneaky Mexicans try to tunnel under that wall or sumpin’ like that.
Alejandra is the daughter of a famous Mexican actress and an equally famous Mexican rock musician. She launched her career with a bang by pissing off her career-oriented and often absent mother in the song “Bye, Mama,” which appeared on the album of the same name. Her second album, Dame Tu Amor, featured Hispanicized covers of Ray Davies, Jagger/Richards, The Spencer Davis Group and classics like “No Seas Cruel” (Don’t Be Cruel) and “Twist y Gritos” (Twist and Shout). Eternamente Bella followed, featuring several songs by talented songsmith J. R. Florez, a collaboration that would become increasingly important on the two albums that followed. Alejandra then won the Eres Award for Album of the Year with Flor de Papel, a much stronger record whose success was driven in part by a scandalous video version of the song “Hacer El Amor Con Otro,” the story of an (gasp!) illicit affair.
Such affairs may be par for the course in more secular lands, but in Catholic Mexico such things are not spoken of in polite company. Still, wherever you go in this world of ours, people find a way to fuck, hence the church-sanctioned no-tell motels that dot the Mexican landscape.
But I digress. By 1993, Alejandra had produced four albums, each better than its predecessor. The pattern of most artists who release an award-winning monster album is to take it easy on the follow-up album—play it safe and let the brand work its magic.
Not Alejandra Guzmán. As good as Flor de Papel was, Libre proved to be another thing entirely. While it remains obscure to most of the English-speaking world, Libre was one of the best albums released by anyone on the planet in the 1990’s, and certainly one of the best rock albums in the last quarter-century. La Guzmán let it rip on this record, delivering one stunning vocal performance after another, from the killer opening song to the incredibly moving bonus track closer.
I first heard her while touring the radio dial one afternoon after high school. Nothing was playing on my go-to stations so I hit the scan button to hear what else was going on in the ether. I landed on an unfamiliar spot on the dial and within a couple of seconds the sound of clean electric guitar playing an arpeggiated chord filled the room, soon to be joined by a counterpoint pattern, building up to a deeply-satisfying bass slide and a big WHAM on the snare. Then I heard the sexiest fucking voice I’d ever heard:
Poco a poco consegui
fijar tu atencion en mi
a que esperas por favor ven aqui
Despite my then-limited Spanish skills, I didn’t need much of a vocabulary to figure out that last line, expressed even more through her tone than in the lyrics: “What are you waiting for? Come here!” The voice I heard was somewhat deep for a woman, flavored with an exquisite roughness that conveyed command and defiance. I didn’t have any idea who the fuck she was, but I knew right then I had to hear more.
Unfortunately, the radio station followed the norms of the time and played five songs in a row before the disk jockey rattled off the names of the tracks and artists in an unintelligible blur of Spanish. Undaunted, I hooked up with one of my Latina girlfriends the next day in school, and after listening patiently to my shitty imitation of the voice, a rough approximation of the melody and a whole lot of dum-de-dums to fill in the missing lyrics, she got it when I sang the one line I did get. “Ah, that’s Alejandra Guzmán. She’s famous, chickie—you can find her anywhere.”
I found Alejandra in Tower Records, tucked her into my purse and listened to her the second I got home and for several hours after that. I didn’t understand all the words, but the underlying theme was clear: I am a strong, sexy woman and I’m not going to let anyone deny my existence.
Music to my ears! Music to my clitoris!
That opening song was “Mala Hierba,” which literally means “weed” in Spanish but is better translated in context as “bad seed.” Right from the get-go, Alejandra relishes both her status as a rebel choosing to defy social norms and as “una mujer de verdad,” a real woman. The beat is a slow, sexy, punctuated groove, and it’s obvious from the get-go that the musicians backing Alejandra on this album are superb rock stylists equal to any of their counterparts in the USA. “Mala Hierba” was a huge hit in Mexico and one of the most attention-grabbing opening cuts you’ll ever hear.
“Dime Adios” follows, a classic weep-in-your-cerveza tune about a break-up that allows the listener to cool down a little. The arrangement is enhanced by the soul-influenced backing vocals and an outstanding lead guitar solo. It’s followed by the up-tempo rocker “Mirala, Miralo,” where Alejandra delivers a rapid-fire vocal with exceptional power and command.
“Soy” opens with an almost new-age gentleness, but gradually Alejandra’s voice gains strength before drums, bass, guitar and backing vocals enter to open the way for Alejandra to express her undying commitment to rock ‘n’ roll. The closing passage is an especially clear expression of that commitment, one that has as much to do with the defiant attitude that drives great rock ‘n’ roll as the music itself:
Sigo mi propio camino (I follow my own path)
no soy estrella fugaz (I’m not a shooting star)
yo no me vendo (I’m not going to sell out)
yo no tengo precio (I don’t have a price)
solo una cosa es verdad (There is only one truth)
Porque soy rocker (Because I’m a rocker)
digo lo que siento (I say what I feel)
soy una rocker (I’m a rocker)
y ya nunca cambiare (And I will never, ever change)
“Calles de Fuego” (“Streets of Fire”) is a slow, heavy power piece about the crap she had to endure from the media after the naughty “Hacer el Amor Con Otro.” Here Alejandra oscillates between defiance and a tired sadness in a performance that inspires empathy in the listener in contrast to the yawns induced by rock stars bitching about how tough they have it. As good as this piece is, it gets even better on the next track.
“Angeles Caidos” (Fallen Angels), is a bluesy, sexy number, and even if the lyrics escape you, there is no denying the brilliance of Alejandra’s vocal, combining subtle seduction with all-out passion. The poetry is a brutally honest expression of sexual submission, of total devotion to the needs of the object of that devotion. She collapses in ecstasy and kisses his feet, fulfilling her desires and her chosen path. When she demands “hazme tu esclava” (make me your slave), you can feel the heat of a woman who has thrown all caution to hell and wants only to find herself in the expression of her love. This is a stunning and gutsy performance, supported by a guitar solo that is to die for.
Side Two opens with two back-to-back flat-out rockers, “Hey Tu” and “Ruge el Corazón,” both of which prove La Guzmán’s status as a top-tier rock vocalist. The title track opens with clean acoustic strums and another sweet lead riff before Alejandra steps to the mike with a more reflective vocal. The song summarizes the struggle to become oneself, celebrating the sweet freedom of personal liberation. Unable to sit still for long, Alejandra comes back with another rocker, “Cuenta Conmigo.” The song feels a bit out of place after “Libre,” but its placement makes perfect sense when you count the bonus track as the true end of the album.
The song “Te Esperaba” (“I Was Expecting” or “While Expecting”) is about what it feels like to have a life growing inside you and bringing that life into the world. It is one of the most amazing female vocals I have ever heard, right up there with Sinead O’Connor’s “Three Babies” and any of Billie Holiday’s best. After a synth-and-lead guitar opening that has the effect of clearing the sound stage, Alejandra begins to sing in a calm and gentle voice—the voice a mother would use to soothe a child. As the piece progresses, Alejandra increases the power with incredible fluidity, firmly grabbing the listener’s attention. As the song builds and the melodic line rises, you are filled with a sense of overwhelming anticipation—so much so that when she screams the line “Yo t’esperaba!” the reaction is almost orgasmic. “Te Esperaba” is one of the few songs I can listen to again and again, a truly breathtaking and moving performance that knocks me out every time I hear it—a fabulous ending to a truly exceptional recording.
Alejandra Guzmán may not make it into the hallowed halls in Cleveland, but Libre is a timeless classic that deserved far more attention that it received in that ethnocentric land I used to call home. It is truly one of the masterpieces of rock ‘n’ roll.