'Bowie Is Forever': With Starman's Death, Seu Jorge's Covers Get New Life

Seu Jorge performs Thursday, Dec. 15 at the Regency Ballroom.

[Ed. note: The author conducted this interview in Portuguese and translated it into English for this piece.]

Seu Jorge never thought he’d go on tour playing the Portuguese cover versions of David Bowie songs that he wrote for director Wes Anderson’s 2004 cult classic The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

But the album The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions, which the Brazilian musician released in 2005, took on a new life when Bowie's ended in January 2016. Suddenly, Jorge’s impeccable, original translations of classics like “Rebel, Rebel,” “Life on Mars,” and “Changes” became an important musical testament to Bowie’s worldwide influence and significance.

“The album didn’t really catch-on in Brazil at the time, so in these last 12 or 13 years, I never played these songs,” says Jorge by phone from a tour stop in Washington D.C. “I definitely wouldn't have done the tour had he not passed, because these are his songs. They’re already established works. I’m doing this tour now as a tribute to him.”

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On his current tour, Jorge plays the covers on stage with a ship’s steering wheel at his feet, as if he were sitting on his perch atop Steve Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte. Between songs, Jorge tells anecdotes about the film’s creation, and even wears the signature red beanie that his character, Pelé dos Santos, wears in the film. A noticeable portion of the crowds have also been wearing red beanies to the shows — overwhelming evidence of both Wes Anderson’s cult following and reverence for Jorge’s Bowie interpretations.

With his signature quirk, Anderson conceived the idea for a Brazilian character in the film named Pelé dos Santos, to sing classic Bowie songs in Portuguese. Anderson connected with acclaimed Brazilian director Walter Salles (Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries), who recommended the versatile Jorge — on the heels of his breakthrough performance in City of God — as the perfect fit.

“My ex-wife Mariana picked up the phone and told me this director was on the phone and wanted me to play a character called Pelé dos Santos. And I said ‘I’m not a soccer player!’” Jorge half-jokes. “I didn’t know Wes’s work, but my ex-wife did and said he was fantastic. So I watched Royal Tenenbaums and started understanding the road this movie would take and I took an interest in the project. It was a challenge to live outside of Brazil for a while and work with some great people.”

Those people included Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett -- all playing characters who became subjects of Jorge’s song translations, which weren’t literal to the Bowie versions.

“Pelé is like an observer of what happens on the boat,” Jorge says. “He doesn’t speak much, but he’s always present with an aura that everything is fine ... like a hippie, playing guitar and recording. I thought about doing [straight covers], but the idea was an opportunity to comment on the characters in the universe of the film, the relationships … Zissou, Ned Plimpton and everyone who traverses the ship.”

Jorge says that the “Lady Stardust” cover version was about Blanchett’s character, who was pregnant with the child of the editor who assigned her the story about Zissou. The latter character, should you need a refresher, is a down-on-his-luck oceanographer who seeks revenge on a rare "jaguar shark" that ate a member of his crew.

Jorge’s memory of the plot minutiae is uncanny. It seems he remembers exactly what emotions from which characters went into the songs that he re-wrote in Portuguese.

“I had a lot of freedom to be able to do these versions. But I always looked to preserve the titles of the songs in the lyrics, like 'Changes' or 'Ziggy Stardust,' 'Lady Stardust,'" he says of his translation philosophy for the project. "I had this liberty to talk about the film and the characters in the film." While the majority of the songs are sung in Portuguese, Jorge sings some choruses and song titles, when they come up, in English.

The only song that Jorge didn’t translate originally for the film was “Starman,” which was already covered in 1989, by popular Brazilian band Nenhum de Nós. Their version, like Jorge’s album version, is called “O Astronauta de Mármore” (which literally translates as “The Marble Astronaut”) and it was very popular in Brazil into the 1990s.

“When I played “O Astronauta de Mármore” for Wes, he loved it. So there was no need to re-translate it. It was an homage by Nenhum de Nós in the '80s. It was them [recognizing] how big and important Bowie was back then. So keeping it like that was also a way for us to show Bowie’s place in history for Brazilians ... his influence and the perception of him,” Jorge explains.

Jorge, who now lives in Los Angeles, was in Brazil rehearsing for the 10th anniversary of the "Ana & Jorge" tour DVD -- a smash-hit artifact of his collaboration with singer Ana Carolina -- when he heard of David Bowie’s passing. Jorge's own father was also in the hospital, and the news hit him in a sensitive and pensive moment.

“I saw people posting all over social media, and then fans and friends kept telling me they were playing my music and my covers album, saying it was a beautiful tribute,” he says. “Mariana -- who's still my manager -- came to me with this idea for a tour that would serve as a tribute. This is a privilege that film gave to me, being tied with Bowie. There’s permanence and a lasting legacy to it."

Like Jorge, Bowie himself was an actor as well as a musician. Coincidentally, he played Pontius Pilate to Jorge’s Life Aquatic castmate Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in Scorcese's 1988 classic The Last Temptation of Christ. “He was marvelous in it,” Jorge says of Bowie’s role in the film.

“I really wanted to get to know him and thank him for the music and for the opportunity to work with these songs," says Jorge. And though he never got that chance, this tour is helping provide some closure.

"I wanted to end this year playing his songs for people who like him and like his music. Because Bowie e pra sempre,” he says, in Portuguese, before quickly translating. “Forever.”

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