The Tango of Phantom Fathers

You know, when it comes down to it, I don't think Astor really liked or loved the tango. I think he loved the music his father surrounded the family with, as the sound of what they'd left behind when they left Argentina (well, it's the Tango, so “lost” would really be the right word here). It was the audible identity that made them different from the other Italian and the Jewish families that lived around them on the Lower East side of New York, where Astor grew up. I think he loved the sound of his father, and learned the vocabulary of that sound, and used that vocabulary to describe himself, to describe the difference between himself and his father, and how he both loved and hated his father and his father's dreams. And, yeah, as we all know, at the bottom of dreams are dreams, and he used the vocabulary of the sound of his father's dreams to invent a homeland that never existed, and in fact, was more dynamic, intelligent, and (really) passionate than the one his father actually left, and then replace - or try to, and almost replace - the homeland his father had actually left behind in the South

As far as I'm concerned, I never gave a fuck about the Tango, and I don't now. When I listen to Astor, I'm not really listening to the Tango re-imagined and saved by a brilliant composer, I'm listening to the music of a turbulent, complex, restless, brilliant man rearrange the vocabulary of his father's dreams into the sound of his turbulence, complexity, restlessness, and brilliance. And that's really (I'd swear it, I'd swear it) the “truth” Astor always (correctly) bragged about telling in his art...
...AI used to joke with Astor about his being my artistic father, and yeah, he warned me not to look for me in his will, but I'm actually thrilled I wasn't really his artistic kid. I never really had to work hard to solicit and then need to reject his approval for my own art, I never had to be lost in his immense and deep shadow, and no father could have talked with me about sexual technique so openly and in such detail. And I could argue with him without being hurt that he would refuse to admit that I'd been right. No real son could say that.

He may not have liked or loved the Tango, but he did think it was amusing: “Let's finish dinner and go down to San Telmo to watch the old men in rugs play Tango for the tourists, even the Argentine tourists...” he teased one night. But, of course, he found an excuse not to go. And, whether he liked it or not, he did think it was serious: the colorful, and really menacing, stories about cab drivers threatening his life, and the lives of his band and family because of what he brought to the Tango were true. And, whether he loved or liked the Tango, he did understand it, from the inside out, formally and emotionally: one of the last pieces we were talking about working on was a new version of his stunning “Melancholia de Buenos Aires”. In the reworking, there's a false ending with a cadence of dark, tense chords musically voiced exactly in the method the deepest Tango composers of the forties and early fifties (a young Astor among them) would have used to describe sexual drama, but the piece then refuses to actually resolve in those chord voicings, and, instead, uses the possible destabalizing notes in those chords to move out of the false ending into another cadence, and then a real resolve made up of the most adventurously modern Piazzolla chord voicings I'd ever heard use. As far as I'm concerned, that brilliant, critical description of Tango drama, using it's own language and mannerisms, then the release into the future in the image of Astor's intelligence and anger, was as close to being in love with the Tango as I ever need to be. We never got to record the piece, but I hope Malvi or somebody has a copy of El Troesma's self critical dream masterpiece.

The Condombe of the Miles between Buenos Aires and Brazil / Africa

So, as everything is really Holy and symmetrical, Astor walked in to the Argentine Consulate in New York in May 1986, and pointed out to Nancy and me that the same guy who was awkwardly waiting to present Astor with an Argentine Government Medal, at this stiff awards ceremony, was one of the same government bureaucrats who wanted to see him in perpetual exile just a few years before. Piazzolla's revolutionary criticism of the Argentine cultural establishment had been worthy of disgust and banishment before, but now, given the noise he was making, and the admiration he was getting in Europe, Japan, and now in America, the government had to acknowledge him, if nothing else, to be able to use some of his celebrity. Astor refused to shake the bastard's hand when receiving the award, making him hate Astor more. He's probably still working at the Consulate.

To make matters more pronounced, Astor sought out, and spent the entire evening talking to the only African American at the ceremony, the writer Stanley Crouch. “Look,“ he said, “at how it makes them squirm,” pointing to the government officials. “Argentine government officials are proud to be the most European, the Whitest people on the globe. They're proud that Buenos Aires is a million miles from Brazil, from the tones of Africa.” He made it a point to point out to Stanley, Nancy and me that the joke was on them, that the Tango was based on, rooted in, the rhythms and feel of the very African habanero, as much as on, in, the European (Italian, Jewish, Spanish) tones, forms and sentiments usually understood as it's source.

But I think that missed the real point. I think Astor saw himself, heard himself, in the music of people, peoples, locked out of power, and in their defiance, and in the music representing that defiance. Like most of us do. It wasn't just the rhythms and tones of African and African diaspora music that Astor heard himself in, but in it's sound of noble rebellion, of that proud defiance. Like his own music.

I'm sure that's the reason African American musicians like Max Roach through David Murray hear themselves.

The Malaria Milonga

People around Astor got fired (or quit at the same time) a lot. We'd have these hard-edged fights about the correct move to make (surprisingly: more times about art than money) and I'd say, after hours, “Fuck you, I'm out! Get somebody else, man!” “Fine, you're fired! Kip, we're not like oil and water, we're like oil and fire! Goodbye! I never want to see you again, even in a picture!” And I'd go home, relieved. At last, time to rest and work on my own music. No more four-in-the-morning phone calls from the “genius” of Tango. But the phone would ring in the middle of that night, or the next, and it'd be Astor's voice starting with “Kip, I was thinking...<usually a bad introduction to a nighttime call by Astor>, about the first song you want for the record, I don't know...” or “Kip, I was thinking... I don't want to open concerts with a milonga, you're wrong...”

So Malvi, who knew Astor better than anyone, pointed out that if Astor needed you, you could never get rid of him. Just when you thought you were free, he'd always appear again. “Like malaria”, laughed the one time medical student.

More than ten years after he left the hotel (he had the stroke in 1990) and nearly ten years after he collected the baggage he left behind (he died in 1992), he's still in my system. When I'm working on my music, or any music, he's there sneering at me, showing contempt for any sign of fatigue and castigating me for being lazy and considering the easy angle. Forcing me to make the difficult, and right choice. Fuck you, Astor. Yeah, he's still in my system, like malaria. But there is something intoxicating, and cleansing, about the fever.

When I worked with Malvi again, last October in Buenos Aires, he seemed completely relieved that Astor was gone, and completely gratified for having worked with and known him, and happily resigned to Astor's continued presence. He seemed happy, at rest, and he still played fucking great guitar. Oh, that malaria.

The Truco of Punishment

So I don't get it. What sin did Astor commit in a previous life that has to be paid off by having his music murdered by being played by classical musicians after his death? He couldn't stand the way classical musicians tried, but couldn't play his music.

Look, as we all know, there's no such thing, really, as an absolute beat. We all feel it, and we can lean into it, anticipate it, come in early, like Cuban music. The ear reads that as happy and extroverted. Or, since there's really no such thing as an absolutely correct tone, we can play sharp, and, like in Cuban music, the ear hears that as happy, extroverted. Or we can let the imaginary correct beat anticipate our entrance, come in elegantly late, in a way, and play just slightly flat, against the imaginary absolute tone, and the ear hears all that as sad, and introverted. Well, that's a big part of the charm of the tango. The thing is that you can't get that Tango swing and feeling unless you feel it while taping your feet, and knowing, feeling to enter behind the beat. To feel the need to play just slightly under the tone.

Then there are classical musicians. They're trained not to tap their feet, to feel anything other than what's on the page. And they're trained not to play anything not written on the page. Combined with the need for the musician to feel Astor's music off the page, and his impatience for writing the crescendos and decrescendos out, it's part of a recipe for musical failure. “You have to know my music in your heart, in your body, even before I write it, with these guys it's just not there...” Astor told me as I tried, unsuccessfully, to get a well intentioned classical to phrase the music, to PLAY Astor's music right. “If it's not on the page, I can't play it,” said the frightened cello player.

So Astor would get a Classical commission, and be proud of the legitimacy it seemed to bring him. Then he would go to the rehearsal and hear how they couldn't play it, and rewrite it down. Then go to the rehearsal and hear how much they still couldn't play it, and make changes to make it even simpler rhythmically and emotionally, then give up and just accept the accolades and empty music.

When I asked him why he kept accepting the commissions, he said “Look, they call me Maestro, they pay me a lot of money, and unlike with you and my band, I don't have to argue with anyone about any of my ideas, I don't have to worry about who doesn't like his hotel room, or who's drunk, or who thinks the piece should be a half-step sharper. I don't have to do a soundcheck before the concert, or have dinner with anyone after.” “How many days in a classical environment does it take before you're bored out of you head?” I asked. “I'm always bored and frustrated before I even start” he said, “but sometimes it's a welcome change, even if they take all the emotion, all the swing, all the sex out of my music, and leave empty notes, out of it's real time or tones.”

So, in the first decade he's gone, his music is almost exclusively being played, and emptied, and murdered, by classical musicians. Who says G-d doesn't have a wicked sense of humor?

The Tango of Expatriates and Exiles

Astor used to speak English with this incredible accent, melody and way of phrasing that he'd learned growing up in one section of New York during the 1920s and 30s. In fact, that accent doesn't really exist anymore (except in James Cagney movies), the Lower East Side having changed over and over again since Astor and his family moved back to Argentina when he was 17. The thing is that his Argentine Spanish was informed by that lost Lower East Side English accent and syntax, his first and basic language really. In a way, a big way, he was an expatriate from a place that no longer existed, and he was at odds and in exile in Argentina and in Argentine Spanish and in English and America, which had changed, away from him, since he left. The connection to his being at odds with Tango and, in a way, outside of, at odds with and critical of all parts of Argentine culture makes sense, I think.

The Payada of the Late Recorded Masterpieces

I'm surprised, really, that most of the musicologists and critics writing with justified awe about Astor's late shining records, “Tango: Zero Hour” and “La Camorra” don't really get the big change. One of the most dominant reasons for their triumph was that Astor finally understood that a record didn't have to be a collection of recorded documents of musicians in a room, playing music. He understood that the real Astor Piazzolla record, as an embodiment of his music, of the whole intensity of his art, would use the studio (the actual recording rooms, each with it's own mood, the possibilities of tape editing, the sequence of songs), as an instrument, as a part of the whole piece. That, in combination with the Quintet at the most focused of its powers, made those records the victories they became. By working with him on these records, and showing him how the studio, the record, could be an instrument, even if it meant fighting with him furiously, I got to repay some of the gifts he gave me (some reluctantly, some generously). I got to hear myself in the fabric of Astor's music. Wow, G-d can make you happy to be alive, sometimes.

The Tango Cancion of Lost Sex and Time

Astor was playing in New York and during the intermission, which Astor decided to make epic in length for some reason, one of the most beautiful French women in the world grabbed my wrist (!) and pleaded with me to tell Astor that she “just couldn't wait a minute longer” for more. Fuck, this was something Astor had to hear, and see, directly, so I took her back stage to repeat the drama. Astor laughed, and promised her more music in 30 seconds. After she'd left, he sighed and told me that it wasn't just that he was married to the beautiful Laura, but that sex was everywhere, and he didn't have time, he had so much more music to make in such a short period of time left. It was one of the times I saw him panic, and it was one of the times he was wrong. Christ, there's so much sex in his music, till the end.

Hey, how do you describe, and facilitate, really, so clearly entering a stunning women, and seeing the fear and surrender in her eyes, so accurately, so, without words, so ... And, in Astor's case, with an unwieldy instrument like that? It's not the Tango, it's Piazzolla.

One of Astor's many innovations was the standing bandoneon player “I refuse to look like an old woman knitting,” he said. But it was also about the sound, the tone. Like a singer, like a baritone sax player, you sound different, you phrase different, you breath different, you sound stronger, when you stand.

On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, the younger bandoneon players, all of who swore reverence for Astor, sat while playing. That clear instrumental innovation of Astor's seemed lost on them like the moisture a glass of waterleaves on a table when it's removed. Also lost on them was the sexuality of his sound. And, they looked, again, like old women knitting.

The Habanero of the Asshole

There are all these musicians and music business people, some of whom worked with Astor, some of whom didn't, who have stories about how much of an asshole he was, of how surprising life is that such beautiful music could come from so mean a guy. Well, yeah, he could be an asshole, and we knew why he could be an asshole. He was really just protecting his music, his art, the truth, and defend it with bared teeth and knives, if he felt the music threatened by myopic businessmen, by limited musicians, by time, whatever. He wasn't always right about the threat, but the intent and passion of the defence was beautiful.

Tango of transcendence

In the end, Jacques cared enough about Astor's music to ask me, you cared enough about Astor to read this, and not only the Tango, but music has been affected by the sound of Astor's restlessness. So, he won, transcendently. There is justice, right?


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