A life in music - Part III
Leaving town: from chrysalis to butterfly
I left Rome for Berlin in 2012. It was at the end of a relatively short yet extremely intense and devouring relationship that developed throughout Paris, the eternal city and the lovely Alban Hills. I was 28. She was 20. I can think about this move as the watershed of my life, but now I can see how I was silently preparing myself to leave town in the previous years. I started working as a web developer while finishing my studies, and for a brief period I lived downtown in Rome. The stress of the city, of compiling the thesis and working piled up.
I was moody, unable to keep any relationship up, and relatively distant from my close friends, for I couldn't give a name to the root cause of my restlessness and thus being able to share it with them. Only relief was once again in music, and the bands I knew in that period settled in me more as real friends than just musical acts. First of all, I got back to that album sounding like it was recorded through an old phone, released on Factory Records on 1979. Boy, I could finally feel all the pain going through what Ian and friends were suffering.
That cutting guitars, that prominent bass, those tight drums acting like a human drum-machine: it was my sound! And such sound had a beautiful name, precisely post-punk. Post-punk is a way of life, is to be romantic, decadent, furious, introspective yet in your face. Post-punk never left me and never will, is a warm frigid shelter for us elegant outcasts. Thanks to RYM I literally went through all possible bands and style deviations.
A triad stands out for me: The Chameleons, The Sound, Sad Lovers and Giants. The Chameleons are simply one of the most important bands in my life, I find their music simply perfect, and their lyrics (mostly written by bassist and vocalist Mark Burgess) embracing and talking directly to me. They sound raw and extremely dreamy and the same time, a musical achievement extremely complex to reach, yet utterly natural for them. I listened to their three albums back to back countless times, walking in raining Rome first and in snowing Berlin then. Just after some weeks I arrived in Germany, I read that they were touring and coming in town!
I couldn't believe I could see them live, for I thought they were on indefinite hiatus! And not only the concert was one of the most unforgettable of my life, but at the end of it I made acquaintance of a girl that invited me to join her in the backstage, as she was Mark's close friend. Could you imagine me sipping beer with my heroes, like we knew each other since ages!
What about The Sound? They nailed song after song. The voice, lyrics and guitar work from their frontman Adrian Borland is just blissful, yet they had poor acknowledgment and this played a role in Adrian's decision to say goodbye to this world earlier than expected. Or perhaps no, he knew better when to stay and when to leave, for he is a great soul. Their music is pure energy, and as opposed to aforementioned mancunian fellows, they explicitly talked about love.
What about the Sad Lovers? What about the Giants? Their guitar lines are among the cleanest one can find, their bass just sings along with the other instruments, and they can craft the most soothing piece after the rawest track. Curiously enough, their guitarist Tony McGuinness is a founder member of Above and Beyond, one of my favourite trance acts back in the days!
After years of careful yet lonesome listening, it was time to dance to this music! And what place better than Berlin to dive into the night and land into the gothic, groovy realm of all these bands and many more? I discovered beautiful bands by the dozen, from The Danse Society to Pink Turns Blue to Bauhaus from Clan of Xymox to Lowlife to Ikon, from The Sisters of Mercy to Killing Joke to Blue Kremlin. And I learnt to love the best of the neofolk/darkfolk scene, from Death in June to Current 93 to Natural Organisation to Rome, and may I be forgiven for the ones I am forgetting now. Ah, Tenhi! No Tenhi, no forgiveness.
Albeit dreampop was one of my taste pillars, I still had to dig deep through all the production of the previous three decades in order to reach its roots. I went straight to the source of it all, to the emanation of Ivo Watts-Russel called 4AD Records.
The first twenty years of 4AD are pure gold. So diverse, yet so 4AD. Besides Cocteau Twins and Red House Painters, I made a lot of new friendships: Kristin Hersh and her Throwing Muses, a real force of nature and rock and roll music; The Modern Lovers, XMal Deutschland, Lisa Germano, the Pixies...
I went also back to my beloved four-on-the-floor tracks, with a local twist this time. Berlin has always beend and still is a crucial city for the techno scene, and some great parties fed my encyclopedic hunger. The main course of the menu was herr Moritz Von Oswald, known better as Maurizio or Basic Channel.
Another seminal album in the scene is Pop by Gas, one of the most acclaimed monickers of Wolfgang Voigt.
Strumming the pain away
It would not be completely correct to say, that my first guitar lesson changed my life. Hell, I feel like I was born with a guitar in my hands, it just took me thirty-one years to find out! Even though I was surrounded by instruments in my childhood, I never had the guts to pick up one. Anyway it was at the beginning of the mild summer of 2015 that I browsed craiglist for english speaking guitar teachers, and went for my the first round.
Man what a pain, what a sense of dismay, what sort of cacophony could I produce with the beautiful guitar of my teacher! I had enough music theory under my belt in order not to get lost with the notation, but the fretboard was a puzzle to me at the beginning. Where are my black and white keys? Where are the semitone leaps?
And the pain.
But I remembered a night of many years before, when my friend Giulia let me listen to a live acoustic song while driving me back home. Kinda had heard that one before, but never paid enough attention.
His name again? Neil Young. The song? Hey Hey, My My.
Around ten years after, my desire to play that simple yet tremendously effective song helped me going through the obstacles and the frustration.
I decided to gather here my thoughts about bands that have a huge impact on my guitar playing style, even though I knew some of them since way before.
I got in touch with Moz/Marr/Rourke/Joyce when I was 26ish, that is unforgivable late. Even less forgivable is that for three or four years, I just listened to The Queen is Dead and nothing else from them. Sacrilege! Profanity! Heresy! But so it goes. As soon as I started to appreciate the complex and extremely catchy musicianship behind Marr guitar lines, I could not help listening to them every day.
And how stinging are Morrissey's lyrics, how intimate yet never cheesy, how irriverent!
Gasping but somehow still alive
This is the fierce last stand of all I am
Gasping, dying but somehow still alive
This is the final stand of all I am
Please keep me in mind.
All their catalogue is so important to me, I will soon write thoroughly about my bond with them.
I think Bob Mould to be one of the freshest and cleverest songwriters out there, period. He took punk/hc paradigms and used them to write among the catchiest pop songs ever, not giving up to a single bit of strength.
Albeit I fancy all their production, Flip Your Wig is their most accessible album and the one I listen to the most.
It goes without saying, Robert Smith and friends had the deepest impact on me. If I have to he honest, for ages I couldn't go past Disintegration and Wish, for the rest of the production was too gloomy to my then ephebic ear. How much quality music I missed! From Seventeen Seconds to Faith to Pornography and the rest.
VU are the epitome of lustful laziness. They sneak into your room with their guitars and voices, they make you question all your life decisions. They are mostly often out of tune. They are always right.
You left too soon Jason, you are deeply missed.
Townes van Zandt
Townes is the reason why I started learning fingerpicking. His hand caress the string in an endless, dusty and heartwarming dance, we are all invited to join. I had his cover of Dead Flowers by the Stones running in my mind for ages, as it was used as closing theme for The Big Lebowski. Some months ago I finally went to the source of such beautiful music, and started listening to all Townes albums.
Many years ago I could not stand country music. It was because I was exposed just to the overproduced and extremely polished radio sounds that came overseas (yes Shania, I am looking at you). This instead is raw to the core, it's six strings and a pint and a bunch of beautiful stories to be told on the porch or by the fireplace. And I am all ears Townes, I am.
I started digging Fab Four literally two months ago. Really, before I knew just a bunch of their hits, and they were enough to label them as overplayed-retro-fucks. Boy, what a cardinal sin! Their music is awesome at every possible level, so reassuring and warm at times, so groovy and punchy at others. Four fabulous souls contributing to so many timeless songs, based on the most creative use of melody and even more of harmony: let's pick Julia, it goes like C/Am/Gm7/Gm9/A7/F7add9/Fm7 in the verse. Sounds like stuff from outer space to me, really.
Nowadays / The Future
I realised that this pamphlet is as long and dragging, as it is not exhaustive of all the music and experiences I wanted to cover. The more bands and songs I talk about, the more come to my mind and I feel like I am covering a tiny bit of the past years. Yet I want to end this retrospective with the event that made me eventually realise that I had to go all in with music.
Mid 2016, I heard that miss Rachel Goswell of Slowdive was going to play a gig in Berlin with her side project, Minor Victories, in October of the same year. If I have to be honest, I didn't like their album a lot outside of her vocal contribution. Still Rachel playing a couple of blocks away from where I live, so picked up my ticket, and started wondering if I could have brought my guitar with me and then ask her to play a song together. YOU CRAZY MAN YOU BRING NO SHIT WITH YOU. And that was it, till the day before the concert. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, quite unusual for mid autumn in Berlin. I was playing at the Wasserturm Park as usual, strumming my beautiful Martin guitar. A couple strolls by, then the girl turns around and drops me a coin and a smile. I smile back, her boyfriends takes her hand back with frustration.
I hold those fifty cents. Diego, tomorrow you bring the guitar with you. I do not dare still. I go back home, the day after I go to work. Five minutes before leaving my office, I print out the lyrics of couple of Slowdive songs where she sings and that I can play. Back then I could just do Sleep and Visions of La, top to bottom. I go back home, drop my bag and pick the guitar. What if they don't let me in with the instrument? What if it gets broken in some unexpected mosh pit? You have to face the unexpected if you want to enjoy it, not just plan everything ahead. You have to bite life if you want to enjoy it, you have to face your fears. The concert runs smooth, no particular highlights. I knew it. The band joins the room after the show, I approach Rachel with a copy of Outside Your Room EP to sign.
– Thank you so much Rachel. If you don't mind, I have a special request for you.
– I brought my guitar with me, I would love to play a song together later.
– Ah, well...I am kinda busy now. Later perhaps, but I cannot promise it.
Fair enough. I tried at least. I waited while she greeted all the fans. I was sick of being a fan, of watching other people's lives from afar. I wanted to tear my vinyl into pieces, fuck it and the 70 (seventy) bucks I paid for it. I waited till a member of the staff came to me and told me it was closing time. I had written a letter for Rachel, I wanted at least to give it to her before leaving. It was just me, her and the last hardcore admirer. I kindly interrupt them so I could give the letter and leave.
– Young man, show me what you are capable of. Let's go.
We were in Berlin SO36, a legendary venue for rock and punk. The main room is split in two by a big black curtain, they open for main acts and close it when they want to separate the bar from the stage area. The curtain was halfway closed. I follow Rachel through Maya's veil, and we are completely alone surrounded by black walls, black ceiling and floor and black fabric.
– So, what did you want to play in particular?
– You can choose between those two Rachel.
– No way I am doing this because I don't even remember that. Let's do the other.
Visions of La. It's just D minor and A minor, c'mon you can do it. I am visibly trembling, as it is the very first time I play with somebody else. And what a companion!
Sits down by the fire
Ease his worried mind
If only I could try
Reach the light inside.
I sounds like in the fucking record. Not the guitar, the voice.
Feels so hard to say
Chase his fears away
Know that I won't try
Catch his dreams today.
The line was crossed. I was no fan anymore, I was a peer. I (awfully) played a song with one of my favourite artists ever, of whom I daydreamt for years. And it was no matter of luck, it was just determination. I have then a pleasant conversation with Rachel in that dark corner of the universe. She gives me an high five and tells me that nobody ever asked her such a thing. Besides Neil, I joke. I still tremble. I say farewell to Rachel, thank her and hug her. And gave her the letter, I was just about to forget.
I walked home literally floating, with my guitar over my shoulder. I knew this is a start and not an end. Few months later I resigned from my job and devoted myself entirely to music.
I want to learn to play and sing all songs that accompanied me throughout my life.
I want to play a song in all pianos in airports, malls and train stations, and walk away.
I want to play in the streets of all beautiful cities in the world, and in the not so gorgeous ones too.
I want to arrive in a village and ask for supper and shelter in exchange for a night in music. And please excuse me if the hostess asks me to follow her upstairs once the hall is lonesome and silent.
I want to play in a rock band [in progress].
I want to start a noise-pop/garage-rock duo with a girl [ ].
I want to play the acoustic in a gothic country/southern gothic outfit [ ].
I want to be good at bossa nova, at least enough to play Desafinado [ ].
I want to come out on 4AD, but with Ivo's era design on the cover [ ].
I want to never stop learning, playing and breathing music.
Want to join me in this audacious journey? You are just two lines away from that.