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Elis Regina: The tragic last days of Brazil’s Edith Piaf

By Arthur de Faria

At that moment which, today we know, was the end of her, Elis had fewer mince words than she ever had. The interview that she granted to her friend, the journalist from Rio de Janeiro, Juarez Fonseca, was vetoed by the editor of the newspaper Zero Hora on the grounds that “they seemed like the statements of a drug addict” (…)

Elis: “I’m fed up. Of music and many other things. I even took a long break, for six months, although I don’t think it’s the solution to any crisis. The solution is to roll up your sleeves and move forward. But the thing is, I’m tired of searching and not finding. I want to sing new things and everything seems very old to me. Sometimes I think the songwriters didn’t realize that a lot of things changed in recent times. Nobody talks about what is happening in Brazil.” (…)

“I want to sing new things and everything seems very old to me. Sometimes I think that the composers did not realize that many things have changed in recent times.” Elis

Short hair. A brand of her look, with which she avoided falling into clichés of femininity (Photo internet reproduction)

Yes, I already knew Elis reasonably well to understand her ups and downs. Depending on the moment, she could be euphoric, happy, tender, optimistic; or be bitter, irritated, aggressive, hopeless.

They were characteristics that sometimes fluctuated between more or less long periods, and sometimes between one day and another. Therefore, the people who did not know her well were divided between those who considered her unpleasant and those who had been won over by her. Those who knew her knew that there was no contradiction, that this stable instability was a characteristic of her temperament and made the living unity of her person, the artist, the citizen. (…) I don’t know if she was already taking cocaine and I don’t know if it crossed my mind while we were talking.

When 1982 started, everything seemed serene.

Sad smile. Elis Regina had a personality with mixed emotions (Photo internet reproduction)

BRIDAL

Elis Regina Carvalho Costa was a myth at the height of her career. Happy, she was dating lawyer Samuel McDowell, as Juarez said. The irony is that she rediscovered him in office precisely because of the separation from César (Camargo Mariano). She went to his office to legally try to delay the premiere of the Trem Azul show. It was not possible, but the two were delighted with each other.

Samuel’s only connection to music was having the São Paulo Artists’ Union and Elis herself as clients. But even though he had worked for her for seven years, they had rarely met. As was the case with many of the men who got too close, Samuel fell deeply in love.

On January 5, she gave her last interview – on TV Cultura’s program Jogo da Verdade – to Maurício Kubrusly, Salomão Esper and old friend Zuza Homem de Mello. (…).

Deep dark circles, many smiles and little tension. Smoking Carlton. (…) Finally, she gave yet another class on politics and class consciousness: “We cannot form caravans to go to the Ministry of Education [and Culture] to ask for the love of God that the records are not dismissed as superficial. The one that has to do that is the record company. But there are people who go. What I am going to do!? They are manipulated to that point: fight for the boss’s interests! I am not going to fight for an interest of which I receive 10%. Let the one who has 90% go to fight. Few people are class conscious, what are we going to do?!” But she concluded that she couldn’t go any deeper: “I’m not about to die run over by any car one of these nights in a dark alley in São Paulo. I have three children to raise…”

“We cannot form caravans to go to the Ministry of Education [and Culture] to ask for God’s sake that the records are not branded as superficial.” Elis

Fourteen days later, at 11:45 a.m. on January 19, 1982, Elis Regina was dead.

Idol. With the mass rituals ater her death, her popularity was proved (Photo internet reproduction)

DEATH

The news quickly spread over the radio and I watched it. People who were born before the 1970s, they will surely remember where they were when they found out what happened.

Samuel and Elis had an argument the night before. The reason would have been whether to move in together or not, considering that both had their children from other marriages. He stormed off, expecting her to call him. She didn’t call him. After a while, he calmed down and called her.

They continued arguing and Elis cut off the phone. Her friend Rejane Wilke told, in 2014: “I have a letter, which she sent me in November 1981, in which she comments that Samuel began to insist on living together, and she was the one she did not want. She told me: ‘Imagine him coming home on a Friday with a stack of cases under his arm, to read and study over the weekend, and me with the house full of noisy people, singing, playing, one of those shit!!! It’s not going to work, we live in very different worlds. Better each one in their corner. That it bothered her when he, after working the whole week, had to spend the weekend with the children, it was true. And he was very torn between his love for Elis and his guilt for walking away from the children.”

Minutes later, she changed her mind and called. They argued again and she hung up again. Samuel called many times and she did not answer. He gave up and left it for the next morning: a night’s sleep usually calms things down.

At half past nine in the morning, she is the one who called her boyfriend’s office, calm and conciliatory. They were understanding each other, but her voice began to sound thick. Until she stopped responding. Samuel figured something bad had happened and he flew in a taxi to Elis’s apartment.

With little João Marcello, eleven years old, around him, he was knocking down the doors until he found Elis, unconscious.

He called an ambulance, which was late. He decided to take a taxi.

On their way to the Hospital das Clínicas, Samuel, a doctor who arrived at that moment together with a friend of Samuel and the inert body of the greatest singer in Brazil, wrapped in a sheet.

Possibly already lifeless.

Addiction. After her death, the controversy over her drug use began (Photo internet reproduction)

THE FUNERAL

In the midst of the horror, the wake: at the Bandeirantes Theater, the same one that received the Falso Brilhante album, twenty-five thousand people, in line, went up to the stage where the body was. Many sat down to cry in the stalls. All night, early morning, the next day.

Elis, in the closed coffin with a glass opening so that her face could be seen, was wearing the shirt with the Brazilian flag banned by the censors in the show Saudade do Brasil (the one that said “Elis Regina” instead of “Order and Progress ”).

A car from the Fire Department took an hour and a half to travel the fifteen kilometers to the Morumbi cemetery. Along the way, thousands of people surrounded the truck, shouting “E-lis” in chorus, throwing confetti and rose petals from above the overpasses.

In Morumbi, more than three thousand people were waiting. A shock comparable to the deaths of Carmen Miranda and Francisco Alves.

Delivery. Elis Regina left her soul on stage (Photo internet reproduction)

THE RITUAL

On that same night that was held in São Paulo, in Porto Alegre several artists gathered to perform the best ritual possible, from a distance: an impromptu show at the Araújo Vianna Auditorium, attended by a legion of fans who found out through word of mouth Several of those who were there, admirers and artists from the most varied areas, for years will continue to write quixotically on the walls of the city: Elis Lives. Meanwhile, in the family’s apartment on Rua Melo Alves, in Jardim Paulista, there was an atrocity.

It is not known how, since the building had bars and a doorman, some people invaded the apartment. João Marcello remembers: “There was a popular commotion. The people, the fans, took paintings, photos, everything related to Elis… they took it. Signed or dedicated books, clothes. They always ask us the same question: ‘Where is the collection?’ They took it… Most of the family photos we have pre-1982 are from the press.”

“The people, the fans, they took paintings, photos, everything related to Elis… they took it. They always ask us the same question: ‘Where is the collection?’ They took it.” João Marcello (son of Elis Regina)

THE CAUSE

Two days later, on January 21, the cause of the unexpected death was revealed: an overdose of cocaine and alcohol.

It was a new national shock.

Veja, in order not to disappoint those who expected the worst from her, made a sensationalist note and stamped on the cover: “The tragedy of cocaine.” Caetano Veloso stopped attending the magazine after that. Caio Fernando Abreu was even more radical: he worked there and resigned in protest.

Even when snorting in plain sight at Rede Globo —in the clip of “Alô, alô, marciano”—, very few people knew that Elis took cocaine. Samuel, for example, was not even suspicious.

And then the conspiracy theories began. Most of them related to a terrible coincidence: the doctor who signed the report certifying his cause of death was Harry Shibata. The very subject who provided services to the military dictatorship, certifying suicides of political prisoners murdered under torture.

(…) Cocaine was then a novelty in the Brazilian news. Before Elis, the only famous user had been the singer Nelson Gonçalves, decades earlier. (…) Ronaldo Bôscoli, in his autobiography: “Some influential people, from Globo, made Elis take cocaine. Several musicians made Elis take cocaine. Several fellow singers made Elis take cocaine.”

As if someone “made” another person -especially someone like Elis- start using… But Ronaldo went so far as to affirm something that he could never be sure of: the name and surname of the woman who “introduced Elis into the cocaine”.

Nelson Motta, in Noites tropicais, is much more reasonable: Elis was never a drug addict or dependent on anything. She drank a little every now and then, she smoked a joint here and there, but she never did anything compulsively. She was getting into cocaine at a time when a lot of people were already starting to drop it. Worse: always worried about her voice, her throat, her greatest assets, she was avoiding inhaling cocaine, preferring to mix it with whiskey: in this way, the drug goes to the stomach and takes longer to enter the bloodstream, becoming very difficult to control the amounts. That was what killed Elis.

“Elis was never a drug addict or dependent on anything. She drank a little every now and then, she smoked a joint here and there, but she never did anything compulsively.” Nelson Motta

In the midst of the chaos, Bôscoli requested the custody of João Marcello. The boy himself stated that he wanted to continue living with his brothers, in Cesar’s house. Boscoli accepted. Until Ronaldo’s death, they would never be intimate.

AGE

Days after the funeral, on January 25, the Viva São Paulo show was supposed to be the city’s anniversary, but it ended up repeating the catharsis of the wake and the funeral, on a larger scale: one hundred thousand people repeatedly paid tribute to the singer. Each artist who took the stage (…) paid their particular homage to those who adopted the city of São Paulo as their own.

Elis was thirty-six years old. The kabbalistic age of thirty-six. That, although it is not the mythical twenty-seven with such a high mortality rate for musicians, it is the age at which Mozart, Raphael Rabello, Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), Bob Marley, Georges Bizet, Marilyn Monroe (who also sang ), jazz musician Eric Dolphy, bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, Custódio Mesquita, Renato Russo and gaúcho singer and songwriter Carlinhos Hartlieb.

In those thirty-six years of life and twenty-one years of profession, she recorded twenty-eight LPs and about twenty singles that sold, during her lifetime, approximately four million copies. Numbers that, after her death, grew a lot, not counting her posthumous albums released (such as Elis em Montreux). But, as we have already stated, no record sales number in Brazil is absolutely reliable. (…)

She lived her entire adult life in a military dictatorship.

She never voted for president.

The book. This note is part of the biographical book on the singer, “A musical biography”, by the critic Arthur de Faria (Photo internet reproduction)

THE ETERNITY

But she forever inscribed her name as one of the great singers of the twentieth century. Björk, the coolest Icelander on the planet, composed the song Isobel for her. One day she told João Marcello: “Elis goes to places where I would like to go, but she doesn’t encourage me. She gives herself in such an intense, emotional and ultimate way.”

“Elis goes to places where I would like to go, but she didn’t encourage me. She gives herself in such an intense way.” Björk

Glênio Reis, announcer, her friend who died in 2014 and one of those who most encouraged her to leave Porto Alegre for the center of the country: “Even knowing the sad ending she had, I would again advise her to leave. Because, in the short time that she had to live, she was able to shine. If she stayed here she would be someone normal, a housewife, taking care of her children. I don’t regret it and would recommend it again. I would tell her: ‘Elis, come on. Because you are going to leave life and enter history’.”

With information from Clarín

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