The Backdoor.JPG

Connections between music, other art forms, and societal issues are deeply embedded in the history of live popular music at any locale.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the recent rescue, preservation, conservation, and reinstallation of the 1976 “Backdoor Mural,” named because it graced the hallway leading to one of the university’s most important venues for up-and-coming bands from 1969 to 2009—The Backdoor.  Over the decades, The Backdoor was San Diego State’s most important and often-used live music venue.  Located in the now-demolished Aztec Center and named for the fact that patrons entered the small venue through its rear, The Backdoor became the premiere concert club in San Diego.  It hosted all types of music—including folk, blues, classical, rock, and punk—and was especially renowned for booking major music stars just before they made it big.

Nine San Diego State students—Felix Monfare, Henry Pineda and his brother (whose name at this point has escaped the annals of history), David Salazar, Amber Spincer, Brel Schimedier, Vivian Reyes, Jose Ward, and Maria Lόpez—painted the mural as part of a Chicano Studies Mural Art class in the fall of 1975 under the direction of Professor Arturo Anselmo Roman and finished it on January 27, 1976.  The stunning 14’ by 9’ mural in electric paint colors portrayed a group of pre-Columbian Aztec deities playing in a rock ’n’ roll band.  The captivating work of art is half KISS, half Tenochtitlan; the characters in the mural are authentic Aztec warrior glyphs with 1970s rocker attitudes.  It is historically informed, institutionally relevant, and emotionally appealing.  The mural celebrated pre-Columbian indigenous deities, Chicano heritage, and the Mexican Mural Movement of the early 20th century as the student artists paid great attention to historical detail when crafting the image. 

Roman was part of the local Chicano art community during the early 1970s that produced some of the region’s most important and popular public art, including Barrio Logan’s famed Chicano Park and Balboa Park’s Centro Cultural de la Raza.  Roman recalled, “I was part of an amazing group of artists that wanted to bring art to the barrio; we did it by painting on walls.”  Although the ever-humble Roman concluded, “I was just lucky enough to be around those artists,” CSU San Marcos arts professor David Avalos emphasized, “Arturo is no small player among Chicano muralists; he’s a really significant guy.”  Following Roman’s lead, each of the students in his class was responsible for a different musical character in the Backdoor Mural, and the group collectively insisted on incorporating indigenous symbolism.  For example, Jose Ward created the conga-playing Quetzal bird, and took great care to emphasize the elite political significance of the figure’s green feathers in Aztec society.

The mural also embraced a defiant and irreverent rock ’n’ roll attitude.  David Salazar created the mural’s lead singer.  He stated, “I modeled the pose after Rod Stewart and added some funny stuff, like the marijuana leaf on his tank-top, the ’70s platform shoes, and the Mexican flags on the microphone al la [Aerosmith’s] Steven Tyler.”  Salazar explained that in the rebellious spirit of rock ’n’ roll, the mural was “in a sense a parody of the more refined pre-Colombian murals that existed in the student union [Gilberto Ramirez’s ‘Triptico’].”  Only at a university with such deep ties to Aztec culture through its symbolic affiliation (SDSU Aztecs), a formidable Chicano presence (the San Diego State Chicano studies department was the first of its kind in California), and deep musical history could such a brash yet celebratory image gain such appreciation.  The mural was also an artistic harbinger.  Arturo Roman would go on to work for many years on the long-running television comic cartoon The Simpsons.  In fact, his brother Phil Roman was the animation executive producer of the hit show.  Though the Backdoor Mural was painted over a decade before The Simpsons became a smash success, many of the figures are very Simpson-esque, especially the vibraphone-playing character in the lower left corner.