Tuesday, October 16, 2012

El Monte Lifeguards, In the Swim Gangnam-Style

Today’s a big day for the city of El Monte, California. Those renegade lifeguards who were fired so ignominiously in September will apparently find out if they’re going to get their jobs back. They got into trouble for making a music video . . . but more on that later.

When I was young, El Monte was something of a watchword among teenagers. Not that this was a place where you’d want to put down roots. It was a drab working-class town in the San Gabriel Valley, many of whose citizens descended from migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. But in the Fifties and Sixties, El Monte became famous for the El Monte Legion Stadium, where rock ‘n’ roll was king. I can still hear disc jockey Art Laboe on KRLA, L.A.’s most kid-friendly radio station, inviting us all to come on down to the El Monte Legion Stadium for a Friday night dance party. Headliners at the stadium included Ritchie Valens, Dick Dale and his Del-Tones, and (later) The Grateful Dead. Frank Zappa even wrote a song called “Memories of El Monte” to commemorate the era.

I didn’t know it at the time, but El Monte also spawned some famous show biz types. Like Cheech Marin. And Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish, who gained fame in the Vietnam era with their bitter “Fixin’-to-Die Rag." (For what it’s worth, they also appeared in one of Roger Corman’s most Sixties films, Gas-s-s-s.) Other unlikely celebrities born in El Monte include the Palomino who starred in TV’s Mr. Ed.

Now, back to those lifeguards. They all worked at El Monte Aquatic Center, a rather impressive civic facility where El Monte residents can swim and take swimming lessons year-round. The trouble started when the youthful lifeguards discovered a Youtube sensation, the catchy music video called “Gangnam Style.” In it a South Korean rapper nicknamed Psy (short for Psycho) sings and dances his way through a phantasmagoric Seoul landscape, along with a lot of wacky guys and some leggy Korean beauties. The lifeguards caught the “Gangnam” fever, and decided to make their own version. Showing off the El Monte Aquatic Center’s pools, fountains, and other amenities, they swim, float, mug, bounce, and enthusiastically demonstrate Psy’s signature “invisible horse” dance move. Good clean fun, right?

The obviously humorless El Monte administrators cracked down hard, firing the lifeguards for misusing city property. The result so far has been a wave of bad publicity for the city over a video that could be considered a terrific calling-card: who knew that El Monte has such a cool pool? Or such cute young lifeguards? I wish them well, but I also want to put in a word for South Korea.

I visited Seoul during my collegiate study-year in Tokyo. Back then, there wasn’t much to see. I spent the night in an upper-middle-class home where, instead of a refrigerator, the kitchen was organized around a huge jar of spicy cabbage pickles. (That was how you ate your vegetables in wintertime.) The Japanese, in the midst of their own economic miracle, looked down at the Koreans as backward folk. That wasn’t nice, but it was easy to agree with them. Today I doubt I’d recognize Seoul. I’m told it’s a vibrant place, bursting with high technology and a thriving film scene. The word is that rapper Psy has just signed with Justin Bieber’s management. South Korea -- where pop culture is king -- coming your way soon!


  1. I would say that you're correct about Seoul - my niece returned recently from an Air Force posting there - and her pictures certainly made it look like a modern place - even if still awfully fond of partially rotted cabbage...

    I am appalled at the actions of the El Monte administrators. What a bunch of sticks in the mud!

    I like your memories of El Monte Legion Stadium. No place can be bad if they booked Dick Dale and the Del-Tones! (I have to digress for a favorite movie visual joke - 1987's Back to the Beach - Frankie and Annette 25 years later - they return to the same watering hole they used to frequent and on the sign outside "Appearing tonight! Dick Dale and at least two Del-Tones!" I am still chuckling at that one now, 25 years later!

    Thanks for another sterling view into the always eccentric life in Southern California!

  2. Actually, I like kimchee, but not so much at breakfast. Regarding El Monte, the mayor is urging that the lifeguards be rehired, but no official word yet.