Remembering Gustavo Cerati

Cary Darling

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Photo by Donna Ward/Abaca Press/MCT In this November 2, 2006 photograph, Grammy-winner Gustavo Cerati poses in the press room at the 7th Annual Latin Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden in New York. Cerati was an international rock star 15 years before the world heard of Shakira or Juanes.

Photo by Donna Ward/Abaca Press/MCT
In this November 2, 2006 photograph, Grammy-winner Gustavo Cerati poses in the press room at the 7th Annual Latin Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden in New York. Cerati was an international rock star 15 years before the world heard of Shakira or Juanes.

As much of the entertainment world mourned the death of comedian Joan Rivers Thursday, fans of Latin American rock’n’roll were saddened by another passing: Gustavo Cerati. The death of the former lead singer of the groundbreaking Argentinian band Soda Stereo at the age of 55 didn’t come quite as much of a shock as Rivers’ – Cerati had been in a coma for four years after collapsing after a 2010 show in Venezuela – but that didn’t make the news any less heartbreaking.

Cerati possessed a distinctive swagger of a rock’n’roll voice, one that was at once soulful and sexy, rich and romantic. It didn’t matter if you didn’t understand Spanish, the emotion of such songs as Cancion Animal (Animal Song), En la ciudad de la furia (In the City of Fury) and Signos (Signs) was enough to scale the highest linguistic barrier.

It was that singular voice that helped propel Soda Stereo (a trio that also included bassist Hector “Zeta” Bosio and drummer Charly Alberti) from being just another scruffy, post-punk band influenced by The Police, U2 and David Bowie to a leading light in the Spanish-language rock scene in the late ’80s and ’90s whose sleek guitar-rock remains powerful.

And it wasn’t as if they didn’t have any competition. From Mexico to Chile, Latin American bands of the time – influenced by imported Anglo-American rock as well as their own musical traditions – were at a creative peak. Such acts as Cafe Tacuba, Maldita Vecindad, Aterciopelados, Fito Paez, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Desorden Publico, Todos Tus Muertos, Plastilina Mosh and Fobia were making their own style of music – often marketed as “rock en espanol” in the U.S., “rock en tu idioma” (rock in your language) at home – by reinventing rock on their own terms.

But Soda Stereo remained in a league of their own, partially thanks to Cerati’s vocal presence, but their crafty melodic gifts and skilled musicianship (though he may be known for his voice, Cerati was no slouch on the guitar either.)

Over the course of seven studio albums, and numerous live and best-of collections, Soda Stereo became the kind of band that headlined soccer stadiums throughout the region. Their 2007 reunion Me Veras Volver (You Will See Me Return) tour played six nights at the nearly 70,000-capacity River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires. The Rolling Stones could only manage five. Their album sales throughout Latin America were equally impressive.

Even in the United States, they could headline large arenas in some markets like Los Angeles and Miami. (The only other Spanish-language rock acts that might be able to rival them in terms of pull might be Mana and Juanes.)

I first became aware of Soda Stereo in the early ’90s when a Spanish-speaking friend turned me on to them, knowing I was interested in music from places that, for many Anglophones, might be considered off the beaten path. The first two albums I heard – Cancion Animal (1990) and its predecessor Doble Vida (Double Life) (1988) – were not only impressive but caused me to go back and get their early albums: Soda Stereo (1984), Nada Personal (Nothing Personal) (1985), and Signos (1986). Those early recording often were more primitive but Cerati’s passion and personality came through.

Soda Stereo broke up in 1997 and Cerati embarked on a solo career that included experiments with electronic music, soundtracks and classical music. He even recorded a version of The Police’s Bring on the Night (called Traeme la noche) with former Police guitarist Andy Summers.

While his solo albums were sometimes more adventurous than what he did with Soda Stereo – Bocanada (Puff) (1999) was heavily influenced by dance music – there was still that through-line of voice and melody. For his rock side though, the swinging 2006 album Ahi Vamos (Here We Go) ranks as one of the best things he has done. His last solo effort was Fuerza Natural (Natural Force) which, while not as much of a knockout as its predecessor, still shows a man on top of his musical game.

So it was especially shocking when he collapsed after that Caracas concert four years ago. He was someone who still seemed to be rippling with vitality and creativity.

I often wondered why Cerati didn’t record in English and hoped he would one day, perhaps expanding his popularity beyond Latin America and Spain. He might have found that music fans in the broader pop world who had never heard of him would have embraced him as readily as those at home.

Now, of course, it’s too late for that. But his music remains, as fresh and vital as ever, and just waiting to be discovered after his death by those to whom he was a stranger while alive.

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