“The last few years have witnessed many great changes in the commercial life of the Argentine Republic, and none more remarkable then the growth of the American community both in numbers and importance…American progress in the River Plate has reached a point where its history deserves public record and justifies brilliant hopes for its future.”
– Americans in Argentina, 1922
Buenos Aires, 2004: After the crash, before the spring. Shabby cartoneros trundle wheelbarrows down the midnight streets in search of cardboard to sell for scrap. Graffiti splays across 19th century buildings: Bush fascista, no a la guerra imperialista, JET. The band, not the jet set, although they are here too, clustered along the Puerto Madero waterfront in high heels and gelled hair and clothes a year and a half ahead of season. Mira and I watch them over mounds of steak and a bottle of Malbec. It is a ten-dollar meal made possible through a sharply devalued peso and generous university funding for our summer projects. First lesson learned: Mira used to be a vegetarian, but now she loves offal, Argentine-style. She stabs another kidney with her fork and describes the friends of friends she’s connected with in town: the American expats starting an NGO, the Scottish gigolo, the long lost Argentine cousins she discovered while conducting genealogical research in Europe.
I’ve arrived a few days prior, but this is my first night out in the city with another American. I’m here to investigate the ways in which homegrown rock music –rock nacional– created opposition to the authoritarian military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. I come for the rock music, but according to the New York Times, Buenos Aires is the next big expat scene. It is Marrakesh, or Prague, or Bangkok. I say ‘expat’ like I know what I’m talking about, but this is my first time really, in anything resembling a scene. I’ve arrived to the city with one family connection and three email addresses: Mira’s, our classmate Max’s, and one for a Argentine rock journalist that an acquaintance found on the internet. I am here for Serious Scholarly Work. I am here to delve. Mira mentions that her friends are planning on starting the Young Expats Society of Buenos Aires, launch event next week. Apparently, I’m also here to party.
“Guatemala, Serrano, Paraguay, Gurruchaga”: Mira chants straight out of Borges as we cross those blocks another night a few days later. “Ay, que culo!” someone shouts at her from a passing car. The city comes to me in poetry and it comes to me through song. It unfolds below our feet each evening in the Plaza Serrano, where local designers peddle clothes in makeshift bar spaces. And it grows up around me, in variegated sameness, on my daily walks to the congressional library. Internet café, newsstand, dog walkers, Havana coffeeshop, the union protesters blocking the streets, political posters plastered over walls, and the omnipresent graffiti on statues outside of Congress.
The Biblioteca del Congreso reading room stays open 24 hours, which is a good thing, because I adjust to the rhythm of 5 am bedtimes early into my stay. I’m up at noon, and therefore late into the evenings I pore over old newspapers and what copies of old rock magazines the library carries: Pelo, Expreso Imaginario, Cerdos y peces. At first my work seems only marginally more fruitful than that of a late-night shift of bedraggled researchers who shuffle in towards midnight. They requisition old magazines and nap behind them until a chime sounds for snack time, because the library serves tea and biscuits at the midnight hour. I don’t know what pride or purpose keeps them from moving in permanently, although I never see anyone kicked out. Perhaps I never stay quite long enough—dinner calls—although once I stay just long enough to catch a tubercular cough that dogs me for weeks after, although it’s nothing a little steak and some orange juice can’t cure. These hours are long, especially when the newspaper articles I need are missing, as the issues from critical historical moments are wont to be. 1970’s Argentine rock, I learn, is about the absent center: anyone who was here cannot speak of it as it was, and anyone who was elsewhere has no proof.
The rock journalist’s email address works. Alfredo Rosso not only worked on the staff of Expreso Imaginario back in the 1970’s, he also agrees to meet me for coffee. “You only saw perhaps movement in the streets, the military shutting off a quarter for operations, as they were called. You didn’t see people being taken away,” he tells me in an Irish pub off the Plaza Serrano. And yet, more than 15,000 people disappeared in these years, a quarter of them from public places. People discovered bodies washed up on shore and kidnappings occurred on busy streets in daylight. National trauma dovetailed with adolescent angst. Kids who listened to rock were teased by classmates, and hounded by policemen who would haul them into the station just to cut their hair and run background checks. In a 1976 cartoon printed in Pelo, a youth shuffling down the sidewalk resigned himself to city life. Over the cartoon’s six panels he sank slowly into the cement until only his forehead showed, while saying, “If I ever manage to escape this cement, I’m going to go to the mountains! And if I reach the mountains, I think I will never return to the city.” As he is talking, sinking, one can discern a small figure in the background jump from a third floor window ledge and fall to its death.
Progressive rock was popular in the late 1970’s—how convenient for instrumentals to take precedence over the lyrics, for the music to dance around the truth without clearly inciting censorship nor as a frontal assault against the status quo. Musicians submitted their songs to censorship bureaus, but no one seems to know what the censors’ rules were, not then, not now. Rosso and then others I speak to can’t agree: the military cared about what was sung. They didn’t care. They cared, but were too stupid to notice. Not until 2009 will the national radio commission unveil the list of songs officially censored during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the elusively restrictive rules governing censorship and self-censorship, the city in many rock nacional songs carries the symbolism of internal exile. The pains of rockero youths seem to speak, in retrospect at least, for the angst of a nation which at the time didn’t listen.
*Miguel Cantilo in 1970: “I love my city, although its people don’t relate to me/ when they condemn my appearance and my attitude/ with an insult in passing.”
*Leon Gieco and Charly García in 1976: “I’ve died many times, trampled in the city.”
*Charly again in 1980: “You´re leaving, you want out /but you stay/where else will you go?”
*Rosso, speaking of the letters to the editor that Expreso received: “One letter someone sent to us…it said, you are the only hope that we have.”
“It left us sort of breathless.”
Rosso knows Charly Garcia, former front man for the 1970s super bands Sui Generis and Seru Girán and shooting star in his own right. “He’s like the tattooed man. Charly has a tattoo of very episode of Argentinan life in his body… He’s very lean, and always in the haze of whatever drug…but on the other hand he’s very lucid…” A few days later we see Charly in concert, Mira and I and my Argentine friend Cecilia who owns all his albums and for whom his music can do no wrong, even after he jumped from the 9th floor of a building into a swimming pool to escape the cops, even though everyone, even her, admits he is quemado – burnt out, toasted. Charly stumbles onstage in purple velour pants and a long black overcoat, and a ski cap with cat’s eyes and whiskers knitted on. Rosso: “Garcia would address these youngsters, and show them another world was possible, peace and love and love your girls and love your boyfriend.” Cecilia sings along to Eiti-Leda with the passion of the thousands of voices who have sung it since the 1970s. One day I’ll write another song like this, Charly says, but not exactly like this, then it would be the same song. At concert’s end he lifts up his shirt, knocks over a keyboard, throws a TV and storms off.
I’d called Mira and Max’s apartment a few days previous, and received a dodgy response from Max that Mira was occupied with some guy. Walking home from the concert I get the full story from her in frank detail. An Argentine coworker at the Buenos Aires Herald seduced her into dinner after an evening poring over Reuters headlines: “next thing I know he was feeding me tuna tartare.” Next thing she knew after that, they were naked and he was in tears about the girl he’d broken up with that morning. After that incident, Mira and I both fall for a shaggy-haired blonde Will, who also works at the Herald. He speaks Spanish like a porteño and English like the Ohioan he is, and does a dead-on Charly García impression. I am young, and don’t know yet that sometimes you can love a person in a time and place but no more than that, because it’s not love but the moment. All I know is that I’m still nursing my first cracked heart, and I owe Mira a lot, so I decide that she can have him. Will is hopelessly cryptic. “You have bony elbows,” he says admiringly, as we share empanadas over a formica table. “In our social constellation,” Will says, as we walk down Las Heras, “Mira is like the sun.”
Cecilia’s mother Hebe introduces me to another rock musician. Juan Raffo tells me about the listening parties kids used to have in the mid 1970’s, dozens or hundreds of people gathered around a stereosystem listening to an unreleased album. “[It was] more an attitude of listening rather than participating. In part because participating was something that you were afraid of.…[it was] dangerous for the system, you were not allowed to do that.” Youth of the far left in Argentina weren’t listening to rock nacional. They were running around with machine guns or involved with guerrilla politics, and more often than not being abducted by the military regime and subjected to weeks or years of torture. The rock musicians that did not leave for Spain or the US in the early ’70s did their own apolitical thing, and their fans followed suit. They participated in the construction of a group identity, but in closely guarded world of their creation far from confrontation and political alignment. In the words of one Expreso reader: “a warm refuge of friendship, in which we stop being loners, to show our dreams and wishes, our magical interior worlds.”
The private party ended though; the party always has to end. Charly García’s band Serú Girán in particular grew in popularity until it attracted 60,000 people to a 1980 concert in El Rural. Rock fans accused them of selling out even as popularity gave them more leverage to records and distribute their music, including songs like “Song of Alice in the Country,” which in later rock histories became emblematic of rock’s resistance to dictatorship: “Don´t tell what´s behind that looking glass/ you won´t have power or lawyers or witnesses/ Light the oil lamp because the warlocks are thinking of returning/to cloud our way again.” Yet Serú Girán’s mass appeal diffused the message of intimate communication that rock fans sought. Juan Raffo:
I remember going to a concert of Serú Girán, and I was late so I took a cab to the concert and I stepped out of the cab to the door of Obras Sanitarias, and there was a line entering the popular. And a bunch of people dressed like rockers, upper class kids, start to throw coins to me like, hey you aren’t supposed to come in a cab to rock concert. I said, man, man you’re coming from San Isidro, and you are telling me how to arrive to a rock concert. Who are you? What are these guys doing in a rock concert? This is my thing.
We never quite do figure out what Mira’s roommate Max is up to, except that it involves tango lessons and copious amounts of free time on our university’s dime. Who works? Steak, bar, club, lounge, greet the dawn. This is our thing. At its worst, it’s out of a pretentious art school film: While nursing a Brandy Alexander I attempt my French on the Frenchmen, but their attentions are divided between pidgin German with Dutch Max and flirting with the kohl-lidded waitress. Instead, American Max and I listen to British Jen explain how she and her beau had ended up in their brick-walled Palermo Viejo loft (Jen and Brian are such the superstar couple, we think – Oxford graduates who funded their comfortable cohabitation with translating and the sideline consulting offer). Back in my apartment, CNN runs news stories about a ‘new terrorist threat’ in the US. Armed guards ride the DC metro. The Eastern Seaboard has gone dark in a massive power grid failure.
A quarter century away, half world away, this is a trippy dream at its best, our thing. The first time Mira, Max, and I search for Catedral, we walk straight past it. The foyer is dark and littered with motorcycles, but up some stairs and through a red curtain lies the nexus of our August world. Catedral on Tuesday nights is a warehouse of a space with picnic tables, old car seats, and a giant poster of Carlos Gardel. People gather round and sit on the floor to listen to live music or spin through a tango with all the passion and none of the slickness of tango shows in the microcentro. A bell rings: the live music pauses. Another bell rings: tumbling down from the ceiling come acrobats on red fabric ropes, twirling through the single most sophisticated pole dance in the Southern Hemisphere. Bell: resume the music.
My first time here I’d rather people-watch than dance but an affable, lisping Argentine comes over and invites me onto the floor. He’s just started taking lessons, he assures me, and then claims his family hails from County Cork, Ireland. After I step on his toes through a few numbers, we return to Mira and Max. Señor County Cork plops down and starts rolling a joint. The three a.m. bell rings: the music changes abruptly from tango to the Beatle’s: “Love me Do”. Rayfus from County Cork via Argentina, joint in hand, whips out a harmonica and trills along.
Our second time here, a shady Scotsman extols to Mira the convenience of free love over pints of Quilmes. In his case, it entailed two girlfriends and too few excuses; he’d confessed his duplicity to only one and she’d had to skulk around at parties when the other was present. Somehow, the perverse economy of his logic gets him by. The NGO types are canoodling in a corner with shaggy-haired Argentine chicks. Mira drinks too much, until she is flopping over Will, telling him he needs to be more forward. Preferably with her. But Will leans over to me and whispers: “I don’t know what to do.” In turn, I seek out Max. “I miss Josh”, I say, the silly spring fling that I’m letting break my heart, “he would know what to do.” Max rolls his eyes. I inhale Will’s Cool Water cologne mixed with cigarette smoke, a smell that reminds me of high school, and then we take Mira home. The cabbie claims he doesn’t have small change, and I’m too tired to argue.
Throughout the month of August the Centro Cultural Recoleta hosts an exhibit on Julio Cortázar, the Argentine writer who moved to Paris in 1951 and wrote on exile and Argentine identity from abroad until his death. We attend, eagerly, because literary exhibitionism is something we believe in, and we’re too wide-eyed in our pretentions to be ironic quite yet. Cortazar explored temporal hybridity, through which nostalgia is as much a generative act in the present as an entombment of the past. Back in the 1970’s, Cortázar’s constructed Argentina spoke up for the country still suffocating in silence; as the central figure in “Press Clippings”, herself exiled to France, writes: “a writer can argue that if his inspiration comes from reality…what he is capable of doing with it revises it to another dimension, gives it a different value”. Mira tells me I could be Cortazar’s daughter, with the space between my front teeth. (Will tells me, later, that my teeth are nice, because they aren’t perfect.) No one mentions irony at all: the Cortazar exhibit stands next to the necropolis of Recoleta where Eva Perón lies buried, whose husband’s administration forced Cortázar out of Buenos Aires in the first place. We don’t visit Evita’s grave and no one sings “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” That is not the Buenos Aires we live in.
I am reminded of Sartre here, as well, reminded of Roquetin struggling to apprehend history only to find himself nauseated by the elusiveness of truths he once trusted to be bedrock. In the end, he seeks anchor in music for over time only “the melody stays the same, young and firm, like a pitiless witness.” Except I don’t know what I am hearing in the music, what the rock songs bear of life as it was back in the 1970’s. I don’t know what I am seeing touching tasting in this city which I love and over which I have no claim, except as it pertains to myself and I am not writing my history. I came here to delve.
Of all the rituals I associate with Buenos Aires, I love that of the submarino the best. A submarino is essentially hot chocolate, except it arrives dissassembled: a glass of hot milk, a small semi-sweet chocolate bar, a narrow spoon, and a madeleine, with sugar on the table and a thumbful of fizzy water alongside. Unwrap the chocolate, dunk and stir and sugar to taste. I relish the tactility of it, the injunction to construct with food, and it reminds me of using Nilla wafers to scoop up a porridge of Hershey’s chocolate sauce and Breyer’s vanilla bean ice cream as a kid. In these moments I can’t think of the second meaning of submarino, common in the 1970’s under the military junta led by General Jorge Rafael Videla: in which military agents held political prisoners’ heads underwater until they confessed to crimes against Western Civilization.
Mira befriends a woman who is creating guided tours of former torture sites, in Spanish and English. The dictatorship is dead, long live its memory. Rock music is alive, but at what cost? In the early 1980’s, in the waning years of the dictatorship, rock music moved mainstream, much to the dismay of its original fan base. Miguel Cantilo returned from five years in Spain to a public clamoring for the folk music he played with Pedro y Pablo. Songs like “March of Rage” had led to his unceremonious exit from the country in 1975; fans didn’t understand, he tells me in a corner coffee shop, that if he’d shown back up in Buenos Aires playing any marches of rage “[the government] would have kicked me out again, they would have killed me.” So he played New Wave and instead had to duck stones and rotten food thrown at concerts.
The struggling military regime even tried to co-opt rock. During the 1982 Falklands War with Britain the government banned English-language music from the radio, thereby opening the airwaves for Spanish-language rock nacional. The government also sponsored a large fundraising concert for the soldiers at which rock musicians like Cantilo, Charly García and Leon Gieco played. Musicians participated, but all the same tried to keep their distance from the country’s political turmoil, even if it meant that musicians and their fans had to deflect criticism that rockeros were “superficial, boring…uncultured”. Cantilo told the mainstream Clarín newspaper in 1981 that, “It just happens that we don’t believe in politics anymore, now we don’t believe that the solutions are on that side.”
And so the musicians survived long after the last militar vacated the presidential offices. The reggae band Sumo somehow survived, despite the challenge of having an Italian-born, Scottish-educated, frontman who sang in English during the Falklands War. Charly survived, and thrived in public opinion. He resisted cries of “Charly for President” back in the early ‘80’s and stayed out of politics, but the country chose instead to revere him in his inglorious eccentricity instead of the nine heads of state Argentina has had since 1983. In May of 2004 Charly performed outside of the presential offices during a public holiday: “Personally I take it as a victory because I grew up with Videla, now I sing the National Anthem in the Plaza and he is under house arrest…At the level of the country, it seems to me it implies a new generation trying to insert itself, to change history” he told Página/12 newspaper.
Buenos Aires seems to be a city of the endangered. Argentines are endangered because of abysmal leadership, the peso’s erratic lunges, the transformation of the city into tourist destination. Far from the diplomatic glamour my mother remembers, Cecilia’s mother Hebe has only managed to hold on to a ground floor apartment in Retiro, a stately neighborhood of designer clothes and dog-walkers. The neighborhood is the strongest link to the upper-class life my mother recounts when giving me Hebe’s number. Hebe can’t find work as a psychologist, so she’s an assistant at a dress shop. She apologizes when we go out for dinner for choripanes, sausages on a roll with chimichurri, because she can’t afford anything more than the combo meal at the local mall. Vicentico’s version of “Los caminos de la vida” blasts through radios all over the city: “the roads of life/are not what we expected/are not what we believed/are not what we imagined.”
But Argentines will outlast the expatriots, at any rate. Or at least the particular brand of expat who gathers for drinks and nibbles at Milión, a restored French academy mansion in the center of town. The authenticity of the expat life relies on low critical mass; only then can people cheaply feast amidst an economy in shambles. The Thursday before I leave Buenos Aires a group of about seven of us gather here. Mira finds two cokeheads and then a blonde Tulane frat boy in the unisex bathroom and brings them back to the table. Mr. Tulane, by the name of Tucker, wears a pink polo shirt and an expression of untoward suffering as he recounts how his Maryland high school refused to let him start an Anglo-Saxon club. Finally, he breaks off: “I think I’m boring you to death…so tell me about you.” About me: I’m waiting for Will to arrive. He has my Sumo CD.
Will eventually shows up, without the CD but just in time for the group to proceed up Las Heras for an inaugural hip hop night spun by a former New York investment banker. Mira and Will dance together like nobody’s business. Except I leave with Will instead: I promise to take a cab home and so we walk to his place, but instead of shoving the CD at me and closing the door, he invites me in. We kiss, we chat about a fantasy trip to Machu Picchu. I fall asleep, briefly, in the morning light.
Shortly before I’d left for Buenos Aires, a friend gave me the song “Puerto Madero” by Kevin Johansen: “And all the people that aren’t from here would like to come and stay/And all the people that are from here just want to get away…(to Spain, or France, or anywhere)”. We have a joke, all of us, that was passed around by one of Mira’s friends. There are five reasons to become an expat, and any or all can apply. To escape a failed relationship. To write a book. To start an NGO that will get you into grad school. To quit your job with spectacular aplomb. I don’t remember the 5th one, and neither does Mira. Maybe: to jump out of time, which isn’t the same, ever, as stepping into a place.
My research into rock resistance proceeds as far as this conclusion: I think I have something to say, but probably don’t have a right to say anything at all. I want to point out that rock nacional histories transition over the 1980’s. The determined apoliticism of rock nacional during the Proceso evolved, under democracy, into the ultimate act of youth resistance against the dictatorship. I like my findings; they have a tidiness to them. They also, and I know this, completely obviate the real question of what rock meant to musicians and listeners. I am a 21 year-old American in Buenos Aires, and I don’t have access yet to the interstices between record and action where spirit lies. I don’t know if I ever will.
I returned in April 2007, in the middle of fall. The peso was still weak to the dollar but prices had gone up. Tourists dithered outside the Américas Towers hotel. Starry-eyed preppies packed a job info session for Idealist.org’s Buenos Aires operations: “I’m here to learn Spanish. I’m here to learn Tango. Oh and: I need a job”. Fuera artesanos – out, artesans – someone had stenciled on the new stores surrounding Plaza Serrano, which was open every day, open all the time so study abroad kids could buy $20 shirts and pretend they were cheap, just because they came from Buenos Aires.
All the old characters had moved on. One of Mira’s friends had relocated to Florida after parlaying a sitcom pilot into a news job. Another married the woman who wrote a book about tangoing her way to love in Buenos Aires, and eventually went off to business school in England. Mira herself landed a newspaper job and returned to the city to research a piece on the leather goods industry after the economic collapse of 2001. Will went to Machu Picchu in 2005 with his Colombian girlfriend. He then followed her to Washington, DC and then she accompanied him to Columbia University, where they wed. As he wrote me: “In other words: goddam Christopher, everywhere I turn.” Christopher Columbus, either consummate expat or inventor of the Latin American sack and plunder, depending on who you ask.
I’d come back to Argentina to study sustainability at an ecovillage three hours from the city. The community’s founders were of the sack and plunder opinion. Course participants planted trees and mixed mud in the mornings, and in the afternoons we passed around the mate gourd and listened to a vision for a “post-petroleum” society. Cities had no place in it: “they don’t have an alternative…in one moment or another as structures they will collapse.” At the course’s end, my return to the city entailed a three kilometer trudge down a muddy access road, to a cab to a town, a rickety bus ride across the pampas to the edge of Buenos Aires, and finally a subway ride to the centro, on the oldest subway line with its wood-paneled cars and doors that didn’t quite close even in motion. Sumo returned to me: “Subte Línea B y yo me alejo más del cielo / ahí escucho el tren / Estoy en el subsuelo…” Metro Line B and I retreat yet farther from the sky / There, I hear the train/ I am underground…
I’d started my day with homemade bread and honey on the pampas; it ended at an artist’s launch party at a clothing boutique and bar in the outskirts of Palermo with another American who was in town to research graffiti and could point out New York graffiti tags at every turn. Two Carleton grads honed in on our English, and one proceeded to complain about the endless Porteño nights: by the time he’d get girls home, it’d be morning and time to wrap things up. We migrated outside the bar with them anyway, solely in search of a dance party, but they proceeded to debate their chances about 2 meters behind us down the street (having forgotten, apparently, that we spoke English). I grabbed a cab instead.
After that night I opted for the company of Hernán, a guitar-playing sign painter from Trenque Lauquen with whom I’d bonded over the muddy shell of a heat-saving stove out in the sticks. At nights out on the farm we’d sung along to Pink Floyd and old rock nacional classics. Through Hernán I also made the acquaintance of one Panda, also originally from the provinces but who’d had a stint on a Vernon, Alabama high school football team during an exchange year. He’d turned down a Texas A&M scholarship he said; but now he was scheming to get to China. He offered me a call center job if I ever needed one without papers, payment under the table. We imbibed Malbec and choripanes with their buddies, guys for whom 5 am was just 5 hours since dinner and a kiss was just a kiss and not a declaration of a lifestyle. There was a national tender crisis and no one had small coins. Not taxi drivers, not expats, not anyone who needed exact change to board the bus without days of hoarding. On the reflective glass siding of a building in Recoleta someone had scrawled in English with orange paint: “This mirror doesn’t work.” These days, somedays, I still wonder who wrote that, and for whom.