Monday, June 18, 2012

El Coquito/Born in Puerto Rico

[Readers: We have come to Simon's musical, The Capeman. There are, by my count, 40 songs in this musical, and I write on one song each week. Ordinarily. I do not wish to write about this one musical for the better part of a year, and I am fairly certain you do not want to read about it for that long, either, wonderful as it may be. So I have broken the musical down into 16 sections, most with more than one song, and will write about one of those sections each week; it is not uncommon to find an album with that many tracks. So we will visit with this musical for four months instead of ten.

As for the album Songs from The Capeman, since I will be discussing all of the songs in the musical altogether, I will of course cover those in the process. However, the songs on that album do not follow the order of their presentation in the musical itself. As the musical tells a story in a particular order, including  flashbacks, I will preserve the song order of the musical. If you have listened to the album, perhaps listening to the songs in the "right" order will help you appreciate the musical in another way. In 11 of the 16 weeks, I will be writing about a song from the album; as there are so many more songs in the play than on the album, there cannot be an album song covered each week. However, as Simon highlighted these songs by including them on the album, I will only cover one album song in any given entry, to give it its proper due.]

The first song in the musical is an innocent one called "El Coquito." The Lyrics book explains that it is a Puerto Rican folksong by one Olcutt Sanders. It is about a "Little Tree Toad," named for its cry, and in the song the children imitate it. My limited Spanish indicates that the toad sings at night, and the children imagine it sings them a lovely lullaby. The notes also indicate that the song is sung by children who are offstage. 

Then Salvador, our protagonist, sings a brief verse about being free-- we soon learn, from jail. But then he adds, ominously: "But there's the truth that still needs to be spoken."

The first full-length song, "Born in Puerto Rico," is the second track on the soundtrack album. The first verse is pure biography. Sal relates where he was born, that he moved to New York City as child, and that "before I reached the age of sixteen/ I was running with a gang, and we were wild."

The book and the soundtrack differ on the next line, which changes the meaning of the lines that follow. The book has Salvador remembering his own youth and the sights and smells of the barrio evening. The album has the more eyebrow-raising: "He keeps looking but he don't recognize me," as if "he" should. 

Then the chorus, which addresses "you," a party we are yet to meet, unless he or she is onstage; I only have the lyrics, not the "book" of the musical with stage directions. "No one knows you like I do/ No one knows your heart the way I do/ No one will testify to all you've been through, but I will." Again, it would help if we knew whom was being addressed.

The refrain is sung by Salvador and his gang, The Vampires. They repeat the title, then add "And my blood is Taino" (say: tah-EE-no) which the liner notes correctly capitalize (the book does not). This is a proper noun; the Taino people are the natives of Puerto Rico. 

Salvador then picks up the biographical thread, noting how unprepared they were as immigrants (yes, Puerto Rico is part of the US politically, but culturally, significantly distinct)-- "We came here wearing summer clothes in winter"-- and yet, equipped with "hearts of sunshine in the cold." The thrust of the musical, we will see, is how the "cold" won and conquered Sal's spirit, and how he tries mightily to get his "sunshine" back.

The "you" is now revealed to live on the upper floors of a certain apartment building, and to be the stepchild of a Pentacostal preacher. And then again the chorus of "No one..." this time ending "...but this will."

Salvador ruminates: "Small change and sunlight, then I left these streets for good." So he was poor, yet hopeful, and then left. For where? And why?

First, the other Vampires introduce themselves. Salvador says all that is left of them is "blurred... grainy photos" in the newspaper. Then we get a partial answer. Salvador lists the places he was incarcerated; in the book, we get the length of each stay in each place, but in the soundtrack just a list of places, starting with a "school for criminal children" and including infamous prisons like Sing Sing and Attica.

"Twenty years inside, today we're free." The "you" is his partner in crime, then? Salvador says that there was so much written about the case that he did not have a chance to read it all before lights-out in jail... "The night you took The Capeman for your name."

Well, Salvador is The Capeman. So who is he speaking to? To "Sal"... his younger self. In the musical, two different actors play this character at different ages. They are differentiated on the page as 'Sal,' the young punk, and 'Salvador,' the middle-aged ex-con he matures into. 

The older self promises his younger self he will remember him, testify for him. The book's version hinted at this structure with the line "I see myself, those summer evenings..." And so he alternately sings in the first person, and to his younger self as "you." So his own stepfather was a preacher, and so forth.

The newspaper stories "pile up in shame," but there is a note of hope: "...the words release you." But which words? Are these the words of the judge commuting his sentence? Some words Salvador writes? We shall see.

The song ends, in the liner notes with a coda, sung in Spanish: "I was born in Puerto Rico/ My heart... My dear is Puerto Rico." This is attributed to a character named Lazarus, and this is the first time we meet him.

Simon artfully introduces us to his main character(s), Salvador/Sal. In Salvador promising Sal he will "testify" on his behalf, we begin the musical with curiosity and some compassion.

Note: While the CD of Simon's versions of some songs was distributed as the CD Songs from The Capeman, a full original-cast soundtrack, I am told, is available on iTunes.

IMPACT: This is one of Simon's most ambitious projects, and sadly, possibly his biggest professional disappointment; the movie One Trick Pony at least spawned the hit "Late in the Evening." Despite a tremendous cast and production team, whom I will introduce in subsequent posts, the musical was met with protests (which usually fuel ticket sales!) and poor reviews, and closed shortly after it opened. 

My understanding is that it was a major financial loss, more than $10 million. Afterward, Simon did many things I would never have expected. He reunited and toured with Garfunkel, releasing a CD and DVD of that tour. He re-released all of his solo material, with bonus tracks. And more. 

While this material is welcome to all his fans and probably won him many new ones, I cannot wonder if these maneuvers were meant to cover some of his losses. It is simply unlike Simon to look backward like this for so long. It makes me think of Willie Nelson's efforts to pay back the IRS, including the album Who Will Buy My Memories? While Simon never used such an obvious title, these efforts feel to this writer like his asking that question. I say this only as an observation, not a criticism; if Simon did do these things for this reason, thank goodness he had tremendous quantity of outstanding material to do it with!

Next songs: In Mayaguez/ Carmen/ Santero/ Chimes/ Christmas in the Mountains


  1. I know this post is old but do you know the lyrics to the ending coda sung in Spanish on the cast album? I know that the first two are "En la tierra hay bendito" and "el coqui del jibarito" but I can't make out the last two. Any help would be great.

  2. Nicholas-- I don't have the cast album, but I do have the Lyrics book. There is a song with the title "El Coqui (Reprise)" and it's the closest thing I can find to what you describe. It's only 5 lines (the last one repeats) so I'll just type it in:
    El coqui, el coqui a mi me encanta
    Es tan lindo el cantar del coqui
    Por las noches al ir a acostarme
    Me adormece cantando asi
    Coqui, coqui, coqui, qui, qui, qui (x2)
    Hope this helps. If there is a cast album or video I can get let me know; I'll listen to it and see if there is anything closer.
    Thanks again for all your help!

  3. Here is the song on youtube from the cast album
    and here is a link to a lyrics sheet which only has the first two of the last 4 spanish lines in Born In Puerto Rico.
    What does you lyrics book say and what is it from? Is it from the musical itself or the Songs From the Capeman cd?

  4. Nicholas-- Thank you again. I am not currently able to access my resources, but I will respond when I am. But I did want to at least say I received your message and I will check out those links. Is the whole performance on You Tube? Even in pieces?

  5. No, there is no complete performance on youtube. I found a guy at one point online who said he had a lot of capeman related videos and such, but most of them have since been removed from the google drive he shared with me. Here is his email if you want to inquire. He may be willing to reupload them. He did have a complete copy of the play but it was probably the last version where two songs where two songs were cut out and one was changed. The most complete footage of capeman performances on youtube is the documentary Roll of the Dice. If you have not seen it I would suggest it. It goes into a lot of why the play failed.
    Thanks for responding.

  6. Nicholas-- OK, back home (I don't like to say outright, online, that I am not at home, and I think you can guess why). The Lyrics book has no Spanish lines to close Born in Puerto Rico. I broke out the "Songs from the Capeman" CD-- also no Spanish lyrics at the end.

  7. Also, I will check out the documentary. Thanks again.

  8. Thanks for your help. After rereading the original website I posted which had 2 out of the 4 lines I was looking for, I realize that is was probably a luck guess. There are a few lyrics to Born in Puerto Rico that a wrong, enough to make me think they typed what they heard and got lucky with two out of the three final Spanish lyrics. You can hear that they are definitely correct, who ever wrote it was just not able to make out the last 2. How you can hear " El coqui del jibarito" but think the lyrics at the beginning is "Painted rainbows in the dark. " Then again, that was just their "alternate " version of that set of lyrics, and a correct version appears above it. Anyways, thanks for all your help with this, I guess we can only speculate what those last two lines were.

  9. Nicholas-- It's entirely possible that the printed lyrics in various places were from different sources or versions of the song, too. I have seen wrong lyrics at Simon's own site-- and all they had to do was either listen to the songs or copy from the liner notes. I think I even found mistakes in the Lyrics book, which I had assumed would be definitive.

  10. Hey there Another Paul, I hate to send you down another song-credits wormhole, but i just had to ask: do you have ANY idea whose voice this is that comes in 3:50 on 'born in puerto rico' (the 'songs from the capeman' version)??

    I promise i wouldn't normally ask! But i've exhausted every other internet avenue, and nobody seems to have the full credits of that song. I suppose it could be ruben blades himself, but i just can't tell if that's his voice. Many thanks for your time. Cheers! jeff

  11. Jeffrey7-- And this is why it's important to have liner notes! The "coro vocal" is Danny Rivera; the "background vocals" are Ray De La Paz and Nestor Sanchez.
    Take that, Internet! Chalk up one for paper and ink.

    1. Hey! Thank you so bloody much! Truly, you've just made my day.
      And agreed- paper and ink for the win.

  12. Jeffrey7-- This exchange reminds me of one I had with one of the IT guys in my organization, who spoke about archiving and how even CDs and digital files could degrade. I asked him what we could really do if we wanted data to last. He said, "Ask the guys who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls."

    1. Paul, that's great (about the dead sea scrolls). For some reason, this makes me think of the Japanese (or maybe Tibetan) practice of making daily works of art, and then purposefully destroying them or letting the surf erode them, just to emphasize/meditate on the nature of ephemerality. I think there's probably a happiness there that we, with our stockpiling of thousands of digital photos etc, are missing out on in our present day lives.
      Didn't mean to steer conversation this way! Instead, meant to say, again, how i've enjoyed this discussion and your help.

  13. Jeffrey7-- I think you're right about the mandalas (I think they are called) being Tibetan... and you're welcome. Glad to be of service.