Desborde subterráneo

bazo_desborde

For those whose vision of Peruvian music goes no further than pan pipes, or perhaps at best the Afro-Peruvian chanteuse Susana Baca, Fabiola Bazo’s Desborde subterráneo: 1983-1992 will come as something of a shock. For it documents Lima’s punk and post-punk scene in the 1980s, featuring myriad mostly short-lived bands that reveled in names such as Narcosis and Psicosis, Eutanasia (Euthanasia) and Ataque Frontal (Frontal Attack), not to mention Kaos General (General Chaos) and Sociedad de Mierda (Shitty Society). “El Condor Pasa” this is not. Nor is it exactly the “world music” beloved of Peter Gabriel, Luaka Bop, or Starbucks.

But the frantic, frenetic explosion of musical energy captured by Bazo’s book, richly illustrated with grainy photographs and fading handbills, emerged less from some autochthonous folk tradition (despite the proto-punk of Lima’s pathbreaking garage-rock band Los Saicos in the 1960s) than from disaffected Peruvian youth turning to the world at large in search of ways to express their anger at the constraints imposed by a traditional society suddenly thrown into crisis. For the 1980s in Peru were years of insurgency and repression, civil war and car bombs, blackouts and curfews, as the Maoist “Shining Path” guerrilla fought a “prolonged people’s war” to bring down a state that reacted with increasing authoritarianism and almost random brutality.

It was in this context that adolescents in Lima searched out precious imported records and tapes, soon pirated and exchanged in the flourishing informal market of street traders and hawkers, then begged, borrowed, or stole musical instruments to play and record their own frustrations and anxieties, with lyrics written in Spanish and specific to the local context. In turn, then, they passed around demos and cassettes, or organized impromptu concerts and gigs in nightclubs and private houses, to pogo to songs such as “Toque de Queda” (“Curfew”), “Sucio Policía” (“Dirty Cop”), “¿Dónde está la libertad?” (“Where’s the Freedom?”), or “Ya no formo parte de esto” (“I’m No Longer Part of This”). And though this music started as something hidden or underground, as Bazo’s title (“Subterranean Outpouring”) indicates, it soon overflowed and, however fleetingly, caught the mood of a significant section of young people across the city, from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and social classes.

At least briefly, it seemed that if there was one thing that all Peruvians under the age of (say) twenty-five could agree on, it was that society was shit, and that the armed forces and government were as bad as the so-called terrorists. Economic crisis and hyper-inflation only added to the feeling that there was really “no future” for the country. For the most part, the subterraneans or “subtes” disdained politics, as the political system was manifestly broken across the spectrum from Left to Right. In Bazo’s words, “They had no political agenda or plan of action. Their songs denounced the burdens of a decaying society. In reality theirs were cries of impotence and very individualistic personal alienation” (52)

The irony, however, as Bazo makes clear, is that the punk rejection or refusal of established norms was largely a reflection of new social realities that were rapidly transforming Peru. As such, the “subtes” hardly offered an alternative to the broader movements around them; if anything, they were rather mainstream.

In some ways, the punks of Peru’s capital had much in common with the militants of Shining Path, though their backgrounds were usually different–urban rather than rural, for instance; skeptics rather than believers in Peru’s potential for modernization and radical renovation. Bazo strenuously resists the comparison, but Shining Path likewise looked overseas, in their case to a strange combination of Chinese Communism and their leader Abimael Guzmán’s idiosyncratic reading of Kant, for forms of expression suited to local frustrations and deep disappointment at the historic failures of the Peruvian state. Moreover, motivated as much by affect as by reason, the Maoists and the punks alike were often drawn to a mythology of violence as a purgative force, a remedy of both first and last resort: as the Eutanasia song “Ratas Callejeras” (“Street Rats”) puts it, “Anger says it’s time to start [. . .] a whole army of rats will march through this dying city’s shit” (178).

On the other hand, Bazo does argue that, if only in their most utopian moments, the “subtes” were equally like Peru’s mid-1980s populist president Alan García in their effort to put forward a “multi-class message” that might transcend the deep divisions between Lima’s rich and poor (28). The book laments that the punks had no more success in this than did the ill-fated García. Indeed, the second half of Desborde subterráneo focuses on the protracted disintegration of the punk scene, torn apart by hostilities that followed the lines of class (and implicitly also racial) difference and inequality. Bazo seems to have more sympathy with the so-called “pitupunks” or “posh punks” than with what she portrays as the rather more violent, unpredictable, and ultimately self-consciously political second-wave of punk bands that came from Lima’s marginal neighbourhoods. But she has to admit that one of the latter’s representatives, Sociedad de Mierda’s Pedro “Tóxico,” has a point or two in a fanzine article in which he writes: “I don’t know, but I think I hate the pitupunks. That’s why I don’t believe anything they say, because what I do know for sure is that one day, sooner or later, I’ll be working for one of them: because that’s what they’ll be: BOSSES. My bosses, my exploiters” (165).

But the book ultimately suggests that the “subte” scene’s social role is best understood in terms of the guiding metaphor of a subterranean “outpouring” or overflow. This image is in turn taken from Peruvian anthropologist José Matos Mar, whose book Desborde popular y crisis del estado depicts an emergent unofficial economic circuit of (Bazo quotes him saying) “unregistered businesses and activities, that operate outside of the legal system or on its borders, often [. . .] creatively developing their own rules of the game” (12). This, of course, is precisely the murky world of street-trading and semi-clandestine pirate reproduction through which punk spread and on which it fed in Lima. It is also the selfsame informal sector that right-wing economist Hernando de Soto praised in his book El otro sendero as an atomized but efficient collection of do-it-yourself entrepreneurs. And perhaps this is how the overtly individualistic “subte” scene was most mainstream of all: it was carried along in a broader flux of uprooted people who were simultaneously abandoned and celebrated in the neoliberal transformation of the welfare state into security apparatus. The punk (at least, pitupunk) disdain for politics should then be understood in the context of a Peru that voted in an outsider president such as Alberto Fujimori (a sort of proto-Trump) and then applauded as he dissolved Congress and assumed authoritarian powers in order to defeat “terrorism.”

Myself, I wonder if it is really true that there was never any hope for an alternative, even in all the chaos and carnage of the time. Bazo, however, seems to think so when she boldly declares that, when the dust finally settled, “the system [had] shown, once again, that it couldn’t be destroyed” (167). On the contrary, one could very well argue that Peru’s postcolonial creole republic was destroyed, just not in the ways that anyone had expected or desired.

Yet finally, if I am stressing the politics (and sociology) of the punk and post-punk scene that this book depicts, it is because that is what Bazo likewise does. Perhaps surprisingly, she seems rather uninterested in the music itself, preferring to focus on either broad labels (punk, hardcore, metal, and so on) or specific lyrics, which she often quotes at length. We get very little sense of the sound of the subtes. Now maybe this is because, as she tells us, “the important thing [was] the attitude” (148). But surely something can be said about the music, not least because (deluded or otherwise) so many of the informants quoted here consistently tell us that it’s the music that matters. What was the panorama of sounds, rhythms, beats, resonance and noise that energized so many so completely at least for a short time? How did it change and develop, and how much if at all did it end up diverging from its “world music” (Anglo-American or Spanish) models?

Similarly, it is a little odd that a book published by an art gallery (Lima’s Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, which organized a show to accompany it) should have so little to say about the visual components of the scene it is describing. For all the copious illustrations of comics, fanzines, photographs, handbills, posters, and so on, these generally go unanalyzed, unremarked. Hence the paradox that a book about a phenomenon that it hesitates to call a movement, precisely because of its obstreperous refusal of any political claims or demands, in the end views this same phenomenon almost entirely through political categories that the punk scene manifestly overflows or exceeds.

Fortunately, however, this marvelous book overflows too, goes beyond the boundaries that it itself sets: it overwhelms us with its visual charge, and it makes us ache to hear the music much like Lima’s “subtes” ached to hear it themselves. Enough of pan pipes! Desborde subterráneo inspires us to rethink and re-hear (or hear for the very first time) Peru’s music, and perhaps the soundscape of Latin America as a whole.

Laughing Len

Leonard Cohen

The first time I heard of Leonard Cohen was when I was fifteen, back in 1985. Though strictly speaking, the first song I heard was neither written nor performed by him.

I had been sent to South London to stay with my uncle for a week or two, the summer after finishing my A-Levels. My uncle, however, had his own plans the night I arrived, and they clearly didn’t include me. So he gave me the addresses of a couple of his friends, whom he encouraged me to visit. Gamely, I set off to knock on the doors of these people I had never met, and who hadn’t a clue as to who I was. But I was quickly and enthusiastically welcomed in, nobody even batting an eye at the apparition of this slightly lost young boy from up north who announced he was Andrew the hairdresser’s nephew.

I soon found myself installed in a cluttered living room, lined with couches. People came and went. I was no doubt offered a beer or two. The air was hazy with smoke. There had been some kind of party the night before, and the floor was haphazardly piled high with LPs–some in their sleeves, some not. Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, Van Morrison, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. But rather than listening to the stereo, my host, Steve, was strumming his guitar. Older–my uncle’s age–bearded, somewhat grizzled, but with lively blue eyes, he seemed to emanate obscure knowledge like some sort of shaman. I asked him if he knew any songs about the Spanish Civil War. He played “The Partisan,” Cohen’s version of a song (in fact) originally about the French Resistance. It was more than close enough for me.

And Steve carried on playing Cohen songs: “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Perhaps “Bird on a Wire.” It turned out that, in this company at least, some of these tunes were made for singing along: “So Long, Marianne,” for instance. Cohen would prove to be the soundtrack, the shared memory and experience, for a whole new world I was stepping into. For this was just the first of many such informal, impromptu gatherings over the next decade or so, as I returned to South London and eventually came to live nearby. Parties, gatherings before or after going to the pub, Sunday afternoons, weekday evenings. Almost always a guitar, almost always Leonard Cohen.

So for me, however much Cohen’s image and even many of his lyrics suggest solitude and isolation, missed encounters and regret (“I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get?”), my experience of his music has almost always been as part of a crowd. Even when I think of what is surely his most devastating song, “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” what comes to mind is an extraordinary performance by my uncle himself at one of these late night get-togethers. More recently, I’ve joined such communal, cathartic sing-a-alongs here in British Columbia with people such as my friend Max and his family. Still, listening to Cohen takes me back to cluttered, crowded, smoky living rooms in South London, when it didn’t matter how badly you sang–it hardly seemed to matter to Leonard–but that you sang with (shared) feeling.

Cohen’s mantra was always that of the “beautiful loser.” His claim: that the damaged, the disfigured, the disappointed, the defeated also have a right to hope again, without ever denying their pain and hurt. That, even at the lowest points of life (Joan of Arc at the stake; Isaac on his sacrificial pyre), there is some solace to be found, some chance for redemption if not salvation. There might even perhaps be an opening on to an ecstasy that’s decidedly immanent, part of this world. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Moreover, Cohen’s view was that that it is only in these depths that true solidarity and empathy are to be found. Our tragedy is that we are all in fact losers, lost whether we know it yet or not. But this is also our triumph, so long as we remember to sing along when the time comes:

It may not be tonight, it may not be tomorrow, but one day you’ll be on your knees and I want you to know the words when the time comes. Because you’re going to have to sing it to yourself, or to another, or to your brother. You’re going to have to learn to sing this song, it goes:

“Please don’t pass me by,
Please don’t pass me by,
For I am blind, but you can see,
Yes, I’ve been blinded totally,
Oh please don’t pass me by.”

Cohen is gone now. He’d say that at best he was only ever passing through. But so are we all: “sometimes happy, sometimes blue.” The point in the meantime is to keep alive the spirit of hospitality that I associate with my first encounter with his songs. And to maintain the sense of commonality, the recognition that our fates are necessarily intertwined, too easily forgotten by those who happen not (right now) to find themselves in the gutter. No better way than to invite someone to sing with you. This is music for sharing.

“Then we’ll come from the shadows.”

David Bowie

Ziggy Stardust

“Hey that’s far out, so you heard him, too!”

It was a schoolfriend, Si Shoreman, who introduced me to David Bowie. I was fourteen, and he was a couple of years older. In fact, I’d been pushed up a year or two, so everyone was a couple of years older, and seemed to know more than I did about everything that counted: that is, girls and music. And Si Shoreman seemed to know more about these vital issues than anybody else I knew. It helped that he had an older sister (this was an all-boys school), and especially that she had an extensive record collection that he was free to pillage.

I would bug him about what he knew, and he would make me tapes: The Jam, The Specials, The Who (he was a bit of a Mod and into two-tone), but above all one day he told me about “Space Oddity,” a song that impressed me in part because it was as old as I was. And then he brought me a tape with two albums each a decade old: Hunky Dory on the one side, Ziggy Stardust on the other.

These two albums astonished me. I’d never heard anything like them before. But they also started me on an adventure into the history of music. They opened up a space between the Ancient History that was the 1960s, and a present that seemed all too familiar. This wasn’t my parents’ generation, but nor was it properly mine. It was an intermediate zone that I could make my own.

After all, I knew what was in the charts at the time: Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Wham, the Human League, and so on. I’d even heard the hits from Bowie’s Let’s Dance: “Let’s Dance” itself; “Modern Love.” But this was the first time I’d had the sense that a contemporary singer had a back catalogue, or that today’s music had a history that could be explored. That the most important thing wasn’t to know the current top ten. That there might be other ways to think about and appreciate music–and perhaps even culture in general.

Bowie’s music was a particularly good place to start exploring. It offered more questions than answers, and to point strangely away from itself, to other realms. Why, for instance, on Hunky Dory did a telephone ring at the opening of “Andy Warhol”? (At first I thought this might be a rare slip on Si Shoreman’s part.) Who, more importantly, was Andy Warhol, and why would we want to “tie him up when he’s fast asleep, send him on a pleasant cruise.” I’d heard vaguely of Bob Dylan, but how was he “every nation’s refugee” and who was the “same old painted lady” who could be sent back home by a couple of his songs? What was “Crowley’s uniform” or “Churchill’s lies”? Who were the “Bewlay Brothers” and what was their “Mind-Warp Pavilion”?

Ziggy Stardust was oddly more accessible. It offered connections between these fantastic images or arcane references and the life of a suburban teenager. Wasn’t that what “Starman” was all about: the notion that another world could open up, but close by, near at hand. Or “Five Years,” in which the apocalypse is announced in the most banal of surroundings: “Pushing through the market square.” Or the album’s splendid final song, “Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” which opened with the kind of ennui and dissatisfaction with which I was all too familiar (“the wall-to-wall is calling”) but ended with the promise of shared understanding and community: “You’re not alone!”

David Bowie led to more David Bowie: I avidly collected all his records, searching out rarities and oddities. The different covers of The Man Who Sold the World. The gatefold sleeve version of Aladdin Sane. “Heroes” in German. The soundtrack to a BBC production of Baal. Interview picture discs. The stray singles, in 12″ as well as 7″.

Mostly, these rarities were filed away and never played. What I actually listened to were the classic albums, each of which had its own associations and intensities, related to when I first listened to it at length. Aladdin Sane I first heard on a youth weekend in North Wales. David Live, with its fabulous medleys and covers, I played on repeat on a trip to Cambridge. Diamond Dogs was linked to a few days I spent in South London, in and around the youthful stomping ground of Bowie himself: Bromley, Beckenham, Penge. I visited the Three Tuns pub, where he’d founded the Beckenham Arts Lab. He was so close I could almost touch him.

But Bowie also led me outwards again. To the artists that he’d listened to, that he’d met or worked with, whom he’d influenced in turn. Mott the Hoople, Marc Bolan. Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground. Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Philip Glass, Ryuchi Sakamoto. Or in other genres, everything from Friedrich Nietzsche to Nicholas Roeg, Kahlil Gibran to Laurens van der Post. I remember taking notes from a biography of Bowie, putting together a list of all the books, singers, or film-makers mentioned, determined to track them down and check them out.

I was far from being the world’s biggest Bowie fan. Still, for about a decade I was probably a bigger fan than any of my friends. But this was hardly an esoteric interest, and Bowie’s output was sufficiently broad and varied that everyone knew and liked some part of his repertoire. So my memories are always of listening (or singing along) with other people, of my obsession with Bowie being also collective and expansive, a way of making connections.

At school, people might bring in a guitar: someone could play “Queen Bitch”; someone else, “Life on Mars.” Later, there was the time that my friend Charles was staying with me, and decided to listen to every single Bowie album in my collection in chronological order, a mission that took days. Or when I was driving friends back late after a day trip to Brighton, returning to South London (by now we had moved there, to Bowie heartland), listening to Ziggy Stardust on maximum volume, speeding up the M23. But as the album wasn’t over by the time we got home, it simply made sense, in the middle of the night, to continue on to the centre of town and pay our respects to Heddon Street, the site of the original photo shoot for the Ziggy album cover.

Heddon Street

Heddon Street, which I have visited countless times, alone or with varied groups of people, is a pretty good image for what Bowie meant to me. When I started going (it’s been gentrified since) it was a run-down cul-de-sac, which in the album picture looks like ground zero for whatever disaster has led to an urban dystopia. Yet in fact it’s just round the corner from the upmarket shops of Regent Street, and a stone’s throw from the tourist trap of Piccadilly Circus. You could have passed its entrance a hundred times and never realized it was there, but once you knew, you felt like you were the possessor of some semi-secret knowledge, a slight but significant deviation from the everyday and the mainstream.

Ducking through an archway, you would escape the Regent Street crowds to slip into the deserted alley, gradually making sense of your surroundings: so this is where the photo was taken! You’d see the nameplate that still said “K. West,” and just past that a telephone box with graffiti on the wall: “I love Bowie.” “Ziggy was Here.” And you knew that not only had Ziggy been here, but other people like you, who had heard him, too.

sombrero

Watching this footage (which I’ve just come across) gives me goosebumps.

It comes from a pro-Sandinista solidarity concert held in Nicaragua in 1983, billed as a “concierto por la paz centroamericana.” The soundtrack was released as “April in Managua.” I used to own the cassette version, which I was given in Honduras sometime around 1988. I practically wore it out listening to it.

Wikipedia tells me that Alí Primera, the singer here, died a couple of years later, at the age of 42, which only adds further poignancy to this video.