Mendoza is a sleepy provincial capital, nestled in the foothills of the Andes, known outside Argentina mostly for the dependable bottles of Malbec that can be found in just about any liquor store, offie, or bottle-o in the world. But on March 3, 2000, at the Hotel Aconcagua, the city played host to one of the most iconic moments in Argentina’s pop culture history: rock star Charly García, already 48 years of age, his famous two-toned moustache more grey than brown, jumped off the roof of the hotel and into a pool nine floors below. Despite this and many other acts of senselessness and bravura—“Mi capricho es ley/my whims are law” became one of the musician’s catchcries—Carlos Alberto García Lange, born in Buenos Aires in 1951, is still alive.
At the time of writing, this means Charly, known throughout Latin America by a single moniker, much like Shakira or AMLO, is only 71 and thus a few years shy of the average Argentine lifespan of 75.89 years. But decades of hard living including, but not limited to, drug rehab, alcohol rehab, arrests in foreign countries and enforced periods of “rest” to treat what was diagnosed as a paranoid-schizoid personality—more on that later—means that it’s nothing short of a miracle that the artist whose style evolved through the folk revival of the ‘60s, through prog rock, funk rock, pop rock and synth-pop to be finally understood, holistically, as rock nacional, remains with us today, shuffling “from bed to the living room,” per the title of his 1982 hit.
From infancy, Charly displayed a prodigious musical ability, developing perfect pitch hearing and composing his first song at the age of nine. By all accounts from a stable and loving home, he studied at a renowned conservatory and preferred classical music to pop. But like many young men of his generation, the dreaded “colimba”—a year of compulsory military service—turned out to be such a harrowing experience that instead of fomenting a love of order and tradition, it set Charly hurtling towards a rock and roll lifestyle. This phase of Charly’s life is steeped in mythology, but the lore has it that Charly’s mother, looking to help her son get out of his military service, smuggled in a bottle of amphetamines which young Charly ate all at once. The results were electric: so high he thought he was about to die, he wrote his first hit pop song, “Canción para mi muerte,” and wheeled a cadaver from the morgue into the Officer’s Mess, securing his discharge from military service but also securing the aforementioned paranoid-schizoid diagnosis.
In Charly’s lifetime alone, Argentina has experienced four military coups and spent much of the latter half of the twentieth century under outright dictatorship or drastically limited democracy. This affected the way art—from film and literature through to popular music—was created and consumed in Argentina, and critics like Mara Favoretto have noted that this created a privileged position for the use of allegory: take for example, Ricardo Piglia’s seminal novel Respiración Artificial, or Eduardo Plá’s acid-tinged 1976 film adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, for which Charly wrote the score. In a nation where all media was state-controlled and subject to censorship, the rebellious youth found community and expression in the heady mix of psychedelic rock, Dadaist poetry, and coded, allegorical lyrics put out by bands like Pescado Rabioso and Charly García’s first group, Sui Generis. Some of that band’s songs, like “Juan Represión” (a not-so-veiled reference to dictator Juan Carlos Onganía) and “Botas locas” (“Crazy Boots,” a song about the army) were banned outright, while others, like “Las increíbles aventuras del Señor Tijeras” (“The incredible adventures of Mr. Scissors”, a song about a man who censors film reels) were changed by the record company, as fear of crackdowns often led to self-censorship.
It took a relatively long time for rock sung in Spanish to take hold in Argentina—Los Gatos 1967 “La Balsa,” a groovy and highly allegorical hit is considered the breakthrough moment—but Beatles-inspired, hippy-adjacent music has had a long afterlife in Argentina. In 2014, when I was ostensibly working on my dissertation at the University of Buenos Aires, I saw Australian psychedelic project Tame Impala play an uncharacteristically hectic set at a venue overlooking the Río de la Plata. Between songs, front man—everything-man, really—Kevin Parker told the crowd in his Perth drawl how much he loves playing in Argentina, because it’s the only country where his free-flowing, introspective compositions result in a hopping crowd and mosh pit. Much has changed in the thirty years since the fall of the last military dictatorship, but even among the well-heeled pseudo-hippies in attendance, there was still an inkling of the way rock music was linked to freedom of assembly in Argentina: in the darkest days of the military regime, when public gatherings of more than four people at a time were banned, you could still go and see Charly García and other perform in front of thousands at approved venues.
But to characterize Charly García’s music as protest rock doesn’t do justice to the chimeric nature of a career built on reinvention, and a brand of anti-authoritarianism that continued well beyond the return to democracy. After disbanding Sui Generis in 1975, Charly’s next project, La Máquina de hacer pájaros, had a much bigger, more symphonic sound that retained more or less coded references to the dictatorship and lasted two albums but never quite captured the public’s imagination. The creation of mythic supergroup Serú Girán in 1978 with Pedro Aznar, David Lebón and Oscar Moro broadened Charly’s reach and his critique: the iconic cover of the group’s first album, La Grasa de las Capitales, is mocked up like a cover of Gente magazine and while the songs still leaned heavily on allegory—including a song borrowing from the imagery of Alice in Wonderland—the apathy of middle-class society under dictatorship came in for some metaphoric upbraiding. The band’s name itself is composed of nonsense words that almost sound like the future tense in Spanish—perhaps yet another reference to the ways censorship and allegory were functioning in Argentina at the time.
Charly’s best and perhaps most accessible album, Clics Modernos, came just weeks after Raúl Alfonsín won the 1983 elections that would return Argentina to democracy, following the fiasco of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. It was a new sound for a new moment: Charly opted for a comparatively stripped-back, almost New Wave sound, with plenty of synth and sampling. Recorded in New York—the title and cover art came from graffiti by Richard Hambleton on the corner of Walker St and Cortlandt Alley in Manhattan, which has recently been renamed “Charly García Corner” in the singer’s honour—the album opens with a poppy banger (“Nos siguen pegando abajo”) and includes “Los dinosaurios,” a song that would become something of an anthem for the thousands of people disappeared during the dictatorship. Upon his return to Argentina, he played it for the first time in front of 25,000 fans at Luna Park in Buenos Aires, at the time a record attendance for a concert.
For the rest of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Charly would continue to release popular solo albums, including 1984’s Piano Bar, and the return to democracy, coupled with international tours and the rise of MTV helped make Charly a bona fide solo star. He was never far from scandal, however: in 1990 he put out a cover of the Argentine national anthem that was briefly banned; his reliance on drugs and alcohol to manage his mental health resulted in capricious and sometimes dangerous behaviour, including regularly trashing hotel rooms and a penchant for throwing things which reached its lowest ebb in 2007 when Charly allegedly threw a tumbler of whisky at Björk in a hotel bar in Buenos Aires. His music took a darker, more mysterious turn—more Nick Cave than David Byrne—encapsulated by 1996’s album Say No More, which would later be understood as an expression of Late Style in the Adornian sense, a pivot away from his established, beloved sound and into something stranger yet somehow even more Charly, but which was met with widespread bafflement at the time.
Staying alive and out of the public eye for just long enough can do wonders for one’s public image, and following nearly a full year of recovery at former politician’s rural estate, Charly emerged in the twenty-first century somewhat rehabilitated as a cultural icon on a national and international scale, in a way that might be comparable to Diego Maradona: both men lasted long enough to become beloved of the public because of, and not despite, their worldly excesses. Indeed, Charly and Maradona enjoyed a friendship that began in earnest in 1994 when Charly, hearing that Maradona had been banned from the World Cup after failing a drug test (ephedrine cocktails for weight loss) composed the song “Maradona Blues” and then performed it on his televised 43rd birthday special, with the mercurial number 10 by his side. However, all the nights of fernet, champagne and cocaine caught up with the footballer and the musician, despite the fact that for a time they both frequented Rubén Mühlberger, the “doctor to the stars,” who was later investigated by the authorities for peddling a fake cure for COVID-19. But their mutual admiration never waned, and in the last ever televised interview before his death in November 2020, Don Diego had this to say when asked what else he would have liked to have done in his life: “If I weren’t Maradona, I would have liked to be Charly García.”
Recent rumours in the Argentine press suggest that Charly isn’t in great shape, with one journalist asserting that the singer is no longer able to walk or talk. Despite the fact that he now makes use of a wheelchair for rare public appearances, his inner circle was quick to quash any insinuation that Charly was on death’s door, assuring his fans that he’s keeping to his routines and listening to music, always in the presence of his loved ones. All the same, there’s no denying that sooner rather than later, the velvet curtain will fall for the last time for Charly García, iconoclast and innovator, who in the days following Maradona’s death, dedicated one last poem to his friend:
Carta para el 10
Nunca me voy a olvidar de nuestras charlas.
Cuando te pregunté:
Qué título le pondrías a tu 2do gol a Inglaterra
al toque me respondiste: “Miré el arco y esquivé patadas”
Siempre me alucinó tu humildad y tu capacidad de ver las jugadas antes que todos.
Espero que estés en el club de los 27 con Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones y gente buena.
Espérame ahí… Invita la casa.
No te equivoques con el paraíso
PD. Sabes lo que me dijo Jagger
cuando yo trataba de pararte porque lo ibas a cagar a trompadas?
“Éste no es el que juega al voley”?
Rock and roll fierita!
Say no more
I Love you
Letter for Number 10
I’ll never forget our chats.
When I asked you:
What name you would have given to your second goal against England
right away you said: “I looked at the goals and avoided their kicks”
I was always amazed by your humility and your ability to read the play before everyone else.
I hope you’re in the 27 Club with Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, and the good crowd.
Wait for me there… Drinks are on the house.
Make no mistake about Heaven.
PS: you know what Jagger said to me
when you were about to beat the shit out of him?
“Isn’t that guy the volleyball player?”
Rock and Roll you little beast!
Say No More
I Love You
Drawing by Jason Novak