<  Previous Page  Chapter Index   Home Page   Next Page   >

The World of the Skulls

"At thirty, a man suspects himself
a fool... and knows it at forty."


I’ve heard this tango and danced to it many times, but I never paid much attention to it. It’s called Como Se Pianta La Vida (“How Life Slips Away”). The title uses the verb “piantarse”, which is an Italian/Argentine slang word that actually means “to leave” or "flee". Here’s my translation (aided by Alej): 


COMO SE PIANTA LA VIDA, Enrique Rodriguez con Armando Moreno


Crazy illusions,
ain illusions,
dragged me blindly
through my youth...

in gambling houses, milongas
and long ago good times,
where I left
my health.

With my cup
of pink champagne
raised drunkenly,
toasting different lovers.

My life was a ship
loaded with mistakes
that ran aground...
leaving me stranded.

How life slips away!
How bitterly the years grumble…
how many fierce disappointments
open our wounds.

The springtime is sad
if life begins to fade.
How life slips away,
for a one of the "skull" boys.

Ilusiones locas,
ilusiones vanas,
arrastraron ciego
en mi juventud…

en timbas, milongas,
y en farras lejanas,
donde fui dejando
toda mi salud.

Mi copa bohemia
de rubia champaña
abrindando amoríos

borracho la alcé.

Mi vida fue un barco
cargado de hazañas
que junto a las playas
del mal lo encallé.

¡Como se pierde la vida!
Como rezongan los años…
cuantos fieros desengaños
nos van abriendo una herida.

Es triste la primavera
si se vive desteñida.
¡Como se pierde la vida,
del muchacho calavera!


Well, it turns out that this tango is about the dark side of the milongas. The tango world of BsAs is fun and exciting, but there is a small element of danger. When I began to attach people’s names to all the pieces of film I shot, I found that most people used either sobre nombres (nicknames), or that they went only by their first names. Getting a full name and a bit of personal information wasn’t exactly hard to do, because everyone knew I wanted it for the video record—but it went against the codigos a little. One reason is that people often want to maintain a separate identity in the milongas. Even today (although this is changing), tango has a somewhat unsavory reputation, and people want to keep it separate from the other parts of their lives.

There is also another reason that’s more delicate. The people of the milongas are great people. We’ve had many of them at our house, and we socialize outside of tango with them a lot. But although they may appear very cultured and elegantly dressed, a few of them are from rough backgrounds. That’s why many women are careful about giving out personal information, like last names, or where they live… and that’s why it’s considered bad form to inquire about these things unless there is a good reason.

So the milongas may not always be quite as charming as they appear to a newcomer… and just as in any other big city nightclub environment, people should be cautious. But the real danger isn’t from the other people in the clubs. It’s from the temptations of late hours, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and sex. Alej and I know milongueros who are a lot like the guy in the song. People who spend too much time in the milongas can damage their careers, their family life, and even their health. The last line of this tango uses the term “calavera” (“skull”) to describe a person who’s addicted to the Buenos Aires nightlife. It’s a word that turns up often in tango lyrics, and it evokes images of wasted youth and dissolution.

On the last page we looked at how the great maestros of tango use the instruments of the orchestra to create emotion. Although Rodriguez is one of my favorites, his music is not all that sophisticated—at least not in the way Pugliese’s Gallo Ciego, or Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino are. Pugliese and Piazzolla seem to be able to touch the soul with their music, but Rodriguez plays mostly with a driving dance rhythm—which is why he’s popular in the milongas today. (I think the first lyrics I ever learned were to the Rodriguez tango “En la Buena y en la Mala”—about a man whose woman ran off with his money). Rodriguez’ music has a straightforward energy that makes you really want to move. With some of the more contemplative tangos (like De Angelis’ Como se Muere de Amor, which we'll look at later), it’s easy to dance in a tight space. But Rodriguez always makes me feel like accelerating into the passing lane. At the end of his tangos I usually find we’ve drifted into the middle of the floor, looking for space to do corriditas.

I picked this tango more or less at random, and as I played it over and over to get the words written down, I began to get caught up in it. The more I listened, the better it became. What a great use of language and imagery! Even in English, the message is tight and poignant: “Vain and crazy illusions" of youth "dragged me blindly"… I abandoned love and health for life in the fast lane. Now my life is a "ship that has run aground... there is no springtime for a person of the night.” Of course the English translation is only a shadow of the original. In castellano, the words match the cadence of the music perfectly. “Juventud” rhymes with “salud”. And how do you really translate a phrase like “muchacho calavera”? And the opening line is brilliant: “Ilusiones locas, ilusiones vanas… me arrastraron ciego, en mi juventud.” You can’t put it any better than that.

So, clear and artful language adds a tremendous amount to this tango. After learning the words, it will never slip by unnoticed again. The words add an emotional fuel that every good dancer needs to move well on the floor. We spent a couple of hours on it… but we’ll be paid back in the milongas every time we hear it. And it makes me realize that I’m missing a hundred other tangos that are loaded with meaning as well. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Barely the surface of the surface.