by Marco A. Jaimez
Traveling the world can, at times, inspire people to write about their experiences; whether it’s in a journal, a published book or even music. The experiences of new things seen or meeting people can create the desire for others to want to take those same journeys. Authors like Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain have used their travel experiences as inspiration and wrote well-known novels. Unfortunately, those world travels are not always planned and can be unavoidable, as is the case when men are drafted during times of war. And so this is the way it was for Eugenio Jaimez, or Gene Jaimez; known in some circles as El Gusano. The latter is a nickname that had stuck with him for years - since his childhood. It also became the name of a band he started in Cotulla, Texas around 1975. For the sake of this article, we will refer to him as Gene.
In 1946, Cotulla, Texas, a small town about eighty miles south of San Antonio, had fewer than four thousand people. It was a town established in the 1880’s with the extension of the International-Great Northern Railroad, and had an economy based on farming, ranching and petroleum. This was the year Gene Jaimez was born. It was the year that a musical journey would begin.
His first few years of life were just as important as any others, but we will skip that period of Gene’s life and begin when it all started to become relevant musically. He was thirteen years old. I would place that right around 1959. Gene started playing saxophone around that time, picking up the guitar and learning bass shortly after. In his teenage years, he formed his own band playing covers of rock n roll music of the day. He joined the bands of accordion virtuoso Pat Ruiz and “El Galan” Benny Ornelas in the early sixties.
It was 1964 at Cotulla High School when Gene and his friends Juan “Johnny” Farias and Paul Sanchez formed their very own band. The moniker for the three piece ensemble became known as Johnny and Gene; more the name of a duo than a trio, but that’s how it turned out. They went on to record on Abe Epsteins’s Jox label out of San Antonio. The record consisted of two Beatlesque teeny bopper laments called It’s You I Love and Baby You Know. During this time, the band was backing up the aforementioned Tejano crooner Benny Ornelas. Benny had gotten them the recording session with Abe and the band did some promotional gigs for Jox to back the recording. One of the first jobs promoting the recording was at a record hop in the Martin High School Gymnasium in Laredo, Texas. Gene said kids rushed the stage and danced to the music and that they were “embracing and swaying to our music like the kids did on American Bandstand.” They treasured that moment and never forgot how surprised they were when they received that sort of attention.
The late 1960’s came and Gene was drafted by the Army and went to Vietnam. He was injured in the Christmastide battle on December 27, 1967. Gene recovered from his injuries in an Army Hospital in Tokyo. It was there that he continued his musical experiences playing R&B music in and around Tokyo with a band he formed with some army buddies.
After returning from the Vietnam War, Gene rejoined a San Antonio Conjunto band called Los Pavos Reales. He had started playing with them just before he got drafted. Shortly after that, he reunited with Pat Ruiz and Johnny Farias joining them and two other musicians in a band called La Quinta Onda.
But Gene’s sojourn in Vietnam and Japan would not go without having it influence his music. In 1975, in a ten hour marathon recording session, Gene and a band he had called El Gusano, created an instrumental work of art as an expression to his experiences in Vietnam, Japan and back in his hometown of Cotulla, Texas. The album was recorded in San Antonio and originally released on Joey Records out of that same city and featured musicians Sonny Ramirez, Chale Salazar and Ruben Ramirez. Thirty five years later, a copy of an original Fantasia del Barrio LP was discovered by music preservationists and was reissued on a label from Austin called Heavy Light Records.
Fantasia del Barrio is described as an expression of the experiences that someone feels when they live in the barrio. The album’s liner notes explain that it is dedicated to the people who have journeyed away from home to create a better life for themselves. As the opening paragraph of this article states, those journeys are sometimes unfortunate and not by choice. Traveling was something many people from Cotulla had to do year after year; in either the form of migratory treks to make money from agriculture, or in times of war.
“By chance”, are two words in a sentence on the back cover of Fantasia del Barrio. They ring true to many of the experiences people go through in life. Happenstance is not always going to bring joy, it sometimes brings sadness and almost takes people to realms that no human being should ever see, smell or touch. It was by chance that Gene lay on the floor of a bunker in the Binh Dinh province of Vietnam. He was injured, and was met by a North Vietnamese Army Regular that spared his life. Gene had been eviscerated by the mortar shrapnel that had hit him when the battle began and this NVA soldier may have thought that he was dead, but whatever the case may be, Gene survived and was able to tell his story through a musical work of art called Fantasia del Barrio.
The album is a collection of Chicano funk and soul instrumentals written as a reflection of the barrio experiences-a remembrance of war and the struggles that come with it. This album was an interpretation of what Gene had experienced when he left Cotulla for Vietnam and then returned to face the same town he left behind, and to see it with a new perspective. As he describes in the liner notes, the music in this album is “a request about the wants and needs of a people. Their happiness, sadness, downfalls and triumphs.” He finishes by saying that it is also “for the friends of the world who live at peace with themselves.”
El Gusano, the band, disbanded a year after the release of Fantasia del Barrio and Gene moved to Laredo, Texas shortly after that. He continued playing music with local club bands and penned several songs; some of which were recorded by Tejano artists La Mafia, David Lee Garza, Pio Treviño y Majic, Romance, Elsa Garcia and Jean LeGrand, who is now known as CNN reporter Jean Casarez.
Gene recorded one other song reflecting his experience in Vietnam. Originally titled, Roll Their Dough, the song Rollin’ in the Dough, is one that has had a few different arrangements but ended up as a blues about a young man’s experience in war and his realization that he’s the sacrifice for the politics and corporations that benefit from war.
In 2000, Gene was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it was during this time that he retired from playing music publicly. He continued to write and record and even became a luthier. Without any formal guitar-making training, he began building all sorts of stringed instruments; African koras, hybrid dulcimer guitars, and cigar box guitars.
He never stopped making music. Gene recorded solo albums with instruments he built and always had the intention of going out to play solo gigs and even setting up somewhere and become street musician. Guitar, travel amp and stomp box were on call just in case that ever happened.
Gene eventually got together with some former bandmates to record some songs he had written several years back. From 2015 to 2017, Gene recorded music for an album called Musica de Taller. Drummer Chale Castillo and bassist Ruben Ramirez joined Gene on this project and went under the name Mezquital. Musica de Taller is unreleased, but is an expansion of a self-titled EP by Mequital that included the songs The Ballad of Parral, No Win Situation, and Baby Let’s Make Contact. Those songs, along with four others recorded in Laredo and Cotulla, Texas, make up a collection of multi-genre, bilingual rock, country, cumbia and blues influenced tracks. For this album, he again reunited with Pat Ruiz who did accordion work on Soy Caminante and Juan “Johnny” Farias on vocal harmony for Baby Let’s Make Contact.
Gene was proud of the work he did on Musica de Taller (Workshop Music). The diagnoses of PTSD put him through a journey that made him feel he could not be in another band and play in public. He dedicated most of his time to recording on his own and playing a long to bass and drum tracks he had programmed himself. He eased up on the medication doctors had prescribed for this shell shock condition, and he built up the courage to approach his friends and former bandmates so that Musica de Taller would become a realization.
Gene had plans to release Musica de Taller digitally, but unfortunately, he did not see that happen. Eugenio “Gene, El Gusano” Jaimez passed away at his home on July 27, 2018 after battling liver cancer. He passed away with his wife and daughter at his bedside while the music of The Texas Tornadoes played in the background. Music was Gene’s life and if he wasn’t playing it, he was listening to it. He held Freddy Fender in high regard. He enjoyed recounting the story of the time he played a gig with Los Pavos Reales in San Benito, Texas-Fender’s hometown. It was 1966 and while on stage, these two guys approached the stage. Thinking they were just coming up to request a song, they actually came up to say hello to Salvador “El Pavo” Torres, leader and accordionist for the band. Gene had learned some of his first guitar licks listening to a Freddy Fender album called Rock N Roll which was released in 1958. He was in awe meeting one of his biggest musical influences.
Although the songs on Musica de Taller weren’t influenced by a trip to some far away land like Fantasia del Barrio was, Gene’s music was influenced by the countless experiences he had while playing gigs all over the country and playing with musicians that are considered legendary in Conjunto and Tejano music. Fantasia del Barrio takes you away on a strange trip, but Musica de Taller brings it all back home with songs that were influential to Gene before he made his voyage to Vietnam.
Eugenio Jaimez Jr. December 21, 1946 – July 27, 2018
Marco A. Jaimez is, simply put, a music lover. Although music runs through his veins, Marco has never played music professionally. A child of the 70s and 80s, he was raised on Top 40 radio hits along with Jazz Fusion, thanks to his dad, Progressive Rock, Tejano and has also made many other musical discoveries along the way. The music and its stories is what drives him to write about it.