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The World According to Piero

If Borges’ definition of a classic as something that moves us and becomes forever indispensable is indeed true, Piero de Benedictis can be said to be the author of a good number of minor classics. His songs are the consummate expression of our rebellion, fear, passion, loneliness, and longing for communion. Panorama of the Americas met once again with the Argentine legend, who remains as active as ever, as he prepares for the 2014 launch of the philanthropic organization América Viva.

Por: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Fotos: Lisa Palomino, cortesía

 

An Old Man Is Born

Once upon a time, there was an apartment in the traditional, strangely European, and curiously American Buenos Aires —the famous and poetic city of tango, suburbs, fantastic writers, intelligent films, mysterious women, leaders of bloody coups, eternal cafes, and scholars of meat, metaphysics, and wine. Touristy and real, mythical and prosaic, courteous and violent.

The tiny dwelling had all the trappings of a refuge for this young artist on his way to becoming known for his music, with benevolent neighbors who tolerated repetitive guitar riffs and the tedious sing-song of novice songwriters.

The year was 1968 and Piero de Benedictis, a young Italian-Argentine bent on breaking into the music business, had formed a creative alliance with José Tcherkaski, a journalist with literary, philosophical, and existential leanings, skilled at encapsulating in apparently simple lyrics the deepest sentiments about everyday life, love, justice, desire, politics, and the collective history of the Latin American people.

Out of this partnership came songs that slowly became the faithful companions of numerous generations: “Tengo la piel cansada de la tarde,” “Juan Boliche,” “Llegando llegaste,” “Caminando por Caracas,” “Tomemos un café,” “De vez en cuando viene bien dormir” “Soy pan, soy paz, soy más,” and —oh, undying classic!— a song dedicated to the contradictory, sweet, and at times cantankerous, bitter or preoccupied; the occasionally docile, slightly defeated, and every now and then triumphant; to our beloved, mindful, and sublime aging fathers.

Piero de Benedictis remembers writing the song as if it were yesterday, as if he’d only just penned it, his hand still warm and his imagination worn out. He knows what happened after the record was released: a horde of good citizens from all over the three Americas and the Latin portion of Europe adopted it as their own and made it part of their lives. Magically, the song spoke to everyone, and in it each person recognized the totally unique biography of their own parent, as if each line in the song described only him, as if the author had known him. From then on, the singing of “Mi Viejo” became a ritual at Latin American birthdays, Christmases, and every important gathering of family or friends.

“In fact, it wasn’t written for my father. As it happens, one morning José Tcherkaski and I realized there was a huge need for a song that would pay tribute to the essential people in our lives who are always with us, those who pass on their wisdom and warmth, their teachings and experience, who protect and shelter us, but who, unfortunately, at a certain point in time begin the downhill descent, swept along in a flurry of worldly concerns and accumulated years. It was actually written in a kind of laboratory, not in one day, or even two or three. It took quite a long time, filled with arguments, doubts, and surprises.

When I played the song to my father, he was only forty-eight years old and still quite a way off from that twilight creature. I figured his youthfulness would make it hard for him to feel in tune with the spirit of the song, but I sang it to him anyway in a kind of private showcase, as an acid test, or christening for the piece.

I was singing it, giving it my all, and I looked up and the guy was bawling his eyes out, just sobbing, with so much emotion that all I could think to do was sob along with him. It was a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime moment of communication.

Afterwards, he took a few minutes to think, dried his tears, seemed to be going over what he’d just heard, and objected: ‘What do you mean I stumble along heavily? Like hell I do!’ And we all know what happened with this song. It was a tribute, a way of giving something back.”

And so, Piero de Benedictis, nearly fifty years later, seated in an arm chair in a hotel in Bogotá, flips through his memories, lightly, quickly hopping from one fragment to another, almost anarchically, unfettered by linear time, letting associations come and go freely, like birds or butterflies.

Hard Times

“At one point I went through a crisis when I thought of just giving it all up. It was during the 70s, after a series of dramatically oppressive circumstances: the sudden death of my newborn eldest son, the disappearance of leader Juan Domingo Perón, who nurtured and guided Argentina’s political life, and the persecution I suffered at the hands of the military dictatorship were the main reasons for this transitory triumph of despondency. I thought about exile. I think its one of the most comforting images at difficult, gloomy times. It was overwhelming; I was singing one thing and living another. I talked about freedom but was chained down, I called for love but hatred was on the rise. It was discouraging. So I toyed with the idea of just giving up, going off to some farm to grow vegetables in a little garden, make friends with nature, and enjoy the music I love and my books. But in the end it never happened.

These were also times of diaspora. The military had its eye on me, the infamous “noche de los lápices” (a series of kidnappings and murders of students)  was at its peak and death was spreading with alarming ease.

One night, I got a call at home warning me that the military Junta’s ferocious security forces were on their way to my house with every intention of taking me with them. That would have been it. Few who entered those terrifying dungeons ever lived to tell of it.

I packed my bags quickly and left for the airport. I hopped on the first plane out and —to my great horror— right after take-off the plane was forced to land again. I was sure my number was up but, miraculously, the reason for the forced landing was nothing like what I had imagined.

Yes…I was saved from spiritual crisis and certain death in those horrifying barracks.”

Hope of Life

“I get the feeling sometimes that all peace processes end in a prolonged, alarming silence,” says Piero, remembering his very active campaigns for peace in different parts of Latin America. “It’s as if, despite all the hope we sow along the way, every time we get a glimpse of a possible end to the machine guns and rifles, we’re frustrated and have to go back to waiting and postponement.”

“And yet,” promised Piero, frightening away the ghost of despondency and doubt, “I still hope not for death, but for life, and get a kind of second wind that seems to feed on any spark in order to keep going and stay alive. I think even though, here and there, peace talks and efforts are thwarted, there is this immense power that brings them back to life, stronger than ever. The same thing happens with plants: you prune them here and they spring back there. Some poet once said that to prune something is to make it grow back somewhere else.”

Hugs

Piero now slips back into his memories, so beautiful they seem almost unreal, of countless invaluable encounters with artists; these encounters were both artistic and, even more subtle and defining, in the spiritual domain.

“One-of-a-kind moments, in many cases unrepeatable due to the absence of those who shared in them. Accomplices, blood-brothers, productive allies in the great business of telling and singing about the world, inviting beauty, miracles, justice.

So many nights, evenings and afternoons come to mind, and so many names: Mercedes Sosa, Soledad Bravo, León Gieco, Joan Báez…There were times when performing a certain song with one of them gave it new context and meaning, as if it had been born again differently. I remember this happening many times with Mercedes Sosa. For example, once in Tucumán, we changed the lyric that says ‘Soy pan, soy paz, soy más’ (‘I am bread, I am peace, I am more’) in solidarity with this amazing audience that had appropriated the song and used it like an amulet against bad times, a jewel of internal resistance.”

“But there is one story, both amazing and kind of funny, that happened with the great North American songwriter Bob Dylan. It was in New York, at Madison Square Garden. I had gone into one of the bathrooms to pee and as I was getting down to it I realized that next to me, performing the exact same task, stood the man himself. I really wanted to say hello using all the formulas and style required for such a solemn occasion. Singing with other artists is always gratifying, just like meeting members of the audience, or signing an autograph, or listening to a crowd sing your songs in a stadium. I remember being in San Vicente del Caguán, in Colombia, in the demilitarized zone that was set up at the time…I ended up singing along with a nun and a prostitute. That kind of thing is conceivable only through the generosity of art.”

The road to Utopia

For several months now, a simple but exciting fraternal appeal has been broadcast to people across Latin America: “You know me. I’m a simple guy, like my old man, a Joe Schmo, like Juan Boliche. I like to go through life giving off good vibes, because the only war worth fighting is the war for love. That’s why I’ve brought you América Viva.”

Piero, now close to seventy, has sent out a plea to Latin Americans to join in the construction of a great humanitarian organization aiming to collect urgent information about the education, cultures, environmental situations, laws, customs, and human resources in our countries.

“It’s a new opportunity that will pave the road to utopia.” He thinks for a second before exclaiming: “I’ve always been interested in urging people to use their conscience and listen to its penetrating voice, not tie it down or let it fall asleep… And until the day I die, my happiness will lie in ticking off and needling those who don’t seem to have one!”