It’s a pity – to English speakers at least – that some of the most perfect songs were written in languages other than English. “Palabras Como Cuerpos,” written by songwriter Joaquin Sabina and released on his 1978 debut album Inventario, is one such song. It’s a farewell note to the Franco regime that held Spain in its steely grip until the mid-1970s, an ode to love in times of oppression.
An elegant piano flourish sets the scene, until Joaquin Sabina’s distinctive voice takes over. He wants to learn the names of things again, to call bread “bread,” wine “wine,” to call him who kills again a “murderer.” For the oppressors stole all our words, including the sweet names of love and the human body, robbing us of the glory of being alive. The most powerful thought-control, Sabina knows, consists in control over our language and our minds.
And yet, he continues, they too have a body beneath their clothes, hands that don’t caress, fingers that don’t touch, because they only know how to sign a paper and pull a trigger. It’s the song’s central trope: the warmth of a living, loving body against the coldness of fear and corrupted power-lust, which works in the mind but cannot control the body.
We, who simply wanted to live, Joaquin Sabina sings, we were brothers of the rain, of the sea, of our friends. We only wanted to name the poppies, to say “wind,” “dawn,” “rage,” “fire” to say: “if you want a shore, my tongue is a wave.” We wanted to speak the lost language of love and poetry, of the living body, instead of the dead langauge of oppression.
Sabina seems to have taken Phil Ochs’ motto to heart, realizing that in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty. “Palabras Como Cuerpos” is a protest song in the best sense of the word, one that would stand its ground among those written in the 1960s by artists like Ochs, Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley, Neil Young.
We don’t have many weapons to fight with, Joaquin Sabina sings in the final verse, but those we have we will use. The poetry of these closing lines is so powerful that they could equally be construed as a metaphor for life in general. For there is always oppression and there are always minds that live in fear, and there is always an answer: a body that lives in love.
Nos vimos arrojados a este combate oscuro
sin armas que oponer al acoso enemigo
más que el dulce lenguaje de los cuerpos desnudos
y saber que muy pronto va a desbordarse el trigo.
We were thrown into this dark struggle
with no weapons to fight our enemy’s abuse
but the sweet language of naked bodies
and the knowledge that soon the wheat will overflow.
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