I confess: I love boleros.

Maybe it’s the way they permit a stiff anglo like me to indulge vicariously in dramatic and passionate emotional expression.

Yes, I mean the Latin American love songs that originated in Cuba, although high-culture boleros à la Ravel aren’t bad, either (the jackets, though cute, are not my style). I suppose my vulgar roots show in my preference for low-brow culture. But then, I like high-brow, too, and firmly agree with Virginia Woolf, that the enemy is middle-brow (particularly middle-brow with too much money and too few doubts).

One of my favorites, “Historia de un amor,” is a perfect example of all the things I love about boleros: a great melody in a melancholy vein; the kind of (melo)drama that works in a song or a novel (but generally not so much in real life); all the opportunity one could wish to express passion, grief, loss, failure in love; and even to reject calculation or self-interest in love (Mucho corazón).

“Historia de un amor” was written in 1955 and included in the sound track of a Mexican film of the same name in 1956, which is apparently what started its path into immortality. The earliest and most famous recording of it that I’ve heard is the 1964 version of Eydie Gormé and Trio Los Panchos, but the amazing thing about it is that it shows up everywhere by everybody, and always shows some new beauty in each performance. How many millions of times must it have circled the globe!

It seems to be an obligatory classic for up-and-coming performers (rather like “Embraceable You” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”), though I’m sure there are performers and listeners who by now loathe it as over-performed, the Song That Would Not Die. Each performer takes on the challenge of making it his or her own, with a new twist. And each performance expresses something new in its particular articulation of the song. Now, mind you, these are just a few of the versions you can find on YouTube, and I didn’t even look on other video/music sites.

Here are Tanya Libertad and Eugenia León doing a completely different interpretation of it while having way too much fun:

And Luz Casal, with a brilliant video accompanying a stylized and understated version that layers the dance elements of bolero with a Spanish inflection, a tangled love dynamic, and the implication of possible futures in its incompleteness as a rehearsal in a theater empty except for other theater people. It offers a glimpse of a moment in an implied love story, in parallel with each of the characters who only catch fragmented glimpses each other’s desires.

Last spring, when I was in Spain, I encountered a fascinating performance of “Historia de amor” — by some pícaros on the subway. It was the usual, in a country covered over with people begging, from the Roma woman reading my palm in Córdoba to the pseudo-writer assuming that I was a sympathetic American mark — which I was, but unfortunately for him, a broke one.

Each assumes an identity and launches a fiction, usually with props, speaks from within character. The (pseudo?) writer had an eye for the lone (female) academic, carried a book and flashed the picture on the front flap, too quickly to really see more than that it shared the basic characteristics of his appearance — serious expression, beard, thinning hair, wire-rimmed glasses. Really, he explained, someone on the train had stolen his briefcase, and he only needed a couple of euros to buy himself some dinner, all the while appealing to my self-regard as someone who would be susceptible to the tribulations of another intellectual.

The next day, I boarded the subway, and a couple of youngish guys in their twenties got on, one pulling an amplifier on a handtruck, the other with an accordion — providing a service in return for spare change, which seems to be a perennial impulse for begging, if we believe Lázaro’s account of the Blind Beggar’s prayers and Guzmán de Alfarache’s autobiographical account of the same. And the service goes in at least two directions, the beggar’s proffered active service (prayer, music, even the day and time) and the more passive service of the giver’s opportunity to exercise compassion, whether really altruistic or fodder for fonder self-regard — both surely fictional “services” simulating the opportunity for charity and dissimulating the possible scam. Which makes one wonder if part of the appeal in general is in fact our craving for fiction, to enter into its structured play.

But what was deeply entertaining and thought-provoking was not just the return of the repressed (professional begging), but the recirculation of the irrepressible. Yes, yet another rendition of “Historia de un amor,” with no particular inflection this time, except of course for being offered on a subway at the performative intersection between karaoke and panhandling. Shining teeth in smiling handsome faces, in character as “handsome guys making the best of a tough situation,” worked the crowd, certain that the song would engage anyone Hispanic along with every tourist who ever had heard any Latin music at all.

Of course I threw some euros in the hat!

I got a great intro for an essay, as well as a live performance of one of my favorite songs!

P.S. Another chestnut that is still compelling and around in a million variations is also one of Eydie Gormé’s hits: Cesaria Evora, “Bésame mucho”

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