Ezequiel Neves and Cazuza
Ezequiel Neves, an important and colorful figure in Brazilian rock history, died on Wednesday (July 7) at age 74, in Rio de Janeiro. The music producer and journalist—known to friends as Zeca—passed away on the twentieth anniversary of the death of the popular singer-songwriter Cazuza, for whom he was a close friend, mentor and collaborator. Neves co-produced Cazuza’s solo albums and those of his band Barão Vermelho, and corrected the Portuguese in his lyrics. The two co-wrote several songs together, including “Codinome Beija Flor,” “Exagerado,” “Burguesia,” and “Por Que a Gente é Assim?” Neves was instrumental in the career of Cazuza, one of the most popular and iconic musicians for Brazil’s middle class in the 1980s.
Neves influenced Brazilian rock starting in the 1970s with his music writing, as the producer of the glam-rock band Made in Brazil, and with his work with Rita Lee after she left the Mutantes (one of the songs they wrote together was “Vote Em Mim”). In the 1980s, he was something of a guru and sounding board for many important groups of that era, a breakthrough time for Brazilian rock. Cazuza and Barão Vermelho and bands like Titãs, Legião Urbana, and the Paralamas do Sucesso took the genre to new heights of critical and commercial success. Prior to the ‘80s, there had been brilliant individual rock talents like Raul Seixas and os Mutantes, but not an entire musical movement that spoke for a generation. In the ‘90s, Neves guided the careers of Angela Ro-Ro (making a comeback) and Cássia Eller (a powerful rock/pop vocalist who died prematurely, like Cazuza).
Born in 1935 in Belo Horizonte, Neves was an actor in the ‘60s and moved to São Paulo to pursue his career. A devoted fan of jazz and Brazilian musicians like Elizeth Cardoso and João Gilberto, Neves had a life-altering moment when he first heard Jim Morrison. “He was turned onto rock and roll by the Doors and then he became a music writer. That was the start of a new career for him,” recalls music journalist and film director José Emilio Rondeau.
While writing for newspapers in São Paulo, Neves was called to start a Brazilian Rolling Stone in 1972. "He was like a guiding light to everyone, instructive and informative. He always took sides. If he loved something, he would go to depths of hell to make sure people heard it with the excitement that he did. If he didn’t like it he hated it with a passion and would loudly proclaim it. As a writer, Zeca was unique, inimitable. He wrote with urgency, a sense of humor, irreverence, with the energy and passion of rock and roll itself.”
“He was an archetypical representative of a generation that either took up arms to fight the military dictatorship or turned to sex, drugs and rock and roll to survive the oppression,” recalls Ricardo Pessanha, co-author of The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil. “Zeca chose the latter and did it with grace. His column in the first Brazilian Rolling Stone magazine was trend setting. Everybody read it to know what was going on in music, behavior and the arts in general.”
That version of Rolling Stone in Brazil was a “pirate” version without official authorization and it lasted for a year. Neves also wrote for the Brazilian version of Playboy, Pop, Jornal da Tarde (a newspaper in São Paulo), and Jornal da Música. As an editor, he was a father figure to an entire generation of Brazilian rock journalists, including Ana Maria Bahiana and the aforementioned José Emilio Rondeau.
As the international editor for Jornal da Música, Neves gave a break to Rondeau, then an aspiring young rock journalist. “He gave me an assignment: a story on, of all people, Ted Nugent! But he warned there was no payment involved. And that was more than fine with me. I wanted to get started and money was my last priority. And that is how it all started - my career in rock writing.” Rondeau developed into a prominent critic and went on to direct several early music videos, produce Legião Urbana’s first album, and direct the film 1972 (a “rock and roll romance” that he co-wrote with Bahiana). In that movie, Rondeau and Bahiana based the colorful character of Guti, a rock-magazine editor, on Neves.
“Zeca was a mixture of father, mother, older brother, godfather, mentor, cheerleader and inspiration to the whole world tied to Brazilian rock from the 1970s on. He lit the way for multitudes of readers and musicians, opened doors, gave advice. I learned with him not to take everything so seriously. He wrote things that were really funny and he made you laugh. I learned it was okay in a rock review to make the reader laugh, to take it with a pinch or a pound of salt.”
Neves also stretched the boundaries of music journalism. “He considered himself a fiction writer, and wrote a lot of stuff that never happened,” says Rondeau. “I remember once he wrote about a Keith Richards solo album called I’m Not Silly, I’m Just Crazy and he reviewed it. And the album never existed. He invented it!” Neves also wrote under the pseudonym of Angela Dust, a character who told wild tongue-in-cheek stories, such as one fictional account of attending a party with Mick Jagger and sleeping with him.
As a person, by most accounts, Neves was loud, intelligent, intense, often obnoxious, always fascinating, and reliably flamboyant. Rondeau recalls an occasion when Charlie Watts was visiting Brazil and music mogul André Midani hosted a dinner party for him. Neves was also invited. When the Stones drummer Charlie Watts took notice of the raucous and outrageous Zeca, he didn’t ask, “Who is he?” Rather, he asked, “What is he?”
Rondeau also recalls Neves visiting him at his house one morning. Rondeau was listening to a new Clash album and Neves insisted that they commemorate the event by drinking tequila – for breakfast –as they listened to the LP on headphones.
The intensity, honesty, and irreverence characteristic of Neves’s personality were hallmarks of Cazuza’s lyrics. Cazuza achieved fame with his group Barão Vermelho, then left them in 1985 to record solo albums. His albums Ideologia, Burguesia and O Tempo Não Pára earned him critical adulation and multi-platinum sales in the years before his untimely death of AIDS in 1990 (Cazuza was one of the first Brazilian celebrities to openly admit having the disease).
Rondeau comments, “To me, Cazuza would have been nothing without Ezequiel Neves. Cazuza became Cazuza because of him, because he really pushed him and he brought out the best in him as a writer. I think there’s more of him in Cazuza’s music than he’s credited for.” Their relationship is part of Sandra Werneck's 2004 biographical movie about Cazuza titled O Tempo Não Pára.
Rondeau adds, “He was always affectionate, always generous, always attentive, always ready to help, and always ready with a big laugh.” Rondeau asserts that Neves was vital to Brazilian rock in the 1970’s and ‘80s. “He wrote about it, championed it, and helped produce some great music.” Tributes to Neves appeared in Brazilian newspapers in the days following his death. An obituary in O Globo referred to him as “a fundamental character in Brazilian culture for the last four decades.”