The Way It Used to Be

by | Nov 16, 2017 | Superunknown: Stories About Songs

The Way It Used to BeI was running late to catch a train at Grand Central when I heard a smooth tenor sax playing a familiar tune I could not place. I risked missing my train, but soon discovered the source on Vanderbilt near 43rd Street. Suddenly, it came to me; “Desafinado,” an Antonio Carlos Jobim composition from the early sixties. So sad and yet so beautiful, how could I have forgotten it? Recorded with Jobim on piano and vocal, guitarist Joao Gilberto and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, it’s Bossa Nova, an early fusion sound – Brazilian Samba and “American Cool.”

As I got closer, I saw more than a single saxophone player. A man with dark eyes and hair strummed a Martin. Next to him on tenor stood a taller man with a grey goatee. Fronting the group was a young woman in a little black dress, in her early twenties, with thick red hair in an elaborate French braid, waiting for her cue. When it came, she began to sing.

Hearing her brought me back to when I was young, when “Desafinado” was the background music to that time in my life. Besides Jobim, I’ve heard “Desafinado” sung by female vocalists Gal Costa and Astrud Gilberto, even Ella Fitzgerald, but this woman’s execution was different. Petite, and with no mike, her voice carried gentle notes. She sang verse after verse, alternating English and Portuguese. And as she sang, the crowd grew. People on their way to work or meetings, going to lunch, out shopping, or running to catch a train, as I was. It didn’t matter. Many stopped to listen and those who did were captivated.

This trio could have been playing for money – an open guitar case with some change and bills lay on the sidewalk. But it seemed that they played more for their own pleasure and the enjoyment of the unrelated New Yorkers or visitors passing by. They charmed and enchanted us. We all became part of a group whose sole intent was the simple delight of listening to music. Total strangers acknowledged and smiled at one another, moved in harmony with the rhythm.

In New York people are attracted to a crowd on the street until their curiosity is satisfied and then they move on. This time, however, they stayed, not only for the music, but likely, because of a feeling of intimacy this particular music created. We were in sync with one another and the musicians.

“Desafinado” means “out of tune.” The lyrics describe how two lovers who are drifting apart want to become close again. One softly pleads:

But our song of love is slightly out of tune

Tune your heart to mine the way it used to be

There’ll be no Desafinado when your heart belongs to me.

We weren’t out of tune, those of us on Vanderbilt Avenue near 43rd Street that day. We were in tune; the musicians, the audience, the time, and the place. For that brief moment in time, on a busy street in New York, people stopped, listened, shared of themselves. Nothing else mattered. Everything else could wait because we all understood this kind of magic doesn’t happen often.

Two police officers noticed the crowd and came over to see what it was all about. They stayed, too. One of them, an early middle-aged woman, really got into it. Slowly at first and almost unconsciously, she began to sway in time with the rhythm, executing some subdued, but skilled Samba steps. Soon, the musicians gestured to her and invited her to become part of the entertainment. How incongruent, with her blue uniform and gun on her hip, one of New York’s Finest and a superb Sambanista, moving sensuously with the music.

In the past, a street performance such as this would have been ephemeral – seen, heard, and then gone. But this rendition of “Desafinado,” while it would certainly make its way on to social media, and the audio and visual of the experienced could be reflected, what about the rest of it? The ambience? The mood? None of that would be captured electronically, nor could the unspoken, yet shared feeling of fellowship amongst a group gathered on Vanderbilt Avenue, by an impromptu interlude.

This piece is part of an ongoing series called Superunknown: Stories About Songs.

Photo used under CC.

About The Author


Robert Iulo’s work has appeared in Gastronomica, Hypertext, Blood and Thunder and others. He’s had a special feature published in the Mississippi Sun Herald about his volunteer work on the Mississippi Coast after Katrina. He lives in New York City with his wife.