You know how sometimes you are introduced to someone at a show, or at school, or at work, and you say, “Nice to meet you” , but don’t really think any more about it? But over time you keep seeing that person, and you find out they know some of the same people you do, or they like some of the same things you do, and maybe it takes months, maybe years later, but you end up becoming great friends?
That’s how it was with me and Italy.
Growing up, I never thought about Italy much. We studied the ancient Romans, but it was like when the Empire ended, so did Italy. Well, the Pope lived there (we were Catholic so we had to know about the Pope), but apparently he had his own little country that was separate from Italy.
One other thing I knew about Italy was that a lot of immigrants came from there to work in the factories where I lived. Our next door neighbors came from somewhere near Rome, and when they arrived they could hardly speak a word of English.
I thought they were interesting, but also a little scary, because they were always yelling. One minute it would sound like they were going to kill each other, the next it was all hugs and kisses and love. In my family, if we got made at each other, we stayed mad for months or even years.
In those days (the 1950s), working class Americans like us never thought about going to other countries, unless there was a war and the Army sent us there. But by the 1970s airplane flights were cheaper, and I started thinking about maybe crossing the ocean one day.
I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t Italy. Then I stayed up all night drinking with a friend, and that’s exactly where he talked me into going.
It was early summer, 1975, when we landed in Rome, and the first thing we saw was a soldier with a machine gun pointed at us as we stepped off the plane. It was the time of the Brigate Rosse, and soldiers were everywhere. Today that’s pretty common in many places around the world, but at the time it was pretty shocking.
Like a typical American, I didn’t know anything about Italian politics, so I figured Italy must be a very dangerous place. Unless you were a terrorist or a politician, it wasn’t, but even once I realized that, I found other stuff hard to get used to.
Almost nobody spoke English, and I didn’t know any Italian. But having gone to Catholic school, I’d studied Latin, and I figured that would be close enough. I mixed it up with the little bit of French and Spanish I knew, and soon had people looking at me like I’d arrived from another planet.
I also hated that you could only eat at certain hours. In America there were restaurants open almost any time of day or night, but in Italy the fast food chains hadn’t arrived yet. You ate at lunchtime and dinnertime or you didn’t eat at all.
It was almost impossible to find American-style food. These days I almost never touch that kind of stuff, but back then I still figured you needed burgers and fries to survive. One night my friend made the mistake of asking for milk with his dinner and the waiter got all indignant and said, “È per bambini!”
One night we decided it would be a good idea to take LSD and walk around Rome all night like we did in San Francisco or Berkeley. We didn’t know that the streets would be completely deserted except for soldiers, police, and a few communists and MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano) fascists putting up posters and glowering at each other.
We did find one drunk old man shouting at the ruins of the Forum as if he were Cicero addressing the Senate, and I could almost swear he was doing it in Latin, but you never know when you’re as high as we were. The morning sun erupted over the city, and I decided I’d had enough One 24-hour train ride later, I was in London seeing Led Zeppelin.
I came back to Italy the next year, and a couple times more in the 80s and 90s. By then, many Italians were learning English, so I still didn’t try to learn their language. Then in 2006 I moved to a neighborhood in Brooklyn where almost everyone was from Napoli. You could hear Italian everywhere in the cafes, the shops, the streets, but though I lived there 10 years, I still didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to learn.
Finally in 2016 some Roman kids asked me to give a speech at their Green Day festival, and I found it embarrassing that I would have to have somebody translate it for me. So I took a few weeks to learn at least enough Italian to tell them I was sorry I didn’t know their language yet, but that would learn it before I came back again.
And I did. Well, sort of, anyway. I still can’t have big complicated conversations, but I can read newspapers and Facebook posts, and even make a few smart-aleck comments. Today at the Confucius Temple (I’m in Beijing right now) I heard a Chinese guide speaking Italian to some tourists he was showing around. I almost stopped to compliment him on how good his “Yi da li hua” (say it out loud, remembering that “hua” means talk or speech) was.
Knowing a little something about the language and culture makes me feel at home in Italy in a way I never would have thought possible. But big surprise for me lately has been the way so many Italians fell in love with the kind of music we used to put out on Lookout Records.
I didn’t expect this, because the first Italian bands I heard were hardcore and thrash-metal. But I guess it makes sense, because by the end of the 80s, I was getting sick of all that anger and yelling, and made sure Lookout specialized in the kind of music you could sing along with and dance to without feeling the need to kill somebody. Maybe Italians came to feel the same way.
Now it’s the summer of 2019 and I’m coming to Italy again, to see some art, some beauty, and some classic Lookout bands, not to mention a whole bunch of European bands playing in their local style or the Lookout style or maybe a mixture of both. If you talk to me, you will find my Italian is still only so-so, but I’m making un po’ di progresso, and I will keep trying. I look forward to seeing all of you in Bergamo quest’estate!
Column taken from Punk Rock Raduno 4 fanzine - summer 2019