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Surging with all the highs and lows of Buenos Aires

Bersuit Vergarabat, dynamic and fiery as Argentina itself, exults in a view from the top.

March 26, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Buenos Aires — THEY moon audiences and cuss out feckless politicians. They stick up for obscure indigenous cultures, regard George W. Bush as a threat to planetary survival and don't lose much sleep over whether you, dear U.S. reader, have ever heard of them.

Which doesn't mean that the members of Bersuit Vergarabat -- the most popular rock band in Argentina and possibly in all of South America -- aren't dead serious about making music.

Sure, in concert they ricochet around the stage in pastel pajamas like escapees from a lunatic asylum. (Their outfits are, in fact, said to be a tribute to the Jose Tiburcio Borda psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires.) Their scathing lyrics, at times, can turn downright brutal, even when couched in lush, bel canto-like harmonies that suggest what the "Pet Sounds"-era Beach Boys might have sounded like if they'd ditched Surf City for Patagonia.

"The band still has an inner child," says Gustavo Cordera, the bald, goateed, irrepressible lead vocalist and front man of Bersuit Vergarabat (pronounced bear-SWEET ver-GAHR-ah-baht). "This is an adolescent band, with grown-up people, but an adolescent band, an 18-year-old band."

But on a recent summer afternoon, the perpetual bad boys of Argentine rock are in a mellow mood. Hanging out at the venerated El Cielito recording studio on the outskirts of the capital, these middle-age pranksters look peaceful and relaxed in their shorts, tank tops and flip-flops, a little paunchy and gray around the temples, practically respectable.

A nearby swimming pool beckons. Crepe myrtles heavy with bright pink blossoms herald the height of the South American summer. The dark, sweet smell of toke smoke drifts across the lawn. In an hour or two, Marta, the band's housekeeper and de facto den mother, will start serving up steaming platters of grass-fed Argentine beef, to be washed down with countless bottles of native red wine.

What's not to feel jazzed about?

"I believe that this is a good moment for us," Cordera says in the melodious, Italian-accented Spanish unique to Argentines. "We are in a moment [of] a lot of passion, a lot of fire, a lot of abandon, a lot of promiscuity, a lot of craziness, a lot of parties, ... 170 concerts in two years.... It's very beautiful."

Judging by the critical consensus and its robust record sales, Bersuit is indeed near the pinnacle of its creative and commercial potency. In recent months the band has played to teeming crowds at venues large and small across South America as well as to a growing underground European audience, primarily in Spain. Its latest release, last year's "Testosterona" (Testosterone), was a characteristic tour de force of rock-steady rhythms and smart-aleck lyricism, of aggression sweetened with self-mocking humor and a surprising tenderness, all of it backed by spot-on musicianship.

Yet even as Cordera speaks of the present good times, a thundercloud steals across his granite profile. Despite the band's good fortunes, Cordera confesses, lately he has been haunted by something he read in an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist. Success, Garcia Marquez suggested, was like a parasite that gnaws away at your intestines. "This image stays with me very strongly," says Cordera, his eyes suddenly brimming with anxiety, "that it eats you, it eats you from within."

The next day, Jorge Pizarro, the band's longtime publicity director, laughs as he relates a well-known expression about the national character.

"There is a saying that we Argentines go 'from ecstasy to agony in an instant,' " Pizarro says. One day, Argentines are feeling flush with national pride, boasting about their great soccer teams, world-class writers, beautiful women and "European" architecture. The next day, they're practically suicidal, watching the peso crash through the floor (as it did in fall 2001) and rushing off to their psychoanalysts to vent their neuroses. (Buenos Aires reportedly has one of the world's highest per-capita concentrations of shrinks.)

Perhaps that explains why so many Argentines cling to Bersuit as a fixed constellation in the swirling cosmos of global culture.


Ups and downs of survival

ONE of a slew of innovative rock and pop bands to emerge from the musical renaissance that followed the ouster of Argentina's military junta in the early 1980s, Bersuit has outlived and/or outthought many of its contemporaries. These include the brilliant but now-defunct Soda Stereo and Babasonicos, which lately seems to have swapped its experimental, neo-psychedelic cult persona for a fizzier glam-rock identity.

Fourteen years after its 1992 recording debut, "Y Punto," Bersuit has experienced the typical ups and downs of rock 'n' roll survival. Personnel have come and gone. Late nights and long road trips have taken their toll. A creative crisis arose between Bersuit's second and third albums, when the band temporarily ran dry of material.

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