In 1959, a real-life Sharks and Jets rivalry went wrong, and at 16, Salvador Argon became the youngest New Yorker sentenced to execution. He was known as The Capeman. The facts of his case are not the background you need, but if you want it, go here.
40 years later, and 10 years ago, Paul Simon -- master of the high concept album -- wrote a Broadway musical called The Capeman, using the street-singing doo-wop style of the 50's barrio (see also Richie Valens). The production did not succeed. Most criticism had to do with painting Argon as the hero of the story and a martyr ... for what cause, no one could really figure.
The New York Times said, "In the segment in which Argon, shortly after his arrest for the murders, notoriously proclaimed that his mother could watch him burn, he registers as a terrifying amalgam of confusion and contempt, an inchoate force of raw energy groping for defiant style. " [bonus points for using amalgam and inchoate in the same sentence] But critic Ben Brantley also says, "....these songs have a contemplative, sensuous elegance all their own and remain a pleasure to listen to. "
As an album, Songs From the Capeman is infectious. It clearly follows a narrative, plays like a "rock opera," and is musically interesting in places where musicals rarely are anymore. As sung by Ruben Blades and Marc Anthony, what's not to like? Rolling Stone said, "The sociopolitical aspects of the case occasionally lead Simon and Walcott to overreach in their lyrics, especially given the musical setting – The politics of prison are a mirror of the street/The poor endure oppression, the police control the State is a far cry from I just met a girl named Maria." Word.
In that way we loved Graceland, even when we are not always sure what we are talking about (If you'll be my bodyguard, I will be your long lost pal...) because we hadn't heard anything like it before, and because the lyrics made you want to listen and the beats wouldn't let you stop anyway.
But The Capeman is still about gangs, and racism, and murder, and juvenile delinquents with no hope of rehabilitation, told in the sweet campfire folk-voice of the little man in the turtleneck goin' to Scarborough Fair.
And that's what you've got to understand about this story I am telling.
So I am in Barnes & Noble. And I recognize that what is playing overhead is "Adios Hermanos," a musically beautiful song that just happens to be about Argon's arrest and ride to the big house. It is not a family sing-along, and you probably shouldn't use it to encourage holiday shopping. We sale through the line about "the blancos and the n---r gangs," and no one in the store throws a brick. Paul Simon sings, so sweetly, "time for some f---n law and order. The electric chair, for the greasy pair..." And the shoppers continue to peruse the coffee table books.
Adios Hermanos feeds right into "I was Born in Puerto Rico," which is the 2nd song on this album. I know because I own it. And because I own it, I know that by Track 5, when we meet The Vampire gang, there is the chorus "Fuckin Puerto Rican mongrel punks..."
I think there must be an intervention.
And this is how you wake up to the fact that you are middle-aged and loose on the world -- about one bifocal-chain short of a church-lady, because you decide someone should really change the music. That you will see about getting that done. That none of that horrifies you.
I take my chances that the B&N music section is responsible for this, and I was right. File that for your future reference. You have to walk through metal detectors to get back there (keeps out the walkers and the artificial hips) and this smooth-faced young seasonal-crew says "what can I help you with?"
And I say (very friendly because I am here to help YOU, good citizen worker/valueless kids of today with no sense of time and place), "You know this album that's playing" (point at the ceiling. really wish I hadn't done that.) and I name it, because I am so hip I can sing along, "The Capeman?"
He says, presenting the product close at hand next to the register, "Actually, it's this new album," (which I now discover writing this, is not so new, but would make a lovely gift for a Paul Simon fan).
"So it's not the whole album? Because I was going to recommend that it isn't exactly appropriate to play in a store." I said that. I really truly did. But not bitchy -- notice my use of modifiers and the word 'recommendation.'
[I picture here Fox-25's Mike Beaudet in a stand-up: "What caused this riot at a local booksellers?"]
Salesman says, with a sort of a laugh...I guess... "Oh no, it's just this." (yes, only the words I won't spell out on my blog because I don't want to match the kind of people who search for them...)
He's right - Adios Hermanos is the last track of the 2nd CD, but the album gets no "explicit lyrics" sticker. You'll want to keep this in mind when you have your stereo on shuffle during dinner with the in-laws, or the neighborhood watch meeting.
I have done my duty. I can now turn my attention to dog curbing, spitting, and litter, to keep this world a safer place.