Famous in Translation
On the death of Gustavo Cerati (and Joan Rivers)
Celebrity deaths come in all shapes and sizes. You’ve got your high speed highway accidents, your overdoses, your suicides, and your rare deaths of natural causes at a mature age. Joan Rivers’s recent death is unique in that it has to be one of the few truly uncontroversial moments of her life. She made it through 81 unfiltered, insult-hurling, roller coaster ride years, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fame (though comparatively little fortune), and loving every minute of it. And she kept throwing punches, all the way up to when it was time to go.
All this is interesting enough, but her death wouldn’t have stood out to me if it hadn’t have happened the very same day as another celebrity: Gustavo Cerati. If you live in the United States, you probably don’t know who Cerati is, though there’s some chance you do; while most of the media was busy feting River’s death over the past weeks, BuzzFeed took a little time out to read him his last rites in listicle form. But to the entire Spanish-speaking world, he was a rock god. A native Spanish speaker who hasn’t heard of Cerati would be like a native English speaker who hasn’t heard of Jimi Hendrix or Bono. And by extension, if Cerati had grown up speaking English, Tim Cook would now be releasing one of his albums for free in a bid to hock new Apple products.
These two celebrities have virtually nothing in common. But the fact that they died on the same day is a sort of convenient accident. It opens a window on one of the world’s greatest mysteries: why we, the general public, choose to anoint a handful of people to god-like levels of fame, while ignoring nearly everyone else.
It’s a question that I don’t usually spend much time pondering. But three years after my rewarding though admittedly unorthodox decision to move to Cerati’s home country of Argentina, and after being told so many times of his musical prowess and status as a public figure, my interest was piqued. Perhaps the life and times of Cerati, and his untimely death on the same day as the vitriolic chief of the Fashion Police, might unveil why the lives of our famous people are so important to us.
Gustavo Cerati was born in 1959 in Barracas, a Buenos Aires neighborhood filled with cavernous but poorly maintained historic houses. As a young kid, his attention quickly turned to music. He would spend his free time after school incessantly listening to music: classics of English-language rock like the Beatles and the Stones (who Argentines refer to as “Los Rolling”).
He was also deeply influenced by local legend Luis Spinetta, one of the founding figures of Argentinean rock, whose style was a mixture of jazz-influenced virtuoso guitar technique and prophetic, other-worldly lyrics. Though Cerati’s music ended up being quite different, his love for Spinetta was part of his inspiration for taking up the guitar, and Cerati’s disciplined personality made him an excellent guitarist in his own right.
His first attempts at forming a band came in 1980. His musical style during these formative years was partly shaped by the country’s repressive dictatorship. In an environment where military police would routinely roll up and beat the shit out of anyone who looked like a rocker, music took on a sense of urgency. But Cerati’s eyes were always on the international scene. At the time, English-language rock was going through an upheaval, brought on by the mix of maturing guitar technology, and new digital effects and synths. Cerati was increasingly influenced by Sting and The Police, and when they made a stop in Argentina in 1980 Cerati formed a band soon after, drawing heavily on their style.
This band would be a flop. But two years later, he formed his next group: Soda Stereo. This group turned heads with a breakout performance at Uruguayan beach resort Punta del Este, and delivered hit after hit, playing to increasingly growing crowds. Their 1985 album Nada Personal (“Nothing Personal”) was a smash hit in Argentina. And the following year, they began touring in Chile, Colombia and eventually Mexico. By the end of the decade, they were superstars throughout Latin America.
Stylistically, the influence of The Police and other well-known 80s bands on the group was fairly clear. Their biggest hit, “La Ciudad de la Furia” (“the city of fury”), musically sounds almost as if it has been pulled directly from a Police album. But for Spanish speakers, hearing such music with lyrics in their native language was a big deal. To this day, young-ish people from Latin America still routinely refer to Buenos Aires as “La Ciudad de la Furia.”
There were a few important differences between Sting and Cerati, however. Whereas Sting’s voice tended to float in the treble register, sometimes shouting down from on high (ROXXXX-anne!), Cerati sang in a deeper baritone, conveying a sense of all-knowing authority. And while Sting’s lyric writing could tend toward the scholarly, Cerati’s was raw emotion—one of his hits was called “Animal Song” (Canción Animal). But though Cerati was never teachy or high-minded with his lyrics, he still managed to be moving in his own way. He was fond of saying that he preferred to write the music first, the lyrics always came later.
Fame wasn’t kind to Soda Stereo. The frenetic Cerati, famous for smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, became increasingly combative with the rest of the group. He began a solo career, releasing his first solo album in 1994. After one more album together, the band would break up.
Until that point Cerati’s talent had been for making hits, but by the mid 90s he decided to branch out. He went through a long phase as a DJ, producing the somewhat memorable electronic album Bocanada. By the early 2000s, he made the surprising decision to write symphonic music, personally rewriting 11 of his hits for full orchestra and performing them in Buenos Aires’s symphony hall.
Cerati’s talent and capability for diverse styles became legendary. The term “musical genius” gets thrown around way too much, and has a way of attaching itself to musicians simply because they are famous. But in Cerati’s case, it really does apply. He was able to excel within the hit driven world of pop music, take it to the limit, and then create ornate, elegantly assembled music that perhaps the general public wasn’t ready to hear.
But despite occasional tours in the US, he never really achieved widespread recognition outside the Spanish-speaking world. Perhaps that was a good thing – he could travel to Miami and London without attracting too much unwanted attention. But there’s something unfortunate about Cerati’s lack of truly global acceptance: he’s now remembered as a rock legend of the Spanish speaking world, when he deserves to be remembered as a rock legend, period.
Cerati enjoyed his celebrity status, though he didn’t eat it up. Outside of his music, he found a creative outlet in fashion. In the early days of Soda Stereo, he and the band showed up on stage in wild outfits with their hair totally frizzed out. It looked like they had just picked a fight with a tesla coil, but man that shit was cool back in the day. His tastes in fashion continued to be a bit extravagant, but increasingly subdued. Later, he would lend his name to a line of men’s clothing.
He indulged in his rock star’s privilege of seemingly unlimited one night stands, though he was sure to be discreet about the identities of his love affairs. He had more involved romances too. In the early 90s, he married a model from Chile and had two children, though the couple would split up ten years later. He had a few more serious relationships after that, but never really settled down. His last long term girlfriend was a feisty 22-year-old who would routinely pick fights with his family and friends (and who has launched a number of cat fights with other celebrities after Cerati’s death). But through it all he loved his family, and during his final days they would often come to visit him in the hospital.
Cerati didn’t particularly like to go out in public. In his later years, he would take to cruising around Buenos Aires in dark shades and a pork pie hat to duck the paparazzi—only occasionally did this work. But he was always happy to give interviews, and he loved to talk about his music. Despite the rivalry between him and fellow Argentinean rocker Indio Solari during the 80s, the two eventually saw eye to eye, and Solari sent a heartfelt letter after hearing about Cerati’s death. And he was close friends with much of Argentina’s rock royalty, as well as many musicians from elsewhere in Latin America. He even fulfilled his dream of performing with his childhood hero, Luis Spinetta.
When Soda Stereo announced a reunion tour in 2007, promoters for the Buenos Aires concert sold a record breaking 90,000 tickets in a day. The band gave its final performance at the River Plate soccer stadium on December 21, 2007. Cerati, moved by the presence of his former band members, ended the performance with the now famous phrase “Gracias totales,” which even after being translated into English (“total thanks”) loses nothing of its grammatically awkward sincerity. No one suspected that this triumphant moment would be the beginning of the end for Cerati.
During his final years, it seemed that he was about to become truly world famous. He became good friends with Roger Waters, and the two released a single together. In 2009, he released what would be his last studio album, Natural Force. The album featured contributions of well-known British musicians from the 80s, including members from Duran Duran and David Bowie’s band. But behind the scenes, he was slowly tearing himself apart with substance abuse. Though he made some progress in cutting his smoking habit, he became increasingly addicted to cocaine.
In 2010, Cerati went on tour across Latin America and the US to promote his new album. On May 15, after wrapping the one of the tour’s final performances in Caracas, Venezuela, Cerati lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital. Four days later, it was revealed that he had suffered a stroke, and was still unconscious. On July 7, he was flown back to Argentina for treatment at the ALCLA clinic and to be closer to family. He would spend the last four years of his life in a coma on life support. Though his mother came to visit him every day, swearing she could feel his hands move, he never regained consciousness. He died four years later, on September 4, 2014, from respiratory failure.
Cerati’s agonizing death was hard for his fans to take. During his time on life support, fans posted two large pictures of him on a wall across the street from the clinic, and many signed it with phrases like “Come back” and “It’s not your time.”
The funeral brought an outcry of support from fans around the world. Coincidentally enough, his death coincided with the Carlos Gardel award ceremony (the Argentinean equivalent of the Grammys), where many of the winners dedicated their awards to his memory. Celebrities and fans all sent letters to his family, and even the pope voiced his condolences. It was a sad turn of events, but at least his fans finally had a bit of closure.
A few days after he died, I visited the area near where he had been hospitalized. The posters of him were still there, hung with large bolts from the wall of a parking garage across the street from his clinic. By then, the writing had spilled over the edge of the poster and onto the walls. People’s writings included copies of lyrics from “La Ciudad de la Furia” and other Cerati songs, and phrases like “never forget” and “we’ll miss you.” One person had written, “I came from Colombia just to see you.” There were even modest attempts at poetry. None of these writings had any real lyrical talent, but it didn’t matter. Cerati had brought out the best in them.
Musicians are a special breed of celebrities. Though sometimes it seems like there are way too many musicians to go around—we all have friends in bands begging us to come to their shows—musical talent is still a strange and incomprehensibly beautiful thing for many of us. In general, famous musicians aren’t nearly as prone to mudslinging and vicious gossip as their other celebrity brethren. They’d rather just play music.
Joan Rivers, by contrast, was prone to mudslinging and vicious gossip. Though she wasn’t famous for being famous, her fame was closely connected with other people’s fame—that is to say, tearing down other people’s fame. The results weren’t always pretty. Personally, I found a lot of what she did to be unnecessarily abrasive and over the top. And right before she died, she hit a new low point with her “Palestinians deserve to die” remark.
But as difficult as it can be to stomach her sometimes, I have to admit that almost no one else could do what she did. When she took to the red carpet to roast celebrity attire, in a way it was almost like Cerati taking the stage to play guitar. Everyone wanted to watch them, because we all knew that there was something unique about what they were doing.
While Gustavo Cerati never really became an international public figure, Joan Rivers certainly did. On the day after his death, Argentinean newspapers ran obituaries for the two back to back, while the US media didn’t have much to say about Cerati. I can’t help but be a bit saddened by the fact that his musical talent won’t get the recognition it deserves outside Latin America.
But in a way, his lack of fame internationally makes him more special to the parts of the world where he was a hero. To a generation of people from Argentina, as well as Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Spain, and other Spanish speaking countries, listening to Cerati is part of who they are. By being less famous internationally, he meant that much more to his own part of the world. And really, that’s what being famous is about: meaning something to a group of people, whether that group of people includes the entire world or just a group friends.
I don’t believe in heaven, but that doesn’t stop me from imagining the two of them showing up at the pearly gates at the same time. Perhaps Cerati would be dressed in his 80s get-up, and Joan would already be there with a microphone with a barrage of snide comments to make. Something tells me Cerati would laugh it off, and ask St. Peter to whether heaven comes with a recording studio.
Meanwhile, we back on earth only have their memories to go off. But that should be enough. They left us plenty.
Drew Reed is a writer focusing on urban planning and stuff that happens in Latin America. Follow him on twitter at @the_drewreed.