When you set out to do a biographical film about a public figure who's well known to much of the audience, you start in a deep hole. But give the makers of El Cantante some credit. Marc Anthony, with a slender physique and a pair of retro aviator-style specs, is a passable Héctor Lavoe. Anthony has even picked up some of Lavoe's vocal mannerisms — like his distinctive way of turning a long, line-ending note into a stretched-out triplet — and his supplicating, arm-waving stage posture.
But there are already rumblings in the Spanish-language press about the presumptuousness of using a tissue-paper balladeer like Anthony to portray one of the great salsa interpreters. For Lavoe aficionados, seeing Anthony up there tends to evoke that Dan Quayle moment: Sir, I knew Héctor Lavoe — and you're no Héctor Lavoe. If anything, you want to give Anthony a reassuring hug, because his performance is a respectful one. But yes, I remember Lavoe from those days, and his music, unlike the film's tracks, could make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Those were exuberant times, the Seventies and Eighties on the salsa circuit. The famous Palladium had closed down in 1966, more for security reasons than for any kind of cultural shift. (The place had become a mecca for kids in rayon shirts, riding the IRT down from the Bronx and El Barrio, packin' heat). But the party went on at the Corso on East 86th Street, Ochentas on the Upper West Side, the Tropicoro in the Bronx, and a dozen or so other joints. Of course, that's to say nothing of the merengue clubs in Washington Heights and after-hours clubs in all of the Latino barrios. (Anybody remember the brief reign of Smucker's on Flatbush Avenue?)
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In truth, Lavoe, a skinny dude with something of a dittybopper slouch, was never my favorite. Compared to some of the other great voices — Cheo Feliciano, Rubén Blades, and Ismael Miranda, to say nothing of the immortal Tito Rodríguez — he sounded nasal, even creaky, like somebody's hick grandfather. But coño, hombre, he took command of a stage. Salsa is the kind of music that requires precision as much as emotion, a hard-wired feel for the rhythm, an infallible instinct for the clave beat. The guys on the stage are all percussionists, even the wind instrumentalists. And from the perspective of the dance floor, Lavoe was one of the magicians who could make it all work, a supremely confident performer.
A distinctive part of Lavoe was that he never really crossed over from Puerto Rico to the United States; he always nurtured that jíbaro connection. When he performed, there was a simplicity to him, the attitude of a man saying, "Let me explain myself. I'm often misunderstood, but I'm a person of dignity and joy."
The drugs? The movie doesn't say it, but habits must have been sustained by the grueling routine of the so-called cuchifrito circuit. Playing two or three club gigs a night (bars could serve liquor until 4:00 a.m.), and then grinding away till dawn at an after-hours club, took a lot of strength. Lavoe didn't have the iron determination of some of the younger bandleaders. I remember one night in 1980 or 1981, standing with his musicians, one or two of them world-class percussionists who put in time with the Fania All-Stars, in front of a Bronx nightclub. Everybody was fidgeting restlessly, waiting for Lavoe. It was the band's third stop that night. No Héctor Lavoe, no gig, no fee from the club. He never showed. There were a lot of pissed-off musicians and customers. That might have been the beginning of the end for Héctor Lavoe.