Monday, October 29, 2012

Sal's Last Song/ Esmerelda's Dream

Sal (and the book and song title say that the young Sal sings these lines, not the older Salvador-- to a mother, a son is always "her baby" regardless of his age) finally arrives home, to his mother's house. His first words to her are to beg forgiveness, and his words reflect Lady Macbeth's: "If I could cleanse these hands, maybe then/ I could start my life again."

His mother responds that he has "come to the end of the Santa Cruz Road." "Cruz" is the Spanish word for "cross"; perhaps she means that he has come down from the cross and that his penance is complete.

But then Salvador says the thing that he has had to say all this time: He owns his guilt. "I and I alone," he repeats four times. "I and I alone must bear the blame/ For the madness that was done/ For the shame." He even absolves the santero (fortune-teller) and his shells. "When the summer night was torn/ By the dagger of the moon/ It was I and I alone."

Esmerelda responds that she "dreamed" of his homecoming, of his face "in the light." "Let me kiss your hands, no more talk about madness." And then, like a good mama, she says, "I've been cooking since morning/ I wanted your first meal at home to be right."

Salvador hands her something: "This is my book. I've written my life story... All the things I did, for which I am sorry." And then his mother says, "It is repentance that makes good from evil." Even if no one else does, or can, she forgives him.

The last song in The Capeman is hers. In it, she tells of a detailed dream. She was sitting in "an outer room of Heaven." She was wearing her usual house dress and watching two angels-- male, soft-spoken, and blonde-- at a distance. She sees a pulpit, a chair, and transparent marble doors. There is a book on which the angels were chronicling Sal's birth. They carried a broken chain, she says, "laid it at my feet and they were gone."

What does it mean? Well, she interrupts the dream recount to ask Sal; "Do you remember [your] first communion?/ All the children with their candles dressed in white/ And once in prison, you asked me for a ribbon/ To mark the pages that you wrote each night/ Do you remember when we went to the santero/ and he said that you would suffer/ He was right." So these are the images from life that she feels are symbolized in the dream.

The two, taken together, seem to refer to the ideas of new chances and new beginnings: a birth, a first communion, a broken chain. 

The angels might symbolize the white-garbed children-- their halos, the candles. She remarks that the angels' hair is "lightened by the sea and sun." This echoes the people, and heavenly sensation, Salvador recalled at the seaside resort of El Malecon.

Their book likely is Sal's book. The empty pulpit might refer to her ex-husband, the fiery preacher. The empty chair may have been the one Salvador has been vacating. 

But she is in the "outer room" of Heaven because she is not dying and so has no reason to enter Heaven itself. The doors are marble and so impenetrable, but clear so that she can see that there is another side. There is hope.

The last things Sal sings are lines from earlier songs. One is, "I believe in the power of Saint Lazarus," who has fulfilled his promise. Now that Sal's soul has thirsted, quenching rains have been provided.

The other is (and the title of the song is the last three words of the line): "Don't tear apart this satin summer night." This was the prayer he expressed when he was young and in love, before all of the trouble started. Lazarus swore that Salvador would be alone until he repented, and he did lose Wahzinak because he had not. Now that he atoned, maybe he will find someone again.

In the previous song (above), he claims that he was responsible "when the summer night was torn." Now he says "Don't tear apart this... summer night." So who is he begging this of now? His mother? St. Lazarus? Or himself-- his own self-destructive nature? Things are finally hopeful again, he says to himself, so don't screw it up!

All of this is captured in the name "Sal," which is not in either of these songs (although it may be in the dialogue). He is not the burdened Salvador or the dreaded Capeman. He is simply, once again, Sal. As in his mother's dream, which re-recorded his birth 40-some years on, he is born again.

[Note to readers: This concludes the songs of The Capeman. Starting with the next post, we will resume discussing the songs from standard albums, starting with the songs from You're the One. Therefore, we will be resuming the usual schedule of one song per week.]

Next Song: That's Where I Belong

Monday, October 22, 2012

Tony Hernandez/ Carlos & Yolanda

Salvador is free, so he is going back to his New York barrio to catch up with the people he has known since he lived there.

First up is the Umbrella Man himself, Tony Hernandez. Hernandez was the one who brought him into the Vampire gang, and the other one who served time for the murders that fateful night.

Tony calls out to Salvador from the darkness with a compliment: "You know, it takes a strong man to survive." This is the same line he used in the song "The Vampires" to entice Salvador into the gang to begin with. Only know does he realize how right he was.

Salvador is glad to see him: "Man, I thought you were dead." Hernandez replies: no, he's "living in the Bronx." Salvador shoots back: "Same thing."

Hernandez-- not that he should, but that he might-- seems to hold no ill will toward Salvador and calls him his "Death Row brother." He is willing to meet him here-- not in the light, as that might tip off the parole board-- but in shadow, if that's what's necessary. When Salvador invites him to join him to see Carlos and Yolanda, Hernandez declines: "I don't like to see nobody, only you." Perhaps their common troubles have made Hernandez feel that Salvador is the only one who could understand him.

Hernandez continues that his father has died, but he has a daughter now-- "it balances," he philosophizes. He adds that he has a job as a janitor at an area hospital: "But there's one stain that don't fade./ You know what I'm talking about, Sal?" Yes. Yes, he does.

He wishes Salvador farewell and good luck with his writing career. Then he adds: "When I look up in the sky above/ It's like an old umbrella with holes." He was once the fearless Umbrella Man. Once. And for what?

Now, Salvador visits Carlos and Yolanda. He tells them he is OK, but "feels like a ghost." Carlos admits that he understands, having been in jail himself, and he wants to be there for Salvador now, the way Yolanda was there for him after his sentence.

Carlos tells Salvador he has his "papers," perhaps those works he wrote in jail. "I wrote those pages.. with blood," Salvador recalls. Carlos says that's good, "That's the stuff that sells." And when Salvador protests that money was not his object, Carols is all practicality: "You got to eat."

Salvador muses that he will never shake the moniker "Capeman," and Carlos soothes: "No one remembers anymore." Of course, as soon as they introduce Salvador to their son, the boy asks: "Are you the Capeman?" "I used to be your father's pal," he side-steps.

Yolanda says he always will be. Salvador, surprisingly, challenges this: "Or, in your mind, was I the only one?" Carlos sighs: "But Sal, it was dark, so long ago, you and Tony..." This implies that Carlos had something to do with Salvador's incarceration, but Yolanda quashes the whole conversation: "What's done is done."

Then, suddenly, comes a man selling raffle tickets-- the prize is a trip to Puerto Rico: "Leave your worries and your kids in the Big Apple/ We may live in New York City/ But it's Puerto Rico where our hearts belong." Really? So the answer was never to have left Puerto Rico for New York to begin with? Now he tells us!

The song begins and ends with a chorus singing, in Spanish, "My liberty/ My freedom, come." But both Hernandez and Carlos refer to the Puerto Rican Day parade that is just ending. Hernandez asks if it's Salvador's first; perhaps they began when he was still in prison. Perhaps they began in reaction to his notoriety, to reclaim some Puerto Rican pride. But Carlos says "The parade is almost over."

This line comes as a relief. There has been so much "parading" and noise and marching and ado in Salvador's life. Even in jail, he was more mobile than most. Perhaps this line means that he can finally welcome his freedom-- to sit still.

The parade is almost over, but is has one more stop. In the next song, Salvador finally reunites with his mother.

Next Songs: Sal's Last Song/ Esmerelda's Dream

Monday, October 15, 2012

Wahzinak's Last Letter/ Puerto Rican Day Parade/ El Coqui (Reprise)

"Wahzinak's Last Letter" is only one verse long, but it is very sad. In it, she says that the elders of her tribe forced her to "bury" the letters he sent her "in the blowing desert sand." Of course, this is a loss to her, but also to us, as those letters were likely not only very well-written but also would help us immeasurably in understanding our complicated Mr. Agron.

"Puerto Rican Day Parade" is about that-- a parade that, according to the organizer's website: "takes place along 5th Avenue on the second Sunday in June, in honor of the millions of inhabitants of Puerto Rico and (those) of Puerto Rican heritage in the U.S." The first verse, performed by a "singer," just tells us that the celebration is citywide.

The next verse lists several Spanish words that might be images on a parade float-- canoes and flags-- and also mini-coconuts and beer. What's a celebration without snacks and drinks?

"Because I am a Puerto Rican," the Spanish lyrics continue, explaining why he is celebrating today. "I was born a Puerto Rican (using a slang term for a native.) This line hearkens back to the earlier song "I Was Born in Puerto Rico," while the next line, "I am a brother of the coqui (a local tree frog)," recalls the children's chant the musical began with. (In America, an equivalent expression might be "I'm so American, my brother is a bald eagle."). "I'm as Puerto Rican as you like," the song concludes.

The purpose of this song is unclear. It may be to show that the community has moved on from the damage the Capeman case caused it. Or it may serve as an upbeat break in the heart-rending tale... or simply to contrast with the next song, which is about not the entire community but one man returning to it.

Offstage, the children-- this time in New York-- sing the nursery rhyme about the coqui the musical opened with. This serves to signal that our story is about to come full circle, that another generation of children is being taught the old ways in a new land, and maybe their lives will be better than his was.

Then it shifts to Salvador, on a pay phone (this was long before cell phones!) calling Yolanda to tell her he is on his way home, and that her husband Carlos (we assume they are married by now, if not living the country life they had planned) should know to get his things out of storage.

He hangs up, first telling Yolanda. "Don't tell my mother I'm home yet." Evidently, he wants to surprise her himself.

Salvador also doesn't ask for, or about Bernadette. Perhaps he assumes she has moved on by now. It is unclear, in this short verse, if he is going to stay with his mother or try to reconnect with Wahzinak.

Also there is a confusion of place that is more likely made clear by the action onstage. We have Salvador jumping parole to be with Wahzinak in Arizona ("Trailways Bus"), then being captured and sent back to prison. ("El Malecon," it is clear, is a flashback). Then the song "You Fucked Up My Life" takes place in the barrio, which implies he had been set free. Then "Lazarus/ Last Drop of Blood" seems to take place back in the Arizona desert. "Wahzinak's Last Letter," then, was addressed to him... where? And now he is back in the barrio, walking past the "Puerto Rican Day Parade" on his way home to his mother in this one-verse song, which implies that he had only just now been let out of jail.

In any case, the last four songs are set in New York. They will give us the final impressions of Salvador, Hernandez the Umbrella Man, Carlos and Yolanda, and lastly, Salvador's mother, Esmerelda.

Next Songs: Tony Hernandez/ Carlos & Yolanda

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lazarus/Last Drop of Blood

(Note: This time, the "/" does not designate two songs being discussed in the same post-- it is part of the song's title.)

Lazarus has been part of Salvador's story ever since his mother consulted the Santero (fortune teller) back in Puerto Rico. "I see [Salvador] staggering through the desert/ But he must not break his chain/ Till Saint Lazarus, in his mercy/ Turns his thirsty soul to rain."

Well, Lazarus has popped up now and again, but here, he has his first full song. And Salvador has been in the actual desert, jumping parole ("breaking his chain"?) to meet with his lover, whom he had so far only known through letters.

Lazarus appears to Salvador now and tells him that his past is still very much with him-- "Your shadow like a cape"-- and that there is no escape, no joining with his lover, until he starts his "confession."

As if this is not enough riding on the matter, Lazarus tell him that there are immigrants waiting to come into America who will not do so until he confesses. A chorus, perhaps these huddled masses on the Rio Grande at the Mexico-US border, sings: "Break a branch to cross the river there/ To deliver us salvation." Surely, this is meant to also evoke the biblical River Jordan, all that lies between the Wilderness and the Promised Land.

Until now, and as we saw in the previous song, Salvador has always maintained his innocence. But is it the murder that is Salvador's sin? Or is there more?

Salvador's response is to go on the offensive. He says that, if he is a sinner, then he has nothing; "That's all a sinner receives." He says even his freedom does not amount to much, although it was enough to "light" the way across the country. (We also learn that Lazarus was disguised as a "stranger" on the bus the whole way, and only now has revealed his true nature.)

Now, Salvador comes to his point, and recalls the Santero's prophecy: "Where is the rain you promised me?" Oh, yes, Salvador says in effect, you thought I wasn't paying attention, that I was just a "monkey-wild" kid, but I was listening! And then, he says, he waited in prison for 16 years, and no longer believes in "childhood's prayers."

Lazarus shoots back: "You killed and then you smiled." So Lazarus does believe that Sal killed that fateful night. And that yes, even after all the loss and all the miracles of his life (his sentence being commuted from death to life, his eventual parole, his finding love, etc.) he has still not dealt with reality. All of this suffering has been for naught, and all of these gifts have failed to make him see the truth.

Or did it? This verse is key, so I will quote all of it:
"I know remorse would be a river/ In the desert of my heart/
Whose loss is God, the giver/ But my tears won't start./
The State of New York imprisoned me/ The State of New York will set me free/
I break this chain, its pain and memory."

Salvador understands what Lazarus means. He killed and smiled... but he should have wept! He was defiant and defensive, when he should have been remorseful and regretful. The Santero was not talking about actual rain, but tears! How else does a "soul turn to rain"?

Salvador did kill those other teens that night. He has spent the last decade and more denying that he did and, if so, so what? He spent his years blaming everyone and everything from his poor fathering to poverty to racism.

And now Salvador says to Lazarus that he knows that he should cry, and for what reasons-- remorse, confession, re-connection with God, relief, release. He knows he should cry, but he won't. The State-- not God, not his crime-- is what locked him up, and so when the State releases him, he will consider himself "free."

But while Salvador has finally unlocked the Santero's riddle with regard to "rain," he has yet to realize that the "chain" part does not refer to his literal prison shackles or the State's hold on his physical freedom. His chain is the guilt of his crime. He says he has broken his chain, but he has not. For words cannot break it, only tears.

The Santero's prediction is still valid. Until Salvador repents and cries, a chained prisoner he shall remain. Not as a punishment, just a natural consequence. To use another metaphor, you can cover a stained shirt with a jacket and pretend the stain is not there. But you can only remove the stain with soap and effort.

At this point, a voice from the past is heard. It is the mother of one of the victims. She wishes she had died that day, and every year lights a memorial candle on her son's birthday, "for the life he never tasted." Then she tells Salvador: "I've grown weary... but I'll never be at rest/ 'Til the murder that you did is paid for/ With the last drop of blood."

Lazarus has still failed to turn Salvador's soul to rain. And so Salvador's chain remains unbroken. Now Lazarus tells Salvador the price of his intransigence: "Go live in an empty room/ And study the wallpaper... No wife, no child... Let your solitude frighten your neighbor."

"...And write in your book," Lazarus continues, mocking Salvador's literary pretensions, "How arrogant you are/ how ordinary." Then, this, again the logical end to his inability to atone: "Neither pardon nor parole/ Will ever bring you peace."

The chorus moans again for "healing" and "salvation." But none comes.

Next Songs: Wahzinak's Last Letter/ Puero Rican Day Parade/ El Coqui (Reprise)