Gustavo Cerati: A Personal Tribute

Gustavo Cerati performs onstage, Chicago, Illinois, July 29, 2003. 

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Remembering Cerati, Soda Stereo & my days in 'La Ciudad de la Furia.'

After all the personal prayers, massive hopes, musicians' tributes and fans' tweets of #vuelvecerati, Gustavo Cerati did not return. He died on Sept. 4, 2014. With Cerati's death came a rush of emotion and appreciation, the collective letting go of breath held as he lay in a hospital for four years in a coma. The year's end has brought more homages to Cerati, more analysis of his lyrics and his contributions to music in Argentina and all of Latin America, and fueled recurring thoughts to the minds of all of the people, like me, who won't forget him.

I saw Cerati onstage with Soda Stereo for the first time at Obras stadium in Buenos Aires in 1986. I was a kid from New York writing music criticism for the Buenos Aires Herald, the vehicle for some of my own best Almost Famous moments.

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Soda Stereo was different than other artists I had discovered and who had led me to discover a different world in Argentina, one that was on a daily basis intense and intimate in a way I had never known; sometimes frustrating, often sublime. Then, when making a long distance call could require listening to a recording of "un momento por favor" for an hour or more before an operator finally came on to connect you, it was a country far away.  Suddenly finding myself at the Southern end of South America, my perspective was totally turned around.

At first, Soda Stereo seemed to me a lot less interesting than Charly Garcia, whose soul bled all over the stage as he sang and played the piano. The band was less rebellious than Sumo, whose leader, Luca Prodan, led crowds in chants of "Fuck You," and who one day grabbed my copy of Sumo's album and threw it into the path of an oncoming bus as we walked down the street to show me that success didn't matter. Soda didn't incite the sweaty euphoria of the Fabulosos Cadillacs.  Nor were they like the dozens of other groups I saw every weekend that sang dully about death, or played electronic music that was as emotionally affecting as a tango.

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In my first review of Soda Stereo, I said that their music "went down as easily as soda pop."  I commented about their big hair and make-up. I thought Soda Stereo was merely derivative. I was condescending. And I was wrong.  

A few years earlier, Argentina had come blinking into the light after the military dictatorship that did away with a generation of young people who either were killed or fled the country. In the new democracy, the nights in Buenos Aires were endless, and so was the music. It was good or bad or forgettable; the important thing was to be there.

When Sting came to Buenos Aires for the Amnesty International concert in 1988, the country's first massive event with foreign bands, he brought onstage the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, women whose children had been disappeared by military assassins.

The young artists of the democratic Argentina's new wave didn't identify themselves with politics. They didn't have to. Which, at the time, was a political statement in itself.

 "We don't want to talk about that anymore," one musician confided in me one of the few times I remember anyone of my friends wanting to talk to me about the dirty war. "We just want to move on."

With their calculated look and songs which seemed, at first listen, to be about watching TV and reading gossip magazines, Soda Stereo embodied that desire.

"I think we were really at the start of something," Cerati told me years later.

He was modest. What Cerati and his bandmates Zeta Bosio and Charly Alberti did, eventually, was to forge the path of what we now call the Latin music market. They began to transcend Argentina with songs like "Persiana Americana" and "Cuando Pase el Temblor." They began to tour through the region more extensively than anyone had ever done. They made "Rock Nacional" into "Rock en Espanol." They, and surely Cerati most of all, saw that they were in the right place at the right time.

It was hard to leave Buenos Aires, and the nine months of a young journalist's grant that sent me there turned into almost three years. When I finally left, I went to the airport in a limo provided by Soda Stereo's manager. There was champagne, and I carried a package with me for Carlos Alomar, the David Bowie guitarist, who the members of Soda hoped would agree to produce their next album. I left the package at Rudy's, the Midtown Manhattan guitar shop and mecca for Argentine musicians.

Just before Soda Stereo arrived in New York, I started working as an A&R assistant in the International Department at CBS Records, the band's label. I actually stumbled into the job after calling the office to ask if it had worked out; were they coming to New York? In the summer of 1988, we got the trio settled in a dorm room at NYU. The first thing they asked for was a boom box, and I took them over to Crazy Eddie's on 6th Avenue and 8th Street.

My first experience in the studio observing a record being made was with "Doble Vida." Missing Buenos Aires, I watching Cerati sing "La Ciudad de la Furia" from the booth.  It's fair to say I was hypnotized.   

But I still had no idea how popular the band had become until I went to Mexico City, on the "Doble Vida" tour. There, standing on the side of the stage looking down at tens of thousands of people below, then watching the band members leave the concert hidden inside an ambulance, I understood.

In 2006, I watched Cerati get mobbed by fans who blocked his way as he tried to go to the bathroom at the Latin Alternative Music Conference.  The dorm room at NYU seemed so far gone, though it was only actually a few blocks away from where we sat down for an interview about his album "Ahi Vamos." After the breakup of the band, Cerati had risen as a solo artist in a new time when there were kids in the United States who had grown up with their parents listening to Soda Stereo. Cerati played to a full house at Central Park Summer Stage that weekend, something that would have been unimaginable two decades earlier.   

"It's good to see how [music in Spanish] has taken on new dimensions," he told me. "And that's because of the people with talent who keep doing things and persisting in coming here and playing, first in a small venue then a place that's a little bigger, saturating the public, getting the attention of people who may speak Spanish."

Sweating in his leather rock star gear, his eyes were hidden behind huge sunglasses.  

"Also with time you see the vices, all of the vices of the music industry," he went on. "In Buenos Aires now, as always, there is good music and there are talented people. But I feel like the panorama in general, not only in Argentina but everywhere, is very boring, there's not much movement. I feel that everything has become very Disney-like: very much a shell and not a lot that is real. I think things need to be shaken up. The industry is very boring, not dynamic at all."

Then he laughed as he brought up the time, all those years ago, we went to a party on the Lower East Side and hid together under a table when someone took out a gun and starting shooting. "Did that really happen?" he asked. Until he brought it up I wasn't sure it really had.   

I flew to Buenos Aires in 2007 for the Soda Stereo reunion tour, sitting in the shaking stands at River Stadium, packed with 70,000 people. The next night I did it again. Later I saw the band over two nights in Miami.

They had all matured, and not in that "wow are they old" kind of way. They were better, and the songs, infused with the experience of everyone in the crowd, had so much more meaning.

Cerati had always been the focus when the band played; now it seemed impossible to take your eyes off him. His energy was enormous, his guitar playing incredible. The concert was thrilling beyond words. But later, I felt a little irritated, thinking how Cerati was still inevitably described as "an Argentine rocker" while artists who had come behind with more marketing power and less talent were called superstars.

I spoke to Cerati now and then over the decades, and he always greeted me with an enthusiastic "Shudy!" pronouncing my name the Argentine way. But I didn't know him well. I can say that the last time I spoke to him, just before he went on tour for his 2009 album Fuerza Natural, he felt he was at the top of his game.

 "I feel free of a lot of things," he told me. "Maybe because the fact that I did the Ahi Vamos tour which was very successful for me, and also of course the Soda tour which was enormous, put me in a place, at least musically, where I really feel that I can do anything within my capabilities. The songs came out quickly and then it all was a process undertaken with a lot of enthusiasm, and at the same time it was relaxing. Not having to answer to anyone, just making the best music that came out of me." He called Fuerza Natural, his last album, the best of his career.

For me, it turned out that it has been Cerati's music, both with Soda Stereo and on his solo albums, that has stayed with me since those years in Buenos Aires, in La Ciudad de La Furia where I suddenly grew up. Great music has a way of becoming more about us than about the music itself. Thank you Gustavo, for your great music, and everything it's meant to me. I have to say it: Gracias totales.