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.

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