“All right,” their daddy said. “We’ll buy it when we get back to Cartagena.”
Totó, who was nine, and Joel, seven, were far more decided about this than their parents could even believe.
“No,” they chorused. “We want it here and now.”
“To start with,” their mother said, “there aren’t any navigable waters here other than what comes out of the shower.”
She was just as right about this as her husband was. In their house in Cartagena de Indias, there was a patio with a pier on the bay, and a boat shelter for two large yachts. By comparison, here in Madrid they all lived jammed together on the fifth floor of 47 Paseo de la Castellana. But in the end, nether daddy nor mommy could say no because they had promised the boys a rowboat, along with a sextant and a compass, if they were to win the third grade prize, and they had won it. So it was that the daddy bought the boat without saying a word to his wife, who was the more reluctant of the two to pay off any sort of gambling debt. It was a cute aluminum boat with a line of golden rope along the waterline.
“The boat’s in the garage,” daddy revealed at lunch. “The problem is, there’s no way to bring it up either in the elevator or on the stairs, and there’s no more available space anywhere.”
That Saturday afternoon, however, the boys invited their classmates over, to bring the boat up by the stairs, and they succeeded in getting it into the utility room.
“Congratulations,” daddy said to them. “And now what?”
“Nothing now,” the boys said. “The only thing we wanted was to get the boat into the room, and now it’s there.”
The next Wednesday night, as on all Wednesday nights, the parents went to the movies. The boys, now owners and masters of the house, closed the doors and windows, and then broke the lit-up light bulb of a living room lamp. A spray of golden light, fresh as water, began to come out of the broken bulb, and they let the light mount up, until the level of it reached that of four open handprints. Then they cut off the current, brought out the boat, and navigated at their pleasure through the islands of the house.
This fabulous adventure was the result of a bit of flippancy on my part when I participated in a seminar on the poetry of domestic utensils. Totó asked me how it was that light came on simply from the pressing of a switch, and I didn’t have the nerve to think about it even more than just once.
“Light’s like water,” I responded to him. “You open the tap, and out it comes.”
Thus did they continue navigating every Wednesday in the evening, learning how to handle the sextant and the compass, until their parents would come back from the movies to find them sleeping like angels on terra firma. Months later, eager to go even further, they asked for fishing equipment. Everything: masks, flippers, oxygen tanks and compressed-air spear guns.
“It’s bad enough that you’ve got a rowboat in the utility room that doesn’t do anything,” the father said. “But it’s worse that you also want diving equipment.”
“And if we win the first semester Golden Gardenia?” Joel said.
“No,” said the mother, frightened. “No more!”
The father reproached her for her intransigence.
“Look, these kids don’t get even a penny for doing their homework,” she said, “but with some little caprice like this, they’re able to take over for the teacher.”
The parents didn’t say either yes or no finally. But Totó and Joel, who the previous two years had come in last, won the two Gold Gardenias in July, and the public recognition of the school rector. That same afternoon, without having had to ask again, they found in their bedroom the diving gear in its original packaging. So that, the following Wednesday, while the parents saw Last Tango in Paris, the boys filled the apartment up to two fathoms deep, dived like peaceful sharks under the furniture and beds, and rescued from the very bottom of the light those things that for years had been lost in darkness.
At the final awards ceremony, the brothers were acclaimed as an example to the school, and were given diplomas of excellence. This time, they didn’t have to ask for anything, because their parents asked them what they wanted. The boys were very reasonable, asking only for a party at home to honor their schoolmates.
The father, left alone with their mother, was radiant.
“It’s proof of their maturity,” he said.
“God is listening,” said the mother.
The following Wednesday, while their parents went to see The Battle of Algiers, the people passing up la Castellana saw a cascade of light from an old building hidden among the trees. It came down from the balconies, spilling in gushes down the front of the building, and made a channel up the great avenue in a golden torrent that lit up the city all the way to the Guadarrama.
Called out urgently, firemen forced open the door on the fifth floor, and found the house covered in light up to the ceiling. The sofa and armchairs, covered in leopard skin, floated around the room at different levels, between bottles from the bar and the baby grand piano and its manila-colored cover, which flapped around half-submerged like a golden manta ray. The domestic utensils, in the fullness of their poetry, flew with their own wings across the heaven of the kitchen. The military band instruments, to the music from which the boys danced, floated in a circle around the drain among the fishes liberated from Mama’s fishbowl, which were the only ones that floated alive and happy in the vast illuminated swamp. In the bathroom, everyone’s toothbrush floated about, with daddy’s condoms, mommy’s jars of cream and her extra set of dentures, the television from the principal bedroom floating on its side, still turned on to the last scene of a late-night film prohibited to kids.
At the end of the corridor, floating and perplexed, Totó was seated in the rowboat’s stern, hanging on to the paddles with a set face, looking for the port lighthouse from which he could refill the air tanks, and Joel floated in the prow still searching the height of the polar star with the sextant, and their 37 classmates floated through the entire house as though forever in the very moment of going pee-pee in the pot of geraniums, of singing the school hymn changed with lyrics mocking the rector, and secretly drinking glassfuls of brandy from daddy’s bottle. They had turned on so many lights at the same time that the house had spilled over with it, and the entire first-year class of the San Julián el Hospitalario School had been drowned on the fifth floor of number 47 Paseo de la Castellana. In Madrid, Spain, a remote city of burning summers and icy winds, without a sea or a river, whose terra firma aborigines had never mastered the science of navigating the light.
During a recent visit to The Republic of Ireland, the Papal Nuncio to that country, Archbishop Charles Brown, was interviewed by The Irish Independent. He was asked about the future for women as priests in the Church, and replied “The Catholic faith exists in part because of the tradition of the faith, and the tradition on that point is totally clear, completely clear. The Holy Father has spoken on that and I don’t think as a result we’re going to have women priests.”
Seventy-seven percent of the Irish population is in favor of allowing women to become priests. Democratic ideals, though, are not quite what the Church has in mind in its dealings with its flock. Indeed the flock has no authority at all. So those Irish will just have to live with the continuing top-down male rigidity with which Catholics world-wide have had to contend for the last 2000 years.
Archbishop Brown, who is American, is no doubt aware of a similar upsurge in support for women in the priesthood in his own country. He is, one would imagine, as recalcitrant on the matter on the Lower East Side, where he was born, as he is in Dublin.
Traditions change, and faith changes, as has been made abundantly clear during the two millennia of the Church’s history. Large social changes and important thinking have brought about tectonic shifts over the centuries, which the Church has resisted at almost every turn. Galileo, for example. Scientific inquiry. Voltaire. The French Revolution. Democratically elected governments. The Pill. Just to name a few. In response, an undemocratic bureaucracy elected by no one, with no accountability to the vast majority of the members of the organization, renders iron-clad restrictions that are based on centuries-old received wisdom and unexamined assumptions about the existence of God.
The restrictions are basically made out of self-interest, in order to keep the bureaucracy in a position of power. I think the rabidity of the Church’s current insistence on certain matters of faith, morals and politics shows its defensive fear…and its anger at being so ignored by the populace. The priest/bureaucracy rests like a drowned hulk between the faithful and the burning light of their faith. Even the simplest one-to-one personal relationship in the Church, the institution of Confession, places a priest between a believer and his or her God, a priest who turns the wish for forgiveness on the part of the believer to whatever purpose he may wish to impose. The only activity that you can undertake without a priest invading the moment is silent prayer, and I imagine many popes, archbishops and local pastors have gone to their graves unhappy about that.
Terrified by an onslaught of women bringing well thought-out change, new levels of heartfelt love, charitableness and perhaps even humor to the institution, these men have put their foot down…again. So, women will have to bide their time for maybe a few centuries more. Maybe.
But I have a modest proposal. The sclerotic bureaucracy of the priesthood is itself the problem. Becoming a member of it could very well infect the new women priests with the hardening of the Church’s arteries that has made the institution so nuttily inconsequential. Women, why do that? The Church is beside the point. Many of the previous faiths that have been destroyed by the Catholic Church had very prominent places for women, and they were faiths based on pagan-animist respect for nature, the stars, the planets, fruition, love and sensual beauty. As Shakespeare put it, “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
That’s a faith I could buy into.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, about the Catholic Church versus a world-famous artist, will be published later this month.
You walk down a sidewalk in Buenos Aires at your peril. Potholes, immense cracks in the cement, deteriorating curbs, and sudden whole absences of pavement can plague every footstep. This is worsened by the fact that sidewalks in this city are often very narrow as well. You must walk with your head down, watching, which is perhaps why so many Buenos Aires citizens appear lost in thought, a bit resentful, and put upon. They’re afraid they’ll fall, and so they have to concentrate.
It’s the same in tango, which of course comes from Buenos Aires. Dancers of tango very frequently look as though they’re angry with someone, which cloaks them in an ambiance of dismissive arrogance. When women in tango have such a disdainful veneer, they appear to be implying to their partners “Okay chico, show me what you can do.” This look has as much to do with concentration as it does with dramatics. The difficulties of dancing tango well make it imperative that you pay attention, otherwise you’ll look like a fool as you stumble through some radical misdirection. One thing you learn quickly about the citizens of Buenos Aires is that they do not want to look like fools.
Weather makes the sidewalks even more perilous. Parts of Argentina — including Buenos Aires itself — are subject to violent hailstorms and heavy rain. When this happens at night, the sidewalks become simply un-navigable because you can’t see anything, you’re usually running in order to get out of the tempest, and your concentration is being scattered by hailstones that are like globules of the cement missing from the sidewalks. During such storms, the rain really seems more like a driven, concentrated cataract. It bangs against the ground and soaks you coming down and going back up. Generally it makes you feel like a rat in a sewer.
This may sound like an exaggeration — and it is — but not much of one, and there are saviors in this city who, for a slight fee, will help you through just such torment.
Bea and I had been dancing tango one recent night in Buenos Aires. We’d begun around 11:00 PM, and we came out of the Viejo Correo club at about 3:00 in the morning. Sweaty, heated, and exhausted, all we wanted was a taxi and bed. It had been drizzling lightly when we’d gone into the club, bringing to mind a famous tango entitled “Garúa” (“Light Rain”), with its finely-rhymed lyrics of dark solitude:
Solo y triste por la acera,
va este corazón transido
con tristeza de tapera,
sintiendo tu hielo.
Porque aquella, con su olvido,
hoy le ha abierto una gotera.
Como un duende que en la sombra…
Alone and sad up the sidewalk
Goes this spent heart
With the sadness of an abandoned shack,
Feeling your icy cold.
Because that cold, with its forgetfulness,
Has opened up a leak on this day.
Like a ghost in the shadow. . .)
But coming back out onto the sidewalk, we found that the very awning over our heads was groaning beneath the weight of the water now coming down. A more or less slick sheet of it cascaded from each side of the convex canvas. I felt we were inside a constantly descending comber at some famous Hawaiian surfing spot.
Out on the Avenida Díaz Vélez, rain battled the pavement, lit by the headlamps of the heavy traffic. There were, as always in this city, numerous taxis, but they all seemed occupied or traveling so quickly that it would be impossible for their drivers to see the blur of an imploring hand waving for attention in the midst of the storm. I knew I’d be soaked in seconds if I moved further into the avenue to make my presence known. There was a flash of lightning, an immediate bang of thunder and, like shrapnel falling from heaven, hail. I glanced at Bea. She smiled, but I could tell she was as intimidated as I.
It was then that Narigón came to our aid.
The doorman had noticed our plight and whistled for Narigón. He came out of the dark. About 23, he was an over-the-hill street urchin. His name is Buenos Aires slang for “Big Nose,” and there was an Italianate heaviness to his own. His nose was, actually, muscular. In twenty years, it would have the look of a much-used doorstop. He looked like a laborer from contemporary Rome, his broad face already shaded with the beginnings of a dark beard. His hands were very large, as were his teeth, and they were similarly soiled. He had been out in the rain and, although his clothing appeared for the most part only damp, his shoulder-length black hair was pasted in meanders to his cheeks.
At first I was intimidated by him because, though he was only of average height, there was a severe, even angered look in his eyes that made me think he could take a swipe at me with a club when my back was turned, in order to get to my wallet. He’d been waiting outside the club for someone such as us, lost tangueros intent on a cab, but not so intent on one that we’d run out into the flood.
“Che, man, ¿taxi?” he said.
He was wearing an old coat, old pants, and running shoes without socks. His voice was arrabalero, a word that in Buenos Aires means “of the rough neighborhood,” as though he’d already smoked way too many cigarettes and drunk a good deal too much whiskey. It’s a voice you hear everywhere on the streets of Buenos Aires, and frequently in tango.
I assented, and Narigón ran out into the street. He had to contend with two elements: the tempest and the taxis, both of which seemed to want to run him down. He pulled his coat over his head and raised his right arm, his hand like a splayed flag over his head, waving back and forth. He was able to whistle, very loudly, at the same moment. While the rain pelted the street and ricocheted from it, the rain that pummeled Narigón sunk into the shoulders and the back of his coat, rendering them immediately soaked. He jumped back and forth, dodging taxis and other cars, his shoulders hunched beneath his jacket, his shoes splashing in the puddles, the water whelming over into them so that his feet must have been badly inundated within seconds.
In a few moments, an errant taxi pulled across a couple lanes of traffic to answer Narigón’s request, and as soon as it stopped in front of the club, he was there, at our side, with an umbrella. Where he’d gotten it was beyond me, but he sheltered Bea as she got into the taxi, and then me as I fumbled in my pants pocket for a tip. It took me a while because I had been watching him and admiring his dance-like movements in the run of all that rain and traffic. He’d been jumping around, bringing his fingers to his lips for loud whistles, waving his arms, all the while intent on the search for an empty cab.
As I searched my pockets, I considered my own admiration of this man. Of course, the effort he was making was for himself. Perhaps he had a family, maybe some children, but even if he had only himself, he was indigent and trying to make a peso. I myself have encountered have-not moments when a few extra dollars meant a great deal, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never had the problems that Narigón has had. He was a very poor man, but standing beneath that umbrella (underneath which, by the way, he was not standing) I felt I was in the company of a man of intense values, who was living a hard life, who had found me a cab under circumstances very threatening to his own health.
I pulled the bills from my pocket and handed them to him.
“Chau, señor,” he said, clapping me on the back as I got into the taxi. “Suerte.” This last is a Buenos Aires salutation. It means “Good luck.”
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published this month.
Horacio Ferrer died this Sunday in Buenos Aires. A noted Argentine poet and tango lyricist, he wrote the libretto for Astor Piazzolla’s opera Maria de Buenos Aires as well as the lyrics for Piazzolla’s iconic “Balada para un loco”. In the early 1990s, he was on tour in the United States with the great violinist Gidon Kremer and a musical ensemble, performing the narrator’s speaking role in the opera. I met with Horacio for an interview in Berkeley, California. He was a smallish man with a finely trimmed beard, impeccably dressed as a kind of late 19th century dandy. The outfit was both humorous and very elegant. For me, the experience was fraught with a certain danger, because it was the first one I ever conducted in the Spanish language. Horacio was quite kind to me despite my obvious case of nerves. The authority about tango with which he spoke in this interview was enhanced by his amazing voice, a deep, expressive stream of sound that was the very soul of his performance later that evening.
Horacio: (arranging a scarf about his neck)…my voice has tightened up so much that it sounds like a double base, when really it’s more like a violoncello. (Laughter.)
Terry: I think it’s not very usual to find a popular music tradition that attracts lyricists of such high quality as the tango has attracted, poets like Discépolo, Manzí, Borges, Blázques, Espósito and yourself. Why in your opinion has the tango brought in poets of such quality?
Horacio: At the very center of the question, the “why” of the tango’s being so attractive to poets is, I think, the fact that the tango is itself entirely poetic. The music is poetic, the dance is poetic, the singing is poetic, and the world from which the tango evolves is poetic. It’s the world of the night, it’s the bohemian world where money has little importance, and to be sure where love has a great deal of importance, triumphant love or destroyed love, the affections, distant affection, a love of looking back through space and time.
So they’re all colors taken from the poetic palette. And besides, the tango is one of the few song-forms in this century that undertakes not only a lyric excursion but a reflective one as well. The tango thinks. The tango thinks about the truth without claiming to modify it. It simply meditates upon it, which is also part of poetry.
Terry: Frequently the music of more modern tango composers like Piazzolla, you and others doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Can you help us with your opinion of contemporary tango, especially the reason that no one dances, or wishes to dance, to the more modern tango tempos?
Horacio: There has existed a dance tradition in the tango from the very beginning of the tango itself, that has gone through diverse stages, but that has always been quite attached to the kind of ambiance from which tango originally came. Tango is tradition. So the dance did not accompany the great poetic and musical evolution of the tango, and it has now been seized upon, instead of by milongueros (i.e. classic self-trained tango dancers), by dancers of classic and modern ballet. Because that musical evolution cannot be left to go without the dance. Besides, it’s very good to dance to. Every milonguero chooses his own music and type of tango. That’s no sin. But it would be a sin were the more modern kind of music to go on without the dance.
Piazzolla changed the internal metronome of the tango itself, and the dance has been taken over by people like Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebs…who’s a veritable creation herself, no? Also some of the work that el maestro Juan Carlos Copes has done. And many others, many of them not milongueros at all.
Tango has always profited from people, talents, and situations that don’t belong to tango. For instance it has stolen some of rock’s instruments: the electric guitar, the electric keyboard, the drum set. Tango’s always been a bit of a thief, in that it enriches itself without losing its virtue, and that’s what has happened in the case of the dance today.
Terry: You write in your book The Golden Age of Tango about the influence of rock music.
Horacio: Of course. Why not? Fundamentally, all cultures contain vessels that communicate with each other. And sometimes cultures clash with each other. And in the case of rock music, a true clash took place in 1960 or so, with such extraordinary talents as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to be sure, and others. But in Buenos Aires, with so defined a personality, everything porteño, with its tango, its night, its bohemian ways, it was a clash that afterwards took on distinct consequences. Since the kids who were doing the rock music were living in the same places, the same city, the same night, with the same incitements as the tangueros, they started imitating the tangueros. And they began to find out that that art with which they had had such a clash was worthy of respect. And they started . . . given their abilities (because not all of them were good musicians or very good singers, and the tango is musically schooled while rock music is not). . . they started talking with each other, to figure out the harmonies the tango had, the tango’s counterpoint, its poly-rhythms, the tango poetic, and the singers . . . they began to like all that. And since they belonged in the same starry enclave, eh?, in the same night and the same pizza parlors and the same little black holes-in-the-wall and the same bars, they started going around with the tangueros. And I think they’ve done quite a lot quite well.
Terry: Can we talk about Piazzolla? Do you know that in English he had a New York accent?
Horacio: Of course. He spent his entire childhood there.
Terry: I’ve heard him speaking on the radio many times, and his accent is, well, strange for someone who, like he, was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, because for us the Lower East Side New York accent is fundamental to our culture. You know, Martin Scorsese and Coppola, The Godfather and all that.
Can you give us some comments about the elements of North American music, especially jazz, in Piazzolla’s music?
Horacio: I think that really there are not too many jazz elements in Piazzolla’s music. They’re there, but they’re not central. I think that Piazzolla’s idea…well, maybe he attained something different from what he proposed. I think he was very essentially a tanguista, playing the bandoneón. That instrument is very specific to the tango…other things can be played on the bandoneón, like Bach’s music, but the bandoneón is the very face of the tango, and he played the bandoneón.
Besides he came from a race of tanguistas, because he played in Troilo’s orchestra, who was a great innovator, and he was an admirer of Pugliese and De Caro, who had been the greatest of previous innovators. So that he was very involved, and all the elements of Piazzolla’s music are of the tango. What happens is that, in the harmonic and contrapuntal parts of his music, he finds things from other musical springs, like jazz, also from European classical music, with which he garnishes the dish. But the beef, the churrasco, was from Buenos Aires. The accompaniment, the decoration was from others…because, besides, he liked differentiating himself from the tangueros because he was different.
Terry: And María de Buenos Aires?.
Horacio: It came from two places: one is that, in 1965, I had written a book called Romancero Canyengue. It was the first book, or the first poems that had the good fortune to be in that book, in which I found that I had my own voice. The previous voice I had could have been OK, but it was like Manzí, it was like Espósito, it was like Lamadrid. But in that book I found myself…the voice in the tango. Piazzolla liked it so much that he told me, “From now on you’re working with me, because what you’re doing in words, I’m doing in music.” He invited me to do a piece. He said, “No, no, not a tango. Do a big work. I want to do something like West Side Story,” he told me. So I went about writing what he’d asked me to write…
Terry: I imagine your heart was beating.
Horacio: Please. Please. Of course! But that meant I would abandon everything else, and I like that kind of thing. And, well, I wrote it in 1967, starting in August or September. And in December Piazzolla came to Montevideo and I read what I had written to him…it was almost everything. And we went to a little bar in Uruguay, and on my bandoneón…because I played the bandoneón too…he wrote the music. We finished it in Buenos Aires and we put it on for the first time on May 8, 1968. And it was so revolutionary.
Terry: Would you explain to us the importance of Buenos Aires to the heart of tango?
Horacio: There’s a circumstance that makes Buenos Aires into the Paris of the Americas, but one which has a much richer root system, I think. Because Paris, which to be sure is a center of Anglo-Latin culture, like the French race itself, doesn’t contain anything that the Buenos Aires tango has in a very powerful way. The tango is a combination of the Indian and the American, which includes the Indian who, sadly, has now more or less disappeared, but who still remains in the gaucho and in the compadrito.
I was thinking just yesterday that if the cowboy is the North American equivalent of the Argentine gaucho, the cowboy nonetheless doesn’t have a literature. He’s got the movies, but no literature. The cowboy doesn’t have Martin Fierro. (Translator’s note: Martín Fierro is an epic poem by the Argentine writer José Hernández that was published between 1872 and 1879. It is the most famous work of Argentine gaucho literature.) Gaucho literature is a unique case, and it’s the very basis of the tango. That’s where the attractiveness of Buenos Aires comes from, no?, the city with a European aspect and an American content.
Terry: How was tango affected by the Argentine military junta during the Nineteen-Sixties and Seventies?
Horacio: That was a horrifying thing. Horrifying. The Spanish philosopher Ortega said, “A ‘military man’ is a warrior turned into a bureaucrat.” And those are bureaucrats, not warriors. They have lost all the guts the warrior has, and turned themselves into desk-bound cowards. Sadly, that’s the way it is. They brought their bellicose spirit to the citizenry, to the TV stations, to the ministries, the schools…a very lamentable thing. What happened…I hope we never forget it, because that happened in our beloved country, and it had better not ever happen again! No? It better not happen again! It’s an historical instance from which we can learn much, no? so that we can build a present that serves us into the future.
(Terence Clarke wishes to thank Guillermo García, of the group Trio Garufa , for his invaluable help with this interview.)
Astor Piazzolla (a master of the bandoneón, the concertina-like instrument that many consider the soul of tango) revolutionized tango in ways that either electrified his numberless fans (most of them outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is the home of tango) or infuriated his many detractors (most of them inside Buenos Aires). He once remarked how dismaying it was to him to be able to fill every seat at the huge Olympia Theater in Paris, while barely thirty people — and many of them loudly hostile — would come to see him in a club in Buenos Aires.
Astor brought into tango many elements of sophisticated classical music that it had never heard before. Fugue, counterpoint, extraordinary poly-rhythms and dissonances that few of the usual tango musicians in Buenos Aires — as fine as surely they were — could even comprehend. Indeed Astor spoke of his own compositions as “music based on tango”, rather than as tango itself, and this is a fair judgment.
But woe betide the tango fan who does not understand the importance of traditional tango to Astor’s work. Astor was, after all, the principal arranger for several years for the renowned Buenos Aires orchestra of Anibal Troilo, himself a truly innovative composer.
The noted tango composer and pianist Osvaldo Pugliese was a great fan of Astor, and vice versa, although their styles of tango were markedly dissimilar. In his book Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir (compiled from interviews by Natalio Gorin), Astor writes “I wrote a special arrangement of my ‘Adiós Nonino,’ and Osvaldo looked clueless — he couldn’t play a note. Later I tried to play [Osvaldo’s] ‘La Yumba’ his way and I couldn’t. I felt bad, as if I’d dirtied his music…”
There was a further quite special moment earlier in Astor’s life, when he met another tango revolutionary, Carlos Gardel. Generally regarded as the greatest singer of tango ever, “Charley”, as Astor called him, was an international recording and film star when he met the thirteen year-old Astor Piazzolla in New York City, where Astor and his parents Vicente and Asunta were living. Vicente had taken his family from Argentina to New York in 1924 (when Astor was three) in order to find work, and they lived on the Lower East Side (ironically, near Astor Place) for many years.
Astor was a scruffy kid with a limp caused by an accident of birth in one foot, which required surgeries throughout his childhood. He walked funny, he was little, and he talked funny with an Argentine accent. He got into a lot of fights.
Astor began playing the bandoneón in New York at his father Vicente’s insistence, and as a thirteen year-old in 1934, ever alert to job possibilities, he got work as an errand boy on the set of El día que me quieras. This was one of Carlos Gardel’s several musical comedies that were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria, New York studios. Within a few days, Astor and the great Charley became pals.
Astor told Charley that he played bandoneón. As a result, the singer and his musicians tutored Astor on his instrument, and indeed Astor accompanied Charley on a couple of occasions at the Campoamor Theater on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Charley thought so well of Astor that he gave the boy a bit part in El día que me quieras. Gratefully, Vicente Piazzolla, an amateur wood carver, made a small carving of an Argentine gaucho with a guitar, which Astor delivered to Charley.
Charley was killed in a fiery airplane accident in Colombia on June 24, 1935. Many years later, Astor received a message from his very first bandoneón teacher, Andrés D’Aquila, who still lived in New York. Andrés had been passing by a pawnshop in Manhattan and had spotted a small wood carving of a gaucho with a guitar in the window. Curious, he looked at it more carefully and saw the name “Vicente Piazzolla” carved into its base. The carving itself was charred in many places, the evidence that it had been in a fire. Next to the figure was a hand-lettered sign that read “This belonged to an Argentine tango singer.”
Andrés went into the shop, to buy the gaucho for Astor. But the price was $20.00, money that Andrés did not have on him that day. The shop owner agreed to hold the carving overnight. But when Andrés came back the next day, the gaucho was gone, sold.
In his memoir, Astor writes, “I never lost hope that I would find [the carving] and that whoever has it some day would call me.” That never happened, and among the gifts offered by a fan to a performer, that gaucho carving, wherever it is, surely conveys a far more personal artistic affection — equally to the young prodigy who delivered it and his mentor the immortal star who died with it — than almost any such gift ever could provide.
Terence Clarke’s recently completed screenplay Astor & Charley is based on these events. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.
When you are reading the Acknowledgments page of a newly purchased book, and you come across effusive thanks from the writer to his/her editor, you can reasonably ask, “Just what does an editor do?” Is such a person merely a handy helpmate who corrects grammatical errors? Is the editor the person who keeps the writer’s creative rampages in check, so that eventually an actual book with a beginning, a middle and an end will arrive at the book store (or, in these times, on your iPad)? Is the editor a soul mate to the writer, without whom the poor sot may never finish the sanity-threatening project on which he/she has embarked?
All of these will do, and many others. If you are a writer yourself, you know the intellectual and emotional intimacy that can result between you and your editor. It can be a sanguine conversation or a grittily difficult one, and every shade of talk in between. A very good primer on what the relationship can be like is A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Among others, Perkins was the editor for much of the work of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.
There are few editors today who can claim to have edited such a list of major writers (either in terms of the quality or of the sales of their books). But one who can is Alan Rinzler. Having edited several of the books by Hunter S. Thompson, Clive Cussler, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins and many, many others (including – full disclosure – two of mine) Rinzler occupies an almost unique place in contemporary publishing.
And he has much to say about the current state of that publishing.
For one, things look very good indeed, for a very real reason. “I don’t think people will ever stop writing or reading,” Rinzler says. “Human beings are hardwired to tell stories, compelled to write them…and to read stories for pleasure, information, inspiration – all the vital knowledge that we need to survive.” Every editor knows that the essential quality needed for a successful book is that it be written well. It’s the writer’s most important task, and has always been. What is new in successful books these days is the way they get published and sold, and Rinzler is very upbeat about current and future prospects in that realm, too.
“I was lucky to start out in publishing in the early 1960s when youth culture was a very important factor in book acquisition, production and marketing. Since I was young myself, I was able to make a connection with what was happening and that actually sold books.”
Rinzler’s rise was meteoric, starting with the mentorship from the legendary Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster.
“After S&S, I went to Macmillan, and then Holt, which was owned by CBS at the time. So right away I had the kinds of resources that allowed me to sign up and develop books for the so-called youth market. A book about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in their folk-music phase. A book on civil rights called The Movement, because I had been a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And most importantly the first book written by a street kid growing up in Harlem, Manchild in the Promised Land ,which turned out to be a big NY Times best-seller.”
This youthful rise also included Rinzler’s editing and publishing Custer Died for Your Sins by Lakota Sioux Native American Vine Deloria Jr, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of The American West by Dee Brown. Published in 1970, it remains the best-selling book that Rinzler has ever worked on, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. It is still in print.
“Meanwhile, I had always loved rock ‘n roll as well. I had done a book on Woodstock by the rock ‘n roll photographer Baron Wolman, who told his friend Jann Wenner about me. Jann was in the process of founding a little newsprint four-fold publication in San Francisco named Rolling Stone, and we met.”
Agreeing to come on board, Rinzler moved his family from New York City to the west coast, and Rolling Stone became world famous. “Jann and I both wanted to start a book division, which we did, and I was in charge.” The publishing arm was called Straight Arrow Books. “Ultimately we published about 50 titles, most of which are still in print.” Among the most iconic titles published by Straight Arrow are Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, as well as Kerouac, the first biography of Jack Kerouac by Ann Charters.
When Wenner decided to move Rolling Stone’s operations to New York City, Rinzler demurred, having decided that the San Francisco Bay Area was where he and his young family wanted to stay. He went to work for Barney Rosset at Grove Press and Evergreen Review. “Rosset was another great American publisher,” Rinzler says, “who paved the way for a lot of things that were actually, in those days, against the law to publish, like Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.”
Rinzler has continued on from there, to edit books for innumerable writers. He was for some years the west coast editor for Bantam Books, for whom he edited work by Tom Robbins, Jerzy Kosinski and Shirley MacLaine, among others, and until recently, Rinzler was an executive editor for Jossey Bass, the west coast imprint of John Wiley & Sons in San Francisco.
Much has changed in the way that writing gets published…and read. Two things, however, remain unchanged: the creative talent of the writer and the intellectual curiosity of the reader.
“The book business,” Alan Rinzler says, “ has always only been marginally profitable.
“Even in the halcyon days of publishing, when I was fresh out of college, when Richard Simon was in one office and Max Schuster in another…when Alfred Knopf was down the street and Bennett Cerf was running Random House, most of the books being published by those titanic icons lost money.”
A business model, if there was one, was based on “the publisher’s passion,” Rinzler says.
“In those days, an editor would acquire a book because he loved it. He believed in it. But only a few books made enough to compensate for all those that failed. It was the old 20/80 rule.”
Book publishing has forever been an industry with very slim margins. “A profit of 5 to 6 percent meant that you were doing well,” Rinzler points out. This was largely due to the up-front expenses that traditional book publishing incurred: typesetting, and then printing and binding a book in long press runs; warehousing the books and having to distribute them to innumerable book stores around the country; marketing and publicity. All these caused out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred before a single book was ever sold. And then, as the unruly frosting on the cake, unsold books could be returned by the stores to the publishers for refunds…further expenses.
“Of course, this in no way affected the impact of the publishing industry on the general scene,” Rinzler says. “It had a very high visibility because it influenced ideas and social change. It reflected what was happening in politics, the arts and the culture.”
When the first shopping mall store chains (B. Dalton, Walden Books, et.al.) came along, there was much worry on the part of the traditional publishers about what this could mean to their sales and profits. “Those stores were originally considered low-brow warehouses,” Rinzler says. “Paperback reprints for a dollar each. A lot of people in the business predicted the end of traditional publishing and independent bookstores.” In fact, however, sales increased and profits soared for the top best-sellers because of far greater volume over so many new outlets.
And now, electronic digital publishing and distribution, and self-publishing are changing the scene in ways that are even more dramatic. “Gradually, although kicking and screaming,” Rinzler notes, “traditional book publishers and sellers are being dragged into the 21st century.”
“And one of the biggest factors in this has been the rise of Amazon. Their brilliant new idea was to sell books on line and through the mail directly to buyers, in ways that traditional publishers had never before done. Also the idea of discounting certain titles, or offering chapters of a book for free, the result often being that readers buy the books in much greater volume…because they know what they’re getting.”
There’s an authentic revolution in book publishing that has greatly impacted the author’s potential to receive a greater share of the profits. In traditional publishing, the author’s royalty has always been 10-12-15% for a hard-cover; 7-1/2 to 10% percent for trade paperback; even lower for certain kinds of mass publishing. Now, with the advent of the Kindle, the iPad, and many quite legitimate digital and print-on-demand self-publishing programs, an author can receive as much as 70% of the retail price as royalties.
The growth of electronic publishing has brightened the future for individual writers in ways that provide new incentive for true writing talent, and new enthusiasm among readers of good books. With electronic publishing, more books that are well written are finding the light of day, and delivered much more quickly into the hands of avid readers. Traditional publishing is, to be sure, still doing fine. The printed book will not soon disappear, if ever, but the market share of ebook to print has grown from 5% to 30% over the past few years and is projected to surpass 50% of all book sales within two or three more.
“Yes, I think this is the best time ever for an author,” Rinzler says.
“The balance of power has shifted from the gatekeepers to the artists. Now the author is in a position to take control of the means of production, which has almost never been the case in the history of publishing. They can control the content, the design, the appearance, the production itself…and also, by the way, receive a much larger share of the profits from all that.”
Rinzler breaks into a grin.
“I understand that an author may want to do things in the traditional way, having the imprimatur of that important publisher’s brand name on the spine of his or her book. But to me, that’s like having a spot on the roster of the 1947 Yankees. Now I always ask my writers, ‘How much time have you got? How much patience? How much tolerance for frustration? Rejection? Or for just plain being ignored?’”
Rinzler’s questions reveal the reality, for most writers, of dealing with traditional publishing. And that’s why, he continues, self-publishing has now become such a viable alternative. What once was the worst thing for a serious writer to do, now offers very great potential value to that writer. No longer is self-publishing an embarrassing admission of defeat by authors whose work does not attract a traditional publisher. Now writers can hire their own developmental editors and jacket designers and skip over the big wait.
“If you’ve gone for a year or two with no positive response from traditional publishers, self-publishing begins to look pretty good,” Rinzler says. “And of course, there’s the precedent of self-published books becoming best sellers. Miracles do happen!”
Had I not read Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil when it was first published 25 years ago, I would have continued thinking that a harem in Turkey was basically a gathering of women sequestered–imprisoned–for the deviant sexual pleasure of the pasha, sultan or whomever else was in charge. Like that of most other people in the west, my understanding of the harem was a salacious one, and very inaccurate.
Croutier’s book was therefore a revelation, and in its re-publication in a new edition this year, it remains one.
I learned once more in the preface that Croutier’s paternal grandmother and that woman’s sisters had actually been members of a harem: “Which really means a separate part of a house where women lived in isolation, having no contact with men other than their blood relatives. The term does not necessarily imply the practice of polygamy.” Those sentences begin Croutier’s sophisticated and fascinating education of the reader about what a harem actually was for her grandmother as well as for countless other women, at various levels of Turkish society, over the previous centuries.
We learn about the Grand Harem of the sultan, and what activities the women could engage in…the poetry of the harem, the shadow puppets plays they mounted, the secrets of flowers and birds, the riddles they shared, the stories they told, their outings, games, and many other activities.
“Women of the harem were renowned for their luminous complexions and satin skin,” Croutier writes, and therewith begins a tour of the grand harem baths.
“To wash and purify oneself was a religious obligation. This may perhaps explain the existence of so many baths in the Seraglio. The sultan, the Valide, and the wives all had private baths, while the other women of the harem shared a large bathhouse, which sometimes welcomed the sultan as well–the stuff of Orientalist fantasy…For harem women, deprived of so many freedoms, the hamam (i.e. Turkish bath) became an all-consuming passion and a most luxurious pastime.”
We learn every detail about the baths: the water used, the henna floral designs for special occasions, perspiration preventatives, the powders, the brushes, the spices, the depilatory called ada, which was a paste made of sugar and lemon (for which Croutier provides the recipe and the method for using the concoction)…everything.
We also learn who the sultanas were, the princesses and the relationships between them all, the organization of the harem, the social relationships between the various levels of harem hierarchy, pregnancy and accouchement within the harem, and the handling of childbirth.
The Grand Harem in the Topkapi Palace was one thing, in which many, many women lived in luxurious surroundings. These were the kinds of harems so much written about by western commentators, whose descriptions Croutier uses very often and quite colorfully. But one of the most interesting chapters in the book for me (because it was the least expected) is titled “Ordinary Harems”. A Turkish Muslim man of modest means could still marry four women legally, and they were his harem. The situation for these women was far more workaday and closely familial than for those in the royal seraglio, and Croutier’s description of the customs involved are very special…and even personal.
“Romance or not, families decided who married whom. My grandmother was promised to her father’s best friend when she was merely a child. When they eventually got married, she was fourteen and my grandfather was forty.
In this chapter, we see how a proper husband should treat his wives (for example, “Good husbands were diplomatic. They abided by the Qur’an and gave the impression of treating all their women equally…The husband alternated nights in the bedrooms, spending Friday nights exclusively with their first wives.”). She describes what the relationships among the wives could be like, what was required for household upkeep, the treatment of odalisques (i.e. house servants), and even the various preparations of the bodies of deceased wives for burial.
This chapter on ordinary harems was unusual for me because I had not realized that a harem was a reality in almost every level of the society that Croutier describes, and not intended solely for the sultan and others of the upper-class. The chapter is a view of everyday life in this society that may have gone unnoticed by western readers had it not been for Croutier’s study of it.
Harem is quite lavishly illustrated with photos of various harem women (including some from Croutier’s own family in Turkey). Many of the illustrations come from Turkish artists of the historical period being covered, and there is as well a number of breath-taking paintings done by such Europeans as Eugéne Delacrox, Leon Bakst, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and others, all influenced by the popular European Orientalist movements of the period. I first saw one of my very favorite paintings in this book: John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre Gris, in which an extraordinary woman, in contemplation of the essential perfume of amber coming up to her from a harem censer, is lost in lush, joyful contemplation. The setting–an alcove in some corner of a harem chamber–is severe, of bone-like white, while the carpets, the glorious censer, the woman’s clothing and jewelry and, especially, her hands and face, exude the sensitivity of private, sensuous dreaming.
In the 25 years since the first publication of Harem, the situation for women in Muslim societies has changed profoundly. Croutier has studied this, and writes in this new edition:
“The Internet has created a dynamic exchange in which a Moslem woman can be a traditionalist or an iconoclast, a housewife or an entrepreneur. The neutral ground of cyberspace allows women to learn about their rights within the religion, without the usual cultural or traditional barriers.”
This is all to the good, of course, and turning back is not an option. But Croutier herself misses one aspect of the old way.
“It never ceases to amaze me that all my research for this book was done without the Internet. Those old fashioned forms of research–long hours in the library, the manuscripts, the dust and bookish enjoyment of the search for knowledge–certainly had more of a romantic edge for me.”
The idea of a harem has always been of interest to the west, although the truth of the harem is often sacrificed to over-wrought sensualist fantasy. The reality of the harem, as presented in this fine book, brings the idea to lovely–and accurate–fruition.
Terence Clarke is the director of publishing of Astor & Lenox. His new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published in early 2015. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.