Songwriter Willy Clauson has created a home for art and artists in Downtown’s Pasaje Rodriguez.
  • Songwriter Willy Clauson has created a home for art and artists in Downtown’s Pasaje Rodriguez.
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Everybody knows that Pasaje Rodriguez is shaping up to be the coolest passage in TJ. But who knew of the jewel right in its heart?

Pasajes (passages) are the arcades that run from Revolución through to Constitución avenues, mostly. They’re secondary lines of shops and cafés that try to lure turistas off the main drag of Revu.

After the economic downturn, Pasaje Rodriguez became a ghost pasaje, but it is definitely into revival mode. They say just about every space has been rented. And maybe its emotional center is where the Mamut Brewery operates out of a cramped 1½-story space next to a beloved second-hand bookstore where settees and sofas stretch out into the pasaje.

But look across the other side to where a gray-bearded man in a big black sombrero sits behind a desk smoking a cigar. The brass star on his chest reads “Sheriff.” The sign above him reads “Foreign Club.” And slightly below: “Amigos del Arte. Willy’s. Come in!”

This is Willy Clauson, and he’ll sing you songs, sell you second-hand sombreros, get someone to help you see the sights, sell you books of songs he has written or the CDs of songs he has recorded. Anything, these days, for a buck. At first you assume he’s one of the thousands of Americans who have come down to live in TJ because it’s the only place they can afford.

It’s partly true: Willy’s glory days are probably over. But for the last 20 years, he has created a little retreat here for artists and musicians to come in and hang out, play, create evening concerts. Right now, on a Friday afternoon, there’s Willy, his faithful assistant Adrian, and a guitarrista teaching a younger guy to play a chord sequence out of a Santana song book. Yes, it’s a little musty, and Willy’s cigar smoke creates a kind of miasma that won’t go away.

But put up with it, because you’re in the presence of a star. Willy, turns out, is the man who gave the world “La Bamba.” Who gave the country “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” He’s the guy who pretty much brought Australian folk music back from extinction. Think “Click Go the Shears, Boys” and “Waltzing Matilda.” He became the favorite charro of his own ancestral Sweden.

And La Bamba? “I was down in Veracruz. Early 1950s. And the dances! The wedding dances where the bride and groom have to tow a long ribbon so it ties into a bow. ‘La Bamba’ was one of the traditional songs for that. A fisherman’s song, but sung really fast. And it gets faster and faster towards the end to make it hard for the couple. I took it and slowed it down and simplified it and started singing it at my concerts. And it became so popular I always used to end with it.”

Fact is, back then, Willy Clauson was hot. He had started as a protégé of Carl Sandburg the poet, ended up soloing at Carnegie Hall, recorded over 40 LPs, was selected as a member of the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, had acted in “maybe 200 movies” as a kid, mostly westerns. Good buddies with Burl Ives, recorded at Johnny Cash’s Tennessee studios, partied with Gregory Peck in La Jolla. “First time I came in, there was Marilyn Monroe, sitting on Greg’s knee.”

And he sang that song. The one that would perk me up like coffee when I was a kid, every time it came on the radio. And 60 years after Willy brought it up in his bag from Veracruz, it’s still around.

Partly thanks to Ritchie Valens, of course. When Valens took it up, it became a total Top 40 hit and now sits at #354 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It’s the only one on the list not sung in English.

And all because of this guy sitting in front of me with the sheriff’s badge and the long cheroot.

So, my main question: After all this glory, why Pasaje Rodriguez?

“I feel more comfortable here. People are more sociable. I have loved Tijuana since I was ten years old.”

And he really means it. He was born in Ohio, but soon moved with his parents back to their native Sweden. When they returned they brought him to Tijuana.

“This was 1940. I was ten. They sat me down in the little patio of Caesar’s restaurant, no different than it is today, and I watched life on Revolución go by. Ladies, the striped donkeys, the hucksters, and the musicians. Oh, Lord. They had the mariachis play to us. I fell in love with this society right then, and it has never gone away.”

Which explains why he stayed here all through the bad times, when this town was a scary place. “But I have always felt safe. And I have to be here, to take my glass of cactus juice from the fruit stand around the corner, every morning. That washes you clean through.”

Except he hasn’t persuaded his sons, living up in L.A. They refuse to cross the border, dad or no dad.

He named this place after the real Foreign Club, which was a drinking and eating and gambling anchor to the town back in the days of Prohibition.

You sort of get a feel for it all in here. Of course at his Foreign Club, it’s all in the timing: if you strike it right, you’ll get a story or two out of him, and maybe even a song. If he happens to be around.

Above all, Willy’s place is a great one to find photos of Old TJ and memorabilia you won’t find elsewhere. Guitars, ponchos, real old-style sombreros with the sweat of their original charro owners staining the bands; and records. There’s even the certificate from the copyright office at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. On the one tune that he didn’t totally compose (among the over 1000 he has created) it locks in his copyright: “William Clauson, April 21st 1958, La Bamba, EU521350....”

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