A FAN'S JOURNEY TO THE EDGE OF CONTACT AND BACK.
They say he had a thing for talking to cats.
What he did have going for him, though, was that he was a charmer, and throughout these years, his solace was playing guitar and writing songs. He'd stay up all night in the bathroom--he became enamored of the acoustic slapback sound of the tiles--deconstructing the rhythms and the chords of the American big-band sound he grew up adoring.
By the time the woman who would be Astrud Gilberto came into his life, Jo�o had come over the hump. He had engineered his own sound, paring down the rhythms in his head to the most elemental forms of what would be bossa nova, and he'd written the first bossa nova song, "Bim-Bom," whose lyrics consisted of little more than the song's title, repeated over and over.
When his old friend Jobim heard what Gilberto was up to, he rallied at his day job, as a producer for Odeon, to commit Gilberto's sound to a 78. Even with his rough times behind him, the thread of difficulty that would run through Gilberto's life again evidenced itself--a record that should have taken an afternoon to record instead took four days.
By the time Jo�o Gilberto teamed up with Stan Getz--who had, along with guitarist Charlie Byrd, already given bossa nova its first stateside hit with the Jazz Samba album--that difficulty had reached legendary proportions. A story circulated around jazz circles that one day the Gilbertos' cat jumped out a window. Jo�o left the studio to pick it up in a taxi and speed away to the nearest veterinarian, but alas, the cat had already died. The joke Gilberto's fellow musicians liked to make was that the cat committed suicide after hearing Jo�o practice "O Pato" one time too many.
In the fateful days of the Getz/Gilberto sessions, it was decided that a tune the band had been cooking up deserved to be sung at least partly in English. Against a spate of crowing by Jobim himself as well as Jo�o, Astrud was pushed in front of the mic, and in turn, the legend goes, paid the princely sum of $110.
Whatever the charms of "The Girl From Ipanema"--and they are many, from Getz's sauntering sax to the seductive flutter of the melody itself--Astrud Gilberto was the something the bossa nova enterprise needed to go overground in a big way.
By July 1964, "The Girl From Ipanema" chuffed everyone and sat at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. No. 1 was by some band called the Beatles.
And if the winds of pop had a choice at that impasse--go for the stylized melancholic cool of bossa nova or the hysteria that would come to earmark '60s rock--the choice, at the time, seemed like a no-brainer. Bossa nova became the idiom of choice for the blandest entertainers America could bear. And rock 'n' roll became, once again, the definitive voice of youth.
By the time the late '60s came around, bossa nova had, for the most part, evolved into tropicalia, the music most closely associated with protest and revolution both political and cultural in Brazil. What remained of the musical process was left mostly in the hands of Americans, and what was an inherently melancholy, bohemian and sophisticated form, left to the devices of stock music houses and hack bands, became Muzak, easy listening. Both Gilbertos by this time had cut back on their musical output. Astrud's 1967 album, Beach Samba, despite its title, was comprised of a fair share of Broadway tunes.
And though she continued on with a musical career, Astrud Gilberto, after the turbulent '60s had finally ebbed, eventually settled into the same hermetic, uneasily famous lifestyle as her first husband. She continued to release albums and even make public appearances here and there, but for all intents and purposes, she'd dropped off the pop culture radar almost as easily as she'd popped on.
She became the Girl From Ipanema: She passed by. The bossa nova moment may have been just that, but in the space of just a year or two, Astrud Gilberto had become an accidental icon with few rivals in the spectrum of 20th-century pop music.
But even before all that--as early as the end of the summer of '63, just six months after "The Girl From Ipanema" had been forever committed to tape--Astrud grew weary of Jo�o's tortured-artist lifestyle.
One summer afternoon, Jo�o returned home from a series of tour dates to find Astrud gone. She left two things: A note and a new cat.
The interview might have been a definite no-go, but spurred on by Jungle, I only had more questions: How was it that Astrud Gilberto, the Girl From Ipanema, made a new record this good, and so far as I could see, had no booking agent, no proper publicist and, crazier even still, no record label? (As of this writing, the album is for sale only at www. astrudgilberto.com.)
That said nothing of the most basic question: How did Astrud Gilberto wind up living here, of all the places in the world, in Philadelphia? The go-between wasn't saying, Astrud certainly didn't want to talk about it, and it seemed like nobody else knew. I wrote back to her manager, wondering if, given the general nature of my questions, he could answer a few for me. Within hours came the response:
"As for your inquiry, an interview with me in lieu of or about Astrud Gilberto, is not a viable option. We appreciate your understanding in that regard, as well."
So much for that idea. But he did offer me something else:
Being Black: It's not the skin color