”America? They’re so keen to let anyone rule a country as long as it’s not pinko-commie. They’ll let any monster take over…”
— David Bowie, 1990
Of the cities I passed through during my flying visit to the Americas in October and November of 2018, one location that really impressed was Buenos Aires. Argentina would become the 43rd country I’ve now set a photographed foot or two in, and over the six-week sojourn there were many places I loved, but the capital city of this fascinating Latin country really is something else.
The timing of my visit to Buenos Aires was based around catching Blondie and New Order in concert, a week apart on my first and last day in BA. But by and large, my stay was thankfully a lot less Anglocentric and more diverse than that. Though wherever I am in the world, it seems I never have to go very far to be reminded of old colleagues.
On Tuesday 20 November, I spent a lovely day in the pre-summer sun being taken out by a native, Nacho, who lived near my accommodation in Palermo Soho. I chose Palermo as a suburb quite randomly and extremely last minute purely on the basis that it was reasonably close to the showgrounds where both Blondie and the Order were playing; the Estadio Obras.
Debbie and the boys were playing the Obras’s outdoor stadium, headlining the Rock & Pop Festival, while Bernard and band were at the incendiary indoor arena. I’m using incendiary as a double entendre as for some reason smoking was allowed inside, which thankfully didn’t dampen my spirits too much.
Blondie were great as always, but a crystal-clear sound system and amazingly up-for-it crowd tipped the battle of the bands in New Order‘s favour despite Bernard’s hilarious dad-dancing.
Not only that, but I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered Palermo is one of the most fashionable neighbourhoods in the capital, chock-full of stylish bars, cafes and eateries plus a very highly developed gay population.
You couldn’t make it up.
An impossibly handsome bunch, the Buenos Aires boys and girls are a proud and passionate mix of Spanish and Italian ancestry, and hearing Nacho’s stories of how badly the population suffered under the military junta of General Galtieri both before and after the Falklands War was incredibly thought-provoking. Many of the young soldiers forced into combat with no training and next to no decent weapons actually died of cold from the extreme climate of the barren windswept islands they call the Malvinas.
Lest we forget, Galtieri and his fellow army dictators came to power because successive American governments of the late 20th century secretly armed and funded them with the intention of facilitating military coups to overthrow the democratically elected governments of the day.
As I mentioned in my anti-George Bush piece when he died, the US rationale was always that underwriting a fascist, murdering autocrat was always going to be infinitely preferable to anything left-wing that might have Communist sympathies. Castro-no-no.
Well, guess what? This directly led to Galtieri invading the Falklands because a) he wanted to boost his popularity with the electorate who had never voted for him and b) he was on first-name terms with US president Ronald Reagan and deputy Bush, so assumed with their tacit support that Margaret Thatcher, sitting in 10 Downing Street some 8,000 miles away from the overseas territory, would be forced or persuaded by the Americans to turn the islands over.
Oh, how wrong was he. Living up to her Iron Lady mantle, the chip on Thatcher’s shoulder was always that she felt she had to appear stronger than any man, just to hang on to her job as the first female prime minister of the western world. For better of worse, in May 1982 she sent a task force to the South Atlantic and reclaimed the Falklands, with heavy losses on both sides and, ironically, the so-called Falklands effect saw her returned at the ’83 general election with a whopping majority of 144.
All this just shows you how much the American powers-that-be have to answer for. And of course, their actions were funded by the taxpayer, who, as was the case with Tony Blair and Iraq in 2003, are never consulted as to whether they would like their hard-earned money siphoned off to support despotic regimes or illegal invasions. Gee, this life’s a funny thing.
It’s doubly sad when you realise how Argentina was such an incredibly Anglo-friendly country with deep business and trading ties to Britain, at least until Britain’s membership of the European Union in the 1970s. There are still traces pointing to that warm relationship of a bygone age. Hell, my accommodation was even situated in Thames, one of the main thoroughfares though the eastern suburbs.
On to less political matters, and the last thing Nacho and I did for the day was for him to tempt me into sampling two ‘local’ drinks, both of which are as typically Argentinian as a cup of tea is to Brits. It’s just not humanely acceptable to leave Argentina without trying Fernet. It’s a bitter that came from Italy during their two waves of migration to Argentina after the world wars.
Fernet has made a strong long lasting impression on Argentines where it has become the go-to drink for many years. Like many other things in Argentine culture, it’s been been adopted from Italy and claimed as their own. The fabulous concoction is a dark, syrupy liquor similar to Jägermeister, and is almost always mixed with Coke, so when you order a “Fernet” at a bar it will be a Fernet-cola mix. It has a distinct, strong and some would say acquired taste, bitter and herbal in flavour with hints of licorice, and very high in alcohol at 45%.
But don’t be scared by the description. I rather liked it. A lot.
Just like the city, when I can remember to smile, anyway…
The other drink is Mate (pronounced MAH-tay): this is probably the most popular beverage in Argentina, and takes some preparation, so much so that it’s virtually impossible to find in cafes and restaurants. Dried and crushed up leaves of the yerba mate plant are placed into a hollowed out gourd and drunk through a screened straw called a bombilla (bomb-BEE-sha).
Hot water is poured from a thermos over portions of the yerba mate in the gourd and sipped through a metal straw. Mate has a distinct flavour and mostly resembles a raw green tea. The beverage contains caffeine-like stimulus and serves as an appetite suppressant. You can read all about what yerba mate is all about here. Needless to say, I preferred the Fernet.
When I was sampling said beverages, Nacho wanted to play me some music that was popular in Argentina. He was particularly interested to hear what I made of a local rock musician called Kevin Johansen. He may look a little Ricky Martin-y but at times he sounds a bit like Jarvis Cocker in Nashville. A couple of his more popular Spanish language numbers were Spotified before my new friend beamed proudly, “Oh, he has sang some songs in English too. Like this one…”
Maybe it was the Fernet but it took me a few lines to realise what the song was. It was Modern Love, but like I’d never heard before. What a lovely rendition, stripping the tune of all its Nile Rodgers bells and whistles bombast, revealing itself to be a quite beautiful song after all. What a shame its author never tried it this way. Of course me being me, I couldn’t resist asking:
“Do you know who wrote this song?”
“Yes, it’s a singer called David Bowie. He died last year.”
I decided to keep quiet on both the chronology and biography stakes and smiled knowingly to myself. Nacho had absolutely no idea what that book was I’d authored the week of Glastonbury 2000. See, the dear old Dame really does get everywhere.
Postscript: David Bowie only visited Argentina twice, opting to end both his Sound + Vision and Earthling tours in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. Below is the national television broadcast of the former. After over 100 concerts he’s rather hoarse but it’s fun watching, especially for the bouquet presentation at the conclusion, and his claim he’d be back with Tin Machine in 1991. He wasn’t.