Gustavo Cerati, the Man Who Sang the World

Cerati’s voice: effortless, harmonious, deep but smooth—not throaty, not even as much as grave—a real pop star’s voice, distinctive, loud enough to stand out from the instruments behind but by no means overpowering. That voice, that talent, that boon was sadly extinguished in 2010 in the middle of what would turn out to be his final tour, when he suffered a stroke in Caracas, Venezuela, after a show. He survived, just barely, but remained hospitalized in a comma and under respiratory aid for over four agonizing years. Last Thursday September 4th 2014 Gustavo Cerati finally gave up the fight. Officially, he suffered respiratory arrest from an aneurysm. In reality, that which made Cerati Cerati had already left him, transported—gifted—to his millions of fans long before 2010.

 

 

Gustavo Cerati became notorious through Soda Stereo, the band he would create together with his university classmate Héctor “Zeta” Bosio and Charly Alberti (née Carlos Ficicchia), a lad five years his junior who insistently tried to romance Cerati’s sister, María Laura. He failed miserably at that, but in the meantime became the cornerstone of the band that would finally give an international profile to Latin American pop/rock—itself more a convenient label than a true genre, but one at that with a rich tradition that dates back to the days of the psychedelic Os Mutantes (1966-78) in Brazil or Charly García’s Sui Generis (1969-75) in Argentina.

 

The trio was formed in 1982 as Los Estereotipos, which one year later muted onto Soda Stereo. These were the days of the immediate aftermath of the Falklands war in Argentina, in which the underground culture thrived with the return to democracy. Ironically, though, Bosio and Cerati remained deeply impressed with the performances the British band The Police had delivered in Buenos Aires in December 1980, thus steering the band’s musical inclinations in that direction. Soda Stereo’s homonymous first album came out in 1984, full of the vibrancy and the energy that come with a moment of change although inevitably also punctuated by the suspect aesthetics of the 1980s with insistent synthesizer notes, flat drums, post-apocalyptic hairstyles, and a fake glam-rock feel about it. In view of all these accessories, perhaps the greatest testament to the band’s raw talent is the fact that some of its most emblematic songs, including “Trátame suavemente” (Treat me kindly) and “Un misil en mi placard” (A missile in my closet) featured in this production, transcended the fashion of the times and emerged as an elementary part of the soundtrack—the hymn, almost—of a whole generation.

 

If Soda Stereo was a success, the band’s second album, Nada personal (Nothing personal) was a total phenomenon. Still jittery and with an electronic sound, still aware of punk (although devoid of its anger) and sensitive to reggae, Soda Stereo captured the imagination—but also the hearts—of the Argentinean public with a sound that remained a fusion of many influences but that had matured quickly and definitively to establish an identity that would soon be shared by millions. Unlike the great songs of their previous album, hits such as “Cuando pase el temblor” (Once the quivering is over), “Juegos de seducción” (Seduction games) and “Ecos” (Echoes) didn’t have to survive their 80s incarnation to become classics: they defined, there and then, the band’s permanent style and cemented its future success.
 

 

International acclaim would not come, however, until their next album, Signos (Signs, 1986), their third in just over two years. Signos is good—no, Signos is outstanding—from start to finish, track after track, minute by minute. It launched Soda Stereo on a Latin American tour after successfully appearing in the music festival of Viña del Mar in Chile in 1987, and took the band to large venues in Colombia, in Peru, in Chile, in Venezuela, in Ecuador, in Mexico. For the first time ever, crowds of tens of thousands gathered in these countries to see, not an American or a British band, not even a local favorite, but a band from Argentina, often half the world away, which somehow still managed to encapsulate the essence of what people in Arequipa or Bogotá wanted.

 

 Over the next few years Soda Stereo was as big, as successful and as good as any music group in the world. In 1988 they launched Doble Vida (Double Life), another brilliant record featuring what would perhaps become the band’s most notorious hit, “En la ciudad de la furia” (In the city of fury), and in 1990 the legendary Canción animal (Animal song), an album that should be included, song by song, in any greatest hits or best of compilation of Soda Stereo. Indeed, it was Canción animal and the tour that followed its release which brought the apotheosis of the band’s development: concerts in 30 venues in Argentina and close to another 20 in Latin America, plus gigs in LA and Miami, across several cities in Spain and, finally, the zenith of all accomplishments: playing before a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people in Buenos Aires in December 1991.

 

 

What can you do once you achieve everything you set out to achieve in life? You can keep going, like the Rolling Stones, like U2, or you can change directions and start from scratch. That’s what Soda Stereo tried to do, but lightning doesn’t strike twice etc, and even if it did, it’s tough to make people forget the first impact. Soda Stereo produced two more albums in 1992 (Dynamo) and 1995 (Sueño Stereo), two very different animals which provided ample evidence that the end of the collaboration between the three musicians was near. Few were surprised by the announcement of the breakup in 1997, and the farewell tour—El ultimo concierto (The final concert)—organized at the same time was immediately charged with hugely emotional expectations.

 

I can still remember when the date of their presentation in Caracas was announced: it was at the end of the summer and I would be in Germany with my father, like every year. The event was so monumental, I recall discussing with my friends whether it was worth me pleading with my parents to bypass my six-week holiday and stay in Caracas just to be a witness of history in the making. I chose to go to Munich—I’m sure it was a nice trip, though nothing remarkable really stands out from it in my memory. Those who went to Soda Stereo that time, however, remember every song—I know because I have heard all about it time and time and time again from them.
 
 

Gustavo Cerati continued making music after the demise of Soda Stereo. He had launched his solo career with what at the time had been advertised as a one-off experiment, Amor amarillo (Yellow love, 1993), a solo album far distanced from the sound of Soda Stereo that over the years has gained great appreciation among Cerati fans. His status as a solo artist never reached the astronomic heights of his band’s success but it was always marked by respect and by the intense affection his followers expressed for him and his work. Respect and affection which Cerati earned by daring to venture away from the safe grounds of his success with Soda. He was able to reap this privilege through the outlandish accomplishments of his first exploits, to be sure, and never was he coy about them—on the contrary, he was proud of his achievements, as well he should have been.

 

But through it all he was also deeply in touch with the people, and genuinely grateful for the opportunities he had been dealt in life: the former explains how and why he was able to resonate with audiences thousands of miles away from each other, united, yes, by a common language but different in just about every other aspect; the latter was made explicit by Cerati in what, somewhat ironically, would become Soda Stereo’s most quoted line—despite the fact that it wasn’t part of any of their songs: right at the end of their final concert together, Cerati eloquently addressed the audience in Buenos Aires with a thank you note that, just like that, instantly, possibly instinctively and almost certainly unintentionally pierced through an entire generation and gave it something to hold on to. Still today, a quick Google search of the words “Gracias totales” renders over two million relevant results.

 

This very gratefulness emerged again in his first solo album after Soda Stereo’s breakup, Bocanadas (1998), in a verse of his first single, “Puente” (Bridge) that quite simply reads: “Gracias por venir” (Thanks for coming). Curious and hugely talented, Cerati was a superb performer who had a great sense of aesthetics and a natural feel to generate a rapport with his audiences. His 2002 versioning of his and Soda Stereo’s songs in symphonic adaptations offers a dramatic setting for these classics, both visually striking (he was dressed in a huge black and red drape onstage) and at the same time clearly, almost humorously, aware of its own ostentation. Cerati continued to experiment with electronic music before reuniting with Soda Stereo for a single tour in 2007, ten years after their dissolution. But in 2006 he suffered from a blood clot shortly after launching his solo album Ahí vamos (There we go), and that was perhaps the first sign, the presage, of things to come.

 

To a vast portion of Latin Americans, to many of those born anywhere from Mexico to Buenos Aires between, say, 1970 and 1990, Cerati’s unmistakable voice is synonymous with their youth, it expresses—in fact, it might have even carved—a key aspect of their identity. In short, it carries the comfort and the happiness that we tend to associate with the word home—not in the traditional sense of a geographical location but rather in the fluid and intangible form the concept has acquired in our times. For me, for many, Cerati will always be home—and no aneurysm can take that away from us. Sing away, Gus.

 

 
 
 

Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday September 27 2014.

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