Caetano Veloso in 1979
The following interview was first published in 1980 in Código, a review edited by Erthos Albino de Souza in Salvador (Bahia), a publication that today is a collector’s item. Erthos financially supported several major projects by Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, such as their edition of selected texts by the forgotten poet Sousândrade and the complete edition of Poetamenos, a volume of poetry by Augusto. He was an engineer who worked for Petrobras and used his computer to experiment with poetry. I can’t remember the date of his death. I remember instead a generous person who promoted cultural initiatives.
In December 1979, Caetano Veloso was in São Paulo, I believe for a tour of his show Cinema transcendental with the group Outra Banda da Terra. Incidentally, that year, the Brazilian Congress, which at the time was controlled by the military, approved a law that granted amnesty to political prisoners and those who had gone into exile, persecuted by the dictatorship. The vote was preceded by a popular campaign that was violently repressed. And although the law was favorable to a redemocratization of Brazil, it made it impossible to punish acts of torture committed by agents employed by the dictators, something which is criticized to this day.
Two years ago I found that an Internet blogger, Barbieri, had republished the interview on his blog, Do próprio bolso. I was surprised to find that someone knew about Código. I decided to republish it on Sibila as a result of my encounter with the poet Antonio Cícero in Brasília. Although we are separated by geography, Cícero is a dear friend. He put together the panel “Poem/Music Lyrics” in the seminar of Portuguese-Language Community Countries, where I spoke on the state of the Portuguese language in the online domain. Sitting in the audience during the discussion period after this panel, I argued that to compare a poem to popular lyrics limits both genres, because their natures are quite different. Lyrics normally have short lines and few stanzas (Bob Dylan being an exception).
To consider a popular song’s lyrics a poem is to create a closed, suffocating model for the poem and for poetry. In this way, there would be no Mallarmé, no Hugo Ball, no Walt Whitman, none of Apollinaire’s calligrammes, no João Cabral de Melo Neto, none of the exceptional concrete poems by Décio Pignatari (such as “organismo,” as can be seen at YouTube), which Caetano used in his film O Cinema Falado. There would be no George Oppen, no Charles Bernstein. A song’s lyrics need the body of the song; in contrast, the musicality of a poem can be silent: it doesn’t need to be read aloud nor with musical accompaniment.
Furthermore, one cannot impose literary “models” on song lyrics, since lyrics are an eminently oral genre. They are connected to spoken language, such as the brilliant lyrics by Lamartine Babo. There are countless differences between poem and song lyrics that I don’t want to get into here. They may have converged at certain points in history. This is an old topic and there’s nothing new to be said about it, despite Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “There’s no topic so old that something new can’t be said about it.” I was never a huge fan of Música Popular Brasiliera (Brazilian Popular Music). This was my loss. In the 1970s I listened to MPB due the fact that I knew Caetano Veloso. It was thanks to Veloso that I discovered names such as João Gilberto, Doryval Caymmi, Lamartine Babo, Noel Rosa, Jorge Ben, etc.
In my youth I listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, the Doors, Johnny Winter, King Crimson, Muddy Waters, blues, rhythm and blues, Motown. And, starting in the 1990s, I listened only to cool jazz. About five years ago, I began to listen to rock and roll again, especially the Rolling Stones of Beggars Banquet (1968) and Exile on Main Street (1972) as well as Some Girls (1978). I know that Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix are much better, but there’s something, among a number of things, that attracts me to [the Stones]: the lyrics are used as yet another musical instrument. Mick Jagger doesn’t even pronounce the words completely. He distorts them in a personal, original way. Jagger and Richards never intended to write “literary” lyrics. They were always my favorites. Instead of having written the song “Rocks” in his album Cê, perhaps it would have been better for Caetano to rerecord “Stray Cat Blues,” from Beggars Banquet. It would have been better for him, for his sense of humor.
Both poetry and MPB, or pop music, became unoriginal “replicant” entities after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Rolling Stones today are a caricature of themselves. In the 1950s and 1960s, MPB had only three top-notch lyricists: Vinícius de Moraes, Caetano Veloso, and Torquato Neto. I speak without a lot of knowledge or authority. There are others. But I don’t know if one can take the exception as the rule: the lyricists I’ve mentioned, in their best moments, are rare, although even so, they may not be poets like Baudelaire, just as good poets are rare nowadays. Nowadays, Ferreira Gullar, whose work is uneven (repetitive and sparse at times), is considered “the greatest Brazilian poet alive.” I would add, “the greatest poet” in this lifeless, dull vacuum that Brazilian poetry has become nowadays. The exuberance of the irrelevant, to use the formula a friend coined. The great lyrics by Dylan or Lennon were never considered poems in the English-speaking world.
In Brazil, people confuse the word “poetic” with poetry. Caetano’s impact in the 1960s and 70s was poetic and mistakenly thought of as poetry. (I know that Antonio Cícero disagrees with me about this.) In fact, there’s no more access to education, and criticism no longer is there to raise suspicion, but rather to “sell” musical products and highlight caricatures of poetry most of the time. Culture is a corpus of knowledge that allows someone to have a critical stance. Here, in Lula’s Brazil especially, this means traditional, conservative, and commercial forms of expression. There’s a cultural blackout in this country, and few voices are being raised against it. Read, for instance, what Manuel Cruz, a philosophy professor in Barcelona, has to say (in “El ocaso de las ideologías,” published in El País, September 26, 2009):
When transparency is taken for granted, that is the immediacy between knowledge and the world, criticism disappears as an overseeing, articulating instance which gives rise to doubt. If the statement that things are such as they appear is generalized, that reality does not hide its sign. There is no longer the possibility of critically appealing to certain instances (such as the profound structure of capitalist society) when trying to explain things. Such instances would thus develop their activities from the realm of shadows.
We are condemned to the realm of shadows, to literature as sociology, to the “rubberstamp” prizes granted by multinational corporations and governments, to cite György Lukács, to “capitalist realism,” the captive mind, as Czesław Miłosz described it. We are also condemned to axê music, to the sanitized carnival, to pagôde, to soccer, to the same old soap opera, “celebrities”: in a word, the “customization” of popular culture, the adaptation of products and processes to the “consumer’s” taste.
Last Tango in Paris
Caetano is incoherent, but his incoherence was liberating in the 1960s and 1970s as opposed to the leftist, “boutique” coherence of Chico Buarque, with his nostalgic, “poetic,” out-of-date lyrics, a Chico who is more of a felicitous replay of some songs by Orestes Barbosa and by Noel Rosa. Okay, so he composed protest songs during the dictatorship. Okay, so it was his way of seizing the contemporary moment. Songs, therefore, can’t be reduced to ideology; they are not an “instrument.” Songs must exist in their own right. Chico represents the paternalism of the society described in Gilberto Freyre’s classic The Masters and the Slaves. Caetano’s incoherence, for his part, led him at times to a certain cultural irresponsibility, especially starting in the 1990s. He is a prominent figure, and it would have been useful if he had assumed more responsibility. Still, though, I prefer his legacy as is — his consistency — over that of other figures of his generation, and even of those who came after him. (I do like Cazuza.) I agree with the summary two American critics, David Bertrand Wilson and John Alroy, give of Veloso’s work at their site:
Caetano Veloso has been […] the foremost exponent of “Tropicalismo,” a Brazilian approach combining traditional samba with a variety of Caribbean, US, and European styles, political enough to get most of its practitioners exiled by the military dictatorship. It’s more an attitude than a musical style per se, a mysterious, sophisticated blend capable of incorporating anything from hard rock to opaque elegies to delicate love songs to elevator music. […] He has a typically Brazilian complex approach to harmony, and can craft a simple melodic hook with the best of them. His voice is rather ordinary, and his guitar playing is more notable for his timing and drama than technical skill, but he’s a huge talent and a fascinating character.
In the meantime, the most striking thing about my encounter with an already mythical Caetano in the Eldorado Hotel in Higienópolis (São Paulo) in December 1979, when I had hardly begun to write poems, when I was an “ingénue,” was that, thanks to him, I met Maria Schneider, the star of Last Tango in Paris, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. The plot of the film is a simple one: in Paris, an American middle-aged widower who owns a hotel finds a teenager in an empty apartment. The couple starts a purely sexual relationship in which they don’t even reveal their names to each other. The hotel owner is played by Marlon Brando; the movie was filmed in 1972, but it was released in Brazil only in 1979 due to the censorship restrictions imposed by the military dictatorship. Maria Schneider was in Brazil to promote the film at the time, and she was annoyed with the journalists, who only asked questions about Last Tango and knew nothing about her subsequent work. Schneider, who was born in France and played Jeanne in Last Tango, was, at age twenty-seven, at the peak of her beauty when I saw her like an apparition, an angel’s face, dark curls, and incensed. The scenes of Schneider’s frontal nudity were liberating at the time. And the movie became a great success. The actress was right to complain about the press: in 1975 she had worked alongside Jack Nicholson in the movie The Passenger, by another Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni: a film which for me was crucial, even more so than Bertolucci’s. Insomnia ends up affecting one’s memory; I remember, however, that she excitedly asked Caetano about Maria Betânia, that Caetano was suddenly disappointed with her question, and that she complained about the local journalists.
— Régis Bonvicino, May 2010
Bonvicino and Veloso in Conversation
Régis Bonvicino: In Lennon Remembers: The Full Rolling Stone Interviews from 1970, John Lennon revealed that his favorite lyrics where those that stand on their own, so to speak, without melody, the ones that, at the end of the day, work also as poems on paper. That reminds me of the Galician-Portuguese troubadours. We don’t know their melodies and we only know their lyrics, which, even without sound, work marvelously as poems on paper. Would you use that same criterion in relation to your lyrics? Which are your favorite ones? Why?
Caetano Veloso: No, that criterion, in reality, is the opposite of mine, because what I’m interested in is the sung word.
Maybe that was the route that led the Provençal and the Galician-Portuguese troubadours to make poems that ended up being beautiful even without the melodies. Maybe that was the route, that thing about having the word already with the musical sound.
I believe that John Lennon’s criterion can be more or less that one, but I don’t know if, in fact, that is the one that corresponds to his poetic reality.
I don’t know … it could be that, a posteriori, after a long time, people can read lyrics without music and like them.
I think that when Lennon made that statement he meant that he was more linked to the text, you see? He quotes — if I recall correctly — “Across the Universe,” which he considered a very beautiful poem even without the music, but when he talks about how the poetry of rock and roll is great, he immediately remembers Chuck Berry and some things by Little Richard. He talks about stuff that you know is wonderful because they are those rock songs, and he found everything wonderful, very important without having read them on paper before.
About my lyrics, I wouldn’t know which ones I like best — it depends on the period. For example, the other day I was suddenly scared because I realized that lately I haven’t written my own lyrics. For the LP Cinema transcendental, I only wrote one partially on paper before writing the music: it was “Oração ao tempo” (Prayer for the Time). I wrote a few stanzas and I then immediately found a melody for the first stanza. Then I decided to repeat that melody for the rest of the text. I wanted everything to have the same meter, the same rhythm. Therefore, it was the only one I wrote on paper.
Tarso de Castro’s journal Enfim asked me to send some unpublished lyrics before the record appeared in order to publish them. I sent them “Lua de São Jorge” (St. George’s Moon), “Oração ao tempo” (Prayer for the Time), and “Menino do Rio” (Boy from Rio). The one I liked the most was “Lua de São Jorge.” I typed them up and didn’t pay much attention. I sent them to the journal, and they only printed the last two.
I find the lyrics of “Menino do Rio,” when I sing them, dazzling. I love the line “O Havaí seja aqui” (May Hawaii be here). It has something Afro to it. But when I saw it printed in the journal, I thought it was retarded, stupid. The line isn’t stupid — on the contrary, it’s quite beautiful when it’s sung! “Oração ao tempo,” on the other hand, stood its ground better, it could be read.
The sung word is, in sum, another type of raw material that is related to the written word and the spoken word, but that cannot be reduced to either. The sung word works, perhaps, as a synthesis of the other two; it has performed at least that function. Enjoying the word in a state of poetry has always been more intense in the arena of popular music that in the others.
Perhaps this phenomenon has to do a bit with fatigue, fatigue of the visual, of visual communication, of reading. At the end of the 1960s, McLuhan’s talk about that stuff was perhaps an indication of such a fatigue. The visual failed. The ear is something much more absorbing, more participatory. Sound comes from everywhere; it penetrates every pore.
Perhaps such a fatigue is temporary. Things come and go. I don’t believe that things go forward, as if there could be a kind of progress. I don’t share the Western idea of linear progress.
Bonvicino: Although the production environments of “music poetry” and “paper poetry” are different, and perhaps even opposed (the first is linked to buying and selling relations of exchange, and the second isn’t), you said a little while ago that you didn’t make a distinction between a song by Jorge Ben and a poem by Augusto de Campos, both tasty morsels to you. Could you say a bit more about that?
Veloso: There’s something in your question which is not entirely true: the idea that “music poetry” is linked to exchange relations while “paper poetry” is not. That’s not true. I think they are both products, with the difference that at the moment, as a product for sale, “song poetry” has had greater success. It’s a market issue. The difference between one and the other is not the environment, but the level of intensity in terms of production and consumption. There is no difference or opposition. In reality, they are both the same; they exist on the same planet. Books can be sold, poetry can be a product, like a record. It’s just that written poetry hasn’t been successful from the 1950s on. And not just in Brazil, but everywhere in the world.
You said that “paper poetry” doesn’t have a real existence, right? Yes, it does. Let’s be modern — what’s happening is that paper poetry is going through a market crisis.
I don’t know why that happens. Maybe it’s a matter of the history of Western languages, a moment in the internal “swing” of those languages. As I mentioned, it’s a planetary phenomenon. The interest in the production and consumption of written poetry is no longer what it used to be. There are very few people writing a responsibly poetic poetry, with a link to what’s great in the history of poetry, and, on the other hand, few people buy any kind of written poetry, you understand?
Lately, there are a lot of people writing a lot of poetry, but it has no strength, it’s an empty animation. Nobody knows whether something good will come out of that context.
I believe that the distinction you make in your question is not precise. I personally don’t distinguish between things; I don’t separate popular music from classical music, etc. I don’t carry with me the idea of the “nobility” of the material. I detest that. Scientifically, you can separate the various forms of artistic expression, but I believe that that kind of perspective is old-fashioned. It doesn’t correspond anymore to today’s lived reality.
“Brazilians are very poor”
Bonvicino: Could you talk more about popular music? Why is it so strong in Brazil?
Veloso: Brazilian popular music is, in all senses of the word, very abundant. It is the only artistic expression in Brazil that is not poor. In reality, it is an aberration in Brazilian society: it’s different. Nowhere in the world does popular music matter as much as it matters here.
Popular music always manages to support itself, always manages to get enough resources to stay strong, something that doesn’t happen with written poetry, with film, with theater. It generates push, national pride. It has the mission of expressing the country.
A generation like mine, with Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, Paulinho da Viola, only managed to succeed because other good people were there before.
Not even in the United States is popular music as strong as it is here, because Americans also have other things. “There they have money, cars, lawns, food / all of that is cool,” to quote a verse from Paulo Leminski. Brazilians are very poor; they don’t manage to get together to get anything done. But in the midst of such chaos, popular music somehow works. Popular music is the philosophical expression of the country. It is much more important than all the college-educated people of all ages who already wrote about all the complicated things in the world. Popular music is a more totalizing expression of Brazil, a more direct one. It doesn’t mess with noble materials because Brazil is not a noble country.
I believe that the “paper” poets are in a more general way linked to a European tradition, and popular music is something more linked to the Americas. When it appeared, the Americas were already around. In that way, it is somewhat like cinema, and, at the same time, it is music because it is a very old thing.
Bonvicino: That would be the “transcendental cinema” of your album …
Veloso: Yes, precisely that …
Bonvicino: Since I have the chance, I’d like to ask you to speak about your legendary album Araçá azul (Blue Araçá).
Veloso: Araçá azul is not grade-A “Xingu Indian chic,” like the things Egberto Gismonti has been doing. It’s something else, not “Xingu Indian chic.” I’m more of a follower of Oswald de Andrade than of Mário de Andrade or the Brazilian Academy of Bossas. Even today, I find Araçá azul wonderful. I even make a reference to it in the song “Aracaju” on my last LP.
I wanted to make that record alone so I would be more uninhibited in the studio, because, for me, the recording studio is a very intimidating place.
It was only me and the sound technician, Marcus Vinícius, working in the studio. Later, I called several people, like Duprat, Perna, and Lanny, to complement what I had done. I love the result, especially that stuff with the conversations, the voices superimposed on body percussion, percussion on the skin.
But the sound was messed up. I didn’t know anything about recording in a studio. If I had the chance to do it again, I would do it with more depth and nuance in the colors of sounds. But nowadays I don’t feel like doing something similar anymore, mainly because, right after I launched Araçá, Jorge Ben’s record, Ben, came out, also in 1972, with songs like “As rosas eram todas amarelas” (The Roses Were All Yellow), “Quem cochicha o rabo espicha” (Who Brings a Tale Takes Two Away), “Taj Mahal,” and “Fio Maravilha,” an absolutely brilliant piece.
Then I thought to myself, wow, I did Araçá, and it looks like I’m an “artist.” I was mad, my God, I did that crazy album and everyone is going to think it’s an intellectually challenging, important work when in reality the really great record is Jorge Ben’s, incomparably better. Mine was a joke — I was mad about the kind of respect it elicited. I did Araçá in one week; it wasn’t my most elaborate work, as some of the critics said. I was mad because the great work was Jorge Ben’s.
Bonvicino: For my generation, the “spoken word,” the fascination for the colloquial, the oral, for the communication possibilities that exist in the oral, were just as important as the incorporation of the visual for the poets gathered around Concrete Poetry. In that sense, your poetry or Gilberto Gil’s are just as important, if not more, for my generation, than the poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Augusto de Campos, or Décio Pignatari. What do you think of that?
Veloso: What about Chico Buarque?
Bonvicino: Before you answer my question, I’d like to explain why I didn’t mention Chico. With the exception of the view of women, in songs like “Folhetim,” I find his poetry old, a kind of 1950s lyricism, a mix of Vinícius de Moraes, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and Manuel Bandeira. I think he needs a more electric side. He has that kind of good Brazilian guy thing, which is quite dull.
Veloso: I find it quite understandable that your generation likes our work more than that of the “paper poets,” to use the expression you coined. It’s good for our time. That makes you similar to other people, which is great. I also find it fascinating that people who are writing poetry (as opposed to songs) are connected to popular musicians.
Now, going back to that first question, when you quote Lennon’s phrase, you can clearly see there that there’s an interconnection between the poets and us songwriters. Deep down, we’re the same. By chance, by luck, we ended up leaning towards popular music. But, you see, we are also connected to the world of letters, of ideas.
All popular musicians were educated. Dylan talks about William Blake all the time. Lennon about Lewis Carroll, and he even says that when he read James Joyce, he identified with him quite a bit.
I also want to say that I don’t agree with what you said about Chico Buarque. He is all the things you said, but he is wonderful. He goes forward dragging tradition behind him, all of which matches his astrological sign, Gemini.
Chico writes in a wonderful way, the sung word in his work reaches the highest levels, it attains perfection, you see? But, indeed, he does have that kind of “nice Brazilian guy” thing. I, for instance, feel like a Swedish man in Brazil.
But I think Chico is marvelous. He is the super-Vinicius, the super-Drummond, the super-Bandeira with the spontaneity of Dorival Caymmi. The sung word in him is incredibly smooth. And you know that I think Dorival Caymmi is the best, the mother of the sung word, a genius.
Bonvicino: Do you, a poet-musician, close to black people, close to “paper poetry,” believe in the future of that kind of poetry, or you think that if Mayakovsky, for instance, was alive, he would have switched paper for a guitar, would have moved from Moscow to London or New York or Salvador (Bahia) and would sing, “Well, I’m goin’ to China to see for myself / Goin’ to China, goin’ to China / Just got to give me some rock and roll”?
Veloso: I do think it has a future. The very fact that written poetry stopped having an audience and entered another level of information is something that points to certain needs in man, which, at any moment, could explode again. As I said, everything is cyclical, breathing doesn’t stop, there may well be a genuine interest in “paper poetry.” I repeat, what’s happening now is that written poetry is in a market crisis. In the future, who knows, it may be that people will again feel the need to read, to take a piece of paper and write. The poetry that is written today may be pointing in directions that, although unknown at the moment, might eventually be successful, become hits. Nobody knows for sure.
Now, that image you suggested of Mayakovsky singing “I’m goin’ to China” is perfect.
Bonvicino: I don’t know, I always imagined John Lennon as a pop reincarnation of Mayakovsky. For me, they’re both warrior poets, impetuous bards … I don’t know, it could be my imagination …
Veloso: No, that’s a lovely story. Mayakovsky was actually quite pop. But, Lennon is the rock musician I like best. He’s my favorite because I love the Beatles. I like the Beatles more together. After they separated, the only record I find brilliant is Plastic Ono Band, from 1970, with the song “God,” by John Lennon. I love both the lyrics and the music in that album.
Bonvicino: That record you just mentioned, from 1970, was accused at the time when it came out, just like your own albums Muito and Cinema transcendental now, of being musically sparse, of having poor arrangements, of being a garage band thing.
Veloso: You see, and it’s a classic, right? But going back to what we were talking about earlier, Paul McCartney is also great. He is a Gemini, like Chico Buarque. He also drags tradition behind him, he joins the habitual to new proposals. John sometimes gets a little dull when he starts to invent too much, as for instance, in that song he made for Yoko Ono, “I want you (She’s so heavy).” But Lennon is my favorite.
Take for instance, Bob Dylan. It took me a long time to like him. I found his stuff too long, too rhetorical, too wordy, too metaphorical. His stuff is hard to understand, and I liked brief lyrics much better. I didn’t enjoy long lyrics. But I ended up liking him a lot, and today, I like him a lot. He is a wonderful singer. He’s like Donald Duck with a social consciousness, as Paulo Francis says, quoting an American. Dylan did make a poetry that was to be recited, because he came from that line of the folk blues spoken song.
Bonvicino: And what about Jimi Hendrix?
Veloso: I happened to be in London when he died. He even died near the house where I was living. Even today, I find him wonderful. At the Wight Island Festival I was close to the stage and Hendrix played a series of new songs. He didn’t elicit the kind of excitement that was expected, although he was well received. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped and said, “You want all of that old stuff?” Standing close by, I yelled, “All of it.” He turned around and winked at me.
Bonvicino: So you were blessed by one of the gods from up there …
Veloso: Hendrix was cute, sexy, he seemed like a little Candomblé boy from paradise … he was smiley, he had a light-hearted expression, not that tough demeanor on his album covers. That was the wrong kind of marketing.
São Paulo, December 5, 1979
Listen to Caetano Veloso singing “For No One,” by the Beatles, and “Tropicália,” with Andreas Kisser, on YouTube
Above my head the planes
Under my feet the trucks
My nose pointing towards
I organize a movement
I orient the carnival
I inaugurate a monument
In the country’s Central Plateau
Long live the Bossa — ssa — ssa
Long live huts from straw — traw — traw
The monument is made from streamers & silver
The green eyes of the mulatta
The hair conceals behind the green forest
The moonlight in the sertão
The monument has no door
The entrance is through an old, narrow, crooked street
A kneeling, smiling, ugly dead child
Stretches out its hand
Long live the green land — land — land
Long live the multatta — ta — ta — ta — ta
In the inner patio there’s a swimming pool
with blue water from Amaralina
Coconut tree, Northeastern breeze and talk and lights
In the right hand a rose bush
Legitimizing an eternal spring
In the gardens vultures stroll all afternoon
Long live Maria — ia — ia
Long live Bahia — ia — ia — ia — ia
On the left wrist bang-bang
Little blood runs in his veins
But his heart swings to a samba and tambourine
Playing dissonant chords
From five thousand loudspeakers
Ladies and gents, he watches me with big eyes
Long live Iracema — ma — ma
Long live Ipanema — ma — ma — ma — ma
Sunday it’s “Fino da Bossa”
Monday it’s the dumps
Tuesday he goes to the backland. But
The monument’s pretty modern
He said nothing about the tailoring of my suit
To hell with everything else
Long live “A Banda” — da — da
Long live Carmen Miranda — da — da — da — da
—translated, from the Portuguese, by Odile Cisneros. This interview was conducted by Régis Bonvicino in 1979 and originally appeared in Portuguese in Sibila