A FAN'S JOURNEY TO THE EDGE OF CONTACT AND BACK.
Astrud Gilberto was living as a kept woman on the Main Line. (Untrue.) Astrud Gilberto was at Fergie's one night. (Oddly, true.) Astrud Gilberto was recording an album in South Philly. (Weirder still, very true.)
Rumors would fling this way and that, and nailing them down was dicey, for all information came in a brown wrapper of a subtext that was the one thing everyone knew for sure: Astrud Gilberto, having altered the entire landscape of pop music--having, for better or worse, made herself an archetype by which all women singers in her wake would at least have to consider, was a recluse. She hadn't given an interview in about 20 years, and as such, readily available information on her was, to put it mildly, sparse.
But somewhere along the line my fandom got the better of me. While the cognitive part of me knew and respected Astrud Gilberto's retreat from public life--in this media age, who wouldn't sympathize?--another part of me, the creepy fanboy, wanted to at least connect with that reclusive nature, to see what made it tick, to see how much of that I could consume and relate to.
So, knowing that here was a woman with stage fright so bad that not even a stint at the Actor's Studio could cure it, knowing that her no-interviews policy was an unshakable terra firma, I set out to interview her. Just to see what would happen.
Under the guise of writing about her new album, I got in touch with a go- between who I knew could put me in touch with the person who would invariably say "no" to my interview request.
"Look," I said to the go-between, "I'm going to write about her whether she wants to be interviewed or not. And it's not that I won't respect her wishes--scout's honor, I will--it's just that ..." I paused, trying to say that this is one of the greatest pop singers who's ever lived, and as someone who's lucky enough to get to write about these people, I'd be damned if wasn't going to try to write about this one, knowing now, as I did, that she was living but a few blocks from me.
Instead, I just stammered. Later that day I received an email from Astrud's manager, which read, in part:
"I can assure you that Astrud is very flattered by your interest. However, it has been her policy, for nearly two decades, not to grant interviews of any kind. Please appreciate that she does not single out any particular journalist or publication to say 'no' to, as this was a conscious decision on her part as to how she wishes to conduct herself/her career."
He made no bones about that pretty much being the end of the discussion. A few days later Astrud's new album, Jungle, arrived in the mail. Knowing what I know about people who go away for years at a time between albums, I expected nothing like Jungle. It wasn't mired down in present-day production styles, nor did it seem to have any trace of comeback-desperation anywhere on it. In fact, it was a record equally as at ease as anything she's ever done--maybe even more so.
At the center of it, of course, was Gilberto's singular voice, and hearing that voice in a new recording was startling in its clarity. Time, fame, her reclusive reaction to it and whatever else has done absolutely nothing to alter the quality of her voice.
In her vocals--whether it's a reading of a standard like Bacharach and David's "The Look of Love," or one of the many tropicalia-influenced originals in the set--she's still ageless, almost timeless, the girl standing at the edge of the world disaffectedly singing something that can beguile anyone who stands still long enough to feel everything stirring within her, everything she's trying not to give away.
Murderers, artists and heroes all share one thing: The experience of how what you do over a day or two can alter the course of your entire life. On March 18 and 19, 1963, Astrud Gilberto was in a New York City recording studio with her then-husband, Jo�o Gilberto, along with Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and a handful of engineers and session musicians. They were there to record what would become Getz/Gilberto, one of the best-selling jazz recordings of all time.
The record was anchored by a song that became an instant standard, a towering piece of bewitching tunefulness that would cast its shadow, in one form or another, on the pop world right up to this very day, and beyond. "The Girl From Ipanema" was the first Latino crossover, the first bilingual sensation--it made bossa nova a commonplace in the musical vocabulary--and Astrud Gilberto was the first global pop ingenue, doe-eyed, sexy and otherworldly all at once.
In the wake of its appearance on Getz/Gilberto, "The Girl From Ipanema" was recorded an incalculable number of times by a range of artists from Frank Sinatra to the Living Strings. It was a staple of the '60s--perhaps one of the last songs of that golden age where there were songs everyone knew the words to.
At a certain point people may have stopped recording versions of the song, content to finally let the original ascend to its proper place in the pop pantheon, but people have never stopped purchasing, listening to or singing the song. And it has almost everything to do with Astrud Gilberto. Everyone who's ever heard her has, at least for one shining subconscious moment, wanted to be her.
There is a whole lore surrounding the day (and the way in which) Astrud Gilberto came to sing on "The Girl From Ipanema." By most counts, it wasn't something that was supposed to happen at all.
"The Girl From Ipanema" was written by pals and bossa nova originators Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes after a long summer spent drinking beer and watching the same 15-year-old girl come into the beach bar to buy cigarettes for her mother day after day.
By the time they had gotten around to composing the song, the entire world was beginning to feel a bossa nova buzz, thanks in large part to the film Black Orpheus and its accompanying score. After American jazz musicians got wind of this and other records, it was only a matter of time before a few made the trip down to Brazil with crossover in their hearts.
Looking at the rough historical data, the marriage of Astrud Weinert to Jo�o Gilberto in the late '50s was a match made for the movies. By the time he was in his thirties, Gilberto had been institutionalized briefly for depression. He was a chronic drug user, and, as often as not, homeless, cruising from couch to couch for as many as 10 years.