Caetano Veloso x Beck Hansen:
Here is part 2 of a conversation from last year between Beck and Brazilian music legend Caetano Veloso.
CV: Brazil is a funny place. It’s a crazy country, even now. Now any country or culture, you can find on the internet easily. I was reading 2 articles the other day about this guy who is a one man band, who’s name is Babe, Terror. The article was by a guy who writes for The New Yorker magazine, Sasha Frere-Jones. The critic?
BH: He’s a Brazilian artist, Babe, Terror?
CV: Yes, he’s Brazilian. He’s from São Paulo. And it was very funny because of his name. I already read an article in The Guardian that a friend of mine sent to me and one of them wrote some questions to the musician. This is a mysterious person, nobody knows him. He’s never done any public appearance or anything and he was explaining in English to the American critic that the word “terror” in Portuguese could be more or less translated into English as horror. I found it so funny and mysterious because it indicated that his name was Portuguese because it translates in Portuguese as well. It can be read both in English and in Portuguese. Most people, even in Brazil, assume that it’s in English, you know? Because most young groups would choose an English name. But he himself wrote the critic explaining the meaning of “terror” in Portuguese. Maybe he wanted to tell the guy that he chose the word being a Brazilian and terror for him doesn’t mean terror for an American. Like “terrorism,” you know? But like horror in horror movies. But he didn’t say that, that’s my conclusion. But I find it mysterious that he said anything about the meaning of terror in Portuguese. It’s funny because the English critic said his music is between Animal Collective and TV on the Radio. I saw Animal Collective in New York by chance. And then I saw TV on the Radio in Rio and I listened to their first album and part of the second. So I know them, I knew what he was talking about and he’s right. But it’s funny because this guy just uploaded his stuff to the Internet like millions of people, and for some reason, these American and English critics found something original in him. And they discovered he was a Brazilian guy on his own as a one man band in São Paulo and everything. (laughing) Even with the internet there’s some mystery kept by Brazil.
BH: Right, it still retains something of that remoteness to Americans maybe.
CV: Yeah, maybe.
BH: For years I felt like I’d run into this misunderstanding of Brazilian music, that it was this “easy listening music.” It was just this Bossa Nova thing, almost like lounge music. There was no idea of this varied, complex music. I used to mention your name or Jorge Ben or Gilberto Gil and people wouldn’t put them in the articles because it wasn’t part of their references. But there was a point where it started to turn around and the music, especially from the Tropicalismo period, began to become highly regarded. Suddenly it became fashionable. I think that was about the time that I met you. I had just put out Mutations and I had this song I wrote called “Tropicalia” which was a commentary on this cliché idea of what Brazil was– smooth music, girls in bikinis on the beach, exotic and jetset James Bond film images.
CV: And we sang it together in Los Angeles.
BH: Yeah, and then I got to come sing it with you. You sang and then we sang “Tropicalia” together and I think you said it was too fast, which I agreed with. It’s too fast on the record.
CV: Yes, it’s true.
BH: We cut the track and I remember when I had to sing it it was too fast and I had a really difficult time. I do it much slower now.
CV: I remember we also sang “Maria Betana” which you suggested.
BH: I love that song.
CV: I’m singing it now in my current show.
BH: I think we also sang “Baby” and there was this great moment where you sang a line that it was ‘time for me to learn Portuguese’ and there was a big response from the crowd. I think people here should open their ears to foreign sounds and languages. I grew up in neighborhoods where people were mostly from Mexico or El Salvador. I don’t know if that opens an appreciation for other music and languages. When I was growing up people would joke that the French had mastered cuisine but they couldn’t make pop music. And as I got older, I started to discover Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Fontaine and Jean-Claude Vannier– Francois Hardy. Eventually you start to question people’s cultural prejudices and wonder what else is out there?
CV: We are doing a tribute to Serge Gainsbourg next week in São Paulo.
CV: Yeah! And Jane Birkin is coming.
BH: That’s great.
CV: She’s coming to sing with us. It’s Orchestra Imperial. My son belongs to that orchestra and they arranged this thing. They had the idea of having this Serge Gainsbourg tribute. I think it might be very beautiful.
BH: Were you aware of his music when he was around in the ‘60s?
CV: “Je t’aime… moi non plus” was a huge hit in the ‘60s. Because of that song we would listen to some of the songs by him.
BH: You went back to some of his older music?
CV: Yeah. And then later on there was, for example, for these young people who work with my son and some work with me, Serge Gainsbourg is something that appealed to them, you know? They looked for his recordings and they learned the songs and they talk about it. It’s a fashion among these people.
BH: It’s interesting that you were aware of him. Are you going to sing his songs in French?
CV: In French, yes.
BH: I would like to hear Serge Gainsbourg in Portuguese! (laughs)
CV: No, it’s in French.
BH: I just produced a record for his daughter, Charlotte.
CV: Ahhh, she is in that Lars von Trier movie, no?
BH: She is. She was doing the film while we were doing the record.
CV: I went to the movies with a friend and we saw that this movie has just started today here. I’m gonna see it.
BH: Well I’ll send you the record when it’s finished.
CV: She is wonderful.
BH: She came out here 3 or 4 times. We’ve been working on the record for about a year and a half. I think it’s coming out in 4 or 5 months. It was great to work with her.
CV: The guy who’s leading this Serge Gainsbourg thing is a musician and producer from Rio. He’s an incredible guy and he’s my son’s age. I’m singing “Maria Bethânia” again now at this new show and he saw me singing it and he brought me a recording of “Maria Bethânia” by Scott Walker.
BH: Really? Is it a recent one?
CV: No. I listened to it and I was like, “What is this?” It’s very much like my own recording of 1970. I was like “Who is this?” He told me “This is Scott Walker. I didn’t know he had recorded this song but then somebody gave me this recording.” I then Googled it to see what they had to say about Scott Walker and I didn’t find the recording of “Maria Bethânia” but I found a record that he made in 1973, when I had just left London, and I didn’t know that it happened. I found it three weeks ago! It was crazy.
BH: (laughing) That’s funny.
CV: And this guy told me, “Scott Walker’s a genius, but everybody says that this record is rubbish.” The record that “Maria Bethânia” was on! (laughs)
BH: That’s an interesting thing to discover after the fact. Were you aware of his music when you were over there?
CV: Not really. I became aware because this guy told me about him so I listened to one of the records I was told was very good. I thought it was very strange. I found out that David Bowie was a fan of his and he was very influential to him. I remember Arto Lindsay told me once that he was doing something with Brian Eno. I know Brian Eno from London because of Arto and some other people and Arto was recording something with Brian Eno. Then, David Bowie came to New York with Brian Eno and they were talking and Eno mentioned me because Arto, Eno and and I had done something together in London. Arto told me that when Bowie heard my name he said, “Caetano Veloso, Betha, Betha Bethânia?” I said, “Arto, how come he knew?” And he said, “I don’t know!” But now I know! It was Scott Walker! (laughing)
BH: Now you know. Were you aware of the Bowie thing and Roxy music?
CV: Yes, in fact I went to see Bowie at the Roundhouse. I saw a show.
BH: In his glam period?
CV: Yes. Glam was beginning. It was 1971. It was really the beginning of Bowie. But, you know, the guy that produced my records there, named Ralph Mace, he told me, “Caetano, you must meet this guy David Bowie. And you should write together.” It’s very funny.
BH: That would have been an incredible record.
CV: (laughs) “You must work together. You’re going to like his wife Angela a lot too.” Then he said, “I’m going to introduce you to him. They need somebody to work with them who has a poetic mind.” So he took me to the Roundhouse to see David Bowie’s show and then he briefly introduced me to him after the concert backstage. But briefly mostly because I told him I didn’t like it. (laughs) So it took me quite a while to really learn that Bowie was good. I’m old, you must understand. I am one year older than Mick Jagger, you know? I used to really like the Beatles. I only liked the Rolling Stones when I saw them onstage. It was so organic back then, the Stones, in 1970 and ’71. They were like flames on stage. Everything happened because it had to happen and at the same time every movement and sound and gesture, every little thing, looked intelligent. So when I saw Bowie it was so stylized, a little cold. It looked as if it were bad taste trying to be elegant, you know? This is my distorted vision. That first sight when I was living there. And I told that to my producer Ralph Mace. I didn’t like it! (laughs) I don’t mean that Bowie would have wanted to work with me, you know? He didn’t know that this producer who knew him wanted this.
BH: When you say that, I imagine that would have been quite a collaboration. That period of his is one of my favorites. But I wonder if later when you heard things like Low and when he went into some of the other periods, if you were drawn to them?
CV: Low is a great record. It’s really a great record.
BH: I remember when we had dinner once you were telling this story, which I thought, was such an incredible story. If you could tell me again about the TV show you were involved with in the sixties. There was a story about how you performed with a gun to your head and you were singing a Christmas song.
CV: It’s true, yeah. It’s THE Christmas song in Brazil. It’s a fantastic Christmas song. It’s very sad. It’s very, very sweet at the same time, which is very Brazilian to be sad and sweet at the same time. Everybody knows it. It’s like “Jingle Bells” in Brazil, even though everybody knows “Jingle Bells” too. And in the program I sang it. It was Christmas week when the program went on the air. It was 3 days before Christmas or something like that. The composer was a Bahian guy. He was a genius, a fantastic composer and he committed suicide. He killed himself. The song itself is very sweet but very said. The lyrics said, “maybe Santa Claus doesn’t exist or maybe he’s already dead.” It’s an unbelievable song. Everybody sings it sweetly but it’s unbelievable because it says, “I have always heard that everybody is a son of Santa Claus.” Everybody’s Santa Claus’s son. But this must be wrong or he must be dead because what I ask him he never brings to me. It would just be happiness. It’s a very sad song written by a suicidal genius. And he was gay. Nobody in the musical scene could know that he was gay. He wrote most of the best songs that Carmen Morella recorded. He was her favorite composer and he was kind of in love with her before she left Brazil. So the whole thing was full of meaning. So I took a real gun and I pointed it to my head and I sang the whole Christmas song pointing the gun to my head. I sang it slowly. It’s a little march but I sang it slowly. Back then they didn’t edit the programs much. It was mostly live, you know? So they were trying to hide the gun the most they could with different camera angles but in the end they couldn’t hide it or avoid it. It was very powerful but in a weeks time I was in jail.
BH: That was around the period of the military coup right? The military had already taken the control of the country, but a different faction had come in and taken over who were much more hard lined?
CV: Yeah, they took power within the military.
BH: Was there also some kind of commentary on what was happening in the country with that performance as well, perhaps in its confrontational nature?
CV: Well, yes. But we were not regarded as left-wing protest singers, because those existed in Brazil. They looked like Bob Dylan’s first phase of rock n’ roll. No long hair. No electric guitars. We were seen by the left as bowing to the imperialistic powers and we were trying to explain that things were more complex and what we were doing was basically more political than just political songs. But even the military didn’t take us as normal left wing singers. But at the same time we were scandalous because were wearing strange clothes and we had long hair and we played electric guitars AND we joined the left in parades to protest against the dictatorship.
BH: And they took note of that.
CV: Yeah, when the coup within the coup came, the hardliners took over. They put us in jail because we were left, we were new, and we were not easy to understand.
BH: There was no precedent before that because you were inventing a new thing. And that gun is like the military presence.
CV: It was strong.
BH: It was like there was a gun to the head of the country at that point.
CV: That is exactly what went on then.
BH: And a week later you were taken off to jail and you were locked up for several months, right?
CV: Two months in jail in Rio. Then four months under house arrest in Salvador.
BH: And was that just to quiet you down or were they just trying to kill time to figure out what to do with you?
CV: They were killing time. After four months they decided to exile us.
BH: If they harmed you they would feel the anti-military movement.
BH: There’s a film I got to see when I was a kid that made a lasting impression on me. It’s about the dictatorship in Chile [Missing] when people were disappearing and being executed. It was a very brutal regime and when I saw that movie I was very young but it made just such an impact and when I learned about that period in Brazil I thought of that. So then you were sent into exile for a while?
CV: That lasted 2 ½ years but this is irrelevant. Let’s rest, no? It’s too late, it’s almost 4:00 am here.
BH: One more thing about the TV show before you go. Do those TV shows still exist? I would love to see them.
CV: If those TV shows existed it would be a treasure. We would have had documentaries and specials on television, but no, those have been erased.
BH: Speaking of documentaries, reading your book, there was so much Brazilian music I didn’t know about that you mentioned in your book. You should do some kind of documentary. Your book does such a good job bringing the sweep of all this music together, tying the correlations and connections together. You should do some kind of film that brings it into context for people and shows how it all adds up. It would be ambitious but somebody should do it.
CV: You know when I saw Dylan’s movie by Scorcese, that documentary, I was envying America so much because you guys have everything documented. Nothing is erased or deleted, you know? Every person that Dylan talked about they had a film or a tape or a good image. Of everything! All Dylan interviews back in the ‘60s when he was very quick in answering. He was so funny. Everything is there. Brazil is changing. Brazil is a lot healthier nowadays. It has been for many decades very incompetent. We used to forget things and lose everything and we don’t have a memory because we didn’t think we could become relevant in any way as a country, “So who cares? Just forget it. Let’s erase. Nothing is going to be important in any way.” This is one of the theme’s of the Tropicalist group. We were against that kind of vision and we had the feeling that Brazil was going to be relevant and meaningful. If it was not destined to be, we had the obligation to make it become! That was basically what the Tropicalistas wanted. This was the basic feeling. We knew it had to change but now I’m an old man and I can tell you it has changed and it’s going to change a lot more. The whole world balance is changing too and things might be different and we should all together really be courageous enough to dream. I mean, why not? Why should we not have a really different world.
BH: I was really struck by something in your book. At that time, the way you were dressing and the way you were living and making art, you were trying to imagine–I can’t remember exactly how you put it in the book–if history had gone a different way, you were trying to imagine if we hadn’t become this modern, Americanized version society, that instead we’d become this alternate thing. You were trying to imagine what that alternative would be. That was so interesting. What was it exactly? What had you imagined it was like? Maybe something more poetic?
CV: More poetic says all.
BH: More colorful and still keeping the strangeness of those old cultures and times?
CV: We must all transcend the Western stage of civilization. We all must do other things. And things are happening! They are happening. In my view, Brazil could make a great contribution because we are the most racially mixed of all countries in the Americas. We are the only country in the Americas that speaks Portuguese. Brazil is huge. It’s been third world forever! (laughs) It has the obligation of making some shifts that must echo worldwide. I really feel that. It has nothing to do with acquiring power the way we know power now, you know? No. It’s not military. It’s not technological or economical. It has to be a different thing.
BH: Maybe it hasn’t been completely corporatized and neutralized. America has metamorphosized in a certain manner, while Brazil has the possibility of an alternate evolution in a way.
CV: You know, nowadays you have Iggy Pop singing a Jobim song. Which is funny and different and it has to do with Lula being president and Obama being president. It’s a new time. And we must live up to it.