Wednesday, 4 December 2013


I woke up this morning, and I found a tune was running through my head.  No, it wasn't a blues...  It was a bossa nova.  As well as the music, I could smell chlorine, taste chicken soup, and felt profoundly happy.  Not something I often feel at 6:30.

But what was it?  As well as a teasing rhythm and tricksy melody, there was a yearning, whispy saxophone that had to be Stan Getz, and there were the words "Love is like a something something melody".  A little googling uncovered "Desafinado" by Antonio Carlos Jobim, which hit the charts in 1962 in various instrumental and vocal versions.

Back before those watershed years that followed 1963, there was a brief period when cool, jazz-inflected music figured in the pop charts.  West Coast classics with exotic time signatures like "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet were to be heard on the radio, alongside the show-tunes, crooners and all-too-occasional rock'n'roll.  While "serious" jazz was going off down its own stony path of self-inflicted exile, this smooth, sophisticated strain found its fullest popular expression in bossa nova.  In rainy Britain, still emerging from the stiff, austere post-war period, it was music that evoked a better, sun-soaked world: one where men in sharp suits and narrow ties wooed exotic women with ironic, gentle songs that deployed achingly subtle chords and the sort of rhythms that angels dance to.

My father was then in his 40s, and it was music very much to his taste.  In another world -- perhaps the one where he is now -- he would have been sitting with his band in a beachside club, effortlessly sketching those rhythms on the drums, while beautiful people swayed in the long, warm evening.  But, in 1962, he used to take me swimming every Saturday in the newly-opened municipal indoor swimming-pool.  It was probably the closest we had ever been, or ever would be: we both loved to swim, and he would always take a sixpence to throw into the pool for me to dive after and chase to the bottom of the pool.  Afterwards, with our eyes pink and stinging with chlorine, we would drink plastic cups of gritty instant chicken soup from a vending machine.  At least once, "Desafinado" must have played on the PA.  A happy time.

On rediscovering "Desafinado", I watched  a fine solo performance on YouTube by the bossa nova master, João Gilberto.  Portuguese is a beautiful but strange language -- it looks like Spanish but sounds like Russian -- and I don't speak it.  But I distinctly heard the word "Rolleiflex" pass by, which made my ears prick up.  What?  I didn't remember that in the "something something" version I heard in 1962.
Quando eu vou cantar, você não deixa
E sempre vêm a mesma queixa
Diz que eu desafino, que eu não sei cantar
Você é tão bonita, mas tua beleza também pode se enganar
Se você disser que eu desafino amor
Saiba que isto em mim provoca imensa dor
Só privilegiados têm o ouvido igual ao seu
Eu possuo apenas o que Deus me deu

Se você insiste em classificar
Meu comportamento de anti-musical
Eu mesmo mentindo devo argumentar
Que isto é Bossa Nova, isto é muito natural

O que você não sabe nem sequer pressente
É que os desafinados também têm um coração
Fotografei você na minha Rolley-Flex
Revelou-se a sua enorme ingratidão

Só não poderá falar assim do meu amor
Este é o maior que você pode encontrar
Você com a sua música esqueceu o principal
Que no peito dos desafinados
No fundo do peito bate calado
Que no peito dos desafinados também bate um coração
Yes, indeed, there it is...  But why? Call for Google Translate!
When I'm singing, you do not let
And always have the same complaint
Says I of tune, I can not sing
You are so beautiful, your beauty but also can deceive
If you say that I love out of tune
Note that this causes me immense pain
Only the privileged have heard equal to its
I own only what God gave me

If you insist on classifying
My anti-musical behaviour
I argue myself lying
This is Bossa Nova, this is very natural

What you do not know even senses
Is that tune also have a heart
I shot you in my Rolley-Flex
Proved its enormous ingratitude

One can not therefore speak of my love
This is the biggest you can find
You forgot your music with the main
That chest of tune
Deep in his chest beats draft
That chest of tune also beats a heart
 There is clearly a very witty and ironic lyric lurking in there, by Newton Mendonça -- it's far from being some dreamy, sun-kissed love-song.  Put it together with the tune, and there's a suppressed, sublimated anger bubbling under.  It's not "Idiot Wind", but ... Bearing in mind that "desafinado" means "out of tune" or "off key", and with a bit of unpicking, the relevant verse goes like this:
What you don't know and can't realize
Is that people who are "out of tune" also have a heart
I took a picture of you with my Rolleiflex
And all it shows is your huge ingratitude
With a film pun in "show / develop / reveal" -- nice.  Well, of course; in 1960, what could have been cooler than a Rolleiflex?  Though, like jazz and bossa nova, the Rollei was about to be steamrollered, not by the Beatles, but by the 35mm SLR.

James Dean with Rollei, photo by Roy Schatt

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