Cover of Caetano Veloso’s Tropical Truth

My favorite love song is addressed to our planet. In Caetano Veloso’s “Terra,” an imprisoned man sees a picture of the earth as seen from space and is filled with longing. It didn’t dawn on me until I read Veloso’s memoir, Tropical Truth, that the song was based on experience — that, having been jailed under the Brazilian military dictatorship, chance had offered him a global viewpoint in the most restricted place, and he was later able to make something intensely lyrical out of this irony. This book is a personal view of tropicalismo, the extraordinary musical movement of which Veloso was one of the central figures, and the ironies involved are enormous. Above all, as he says, was “the coincidence in Brazil of the harshest phase of the military regime with the high tide of the counterculture.” Veloso looks back on it all with extraordinary equanimity and tremendous narrative élan. Especially in the book’s first part, he makes no concessions to northerners unfamiliar with the deep history of Brazilian popular music — the text can at times appear a flurry of recondite remarks on unheard-of musicians and songs; my ambition is to use these as a one-man MOOC by googling all the references little by little. Veloso is an aesthete, not a man of politics, but the times and his conscience lent a political valence to his aesthetic choices. The choices were not easy. Idolizing João Gilberto, he nonetheless felt the need to tear bossa nova to pieces and mix the fragments with musique concrète and rock in “a struggle against the imminent obsolescence of a past so beautiful as to be on the verge of banality” — a better explanation of the anxiety of influence than I learned from Harold Bloom. Veloso is a treasure. When I heard about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, my first thought was not, “Wrong kind of writer,” but rather, “Wrong country.” Veloso is everything Dylan is supposed to be and more. Veloso ends Tropical Truth in 1972, noting that he is much better known today “as the author of some songs written in the mid-seventies and afterwards.” (“Terra” is the first track on the sublime 1978 album Muito.) With characteristic understatement, he is alluding to his status as one of the rare figures in modern popular music whose work has both deepened and grown more popular as he’s matured — unlike Dylan, who reached his high point more than forty years ago with Blood on the Tracks. I suppose it was that train of thought that led me to finally pick up Tropical Truth, which I’d been meaning to read for years. As it happens, you can get a good idea of Veloso’s prose style — his subtlety and narrative immediacy — from his reflections on Dylan: “I remember listening to a side of one of his records at Toquinho’s house, around the time when he, Chico, and I used to hang out together in São Paulo, before I moved there. Toquinho wanted to know what I thought because it seemed to him so insufferably boring. […] To me it was interesting, that nasal voice and his coarse way of playing guitar and harmonica. But I found the lyrics incomprehensible and ended up bored as well. Once tropicalismo was established, though, I would listen over and over to his marvelous Bringing It All Back Home. […] Although the Beatles were obviously more naïve, in contrast Dylan seemed yoked to a romantic conception of the poet, without (explicit) incursions into metalanguage, atonality, or concretism. Yet to this day, I study Dylan’s density. […] At the moment when the British bands from their side of the Atlantic controlled the game with their version of rock, on this side Dylan was quickening the fountain from which the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had drunk, showing us where the source was and whence the energy pours out.” I’ll be curious to see in Dylan’s Chronicles, another book I’ve been meaning to read, whether he is capable of such nuanced turns of thought.

Caetano Veloso’s Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, translated by Isabel de Sena (2002) is published by Alfred A. Knopf and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso, 2016) and a collection...