Monday, August 27, 2012

Wahzinak's First Letter/ Killer Wants to Go to College

In prison, Salvador receives a letter from someone named Wahzinak, about whom I can find nothing specific (the letter says she lives "in the desert," but that could be metaphoric as well as geographic). She says she has "read [Salvador's] prison writings"-- Sal had become literate in prison and received his high-school equivalency, as well as being born-again.

Evidently, Wahzniak is also a person "of color," as she puts it, and she feels empathy for Salvador, saying that such folk "must keep fighting." Lastly, she hopes that "one day, I'll ease your hurt."

A fellow, nameless inmate now fills us in on some of the details of Salvador's progress in prison with the song "Killer Wants to Go to College" (Track 9 on Songs From the Capeman). He tells us that Salvador wants to attend college in "New Paltz," where one of the branches of the State University of New York is located. (He did, in fact, attend, double-majoring in sociology and philosophy.)

The inmate also says that in order to do so, of course, he has to be paroled. And this, he was, after his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by then-NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1962 (the murders themselves were in 1959). But it was a later governor, Hugh Carey, who, in 1977, made Salvador eligible for release; Salvador attended college by day and returned to prison at night. 

The inmate continues that Sal wants "to go on TV." I am not sure this happened, although he was interviewed  at the time of his arrest. This time, the inmate says, the intent would be to promote his "book," evidently his memoir. He did write a book titled The Political Identity of Salvador Agron: Travel Log of Thirty-Four Years, which corroborates he was that age at this point and that he had therefore been in jail some 20 years by then.

"Make my life into a movie," the inmate imagines Sal saying. And yes, the idea of a TV movie was floated;  Salvador arranged for any money he would make to go to the victims' families. (I am not sure that the movie was ever made. In any case, today, there are laws prohibiting convicts from benefiting from their crimes.)

All of this attention has flustered the warden as well. He now chimes in, "This boy used to be on Death Row!" Indeed, when Sal was sentenced, he was only 16 and set the record for the youngest person ever to be sentenced to death in the U.S. No doubt, this was part of the argument for leniency. As was mentioned in "Jesus Es Mi Senor," everyone from then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the father of one of the victims had urged leniency before the original sentencing.

The warden worries that Salvador's "violence [will] return." He recalls that, during that earlier interview, Sal told the reporter, "I don't care if I burn; my mother can watch." (Why "burn"? The method of execution was to be the electric chair). 

We can understand one murderer dismissing, jealously, the amazing success of someone like Salvador. But one would hope that a prison warden would be proud that his "correctional facility" actually corrected someone! Perhaps he is of a different mindset, feeling that it is his job to keep the dangerous people caged. It's fine if they want to occupy their endless time with sports or reading or what-have-you, but to actually mature, see the error of their ways, and become "corrected"? 

Maybe... but then to achieve celebrity status?! Just because one is not being punished anymore does not imply that one's should be rewarded! Still, Salvador was a remarkable case-- to go from troubled, illiterate killer to well-adjusted philosophy student is quite an achievement.

"Salvador" might finally be living up to his own name.

Note to Readers: 
I struggled with the idea of actually researching Agron's case. I did not want such information to color or affect my discussion of the songs in the musical. However, this song alluded to a number of facts about Agron and I simply needed to know what they were, as seen above.

Some other information I discovered that was not revealed in the songs thus far:
1) Before his crime, young Sal got along so poorly with his preacher stepfather, he returned to Puerto Rico to live with his father. While he was there, his father's new wife committed suicide, and Sal was the one who found the body. He began acting out, and so was put in a vocational school. Eventually, his father sent him back to New York.

2) There, Sal joined a gang before the Vampires. But it was with the Vampires that he committed his murders. It was a sad case of mistaken identity; he believed his victims were the members of a rival gang they had arranged a "rumble" with.

3) Aside from his life story, Agron also wrote poems in jail, some of which were published by New York newspapers. 

Next Song: Virgil

Monday, August 20, 2012

Time is an Ocean

This song, which takes its title from the last line of the previous song, is a duet, but of an unusual sort; the voices are those of Sal as a young man in jail, and an older version of himself whose fate has not yet been revealed by the plot. The older Sal goes by Salvador, so we can keep then straight. (This song is track 10 on the Songs from the Capeman soundtrack.)

The song tells the story of how young Sal, a punk kid, turned himself into the mature Salvador, a writer.

Sal starts us off, confessing that "the evil that we do can't be blamed on our destiny," and so taking responsibility for his actions. Later, however, he does blame racism for his situation at least somewhat.

He tells us that he has, in the image borrowed from Psalm 23, "walked through the valley of Death Row."

Salvador now makes this observation: "It took me four years to learn I was in prison, not a church," and then two more years until he started to write his autobiography. But, "when I wrote my story/ The words flew from the page/ And my soul in solitary [confinement]/ Escaped its iron cage." By taking ownership of his own story going backward, he takes control of it going forward.

Sal takes back over, writing a letter to his mother and telling her to return to Puerto Rico, since she is so  homesick, singing her lonely Aguinaldo carol. "Go back, don't you worry/ I am your grown up son."

Salvador then observes the "politics of prison/ are a mirror of the street... the politics of race." The prison guards, he explains, are notably paler of complexion than those they control, just as the police were outside. As Sal puts it: "A forest and a prison/ Where the snow and guards are white."

He then issues advice to his younger self: If you want to keep your sanity/ You'll teach yourself to write." He had to grow up fast, once inside: "You were a child of sixteen/ With a twelve-year-old mind/ You came here numb and battered."

Young Sal takes up this artistic and psychological challenge, and the two sing: "I'll take the evil in me/ And turn it into good/ Though all your institutions/ Never thought I could." Sal, of all people, challenges the "correctional facility" he is in to live up to its cynical promise... to correct him!

Then Sal and Salvador say "good-bye," promising to "keep your image in my eye/ 'Til the day I die." But whose image? The prison's (the "your" in the last verse)? His mother's (she does sing one line near the end)?

Or... does the old one promise the young one he will not forget his suffering? Does the young one promise the old one that, if he waits for him, he will make it to that age some day?

Throughout, the title line is repeated: "Time is an ocean of endless tears." Sal cries for his crime, his mother cries for him... and the older Sal cries for the two lives that he he took lives that day-- his victim's, and his own.

Next Song: Wahzinak's First Letter/ Killer Wants to Go to College

The older Salvador is sung by Ruben Blades, an Panamanian singer-songwriter accomplished in both English and Spanish. his songs are alternately poignant and pointed, sometimes in the same piece. Like Billy Bragg, he can be both political and personal within the space of one line. He also has been compared to Springsteen.

But like Simon, Blades was a devotee of doo-wop in his teens, but the realities of his nation stirred his political spirit. If anything, his government forced his hand, closing his college and thus somewhat pushing him to pursue music in the US. Blades also narrowly escaped a legal career! Instead, he worked for a record label-- first in the mail room, where he auditioned!-- and then as a composer and band leader.

His album Siembra sold three million copies and spawned the biggest hit in salsa history, "Pedro Nvaja." But his political songwriting got another song banned from Miami radio. Blades also began writing songs for films, and then acting in them. Probably his best is the funny and powerful Milagro Beanfield War. It's hard to find, but very worth it (and I'll keep the director a surprise!).

Blades has continued to write and perform music (five albums in the 1990s alone!). But to start, I'd  recommend the mostly-English Buscando America for his songwriting and Nothing But the Truth-- with songs by Elvis Costello, Sting, and Lou Reed-- for his vocals.

Along the way, Blades he went to Harvard and earned a master's in international law, started a new Panamanian political party, and ran for president there... coming in second. Their loss.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sunday Afternoon

Here, Esmerelda, Sal's mother, speaks. He is in jail, but she is somewhat trapped as well, as she explains.

She writes to her son in prison, using his adult name, Salvador. She tells him that lunch is over, but even though it is noon, there is no sunlight in her apartment: "The buildings here, tall as our mountains/ Slice through the windows and cut off the sun."

By "our mountains," she means those back home, in Puerto Rico. She is homesick. Even if life was hard there... well, it is hard in New York, too, but not as pretty outside! Still she vows to Salvador to "never return until you are free." Thoughts of the homeland fo cheer her, especially when she hears the Aguialdo-- a Hispanic Christmas carol of sorts-- to which she dances with her daughter, Aurea.

She confides to him that she has been "unlucky" in love. Her Puerto Rican husband drank and ran around. Gonzales, the preacher who brought her to America, was a "hypocrite," who "beat you and preached about repentance/ Has gone." Actually, she left Gonzales, after he abandoned Sal to his prison fate.

Esmerelda might also point out that the church that took them in to begin with was also, ultimately, cruel to Salvador. Both lands, both husbands, both churches, have made promises of rescue... only to require that they be rescued from them, in turn!

"Another Sunday ends," Esmerelda sighs. This throwaway line is actually very telling. Esmerelda is no longer banking on "Sunday,"... on promises of faith and salvation, especially not by those who profess religious power.

No... "tomorrow is another hardworking Monday." She is trying to depend on herself, on her own work. But this seems another blind alley filled with false promises; "I am still hoping for the raise they promised me." Perhaps, someday, she will have the fortitude to remind her employers of their promise. For now, she is neither dependent on men--husbands or her son-- nor on the Church.

"There's a job as a operator/ If I could speak the language easily." In the era before cell phones, operators were telephone company employees who helped connect calls, provide 411 information, etc.; today, their job would be called "customer service." Naturally, fluency was a requirement. Esmerelda is unaware that classes in English for non-native speakers have been offered in places like libraries and community centers for decades, and she seems still too reticent to even ask after such things.

After all of her struggles, she seems ready to take a break, though: "I view my light with resignation." Further, she is still a several-times-over minority-- a woman, an immigrant, older than most job seekers, a not-quite fluent-enough-speaker. Oh, and the mother of a well-known convicted murderer, which could also hurt her career prospects.

She also seems content to consider "the Barrio" as "our own little nation," a Puerto Rican island, as it were, within the island of Manhattan. Perhaps being close to her people is as close as she can get to being with her family, which dwindles ever smaller. Wistfully, she tells Sal, "Sometimes I hear you run upstairs."

Even with all of her betrayals by the organized Church, Esmerelda still clings to her faith, and tells Sal to, also: "Keep your Bible near you."

Why? Because "time is an ocean of endless tears." Every time she put herself forward-- to the church back in Puerto Rico, to both her husbands, to this new land, and now to her job-- she has been slapped backward.

And now, she sits in her apartment, and Sal in his cell.. each a prisoner wavering between resignation to darkness and hope of sunlight.

But the Bible tells of the rise of Joseph, the Exodus from bondage, the entrance into the Promised Land, the elevation of David.... and the Ascension of Jesus. All stories of lowly people achieving liberty, self-determination, and salvation.

Next Song: Time is an Ocean

Monday, August 6, 2012

Adios Hermanos/ Jesus Es Mi Senor (Cristo Me Todo)

The title means "Farewell, Brothers." And this (Track 1 on the soundtrack) is the song of goodbye, when we see, in some detail, young Sal Agron tried and convicted and led away to prison. First, he says goodbye to his "amigos" in the "House of D"... as in "detention."

It starts with the date, the name of the judge... and the observation that non-Hispanic gangs, white and black, "Well, they'd kill you if they could." So yes, his only friends are those who are truly "amigos," to whose language that word belongs, and those whose world he is leaving.

Now, Aurea, Sal's sister, says that they are not alone in their grief. First, "people are suffering all over the world." Then, specifically, "all over the island tonight"-- Manhattan, that is, but perhaps also Puerto Rico. So she recognizes that the cycle of (male) violence has not spared them any more than it has spared the other "mothers" and "sisters" who "weep" and "grieve."

Sal continues his narrative. He felt the hostility aimed at him by the onlookers, to whom he was "Just some spic/ They scrubbed off the sidewalk."  And the judge is no less subject to this prejudice, saying: "The electric chair/ For the greasy pair." The media are against him as well: "Guilty in the press/ 'Let the Capeman burn for the murders.'... The newspapers and the TV crews/ Well, they'd kill you if they could."

Well, yes, but isn't he, you know, actually guilty? Didn't he and the Umbrella Man kill those people? Yes, the  song implies, but white killers would be seen as just killers, not extra-guilty-- or certainly guilty-- just because of their ethnic background.

Further-- and this point Aurea and Sal state outright-- if the victims had been Hispanic, there might not be as much of an outcry, either: "A Spanish[-speaking] boy could be killed every night of the week/ But just let some white boy die/ And the world goes crazy for... Latin blood." It's not so much that an injustice has been visited on Sal, as much as unnecessary and unwarranted (and, frankly, racist) insults have been added to his sentence.

Sal concludes his story by describing the restraints he is "shackled" with, and the ride to jail in a "black maria" (slang for "police van") through Spanish Harlem. They passed by their friends hanging out "on the corners"-- perhaps to purposely see him off-- and they call out as they pass, "Adios, hermanos." Sal expresses this as "lay[ing] our prayers upon them."

This slides nicely into the next song, an actual prayer. The title means "Jesus Is My Lord." (What seems to be a draft of this song, titled "Cristo Me Todo" is available online; I will note the few lyrical differences between this and the final version.)

Sal is not here; this scene takes place in his stepfather's church, and possibly later at home. We hear the congregation praising Jesus...

...and then Aurea prays. She thanks the Lord for comforting her mother (in the draft, herself as well). And then she thanks the governor (Nelson Rockefeller), for commuting Sal's sentence from death to life imprisonment (in the draft, for hearing "the Lord's voice" to do so.) Bernadette, Sal's girlfriend, also offers a prayer. We learn that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also urged clemency, as did the (female) mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital.

But one man is not moved. And that man is the pastor of this church-- Sal's stepfather, Gonzales. He sees all this Earthly mercy as subverting Divine Will: " the court of the mighty God/ No man can ever change his sentence/ He (Sal) is a falling angel pitched to burning hell." Further, he says that Sal's crime is no fault of his own-- "I tried to teach him,"-- but that Sal chose to follow the Vampires, "the bats and the vermin of their name." He concludes that Sal has "brought everlasting shame on Puerto Rico." (Literary note: Simon and Wolcott here rhyme "sentence" with "repentence." Nicely done!)

At this, the women turn on Gonzales. Aurea excoriates him: "You heart is blacker than the suit you always wear... [You are] A hypocrite who hides behind the Bible" (and "Bible' is rhymed with "disciple.")

Then, Esmerelda does her daughter one better-- she divorces him: "How can you say such things about my son?... This marriage is done."

Aurea has two last comments: "For three long years, my mother prayed for this to come." (In the draft, it's "one" year. In any case, what "this" is unclear, most likely that Sal's life would be spared.)

She concludes: "We made America the land we call our home/ We still believe in this country" (in the draft, she believes "this is our country.")  I am not sure why this is here. She has already thanked the politicians who stood up for Sal, and has not disagreed that the general public and media are generally anti-Hispanic. And it's not as if they would want to go back to Puerto Rico regardless; the economic reasons for their move still stand. Now more than before, in fact, as they will be without Gonzales' income, and they already know what life is like in Puerto Rico with no man's earning power to count on.

Lazarus repeats Bernadette's prayer, and the song ends in a cascade of "Aleluya!" (spelled "Hallelujah" in English).

Sal bids farewell to his "brothers." And, aside from Governor Rockefeller, no man comes to his aid. But he never bids farewell to his sisters. And, it is indeed mostly women who still support and defend him... and save his life.

Next Song: Sunday Afternoon