Because geography, there are few things more quintessentially American than the concept of “going down to Mexico”. Nobody ever says they’re going up to Mexico – that would be silly. Whether you’re an outlaw in search of refuge or a college kid on Spring Break, it seems like almost everybody – at some point in their lives – will “make a run for the border” in a spiritual or material sense.
Geography plays a major role in popular music. So many of our greatest jams are about places. “Strawberry Fields”, for example. Rock music relies heavily on cliche, simile, and metaphor, while using location to complete a thematic circle. There’s a universal truth revealed when Fats Domino sings:
I’m goin’ to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come
They got a lotta pretty women there
And I’m a-gonna get me one
Sometimes, you gotta go somewhere to get what you need.
Now, Mexico as a destination of reverence and urgency – I guess it really depends on who you’re asking, but if you’re crossing over into Tijuana for a bachelor party, Mexico is the antithesis of a religious pilgrimage. Likewise, a beach vacation in Cabo San Lucas. There’s something inherently greasy and salacious about crossing over the border to buy generic pharmaceuticals and knock back a couple of cervezas in the hot South-North American sun.
More importantly, the one thing all these songs have in common is that fuzzy concept of going down to Mexico – for one reason or another. And it’s not for vacation. None of these cuts are checking-in to a time-share condo in Puerto Vallarta for a week of relaxation and G-string underwear.
Killin’ Floor – Howlin’ Wolf
I shoulda quit you
A long time ago
I shoulda quit you, babe
A long time ago
I shoulda quit you pretty mama
And went on to Mexico
Now, it’s not really clear what Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett had in mind for Mexico, but it most likely involved more women?
Have Love, Will Travel – The Sonics
Yeah, I’ll travel from Maine to Mexico
Just to find a little girl that loves me so
No matter when, no matter where I’ll be
I’m looking for a woman that’ll satisfy me
Have love, will travel
First of all, the Black Keys stole half of their gimmick from the Sonics. This hard-charging quintet from Tacoma, Washington, all but invented proto-punk garage rock. There’s a long list of bands that don’t exist without the Sonics.
Meanwhile, as far as “Have Love” is concerned, here’s another dude on the prowl. Might as well change ‘Mexico’ to ‘Kansas City’ – it’s the same idea.
Riff Raff – AC/DC
See it on the television every day
Hear it on the radio
It ain’t humid but it sure is hot
Down in Mexico
Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls of all ages, please watch the video. I’m serious. That’s scary good high energy rock n’ roll.
My Old School – Steely Dan
Well I hear the whistle but I can’t go
I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said oh no
Guadalajara won’t do
They don’t hit you over the head with it, but “My Old School” is Steely Dan’s “Our Drug Bust in College” jam. Not everybody has one of those. Donald Fagan and Walter Becker attended exclusive Bard College in upstate New York, where they purportedly got pinched in a honeypot drug raid during the run-up to an election. Ironically, the local Assistant District Attorney who ran the phony PR sting was none other than soon-to-be Watergate stooge, G. Gordon Liddy.
Apparently, the “She” of the song refers to a college acquaintance who inadvertently got the boys in trouble – or so the story goes.
The Only Living Boy in New York – Simon & Garfunkel
Tom, get your plane right on time
I know your part’ll go fine
Fly down to Mexico
Da-n-da-da-n-da-n-da-da and here I am
The only living boy in New York
Simon & Garfunkel take a much more poetic turn on the concept of going down to Mexico.
During the recording of their fifth and final album, Bridge over Troubled Water, Art Garfunkel bailed out of the sessions to act in the film Catch-22, which was filmed in Mexico. Left alone to finish the album in New York, Paul Simon wrote this gorgeously heartbreaking vignette about the end of a friendship.
Raped and Freezin’ – Alice Cooper
Felt like I was hit by a diesel or a Greyhound bus
She was no baby-sitter
“Get up, sugar, never thought you’d be a quitter”
I opened the back door, she was greedy
I ran through the desert, she was chasin’
No time to get dressed, so I was naked, stranded in Chihuahua
Alone raped and freezing
Alone cold and sneezing
Alone down in Mexico
OK, OK, listen. I think I know what you’re thinking. But hear me out.
Way back in the day, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” was one of the first half dozen 45 singles I ever bought. On the B-side? “Raped and Freezin'”.
Now, I didn’t have the slightest idea what ‘raped’ meant, let alone comprehend the implications. All I knew was Alice Cooper and the boys were jamming out on a pretty heavy and catchy jam.
Turns out, as close reading of the lyrics reveal, the song is about Alice (or his alter ego) getting raped – or something to that effect. Sounds like a Groupie Gone Wrong story. Thoroughly unpleasant, but then again, that’s the point of Alice Cooper.
Icky Thump – The White Stripes
Ya he, icky thump
Who’d a thunk?
On a wagon to Mexico
What a chump
And my head
Got a bump
When I hit it on the radio
I don’t have the slightest idea what this kid is going on about, and I’m admittedly not a huge fan of this band, but GODDAMN that’s a pretty nifty set of riffs. Jack “Black” White could be singing about Fig Newton’s for all I care. I’d put this jam in the Top 20 Best Cuts of the late 2000s.
Running For the Border – Saxon
We met the Federales
They wouldn’t go away
So we gave them lots of money
It was all our fuckin’ pay
They said take it easy, take it slow
No one moves
‘Til I say so
Running for the border
Down in Mexico
Look, I’m not gonna lie to you, people. I did not want to like this jam when it came up on the search radar. But then, I gave it a spin. And another. And another. The Rock here is undeniable.
From Saxon’s fifteenth full-length studio album recorded in 2001, this jam tells an autobiographical story of the band trying to make it to a gig in Chihuahua, Mexico. After getting hassled by the man, they make it to the show and everybody has a good time. Sometime later, they get pinched again by the greasy authorities, who ostensibly take all the band’s cash. Bummer.
Ride Like the Wind – Christopher Cross
And I’ve got such a long way to go (such a long way to go)
To make it to the border of Mexico
So I’ll ride like the wind
Ride like the wind
Don’t sit there and tell me the jam isn’t running through your head right now. Don’t even try to deny the irresistible force of Christopher Cross and the magnificent congas of Lenny Castro. Oh yeah, baby! Do you hear that wind blowin’?
Christopher Cross’ debut album won Grammy Award for Album of the Year, famously beating Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and it remains one of the most influential soft rock albums of the early 1980s.
Lyrically, it’s the story of a thoroughly bad guy – convicted multiple murderer – who goes on the run to Mexico, in order to escape the classic death-by-hanging sentence.
And a detail that tickles me to no end: Cross claims he wrote the lyrics on LSD. “We were living in Houston at the time, and on the way down to Austin to record the songs, it was just a beautiful Texas day. I took acid. So I wrote the words on the way down from Houston to Austin.”
In 1999, the satirical newspaper The Onion published a story with the headline, “Christopher Cross Finally Reaches Mexican Border”; the headline was a reference to the song, and the three-sentence story made several specific allusions to the lyrics. Cross appreciated the honor.
Christopher Cross dedicated this song to Lowell George, formerly of Little Feat, who had died in 1979.
Willin’ – Little Feat
Smuggled some smokes and folks from Mexico
Baked by the sun, every time I go to Mexico
And I’m still
And I been from Tuscon to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Driven the back roads, so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me … weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign
I’ll be willin’
To be movin’
See what I just did there? Sometimes things can be a little too clever, can’t they?
This here is a beautiful ditty about a long haul truck driver who just can’t say no to the road. Really kind of sad to see Lowell’s physical condition start to deteriorate.
Back Seat of My Car – Paul McCartney
The laser lights are pretty
We may end up in Mexico City
But listen to her daddy’s song
Making love is wrong
Ooh, we’re just busy riding
Sitting in the back seat of my car
Another somewhat obscured gem of a song from Paul’s early solo career. It’s not “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, but you can hear going in that direction.
Hypnotized – Fleetwood Mac
They say there’s a place down in Mexico
Where a man can fly over mountains and hills
And he don’t need an airplane or some kind of engine
And he never will
Now you know it’s a meaningless question
To ask if those stories are right
‘Cause what matters most is the feeling
You get when you’re hypnotized
Ooh! Man, I’ve been wanting to talk about this jam for ages, but there was never an appropriate context – until now. At some point, I was tempted to squeeze it into a random post, just to give people a total shock of groovy FM radio vibes from the K-Tel Record Club.
Given the enduring history of Fleetwood Mac, among all the line-up changes, there are a number of songs like “Albatross”, “Black Magic Woman”, “Oh Well”, “The Green Manalishi” and “Bare Trees” that don’t sound anything like Fleetwood Mac. “Hypnotized” is another one of those songs that doesn’t really sound like Fleetwood Mac – cuz it really isn’t the Fleetwood Mac that everybody knows and loves. “Hypnotized” was recorded and released about two years prior to the Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham Era of platinum records.
The jam comes from the Mac’s eighth studio album, Mystery to Me (1973), featuring Bob “Sophisticated Lady” Welch as chief songwriter and guitarist. The album was a mediocre success, producing zero hit singles, but “Hypnotized” became an American FM radio staple for many years to come.
Goin’ Down to Mexico – ZZ Top
I was on my way down to Mexico
There was trouble on the rise
It was nothing more than I’d left behind
Which was much to my surprise
I turned around and lit a cigarette
Wiped the dust off of my boots
When up ahead I saw the crowd
I knew it was no use
You had me at “wiped the dust off my boots.” Awesome. What’s more American than ZZ Top, for chrissakes?
These dudes have a double album’s worth of jams about Mexico – “Heard it on the X”, “Sheik”, “Diablo”, “Mexican Blackbird” – but this one has the most greasy funk to it. Almost sounds like Lynyrd Skynyrd.
South of the Border – Patsy Cline
South of the border, down Mexico way
That’s where they fell in love
When stars above
Came out to play
And now as they wander, their thoughts ever stray
South of the border, down Mexico way
If you’ve spent any amount of time in an American dive bar with an old school jukebox, you can be sure of two things. One, there’s Patsy Cline in the box. Two, somebody is gonna get cute and play it.
Look, I dig Patsy Cline, and her version of “South of the Border” is THE definitive take – with Willie Nelson running a close second – but nine times out of ten, whoever dialed this up on the jukebox didn’t mean to play it. No. They’re drunk and stupid and wanted to hear “I Fall to Pieces” but they punched in the wrong numbers, so now everybody in the bar is going to sit through this stupid song – with the cringe-worthy “ay-ay-ay!” parts and Spanish horns – as well as listen to Drunk Meghan bitch about her hard earned jukebox dollars going to waste.
The Cowboy Song – Thin Lizzy
I was took in Texas, I did not know her name
Lord, those southern girls all seem the same
Down below the border, a town in Mexico
I set out with the rodeo
Roll me over and turn me around
Let me keep spinning ’til I hit the ground
Roll me over and let me go
Riding free with the buffalo
Gotta give this one about 45 seconds to get cookin’, but when it does, you’re in for some rock solid Thin Lizzy, man. There’s something very poetic about a mixed-race Irish man running off to join a rodeo. Phil Lynott on a bucking bronco. Can’t get the image out of my head.
Pass it Around – Grand Funk Railroad
I wish I had a place to stay in L.A. for a week or so
I feel like bein’ jive, hangin’ out, maybe go to Mexico
‘Cause dreamin’, baby, that’s the way I want to be
Just want to sit in a tree, sail out to sea, live like some fantasy, ahh baby
Grand Funk Railroad has gotta be one of the most underrated rock n’ roll bands of all-time, and this is one of their most under-appreciated jams. The chorus just kills me.
‘Cause I’m tired of thinkin’, and too much drinkin’, all my troubles away
Tired of goin’ to get laid at the lost and found
Tired of dealin’ with love hurt feelings, and all I got to say
In view of all that’s been goin’ down
I think I’ll go on out and pass it around
Hey Joe – Jimi Hendrix
Hey Joe, I said
Where you goin’ to run to now, where you, where you gonna go?
Well, dig it!
I’m goin’ way down south, way down south
Way down south to Mexico way! Alright!
I’m goin’ way down south
Way down where I can be free!
Ain’t no one gonna find me babe!
Ain’t no hangman gonna
He ain’t gonna put a rope around me!
This jam has been slaughtered by so many other artists – from Cher to Deep Purple to Soft Cell – but I think we can all agree that Jimi’s version is the only one that matters.
Plateau – Meat Puppets
Many hands began to scan around for the next plateau
Some said it was Greenland, and some say Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
But those were all just guesses
Wouldn’t help you if they could
Not really a track about going down to Mexico per se, but forget that for a second and let me jawbone about one of my favorite unsung indie bands from the 80s.
The Meat Puppets are so much more fun when you take random stabs at what they were shooting for on each album. For example, on the first album, I’d say they’re going for a desert-damaged Neil Young on amphetamines thing. On this album, Meat Puppets II, they were channeling the spirit of the late-era Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. On Up On the Sun, they were goofing on acid and listening to the Grateful Dead. By the time we get to Huevos, they were on a ZZ Top binge.
Tulsa County – The Byrds
My nights have been lonely since I’ve been in Tulsa County
And I really don’t know what I’m gonna do.
I just might take a trip somewhere along the southern border
‘Cause I know I’ve gotta get away from you.
I don’t know – just where I’ll go
I believe I’ll ride it down to Mexico
Down to Mexico
From the 1969 album The Ballad of Easy Rider, which also contains “Jesus is Just Alright with Me” – light years away from the jangle of “Turn, Turn, Turn”.
The Byrds are another one of those forever-evolving bands that started out as one thing and wound up something completely – and sometimes, unfortunately – different. In the case of Roger McGuinn & Co., my chief sensation is why? Why couldn’t you cats just stuck with that trippy folk-psychedelic thing you nailed with “Eight Miles High”?
Brackish Boy – Frank Black
This man he was a Mexican
Adopted into Norwegian
Turned into American
But he felt a Mexican
He was a walking fish
Down Mexico way
Frank Black – aka Black Francis of the Pixies – is probably never going to get the credit he deserves for his overwhelming influence on 90s Alternative Rock. There’s no Nirvana without the Pixies. And let’s not forget that the first three Pixies records – Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, and Bossanova, plus the EP Come On Pilgrim – were released long before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ruined it for everybody.
Frank Black’s lyrical signature has always been a kind of provincial Dadaist poetry. Very few of his jams make any sense, and that’s alright, because he’s using words as tools of visual imagery, rather than a method of narrative. The early R.E.M. records are also well-known for this type of trickery. The lyrics don’t matter – it’s how the word sounds in relation to the music.
Boll Weevil – Leadbelly
Well the boll weevil and the little black bug
Come from a-Mexico they say
Came all the way to Texas
Just a-lookin’ for a place to stay
Just a-lookin’ for a home, just a-lookin’ for a home
Yes, yes, I know. This jam is about an insect that comes from Mexico – quite the opposite of our intention here. But listen, Leadbelly is awesome. And nobody was playing blues music on 12-string guitar until he came around.
When I Win the Lottery – Camper Van Beethoven
Well I lost an eye in Mexico
I lost two teeth, where I don’t know
People see me coming and they move to the other side of the road
Tell you what, just about every successful alternative rock band from 1990-forward ought to be cutting annual checks to David Lowery and Camper Van Beethoven.
What Am I Doing Hanging ‘Round? – The Monkees
Just a loud mouth Yankee I went down to Mexico
I didn’t have much time to spend, about a week or so
There I lightly took advantage of a girl who loved me so
But I found myself a-thinkin’ when the time had come to go
On Today I Learned…the Black Sunshine Edition:
The Monkees were a scrappy little country band. Although, I have to ask: Davy, what’s with all the maracas? You really need six of those things on this cut?
Mexico – James Taylor
Way down here you need a reason to move
Feel a fool running your stateside games
Lose your load, leave your mind behind Baby Jane
It sounds so simple I just got to go
The sun’s so hot I forgot to go home
Guess I’ll have to go now
Yo, I’ve got mad respect for James Taylor. His guitar playing is world-class, he’s got a sweet voice, and he seems like a genuinely nice guy from the videos I’ve seen. Plus, “Fire and Rain”.
Unfortunately, most of Taylor’s music winds up in that uncomfortably Adult Contemporary category you hear piped into medical clinic waiting rooms and discount fashion outlets. My mom loves James Taylor.
Juanito the Bandito – Adam and the Ants
Lock up your shed because Juanito’s coming
Just crossed over into Mexico
Lock up your pigsties and your daughters
‘Cause if it moves, you know old Juanito
Nothing really prepares a listener for a song about a lecherous pedophile with a bestiality fetish.
The Castle – Love
Although I’m a huge fan of Arthur Lee and Love, there’s no way that I could – in good conscience – recommend “The Castle” as a rewarding listen.
Buddy Joe – Golden Earring
Golden Earring has maybe two good-to-great cuts, and this isn’t one of them.
Your Heart Out – The Fall
Seems like the Fall is one of those All-In or All-Out bands. You either love what Mark E. Smith is spitting at you from across the bar, or you run screaming in the other direction.
Evangelina – Hoyt Axton
Hoyt’s got a nice voice.
Don’t Sing – Prefab Sprout
I’m tacking on the video here because you have to see it. And as you’re watching it, I want you to pretend that you’re the video’s director, and everything happening is your idea. “Guys, we’re gonna put the drummer up on top of that sheer cliff – yes, that one – but you guys are going to be on the beach. OK? Oh, and Randy, wear that harness contraption for your mouth whistle thingy – yes, the harmonica, that. No, don’t worry, you won’t look like an idiot.”
And then, look into the eyes of the individual band members and ask yourself, “Do these kids look like they’re having fun?”
Mexican Divorce – Ry Cooder
Speedy Gonzales – Pat Boone
West Coast Love Affair – Unrest
I remember not liking Unrest when they came out circa 1993. Twenty-five years later, it’s not bad. Kinda groovy. But if you’re waiting for something cool to happen, don’t bother – it doesn’t. Otherwise, it’s kind of a neat little jam.
Beautiful Feeling – PJ Harvey
Another two-note moody snoozer from PJ, who never quite regained her magical powers after those first two albums, Dry and Rid of Me.
English Girl – Eagles of Death Metal
Few bands inspire my internal ambivalence with more intensity than Eagles of Death Metal. I mean, I really want to like them – they’ve got some really catchy jams – but Josh Homme. He’s the obstacle. I just can’t bring myself to respect anything he’s involved in. And obviously, I don’t know him as a person. He seems like a really sweet cat.
All that said, “English Girl” isn’t even close to their best jam.
Me and My Uncle – Grateful Dead
I’m speaking directly to Deadheads here. Listen, Bobby has a couple of jams. But they didn’t let him start contributing original songs until “Sugar Magnolia” on American Beauty (1970). His next big cut would be “Playin’ in the Band”, just a brutal gauntlet of a tiresome track. The problem with Bobby is that everything sounds like Bobby. And this jam is a perfect example of his fruity, toe-tappin’, uptempo shuffles.
That’s all for now, folks. Tune in next week for 25 Songs About Candle Wax. Thanks for reading.