"Sometimes, just because I become nervous, I burst out, Or rather, just because I am alive."
- Elis Regina in 'Rebento', by Gilberto Gil
New year, new life:
Elis was full of plans for 1982. Because of this, the night of December 31st, 1981 had a very special significance for her and Samuel. After six months of seeing each other, they had decided to get married. On a professional side, Elis was anxious to record her first record at Som Livre. She was certain that the record company would really promote the record, include one of the tracks in the soundtrack of one of the nightly soap operas on Globo and, who knows, turn it into a sales campaign - something which had only happened once during her long career, a long time ago, with the first "Dois Na Bossa" LP, which she had recorded with Jair Rodrigues in 1965. Love-success-money: with this triad, 1982 could be a great year.
There is nothing better to usher in the new year than a New Year's Eve party. Elis and her boyfriend went to two of them. The first was at the house of the musician and friend Natan.
From there, at two in the morning, the couple went to the other one, at the house of a friend of Samuel's. Upon seeing Elis and Samuel together, the actor Gianfrancesco Guarnieri, one of the guests, did a speech saluting the new pair. Elis leaned her head into Samuel's shoulder, cried a little and whispered to her fiancé: "It's the first time one of your friends has introduced me to a group".
Elis did not have a year ahead of her. Hardly nineteen days. And they were agitated, busy and nervous days. She worked without stopping, listening to tape after tape, trying to come up with the repertory for her new record. She had the habit of rigorously listening to all the tapes that were sent to her. At the same time, she was trying to build up her team, her personal staff. She chose Lea Millon as an administrator. Tia Lea (Aunt Lea), as she was known in the music world, already looked after the personal business of the baianos (1) - (Gilberto) Gil, Caetano (Veloso), Gal (Costa). Excited with the choice, Elis anotated with great care in her agenda the functions that would fall on the new administrator.
The arrival of Tia Lea on the scene didn't mean that Celina Silva would not have anything to do, absolutely not. Especially because Lea lived in Rio and Elis needed someone close by. Each day, when she arrived at Elis' house, Celina would find a sort of organigram for the day. A meticulous Pisces, Elis noted everything that the secretary had to solve during the day. There was one thing, however, that Elis made a point of looking after herself: find a house to go move into with the children and Samuel, as soon as they were married. She wanted to be with him full time. During those six months of courtship, Samuel rarely slept at Elis' apartment. Jealous mother, afraid to confuse the children's minds. After all, the breakup with César was still a very recent thing.
Whoever's been through it knows it: there is no greater disruption than a house move. Elis didn't want, in any way, for this move to occur at the same time as the recording sessions which were scheduled to begin on the 26th. And she was already agonizing over the fact of not yet having found a building that she liked. Finally, on January 16th, after several comings and goings, she and Samuel found what they wanted and closed the deal: a house on Chile Street, Jardim América, a neighborhood "close to everything", as the paulistanos call it. Elis was raving: she would knock down a certain wall, move this over here, that over there, arrange the furniture in her head, and she decided: the coming week, without fail, arrange for the move. She wanted to go into the studio totally unpreoccupied with this subject. Unloading this burden, another one appeared, and unexpected: Samuel was wavering. The father of three children, he questioned Elis on the influence that the move could have on his children.
Moreover: he didn't even know how life under one roof with her children would be. The two of them spent the weekend - Elis' last - discussing this.
On Monday the 18th, early in the morning, Elis went to look at the house again. She went alone and wasted no time, for she had invited to lunch: Rogério, her sister-in-law Biba, and their children Carolina and Rodrigo. The brother and his family had been away for twenty days: they had gone to spend the holiday season in São Pedro da Aldeia, Rio de Janeiro. The lunch was going to be a sort of late Christmas celebration, with rights to presents and everything. It was very amusing, recalls Rogério:
- It was great. Elis already knew that I wasn't trying to be her impresario anymore and finally understood. As soon as I arrived, she scolded me for travelling without giving her a telephone call. In the middle of the afternoon, I went with Biba to pick up my daughter Carolina at the doctor. Maria Rita came with us. Then around nine in the evening, I went back to the apartment to bring back Maria Rita. Biba didn't come up, she stayed in the car. I stayed a few minutes then left. Everything was normal. It was wonderful.
At the end of the lunch, the telephone rang. It was Ronaldo Bastos. Elis: "Do you expect me to stay her the whole day waiting for you? Come over right away!"
Ronaldo Bastos was born in Niterói and always lived in Rio. Even so, many people think that he is Mineiro (2), because of his partnerships with Milton Nascimento (3), Beto Guedes (4), and the Mineiro gang.
Before knowing Elis, he was deathly afraid of her. Afterward, they became friends. Great friends.
- When I arrived, Rogério, Biba and the children were in the living room. Natan and Celina as well. We left the others there, and Natan and I went to Elis' bedroom. We spent the whole afternoon there, listening to tapes. We were helping Elis to choose her repertory. Shortly she joined us and we stayed there, listenming to a mountain of songs. I didn't see Elis snort cocaine. Natan and I drank two beers, two cans that João Marcelo had brought. Then around seven in the evening, Elis asked us to get out of the bedroom and to go into the living room: she wanted to take a bath. Then Samuel arrived. And we stayed there, talking and listening to music, a fabulous atmosphere. In no way did Elis want us to leave. We only managed to leave the apartment around ten o'clock.
Besides helping Elis to choose her repertory, Natan Marques also suggested names to make up the band that was going to record with her. Natan begins:
- During that final week, she was not only excited about the record, but also regarding the formation of the new group, because we had managed to form a group in São Paulo, with local musicians. On the 18th, I was at her apartment listening to tapes. The repertoire wasn't yet finalized. The only certainty was Nos Bailes Da Vida (In The Dances Of Life), by Milton (Nascimento) and Fernando Brant, which was going to be sensational. We were going to use the harmony from Something, by the Beatles, and unite it with the harmony contained in Milton's song. On the night of the 18th, Elis gave me a tape containing songs from Gonzaguinha (5), and the last thing she said to me at the elevator, around ten o'clock, when I left, was: "Damn, what a shame we only reserved the studio starting Monday. I'd love to be able to get in there tomorrow or the day after". I said: "Why don't you arrange this? You've got the pull". Elis ended off by agreeing to meet the following day at three in the afternoon.
Elis and Samuel were then finally alone. The two maids had retired. The children were already asleep. They opened a bottle of white wine and sat down to dinner. The subject that most preoccupied them did not take long to come out: the move, the marriage, the children, Samuel's fear, Elis' fear. But already, she seemed tired of the subject. At a certain point in the conversation, to indicate that the conversation bored her, she picked up a record album cover, put it up in front of her face, and pretended to read, while Samuel talked. He didn't have any doubts: he got up, left and went to his house. It was eleven-thirty in the evening.
Before going to sleep, Samuel was still hoping for Elis to call or to appear, in order to patch things up. Nothing. She didn't call. At half past midnight, she called him. The discussion of the weekend and the dinner continued on the telephone. Angered, Elis reinforced her sentences and arguments with swear words. Then she declared that the conversation was closed and hung up on him. After five minutes, she regretted the gesture and called Samuel back. More discussion, more misunderstanding, more swear words, and another abrupt end of call. Samuel wasn't resigned and started to call back.
Once, twice, three times ... 'n' times. Elis had turned on the answering machine. Samuel kept trying until three in the morning. Then he turned in and went to bed.
To this very day, Samuel MacDowell de Figueiredo keeps those telephone conversations to himself. He refuses to talk about them, as he does about the last hours of Elis Regina's life. I tried to get a hold of him several times, over several months, to collect his testimony. In the end, he was the last person to speak with her. He finally agreed to see me during an evening in July 1985. When I arrived at his house, in the Morumbi district, he was waiting for me with a written text, scribbled, and shallow as far as information goes. Close to the beginning of the text, which in fact was a letter directed to me, he said:
"Elis is a public person, you will say. Not me: our relationship, in the same way, isn't either. Of that, most is already known, you already know, everyone knows enough about us that I feel entitled to protect the bit of our intimacy that hasn't already been devoured by newspapers and magazines. I have always been very protective of what I am telling you now. There aren't any reasons to change". I read the entire letter and pondered: I wanted to reconstruct the facts while respecting his considerations - but not only these. He is the only witness of Elis' final night. He had said that he would talk to me, that he would answer my questions, and nothing more. We talked for four hours. After our conversation, I left his house completely shattered. I don't know how I managed to drive my car from Morumbi to Higienópolis.
At nine-thirty on Tuesday, January 19th, the telephone rang in lawyer Samuel MacDowell Figueiredo's office. It was Elis. She started up again the discussion about the wedding and the move. She told him that she had been up all night. The conversation had started rather harshly but little by little, the two of them started to understand each other. Samuel managed to make her listen to him. Of course he wanted to marry her and live with her. She shouldn't feel insecure: the vacillation on his part was natural, especially because of the children involved. After many explanations, she finally appeared to yield. Softly, affectionately, lovingly, she said from the other end of the line: I love you, I love you, you are the man of my life. Samuel noted that her voice began to sound pasty. The words came out in spurts, incomplete. And suddenly, silence. Hello, hello, he shouted. Nothing. Not a sound.
Worried, he disconnected and called her house. Busy. He called again. Busy. Again. Always busy.
There wasn't any doubt: he left his office in a flash, called a taxi and headed for Melo Alves Street. He met the maid and the babysitter who were with Pedro and Maria Rita in the building's playground. They said that they had been there for an hour, waiting for "the boss" to get up and give them money to go to the market. João Marcelo was in the living room, playing loud music in order to wake up his mother. Samuel picked up the key and climbed up to the upstairs bedroom. The hallway door that led to Elis' suite was locked. Samuel pounded on it. No answer. He then told the boy to go get the tools and help him break down the door, since Elis had left the key in the inside lock, so that it couldn't be opened from the oustide. They undid the lock. And they found another locked door, the one leading to the bedroom. Another forced entry. When the door finally yielded, Samuel and João Marcelo saw Elis lying on the floor, between the bed and the bookcase. The telephone was beside her, off the hook.
Samuel sent João Marcelo away, went in, closed the door, bent down and shook Elis. Elis didn't move. No sign of life. Samuel picked up the telephone and made two calls: one to the Clínicas Hospital, asking for an ambulance, and the other to his partner Marco Antônio Barbosa, asking for a doctor. His shirt was soaked with perspiration when Celina Silva, the secretary, arrived:
- The kitchen door was open, João Marcelo passed by me and left. Then I saw Samuel all sweaty, nervous, transfigured. "The ambulance...", he said, "I don't know what happened." He had just opened the door. I didn't go into the bedroom, I went to the telephone. But afterward, I ran to the bedroom and she was on the floor. Lying face down, unconscious. My attention was drawn to her feet, which were purple. Samuel said: "I am trying to call the ambulance but they aren't coming, they are delayed". I didn't understand anything. He only talked about ambulance, help, let's go quickly. I tried, but couldn't get through to the ambulance either. Elis was limp, with no reaction whatsoever. Her lips were purple, half her face was much darker, and an absurd eye shadow. Samuel's legs were shaking when we decided to wrap her in a blanket. I don't know if she was dead, but there was no sign of heartbeat or breathing. Her body was warm, but her hands and feet were cold.
"All this lasted, at the most, ten minutes. Of panic. We carried Elis to the elevator. Samuel ran back inside to get her papers and I was holding her by myself, in the hall. I was telling him to tell me what had happened. I went nuts, I was stirring and shaking her. And nothing, no sign of life. We went down in the elevator, and Samuel held her while I called a taxi. As we were placing her in the car, the family doctor arrived in another car (Álvaro Machado Júnior), accompanied by Marco Antônio Barbosa, Samuel's partner. Then I went with Marco in one car, the doctor, Samuel and Elis in the taxi. At the Clínicas Hospital, I gave them Elis' papers so that they could open a file, while five or ten doctors danced around her, struggling. Everything had happened very fast. Fifteen or twenty minute went by. The doctor came over to us and said: 'She didn't make it'."
Celina ran to the telephone and called the closest friends. Disoriented, they started to arrive at the hospital. No one knew what to do. Since Elis hadn't died of natural causes, it was necessary to do an autopsy. As her body was being transferred to to the Medical-Legal Institute, a short distance from the hospital, her brother Rogério arrived: he had just heard the news on his car radio.
The news that was spreading throughout Brazil could not, unfortunately, be denied. At twelve o'clock on that tragic Tuesday morning, January 19th, the doctors of the Clínicas Hospital declared Elis Regina Carvalho Costa to be officially dead. At four in the afternoon, Elis returned to the stage of the Bandeirantes Theatre where, six years earlier, she had put on the greatest success of her career, the show Falso Brilhante. On that stage, she would be exposed all that night and the next morning for the multitude of people that crowded into the theater and spilled out in long lines on Brigadero Luís Avenue.
It was mainly humble people, common people, people that had probably never got to see her up close. They had loved her from afar. The following morning, during the long journey from the theatre to Morumbi cemetary, other visibly shaken crowds saluted Elis. In the entire history of Brazil, only two artists had managed to provoke such a commotion: Chico Alves and Carmem Miranda (6). Twenty-four hours after the death, everything seemed to come to an end in that grave.
But it wasn't over yet. On the 21st, Thursday, the Medical-Legal Instituite's report on the causa-mortis was released. The document stated that Elis had died as a result of an intoxication produced by alcoholic beverage and cocaine. General surprise. Parents and friends who had arrived insisted in saying that she didn't use drugs. There was immediate doubt placed on the report, which was signed by the director of the Institute, Dr. Harry Shibata. The same Shibata who, in 1975, had signed the famous report on the death of journalist Wladimir Herzog, declared to be a suicide without his body having been examined, guided by II Exército (7), under whose jurisdiction operated the dreaded DOICODI (8), where Herzog had died. Acting as one of the lawyers for the Herzog family, Samuel MacDowel de Figueiredo had succeeded in proving that the Union was responsible for the journalist's death. Now, seven years later, the coroner Shibata could have been getting even, complicating the life of the lawyer Samuel.
The case was carried in the press. An inquiry was opened to determine if there had been suicide or even an inducement to suicide. On February 26, 1982, judge Antônio Filardi Luiz settled the inquiry file with a very beautiful report of five pages, where he exalted Elis' personality and concluded: "The evidence gathered does not demonstrate, even as a theory, the crime of inducement, instigation or aid in the suicide, because one cannot really speak, with any degree of assurance, about suicide".
Elis died, in fact, of a lethal dose of Cinzano and cocaine. An error of dosage. An accident.
"Otros outubros virão (9)" (other octobers will arrive). Elis died, and nothing is worse than the fact of her death. People stayed away from discussions about the causes of her death. They preferred to focus on the pain of losing her, and turned her funeral into a national commotion. It's not in vain that the people idolize their dearly departed. Buried with the banner of Brazil on her chest, Elis carried out her mission. Such an intense life and such an intense career left an indelible mark on the country's culture.
The radio stations play her music more each day (10). A group of young people get together each week in the Elis em Movimento (Elis in Movement) Association, to remember her. Schools, streets and plazas were given her name. In the Festival dos Festivais (Festival of Festivals), on the Globo network, almost a hundred composers submitted songs praising Elis. During the month of July 1985, when the Elis Regina Auditorium was inaugurated in São Paulo, dona Ercy was there. Embarassed by the number of municipal politicians in attendance, and who were not well known, she expressed the pride of the Carvalho Costa family by stating, in front of the TV Globo cameras: "She deserved this".
By her errors, her lack of control, and her misunderstandings with others and with herself, Elis discovered all through her life the right to change her mind. She fought desperately for this during her thirty-six years. She had the strength of an obstinate person. She cast caution to the wind and threw herself fast and agile into her desires. She did and said what she wanted - overcame accusations, labels, charges. She confused, messed up, screamed and complained. She responded to all criticism or arguments directly. She was an extremely special mutant, a valiant woman, a privileged and talented artist.
She was like a hurricane. Devastating. With me, she was like that. That nervousness came from her entire personality, without half-truths. Elis destroyed my concepts, opened up room for comprehension, amd showed me the fragile universe of an artist's soul. Extremely fine lesson of life, charged by a strong and brasilian singing voice that to this day, makes me cry when I listen to it. Maria, Maria, uma mulher que merece viver e amar como outra qualquer do planeta. Uma dose mais forte, lenta (11) (Maria, Maria, a woman who deserves to live and to love as much as any other woman on this planet. A stronger, slow dose.).
Eight or eighty. No difference. Elis didn't have unanimity in life, but death gave it to her. On the stage of the Bandeirantes Theatre, where she was exposed, a respectful audience could see her serene physionomy, peaceful at last.
Popular music lost its major standard-bearer. Her friends lost the restless geyser, the one who instigated and disoriented them. Lovely and crazy. A nervous and gentle person, hard to grab. She inherited from dona Ercy the same haughtiness. She also inherited from dona Ercy the same habit of not yielding. "I love to get on people's nerves", she used to tell me. "Will I ever have to accept somebody passing ahead of me?"
No, Elis, definitely not. There's no need to accept anything. There's only a need to live.
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Copyright Regina Echeverria – Robert St-Louis
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