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Santiago

03:51
Bill Sunkel
Andy Maniglia/Bill & Rob Sunkel

Story

DECODING “SANTIAGO”

Like several songs in this collection, “Santiago” is a movie you watch with your eyes closed.  And that’s what I like most about it. 

The original music was written by pianist Andy Maniglia, who presented it to me with only two conditions:  The title had to be “Santiago,” and the first line had to begin with the phrase “When we met.”  I never asked Andy why these requirements were so important to him; I assume it was simply because those words just felt right, which they indisputably do.

Given Andy’s specifications, I set out to do some research on Santiago and its people, culture and history, my goal not being to produce an historically-correct lyric, but to develop a backstory for our characters – who (the Latin-inspired music suggested) would be entwined in a fiery romance – if, for no other reason, to make them more “real” to me.  I learned that, in the early 1970s, Chile was under the rule of an elected Marxist government led by Salvadore Allende.  Believing that situation inimical to U.S. interests, then-President Nixon secretly took steps to support a military overthrow of the Allende government, sending arms to the rebels via diplomatic pouch, an irony I find priceless.  Ultimately, the coup was successful as well as bloody, Allende and his minions were killed, and a new regime installed.

It was against that backdrop that I painted our two characters:  a low-level, pencil-pushing CIA agent who, on assignment to Chile, meets a Mata Hari-like revolutionary who seduces him to secure U.S. support for her cause.  Let’s make this visual:  For the part of the CIA agent, picture the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman reprising his dishabille character from Charlie Wilson’s War.  For our Chilean Mata Hari, think Salma Hayek, or perhaps the luscious Sofia Vergara.  Okay, where was I again?

The song is presented as flashback or reverie, and opens with an eight-bar introduction (not part of Andy’s original music) designed to set the stage:  You were underground, I was CIA/When I couldn’t quite make myself clear/You appeared, and somehow saved the day/It was ’73, and the streets were on fire/But the nights were our own/Dedicated to samba and secret desire.”  Obviously tongue-in-cheek (I like the image of the bumbling CIA agent trying to make himself understood in high school Spanish, with limited success) and purposefully melodramatic (like a Latin novella), it tells us everything we need to know to move forward with our story.

As mandated by Andy, the first verse begins with the words “When we met.”  But where?  I read that, during the fighting, members of the foreign press were sequestered in the best hotel in town, with infamous local madam Dona Nena providing food and other sustenance.  I decided that our hero and heroine should meet “at Dona Nena’s place,” i.e., a brothel.  Put aside what he’s doing there (and on the taxpayers’ dime, no less!), he is instantly smitten:  “I saw the face of Santiago/You hypnotized me with the tales you’d tell/And so, I fell for Santiago.”  She has found her willing partner-in-crime.

Besides amusing myself with the thought of U.S. involvement in a South American revolution being the result of some starry-eyed bureaucrat’s hormones (come on, is it really so far-fetched?), what I most wanted to convey was the contrast/disconnect between the gritty reality of violence in the streets and the privileged isolation of the puppet masters who tend to catalyze and foment such conflicts (as I write this in 2015, too many current day examples come to mind), for their own ideological, political or (in the case of our agent) endocrinological reasons.  Sure, they’re writing history, but from a safe distance (in this case, their bed):  “We’d hide in our room high above the fray/As a soft bossa nova’s sway soothed the far-away din/We’d write, while the world below turns a page/On a cool white sheet where we lay ’til the sun rushes in/Rising up in the glow of your warm copper skin.”  (Chile’s greatest natural resource and commodity, copper had to rear its shiny metallic head somewhere in this song.)

For the bridge, the music moves to a major mood, and that less exotic, more “American” feel affords us an opportunity to explore our CIA agent’s inner dialogue.  He knows in his heart of hearts that he is neither hero nor freedom-fighter, yet he willingly remains intoxicated by the delusion:  “And though I am quite an ordinary man/When you came to my door/I became something more in your hands.”  He also knows that he’s being manipulated, that he’s merely “[a]n ampersand, a footnote to a heroine.”  (Andy speculates this may be the first use of the word “ampersand” in a lyric, but I make no such claim.)  Yet, he continues to revel in his fantasy:  “But in your deep sea-green eyes/I appear as I’ve always imagined.”  Those “sea-green eyes,” incidentally, were inspired by Cecilia Bolocco, the first Chilean to win the Miss Universe title.  (Salma can wear contacts.)

In the final segment, the revolution is over, and so the romantic interlude.  The improbable lovers tour the aftermath of what they hath wrought (in the back seat of a big American sedan, insulated and detached as ever) before he departs on his flight back to the States.  That their brief but torrid affair will continue to haunt him is evident, though whether she will ever give him another thought less so:  “We’d ride in the back of the Monterey/Undisturbed through the disarray we would silently glide/We’d stroll where the ghosts of Allende played/Darkness falling as memory fades, and a silverbird flies/I can still taste the night when we kissed it all goodbye.”  The song ends as it began, with our narrator reminiscing about when they met, though this time with the added revelation that he probably never knew her true identity:  “When we met, I did not catch your name/But you shared your dream for Santiago.”  And that, my dear, was all that mattered.

All in all, “Santiago” is a fun song, not to be taken particularly seriously, that could make for an entertaining screenplay.  Or maybe just a fine soundtrack for salsa on “Dancing with the Stars.”  You decide.

Lyrics

SANTIAGO
 
You were underground, I was CIA
When I couldn’t quite make myself clear
You appeared, and somehow saved the day
It was ’73, and the streets were on fire
But the nights were our own
Dedicated to samba and secret desire . . .
 
When we met at Dona Nena’s place
I saw the face of Santiago
You hypnotized me with the tales you’d tell
And so, I fell for Santiago
 
We’d hide in our room high above the fray
As a soft bossa nova’s sway soothed the far-away din
We’d write, while the world below turned a page
On a cool white sheet where we lay ‘til the sun rushes in
Rising up in the glow of your warm copper skin
 
And though I am quite an ordinary man
When you came to my door
I became something more in your hands
An ampersand, a footnote to a heroine
But in your deep sea-green eyes
I appear as I’ve always imagined
 
We’d ride in the back of the Monterey
Undisturbed through the disarray we would silently glide
We’d stroll where the ghosts of Allende played
Darkness falling as memory fades, and a silverbird flies
I can still taste the night when you kissed me goodbye
 
When we met, I did not catch your name
But you shared your dream for Santiago
You seduced me with your siren spell
And so, I fell for Santiago