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When the music stops* (you dead in your tracks)

Posted in Life & Love

SanremoIn the middle of dreary February, the Milanese winter would be relieved by nearly a week spent on the Riviera – a music industry tradition that dates to the ‘50s and continues today.

Sanremo is a sedate and not very picturesque seaside resort on the west coast of Italy,  where older people spend the coldest months  and nothing much happens . It comes to life just once a year, for a music festival meant to celebrate Italian music, otherwise knows as an attempt by the industry to sell some products. International artists are flown from all over the world and put up at the swanky hotels in nearby Montecarlo, just across the border, while the Italian artists and industry executives fill the mediocre ones in town.

It was fun to go and, for the five years I worked in Milan, what I mostly looked forward to was stealing away for a few hours, drive to Nice and feast on platters of seafood and enjoy the sun, away from the fog that permanently enveloped my apartment back in the city. The music was incidental.

If your ear is not trained to the melodic droning of Italian popular music and to the political and intellectual texts of the seminal songwriters of the ’70s and ’80s, it might all sound dull and pointless. I never had much of a taste for it and I haven’t listened to Italian music in about two decades.

Sanremo in the '50s
Sanremo in the ’50s

Then, in the way that music can surprise you and let you access the depths of your emotions when you least expect it, I turned the tv on my lunch break a few days ago and the images of the Sanremo festival beamed from my flat screen, live from Italy.

The voice was familiar. The face too.

The written word can have that “time stood still” effect, if not as immediate, but it’s music, when at its best, that can flood you with memories, feelings and elation all wrapped in a three-minute composition.

It was the Beatles who captured my imagination and my ears at first, and then David Bowie, Lou Reed, New Order and the list goes on. Italian music was never my thing. But the culture that fosters one’s development cannot easily be discarded.

When, at 15, I tried, unsuccessfully, my hand at guitar, it was the compositions of the songwriters of the time I learnt to strum – not “Let it be”. When marching alongside the protesters and the strikers in the late ’70s, having ditched school, it was Fabrizio De Andre’ and Francesco De Gregori’s songs  that would accompany us, not “Walking on the Wild Side”. Singers older than me who,  with many others, had already mapped the political path of my generation.

Awkward that on a sunny day in Los Angeles, bunny rabbits eating on my lawn and the ocean shimmering in the distance, tear gas and love songs and a youth that held so much promise all rushed in through a flat screen tv, while Cristiano De Andre’, son of music legend Fabrizio, sat at the piano singing, otherwise unaccompanied, one of his father’s songs: “They’ll come asking about our love” hides behind the facade of a relationship but runs much deeper, filled with the subtext of the political climate of those years.

Cristiano De Andre'
Cristiano De Andre’

That face, so familiar when I knew it along the corridors of the record company I worked for, now softer and unmistakably a sweeter copy of his father’s. That voice, not as deep, but with the same, assured, timbre. That intensity, and those memories but, above all, that power the music had to force me to drop the fork, move closer to the tv and just be, for those four, interminable, minutes. The spell was shattered the moment the last bar stopped echoing but the reminder of why music matters lingered on.

No wonder music is youth’s art form of choice: its immediacy, its power to rally or to validate an emotion or to embody a disconnect, from rap to rock to rai, is second to none.

In the cacophony of the absolute crap the airwaves, or iTunes or Pandora are filled with; in the meaningless stunts of Lady Gaga and every other unoriginal copy gracing the pages of Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair; in the mediocrity of the millions of YouTube videos  every teenager with a Garage band or any app can easily make, there are still gems to be found and worth seeking. I mostly stumble upon them and then I am reminded what passion feels like.

*As far away from Sanremo as it can be, the title is borrowed from a dark song by Eminem

Images found in the public domain. Cristiano De Andre’s photo courtesy of WEA

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  1. I remember how important Sanremo was in Italy and always thought it was like the Eurovision Song Contest used to be at home when we were kids. A hark back to a more innocent time. I admit I did not pay too much attention to the songs that came from the festival in recent times and although I don’t think this was one she ever performed at Sanremo, put Mina’s Se Telefonando on and watch me melt into a puddle 🙂

    March 4, 2014
    • Put anything by Mina on and I melt. What a voice. And I don’t think we missed much over the last few years. I happened to catch it this year and it was the usual melodic crap.

      March 4, 2014
  2. silvia

    Today I woke up with a question in mind and immediately checked for the answer on my mobile. And yes The great beauty is best foreign movie of the 2014 Oscars edition. I’m so glad and then I read this post of yours and other Italian names disclose sweet recollections.
    A week ago a friend introduced me to a song by Fabrizio De Andre’ and Ivano Fossati I never heard before, Anime salve, pure bliss.
    And listening to Cristiano’s Invisibili at Sanremo this year was like bringing magic back.
    It’s like you wrote whether it’s music or a movie when beauty strikes in there’s nothing one can do but stop and listen/watch with his/her own soul.
    Great post, thanks

    March 3, 2014
    • I know you like it when I write about “home”. And I love love Fabrizio De Andre’.

      March 4, 2014
  3. I have fond memories of Sanremo. Years ago, we arrived late one evening from Monte Carlo. We rented a room on the main strip not knowing what our surroundings were since it was dark. That morning in June, I threw open tall wooden shutters to a sun splashed ambience and the sparkling Mediterranean! It was unforgettable!

    March 3, 2014
    • Nice to hear you had an unforgettable experience. Maybe because I always visited in winter, I never found it particularly enchanting (unlike the rest of the Ligurian coast).

      March 4, 2014

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