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.
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.
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