The NY Times reviews Brazilian singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso’s new biography:
- Imagine a singer-songwriter having emerged in the 60’s who combined the poetical and political allusiveness of Bob Dylan, the melodic seductiveness of Burt Bacharach, the good looks of a French New Wave actor, the hip thinkiness of Susan Sontag in her Partisan Review days, the sheer pop weirdness of Captain Beefheart . . . that, sort of, is Caetano Veloso. Like Elvis, he is on a first-name basis with those who revere him — a fan base encompassing not only hundreds of thousands of Brazilians but David Byrne, Beck and much of the increasingly global music underground. He has a following, too, among the more with-it tenured types who participate in conferences devoted to postcolonial studies and such. In ways similar to, say, Salman Rushdie, Caetano, who turned 60 earlier this year, came of age in the developing world absorbed with questions of center (America and England, in his line of work) and periphery (everywhere else) — of where ”hereness” and ”thereness” met or might meet. His music, or much of it, can be construed as an inventive response to such questions.
But if historians and critics 75 or 100 years from now conclude that popular music mattered as much to our time as we think it does — and if the borders between ”here” and ”there,” to say nothing of ”high” and ”low,” continue to be worn down as a result of incursions from both sides — Caetano is likely to be remembered as one of the era’s great composers, period. He writes and sings extremely good songs.
”Tropical Truth” is essentially a memoir of a restless artist’s becoming in that stirred-up era we call the 60’s. It is a formidable book, even a vexing one at times. This has less to do with the translation (from the Brazilian Portuguese, by Isabel de Sena) than with the editing: readers only casually familiar with Brazilian music will find the narrative by turns too thin on context or too thick with it. However, approached as one might an adventurous Caetano album — that is, as an unconventional work combining autobiography, cultural criticism, deep musical wisdom and original, sweet riffs — the book is rather extraordinary. There has never been anything like it written by someone who had hit records or pranced on stage in plastic clothes.
At one point, for example, Caetano embarks on a lengthy consideration of the role of sexual liberation and sexual ”indeterminacy” in the construction of the personas of rock-era pop stars, during the course of which he manages to write poignantly of his boyhood discovery of masturbation; contrast Brazilian and American paths to homosexual freedoms; and praise, reproach or otherwise refer to, among others, Simone de Beauvoir, Mario Vargas Llosa, Christopher Lasch, Carmen Miranda and Andrew Sullivan. ”As a public figure,” he writes, ”I came close to what Andrew Sullivan called the ‘ubiquitous, vaguely homoerotic’ climate of the ‘male pop groups of that period,’ and today I surmise that those suggestions of androgyny, polymorphism and indeterminacy that colored the post-Beatles (post-Elvis?) pop music scene still threaten the conventions that underlie many acts of oppression.” This is not the kind of rumination that will ever come from a surviving member of the New York Dolls.
At the heart of the book — and Caetano’s sense of himself — is tropicalia, or tropicalismo, as it is more often called here, a short-lived countercultural movement of the late 60’s that fevered Brazilian art, poetry and drama but most memorably Brazilian pop music. (The name was taken from an ambient-art installation created by one of Brazil’s leading sculptors of the time, Helio Oiticica.) Caetano, a son of a government postal officer in Bahia, along Brazil’s northeast coast, had more or less fallen into music after college. He was an up-and-coming second-generation bossa-nova whisperer when he and his closest musician friends, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, had their Bahian minds blown by cultural imperialism, manifesting itself in the form of import albums: electric Dylan, psychedelic Beatles and something called the Jimi Hendrix Experience. (Interestingly, Caetano had dismissed Elvis as juvenile, though poorer, less educated Brazilian kids had not.) The impact this music made on them had nothing to do with drugs — Caetano didn’t like getting high — and everything to do with ideas, cultural politics and aesthetic possibility…..