Categories: Photography

Taro of Alt-J tells the dramatic story of Gerda

With their debut album (An Awesome Wave, 2012) the British Alt-J 10 years ago they gave us a record full of small pearls. Among these, hidden between hit singles such as Matilda (a tribute to the character of Lèon by Luc Besson) and Breezblocks, there is also a song that tells the dramatic story of Gerda Taro e Robert Cape. The song in question is called Taro and closes the first album of Alt-J: let’s find out its meaning and history.

The meaning of Taro: the dramatic story of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa

Do not spray into eyes
I have sprayed you into my eyes

Born in Germany to a Polish Jewish family, he photographs her Gerta Pohorylle flees to Paris in 1934 (aged 24) due to the rise of Nazism. In France he takes the pseudonym Gerda Taro and falls madly in love with Endre Ernő Friedmann, a Hungarian photographer also of Jewish origin who, after living in Berlin, decides for the same reasons to flee to Paris. Friedmann, at the suggestion of Taro herself, takes the pseudonym of Robert Capeposing as an American photographer looking for his fortune in Europe.

In 1936 the couple decided to document the Spanish Civil War firsthand, taking some of the most famous shots of the conflict (signed in the name Cloak-Taro). Gerda, in particular, had a very courageous personality. It is even said that she incited the revolutionary soldiers to fight against the Francoists, which she too was motivated by a deeply anti-fascist spirit. Her shots were often close to the action, which put the photographer herself at great risk to her safety.

During a return trip from the front, some German airplanes machine-gunned the convoys on which Taro was traveling. The girl, at the time 26 years old, she was clinging to the outside step of the car. In the hustle and bustle of the conflict a friendly tank escorting the vehicles overwhelmed the car, crushing Gerda from the waist down.. The girl was overwhelmed by the tracks, but she did not lose consciousness, not even during the very long and slow transport to the military hospital in Madrid. With her own hands she pressed the wounds to stop the blood, and in the hospital the doctors tried to operate her despite the lack of anesthetics and antibiotics. However, her organs were irreparably damaged, and the nurses were given orders to administer all the morphine possible, to avoid suffering while awaiting an inevitable death..

The girl, meanwhile always alert, he kept worrying only about the shots, wondering if the cameras had broken. Death came at dawn the following day. According to the chronicles, Gerda “simply closed her eyes”.

Gerda Taro, art name of Gerta Pohorylle

After Taro’s death, Robert Capa continued his work as a war reporter, documenting many of the pivotal events in contemporary history (most notably the landing of American troops in Normandy). From the tragic event, Capa adopted an even more courageous style, going far beyond the safety limits recommended to war reporters: the death of his companion had greatly shaken him. He will die in 1954in Vietnam, during the Indochina War, stepping on a mine.

Some of the most important shots that we still find in the history books today are signed Capa-Taro.

The meaning of Taro from Alt-J: the song lyrics

Robert Capa, pseudonym of Endre Ernő Friedmann

Indochina: Capa jumps Jeep
Two feet creep up the road
To photo, to record, meat lumps and war

Alt-J’s Taro comes up with an almost text impressionistwhich contains in its meaning the immense love of the two in a context of horror and war. The passage describes the last moments of Capa’s life, before reuniting with his beloved. It is no coincidence that the first word of the text is “Indochina”, with the passage that tells us about Capa getting out of a Jeep to “photograph and document the shreds of flesh and the war”. Immediately after, the incident occurs, which we are told with a series of convulsive phrases that return the scene with incredible empathy: “A white and yellow flash. A violent force that tears the limbs as if they were rags. After being shot in the air, Capa finally lands in agony, away from everyone: doctors, colleagues, friends and enemies. Five meters away from his leg and from Taro ”.

Painless with immense distance
From medic, from colleague, friend, enemy, foe
Him five yards from his leg and from you, Taro

In the refrain Capa speaks in the first person, and the text takes up the wording “Do not spray into eyes”, the same writing in large letters on chemical weapons widely used during that conflict. But a sentence that is reread in a romantic key. “Don’t sprinkle in the eyes” quotes the text “but I sprinkled you in my eyes”. A sentence, this, almost whispered by Joe Newmanbefore giving space to an intense guitar “riff” which we will talk about shortly.

3:10 pm: Capa pends death
The photographer is dead

In the second verse Capa is still on the ground in agony. The text also gives us the time: it is 3:10 pm. In that hour “all colors become grayscale”, which refers to Capa’s photographic lenses to symbolize the photographer’s progressive loss of consciousness. “The left hand grasps what the body does not grasp” instead reiterates that his body was literally torn apart by the explosion. And then the sentence in French: “The photographer is dead”. At 3:15 (referring to the circularity of life symbolized by Pi Greco) Capa dies. Immediately thereafter he is found reunited with his leg, but especially with Taro.

To Capa, to Capa Capa dark after nothing
Reunited with his leg and with you, Taro

How Alt-J composed and created the song

Interviewed by the Guardian about the text and meaning of Taro, the frontman of Alt-J Joe Newman said: “I was very fascinated by the story of the two of them. She really captured me and I tried as hard as I could to come up with a good song ”. Speaking to NME about the song, Newman added: “The song is about the moments before and after Capa stepped on that mine. The two seconds before and the two seconds after. It is a four minute song that tells about four seconds“. Newman’s vocal style, decidedly unconventional and very personal, contributes not a little in providing expressive strength to the piece.

Symbolic is the fact that the battery enters the song just as the explosion occurs, when Capa steps on the mine. After each chorus the piece takes us into a musical atmosphere characterized by a sonorous climax. What at first listen might seem like a sitar is actually an electric guitar being played tapping a roll of adhesive tape on the keys (as if using the tapping technique). Even live the band uses this anomalous gimmick, as you can see from the video of their performance at KEXP below.

The immense choruses of the finale were instead made with the help of the boys of the St. Ronan’s School Choir, in English Kent. The same students also contributed to the choruses of Bloodflood (another song from An Awesome Wave).

On the record the song is followed by a ghost track called Hand-Made.

The artistic legacy of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa

In 1938, a year after Gerda Taro’s tragic death, Robert Capa published Death in the Making, a collection of photos taken by the couple. During the Second World War the tomb of Gerda Taro, in Paris, has been several times vandalized by militants of the fascist party. In 1942 the French fascist collaborationist regime came to censor the epitaph which praised Taro’s revolutionary and courageous spirit.

Other episodes of Inside the Song that may interest you are:

Published by
Darren Peake

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