The Argentine singer/songwriter Piero de Benedictis, commonly known simply as Piero, composed some of the most complex and erudite lyrics in the history of Latin American music. Many of his songs are really short essays on life, culture, and politics, delivered in Piero’s trademark conversational style. The most famous today are perhaps “Los Americanos,” a comedic take on North Americans as seen from the Global South, and “Mi Viejo,” a heartbreaking meditation on a man’s relationship with his father. For many Argentines who came of age in the 1960s and 70s, however, Piero’s masterpiece is indubitably “Las Cosas que Pasan.”
To begin with, the song has historical significance. It was written in 1976, the same year the Argentine military removed President Isabel Perón from power and established a hard-fisted Junta to oversee the country. This military dictatorship, which lasted until 1983, was one of the most repressive and murderous in Latin American history; its merciless pursuit of dissidents is today known as “The Dirty War.” From the beginning, the authorities kept a close eye on writers and musicians suspected of having ties to “subversive elements.” Piero certainly did, and he left the country to live in exile soon after the coup. It is widely believed (but was never proven) that the police sought to arrest Piero because of the popularity of “Las Cosas que Pasan.”
The song doesn’t at first seem political, because it doesn’t explicitly protest military violence or police repression. It sends out its message obliquely and elusively. The lyrics unfold as an internal monologue in which a man describes what is happening to him in the moment. “How nice it is to sit in the front of a bar,” he begins, “and watch Buenos Aires pass by.” The rest is a list of all the things he sees passing by. It is full of dark humor and allusions to Argentina’s cultural life – corrupt cops, politicians and their lovers, revolutionary students. Jorge Luis Borges, the famous writer, makes an appearance. At one points the experience gets a little strange, as the narrator sings “I myself pass by, and see myself looking at those passing by.”
The title is a play on words which can be translated into English as “The Things that Pass By” but also as “The Things that Happen.” Piero deliberately confuses the two meanings: as he describes the things that pass by he comments on the things that have happened. A torturer passes by, so do the smugglers, prostitutes, a sinful priest, a gang corrupt cops. The melody is simple and incongruously chipper. The accompaniment is minimal, just an acoustic guitar that gives the vocals pride of place. It’s only at the end that the song gets serious and alludes to the political situation of the country.
“Las Cosas que Pasan” was, ironically, popularized not by Piero but by Jorge Schussheim. Schussheim had a reputation as a comedic singer and (apparently) was not seen as a threat by the military government. It is worth, though, to hear Piero perform it. He doesn’t as much sing it as tell it, like a friend confiding in you while you sit at the bar and share a drink together.