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SATURDAY JOURNAL

A Life's Passion

Vicente Fernandez is Mexico's greatest living singer, revered by millions. A personal crisis casts him as a hero offstage as well as on.

May 22, 1999|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In concert, Fernandez sings without frills: no introductions or song lists, background vocals or prerecorded playback. He crosses himself and kisses his fingertips, then bounds onto the stage. As soon as he hears the first strains of a tune, no matter how many times he has performed it, he clenches his fists, arches his spine, closes his eyes and rocks on his toes. "Aaayyyiii!!!" he yowls. His fans leap to their feet, waving and swaying, singing each verse at full pitch--with him, to him, for him. Men thump their chests and hoist their beers. Women, some as young as his own teenage daughter, deluge him with flowers and love notes, swooning and squealing, stripping off their panties and bras. There is an intimacy, a reciprocity, to Fernandez's concerts that is rarely matched in the secular world. Onstage, his body becomes a conduit, drawing from and feeding into the collective emotions of his fans. He spills his guts and they spill theirs back, sweating, kissing, drinking, weeping, a mosh pit of ecstasy and pathos. "What he achieves is really a mass hypnosis," says his keyboardist, Javier Ramirez. "I've learned a lot about music from him, but I've learned even more about psychology."

In the middle of a song, fans will hand him cellular phones; he serenades right into the mouthpiece. At a show in Mexico, an anonymous admirer once slipped him a hand-scribbled napkin: "Sir, you would look better without sideburns . . . not that you look so bad now." The next day, Fernandez shaved. Every few songs, they reward him with liquor, cups of beer, bottles of tequila, leather bota bags that could contain just about anything. Few know that Fernandez almost never drinks. He is dry before the show and, after, sips only water. But onstage, alcohol becomes a part of the communion: he takes a slug of everything he is offered. The exchange sometimes unnerves his friends and family, but Fernandez shrugs them off. He does not have a full-time security team and chides entertainers who do.

"What are they protecting us from?" he asked a reporter from Furia Musical, a Mexican music magazine. The interview was published last May, a week before the kidnapping. "If it's the public that loves us," he added, "it's really the public that protects us."

His shows often include a hymn, "Una Noche Como Esta," the prayer of a man whose life is measured in applause:

God's greatest gift to me is this voice,

Which more than mine, belongs to my people.

If singing like this

I have earned your affection,

I would be happy if, singing like this,

One day, I die.

To a skeptic, such an outpouring might border on the mawkish, an exaggerated stereotype of Latin heat and schmaltz. But at its best, when the music is charged with passion and a virtuoso is interpreting the words and the audience is attuned to all the intricacies and allusions, something magical occurs: in Spanish, the word is desahogo, a cathartic release, the shiver of a song touching the soul.

"Anyone can sing this music, but to make people feel, to give them goose bumps, it has to come natural--you can't be an actor," says Nydia Rojas, a mariachi prodigy who got her start in the taco joints of East L.A. During the kidnapping, she opened for Fernandez in Pico Rivera, the second year she had done so. The first time, when she was just 16, she approached him backstage and asked for advice. "Go out there and try to stick it to me," Fernandez said. When she was done, he greeted her with a kiss and whispered, "Very nice, child." Then he invited her to join him for a duet. "I was about to cry," she says. "There's no one higher than Vicente, except maybe God."

"Aca Entre Nos" Just Between Us

The negotiations seemed endless, back and forth, on and off. There were flurries of calls, then weeks of silence. Fernandez's lawyer found a consulting firm, Black Fox International, which advises that kidnappers usually settle for just 10% to 20% of their original demands. The numbers, though, kept soaring, $5 million, $8 million, $10 million--with no guarantee that Vicente Jr. would be returned alive.

Within a week, the story began to leak out, mostly in erroneous spurts. A Mexican TV station reported that one of Fernandez's sons had been kidnapped, implying the victim was Alejandro. While the station went live with its exclusive, Alejandro showed up on a competing network, insisting the entire family was fine. There were rumors of a publicity stunt--a charge that unfairly dogged another son of a famed singer, Frank Sinatra Jr., after he was kidnapped near Lake Tahoe in 1963. Fernandez stayed silent, afraid any mention of the crime would jeopardize his son. Two months after the abduction, near the end of July, Vicente Jr.'s name finally made the news. Anonymous sources said he was free.

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