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.
On August 9, 2018, a jury in San Francisco awarded 289 million dollars to Mr. DeWayne Johnson, a school grounds keeper, as a result of a suit he and his family filed against Monsanto Corporation. Monsanto makes a product called Roundup, which contains a chemical called glyphosate. Johnson regularly used Roundupte to spray fields when he was at work, and contracted a case of incurable non-Hodgkin lymphoma while doing so. He suspected that Roundup was the culprit, and sued Monsanto.
In her statement to the court after the verdict, Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos said that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud, and should be punished for its conduct.”
As it happens, I played a minor and very unimportant role in this trial, but one that, given the verdict, was justified.
A month and a half ago, I was in the pool of San Francisco citizens called to the court for the jury selection process for this trail. Jury selection required three full days, no doubt because of the importance to both parties of the trial itself. I witnessed the first two days of selection and, as always, was fascinated by the process. I feel that the justice system as designed by the Founding Fathers and properly employed by courts and juries is part of the life’s blood of the U.S. democracy. It doesn’t always work perfectly (the fate of black people during slavery being one signal example of its failure, the misuse of the jury system in Jim Crow states after the end of the Civil War being another.) But the idea and its strict enforcement in the U.S. is a consummation be wished, and one that is usually achieved.
So I never complain when asked to participate in the system as a potential juror.
In this case, the two teams of attorneys asked a half dozen important questions each, of each of the prospective jurors. For example, “Do you think, sir, that you can fairly judge the facts of this particular case without bringing prejudicial knowledge of or opinions about Monsanto Corporation’s business in the invention and making of chemicals?” Or, “Do you think, Ma’am, that there are too many frivolous suits brought against corporations in product liability cases?”
The questions from the attorneys were justified in view of the need for fair decision-making on the part of jurors. I was surprised, though, by how many of the jurors, especially those who were eventually selected, answered these questions with bland agreement with the premises of the questions themselves. Just as often, there was a shrug of the shoulders and a kind of “Well, I suppose so” easy acquiescence to what was being asked. I thought that, because this trial was clearly going to be a major one, with very large stakes for both parties, there would be more questioning or active involvement on the part of the prospective jurors.
That was not to be, which for me made the process, especially through the second day, surprising and, finally, boring. “Don’t these people care?” I thought to myself. I myself had a few thoughts, the responses to which by both parties would truly clarify whether I would feel qualified to be on this jury.
I was brought to the chair for questioning on the morning of the third day. The official jury had been seated, and those of us still to be questioned would be alternative jurors, if selected. An attorney for the plaintiff asked me two questions in rapid succession, which had to do with my occasional profession as a journalist. “Do you agree that it’s the journalist’s obligation to be fair in seeking the truth? Is this your sense of the profession and what it requires?” I answered that I felt it was. This attorney had no more questions for me.
The attorney for Monsanto than asked me the question about whether I could listen to the evidence being presented by both parties in a fair and impartial way. I replied that I did not think I could, and she asked why that was so.
I thought about it, and then offered the following: “I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam war. I did not participate in that war, but I did witness it. I knew at the time about the deadly Agent Orange chemicals that were intended to defoliate Vietnamese jungles, in order to make it easier for American allied troops to do battle against the enemy. Of course, Monsanto was the manufacturer of Agent Orange.” I then mentioned Monsanto’s denials after the war of the dangers of Agent Orange chemicals to the lives of allied soldiers and Vietnamese non-combatants, denials that were proven false in courts of law.
That was the entirety of my response. I was not on a soapbox. My answer did not come with the strident tone of voice that often accompanies political motivation. It was simply a statement of proven truth.
My response caused a sensation in the courtroom, a combination of gasps and laughter.
The Monsanto attorney, surprised, flustered, and perhaps embarrassed, asked no more questions of me. When the judge asked the attorneys for any of the still potential jurors to be peremptorily excused, I was the first to go…quickly… at the request of the Monsanto team.
I had assumed that day that any juror would know of this history of Monsanto and Vietnam. But it has been more than forty years since the end of that war in 1975, and I think that at least half of the jurors selected for the trial were born after the end of the conflict. So perhaps I was explaining something of which most of them were unaware. No wonder that this morsel of truth was so difficult to accept by the Monsanto team. Knowledge of the truth of Agent Orange’s effects on human health would be, they assumed, prejudicial to their case.
My fate as a prospective juror notwithstanding, the jury that was selected clearly made the right choice in this matter. The system worked, and justice was done.
Here is an account of the trial.
On that day in 1994 I didn’t know how to walk.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Nora Olivera stepped toward one of the chairs at the edge of the practice room, before a large mirror. She sat down and crossed her legs. I felt vulnerable before her, a laughable figure wet with sweat.
I could not see how I would ever achieve the sensuality in this tango dance that I had seen others achieve. That was completely out of the question, so remote a possibility that it seemed to have disappeared even before it had appeared, especially in view of the fact that I did not know how to walk.
(Nora Olivera and Edward Neale)
“Poeta,” Nora said. She looked at me with a smile of great regard, as though I might actually have a bit of talent. “You walk like the English.”
I turned away, gesturing into the air.
“Wait!” she said. “Don’t get me wrong. I have respect for the English.” She placed an index finger below her right eye and looked up at me with comic sincerity. This conversation was taking place 12 years or so after the Malvinas (or Falklands) War between Argentina and Great Britain. “They nice people.”
She stood and stepped out to the middle of the practice room. She positioned herself with her feet apart, her shoulders slightly hunched, her head hanging a bit forward. Her black hair surrounded her head and hung down from it like ringlets of obsidian.
“And this is how they walk,” she said.
Nora took several steps, her feet a few inches apart from each other as she moved. There was little fluidity in her walk. She plodded like the Tin Woodsman stiff with rust.
“You see? The Industrial Revolution, yes?”
“Nora . . .” I whispered, amused by her characterization of my gait.
“But now, when you walk like this…”
She suddenly grew liquid, and she sauntered forward, her knees and ankles lightly brushing each other. There was something about her feet, the way that, as one passed the other in mid step, they appeared like two doves caressing each other in flight. Her shoulders moved as sensuously, her arms held up slightly, but sinuously, so that her erect head, that looked aside just now with a smile on the lips… so that she appeared to be heading for an unusually pleasureful union of some kind — just where, no one knew – some sensual bower, some assignation.
“You see?” Nora asked, coming to a halt.
“Yes. But what do I see?” I asked.
Nora’s eyes opened wide. “¡Che, Buenos Aires!” she said, gesturing at the ceiling. She turned back toward the mirror, adjusted her hair, and then smiled at herself. “And Buenos Aires, poeta, is tango.”
Viewed from outside, tango does not necessarily seem so all-involving. It is a slow, complicated walk by two people in each others’ arms. We are simply dancing, and often — except for those true masters like Nora and her husband Edward Neale — without distinction, to incredibly sad music. But when you are engaged with the person dancing with you, when you can feel her in your arms and can feel the feline contracting and stretching of her muscles, the intensity of her in your embrace, so private an embrace…
So that day in 1994, Nora began teaching me how to walk.
“You have a hallway?”
I was living in a long Victorian apartment in San Francisco, on the second floor. There was a hallway that ran the entire length of the apartment, the living room at one end, the kitchen at the other. Two bedrooms, a bathroom and a laundry room were connected to the hallway at various intervals. A Turkish rug runner ran the length of it. It could be rolled up, so that the hardwood beneath could be revealed.
I described the hallway for Nora.
“Good.” She surveyed me. “You have a belt?”
“Good. You take that belt from your pants and put it around your knees.”
“No! In the hallway!” Nora grinned. “You take the belt and you tighten it around your knees, so that they are always together.” She began walking. “Then, put on the music. Something slow. Slow Pugliese. Slow Di Sarli.”
Her steps were exaggerated but nonetheless very stylish. Her knees remained tightly together, and she proceeded in a straight line across the floor.
“This way, you’ll learn how to walk,” she said. “You can learn it in many other ways. And the ability you have…I’ll teach you. But this way you learn it quick.”
I was peeved. Maybe defeated.
“You want to get around in Buenos Aires, poeta,” she said, “this is the way you do it.”
So, that evening I put the belt around my knees. I hopped over to the stereo and put on the tango “Gallo Ciego”. Hopping back to the beginning of the hallway, I started walking and fell down.
The music swirled. I gathered myself up to my hands and knees. I helped myself to my feet by grabbing the knob of the door that led to the kitchen. The bandoneon in the recording sounded like a lascivious church organ. I began walking again, and fell again.
The music continued. I felt Nora’s voice. I felt her kindness. Che, I felt Buenos Aires! If I could find that walk, I could maybe find tango.
I took the doorknob again, pulled myself to my feet, and began walking. Slowly at first. Very clumsily. I stumbled once or twice more. But my knees were together. Then, surprisingly, almost as if naturally, my ankles brushed each other as I ascended the length of the hallway, two very clumsy doves.
I have studied twice a week with Nora since that day in 1994, and I can assure you that I now know how to walk.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, will be published in early 2019.
It’s a given that Argentine tango has a significant influence on contemporary music around the world. Most of the musicians who are responsible for that are themselves exclusively Argentine. There have been few notable tangueros who were not born in that country.
Among those groups in which non-Argentines do play a significant role is Trio Garufa, based in San Francisco. While their co-founder and fine guitarist Guillermo García hales from the Argentine city of Bahia Blanca, their bassist Sascha Jacobson is an American who is renowned for his work in several genres of music, from jazz to contemporary classical to, of course, tango. The third member of the group is bandoneonista Adrian Jost who, though born in Switzerland, received his master’s degree in electrical engineering and music technology from Northwestern University, and is the other co-founder of Trio Garufa.
Adrian is superb on his instrument. He has a complete understanding of tango’s unique underlying rhythms, and plays his bandoneon with exceptional drive and humor as well as with a real respect for tango’s underlying heart, which is famously large. He brings authentic emotional authority to the music that is rare among players who do not come originally from Argentina.
At the moment, Adrian is playing with one Argentine who exemplifies that authority, the pianist Pablo Estigarríbia. One of the most noted younger Argentine players, arrangers, and composers of tango, Pablo has made several recordings (one of which, Tangos para piano, was the recipient a few years ago of the Premio Gardel, the most prestigious award offered by the Argentine recording industry. His latest collection, with legendary singer María Graña, has been nominated for a Gardel this year.)
Adrian makes clear why he so enjoys playing with Pablo. “It’s a privilege for me. He’s such an accomplished and creative tango pianist…definitely a virtuoso. And his recordings are not just recordings. Anyone can make a recording, but his albums and projects are revered by his contemporaries.”
Pablo and Adrian are unusual as tango musicians, in that both are devotees of the dance as well as the music. Each was initiated into the subtleties of tango through their dancing of it. “Most of the professional tango musicians I know don’t dance,” Pablo says. “But of course one of the most direct ways of learning the intricacies of rhythm in tango is to get out on the floor.” This was so important a revelation to Adrian that, when he and Guillermo García of Trio Garufa first met the bassist Sascha Jacobson, they realized that, although a first-rate musician, Sascha didn’t yet have the dynamics of tango, the surge of it, in his blood. So they told him to go out and learn the dance. If you hear Sascha play tango now, you realize how good that advice was.
Adrian and Pablo were both in Buenos Aires recently, and spent an evening over pizza with the virtuoso bandoneonista Victor Lavallen. Victor was a principal arranger for many years for Osvaldo Pugliese, and is something of a tango immortal himself in Buenos Aires. (Pablo and Victor, joined by bassist Horacio Cabarcos, have collaborated on the recording De Menor a Mayor.) Riding in a taxi afterwards, Adrian and Pablo decided to play together, and sealed the deal with a handshake.
Adrian is quite specific in his reason for wanting to play with Pablo. “It’s the attention to detail in his music,” he says. “Pablo introduces new elements to his tango, but it remains connected to and deeply rooted in the tradition of tango. Nevertheless his tango is very much his own.”
Pablo is indeed a stickler for precision in the music, and is devoted to practice and rehearsal. “And that’s one thing I like especially about Adrian. He’s Swiss. So he practices. He’s always on time to a rehearsal, which you can’t say is the case with most Argentine musicians. Above all, he knows tango and what makes it work. He loves the music that I love, and I love the music that he does.” The list of composers and musicians the two men admire includes classic tangueros from the Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s (Troilo, Pugliese, et. al.) as well as players on the contemporary scene in Buenos Aires, and even some concert-stage composers and players, most notably, of course, Astor Piazzolla.
There is often a gulf in taste between those musicians that specialize in traditional tango, and play principally for the dance in milongas, and those concert-stage musicians who may be more classically trained, but who still care for the tango form. “Concert musicians don’t often do milongas, because of their training,” Pablo says. “And milonga players often feel that all that classicism is way too restrictive.” He thinks that this need not be the case. “You’ll find it unusual that Adrian and I do both concerts and milongas. Because we feel that, in the end, tango is a dance. It can have all the subtleties that a classical training can bring to it, but it is always danceable.”
At first, their coming together as a duo featured an unusual practice schedule. “It was a real debut experience for me,” Adrian says. A large smile appears. “At first, I thought it was crazy. We had trouble rehearsing because I was in San Francisco, and Pablo was in Buenos Aires. So he would harmonize a tango, and then send audio to me of the piano by itself, as well as the written score. I’d figure out the bandoneon part, and send back audio and ideas for Pablo to critique.”
Pablo laughs with this description. “Yes, I believe it was the first series of rehearsals in the history of music to be conducted on ‘WhatsApp.’”
Pablo and Adrian are concertizing this month on the west coast of the United States. They are in the planning stages for their first recording together.
Terence Clarke’s essay “Fathers, Sons, and Seizures” was published last month. A new novel, The Splendid City, is based on a life-threatening event in the life of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It comes out early next year.
This following is the opening gambit of an essay I’ve written about my father, my son, and me. They both have suffered from a very difficult affliction, which I have witnessed. The essay is titled “Fathers, Sons & Seizures.”
I had told A. the story of my son Brennan, how it is that his unrelenting epilepsy and severe learning disabilities have always reminded me of my father Hank’s infirmities, who had himself died in the middle of an epileptic seizure in January 1971. Hank’s illness had sickened his mind as well in the last ten years of his life. His speech had been reduced to the simplest of expressions. He said the same things over and over, with occasional long pauses between utterances, and so was very similar to how Brennan is now.
Their epilepsies are not related genetically. My father’s seizures were caused by a slow-growing brain tumor, while my son’s have no demonstrable cause of any kind. Nonetheless, the symptoms of their epilepsies are, to me, almost alarmingly similar, as are the two men themselves. They look so much alike that my son appears to me as a kind of copy of my father, the way my father appeared as a young man in his twenties in old photos. And they are most alike in how they are afflicted. The leaden talk. The long monologues. The repetition. I am frustrated by my son in the same ways I was frustrated by my father. Angered by them similarly. Crazed by them similarly. And I recognize how important I am to my son, and how my father so insistently sought my approval by raining down so much approval on me. The fact that neither man really knows much about me, or could know much, occasionally deadens my feelings for myself and for what I feel I must do to understand the two of them properly.
When I speak with Brennan now, twenty-six years after the death of my father, I realize that he was born less than a year after my father died, and that when he is attempting to tell me a personal anecdote of some kind—his personal story—it is then that he sounds most like my father.
I tell A. all this and, silent in the gloom of the car, she looks out into the surrounding darkness.
“Well, it’s clear to me,” she says abruptly. “Your son is your father, that’s all, come back to tell you what you missed.”
“What did I miss?”
“The truth about yourself.”
Terence Clarke’s latest book is a story collection titled New York. Kirkus Reviews says of it, ““Tales like these feel like new takes on classic stories of New York by Salinger or Capote—fine company, all in all.”