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Commentary: Rest In Peace Juan Gabriel, the greatest songwriter of his generation

Singer Juan Gabriel performs during the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards at the Mandalay Bay Events Center November 5, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Singer Juan Gabriel performs during the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards at the Mandalay Bay Events Center November 5, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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Editor's note: Singer Juan Gabriel died Sunday at his home in Santa Monica. He was 66. KPCC education correspondent Adolfo Guzman-Lopez remembers the star for who he was: the greatest songwriter of his generation.  

As we begin to unpack the meaning of Juan Gabriel's life and work, I’m reminded of all the things Juan Gabriel was: songwriter, singer, queer icon, borderlands product, and a very proud Mexican. Here, he musicalizes a tribute speech to the great singer Lola Beltan:


"Long live your music, your freedom, your sky, your earth, your sea, your sun, your moon, and all your stars." Then Juan Gabriel sings the refrain “Que Viva Mexico” 11 times.

Juan Gabriel was a craftsman, like Carole King or Paul Williams.

He had a deep knowledge of the ranchera and mariachi formulas, enough to twist the lyrics and marry them to the music to the point where no other arrangement seemed right, like the popular Broadway lyricists.

Here’s a good example, "Tu a mi ya no me interesas," which means "you don’t interest me anymore."

It's one of my favorites, sung by one of Mexico's greatest ranchera singers, Lucha Villa — just one example of how many of Mexico's great singers covered Juan Gabriel’s songs:


 "I want you to understand, what I'm about to tell you, and I hope you understand me, that I don't mean to hurt you, It turns out I don't love you anymore, Don't ask why, Even I don't understand, but believe me it's the truth, Why? Don't know, I don't know why you don't interest me anymore..."

Back in the mid 1970’s, my mom and I traveled a lot between San Diego and Tijuana. We spent a lot of time in music-filled Tijuana taxis and buses late at night. Those were good years for my mom and me. She was happy and we listened to songs like "No Tengo Dinero" and "El Noa Noa," which was named after a nightclub from Juan Gabriel's early years. Today, they bring those good times back.


I'm remembering a particular moment in a Tijuana bus at night with my mom. I couldn't have been more than 6 years old. As ballads kept coming out of the radio, I remember thinking: "Juan Gabriel, Julio Iglesias, Lucha Villa ... love, love, love."

"Why does everybody keep singing about love? Why are all the songs about love?" I asked my mom.

"That's the most important thing to sing about," she said.

And Juan Gabriel was one of the best at it.