“It’s clear to me, Mr. Clarke, that you should give up the study of literature because you have no talent for it.’
I sat in the professor’s office, a twenty-two year-old fifth year undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965. I had changed my major from European History to English Literature the year before. The study of history was, and remains to this day, a major subject of enquiry for me. But I’d made a kind of existential change. Poetry mattered more…Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, et. al. Novels also mattered more…Dickens, Wharton, Ellison, and so on. I had discovered the wish to write my own stuff, and I wanted to write a novel like one of those. My very first publication had come in the pages of the university’s literary magazine that year…a piece of short fiction titled “Your mouth ain’t no prayer book, even though your lips do flap like Bible leaves.” My soul had been stirred. Sure, the French Revolution was interesting. But, to me, Emily Dickinson was a mind-shattering revelation.
This fellow was a Milton scholar, already on the road to academic greatness, it was felt by his colleagues, at the age of twenty-seven. I was a student in his graduate seminar on John Milton’s work. I didn’t understand Milton. His Puritanism, and its importance to English and American history, was one thing. His place in the panoply of English poetry was quite another. I disputed none of that. But I didn’t get Milton’s wordiness. He is difficult to understand. Where Shakespeare is clarity itself, laced with subtle linguistic subterfuge and complication…while Pope is a paragon of humorous reason and spectacular rhyme…while Donne is a poignant explainer of death and sadness, Milton was for me a jungle of misplaced wanderings and overlong sentences, whose command of the rules of grammar needed a lot of help.
I didn’t get it.
This professor had once opined in class that, while no one would ever wish Paradise Lost any longer, every word in it was essential. I knew that I, at least, wished it a great deal shorter. In class, I was flummoxed by the professor’s self-possession. Insistent upon an answer to whatever question he posed, he was yet unable to clear up my pesky questions about Milton’s extreme wordiness and grammatical inaccuracies. The professor was buoyed to authority by his manner of dismissing opinions other than his own, except for those from like-self-assured scholars, about the work of the great Puritan. The professor declaimed, and you listened. It came to me only years later that, indeed, he had been just twenty-seven at the time. So, one can depend on the idea that, like me, he too was too young to know himself.
I left his office that day with his opinion of me solidly in mind. I went for coffee, certain for the moment that he was right. I didn’thave talent for literature, and I continued believing it…for a while. I completed my bachelor’s degree in English from Berkeley, worried about whether I deserved one, while all the while continuing to doodle on my own. More stories. The proverbial slim volume of verse. Two years reading and composing on the Left Bank of the Seine with my then-wife, a very talented painter finding her own way while at the same time giving birth to our only child, a son, Brennan. A reading of my poems, with the American Ted Joans, at Shakespeare and Company. Another published story, in English, in an unknown literary throwaway.
Some years later, after I had published several novels, all of them reviewed memorably, I thought again about the Milton scholar. It goes without saying that I had not followed his career. I know that he became quite famous in academic circles for his work on Milton, and that he has pursued a second career as an observer of American culture, politics, and academic issues. But I have done little to follow up on his accomplishments.
For many years, I eschewed the memories I had of him. In my deep heart, I still do. But his advice on that day immediately revealed to me an element in my personality that anyone interested in a creative life in literature, or of the arts in general, must have. Rejection is the norm in the arts. For example, my personal favorite rejection-slip from the many I’ve received, from a poetry journal in California in the 1970s, read, “Trite. A little wooden. But, thanks!” That editor has been dead for many years, although not as long as his journal. That level of rejection, though, is essential to the making of successful literature. Of course, it hurts. But it is a beacon call to the determination to write well. If you want to do so, you should hope for such snide disapprobation..
Of course, when you’re in your youth and don’t know what’s really involved in writing something of value, you’re deeply hurt by criticism such as what I got from the Miltonist. But although I have no plans to contact him to offer thanks, I do realize that, even though he did not know it at the time…indeed was being a self-important snot…he gave me a boost.
But in the end, the work of English Literature academics like this man is of second-tier importance. In their journals, papers, and struttings before classes, they give themselves heavy congratulations. But when they don’t write literature themselves, they display the fact that, really, they have little talent for it.
For International Women’s Day today, I hope you’ll read the attached excerpt from my new book, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White. The book chronicles a class that was offered at the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville, during the early 1970s. Despite the federal government’s efforts to erase discriminatory laws from the legal systems of southern states, Jim Crow remained a healthy institution. The class at UNF was made up of a dozen students, equally black and white, and gender-balanced. It was based on the notion that, in the matter of race in the United States, reconciliation is sought, while confrontation is shunned. Sadly, the formula has not worked. The core element of the class was racial confrontation, in which in-your-face truth-telling about the troubles between Blacks and Whites was the single subject. The one restriction was that physical attack was forbidden. As Dr. Price M. Cobbs, co-author of the seminal Black Rage, writes in his foreword to An Arena of Truth, “This book shows Kranz’s courage, and especially that of his students, as pioneers in the development of an authentic conversation about race.”
Marguerite was a black student.
Marguerite describes some very important events in her life after Pete Kranz’s class.
“The day I walked into the class, in 1973, I think I had a kind of awkward politeness around white people, in which no matter what Whites may have done in the past, you still maintained that awkward politeness. But that was a barrier that I was able to shed because of the class.
“In 1976, I moved to Tallahassee, Florida, to work for the state government. There was an incident one day, in which a white supervisor treated one of her black employees in a way that I didn’t feel was fair. At first I didn’t think I should get involved. You know, stay out of it, Marguerite. It’s not your business.
“But then, a while later, I myself was up for a promotion. At the time, I had two years of college education. I was to be interviewed by my white supervisor, who was a woman I knew, a woman I worked with every day. When the interview started, she asked me one or two questions, and then her phone rang. She picked up the receiver, and it was clear to me that this was a personal call, from a friend or someone. I waited, and continued waiting, until the scheduled time for the interview to close arrived. She was still on the phone. She interrupted the conversation, to end the interview. That was it! I was out of there!
“Another woman in our section was also interviewed, someone who started with the state just a few days after I started. She had a high school diploma. She was white, and she got a full interview…no phone call. And she got the job.
“I went right to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”
This federal organization had been founded during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Part of its mandate, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was to administer and enforce civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.
“I may not have done that, had it not been for Pete’s class. It was a confidence I now had, about not feeling that awkwardness I talked about, when it came to dealing with this particular white supervisor. Maybe she thought I should have been grateful for simply having gotten the interview. But I felt that the supervisor and I were on the same playing field, and I won the case! The EEOC said I should have gotten the job. I got the back pay, and everything that went along with it.
“Now this was supposed to be a supervisory position, and when I finally got there, I learned that there was no supervision involved, and that basically nothing for me had really changed. So I complained again. This time, the position was restored to what it was supposed to be, and an EEOC officer was also to become part of our department staff.
“This was great. But then there was a new statewide election, and the new Secretary of State declared that he was under no obligation to honor any agreement made by his predecessor.
“So, I sued the state, for discrimination against black Americans in hiring and promotion. I got eighteen people, all black and all representative of the areas of employment in that part of the government, and we did a class action suit. (By the way, except for two of those people, who were senior aids to government officers, the rest of us worked in the basement of the old state building—a new one had just been built—and we were kept unseen.) The class action lasted for nineteen years, and at the end of that, those whose names were still connected with it received a suitable settlement. It happens that I myself had left the suit. Our attorney explained to me that, because I had gotten compensation from my first suit, the possibility for my getting additional compensation could hamper the progress of this class action suit. So I dropped out. I didn’t want to get in the way.
“In the meantime, a lot because of the class action, conditions changed in the State government’s hiring and promotions practices.
“I never felt isolated after that. I didn’t have that awkwardness. And I think a lot of what I did in those times was due to ‘Human Conflict: Black and White.’”
(An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White is available in book stores and from Amazon. It was published on March 1.)
I believe it was in the Russian Samovar, a restaurant on West Fifty-second Street in New York City, that Carlos Gavito placed a hand to his forehead, stared down into his drink (some sort of whisky concoction that was colored red and pink, and perhaps even had a little paper umbrella in it), and offered his opinion. At first, I thought it was a sad observation, an effort at covering over the unintended comedy of what he had just seen. As it turned out, though, Gavito was in the first moment of an offer to me that changed my understanding of tango and milonga. I would leave New York a year later with knowledge that has stayed with me ever since.
Gavito was one of the best-known tango dancers of his generation. Born in 1942 in Buenos Aires, he was noted for perhaps the most svelte dancing style anyone had ever seen. When he moved, you watched him. He had many wonderful partners throughout his stellar career…extraordinary women all of them. But really, you watched him. He was world famous, the lead dancer among that group of performers who toured the world with Forever Tango in the 1990s.
That evening, we had been sitting together at the bar. It was 1998, and I had been studying tango for four years. I had only a meager understanding of how tango is an expression of the national consciousness of Argentina. As such, if you really want to understand the dance, you have to know the history of that country (and particularly of Buenos Aires.) You must be able to speak Spanish and understand at least to some degree the unusual manner in which the language is spoken in that city. I had not at that time visited Buenos Aires, although I had a good command of the kind of generic Spanish that is taught in schools. But I knew little of the slang that is spoken in Buenos Aires and the very unusual accents that you hear everywhere on the streets. You should know those things if you wish to understand the color that makes tango lyrics so earthy, humorous, and often desperately sad. Also at the time I did not know the history of tango’s many rhythms and how they had arrived in Buenos Aires. A study of that requires an understanding of the enormous immigration to that port city of peoples from almost everywhere in the world during the nineteenth century. I can think only of New York City itself for a similar example.
In any case, I was dancing tango at the Russian Samovar (a weekly milonga there hosted by the inimitable couple, Carolina Zokalski and Diego Di Falco, with whom I was studying at the time.) All was well, as far as I could tell, especially in view of the fact that Gavito was at the bar, conversing with a woman companion, and occasionally turning away to watch me. I was studying with him, too. So, his opinion of what I was doing was important to me.
The tanda came to an end, and in a moment, a fast milonga came on. I asked the person I was dancing with whether she would like to do some milongas with me. The answer was “Yes,” and off we went.
After that tanda, I joined Gavito and asked his opinion of what he had observed. He laid his forehead onto the palm of his right hand. Slowly, with kindness and not a little chagrin, he said “Che, the tango was all right. But…” He sighed with actual despondency. “My God!” he whispered, shaking his head. “My God, the milonga was bad.”
I now know that what I had been dancing was simply a very fast version of the tango that I knew. I did not realize then that the milonga is a different dance creature altogether and requires way different talents than does tango itself.
But Gavito allowed me to recover from my own unhappiness with his pronouncement, when he said, “Listen, Terry. You give me two hours, and I will give you milonga.” I took him up on his offer a few weeks later and have never forgotten what he taught me.
Terence Clarke’s story collection, New York, is available in bookstores and on Amazon.
Roberto Goyeneche is not everyone’s cup of tea as a singer of tango. Although to this day one of the most famous singers of the genre, his arrangements and delivery are sometimes thought to be so unusual and innovative that the general public, especially the dancing public, doesn’t pay the kind of attention to him that I believe he deserves.
Born into a working-class family in the Saavedra neighborhood of Buenos Aires in 1926, Goyeneche’s voice was discovered through one of those chance occurrences that sometimes take place, which usher the newcomer into immediate stardom. As a young performer, Goyeneche had to work as a colectivero,a municipal bus driver, in Buenos Aires, to support himself while trying to make a name in show business. He had gigs. He was singing for a band here and there. But he wasn’t making a living wage as a cantor. He was definitely an oddity as bus drivers go, though, because of his constant singing of tangos, solo, while driving.
One day, a man named José Otero was riding on Goyeneche’s bus and heard the voice coming from the man at the wheel. Otero was the manager of Horacio Salgán’s orchestra. Salgán, an accomplished pianist whose star had been rising during the 1940s, had already attained a certain fame in the music and recording industries. Otero offered to introduce Goyeneche to Salgán, and suggested that the young man sing a couple tangos for him.
The audition was a great success. No one had heard a voice like this, especially with the unusual manner in which Goyeneche essayed quite well-known tangos. There was a kind of lackadaisical-seeming precision in his delivery. He would start slightly behind the beat or before it, speed up, slow down, arrive at the end with the orchestra, right on time…or maybe not. Himself an adventurer musically, Salgán valued what Goyeneche could do. This was a style of singing that I believe was influenced somehow by the jazz idiom and its embrace of improvisation…as was Salgán’s music itself.
So, in 1952, Horacio Salgán hired Roberto Goyeneche. Success was immediate, and, despite his Basque background, Goyeneche was quickly nicknamed “El Polaco” because of his skinniness and his light-colored hair. Eventually he won the attention of the very famous Aníbal Troilo, who hired him in 1956. (Troilo himself had considerable daring as a musician. A legendarybandoneonista, he had hired a young musician named Astor Piazzolla in 1944, whose career as a performer and composer later sky-rocketed to the world stage.)
Goyeneche’s career lasted almost to his dying day, in 1994. His last recordings reveal a singing voice almost destroyed, gargly, off-tune, way rough. But for me, that Goyeneche voice is simply the last iteration of a great talent that went through many innovative changes throughout his career. The recordings made by Goyeneche as an old man are some of my favorites. For an example, listen to his rendition, with Piazzolla before a live audience, of Astor’s famous Balada para un loco.
The Argentine journalist Ricardo García Blaya wrote “El Polaco Goyeneche appropriated to himself many of the classic tangos. Why do I say that? For the simple reason that he re-created innumerable tangos the versions of which had already made their own name…identified with other singers. But with Goyeneche’s interpretation, those tangos became emblems of his repertory.”
(Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, with the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as its central character, was published on January 1.)
Joe Bright’s thoughts returned to Billie Holiday, as they usually did when he was waiting for his father. Samuel Bright was a physician and an enormous fan of Lady Day’s singing, especially the recordings—“Such soulful longing”, Samuel often said while listening to them—that she had made with the pianist Oscar Peterson. Now, so many years removed from his time as a Navy corpsman–the equivalent of a medic–with the Marines, Joe recalled the day that he and his father had talked about Billie, just before he had left for Vietnam. He had been nineteen, a big fan of Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix, about whose amazing talents he had never been able to convince his father.
Hendrix was a lot of noise for Samuel Bright. “A pretty boy in all that orange and red get-up, all those feathers and make-up”. He also couldn’t play the guitar, as far as Samuel was concerned. Gaye was clearly a gifted singer, but his attitude toward his audience, the over-confidence, the sex, the in-your-face brazen demand to accept everything that Gaye was shoving at you…that made Samuel think that Marvin Gaye was more exhibitionist than artist. Samuel believed that popular music itself had been derailed by guys like these, by Miles Davis too and even The Beatles. “Too many gimmicks,” he had complained. “No soul. Too much bother about sales. Too much formula.”
Billie Holiday, on the other hand, merely had to make a gesture with one of her beautiful be-ringed hands, to look to the side the way she did so often, as though no one else were in the room and she had caught herself in mid-thought, in a passing dream or a painful effort at a smile…and then all she had to do was sing the words. ”Gay roué and gay divorcée/who lunch at The Ritz,/will tell you that it’s…/divine!” She sang from regret. A ruse, The Divine yet filled The Ritz, a palace devoted to fun and loss, and Billie Holiday was the muse who made you feel that fun in your own ruptured heart.
“She recorded it in 1952, with Oscar,” Samuel had told his son. “Her voice was failing. It wanders off key sometimes, weakens here and there. But you can tell how much the song is giving her. You know, she sings ‘It’s good to live it again’ there in the end. She means it, even though she’s faltering so badly.”
That day in 1967, Samuel had given Joe two eight-track tapes filled with Billie Holiday’s music. Dressed as always in a dark three-piece suit, a white dress shirt and dark tie, his hair just beginning to gray that year, his eyeglasses serving to make his face appear opaque and ordered, Samuel took his son’s right hand into both of his. “Listen to this while you’re over there, Joey. Please. Think about New York. Think about your mother and me. Just listen to this stuff now and then.”
Months before, Samuel had pleaded with Joe not to go into the Navy. “Finish college. Go to medical school, Joey. The world doesn’t need another piece of cannon fodder. It does need another doctor.”
But Joe had gone to Vietnam, and been wounded at Khe Sanh in 1968.
There had been no medical school after he had recovered, a painful realization for his father, who could not understand why such a talented kid as Joey would want to waste his time with words. “What do you think, you’re a Hemingway?”
Joe remembered that moment too, when he and his father had been seated on this very same bench on a July day in 1969. The Pond in Central Park had appeared motionless. Traffic noise from 59th Street, on that warm day, the kind of day in which the heat holds to your skin as though bandaged to it… Indeed Joe’s legs had been heavily bandaged that day, his recovery from the burns progressing reasonably enough, although, as Samuel had told him, “that skin below your knees, it’s so bad that it’ll always be like cowhide, Joey. But cowhide that breaks open if you bang it against a low table or something. It’ll itch. It’ll hurt.” And so it had, and so it did now as he listened to more of Billie Holiday on his iPhone.
Holding the eight-tracks in his hands before Joe had left for Vietnam, his father described to him the one Billie Holiday concert he had attended, on March 27, 1948 at Carnegie Hall. Samuel was twenty-seven that year, a brand new physician living in The Village on Bank Street. He had no time to do anything, being the newest guy in a big practice up near The New York Hospital, and a new baby about to arrive, Joey himself. But he made time for this concert.
“Your mother and I were up in the first balcony. First row. And there were so many people…black people, white people… Not an empty seat in the place. Looking down on the main floor, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such…splendor in an audience. Gorgeous women dressed beautifully. Tuxes. Money. The love they had for her.”
Samuel looked to his hands.
“You never heard a voice like that, Joey. She did more than thirty tunes that night, and every one of them, every one, took your breath.”
Three months after his deployment, lying against a red mud embankment, smoke rising from his legs, his helmet rolling down the slime and mud beside him, everything about Joe was mottled red and black with mud except where his right shoulder bled. The piece of shrapnel that had loosed the helmet from his head had been diverted into the shoulder itself. Joe fell into a pain-ridden swoon, in which, through all the noise of the explosions and sear and automatic rifle fire, broken slivers of music ran through his mind, just here and there, gone in the terrifying pain, a sigh of remorse, death demanding that it be heard. Oscar Peterson’s recollected piano so sweet in the roar. Billie Holiday singing for Joe despite the fact that his legs were on fire and he was dying.
“Come on, Joey.” Someone huddled down next to him, still under fire, his voice barely controlled, all anger and panic. “We’re gettin’ you out.” Joe hadn’t known who it was, even though he recognized the voice. They dragged him by his shoulders out of the kill zone. He had figured he was dead. Black smoke had been rising from the tattered shreds of his pants legs. His own skin…he didn’t know what was happening with his own skin.
Joe glimpsed his father approaching, an elderly man now, but still one who enjoyed his exercise. He loved this particular path in Central Park, the undulant turns in it, and the trees seeming to bow down over the shore of The Pond itself. This bench… Joe mused that it had to be this very bench that Billie had sung about. ”Lovers that bless the dark/On benches in Central Park/Greet autumn in New York.”
He could not remember now whether that too had gone through his mind as, screaming, held down by others, still under fire, he awaited the med-evac. He should have died.
“It’s good to live it again,” she sang.
Joe stood up, a cane in each hand. Walking still caused him considerable pain, and his father occasionally kidded him for that. “Well, you’re sixty-three years old, Joey. What do you expect?” Samuel was ninety-one, a widower with an apartment on 59th Street overlooking the park. He walked far more comfortably than his son did, and still dressed with natty, businesslike style. A suit and a necktie, always. Dr. Samuel Bright, professor emeritus of Medicine, Columbia University.
Joe suspected that someone being told about such an exchange would accuse Samuel of heartlessness toward his son. But that was not so. As soon as Joe had arrived at the Brooke Army Burn Center in Texas, Samuel had flown there. The physicians explained that Joe had suffered full thickness burns in his lower legs, and that there had not been the facilities in the field to flay the skin, to enable blood circulation. The musculature had quickly deteriorated.
“You’ve got to do that within six hours, Doctor Bright,” one of the physicians told him. Joe was lying in a bed, his father seated next to it. Samuel placed a hand on Joe’s chest, to comfort him, as the doctor continued. “And out there, Joe, where you were…I don’t have to tell you about that fire fight you were in. A bad one. Very bad. They just couldn’t get you out of there in time.”
Samuel still helped Joe wash and hydrate the skin on his legs when he came to visit. They went for weekly walks in the park. Samuel kept up on the latest for the long-term treatment of such severe wounds. He admired his son’s writing and the fact that his novels had done so much to explain the heartfulness of the wounded in war. A New York Times best seller, Joe’s first novel had described the death of a Khe Sanh corpsman, his thoughts falling to dreams as he lay next to two dead men, both of whom he had thought he could save. Mendoza and Sink had been the two characters’ names in the book, the same as the two Marines that Joe had been lying next to when they all had been hit by the incendiary. Joe’s fourth novel, about the last moment in the life, in Vietnam in 1954, of the combat photographer Robert Capa, had won the National Book Award. Throughout the novel, before he stepped on the landmine, Capa’s damaging, electrified second thoughts about his life had, under duress, reluctantly revealed themselves to him.
“Hello, Dad.” Joe took Samuel’s hand in his. Samuel also wore a Neiman Marcus fedora that he had owned for thirty years. It was brushed, blocked, in beautiful shape.
“Hello, Joey. How you feeling?” His father looked down at the canes.
“The same. Fine.”
“Sure. But so what?”
Slowly, they turned up the path toward the Columbus Circle entrance to the park, where they usually stopped for Joe to rest. Arriving at the kiosk there, Samuel told his son that he was buying, and while they stood in line waiting, he turned to Joe to continue the conversation they had been having.
“That’s the reason I call it ‘Johnson’s Folly’.” Samuel took a billfold from his jacket pocket and brought out a twenty. “You know, president on the day that you were wounded. But you could call it Kennedy’s. Eisenhower’s. It doesn’t matter.”
“The were doing the best they could, Dad.”
“Maybe.” Samuel handed the money to the kid in the kiosk, and took the change. “But I think in my heart that those wounds are insulting reminders to the wounded themselves of how little they mattered.”
He took the two cups of coffee into his hands, and both men turned toward an empty metal table with a couple chairs and a view of Columbus Circle. Samuel placed the coffees on the table, along with two paper napkins and two plastic-wrapped slices of banana bread. Their usual. He put his hand on the small of Joe’s back, caressing it as he took the canes from his son and then helped him sit down.
“But you know, the wounded went on and strove for life, Joe.” Samuel sat down as well, unbuttoning his suit coat. “Like you. For themselves and…the others. For their memory.” He removed the fedora and placed it on the table. “And I know your work helped bring you back. I know that. Once you started writing, I knew that your studying to be a doctor wouldn’t have… I mean, I think you’re alive because you wrote about what happened.”
“I do too.”
“Yeah, you lived it again, Joe, and it kept you—”
“Yeah. Your heart. That’s what your books mean to me, Joey. Your heart.”
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, will be published on February 1, 2019.
In his wonderful Oda al aceite (Ode to Olive Oil), Pablo Neruda says of it, in a moment of gruff emotional release, “You are the Spanish language!” I don’t doubt that, having enhanced many meals with the dark flavors of Spanish olive oils. There is no comparison to them. Nothing the Italians have done with olives has ever come up to the Spanish.
So, given Neruda’s enthusiasm, I have thought about olive oil, and I have thought about the Spanish language. It is very rich, filled with Arabic, Castilian, Catalan and Basque elements, and of course Latin and Greek. It is harsh, dirty with earth and gritty delicacies. It laughs at itself. There is darkness and comedy at its heart, filled with Gypsy sadness and the notion that love is notable most especially for betrayal. (I’m speaking here of the language, although the same could be said of the oil.)
I would not truly feel the Spanish language, though, if it were not for tango.
It is impossible to have a conversation with a new Argentine acquaintance without tango being mentioned. Although it too is gritty and dirty, tango is a simple basic Argentine fact. Most of my Spanish-language mentors have been Argentines. As the inevitable conversation has occurred, some of them have dismissed tango as being not worthy of notice, and have announced that they will have nothing to do with it. Tango is, after all, “the reptile from the brothel”, as the writer Leopoldo Lugones once called it. It is difficult for people who maintain a certain glum decorum—and there are plenty of those in Argentina—to accept what tango represents. The way those tangueros dance, for example. The sneer of the dance and the sex of it. The lack of moral restriction. But other such Argentines have actually taken me aside privately and urged me to study the tango in depth. They realize that, though they may not approve, tango is too strong a force to be denied. And many, many Argentines simply melt with pleasure when they hear tango music, whether they dance or not.
And it was the noted tanguera Nora Olivera who eventually told me what I would need to do to fully understand the emotional depth of the Spanish language.
The better-born Argentine doesn’t want to contend with tango, really. They prefer thinking of themselves as cultivated Europeans, with Argentina situated somewhere in a vernal paradise between France and Italy, maybe with a bit of fashionable Castilian Spain thrown in. This tango business requires the gutter, they think, loose women and working-class reprobates whose clothes are shot through with old cigarette smoke. It does not fit into the class-conscious Argentine view. It is disgraceful.
The trouble for these people is that tango is also the single greatest art ever to come from Argentina.
I had begun studying the music because of my Argentine Spanish-language instructors. I had turned to the tango lyrics, hoping that studying them would help my study of the Spanish language. What I had not realized was that the lyrics are so filled with Buenos Aires slang (the famous lunfardo) that I would almost have to learn a new language, one that was imposed upon the classic Castilian, in order to understand what they were talking about in the tango itself.
I went ahead with it.
Tango is a hodge-podge, by no means just a Spanish expression. In the beginning it was as much an African expression, and was brought to Argentina even more by the conquistadores’ slaves than by the Spanish themselves. Many of the basic rhythms of the music (that of the habanera, for example) came to the New World from west Africa. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, shiploads of immigrants arrived at the Buenos Aires docks from everywhere else in the world. Most were from Spain and Italy. But there were Asians, Arabs of every sort, Irish, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews of every sort, Russians, English…. Early on, the majority of these immigrants were working-class men looking for a job. They spilled from the ships onto the streets of Buenos Aires (in the same way their brothers spilled onto the streets of New York), and were immediately at a loss for…well, community and, of course, female companionship!
Spanish was the ascendant language, having established itself in the sixteenth century, well before all these others came to South America. There was no changing that fact. But each of these immigrant peoples brought their music with them, and as the men walked about the streets and mixed with each other, learning Spanish, as they moved into the crowded conventillo working-class tenements, met each other at the boliche bars and the almacén dancehalls and sometimes accompanied each other to the whorehouse prostíbulos, the musics mixed. The rhythms and chords, instruments, ethnicities, cultures, sounds. All of it a stew from the moil of which tango came bubbling to the surface.
It was a madness, a whoredom, that most wonderful of cultural events, a bastardization from innumerable parents, a burst of musical languages and unusual couplings from which sprung a single, yet endlessly complicated, gorgeous flower.
In my more self-congratulatory moments, I consider my Spanish quite accomplished. I quietly thumb my nose at those occasions in which I still fracture it. By the time I came to tango, I had been studying Spanish for ten years or so, and I went about speaking it like an Hispanic dandy.
I felt that the language of tango lyrics was preparing me for Buenos Aires, at the time a city I had never visited. Those lyrics form a kind of language that is spoken there on a daily basis. I have now mastered some of the Argentine nuance that I have learned from my porteño friends…the aspirated “Y”s and double “L”s for which Buenos Aires is noted, similar to the breathy sound so well known in Brazilian Portuguese. Also, the italianate enunciation, in which certain syllables are elongated well beyond what speakers from other countries would ever consider. These elongations need to be accompanied by the appropriate gesture…the index finger placed below the right eye when some unwelcome truth is about to be told. The ends of all five fingers joined and held up before the face when a frustration is being humorously described. Sometimes the fingers flying apart when the final point is made, like a firework exploding. (All these of southern Italian extraction.)
Nora Olivera spoke with me from the beginning of our acquaintance in this way. I had just met her, at Casa Hispana, a Spanish-language school in San Francisco that had invited Nora and her troupe of tangueros to perform at a party for the students.
But I was told by her that night that simply knowing about this—being a student of tango lyrics, the Spanish language, its gestures, and a lover of the very sound of the language—was not enough. She shook her head, discouraging me with the news that, despite my laudable efforts, Spanish would elude me forever if I did not do the one thing with it that I had not yet done.
She had asked me to sit down. There was the usual initial pleasantry that takes place when a Spanish-speaking gringo is encountered. I sometimes feel that those of us who do speak Spanish at all well are like strange birds or lush floating butterflies. We seem to be quite unusual. So we are humored in a very friendly way by others who speak Spanish from birth.
“You’re an American?” Nora asked, right away.
“But you speak Spanish.”
I nodded again.
Nora did not even pause as most Spanish-speakers do who also speak English, as they try to decide which language should predominate. She started asking questions immediately in Spanish.
“And you care about the language, yes?” she said.
“Of course. I wouldn’t have spent so many years suffering through it, you know, its… grammar…the vocabulary. Very difficult.”
I went on, that I had made a study of tango lyrics, that I had translated them, that—
“Che,” she interrupted again, tossing her hand to the side as though to dismiss my enthusiasms. “You dance, of course.”
The conversation fell to silence. Fear invaded me, the sort that comes about when you feel that you are about to make a fool of yourself. I had seen tango danced many times professionally, and could not imagine that I would be able to do it in the way I had seen Nora do it…or Carlos Gavito, Jorge Torres, Nito García, Natalia Hills, Orlando Paiva, Mariela Franganillo…. I did not realize then that very, very few can dance the way these do. But at that moment, they were the only references I had. I calmed my heart. I had at least read that tango shares a similar romance with the Spanish language, the same poetic disasters, the same Mediterranean warmth, the same humor.
“No, I don’t dance,” I said. “You see, it’s just that I, that I—“
“But there is nothing that expresses the blood, the heart, the flow, yes? better than tango.” Nora pointed a finger at my chest. “So, poeta, you’ll never understand what’s being said to you, or what you’re trying to say…” A sudden commiserating smile came from her. “Forgive me.” She studied her hands, and then the empty, unwashed cup on the table before her. “You won’t understand the Spanish language completely if you don’t dance tango.”
I’ve now been dancing tango for many years, and study with Nora to this day, twice a week. She thinks my comprehension of the soul of the Spanish idiom has made progress.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, with the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as the central character, will be published in January, 2019.
Max Glücksmann’s is not a houshold name, to be sure. But were it not for him, the Argentine recording and film industries would not have developed as quickly as they did or –- especially in the recording of tango– with such formidable results.
An Austrian and part of the important Jewish immigrations to Argentina in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Glücksmann arrrived with his family in Buenos Aires in 1890, when he was fifteen years old. Max was a very industrious young man, and he went to work soon after his arrival in Argentina for Lepage y Compañia, a photography studio. He was one of three employees in a shop that was seven by twenty-five meters in its entirety. He often bragged later in life, shrugging his shoulders in the Buenos Aires manner of humorous acceptance of one’s fate, that his first salary was fifty pesos a month. Even in 1890, this was not a lot.
Lepage y Compañia recognized the coming importance of the moving picture, and expanded its operations in 1900 to that primitive but exciting art. In the meantime, the possibility for recording voice and music had also become a reality. In a 1931 interview, Max explained what had been happening in Buenos Aires: “Forty years ago, the first Lioret phonographs were imported from France. They used celluloid cylinders. Then came cylinders made of wax. And finally in 1900 disks appeared, even though they were pretty bad.” Max understood that, although these first recordings were mostly by opera singers like Enrico Caruso, the real market lay in popular music artists of the period. In a day in which radio was in its own infancy, these recordings were usually the only way that large numbers of people could hear different kinds of music.
“When the gramophone really came into its own in Argentina,” Max said, “it was thanks to the popularity that, day by day, was enjoyed by criolla music (music from Argentina itself). Also from the time of the payadores (itinerant singers) like Negro Gazcón, Gabino Ezeiza, Villoldo and others, who were singing just as the disk was perfecting itself.”
Max, recognizing that cinema and recording were the coming industries, applied himself to his work so intently that, in 1908, when Lepage y Compañia now had one hundred fifty employees, he bought the company.
Soon thereafter, he built the first recording studio in Argentina, taking advantage of new technology that allowed recordings to be made by the thousands. He also worked to establish the legal rights of music authorship for performers, which resulted in artists’ royalties, something that had not previously existed in Argentina.
Eventually Max Glücksmann was personally to build the Argentine recording and film industries into a business powerhouse. He also had extraordinary taste when it came to popular music, and he knew he was onto something when he first heard the singing voice of Carlos Gardel.
A former street singer, Gardel had made an early reputation as half of the Razzani-Gardel duo that was popular on the Buenos Aires music scene before and during World War I. Eventually the two split up, and Gardel continued on as a single, signed to an early recording contract by Max Glücksmann. Gardel was still a criollo singer whose music had a country flavor heavily influenced by the music of the Argentine pampas and the gauchos.
But he was an urban kid.
As in many great cities, there were populations in Buenos Aires that had been forced to emigrate from other countries by war or economic difficulties. There was chaotic urban noise and emotional dissociation, the alienation that comes from the break-up of families and the loss of community, and the the anger and rage that result. Gardel was no stranger to this, and his first solo recording, in 1917, was a tango entitled “Mi noche triste ,” about a man sitting alone in his Buenos Aires room, crushed because his lover has just left him.
It was the first such recording ever made. Tango had existed for years before this, but more as a folkloric music and country dance. This that Gardel was singing was urban, new, and instantly popular.
Gardel went on to become the biggest-selling music star in the Spanish-speaking world, an international phenomenon of enormous proportions. On October 12, 1924, Gardel made one of the first live radio broadcasts to be produced from the studio of “Lo Grand Splendid”, Glücksmann’s headquarters housed on the upper floor of his new “splendid” concert theater. (Now transformed into the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever seen, the Ateneo Grand Splendid is located at Avenida Santa Fe 1860 in Buenos Aires.)
Gardel himself became a movie star so well thought of by Hollywood that by 1934 he was being prepared by Paramount Studios to become the next Maurice Chevalier. On March 5, 1934, Glücksmann arranged for a short wave radio hook-up, broadcast by Radio Splendid in Argentina –- from a studio in the Grand Splendid — and NBC in the United States. The artists were Carlos Gardel and his long-time guitarists Guillermo Desiderio Barbieri and Angel Domingo Riverol. This occasion was memorable for a unique reason, since in fact Gardel was singing in New York while the guitarists were playing in Buenos Aires. It was one of the first such international broadcasts ever made.
Glücksmann had essentially gained control of the Argentine record industry. He did it while nonetheless becoming a hero to musicians through his practice of paying them royalties. He was the first in Argentina to suggest this, and in so doing made Carlos Gardel a world-class star and a multi-millionaire. Other Argentine musicians may not have climbed to Gardel’s heights of fame, but they all benefited from Glücksmann’s careful protection of their artistic rights..
Max Glücksmann died on October 20, 1946.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, with Pablo Neruda as the main character, will be published early next year. A translation to Spanish by the noted Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer will appear later in 2019.