beatles in italy on my mind
John Lennon: If I’m gonna get on the front page, I might as well get on the front page with the word “peace.”
Gloria Emerson (N. Y. Times reporter): But you’ve made yourself ridiculous!
John Lennon: To some people. I don’t care if . . .
Gloria Emerson (interrupting): You’re too good for what you’re doing!
John Lennon: If it saves lives . . .
Gloria Emerson: You don’t think you oh! my dear boy, you’re living in a nether nether (never never?) land.
John Lennon: Well you talk to a . . .
Gloria Emerson: You don’t think you’ve saved a single life! What do you know about a protest movement, anyway?
John Lennon: I know a lot about it. I’ve . . .
Gloria Emerson (interrupting): It means a lot more than sending your chauffeur in your car back to Buckingham Palace.
(Yoko Ono—also present—says something inaudible)
John Lennon: You’re just a snob about it. The only way to make . . .
Gloria Emerson (interrupting again): You’re a fake! Can’t you give up . . . (inaudible)
John Lennon: It was no sacrifice to get rid of the MBE because it was an embarrassment.
Gloria Emerson: What kind of a protest did you make? You just . . .
John Lennon: I don’t know. An advertising campaign for peace. Can you understand that?
Gloria Emerson: No I can’t!
John Lennon: A very big advertising campaign for peace.
Gloria Emerson: I think it shows you’re vulgar and self-aggrandizing. Are you advertising John Lennon or peace?
John Lennon (interrupting): Do you want nice middle class gestures for peace and intellectual manifestos written by a lot of half-witted intellectuals and nobody reads ’em? That’s the trouble with the peace movement!
Gloria Emerson: I’m someone who used to admire you very much.
John Lennon: Well I’m sorry you liked the ol’ moptops dear and you thought I was very satirical and witty and you liked “Hard Day’s Night” luv. But I’ve grown up and you obviously haven’t.
Gloria Emerson: Have you?
John Lennon: Yes, folks.
from the film Imagine
So all this is going on somewhere in there in 1969 or ’70 or ’71 and as for 17-year old-in-1969 me, one thing I remember is somehow misquoting in a love letter the line “all we are saying is give peace a chance” which I somehow thought was “call me a saint give pizza a chant.” I remember other stuff I was quoting in letters in ’69, Simon and Garfunkel lines that I thought then were the ultimate in profundity like “so I bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies and walked off to look for America” or “seasons change with the scenery / weaving time in a tapestry / won’t you stop and remember me?”
Then, the next year, 1970, I went off to college and it was clear from the very first day how important songs were going to be for me. Yeah, I can still remember that summery first day I was moving into my dorm at one of the campuses of the New York State University system, how the music from Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” was flowing blaringly and triumphantly into the dreary courtyard of prison-blockish looking “H-quad” dormitory zone. Wow! Dylan’s grandiose mysterious references!: “Shakespeare, he’s in the alley with his pointed shoes and bells”! “Napoleon’s in rags, listen to the language that he used”! “Six white horses were finally delivered down at the penitentiary”! I could sense there was enough adult truth in those lines for a whole lifetime of reflection.
I didn’t really listen to the Beatles or John Lennon very much in college since he wasn’t nearly as poetical as Dylan or nearly as forceful as Zappa (who sang stuff like “the child will thrive and grow / and enter the world of liars and cheaters and people like you”). I did however, sing the song “Imagine” to myself a lot during the fall of 1971, although I’m kind of embarrassed to have to admit that I sang it in a particular personal context, changing the words around a little so it could serve as a kind of tension-releasing liberation from the overwhelming anxiety of fear of rejection in a love story that, of course, began to the tune of another Beatles song, “I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget the time or place.” (What happened was, a friend to whom I’d stupidly let on I was in an idiotic state of “do you believe in magic in a college girl’s heart” stupor played that song on the day the story began.)
Enough. You’ve gotten some idea of my particular relation to the recorded musical cultural baggage that I was carrying around in the luggage compartments of my body and storage bins of my head by the time I left on a jet plane and went away to graduate school in California. And it’s even obvious to me now that the decision to leave the east coast was based on a kind of rock-song logic, as good an example as any, I guess, of how my world views and interpretations of reality were determined in those crucial years in the triumphant development of late 20th century totalitarian planet-devouring capitalism.
In Literature Grad School in the 70’s, even though the world was changing and rock music was clearly becoming a universal literary point of reference for world wide youth-oriented homogenized consumer society, the liter-ature professors had no interest in helping me understand all the nonsense my untrained head had become filled with. Their only interests were in the hopelessly boring stuff they were writing in order to get raises they needed to pay drastically increasing California property taxes.
Not that it was any big deal for me, back then. Like most repressed Americans who do well in our standardized-test worshipping, mindless school and university system, I was (and still am) a typically average sort of pragmatic guy, a well socialized sort far too ready to accept the rules and go along with them, trying to please the teachers—who after all are rather easy to please because of being way too busy to worry that much about your intellectual development. And who cares what stupid requirements you have to fulfill as long as you can hang out in cafés drinking beer and capachinoes, playing tennis and being a big shot T.A.
So in grad school, I read the books they told me to or at least became able to fake having read them and gave the teachers back—as best I could—the key secret-initiation-to-the-humanities-professorate words and phrases they wanted to hear on the Big Exams. I mean like:
Renaissance concordia discors can be understood in postmodernity as propadeutic proleptic prolegomenon to the undecidability principle in Yale School Deconstructionariansim.
Blindness is, as it were, a key Counter-reformation theatrical trope as clear instance of the discursive recycling at the ecosystemic biospheric intertextual level of neo-medieval Boethian notions of the unknowability of a truth that can be understood only by a hostilely inscrutable Divine Providence, in the Rhode Island sense of a virtually nonexistent state.
During Grad School in the 2nd half of the 70’s I didn’t really listen to young people’s music as much and some of what I listened to didn’t seem as urgent or important or as hyper-profound as earlier in the decade. For example I remember singing to myself Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhianon rings like a prayer in the night” and some business about “whether you’re a mother or whether you’re a brother just Stayin Alive” from Saturday Night Fever.
But even though I wasn’t listening to popular music either as much or as enrapturedly in those years, I still occasionally showed signs that this music was still important to me. I definitely remember a 19th century poetry exam where I quoted the Dylan lines about “a pain that stops and starts / like a corkscrew to my heart.” I also seem to remember on my PhD final written exam comparing the cultural influence of the Italian Petrarchists in France to the Beatles cultural importance in America or some such thing. I am not sure I’d like to see what I wrote. That is, if they still have it on file.
Well, graduate school was over before I knew it and all of a sudden it was the 80’s and I was in my 30’s at Average University USA shockingly underpaid as a Junior professor, stress-terrorized out by the menacing vagueness of tenure requirements and frequently harrassed by hostile students who kept writing on their evaluations: “frankly at least half the time this bozo doesn’t seem to know what the fuck he’s talking about.” (And of course when you get the evaluations back, it’s too late to order them for an official conference in the heart of your power-space during which you can all of a sudden scream at them “they called John Lennon a fake too, you absolute asshole!”) Oh well: ain’t it hard when you discover that—you ain’t really where it’s at for many of the young people you get stuck with having to teach.
But oh well, fact is the new pressures and terrors drove me to need to take some serious security-blanket comfort in escape back in the familiar womb-world of rock music and rock lyrics. For a while, I got into Springsteen and would identify with lines like “stay on the streets of this town / you know they carve you up all right” as if they referred to Academia. But the fact is that when you’re over thirty, tough-talking Bruce songs get you starting to consider the possibility that you’ve grown up in an utterly banal concept/emotion system in which shallow enraged social protest is transparently related to male sexual fan-tasies, frustrations, anxieties and paranoias about women.
At any rate, round about 1985 is when I started listening to Italian rock music more than anything else. Stuff like Antonello Venditti: “E Nietzsche e Marx si davano la mano e parlavano insieme” that he sang in a tone that was dead ringer for late ’60’s Dylan. Or Vasco Rossi singing “non abbiamo più santi o eroi” in between vintage rock giutar outbursts. Vasco seemed a little more ironic in his lyrics than anyone I’d heard before but the wild energy in the countless bitter disappointment songs he addressed to the women he had expected way too much from was exactly the same you get in songs by Lennon, Dylan and the rest. I also got into Lucio Dalla whose mixture of rock, jazz, blues, salsa, and napoletano soul is harder to place than Antonello or Vasco. I liked his song “Washington” with his reference to the Beatles and a Clapton style frenetic rock-guitar riff to accompany the line: “Sto andando a London City . . . dove c’erano i Beatles e Rock and Roll!”
So, you get the soundtrack picture? What’s happening in the mid to late 80’s is that I’m just letting all this stuff flow in—and not thinking too much about what it means. I think the fact that the lyrics were in Italian allowed me to sort of not worry too much about precisely how profound or shallow the words were—since it was interesting enough just to observe the grammar (yes they all use the subjunctive almost all the time they’re supposed to), the up-to-date vocabulary and cultural references (“solo la sana e consapevole libidine salva il giovane dallo stress e dall’Azione Cattolica”) and the idioms (“voglio una vita che se ne frega di tutto sì”). And of course, I had the excuse that I was listening to these songs so I could share them with my students and get them to give me at least minimally decent evaluations because I played cool songs for them.
But I think I felt an underlying uneasiness (as in listening to Springsteen), that the music I was now listening to somehow wasn’t the real thing? Or—could it even be that if this wasn’t the real thing maybe there hadn’t ever been any real thing: would in fact an album like “Blonde on Blonde” have seemed a little silly or ridiculous to me, if I’d been over thirty when it came out in ’66 or ’67?
At any rate, three things happened in the summer of 1990 that induced me to probe a little bit into my chance fascination with 1980’s Italian rock culture:
1. On TV in Italy, I saw Dalla sing the old Italian 60’s song “C’era un ragazzo che come me amava i Beatles e i Rolling Stones” and saw masses of Italians singing along and getting all excited about it. I mean, gee, it seemed obviously time to start working out exactly what they make of all this stuff I grew up with.
2. In Perugia, in a bookstore near the, I guess, very ancient Arco Etrusco, I happened to see a collection of very contemporary stories entitled “Canzone” by five supposedly hot young Italian authors born mostly in the 50’s—and, being stupidly conditioned by the idiotic consumer-society notion of “hot young author,” I bought the book. The last of the five stories had the title “Un giorno nella vita” and snippets of the songs “A Day in the Life” interspersed in English throughout. Since I’ve always liked the song a lot, I got excited about the idea of writing about the story and the song.
3. I had to choose some topic or other and write a paper by the April 1st deadline for the the 1991 Purdue Romance Language conference.
So here we are. And as I begin to talk/write analytically about the old song and the new Giorgio van Straten story, I have to first of all talk about a fundamental problem. I mean, when an American teacher of Italian listens to Italian rock, he or she is likely to feel some sort of proud proprietor’s rights regarding the whole business of rock and roll culture. As he or she prepares to write about rock music in Italy, he or she is likely to be seized by joyous revenge-fantasy “Like a Rolling Stone” thoughts such as “Hey, it’s obvious! it’s our music, not theirs—and I, American student and teacher of Italian lang and lit, second class citizen in the Undemocratic Republic of Italian Studies as compared to the “real” Italians—can now finally have my revenge. Now I’m the one who has pure and direct knowledge in the original and real language of the fundamental songs whose music and words have shaped the world view and defined values, hopes, and expectations for so many interesting people in so many interesting and unique places all over the world.
But still, I mean if Italians are going to talk about the Beatles, they’re bound to respect the facts, aren’t they? I mean, something happened in the second half of the 1960’s and if you write a song or a story about that period, you have to get certain things right. Don’t you think?
Well I’m disappointed to say that the old song Dalla re-presented to rememory the 60’s (and to introduce a new generation of Italians to its spirit) gets it all wrong! First of all, the music has nothing to do with the Beatles or the Stones, it’s pure soulful Dalla. Lucio makes a point of removing all Beatlelicity from the older versions sung by Gianni Morandi and the person who wrote the song whose name I forget. And when you hear Dalla repeating the references to four songs from the 1960’s—“Help,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Lady Jane,” then “Yesterday”—it is simply hard not to be annoyed and disappointed. “Yesterday”? What kind of song is that to quote? The only reason I liked it is because I was too young to know how stupid Paul was with his idiot AABCCB rhymes of “go, know, say, wrong, long, yesterday. And why does “c’era un ragazzo” mention those four songs that don’t have any relation to one another except I guess all coming out in ’65 or ’66? Why isn’t there any reference to important songs like “Strawberry Fields” or “Revolution” or “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” And, come on, the tone and content of the whole is all wrong and has nothing to do with the real anti-authoritarian spirit of the 1960’s. It’s simply the story of this “ragazzo” who comes from “Gli Stati Uniti d’America” who used to perform Beatles and Stones songs in Italy, who got a letter from his draft board and was subsequently called back to the US and then shipped off to Vietnam where he died fighting the Vietcong. Yeah, right!: a guy who’s Euroing-out singing Beatles and Stones stuff is going to do what the letter from his draft board, says, uh huh? Sure thing, like Mr. “Viva la libertà” is going to let himself get shipped off to ’Nam, just like that, after receiving a letter from the government?
But just turn to Van Straten’s story and things get even worse. His piece is a kind of nothing story that begins with a news report about some extraterrestials who land in Russia and turns out to be all about this guy Filippo who died and a threesome consisting of the narrator, Filippo and a girl named Alessandra. It should have been called “The Big Chill” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” since it’s about a boring reunion of school friends—although in this case the narrator isn’t all that big on reunions. And in fact, the story does make a reference to that film in the section “I saw a film today oh boy.” And frankly we all know “The Big Chill” isn’t a very interesting film and that its view of the ’60s is rather stupid and shallow and unsubtle and just like the view of the ’60s in the idiotic Kostner movie “Field of Dreams.” I mean I don’t want to get down on this Giorgio guy, I mean from the two photographs in the book, he looks pretty cool. (And furthermore Giorgio also merits appreciation for giving the dynamite title “Hai sbagliato foresta” to a recent collection of stories.) But because of my American pride, my disappointment I can’t hide. You see, as Giorgio quotes repeatedly from “A Day in the Life” as the story unfolds, he seems to miss all the best lines, failing to quote the reference to the “lucky man who made the grade” and the one about “4000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire” and the neatest ironic line in the whole song “the English army had just won the war”! So how good a story based on “A Day in the Life” can it be?
Well, it would seem, when you want an interpretation done right, you have to do it yourself. Let me start all over and work it all out for you. First of all, we have to remember clearly how important the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is. It’s probably the most important album in the history of Rock music. It’s the album in which the Beatles jokingly rename themselves as the official band of a Lonely Hearts Club. And in fact, the 1966 or 1967 album marks the Beatles’ change from very popular entertainers to something more: to something like virtually offical spokespeople for International Youth Culture. Think of a song like “With a Little Help from My Friends” and the reference to people sitting around getting high or of course the altered-state of consciousness imagery in the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”. A different sort of song like “when I’m sixty four” only calls attention to just how remote old age or even any of the concerns of maturity are from the minds of the 25-year old or so Beatles and their teenaged and twenty-something fans.
“A Day in the Life” is a rather curious song. It’s the final song on the album and must be a kind of commentary on the whole album, on the album on which the new Beatles are busy being born. In “A Day in the Life,” the music gives you something of the impression of a kind of hymn sung at a funeral—(come to think of it, so many extremely popular rock songs have a sort religious funeral hymn quality to them:—think of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Stairway to Heaven,” etc.). The song seems to refuse to tell a story—it mostly seems to want to create an ironic tone, a disbelieving attitude, a refusal of seriousness, a complete presa per il culo of image oriented, mass-media dominated world-wide society in which all the news you get about wars, sports events, mass murderers, rape and sexual abuse and shit leaves you in a weird kind of dazed emotional state: “though the news was rather sad / well I just had to laugh.” The tone of its irony is a scorn of all victories and all winners and all successes, maybe even a celebration of losing as the only honest victory in a world that’s all wrong. And of course the most memorable narrative detail is the reference to the man “blew his mind out in a car” and, I’ve never made the connection before, but it seems that this fact of having had his mind blown out in a car is what makes him a “lucky man who made the grade.” So I guess the song could be ironically celebrating death as the only possible freedom from—
But wait just a minute. Isn’t it true that both the old song and the new Giorgio van S. story are totally tuned in to the importance of the death motif? I guess I said that Giorgio’s story was a kind of nothing story, but come to think of it—rather than looking for some impressive Big Theme, I should pay just a little attention to the details: like for example the discussion of “the Paul is dead controversy” and all the clues about Paul’s death and how the 15-year-old was a Paul-freak and of course his never-was lover Alessandra was a John-freak.
If you think about the details, then you become sure that the sixties and early 70’s as you lived through them have nothing whatsoever to do with the way this period often gets characterized today. Yes, I remember “the Paul is dead stuff” but I didn’t get all that into it—just like I never really got into peace demonstrations and radical politics (one local campus demonstration I don’t even remember all that well) or really into drugs. I mean like in the ’60’s and early ’70’s, I guess I was both there and not there as a part of Woodstock nation, I mean I took language classes in languages I can scarcely remember a word of today, hung out with friends who I later drifted apart from, had a curiously unreal, short-lived romantic relationship etc.
But this is precisely why Giorgio has his narrator make a flat statement about “inutili malinconie sul bel tempo che fu” as he looks at his life today in which he doesn’t belong to any groups “né di tre, né di centomila.” And now I get it, now I see where the extraterrestial theme comes from! It’s the quality of John Lennon’s!
And if Giorgio got the song A Day in the Life right, then the old song Lucio revives must have gotten it right to. And well, what can I say?, it seems, it certainly did! Think about how interesting it is to imagine the idea of a Beatles imitator who got called back to the US and later died in Vietnam. I can relate to that directly! From age 12 and a half on, I sang Beatles songs out loud and was a Beatles imitator—who, years later—of course—got called back by the military establishment to serve the evil interests of Big Capital. In this case the fateful letter is my letter of acceptance to graduate school! And the fact that the ragazzo died in Vietnam refers to my death in a tenured position.
And another thing—is that the four song titles—“Help,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Lady Jane” and “Yesterday” kind of go together and in a neat way cover all the major themes of rock and roll songs: the need for help with unsolvable emotional problems, the need to just buy a ticket and get the hell out, the celebration of never-was, not-for-long or never-can-be sweet perfect lovers and the mourning over what gets losts forever and forever—yeah! tutto ciò che quaggiù perdesti mai—as my main man Ludovico Q. Poet once put it in one of his greatest hits. And the reference to “Ticket to Ride” is particularly right on. There John sings: “she said that livin’ with me / is bringin’ her down / that she would never be free / when I was around.” I’m finally old enough to know that I’m the one who’s always been the big drag and not the other person.
All right, in short—like everyone else I know I’ve grown up some and I’ve refused to grow up some. And so I think John Lennon was right when he said he had grown up and Gloria Emerson was also right to suggest that he hadn’t, that rock culture ideas and his own power had permanently infantilized him just like academic culture ideas and being invested with a certain kind of petty bureaucratic power seems to be permanently infantalizing me.
But it’s no big deal, is it? In “C’era un ragazzo che come me amava i Beatles e i Rolling Stones”, a big thing is made out of the obvious fact that dead men don’t wear long hair. I still wear long hair—even though I’m like totally clueless as to why that is. If anything, I guess, I see it as totally meaningless: whether I think back on long hair in the vastly overrated late sixties or think back on it today, the odious early nineties.