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Jun 14, 2014

A father's greatness, a son's memories

Luis Spinetta's nickname was
Luis Spinetta's nickname was "El Flaco," or "Skinny."

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- A father of two, a man approaching middle age named Dante Spinetta, gathered his children two nights ago in front of a television to watch the opening match of the World Cup. His son Brando is 11 now, obsessed with the game. The look on Brando's face, something approaching spiritual rapture that only a boy watching his heroes can create, reminded Dante of when he was a child, a year younger than his son is now, watching the final match of the 1986 World Cup with his dad.

Luis Alberto Spinetta might have been among the most beloved rock stars in Latin America, and the world's most recognizable fan of the Buenos Aires soccer team River Plate, but to Dante, he was a pizza chef extraordinaire. That night, they ate Luis' homemade pizza and, together, saw Argentina become champions of the world. Even 28 years later, with Dante now a famous Grammy-winning musician himself, the 1986 World Cup win evokes his father as much as it does Maradona.

Dante remembers every detail: how the house had more guitars and amplifiers than furniture, the Star Wars action figure he found on the street during the celebration, the pizza his father made.

"He cooks very well ..." he starts to say, catching himself in the present tense, then correcting himself.

"He used to cook," he says.

Dante is widely considered a hip-hop pioneer in Argentina and Latin America.
Dante is widely considered a hip-hop pioneer in Argentina and Latin America.

Spinetta everyone called him, worthy of a single name, and when he died of cancer two years ago, it was for a generation of Argentines what the death of John Lennon was for a generation of Americans. Spinetta was the spiritual father of Latin American rock, the musical conscience of a nation that struggled through a repressive dictatorship, who said with his guitar and his lyrics what millions needed to hear. He was the actual father of Dante, Catarina, Valentino and Vera.

This is their first World Cup without him.

"There is a hole in our lives," Dante says, sitting in the corner of a cafe near his house on Friday. "In these moments, you remember the joy of being all together."

This is the most intimate power of the World Cup. Every four years, the rush of time slows and everything stops for a month. The quiet provides the mental space to consider the additions and subtractions of life -- to celebrate, and to mourn. When Dante remembers the last World Cup, for instance, his mind takes him to a vital qualifying match against Uruguay, which he and Luis watched together, sitting in a recording studio. Today he cannot separate the memory of the 2010 Argentine national team from a memory of his father, and of him and his father together. The World Cup isn't the only thing that does this, or even the most important, but it is one of them, a powerful mechanism for memory and love.

"It's not as nostalgic as Christmas," Dante says, "but it's a thing where you share your joy with loved ones and the ones who are not around. You look at the sky."

He looks for his father everywhere. In his bedroom, Dante keeps the last guitar Luis ever played, a small acoustic Taylor, and he refuses to ever change the strings. Mostly, he looks for his dad's energy, even summoning it himself through music. After Luis died, Dante wrote a song for him, about trying to deal with the emptiness he felt, the name of which is best translated in English as "Golden Eagle."

When it came time to record it, he spent a lot of time telling the engineers that he wanted every part of the process to be a tribute to his dad. They worked hard to match things like pedals and amplifiers, recreating the sound of the Led Zeppelin albums that first made Luis Alberto Spinetta dream, tuning the drums like John Bonham, with a big snare sound and a monster 26-inch kick drum, getting the same compressions on the mix, even mixing at a place in Los Angeles where Zeppelin recorded. Dante played the guitar solo near the end of the song and it, too, was a subtle tribute. Nailing the vocal took several takes because he kept getting emotional singing words so nakedly about the biggest loss of his life.

When he plays it live now, the crowd understands. His emotions and their energy -- the connection between the stage and the seats -- takes the show into another gear, singing "not only for people who loved my father, but for people who've lost someone special."

The lyrics are about how nothing dies but merely changes form.

"My father is still around," he says. "I believe in that mysticism."

Not long ago, on a particularly tough day -- going through a painful breakup -- Dante got back to his house and went into the kitchen. Out of nowhere, he smelled his father's cologne and thought, "Man, he's here."

He listens to his dad's music now with a different ear. Growing up, he loved hip-hop -- Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" was for him what his father's "Desatormentándonos" was for a previous generation -- and he laughs about his music-loving dad suffering through the rap blasting from his teenage son's bedroom. He chuckles now remembering his dad's reaction, since even rock-star parents are hopelessly out of touch.

"Oh, that all sounds the same!" his father would complain.

Recently, Dante got one of his dad's lyrics stuck in his head, because it seemed to speak to him, and to a rut of life he felt unable to escape: "I need to learn how to fly, between so many people who are standing."

He couldn't remember which song those words came from, so he Googled the phrase, and when the title came up on the search, he found a version of his dad singing the song online. It's a strange thing for the child of a famous father to come across their dad in such a public place and feel such private emotions. Dante listened to the song, a slow acoustic ballad. When he finished, he read the comments. The fans talked about his dad, which made Dante feel happy, and then he learned something he'd never known.

His dad wrote the song for him.


Luis Alberto Spinetta loved the club team River Plate -- after he died, the team played a game with his name on their jerseys and released an official statement of condolence -- so his son did, too. A month ago, when the team won the league championship, Dante thought about his father and wanted so badly to share the moment with him. He feels that way now, too. Favorite teams and big games -- these aren't just cynical money-making enterprises. They are vital touchstones. In a month, if Leo Messi is holding up the trophy, Dante will remember his 10-year-old self, and his father who is no longer sitting next to him, yelling and screaming at the men on their TV.

"If we win," Dante says, "it will be very nostalgic. Everyone in Argentina will cry."

Then he laughs.

"But it's fixed," he says with a grin. "We saw that yesterday."

Dante can't watch the World Cup final with his family, since he'll be on tour in the United States, but he is having a party Sunday, when Argentina plays its first match. He's invited all his friends, who are bringing their children, and together they'll recreate the mental picture from Dante's childhood: families together, crowded around plates of food. They will watch their beloved national team take the field, just as they all did when they were young, as all of their children will do 30 years from now, celebrating with those who are there and missing those who are not.

"It's gonna be like a small stadium," he says. "Everybody wearing the colors ... and the Golden Eagle flying around."