08 November 2019
Manu Chao's Clandestino appeared at the cross-fade of the millennium and sounded perfect – a radical masterpiece
Peter Culshaw reminisces on his time biographing the elusive Manu Chao as his classic solo album, Clandestino, is re-released 20 years on
Manu Chao and his co-producer Renaud Letang knew they were on to something when recording Clandestino but it didn’t sound like anything they had heard before. “We felt we had given birth to a UFO,” as Letang put it. There was no band to promote the album, it didn’t fit into radio station formats and mainstream broadcasters used the drugs references on tracks like ‘Welcome to Tijuana’ as an excuse not to play it.
Manu felt it was his swansong, and it initially looked that way, reaching number 19 in the French charts before it stalled. With little marketing of the album, fans discovered it for themselves. It became the soundtrack of choice for backpackers in hip beach destinations. A full year after its release, it entered the French top ten and then stayed in the charts for the next four years. In time it became seen as a classic – selling more than five million copies (and probably the same again if you count the pirated versions).
When I first heard it I was astonished enough to try to find out more about Manu Chao, who was clearly some kind of genius. When the opportunity to write a book about a musician came about, Manu seemed a truly fascinating subject, an enigmatic figure no writer had got close to.
As the lyric has it on one of the most important autobiographical songs on Clandestino, ‘Desaparecido’ – he is ‘the disappearing one ... hurry[ing] down the lost highway... When they look for me I’m not there, When they find me, I’m elsewhere.’ This itself probably should have been enough of a warning to a potential biographer.
The resulting book, called naturally Clandestino: In Search of Manu Chao (published by Serpent’s Tail in 2013) ended up being part biography and part travelogue. The first half covers the family back-story, the struggles for the early years and the punk milieu of 1980s Paris and the crazed tours of his previous band Mano Negra such as a four-month boat trip around Latin America, or a rail trip through the guerrilla chaos of Colombia in 1992 (described by Songlines’ Nigel Williamson in #15 as ‘less like a rock’n’roll tour, more like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow’).
Now, the word ‘I’ appears. I met up with Manu in Barcelona and went on a series of adventures with him. Over a period of two or three years the phone would ring every few months and I was often asked – at very little notice – if I wanted to go on tour in Mexico, spend a week in a psychiatric unit in Buenos Aires or to a refugee camp in Algeria, all of which naturally turned into great copy for the book.
What was clear pretty early on was how full of contradictions Manu is – very shy but someone who loves playing a stadium in front of 80,000 adoring fans. He was conflicted about his fame – he told me it was upsetting sometimes in a bar when having a normal chat with someone and then they suddenly realised who he was and their attitude changed. But fame is a kind of drug, it also enabled him to “use the microphone” in standing up for causes like fighting against privatisation of the Bolivian water companies or getting a boost for the homeless programmes in Córdoba, Argentina.
He said he has never read the book (although his girlfriend did tell me she had read it to him, so true enough). I did give him the benefit of the doubt on other matters he is conflicted about – it was true he would often prefer to crash on people’s floors rather than any flash hotel which I suggested was because he didn’t want to be in a bubble away from the people. Plenty of other people (like the crew who told me they were told to take the gear on public transport after a huge gig) or the manager of Amadou and Mariam who had to pay for Manu when he turned up in Mali with no cash – thought rather than “transcending the demon of money,” as Manu liked to put it, he was just being mean. Certainly money (and he made a lot from Clandestino) gives him freedom to travel and not to have to take the kind of sponsors he hates.
Manu’s record label has re-released a new version with some added new tracks including an update of the title-track with veteran fellow radical Calypso Rose who sings new words about being stranded at sea ‘the land in front don’t want me, the land behind me burns.’ The title-track ‘Clandestino’, sadly, is even more relevant than when it was first released.
Clandestino was the result of the bitter split of Mano Negra and also a bad romantic break-up. He spent the next three years on an extended ‘lost weekend,’ pinballing around the world, travelling mainly in South America, depressed and often suicidal. (“A cow saved my life,” he later said, impressed by the compassion in the beast’s eyes when it wandered into a beer shack in a Rio favela when he was at rock bottom).
For three years, between 1992 and 1995, he was missing-in-action, a nomad playing the bars of Rio and Tijuana, experimenting with peyote in Mexico City, entertaining the children of insurgents in Chiapas, Mexico. Slowly he returned to relative sanity and all the while, he had also been writing songs.
“Clandestino was the result of that time,” he said. “I didn’t know I was making a record. It was pure therapy.”
It seems unlikely Manu will hit the artistic and commercial bullseye with such accuracy again. Clandestino appeared at the cross-fade of the millennium and sounded perfect – a radical masterpiece, on the side of the dispossessed, a result of luck, depression, timing and sheer talent.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!