When the folk revival and then the rock revolution of the 60s arrived in Italy, it landed in Modena. Amid Ferrari and Maserati cars, balsamic vinegar producers, tortellini restaurants and small industrial enterprises scattered around the province, ‘beat’ music started to bloom almost unexpectedly in that ‘little town, bastard place’, as Francesco Guccini, one of the ‘beat’ founding fathers, ungraciously defined it in one of his songs. From a few local seeds, that revolutionary sound developed and quickly spread to the whole country, becoming the soundtrack – and one of the leading forces in itself – of that cultural revolution that would change the customs of the country forever. This September, that period is celebrated in an exhibition linked to the international ‘Festival della Filosofia’ and in the ‘29th September’ annual celebration concert, established in 2009 after the iconic song by the same title played by the all-modenese band Equipe 84. This article is not a historical reconstruction, it is the report by one who was there and lived and felt the period, a testimony that, looking back, there was a place in between ‘la via Emilia e il West’, the small town reality and the dreamed Beat Generation America. That place was the bar Grande Italia in the town centre, where ‘the best mind of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked’ met. Join me, if you wish, on this virtual tour down memory lane – nostalgia-free
It is a hot sunny afternoon and I am sitting on a bench in the iconic Piazzetta 29 Settembre. In front of me the Grande Italia has long disappeared but in my mind that early 70s picture of the bar with its bunch of artists outside the entrance seems to bring me back to those days. That photo summed up ten years of music and creativity: as for every artistic movement of the past, the artists’ headquarters was a public place, a café, before social networks cancelled the habit of meeting in a real place to exchange experiences, creations, feelings, ideas and passions. The Grande Italia was just a few meters away from a nearby street corner where benpensanti young people met, but the ideological distance between the two places was abyssal. The musicians that met there were bohemians, local beatniks and flower children who had been trying to bring a wind of change to the sleepy provincial life of the piccola città, bastardo posto.
It is early in the afternoon and a few passers-by walk their way without noticing the stele that reads Piazzetta 29 Settembre – intitolazione sentimentale 29/9/2009 – Comune di Modena. Under it, inside a kind of pink speech bubble, are the words seduti in quell caffè ai tavolini del bar Grande Italia nasceva il beat italiano. Today it is indeed September 29 and tonight the celebration concert has Maurizio Vandelli, lead vocalist of the historical ‘beat’ band Equipe 84, at the top of the bill. The concert location, the majestic baroque Piazza Roma surrounded by the Duke’s palace, will add more pathos to the event. Some may say it is an old man’s nostalgia, others may think it is a way to preserve memory and pay homage. The famous modenese writer Edmondo Berselli, who left us prematurely a few years ago, shared this feeling: Per dire come eravamo, e per vedere come siamo diventati, sapendo che quei tempi non torneranno, ma li si può fare rivivere, risentire, in modo che ci appartengano ancora, e che li sentiamo ancora nostri. This quote is from a 2008 theatre musical show titled Sarà una bella società, which is a line from the famous ‘canzone di protesta’ Che colpa abbiamo noi played by the British beat group The Rokes. Its lead singer, Shel Shapiro, drove young girls crazy singing in Italian with a strong exotic English accent. In 2008 Shapiro was the protagonist of this theatre homage to our Beat Generation written by Berselli. Next to the 29 settembre sign, there is a sister stele with extracts from that text which give the reader a flavor of the period.
I Sessanta sono un decennio “seminale”, in cui sembra essersi concentrata una creatività, una energia sociale, ma anche intellettuale, culturale, comportamentale, davvero irripetibile. Se pensiamo all’America di Bob Dylan, a una voce mai sentita prima che annuncia il tempo nuovo, che investe i grandi raduni civili e politici dell’età kennediana e post-kennediana, abbiamo una fotografia suggestiva del cambiamento.
Va da sé che l’ambiente culturale e politico aspetta una rottura, che arriverà puntuale con il maggio francese e con il Sessantotto; ma prima ancora che sul piano politico la “rivoluzione” avviene nei comportamenti, nelle mode, nei pensieri collettivi. Si vede una metamorfosi nel paesaggio umano.
Si tratta di un cambiamento a suo modo “politico”, ma in primo piano ci sono le emozioni, le suggestioni, c’è la sensazione che si stiano aprendo possibilità inedite. Qui da noi la musica assimila velocemente l’idea del cambiamento. Emerge la protesta, «come potete giudicar», «è la pioggia che va», «noi non ci saremo», «Dio è morto»: un sentimento che non è ancora programmatico ma è collettivo, condiviso, sentito da tutti come una specie di destino a cui si è chiamati, e che ciascuno interpreta alla propria maniera, ora festosa, ora arrabbiata, perché in ogni caso il mondo è giovane, può attendere anche se è impaziente
Lost in recollections, my memory takes me back to 1968. I was eleven and I was standing by the huge window of my scuola media watching the demonstration in the street below, the police in war attire, listening to the noise of slogans, chants, sirens and boots that came from the street. And I wondered what was going on, what these people dressed in dark green ‘eskimos’ (the green-brown overcoats of the times) wanted, what they were fighting for, why they took to the street instead of entering the Liceo on the other side of the road that I would attend a couple of years later. There I would understand what those guys sought and I would make their goals my own, changing my perspective forever, living the dream that the times they are a-changing, alienating me from my parents’ quiet middle-class life in an industrial town which was, at the same time, a stronghold of the Communist Party, an organization that, in spite its revolutionary roots, we saw as stiff and dogmatic, even bigot in its approach to personal liberties and moral values. In Francesco’s words: ‘Portavo allora un eskimo innocente dettato solo dalla povertà … Portavo una coscienza immacolata’.
The five years I spent in the Liceo in the early 70s was, inevitably, a period of political consciousness which developed from the ’68 experience and that, alas, a few years later would degenerate in the ‘lead years’ of terrorism, of Brigate Rosse, of fascist slaughters and State complicity to dismantle the democratic institutions. Those years had a loud soundtrack, a series of performers and styles that came from the US mainly, even if the British invasion of the period was part of that game. The post ‘68 juvenile political rebellious movement was, like the folk revival of the Greenwich Village in the early 60s and the Woodstock rock generation that followed, a real singing movement in which music was a weapon, an instrument to carry ideas forward, a communicative vehicle to convey the notion that another world of peace and love was possible, a world of beauty in which people chanted mettete dei fiori nei vostri cannoni.
In the previous decade, the youngster that founded the Italian Beat in the early sixties had the same musical and cultural background but they lacked that political consciousness that would come after the French May. Those guys were for sure tipi antisociali, as Francesco Guccini’s first song declared, but all they really wanted to do was have fun, wake up a sleeping nation and bring a wind of novelty to the status quo, as Berselli words in the stele underline. We all loved the Beatles and their LSD strawberry field, the challenge of the Rolling Stones who could get no satisfaction from the still Victorian British society of the time, the Pink Floyd who wanted to explore the dark side of the moon, break the wall and who sang that money is a gas, The Who who smashed guitars to point out the rage of their generation. But it was the other side of the Atlantic that we truly loved. On the road was our bible, and the rock heroes were the mouthpiece of our rebelliousness. Jimi Hendrix burning the American flag, Leonard Cohen singing his songs of love and hate, Janis Joplin revising the blues rural traditions in flower-children-filled San Francisco, and so on and so forth. But for me, and most of us, it was Bob Dylan that got deep in our hearts and became a kind of prophet, and iconic image of the power of folk and rock linked to political themes, its topical songs becoming universal. Even today Dylan’s lyrics are fresh in my mind, and there is no distressing lifestyle or brain-burning technology that could wipe them out. For example, I have always said that I learned more from With God on Our Side than from any book of American history I have ever read. Dylan voice was a stiletto, its anti-melodic roughness the perfect means to express his thoughts, miles away from the seductiveness of Frank Sinatra ‘ The Voice’, whose bel canto, fast cars and beautiful ladies portrayed the world we wanted to destroy.
If the US had Frank Sinatra or Bill Crosby, in Italy we were trapped in the melodic, melodramatic, conservative, romantic love songs that were played – and unbelievably still are – at the Festival della Canzone Italiana of Sanremo or we were stuck in the traditional popular – better to say populist – canzone napoletana. In this provincial musical context, the ‘antisocial guys’ of the Grande Italia were struggling to listen to American and British music. Also because of its linguistic gap, Italy was really isolated from the English-speaking world: records were not available until the famous Carù music store in outer Milan started to import them. That shop became our Mecca and a ‘on the road’ trip to Milan was our coast-to-coast. In the sixties only Radio Luxemburg broadcast rock music and the beat guys met to listen to it, shocked and fascinated by that revolutionary sound. That’s how a group of youngsters in Modena started to understand that something similar could be done in Italy. Like them before, I learned to play the guitar and sing in English in my liceo years, and the pleasure of doing it and of keeping listening to the musica che gira intorno has never left me. Like the beat pioneers, I clearly remember the struggle to write down the lyrics playing the vinyl over and over again and a parallel struggle to write down the chords [here you can see a homage to Dylan we performed in a 2014 academic musical event titled The Sound of the Greenwich Village I organized to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of Blowing in the Wind and of MLK’s I have a Dream]. I am still astonished that today you can get everything you want just in a click, but I also do believe that the formative value of the attempt, the capacity it gave you is lost forever, and basically I pity a generation who can have everything in a second but is left without desires and dreams
The pictures at the Sono un tipo antisociale exhibition portray I Nomadi, the Equipe 84 and Francesco Guccini mainly, the most famous characters of that age, even if, as the Bar Grande Italia picture shows, many other musicians were part of the movement. Those vintage pictures have an inevitable Beatles/Stones/Byrds look but they spread their own particular aura, a local fragrance easily recognizable if you live in the area. And photographer Carlo Savigni, who has accompanied that musical epic tale since its beginning, was the local Andy Warhol: in his studio, he used to set his characters in the correct pose before taking his B&W pictures with his faithful Nikon camera.
I am not claiming that the beat groups and the cantautori who emerged in Italy in that period and afterwards are due only to the musicians of our area. Many other regional realities existed in those years. The Folk Studio in Rome, more linked to the folk revival and where Dylan himself played, gave birth to Francesco De Grogori, who has publicly acknowledged his debt to the Duluth minstrel. Genoa had a long tradition of folk musicians and cantautori and housed Fabrizio De Andrè, the greatest singer-songwriter ever in our country, a chansonnier and a poet with a strong political background whose sources of inspiration were Dylan again, Leonard Cohen and Georges Brassens. Milan too had a long school of rock and jazz musicians influenced by the foreign music of the 60s like Enzo Iannacci and Giorgio Gaber, while Naples produced a cantautore like Pino Daniele, deeply rooted in blues music. Our neighbor town Bologna too had an established local music tradition: Guccini himself, after leaving the piccola città, settled there and started a group of cantautori like Lucio Dalla and Claudio Lolli. Their Grande Italia was the Osteria delle Dame, one of the famous osterie di fuori porta where I spent many a night. The Johns Hopkins University in Bologna was a ready-made link to American culture: Guccini early pieces have a clear folk revival flavor thanks to guitarist Deborah Kooperman. Bologna, besides, has the oldest university in Italy and an international intellectual community that have always given the town an avant-garde status. What I am claiming is the fact that the ‘Modena school’ had its own original voice and maybe it was the closest to the American and British sounds, from which it spread, while maintaining a local flavour. The sound of those bands, a mix of covers translated –secretly – into Italian and of original material, is indeed unique.
In the beginning I promised no nostalgia, but now let me say, in conclusion, that today the message of freedom and commitment of this beat generation of ours seems vanished in the air, blown in the wind of our contemporary globalized neo-con high-tech society with no more dreams, icons, heroes or political thought. And you will excuse me if tonight’s concert in Piazza Roma is a way to ‘say the way we were, and to see what we have become, knowing those times won’t come back, but we can make them live again, listen again, so that they still belong to us, and we still feel them ours’ [Mr. ’29 Settembre’ Maurizio Vandelli’s performance on that evening was astonishing: at 72 his voice is intact and his band of young musicians have a modern rock sound respectful of the 60s tradition. The quite old-fashioned audience that filled the huge square was enchanted and danced the evening away like they used to do in the good ole days].
Here is the video of L’antisociale, the first song written by Guccini that gives the title to the exhibition. A bit naïve, but it still makes me feel that way, without regret or shame:
In conclusion, two iconic ‘protest songs’ by Guccini: Dio è Morto performed by I Nomadi and Auschwitz performed by the Equipe 84 in a rare English version, two tunes denouncing the evil of the advancing consumerism and the violence of the Cold War era which seemed to have learned nothing from the Second World War tragedy:
Thank you for reading so, pals, and … hang loose!