As an artist, El Cid (Rodrigo Borges) is one the most innovative, influential and popular musicians, poets, filmmakers, actors and graphic artists of the 1980's and 1990's. And as a man he is probably the most enigmatic public figure of these decades.
He became a pop music sensation on the wake of his 1984 debut album, thanks to its innovative music and very ambitious videos which got a lot of play on MTV, but also his tremendous stage presence. His fame was also fueled by the mystery surrounding his personality: he never made an interview, or even any public appearance whatsoever besides his concerts. His private life, origins and almost everything else about him is a complete mystery.
As stated, El Cid was an extremely secretive celebrity. From the moment he started his record label, anyone who wanted to work with him had to sign extremely restrictive non-disclosure agreements, and he maintained a veritable army of lawyers to make sure they would be upheld. He never attended any award shows or other such celebrity gatherings, and would always refuse even nominations to such awards. He never answered questions from the media, mostly because they never got a chance to ask. Paparazzi photos of El Cid were (and probably still are) the most expensive on the market, simply because nobody could get them. Like with attorneys, he maintained a plethora of well-trained and discreet bodyguards—as opposed to the seven foot tall and wide black bouncer types other popstars seem to be fond of—who would make sure his every move was secret and out of reach of any photographer, reporter or fan.
Except for the videos for his first album which he co-directed, El Cid directed and edited every video for all his albums. Each video is a part of a narrative spanning the entire length of the album, mirrored by the album's lyrical content as well as the tone of the songs that are part of the narrative. There has been debate as to whether El Cid's albums are concept albums, however it is clear that they have a conceptual and thematical unity. Even though the narrative is only alluded to by the lyrics, it becomes obvious to someone who has seen the videos. It is well understood among El Cid fans that the songs on the album and the videos, as well as the album art, make up a whole "artistic experience" which is more than the sum of its parts.
Most videos are about twice as long as the song itself but, unlike say Michael Jackson's videos, they never include a spoken word, only sound effects and background music. The songs are edited and layered in the way that a film's soundtrack would be, in order to fit the narrative of the video. The videos were always very ambitious and often quite groundbreaking.
El Cid started his record label, Music From El Cid, in 1981. It was based in the small house he bought near Peoria, Illinois. This is the earliest known record of him. He bought equipment, made tapes and sent them to major labels, and started gigging around the state, not as El Cid but as a backup guitarist for most local rock acts and jazz acts that toured the area. The accounts from musicians who worked with him match: soft-spoken, gentle, very talented, very private, but also surprisingly successful with the ladies.
His label was bought out as a subsidiary by Virgin Records in 1983. Less than a year later his debut album Cid was released and music was never the same. The album's tremendous success was due to the same formula as the efforts that would follow: great music, ambitious videos, and tremendous charisma. Also, like each of his subsequent albums, his debut tells a story.
In this case, the story is inspired by the French tragedy Le Cid, by Pierre Corneille. The protagonist, Rodrigue, who is dubbed "the Cid" as a title of honour earned through heroic acts, is in love with his fiancée, Chimène. However, Chimène's father, Don Diego, has insulted Rodrigue's, and he must now kill his beloved's father in a duel to cleanse the family honour. Like all of his tragedies, this one is focused on a dilemma where honour or duty conflicts with love.
The videos from Cid were quite ambitious, even by today's standards, let alone those of the early 80's. They were of Hollywood scale in every way, except for the length, and the executives at Virgin were quite anxious because of the amount of money El Cid was pouring into them. However the contract by which his label was bought out by Virgin specified he had creative control ; they could only watch in horror as he spent his money away.
The videos were set in Renaissance Spain and shot on location, in 70 mm film, the widest format. They were co-directed and edited by El Cid, who played the part of Rodrigue with incredible intensity. Spain has a very unique look, with its Sarrasin, Moorish and Catholic influences, and the outrageous bloat caused by the influx of American gold after the joy of the end of the Reconquista. The videos took full advantage of that, with exquisite photography and painterly composition which contributed to a truly haunting aesthetic. Each video, especially when they are watched together in sequence, is a great piece of filmmaking. The scenes of the lovemaking of Rodrigue and Chimene or of the fencing duel between Rodrigue and Don Diego or were among the most powerful works of cinema that year.
In those days only acts like Duran Duran and Michael Jackson understood the impact of music videos. Even though El Cid's videos have always stood out by a large margin, the shock of a video which wasn't a low-budget silly-looking affair shot on video, like everything else at the time, was tremendous. Each new video was eagerly anticipated by millions, since it continued the story. Cid sold extremely well very quickly despite a relatively small launch by Virgin, and El Cid immediately rose to superstardom.
The album was also met with huge critical acclaim, and with good reason. Some groundbreaking work went into it. El Cid used the studio as a musical instrument and not just as a recording tool, much in the way that Jimi Hendrix pioneered in the sixties. He was also influenced by the experimental electronic music of the seventies, since many innovative electronic effects and devices were used, often going outside of what the manufacturer had intended them for. MIDI had just appeared and anyone who was making music was making it with an electronic keyboard. But the way El Cid understood and used the medium displayed an inventiveness and a maturity which was virtually unknown at the time, except for a few underground artists—and he put in on MTV.
The album wasn't all electro-pop, far from it. As said above, El Cid started out as a talented jazz and rock guitarist, and it can be heard throughout his work. Electronic guitars were distorted in unprecedented ways, acoustic guitar riffs were subtly layered, sometimes it sounded like gypsy jazz and sometimes like classic rock. There were also lots of Spanish guitar and flamenco-like sounds, resonating with the Spanish theme of the videos.
All of these things contributed to give the album a sound that was utterly unique and years ahead of its time. Since all songs besides the nine minute before-last epic were also quite catchy, the music in Cid was met with a lot of popular acclaim and most singles became dance hits or youth anthems.
Cid was followed a year later by Ziggy Catdust, an album of covers of, you guessed it, David Bowie, but also Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, The Cure and others. The album's title was exemplified by the eponymous cat, a scrawny little white kitty with an eye blue and an eye red, who is featured on the cover.
The American and European tours that followed the release of Cid revealed to the world the other element of El Cid's formula for success: his charisma. At that point El Cid's live shows were not yet the elaborate light and sound performances they would turn into but they nonetheless quickly attracted masses because of El Cid's tremendous stage presence. He would always start timidly, and as the show progressed he would, as one fan described it, "become possessed by the music." His voice and guitar playing would get frantic, he would run, dance around the stage and otherwise do all these indescribable little things which make charismatic people so, well, charismatic. Like his album his tour started slowly but as word spread of the experience of his concerts' attendance rose, lines formed, riots even started in some cities, drawing attention to El Cid and gaining him the rebellious aura of a rock star.
El Cid's much anticipated sequel to Cid came four years later in the form of Starscape, which continued on the road started by Cid. The tone of the album was slightly angrier than the meditative but upbeat Cid, and also sometimes colder, giving a whiff of industrial music.
With Starscape, El Cid furthered his pioneering work. Whereas in Cid he innovated by making instruments and tools people were accustomed to sound different, this time he made the music capture all the audible space, making each song a true soundscape, while still being catchy enough to easily become pop hits.
The videos, the first entirely directed by El Cid, openly paid homage to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey with their concern for realism and its meditative editing. However, the story is set much later in the same timeline, or in a radically different universe, one closer to the setting for an epic space opera. Large ships sent by interstellar empires battle in space—but the battles go about in silence and there is no artificial gravity inside the ships. The zero gravity scenes, which make up the majority of the videos, were actually shot in artificial microgravity aboard a plane in which the sets were built or a bluescreen mounted.
The plot of the videos followed that, not of Arthur C. Clarke's novel, but of Homer's poem The Odyssey, starring El Cid as Odysseus, with each video adapting a major episode of the epic. The fall (and ensuing plunder) of Troy (in this case a city in space) at the hands of a commando. The opposition between Odysseus' cunning and nobility and his brutish crew, who meet a grisly fate because of their stupidity. Odysseus' return to his home incognito, the murder of his wife's suitors and their reunion.
The final sex scene between Odysseus and Penelope caused an uproar and was censored by all televisions. The sex scene in Cid, while very intense, kept the unmentionable bits out of the frame. On the other hand, the sex scene in Starscape does without shame, picturing both lovers explicitly embracing naked in microgravity. Rumour has it that the sex was actually acted out. The, uh, mechanics of the scene certainly make this theory seem likely.
Starscape outsold the already quite successful Cid, gathering even more attention on the secrecy regarding El Cid's personality, his origins and his actions. He launched the World Starscape Tour, a long, long world tour, which took him on the road for over two years on all continents save Antartica. He recruited very talented musicians to tour along with him for little or longer stretches of the tour, mainly from the jazz or underground scene.
During most of his live performances he experimented with new or different arrangements of his songs, in which those musicians actively participated. He played new songs, added new segments to the ones from the album, quite often lengthened them and/or rearranged them drastically. A common point of most of the performances was that, in keeping with the "ambient music" theme of the album, the performance was continuous, with each song blended into the next in one continuous auditory performance. However, he gave every kind of performance, from acoustic gigs in small European jazz clubs to loud rock concerts in American or Third World arenas ending with property damage, and every time with his mesmerizing charisma.
As the tour progressed, the shows became at the same time much more ambitious and much less conventional. They often became lightshows, with smoke, lasers, large screens above the stage on which psychedelic imagery was projected. They extended in length and depth as the songs did: a song that lasted 4 minutes on the album could last 14 live, with complex, syncopated rhythms, dissonant arrangements, or just very long, meditative parts. Unsurprisingly, that wasn't to the liking of many people who went to a show expecting a pop star. However, the live shows evolved in a way that they were themselves the exprience and not the songs which made them up, in a continuous visual and auditory performance. Many fans described these later shows of the world tour as very powerful, profound experiences.
Many people expected a live album to come out on the aftermath of the epic tour but it was instead a collection of B-sides that came out in 1991, titled Fragments Have Fallen From Starscape. Its cover appears to be a pencilled preparatory sketch for the cover of Starscape, with a coffee ring on the top-right corner and the title handwritten with a felt-tipped pen at the bottom. Even though all of the songs on that album (and more) were used during the tour, they were arranged and produced much in the same way as in Starscape instead of the new sound that had evolved out of the tour. This disappointed both El Cid's fans and his mainstream audience, and the album sold relatively poorly. The poor sales were also attributed to the rise of a phenomenon which radically changed the music scene, known as grunge.
Especially after the poor sales of his last record, many were wondering if and how El Cid would survive grunge, which had already ended the career of most pop stars of the eighties. His survival was determined by his next album, Spleen.
The title of the album doesn't refer to an internal organ at all; spleen was the word 19th Century French poet Charles Baudelaire used to refer to a feeling of existential ennui and suffocation. The music of the album was at the same time harder and more melancholic than in his previous efforts.
From a creative standpoint, it is obviously influenced by industrial music, especially earlier or more experimental shades of the genre. Even though all albums mainly included electronic beats, Spleen was almost exclusively electronic, except for a few instruments, notably heavily distorted guitars. The electronic parts however sounded very much unlike something out of a computer, but rather like metallic sounds out of some weird, dissonant mechanic universe.
However, despite these harsh sounds, Spleen is not a harsh record. The sounds are softened, often slow, and El Cid's low hypnotic voice and his virtuoso guitar playing gives the entire record a very beautiful and melancholic overall tone, while at the same time being disturbing and even slightly ugly, forming a unique sound which fits the album's title and poetic inspirations perfectly. Even though it definitely had a unity, the record was not as ambient as Starscape.
The videos for this album were much less grandiose in aim than those for the previous albums: El Cid plays a jazz guitarist who flies into Paris, France for a one-night gig at a local club. The most powerful video features El Cid's character playing guitar. When his performance starts it is unrelated to the soundtrack of the video but it slowly synchs with the song as it progresses toward its emotional climax of melancholy. The club where that video was shot was actually the Petit Journal Saint-Michel which, while being one of the most important clubs in the history of Paris jazz, is only a tiny basement. After the gig, unable to find a taxi, El Cid's character puts his thumb up, only to be picked up by a woman driving a small car, who is hiding tears. Through the rest of the night, they drive around Paris, giving an excuse for beautiful, slow meditative shots of the city at night, have drinks at a café, and get to know each other on a subdued until he has to catch his plane at sunrise.
This time there is no sex, and while some fans have argued that it is implied, others have theorized that in this story the two only form a friendly relationship, and that this is a good step away from a "El Cid has to get laid by a hottie in his videos" formula. Whichever it is, the way the videos show the forming of a profound relationship without any words, only through cinematography, editing and music, is simply brilliant.
Even though the story and setting of the Spleen videos was much less ambitious, from a filmmaking point of view it was consistent with El Cid's tradition of daring innovation. About two thirds of the shots of the videos were made in high definition video, a technology that was in its infancy in the early nineties, and had never been used on a production of this scale. However, capturing the light of the city at night would have been impossible using traditional film, which is why a lot of the exterior shots were done on video, using available light.
The Spleen Tour was much more traditional than the previous one, touring America, Europe and Asia successively and giving the usual kind of concerts that a rock star would. In major cities he would gig smaller venues after the big arenas.
In 1995, A Few Nights Together came out. The record was a collection of live performances. There were two from the tour that followed Starscape and a hidden track, a poor quality recording of one of the first shows he played as El Cid in Illinois, before Cid came out.
The album sold remarkably well, even though less than Starscape. El Cid thus proved that he was capable of surviving the grunge tsunami as a popular act ; it was another tide that would sweep him out of the hearts and minds of the global mainstream.
The anticipation regarding El Cid's next album was multiplied when Virgin Records sued El Cid's label, Music From El Cid, to get a court order to prevent them from releasing his next album.
Music From El Cid had put out his music and was partially owned by him, but was also a subsidiary of Virgin. El Cid had made sure that the contract linking the two firms was iron-clad, so the case was easily dismissed but Virgin's lawyers still managed to drag it out for a few months. While the legal consequences of the trial were nil, the media consequences were understandably large. Conjectures flared, urged on by El Cid's customary silence. Rumours thrived. The videos would be animated. No, they would be computer generated. The album was going to be a double. A triple!
Actually, all the rumours were right. Tragedy came out as a four disc box containing 3 CDs (titled Act I, II and III) and a large booklet, all of them magnificently adorned with El Cid's gorgeous artwork. It was clearly a concept album, thought out like an opera or, you guessed it, a tragedy.
The album threw off most of El Cid's fans and definitely alienated his mainstream base. Each "Act" was built like a concept album, even though it was part of the entire work that was Tragedy. Each disc had a "Prelude," and instead of songs, the entire work was made up of musical themes intertwined throughout the build up of each Act and of the album as a whole. Most tracks put one theme to the fore and develop it, making them into quasi songs, but the same theme can be found in other tracks, before or after that track, underdeveloped, differently orchestrated or merely hinted at.
Just like the makeup of the album with its themes, its orchestration is at the same time a breakaway from tradition and a return to it. But more importantly, it is the product of thought on the nature of music, as we have envisioned it throughout history. Here is how a fan puts it on a bulletin board:
In so-called classical music, orchestration was very important. It was pretty much the only way for the composer to control the sound of his work, since he only had a limited set of instruments to work from. Thus, he had almost absolute freedom when it came to melody, but when it came to the sound, the timber of a specific note, there were only so many choices available.
However, in the 20th century, amplification, distortion and of course computers changed all of that. Now, there is no end to what sounds can be built out of a computer. Thus, the focus of composers moved away from new melodies and orchestrations into researching the new sounds, new ways to distort a guitar or new ways to get something previously unheard out of a computer. Compared to music as it existed from Gregorian chants to the early 20th century, the melodies from contemporary music are, well, simplistic. This dramatic musicological shift opened up an entirely new, wonderful world but also abandoned the equally wonderful old one.
From the first minutes onward, you can tell that El Cid wants to reconcile the two worlds. This is why he uses a full orchestra as well as electronic beats, ambient sounds, and heavily distorted electric guitars. This is why the album has a wonderful sound, unlike anything that's been done. It feels both timeless and modern.
While the album's orchestration might be fantastic, so is the singing. All of the voices are beautiful and—this is specified in the booklet, one of the few "behind the scenes" info which is known on El Cid's output—left completely unaltered by the production. This is especially refreshing now that every popstars voice is so altered they all sound almost the same. This decision has been criticized even by fans who enjoyed the album. However, some have argued that this makes the imperfect, earnest voices stand out on top of the well-manicured instruments.
Not all of the singing is done by El Cid, although he has a starring role. Since it is an opera, there are several parts, sung by singers of all vocal range and of a lot of textures. He hired some very talented classical singers as well as singers whose voices are the type that would preclude them from singing classically—beautiful voices, but with unusual, unclassical beauty. In particular, the one who gets almost as much singing time as El Cid is a woman, who sings the part of El Cid's character's love interest. She has an extremely beautiful voice, deep and unique.
Unsurprisingly, Tragedy was very badly received by the public. The album was far too different and experimental for it to happen any other way. Sales were horrible, and the fact that the big CD box cost twice as much as a regular album didn't help them pick up. The videos for the album barely got play on music television.
Like the music on the album, the videos that came with it also combined the best of several techniques in an innovative and unique way. And they are extremely beautiful. They have a powerful aesthetic. Everything is shot in sepia tones, with stellar photography, vorthy of the best art photographers. The depth of the colouring is mind-boggling, with discreet touches of brighter, warmer colors given to some important elements in the picture. On top of this unique photographic look, the videos' visuals also include elements of hand-drawn animation and computer generated images. Among other things, the characters' eyes and some of the smoke is drawn and some vehicles, especially the trains, are CG. All of this gave the videos a truly unique, almost unreal look. There are no words to describe it—you'll just have to watch it.
The album and videos retold the classic medieval story of Tristram and Isolde in a different setting, like Starscape did with the Odyssey. The story is about a knight and his liege's wife who drink a love potion, fall in love, and start an adulterous relationship. The couple are exposed. Tristram and King Mark, the husband, have a duel. Mark wins, Tristram is badly wounded and flees the country with Isolde. Tristram dies of his wounds, and Isolde dies of sorrow over his dead body.
However, the story is set in a bleak steampunk/cyberpunk-inspired universe and shot in Eastern Europe or Russia somewhere. The setting is a megapolis with whitestone buildings reminiscent of Paris or Prague and art nouveau skyscrapers reminiscent of early 20th century Chicago and New York. Streets where overlapping webs of cables almost block out the artful skies, enormous, multi-levelled high speed steam trains, computers with central units more like switchboards, keyboards like typing machines and round exposed cathode ray tubes as screens, etc.
The feudal structure of the medieval story is transposed inside a clan of computer hackers. The videos show El Cid, who has the part of Tristram, replaying the story. First he became accepted into the clan thanks to his leet skillz—hackers have to break into building-sized computer mainframes to perform their deeds, a requisite which lent to impressive acrobatics and various action scenes—, then he fell in love with the clan leader's girlfriend, their affair, the duel and El Cid's injury, their retreat to the countryside—the subtle contrast between the cold colours of the city and the warmer tones of nature is powerful—El Cid's death from his injuries, the girl's death from sorrow over her lover's, and finally the clan leader's arrival and his suicide over his former girlfriend's death, in true Greek tragedy style.
The tour for Tragedy, titled Lyrical Drama, was even more of a fiasco than the album sales. The concerts were conceived not as rock or pop concerts but as an opera. El Cid, his band, and the full orchestra that accompanied him played behind a huge white sheet on which footage was projected. A much extended footage of the videos, some animated footage, and live images of the performance going on behind the sheet were included in one continuous artsy spectacle. This was found intensely boring even by most of his fans, who walked out. Furthermore, El Cid had asked and insisted that no cheers, applause or disturbance be made until the end of the show. As often as not when this was not observed, and he would often throw a trantrum and stop the show.
Because of all this, for El Cid, Tragedy was, pardon the pun, a tragedy from which he never fully recovered. However, from a musical, artistic and aesthetic point of view, the album pioneered many new and interesting ideas. And besides, even though few agree with me, I do think the album and the videos are very beautiful.
Visibly embittered by the bad response to Tragedy, El Cid announced through his label that he would put out a final album before retiring. The record would have a title, and this title would be: Untitled.
The music was, well, bad. A bunch of bland melancholy pop songs with the same basic acoustic guitar riffs and the same basic synth beats. There's still that excellent, flawsless production quality you get from El Cid's work but, unlike in his previous works, there's no real innovation. The only things of note are three instrumental tracks peppered on the record, titled "Untitled #1," "Untitled #2" and "Untitled #3" ; beautiful, swirling melodies sketched over mesmerizing soundscapes, giving a hint of his former genius. Each of these tracks is exactly seventy-seven seconds long, stopping abruptly in the middle—or beginning.
More noteworthy than the music are the videos. They caused a minor stir and were only rarely aired on music television due to their graphic content. Each video is in black and white and is one continuous shot. The photography is highly contrasted and, as always, very beautiful. Like videos on his other albums, they form a storyline when put together, but this one is backwards: the first video is the last part of the story, the second is the second to last, etc.
The first video, which started the (minor, due to the album's lack of success) controversy, featured El Cid as a prisoner in some grisly American prison, complete with tattoos, taking a shower, being assaulted by several other prisoners, held down, gang raped and then beaten to death. The next video showed him in his prison cell after dark, with considerably less tattoos, getting into a brutal fight with his cellmate, the leader of the group from the first video, and ending with El Cid beating him up and then raping him.
Even though the least graphic, the third video was perhaps the most disturbing, blurring the line between reality and fiction: El Cid played himself, leading his band during a live performance at a packed arena. In this video he radiates a ferocious kind of happiness, waltzing across the stage, soloing on his guitar, screaming into his mic, pumping up the crowd in the best rockstar style. The way the camera floats back and forth from the stage to the pit, showing a fanatical crowd chanting their adoration and their overexcited, overjoyed leader is quite unsettling.
The fourth and last video takes place right before the performance in the third video, in El Cid's dressing room, involving him and—as always—a stunningly beautiful young woman. They are clearly having a lover's spat. He is getting dressed up in the extravagant rockstar clothes he wore during the previous video and she is only wearing thong underwear. She is clearly hysterical: screaming, throwing bottles of whisky at him which barely miss and crash against the wall, stopping to sniff cocaine, etc. while he is trying to get dressed and go out to give a performance. Until he loses his cool. El Cid's face changes, becoming downright scary, and he suddenly punches her. She falls to the gound, a bloody gash on her forehead, and he only bends down to keep punching her. Like in the other videos, the audience isn't spared. His fist hammers down several times, obscuring the screen briefly before showing her once beautiful face being more deformed with each punch. Only when her face, bones, teeth and all, is totally crushed, as if repeatedly beaten with a bat and not a fist, does El Cid regain his cool. He stands up, washes his hands and leaves the dressing room, leaving the camera inside to stare at a guitar on its rack and fade to black.
It was a vicious circle: since Untitled wasn't doing well, the controversial videos weren't getting aired, and since there were no videos on the air Untitled didn't sell. The public, fans and reviewers alike agreed that El Cid lost his creative edge, made a bad album and knew it, and tried to push sales anyway by generating controversy with the videos. Even though The Last Tour, a classic rock band tour for Untitled and songs from the previous albums, was very successful, the album sold poorly, only barely reaching platinum status in the U.S. and Europe.
A small minority of fans, however, believes that Untitled was El Cid's "artistic suicide." According to this theory, the music on the record is voluntarily bland, in order to make people think El Cid sucks and lose interest in him. And the videos are a metaphor for El Cid's state of mind and his deciding to stage his own downfall from world stardom after feeling rejected by the poor response to Tragedy. According to this theory, the instrumental tracks are a preview of material for another, titled, great album which El Cid won't release because, since the failure of Tragedy, either he doesn't feel worthy or he doesn't feel audiences are.
Since then, almost nothing has been known about El Cid. He has bought a small, virgin island off the Canadian coast in the North Atlantic, had a big mansion built on top of it, and lives there as a recluse. Interest in him is almost completely gone from today's fickle minds. Sometimes, it's as if this eighties/early nineties-era superstar barely existed at all.
Plans for another album, or whether he has any interest left in music at all, of course, are anybody's guess. There were insistent rumours at some point of him trying to make a movie. He would write, produce, and direct, as well as hold the main part, but it never happened. Then there were rumours of a poetry book but, likewise, it didn't pan out. Whether they were idle media speculation or if there was a basis in fact is also unknown.
El Cid's life looks set to continue pretty much the same way it began: shrouded in mystery.
These words are for LieQuest 2013.