Saturday, September 29, 2012

You Fucked Up My Life

(This song begins, in the Lyrics book, with two lines ascribed to no performer; they are the same as appeared in the song "Santero." They are in a non-English language, and it is not one I recognize. There are so many accent marks I cannot even type it in accurately. I am afraid to admit I have no further information, but if anyone does, please let me know. UPDATE: A reader who has seen the play provides some information and insights in the comments below)

Evidently, Salvador has had the opportunity to reacquaint himself with some of his old gang-mates. Perhaps at this point he has served his extra two years for breaking parole and is now on parole again, but stuck in New York.

He is not greeted warmly by his old friends. Angel Soto calls him names, then says, "You had your moment of glory/ With your pearl-handed knife/ Oh, what a TV story/ But you fucked up my life." He concludes that his parents were very upset with him.

It is not clear how Sal's crime caused Angel so much suffering. He was not one of the perpetrators. Perhaps the event caused a crackdown on gangs.

Babu Charlie Cruz, another gang member, is clearer about his grudge. "I was on trial with you," he says, and he did some time. This is the cause, he says, of his never being able to land a union job, and for his fiancee leaving him. He also blames Sal's attitude during the trial for stoking anti-Puerto Rican sentiment: "You would walk into the courtroom/ Saying, 'All youse are gonna burn,'/ As if everything evil was Puerto Rican."

Young Sal responds (later, Adult Salvador will, as well) that he "took the weight for all of youse... I was the 'escape goat' for all of youse/ You all came to gangbang/ There were other guys with knives... There was no blood on my knife." As to his attitude, he claims this his ethnic pride. Sure, he says to them, "Stick it to the Jibaro... He don't kiss ass in no courtroom/ With the fucking American flag." A "Jibaro" is a native Puerto Rican, and Sal uses the word to mean a true Puerto Rican patriot (I am not sure if Sal had any Jibaro blood).

And when he says "escape goat," he means "scapegoat," but his mispronunciation could be either an uneducated mistake or the use of some Spanish speakers of an "e" before an "s." (One native Spanish speaker I know, a teacher, spoke to me of the "estudents" at her "eschool.")

Salvador now adds his comments, repeating "I am an innocent man," and that if he owes them anything, he already paid with his incarceration and his eternal damnation, his reputation-- deserved or not-- as The Capeman.

Hernandez, The Umbrella Man, tells Salvador: "You can lie to the press, you can lie to yourself/ But you cannot lie to us/ I was there at your side."

Even if Sal is guilty, it seems too convenient to blame Sal for everything wrong in their lives. They were there that fateful night, too (as they just admitted), and it might just as well have been one of them accused and jailed for more than a decade. Also, they have had their freedom instead, and many chances. They might have joined the army or priesthood, or returned to Puerto Rico, or any other number of options.

In any case, Salvador again protests his innocence, swearing on his medallion of St. Lazarus. Which segues nicely into the next piece, a duet between Salvador and the saint.

Next Song: Lazarus/Last Drop of Blood

Monday, September 24, 2012

Trailways Bus/ El Malecon

This song is one of the finest in the musical. The tone, the Latinate music, the imagery of travel, and level of poetry recall "Hearts and Bones."

Lazarus first joined our story when he is invoked by the Santero way back in Puerto Rico: "I see him staggering in the desert/ But he must not break his chain/ Till St. Lazarus in his mercy/ Turns his thirsty soul to rain." Then the Santero (fortune-teller) and Lazarus sing: "So this, then, is the future/ From which no man can escape."

Lazarus has kept quiet from then until now, showing up only for one verse in "Jesus Es Mi Senor," when he also sang of deserts and thirst. But until now, Salvador has been in Puerto Rico, then the barrio, then jail. Now, he is is going to the desert. He has broken parole (his "chain"?) to see the woman he fell in love with only through her letters to him in prison. She is a Native American, and she lives in the Southwest.

Now that Salvador is going to the desert, it is fitting that Lazarus shows back up to narrate the entire song "Trailways Bus" (track 13, the last one on Songs from The Capeman). This is not Simon's first song about a long bus trip, which would be America. Here, instead of Michigan to New York, the trip takes Salvador south, then west. He might not have gone straight southwest-- via, say, Kansas City-- to throw off the authorities, sure to be in pursuit.

Instead, he hides behind a "magazine" and a "sleepless pillow." He finds himself in "farmland" in between New York and DC, and even sees a "farmer." Also a couple with a "two-month-old" baby. He imagines their lives. Is he jealous? Does he think they are jealous of what they might imagine is his single man's freedom?

As they pass through DC, "the shadow of the Capitol Dome," the source of all laws (including the many he is breaking), ominously "slides across his face." 

"His heart is racing," Lazarus tells us, and Wahzinak is also breathless. She sings that she "has no money to come east," and it is the fleeing killer who must use his untraceable cash to wend his circuitous way to her.

As they go through Dallas, they pass another landmark, the infamous "grassy knoll" that figured in the assassination of JFK in that city. His life has likewise been shut off by death, and he relates to the city's being "away from the feel and flow of life for so many years."

But coming along the Southern border, while it may have helped him avoid pursuit from the North, created another potential problem-- patrols trolling for illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico. They board the bus and single him out simply because he is Hispanic. "Any aliens here?" they taunt. "Yes, I am an alien from Mars," he retorts. They let him go; is it his New York accent?

But even though he has escaped capture again, Lazarus tells us, "He can't leave his fears behind," as he replays his crime again and again in his mind. 

Speaking of memories, the brief freedom Salvador feels recalls one he felt as a child in Puerto Rico. On a smaller island, due east, called Vieques, is a beach called "El Malecon." This word means "an embankment" along the sea, especially one, used as a leisure boardwalk (the most famous one is in Havana).

The rest of the song is laden with images of the stark color of the setting: a white sky and Spanish mission, a black highway and his mother's hair, "dark as the sea at night." He recalls his birth father, Gumersindo, harvesting sugarcane. Meanwhile, his mother was "watching over us"-- meaning himself and his sister, Aurea-- as they played with her in the sand and "filled her skirt with shells." 
It seems like an idyllic scene. Yet Salvador remembers also dreaming of leaving there: "All the big boats used to come/ I called myself their captain/ And dreamed of the day I'd be gone."

If a beach is confining, what must a prison cell feel like? And then his cramped bus seat. But soon, so soon, he will spend two weeks in actual freedom.

Next Songs: You Fucked up My Life

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Virgil and the Warden

In his classic comic lament, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," Hank Williams sings: "Everyone's ag'in' me and it's got me down." Well, almost everyone is against Salvador, too, but instead, it gets him fired up.

At the moment, his opposition is a guard named Virgil. We met him in his eponymous song a couple of tracks back. 

Here, he continues his persecution of Salvador. The song opens with him chastising Salvador for playing his music too loudly, only he adds the insult "spic music"; later, he throws words like "si" and "senior" at Salvador like slurs. 

Salvador retorts that he is using headphones, and furthermore, "Why don't you just go to Hell?" Salvador further threatens to issue another formal complaint to the warden about Virgil.

Virgil responds, basically, "Oh, you're gonna write me up? Yeah, you're a big-shot writer now." He taunts Salvador about his fame as an author and his "liberal lawyers." He calls Salvador a "hernia" and tells Salvador that his report to the warden will fall on deaf ears. 

Virgil's hatred of Salvador is based on several factors. Virgil feels that he himself should have more opportunity and success. After all, he is a working man and a family man, while Salvador is a murderer! Oh, and also a immigrant and a non-native speaker. Further, because they are in the South, Virgil is seen by many outside the South as a "rube," which he feels in an additional unfair slight; in fact, as a white American, he should be ahead of Salvador in the race for success as a matter of course. How awful it must feel to be rigging the game and still losing!

It is very even-handed of Simon to show the reaction by many to Salvador's success. After all, Salvador became famous originally for being a cold-blooded killer... and now he's back on TV, but not on the news. He's on the talk shows, shilling his book. That a convicted murderer of any background should be celebrated so is upsetting to many. Add to this the unfairness felt by the people who went to work to pay taxes for Salvador's incarceration-- and now he's getting out, going to college, writing books, becoming respectable... just who does he think he is?

On top of this is the general hatred many, sadly, feel toward those of a different background, race, language, or national origin, and you can see how a resentment of Salvador's literary pretensions was nearly inevitable. It is a shame that those who protested the musical did not see it, for in this song Simon upholds many of their doubts about the worthiness of such a man as the focus of, for instance, a Broadway musical.

Now Salvador and Virgil have their meeting with the Warden. Before they enter his office, he says to the audience that he is paranoid about someone doing violence to him while he sleeps, and says that if anything does happen to him, he will be sure Salvador is blamed regardless: "Shadows cross my bed/ My blood is on your head.""

Then to Salvador, he says that he has read his writing, and feels that it is revisionist: "You treat your crime as fiction/ When the opposite is true." He then tells Salvador that his parole hearing is in just five months, so he'd better not screw up before then. 

Only he tells him that, it seems, in front of Virgil! Which gives Virgil permission to provoke Salvador as much as he likes, while Salvador dare not retaliate for fear of losing his chance at parole. Five months is a long time to put up with such treatment.

Or to enjoy engaging in it, as Virgil now does. As he escorts Salvador back to his cell, he tells him what he told us in his earlier song about his rifle: "I like that gun for deer... but if it came down to me/ I'd use it right here."

Salvador retorts that it will be hard to aim at a non-existing target: "If this harassment goes on... I won't wait for my parole, I'll be gone." Yes, he tells his guard he plans to escape. Perhaps not the most discreet move.

Virgil gets the last word, which is, more or less: "Good luck with that." Salvador should not feel himself too powerful, despite his fans and high-class friends. On a day-to-day basis, he will be dealing not with them but the man who has the keys to his cell. 

Racist though he is, Virgil does make one valid point: The moral high ground is hard to assert when you are in a dungeon.

Next Song: Trailways Bus/ El Malecon

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wahzinak's Duet/ My Only Defense (Killer Wants to Go to College II).

Wahzinak, you will recall, was the Native American woman who began to write to Salvador while Sal was in jail. Here, we see that their relationship has developed to an intense, intimate level.

Salvador writes at night, for privacy's sake. This is understandable, as he writes "I part your lips... I feel you in your letters." One would have to write such delicate thoughts in private, even if they did not carry the burden of potential bigotry. Salvador already is a lightning rod for daring to dream of college, and now to be in an inter-racial relationship...

Wahzinak replies that she "understands" Salvador's "anger," but for now... "I take your hand/ And guide it through my thighs." The rest of that verse continues this erotic imagery, in a physical vein.

Then, the next verse eroticizes and santifices their ethnicities: "Puerto Rican blood blending with Indian/ In a sacred flame of burning lust." 

But here is also an invitation: "You'll love the colors of the desert." This seemingly throwaway line will have severe consequences down the road.

Together, the two share only love, longing... and the moon. So together, they sing: "The quarter moon stares down through my window/ And reads your letters on my bed." (Where else would one read such material?) "I know they open all the mail I send you/ But love can't be censored." 

We expect a warden to read his prisoner's mail. But is Wahzinak a prisoner, too? In a sense. She lives on a reservation. "We share a history," Wahzinak elaborates, of oppression by "the white man." "The barrio is just another reservation," a ghetto to which non-whites are relegated. (We learn later who is reading his incoming mail; it is not "the white man.")

These lovers are both imprisoned. Both in space, both by prejudice and repression, and both by the several-times-over illicit nature of their ardor. As if to rub salt in their wounds, others enjoy freedom all around them. Even animals: "I saw wild horses mating in the sunrise," laments Wahzinak. And why not? These animals have no rules, no laws, no shame... and yet we feel that we are superior? Why do we humans make life so hard for ourselves?

"I dreamed of freedom," she writes. "The day of revolution is coming fast." (These words were written in the late 1970s. Wild horses are still freer than we allow ourselves to be.)

The next song is, inexplicably, called "Killer Wants to Go to College II" on the Songs from The Campeman soundtrack CD. The Lyrics book gives it a better title "My Only Defense." It is another letter, from Salvador this time.

It is a short but powerful song. In it, he tells Wahzinak that he appreciates her and her wisdom: "I know you're trying to protect me... with your... poetry... from my ignorance... I only wish I could hug you/ You're my only defense."

While by this time we think of him as quite literate, Salvador pleads, "I don't understand your writing/ I can barely sign my name." Perhaps he still feels the sting of having been illiterate for so much of his life, and that he feels himself so beside her felicity with words.

He closes by remembering the violence of his barrio, and perhaps even the pain the nuns caused him in his homeland. "All I ever learned was fighting/ But I'm not the only one to blame." And now, even in jail, he is still a "stranger."

In Puerto Rico as a child, he was fatherless and homeless. In New York, a teen; he was an immigrant, plus an annoyance, then a shame, for his stepfather. The gang members who befriended him led him into a life of killing. In jail, he becomes a man, still an outcast among his fellow inmates because of his intellect, and ambition. "The hatred never ends," he concludes.

And the next song shows yet another source of this all-encompassing hatred.

Next Song: Virgil and the Warden

Monday, September 3, 2012

Virgil/ (Upstate)

"Virgil" is one of the only country songs Simon has written (we might also count "Keep the Customer Satisfied"). This style makes sense, given the character of Virgil. He is a white guard at Salvador's prison. he explains-- or rather complains-- that he could not afford to send his four children to college despite 14 years guarding men like Salvador. And here, Salvador gets to go to college! A murderer, who never held a job!

(This is Track 11 on the Songs from The Capeman soundtrack, and there are a few differences between that version and the one in the Lyrics book, but nothing that affects the meaning of the song.)

The warden is just doing what he is told, he reminds Virgil: "We abide by the court's decision." In the last song, it seemed that the warden had argued against Salvador's release; evidently, he lost and is resigned to defeat.

This only angers Virgil more. He states that he has a hunting rifle and adds, "Smells like hunting season's here."

He defends his personal grievance by saying it is not personal but a professional observation that the inmates who are "smart" and "quiet" end up being "troublemakers." He even goes as far as to say that Salvador is capable of fomenting a "riot" like the 1971 one at the Attica Correctional Facility (also referenced in the film Dog Day Afternoon).

Lastly, Virgil returns to his assertion that, regardless of what the justice system sees fit, he is willing to administer his own justice: "The ain't no way that... smart-ass... gets his degree/ and hides behind the Constitution/ Not while I'm at this institution."

We shall hear more from Virgil later.

(Evidently, Simon wrote a song called "Upstate" for use in the musical, but it did not make the cut. An online search for the word "upstate" in a Simon lyric finds it only in this song, so if "Upstate" does exist, it is not readily available. Anyone who knows the lyrics to "Upstate," please inform me, and I will prepare a post for that song. Thank you.)

While he was not part of the songwriting process, it is interesting to note the choreographer on the project, and eventually the director, was Mark Morris, who is known for his ballet work. His story and list of accomplishments are too long for this space, but interested parties can find that information easily.

Suffice it to say that he is of equal caliber in his field as Walcott, Blades, and the rest of the Capeman talent are in theirs.

Simon only works with the best, and if one wants an excellent musical (and general artistic) education, one need only find and enjoy the works of Simon's collaborators.

Next songs: Wahzinak's Duet/ My Only Defense (Killer Wants to Go to College II).