This is second of a three-part series on Caetano Veloso’s and Gilberto Gil’s years in exile. Part 1 of the series looks at why Caetano and Gil were forced into exile while here, in Part 2, the two musicians arrive in Europe and establish themselves in London.
Europe – in search of a home
The first stop in Europe for Caetano, Gil, Sandra and Dedé was Lisbon, where they were met by Guilherme Araújo, the singers’ manager, who was also in exile. Although Guilherme succeeded in arranging at least one public appearance for his clients in Lisbon (on 4th August 1969, at the Teatro Villaret, for a recording of Zip-Zip, a television programme promoting new singers and songwriters), there was no question of them remaining there. Portugal was under the firm grip of a decades-old fascist dictatorship and the authorities there were just as intolerant of dissent as they were in Brazil. Instead, after just over a week, the group travelled to France.
Paris had long been the destination of choice for Latin American exiles and, apart from the fact that France was hardly an innovator of pop music, the city might normally have been the natural place for Caetano and Gil to base themselves. But it was only a year since the “events of ’68” – the students’ and workers’ rebellion against the conservative, authoritarian government of President Charles de Gaulle – and an intimidating atmosphere was still hanging over the city. There was still a heavy police presence, identity checks were commonplace and there was a feeling that foreigners were unwelcome. Paris was not the place to cope with the trauma of exile and, in any case, the French popular music scene offered few attractions. After a few weeks, the group left their little hotel in the Latin Quarter and headed for England.
Gil and Caetano arrived in London at the end of September 1969 – in the week that The Beatles released Abbey Road, a coincidence that excited the young Brazilians. In fact London was the obvious choice as a place to live and work. It was the tail-end of the “swinging ’60s” and the city was recognised as the global capital of youth and pop culture. Far from Brazil and with few Brazilian residents, London offered Gil and Caetano an opportunity to be anonymous and to develop artistically.
On arrival in London, the five Brazilians checked in at the modest Queen’s Gate Hotel, at 31 Queen’s Gate, in South Kensington. This neighbourhood has always been elegant, but in 1969 it was more socially mixed than it is today – something that’s certainly true of most other central London neighbourhoods.
In the 1960s, a few of the imposing Victorian townhouses that characterise the area around Queen’s Gate were still the residences of wealthy families. Most, however, were subdivided into comfortable flats or were used to accommodate students at the Royal College of Music or the University of London’s Imperial College. Still others were adopted as embassies or consulates or turned into hotels, such as the one that Guilherme had found. Then, as now, South Kensington was convenient for access to Hyde Park or the museums but was subdued, a far cry from the trend-setting London of the young Brazilians’ imaginations.
After a few days, Guilherme secured a four-floor house to share with Caetano, Dedé, Gil and Sandra. The house, at 16 Redesdale Street, is located in the heart of Chelsea, just a block from Kings Road, the neighbourhood’s main commercial artery. Chelsea had long been a wealthy area, of both new and old money. (Of the former category were Margaret Thatcher – in 1969 still a backbench MP – and her husband Denis, a senior oil company executive. They lived just around the corner from Gil and Caetano, in a mock-Georgian house at 19 Flood Street. What Mrs Thatcher would have made of the young South American “hippies” had she seen them pass by their house is not difficult to imagine.)
Chelsea also had something of a tradition of attracting Bohemian-types and in the ’60s it had become of a magnet for a new wave of rather well-off artists, art students, musicians and fashion designers, as well as other less creative young people who simply enjoyed rubbing shoulders with them. This neighbourhood was an obvious, albeit unimaginative, place for the newcomers from Brazil to insert themselves.
The Brazilians spent a year living in Redesdale Street. The rent was initially covered by royalties paid to Caetano and Gil on record sales in Brazil and, presumably, by Guilherme’s income as an agent. The house immediately became something of a destination for other Brazilian exiles and travellers.
One such guest was Haroldo de Campos, the translator and leading force behind the Brazilian “concrete poetry” movement; it was he who named the house the “Sixteen Chapel“, after its Redesdale Street number. The exiled Cuban writer Cabrera Infante, a friend of Haroldo’s, would sometimes stop by. The many Brazilian visitors included singer Maria Bethânia (Caetano’s sister), singer Gal Costa, composer Péricles Cavalcanti, artist Hélio Oiticica, filmmakers Rogério Sganzerla and Júlio Bressane, poet Antônio Cícero, and writer and composer Jorge Mautner.
Caetano and Gil felt especially touched to be visited – in a quiet act of defiance to Brazil’s military government – by the immensely popular singer Roberto Carlos. Caetano, depressed and extremely fragile, broke down in tears when the so-called “king” of Latin rock picked up a guitar and sang one of Roberto Carlos’ new songs, “As curvas da estrada de Santos” [“The curves of the road to Santos”].
[Roberto Carlos would later write a song, released in 1971, inspired by Caetano. Due to Roberto Carlos’ reputation as completely unpolitical and because of the devotion of his fans, “Debaixo dos caracóis dos seus cabelos” (“Under the curls of his hair”) eluded the censors. What must have been dismissed as pure romance included obvious references to Caetano’s situation in exile: “Você só deseja agora / Voltar pra sua gente” (“Now you only desire / To go back to your people”) and “Um dia vou ver você / Chegando num sorriso” (“One day I will see you / Arriving with a smile”).]
Considering the make-up of the household and the steady stream of Brazilians who came to stay or just visit, it’s little wonder that Portuguese was spoken there nearly all the time. The only English to be heard at home was from the rented colour television. (Caetano recalls how he “marvelled at the BBC documentaries and the great American classic movies” and that he was hooked on the first season of the surreal comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In June, fellow Brazilians gathered around the television to watch the World Cup football matches being broadcast from Mexico. A member of the household placed a large Brazilian flag in the window, to the unease of some visitors from home: the Brazilian team was used by the dictatorship’s propaganda machine to stir up nationalist sentiment.)
For much of their first year in exile, the Brazilians cocooned themselves in their house, playing the guitar, watching television, reading and chatting to visitors. They did, however, attend English lessons (“in one of those schools with many rooms and large classes”), more out of a sense of duty in the case of Caetano, but as an opportunity for the much more engaged Gil. Even so, judging from a diary entry quoted in a 1969 magazine article, Caetano did pay attention to his teacher….and walking from the school had creative consequences:
Today I went to [my] English class and Mr Lee taught me to use direct speech in place of reported speech. After the class King’s Road was beautiful with cold and persistent rain. I crossed the roads without fear, as I know they are educated and leave the way clear for me to pass.
This last sentence would be streamlined and used by Caetano in his song “London, London“: “I cross the streets without fear / Everybody keeps the way clear“. The lyrics (written in English) articulated Caetano’s feelings of depression, isolation and acceptance (“I am lonely in London without fear” [….] “I choose no face to look at, choose no way / I just happen to be here, and it’s ok”).
[Glimpses of the interior of the Chelsea house can be seen in the 1970 film O Demiurgo (“The Demiurge”), directed by Jorge Mautner and featuring, amongst others, Gil and Caetano. A bizarre period-piece, O Demiurgo was considered by Glauber Rocha, the radical Brazilian filmmaker, to be the greatest film from and on exile. (Caetano refers to the ’60s joke that “Brazilian films were ‘shit’ but the directors were ‘geniuses'”….some might say that this applies to O Demiurgo!)]
Caetano’s memoir and Gil’s authorised biography say little of their interactions with Chelsea beyond the walls of their home – indeed, for Caetano, his experience of London remains something of “a cloudy dream”, and he felt he was unable “to take advantage of what should have been an opportunity”.
Both, however, were regulars at the Picasso, an Italian café and rather bad restaurant at 127 King’s Road, just a couple of blocks from their home. This was a haunt of hippies, artists and musicians, and Caetano remembers going there almost every day, if only to buy cigarettes “and look at the girls”. The café closed in 2009, a victim of Chelsea’s sky-high rents, to be eventually replaced by a “gourmet” burger restaurant.
There were plenty of other eye-catching businesses along Kings Road that were cashing in on Chelsea’s fashionable reputation, but whether Gil or Caetano fell for any of these isn’t recorded. At number 49, for example, was The Chelsea Drugstore; as soon as it opened in 1969, its three floors featuring a chemist, newsstand and records became a destination for the self-consciously trendy. The Chelsea Drugstore has long since closed, eventually replaced by the Chelsea branch of McDonald’s, with only the vaguely Moorish-looking arched windows offering a hint at the ’60s origins of the site.
Perhaps Caetano, Gil, Sandra and Dedé bought clothes from some of the many fashion boutiques. The edgier stores were located in World’s End, further west along King’s Road. Granny Takes a Trip (at number 488) was located there, a shop selling the velvet trousers that were popular amongst the hippyish elite. Also sold there were Afghan coats (which in Europe and North America had been popularised by the Beatles), but by 1969 these had become quite widely available and Caetano probably had no trouble finding a much cheaper one elsewhere.
Similarly, which British musicians Caetano and Gil met any in Chelsea is not entirely clear. Perhaps they went to The Pheasantry, a pub at 152 King’s Road that had an alternative music venue in the basement. (Today the pub has been replaced by a branch of Pizza Express.) Also close to both Redesdale Street and to the Picasso was the Sound Techniques studio (at 46a Old Church Street), where Pink Floyd and the psych-folk Incredible String Band recorded albums. (Caetano and Gil became friendly with, and played with, the Incredibles, who visited the Chelsea house several times. At this time Gil was much more outgoing than was Caetano, and he got to know other British musicians, including Jim Capaldi of Traffic, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and members of the Moody Blues.)
Gil and Caetano had arrived in London with no idea what they’d do with themselves. Caetano felt inferior to Gil both as a guitar player and in terms of “the exuberance of his talent”, but he hoped that his more out-going friend would find work and that he could at least tag along.
They carried with them a letter of introduction from Philips, their recording company, to its London branch. Although Philips wasn’t interested in doing anything with them, Ralph Mace – a former Phillips executive and a keyboardist who’d recorded with David Bowie – sought them out and was impressed with what he found.
Mace, with the American producer Lou Reizner, soon offered to make records with Caetano and Gil and urged them to write songs in English. Mace also suggested that Caetano collaborate with Bowie; after seeing Bowie perform and meeting him at the Roundhouse, then still an alternative music and theatre venue, Caetano was left unimpressed.
Mace also told Caetano that he should play the guitar with his own songs, something he had not been allowed to do when recording in Brazil as he wasn’t considered sufficiently accomplished. During their first year in London, Gil and Caetano each recorded their eponymous albums at The Chappell Recording Studio (then at 50 New Bond Street), which were released in 1971. Caetano’s 1972 album Transa was also produced by Mace in London.
With new material and the prospect of recording in London, Guilherme (Gil’s and Caetano’s manager) was able to stage a minor coup by getting a billing in February 1970 at the Royal Festival Hall, the largest and most prestigious venue in what would become known as the Southbank Centre. Despite the Hall’s huge capacity, the performance might be considered something of a step backward. Rather than headlining, as they would have done in Brazil, Caetano and Gil were the support act, albeit for the immensely popular musician Sérgio Mendes and Brasil 66, featuring percussionists, guitar players and singers.
Predictably, Mendes’ interpretations of bossa nova melodies and samba greats (and bossa nova interpretations of Beatles hits) went down well with the audience. According to NME (New Music Express, 07/03/70), “the musical ambassador of modern Brazil coaxed sheer magic” from the keyboard. Feelings regarding the first half of the evening were, however, more mixed.
It’s probably always hard for a support act, especially “unknown” performers. By the sound of it, however, Caetano and Gil did surprisingly well, especially considering they were appearing before an audience attracted to the very familiar approach of Sergio Mendes, the evening’s main billing. With few Brazilians living in London at this time, the audience at the Royal Festival Hall was almost entirely made up of non-Brazilians, leading Gil to comment on the performance:
It was the reverse of the farewell concert we were allowed to do at the Teatro Castro Alves [in Salvador], where everyone knew everything. Here no one knew anything.
As though to elicit the sympathy of the audience (and to hopefully surprise them), the concert programme quoted Gil and Caetano as saying, “Our guitar playing is bad, our technique primitive, our English is awful. But we are interesting people.” While this was clearly a joke, a mention that the duo were “political exiles” was one of fact, though the Brazilian magazine Veja (11/03/70) spuriously insisted that this was untrue, as “officially there are no enquiries against them.” According to Veja, saying that Gil and Caetano were exiles was a means to “move [and] earn the applause” of the audience.
Caetano and Gil, who were being promoted as “folk singers” (a label that both would have rejected), were given time to perform eight songs, six of which were new. The NME reviewer generally enjoyed the performance – even though he clearly barely had a clue as to what was going on. He praised the “flamboyant” Gil as “a very good guitarist” and considered “sheer delight” a “folk song…about the poor people having to leave the country for the city” by “the Dylanish” Caetano.
The reviewer for the rival Melody Maker (07/03/70) found the songs “beautiful”, but “somewhat unimaginative”. He was also baffled and confused:
They sang their way through a collection of folk songs in their native tongue which was difficult for the audience to grasp but through expert showmanship kept enough attention.
Naturally enough, one of the new songs that Caetano sang was “London, London“, his definitive song of exile. Although a critic from The Guardian wrote approvingly that this song was a “sexy calypso”, he felt that both Caetano and Gil had yet to familiarise themselves with European musical tastes.
It’s likely that Caetano and Gil felt more comfortable at the musical mega-event that they went to later in the year. Over the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1970, they joined some 600,000 people at the 3rd Isle of Wight Festival, an event that was even larger than the previous year’s Woodstock festival. (This, the third Isle of Wight Festival, would be the last such festival until its revival in 2002. The authorities of the Isle of Wight – which had population of less than 100,000 – felt unable to cope with the massive influx of visitors.)
Only after they arrived at the festival were Caetano, Gil and Gal Costa – who was on one of her frequent visits to England – invited to perform, someone apparently having noticed them singing at the Devastation Hill camping area.
The American popular culture magazine Rolling Stone (1/10/70) was largely unimpressed by the weekend’s offerings, the free admission, the writer’s sniffed, “was not a notable bargain”. There were worthwhile moments, however:
The psychedelic muzak of the first two days was shattered twice, by Terry Reid [an English rock guitarist and singer] and by Brazilian musicians Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, who [….] came to the Isle of Wight tourist-tripping. With 13 pals, 11 of whom clapped and sang along, from within a gargantuan party-sized red plastic dress, they beat half an hour’s beautific [sic] bossa nova. One by one those in the red dress shed it, naked, but coyly avoiding full fronted exposure as they swayed off stage, leaving behind a delighted audience.
Gal, with whom Caetano and Gil took the stage, wasn’t mentioned by the magazine, nor was the Rio de Janeiro-based alternative rock band A Bolha (or, The Bubbles) who accompanied the trio. [Video clips survive of their performance of Caetano’s song “Shoot me dead“.]
Because of their sudden status as performers at the festival, Caetano and Gil were given passes allowing them mingle in the stage area with the likes of Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, who died just three weeks later in a Notting Hill hotel room. Being amidst so many legendary figures seemed to have an effect of helping Gil and Caetano question the basis of the apparent Anglo-American hegemony of popular music.