Monday, December 24, 2012
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
The aforementioned letter was recently reposted on the Screeching Weasel site for the 27 Year anniversary. Once again I was not asked or even told by the forces that be, and was instead eventually informed by a fan. I submitted a comment to the web post, which after a week so far has not been cleared for posting to the site. We all know that sometimes it is better that the things we write in the moment, while still angry, do not get a chance to see the light of day. I am constantly caught between wanting to engage in a debate and wanting to move on. The gray is a place I am used to, and all too often am comfortable existing within this space of action/non-action. Yet, I can't let it go. This nagging feeling I get when I hear about the band formally known as Screeching Weasel, increasing in stead of subsiding over time, has been difficult, if not impossible, to shrug off.
So here is the letter I posted awhile back, which has been reposted on the Weasel Website, and following it is the comment which, as of this time, has not been included.
Saturday, October 6, 2012
PALERMO, IT DEVOURED MY SOUL,
AND EACH DAY I CRAVE MY RETURN TO ITS LANDS
or Can't Get You Out Of My Head.
(This more than the others, is a work in process. It has taken me quite along time to gather my thoughts for this part of my journey. And they are not complete, grammatically or even complete in its telling. I wanted to get it out there. I will continue to work on this passage, making corrections and adding details, but for now, please enjoy Marco and Stefanino's Palermo.)
Marco met me at the station in Palermo. He is a man even shorter than I am, his eyes are there and not there, a man with a very calm exterior, always slightly nodding his head in agreement, completely aware of his surroundings but seemingly stoned. He grins and nods, his english has lilts that go up and down a roller coaster moving smoothly in slow motion. The men of Italy that have a grip on the international relations in punk rock seem to have a similar quality I can not put my finger on, but Mass and Marco have it. I can only see it in my head as an ironic smile like one I can picture on my literary hero Albert Camus. It’s not that they have seen everything that could possibly happen and now nothing could shock them, but that if everything possible did all of a sudden one day happen concurrently, they’d be there to see it, study it with an irreverent humility, remain unfazed, synthesize all the information so it fits in their brain before moving on, and finally reconfiguring their lives as they continued forwards, wiser than the rest of us.
Marco let me stay at his house the first night in Sicily. I met his mother. She and I talked for quite awhile about book publishing, writing, and philosophy. She was a super intelligent lady. I wish I could remember our conversation, but alas, perhaps because of overwhelming exhaustion, the moment was LIVED and not MEMORIZED. Later in the evening after having a few drinks Marco asked me what I wanted in the morning for breakfast. I said, “Oh maybe something simple, like a cantaloupe.” He paused. His eyes widened, and then he just started laughing at me.
“What did I say?”
“Yes, John. What did you say? Can you please say it again?”
“I said ‘Cantaloupe.’”
He shot me a big shit eating grin, shook his head from side to side. “Oh John, don’t you know?”
“Well obviously I don’t.”
“In Italian Cante Loupe means singing wolf. You just said you want to eat a singing wolf!”
I took a moment, and with nearly an expression I said, “Yes, I know. Can you arrange that by morning?”
Marco could hardly breathe he started laughing so hard.
A friend and bandmate of Marco’s, a tough hardcore gentleman named Bizio from the band Sempre Freski, offered to house me for as long as I would like to stay in Palermo. Bizio was by no means a man with alot of money, and he had a daughter to take care of, so it was extremely kind of him to let me stay in his apartment.
Most Sicilians live in buildings older than the invention of the wheel. This makes life interesting for the Sicilian Punks, living in buildings with antique plumbing, old lighting fixtures, and thin walls decaying. Most of the punks I know there just barely scrape by financially supporting their friends and family. But as I learned money is just a minor nuisance between the way they want to live and the way the economy demands them to live. Sicily is not Italy. It has it’s own colorful culture and history.
Sicily has been invaded so many times that the culture has become a melting pot more than it is in the USA. It has been baked, solidified, melted again and pillaged over so many 500 hundreds of years. This has given them a “mutt” infested history that I find fascinating. How they have maintained a national identity is incredible. It takes a passion for the idea of existence itself, to nurture such a strong sense of culture in the face of such mutation and change. It all becomes what is inherently Sicilian, the food, the slow pace in which they walk, and the quick way in which they fight with the tongue and the fists. And the quick way in which they engage you with unmasked emotions and enthusiasm.
Bizio directed me to his room. He was letting me stay in his room. I had no idea where he was going to sleep. The place wasn’t that big. On the couch or with his daughter, that didn’t seem fair. I shouldn’t have taken his private space as my own. I put my bags down. I did not want to take his room, but he insisted. I looked around. Marco and Bizio walked out and shut the door to let me unpack. I laid down on the bed, above there was a painting on the ceiling. The painting was pealing, it got blurry and I fell asleep, overly tired from the anxiety inducing train ride with the Iraquain who may have thought that a gun on my shirt was a symbol of my need for dominating all the world. Later I was informed that the painting above my head was a fresco.. It was hundreds of years old. I was used to punk houses in the states. Staying overnight in a Pensacola punkhouse with holes in the wall, cat piss soaked into the carpet, people “banging” all night, transients that no one really knew but seemed cool, hiding their dope in drawers and under floor panels, or places like the ashtray in San Francisco where intelligent degenerates gather like moths to a flame, three fourths of Lookout records lived in a two room apartment with stalactite spit wads solidified in mid drip down from the ceiling.
This place in Palermo rented by Bizio had an undated FRESCO on the fucking sealing. This man with a delightful little daughter named Luna was barely getting by, a cool man with a passion for booking bands. He was tough, highly tattooed, hyper-political. He was the type of man that I had only read about in books, books about sailors tying complicated nots while being blown back and forth by typhoons, and tough rubber-skinned muscle bound soldiers sprinting from trench to trench, engaging in hand to hand combat in whatever wars they happened to be thrust into. I could never tell if he liked me. I knew he respected me for my place in punk history, but sometimes when you are confronted with characters like Bizio, you can’t help but feel like a fraud.
Later that night I met the group of friends that would be forever engrained into my brain, the ones that made three weeks seem like it was just a wonderful day of drinking, mischief, and conversation:
Stefanino (A quiet mover of mountains. Much more about him to follow.)
Cinzia (Is a spunky cute punk girl who didn’t speak a word of English but with whom I felt I had some of the best conversations. It amazed everyone how the two of us seemed to be joking and talking about the same things, even though we never said an understandable word to each other. If I recall correctly, years later with Even In Blackouts, one drunken night in Stefanino’s Rocket Bar I, being a reverend capable of conducting weddings, spontaneously offered to be Cinzia's groom for the night, but rethinking, realized I couldn't be both groom and officiant. So we didn't get married we just all ate old dry cake together at the bar. That was the night I asked Stefanino if he worked full time at Rocket Bar, of which he co-owned, and he said, “Oh John, We don’t Work.” Even later that night... or really the next morning. Cinzia began talking to me in English, no she hadn’t been fooling me, she just happened to pick it up over the years since our first meeting. It was odd, yet wonderful. It was like admiring someone from a far for years then finally getting to meet them and then realizing that they are as real as you are.)
Azzurra (Is a girl who drinks twice her body weight on a regular basis, and whom would zoom her automobile loaded with all our mutual friends down narrow streets barely wider than her car. I was sure if I were to die in Sicily, it would be by her hand alone. I don’t like to contemplate for too long my first impressions but she seemed out of place with these punk rock Sicilians, not that anyone wore mohawks and had pins through their noses, but something about her was elsewhere. Perhaps for a moment I thought she belonged in shopping malls trying on perfume getting ready for modeling auditions, yet over time this out of place-ness reminded me of what I loved about some of the best punk (or other) communities. We are all misfits, outcasts, and we must strive to keep this unique element a part of our presents. The times with Azzurra around were perplexing and exhilarating. I missed her whenever she wasn’t there.)
Alessandro (Who considered himself a yet undiscovered modern day expressionist painter, was always covered in paint. I asked him to let me model for a painting. He never said he abhorred the idea yet he never took me up on the offer. Although, he did eventually give me an abstract nude painting of his girlfriend. It kind of looked like a chicken who was caught in a blender with a boney girl and a blood-soaked rainbow. Alessandro was like many other Sicilians I met, very short, about my size, yet skinnier than most. He had in spades a Napoleon infused hyper-machismo which was both laughable and yet intimidating. Alessandro was also known as Topo, which means tiny mouse. [Like a mouse that roars.] He always had a thin blonde girl silently walking behind him, her name was Vivianna - the model of many of his paintings. One day I had mentioned to him that I was feeling out of shape and wouldn’t mind going for a run. Alessandro pounded on his chest and said, “I’ll run with you!” The next day Cinzia, Alessandro, and Vivianna picked me up to go running on an outdoor track. All of us were in running clothes except Alessandro, who was dressed in a leather jacket, t-shirt, loafers, and jeans. It was near 90 degrees! He started panting after one lap, sweating, but he refused to take off his jacket, or his pants! After a few more laps he fell to the ground, with a comic dignity, and gestured for me to continue onwards. And I did, yet keeping an eye on him and Vivianna sitting on a bench, to make sure he was indeed OK.)
Joe (Who spoke the most english talked with a brooklyn accent. He lived in the states until he was eight years old, he left with his family after having seen a KISS concert live with his parents. His family probably didn’t leave for this reason yet that concert was his last memory of the USA. He was the type of guy I find in every country to take the place of my lost friend Peter Flynn. They are tragic figures yet heroic in their self destruction. They drink copious amounts of alcohol and they infuse their rambles and outbursts with a darkly comic compassion and understanding of how the world works. A hug from Joe always seemed as if it would be his last. He held you with no abandon and you felt deep within your core his warmth and his pain. The last I heard he had a job as a car salesman, keeping at bay his demons while clocking in 9 to 5. I will always wonder where he is in this complex world of ghosts and goblins, and yet I will always keep a safe distance in order not to get pulled into a world too chaotic even for myself.)
All the above people plus Bizio, on my second day, had planned a traditional Sicilian meal for me. They put salad, pasta, and meat in the middle of the table in Bizio’s living room. We surrounded the table with two couches, borrowed folding chairs and people kneeling. The food was fresh and smelled so mind-bogglingly good! I grabbed a plate. I put pasta and meat on it together. After my first bite, as if a single unit, the whole room paused, looked at me, then began to laugh. The whole room, ALL OF THEM! Words like Secondo and Primo flew through the room amidst Italian gibberish and guffaws.
“Oh John you don’t eat the pasta with the sausage. Pasta first, then the sausage.”
“Ah yes, another lesson. I’m sorry.”
“Not a problem, John.”
I laughed too, and that was good. The food was good. The lesson was good. The company was even gooder.
Under my breath I said to myself, “Primo, First. Secondo, second. Pasta... Sausage...”
Even though the second day of my undeterminably lengthy visit was very pleasant and welcoming something about this living situation was uncomfortable. This feeling and it’s consequences was a product of my inability to completely grasp the affects of my notoriety. I am virtually a stranger to them, but one with a legacy. Out of respect and politeness they were not always forthcoming with any inconveniences I may cause. Cultural fau pax, they were all about, but actual situations where I may have accidentally burdened someone were usually endured in silence. Perhaps they dealt with these little nuances in order to protect my feelings, or to show their respect towards my accomplishments or potential connections gained from my friendship. For instance, I was told that there was a limit to how much water could be used in this one thousand year old apartment, but I was not told what limited water-use actually meant. When I enquired, they told me not to worry too much about it. After one shower it was hinted to me a couple days later that I had mistakingly used Bizio’s water supply for the whole entire week! One USA shower and I had used up ALL his water... for the week! He had a child that had to go to school, a girl, Luna. Luna needed to be clean, needed to wash her face, they needed to wash dishes... fight off germs! Oh God! and I had unknowingly used all their water in one shower! I could not stay here and disrupt their life. In how many other ways would I accidentally put them farther into debt and deprivation? Would I end up using all the electricity, gas, air...! The primo/not sausage debacle was humorous for all, but taking away one of the main necessities of life from a father and daughter was not a path blazened for a man of my semi-fame to traverse.
Stefanino, which kind of means Little Steven, who is the leader of the band The Popsters and now Tough, took good care of me along with Marco in Sicily, and he still does take care of me to this very day, only now from a distance. Stefanino is rail thin, he resembles a Sicilian Shaggy from Scooby Doo, always with a little scruff on his cheeks and chin, more like peach fuzz, a youthful face, and eyes that somehow look innocent and simple, yet behind his eyes lurks a frustrated talented mind that searches for meaning through literary pursuits, relationships, music and deep confusion. Much like myself, he is always a little bit lost, and happy to be in this state of lostness.
He asked how things were going at Bizio’s house. I told him that I felt bad because I was disrupting Bizio’s life, and that perhaps it would be better for me to spend a bit of money on a hostile. As if I had an army of my own minions, like having a full staff of secretaries out for your good and your good alone, by the next morning, I was whisked away on Stefanino’s scooter to check out a condo-like apartment building by the Ocean for $200.00 USD a week. My bags were put in Marco’s car and the whole gang joined me to visit my potential living space. This was the first day I experienced Palermo traffic and the scary world of Scooter vs. Automobile madness. I will never say that this system is organized but it did seem that the level at which all Sicilians ignored the rules of the road, put them on a plateau above the ordinary system put in place in the states. While we were driving, weaving in and out of cars on the scooter, I asked Stefanino, well actually I yelled in his ear, “Are there any laws here in Palermo?” “Ah yes, John, but they are more like what you call, guidelines.” “I see you have cops, how do they know when someone has gone too far.” “I don’t think they do, they just randomly stop people to remind us that there are some rules out there somewhere, like I said they are guidelines. Don’t worry John, is OK.”
I was given a penthouse apartment with my own terrace on the roof over looking the Ocean and the tallest mountain/Hill, in Palermo, Monte Pellegrino where Saint Rosalia (patron of Palermo) spent the last days of her life. Marco, Stefanino and the usual entourage walked me up to the top floor with an acoustic guitar they had lent me, the guitar in which I wrote my first song, Missing Manifesto, for the yet to be conceived band called Even In Blackouts, my back pack, and my camping bag. The apartment was larger than they were even expecting. It had a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, and of course the aforementioned balcony which was about the size of Bizzio’s entire house. That they too were surprised by the vastness of the apartment I could only guess by the way they were looking around, because as soon as we opened the door, they began talking in Sicilian instead of english, pointing at things like the couch and the television. Marco sat down in a rocking chair, laughed, and said something indistinguishable to Stefanino who responded back as I saw the back of his head as he descended into the large bathroom.
There were only two drawbacks to this Sicilian Dream Pad. The first is a detail that as an American we get used to OUR own way of doing things. The key I was given to my apartment was not allowed to leave the building. I could leave the premises whenever I wanted, but the key had to stay behind the front counter. This meant that there was an employee that had to stand behind the counter all hours of the night waiting to let late night residents not only back into their temporary homes, but even through the front door of the building. In this case, and in the case of the place I stayed for two nights in La Spezia, (side note: Mass hated that I wanted to stay in a hotel, he thought it was a waste, but at times I just felt I was too much of a burden and also I need alone time more than the average person, which makes life complicated for someone like me who also craves massive amounts of conversation and friendship.) I felt like I was the only tourist ever in Italy to stay out past a reasonable hour of the night. I began to feel judged when I rang the bell and saw the nightshift guy through the glass door walk out from a room behind the counter, brush the sleep out of his eyes, sigh heavily when he saw me, and then begrudgingly let me back in, handing me my key, that I wished I could just keep in my pocket so that I could avoid this old man all together and leave him alone to, sleep, watch TV and to die happy.
The second inconvenience was that there was no internet. In some ways this was a blessing; less distractions while writing. But to be blunt and to the point, I had my own private abode I was alone alot, and I planned on engaging in as much masturbation as time would allow. And this is much more easily done with access to internet. When I am working on a creative project, writing of any sort, my imagination is usurped, as if I only have access to it in limited supplies. Exclusive rights are given to whatever one project I happen to be working on at the time. Ergo, I had no extra imagination to create elaborate sexual scenarios in my head creative enough to get me to the climax desired. So I had to resort to switching on the television whenever “in the mood.” For the first couple tries I began watching the news programs.
“Why the news programs” you might ask. If you don’t know what I am talking about, it is not the “news” that is erotic, but for some reason behind many newscasters on Italian and Sicilian networks stand a scantily clad model, not doing anything other than looking voluptuous, with poise, smiling, even during more somber news reports. It was so bizarre, it really brought out the machismo inherent in the culture. And at first glance, it seemed a perfect place for a little bopping the bishop. I could not donate a proper amount of time to these news briefs to allow my titillation to exceed my awareness of the strange, discomforting, juxtaposition. It just seemed wrong. For god’s sake, they were talking about wars, burning towers in America, people stuck in mines, how could I pleasure myself along side such devastation? But, of course I tried, perhaps even succeeded once or twice. When this eventually failed to work in the long run, I turned to music videos. And the only one that did it for me was Kylie Minogue, oh later I would google pictures of her, and there were no sparks, but for some reason this video was so stimulating for me, and in some way I made it be so, because I knew at the time that this video would be on at least one channel every 10 minutes.
While drinking at La Buca Di Bacco, which was a small storefront bar where the gang liked to begin their nightly drinking, I saw a large poster in the process of being pasted up on the brick wall next door. It was advertising an exhibit of paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec in town for one weekend only. Marco walked up behind me. “Johnny, would you like to go to this exhibit? It isn’t so far from your apartment. We could pick you up tomorrow and go.” I thought that that would be a great idea. We had plans the day after, so this would be the only chance to see the exhibit, It wouldn’t be earth shattering if I didn’t go but it seemed a great thing to do. I had experienced a bit of the casualness of the Italians and I was told the Sicilians were even more laid back in regards to time, so I pointed out the hours the exhibit would be open, “11 a.m. to 5 p.m.” (Actually it probably had Euro time: 1100 to 1700. I’m just changing it for my own ability to keep track.)
With a beer in one hand and a lemon Vodka for me in the other, Stafanino stepped up from behind us. Marco said a few words to him in Sicilian, then Stefanino said “Bello. Bello.” He turned to face me. He handed me the Lemon Vodka. “Don’t worry Johnny. We can all use some culture. We’ll all go.”
I quickly fell into the regular daily habits of my new punk friends, or it seemed a regular daily habit. Who knows, maybe when I wasn’t there they DIDN’T go to at least 2 or 3 bars a night. But I suspect they did. On my first visit to Palermo Stefanino’s Rocket Bar was not open yet, so each night we would end our drinking at a Dance Club named Malox. Often Marco would DJ there, and that is how some locals got their taste of punk rock. It was mostly a mainstream dance club but Marco was able to sneak in a few more danceable punk songs from The Ramones, The Queers, Operation Ivy and of course Screeching Weasel. (A few years later Marco would visit me in Chicago with a mission to go to all the independent record stores that still carried records. He rummaged through the cheap record bins grabbing all the 7 inches he could find. It didn’t seem to matter what band it was, or even if it was a band. One day while rummaging through a box that said ‘twenty-five cents” which was stashed under the regular record bins, Marco said to me, “Oh Johnny, you have a gold-mine here.” And I said, “One man’s trash is another’s treasure.” And with arms full of what I saw as useless vinyl he smiled like Marco always does whenever he hears something he wants to remember. “Then I’m just like a pirate.” He would go home and sell almost all these records, and the ones he didn’t sell he probably played at Malox.) I learned to love the nightly ritual of ending up at Malox, sitting in the outdoor courtyard listening to my friends talk in their native tongue. A few people each night, whom I didn’t know, would approach me and begin talking broken english. I was a novelty item but also an educator helping Sicilians brush up on the small amount of English they knew. It was some of my best nights in Europe. I was anonymous to some and famous to others, but both highly interested in the American in their midst. Stefanino and Marco even coerced me into being a guest DJ one night. I spent the whole afternoon putting together playlists, I was so excited. It was one of the only times I allowed myself to DJ while drinking. A couple times that night I got so carried away dancing along with them that the song ended and the club went silent, everyone would stare at me, and then I would remember that I was the one in charge of the music. No one would get angry they would just laugh at me in the most kind-hearted way.
The night before the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit we did not stay out as late as usual, not specifically because of the exhibit, but because Stefanino wanted to take me somewhere in the morning before heading to the museum. I woke up around 10. a.m. In Europe I never had a phone on me, so in Palermo I made it a habit to just hang out on my patio working on my book until someone arrived to pick me up. And of course each morning I would spend a little time surfing the tv channels looking for Kylie. The time ticked by... at noon, I decided I had no more I wanted to say in my book about the band, so I picked up the acoustic guitar and began strumming cords. All my years in Screeching Weasel I could never write a song with which I was happy. I loved writing melodic parts, and playing with high and low octaves, but I could never string together the proper words to the proper musical arrangement. My turning words into lyrics, in my mind, sucked. I had become practically a master at writing short two minute plays in a show back in Chicago for years and years (Probably up near around 400 of them.) but for some reason this talent never translated into song lyrics.
But this afternoon I fell upon a basic riff, and for the first time I found myself humming happily to a catchy melodic line. I rushed over to my computer and searched through pages and pages of writings that I called “thoughts.” I had been writing them down for over 10 years, like a diary but more about external observations and poetry than my daily life. I found one called Missing Manifesto. One night many years before this, my friends Steve Walker, Peter Flynn and I sat around in my room drinking and smoking, being all frustrated that we didn’t have any guiding light helping direct our creative instincts. We allowed ourselves to indulge in our ennui, but it felt real at the time, and important. We began talking about how we were becoming self destructive because we were trying to create a heroic myth about how to become important and remembered. I wrote about how this manifesto is paper thin and if it doesn’t succeed we fail tremendously, bleeding with our pants down, left with only our wounded selves, further away from who we each really wanted to be, and left with no one giving a shit. I thought about the audacity of Assholes who become famous because they are assholes, banking on their creativity shining and their assholery being considered an important tool in their fame.
I took a series of these loosely connected thoughts and phrases and constructed a train of thought more congealed and linear, then in about an one hour’s time I had created the first song I was ever happy with writing myself. I decided at that moment to start a band when I got home. And it would be an acoustic band, because somehow that sound had influenced the writing of my own kinda manifesto. (It wasn’t till years later that Massimo from The Manges said that this song was one of his favorite EIB songs, partly because of the Italian word Manifesto being entertainingly bastardized by Liz’s cute Southside Chicago accent. I had completely forgotten the word manifesto was Italian, made popular by the Italian Futurists.
I put the guitar away. It was nearing 1 p.m.! And I still hadn’t heard from anyone. I decided to go outside and wait. Sometimes I am able to convince myself that pretending to begin the process of leaving will magically make the leaving actually materialize. It did not. I sat outside for another hour. (The reader must know I am not complaining. I was in Palermo, by the Ocean! They could have left me there for days and I would still be content finding small things to keep me busy. But at this time I was still living by the way time works for Americans and also to the far extreme, the Swiss and the Germans.) I got to the door when I heard someone from behind me cough politely. I looked back. It was the concierge. He was waiting attentively for me to remember to give him the key. I took it out of my pocket and headed outside. I waited by a patch of trees near the front sidewalk.
At 2pm Stefanino pulled up on his scooter. He had an extra helmet for me. “Put this on.”
“Where are we going?”
He pointed to the top of the small mountain in front of us. “Up there.”
“Shouldn’t we head over to the exhibit?”
“Don’t worry John. Is no problem.”
I strapped the helmet over my head and hopped on the backside of the small seat. I held tightly to his waist. I am a much thicker man than Stefanino, I held tight but not so tight that I would send us both off the back of the bike. He pressed the gear on the handlebar. The scooter kicked forward and then stalled. He restarted the bike again.
I yelled, “Up that mountain, huh!”
He turned his head towards me. “You must trust in me!”
The scooter lunged forward and away we went. Beyond all belief the small engine chugged along carrying us farther and farther up this singular mountain. Along the road there were kiosks set up, locals selling religious paraphernalia to the occasional tourist; vials of holy water, miniature statues of jesus on the cross, buttons & patches of Saint Rosalia, bottles of plain old regular unholy drinking water, bags of nondenominational peanuts, etc... My sister jokingly told me before I left for Europe to get her a pope-on-a-rope somewhere in Italy. If I were going to find one, this seemed to be the place. But alas, I did not find such an item, but I did find a snow globe with a pope inside. He looked calm but despondent, standing solitary surrounded by an uncharacteristic Italian blizzard. This was one of the only items I brought back to the states, besides a bottle of Limoncello and a two pound brick of parmesan cheese.
The two of us stood side-by-side at the top of Monte Pellegrino.
“I hope you like my city.”
“I love it Stefanino. Thanks for showing me this.”
We stood there looking over Palermo, watching the little toy cars and plastic scooters dodge each other running through stoplights the size of toothpicks. The haze of the heat lightly covered the horizon. The Ocean was to my left. If I squinted my eyes just right I could see the shore of Africa.
For awhile I forgot all about the museum, but then Stefanino said, “We better head back down. Up is hard but down is much more dangerous.”
Once down from Monte Pelegrino Stefanino took us farther into the city.
“Are we heading to the museum?”
“Soon, my friend. We have to meet Marco and Cinzia at La Buca Di Bacco.”
“Are we going to have a drink so early?”
“For you maybe, but for us a cafe.”
I never drink coffee. So while my Southern European friends took part in their daily ritual, I would sip on a shot of Limoncello instead. We arrived at the bar at 3:30 p.m. Once again I looked at the poster on the brick wall, 5pm. I didn’t think we were going to make that, but how could I complain. I had my drink. Over the next half hour a few more from the group arrived periodically; Azzurra, Joe, and Allesandro & Vivianna. I barely saw Bizzio. It had nothing to do with not staying at his place. He was a busy man, he worked hard and had a daughter to support. Occasionally I would see him at a bar and we would chat about old punk rock, US politics, and hardcore music. Marco finally arrived.
“Ok Johnny, let’s go.”
“I hopped in Azzurra’s death-mobile and we caravanned across Palermo dodging other cars, scooters, and pedestrians; driving down alleyways too narrow for any American’s comfort. We parked on the street and slowly everyone gathered. We walked one block where we met a couple other stragglers standing in front of a parking meter. By this time is was 4:30. I thought we had abandoned the museum idea. I was a little frustrated. They stood there chatting for another 20 minutes.
“Marco, we only have about 5 minutes. Have we decided not to go to the exhibit?”
“What do you mean, John?”
“The exhibit... aren’t we still going?”
“Johnny, we’re here!”
“It’s here.” He pointed behind him.
Behind me there was a 10 foot high poster of Toulouse-Lautrec. We had been standing in front of the entrance to the museum for at least 40 minutes.
At that moment the security guard turned the sign around in the window to “closed.” (chiuso.)
And this is where the illogical part of Italian and Sicilian culture exceeds any amount of American understanding.
Marco approached the security guard and started chatting casually about who knows what. Then the security guard nodded his head no, he even said “no no no!” Then he shut the door and locked it. Marco knocked again. And again the security guard opened the door. They argued, pointed in the building, pointed at us, pointed at the city, pointed at watches, they just about pointed at everything one could possible point at. Then the security guard belted out one more phrase and shut the door.
Marco walked over to me.
“Thanks for trying Marco.”
“What do you mean, John?”
Then Stefanino chimed in. “That does not matter John.”
“But it’s a museum. It’s closed. Look!” I pointed at the times on the poster.
“It’s OK John, he’s still open.”
The security guard let us in. We stayed for about an hour. The exhibit was ok, yet it was nothing compared to my trip up Monte Pellegrino or even my run around the track with Alessandro. During our time in the exhibit a few more past-the-hour stragglers came in and fought similar battles with the security guard. At one point the lights went off. The security guard was at the switch. Marco walked over to him and thanked him. The man shrugged his shoulders and just waved his hand at us. At times on my trip it was difficult to judge if someone was angry, annoyed, happy to oblige, ecstatic to have you there, or passionately indifferent, and this was one of those times. We left the building and he locked the door behind us, this time, for real.
This was NOT an isolated incident. This is the way things get done in Southern Europe. And with a bit of time, this mentality made more sense to me than the strict rushing about structures we have in place in the states. The Italian way is still illogical, but I miss it.
Posted by The Fool Machine Collective at 4:04 PM
Friday, August 3, 2012
Let's write a swimming pool."
Let's write a swimming pool."
- John Lennon
Tonight, or perhaps into the morrow, after a few drinks, some chocolate, and constructing my last Italy Blog post, I will list the selling of the first guitar I owned. I used it on every tour and every record from The Self-Titled to Bark Like A Dog. When I fell on it during a show in Houston I cracked off the cable connector and some wood off the body along with it. That night I wired my 50 foot guitar cable into the back of this, my only guitar. Each night I’d wrap the cord around it’s body and place it in the back of the van. A few months later I fell on it again and broke the lower bridge off and replaced it with a pen cap. Most of the early records were recorded with the guitar in this very condition. Suffice it to say, this guitar means alot to me. It may never play again, it may still play, I don’t even know. It has become a relic that has represented the struggle of our band from obscurity to seminal-fame status. And I’m selling it for this months Mortgage payment. This one’s for the house!
Andrea was the Mange that greeted me at the train station, that took care of me on that first day in Italy, and whom I feel has a temperance closer to my own than anyone I had met in Europe. Yet when I met Mass, and for the life of me I can’t remember where we were, I remember him looking at me as if we knew each other since we were children. Standing about twice my height and with a salesman’s smile, he said “Ahhhh!”, like a stereo-typical Italian chef. He opened his arms to three times the width of my body and wrapped me in a hug. I really don’t even know if what I just wrote is true, but it is the reality of how the memory feels. Mass was the voice and presents that constantly let me know that everything was OK, that he would be there if I needed him if I got lost or was going hungry, and that I was important to him, and he was willing to admit it. I feel this is very similar to how he works within his own band.
Mass invited me to his place to meet his parents and his sister. We went to his room and looked through records. He had quite an impressive collection. This “collecting” in Italy has a heightened importance, one that most of the eccentric collectors in the states could relate to but not your normal collector. In Europe, but especially in Italy the gathering of precious records from bands of the states, was a difficult endeavor. They cost more, the postal systems these records would have to travel through were many and unpredictable. When music arrived there was a celebration. I am not one for looking through records. I don’t know why, I love music, but I don’t find it very exciting looking at collector’s items. I could sense the level of dedication to acquiring these objects in the way Mass held them, unsheathing them from their plastic protectors, the delicate way in which he brought the cds to the disc player, or the stylus needle down upon the pristine vinyl. Each of these holders of music were alive. And for this reason I persevered through the two hour sharing of his collection. And low and behold, Fun was had!
Mass’ parents came home awhile later. They also had smiles and friendly hugs for me. It was hard to believe that this was my first time in their home. They went about their afterwork rituals while I listened to some new Manges songs. Mass sat at his computer finishing the art design for their latest cd. About a half hour later his father called out a few Italian words. A few minutes later, Mass said, “Ok Buddy, let’s eat.” I assumed he meant going out some where. We walked into the living room. His parents had the table set for dinner. Over the course of an hour and a half we drank a goodly dose of wine they had made themselves. They fed me pasta, sausage, and bread. I got very drunk, talked about theater and growing up in the states. I don’t recall having talked about music at all. I was in heaven. I am a sucker for meeting the parents of friends and musicians. Since I was a very small child I always got along with the parents of my friends. It may have been because they thought I was the innocent one that might keep their son or daughter on the straight and narrow path, but I prefer to think that I was born with a sense of rebellion that was not aimed towards the gaps between generations but towards normality, blind hatred, and contentment. That sounds stupid, but for some reason I can look at people in a certain way, thinking I am seeing through their eye sockets into their core, and often they look back at me and acknowledge that I had showed them something too. I don’t know why this is but it makes me shy, awkward, and incapable of thinking in straight lines, but also it strikes deep into what I like to call a communal compassion. Maybe parents can see this. I am no angel. I am just as flawed and fucked as everyone else.
Later that night we went to their local hang out, La Skaletta, where I was introduced to lemon vodkas, on the house, served by two of the most adorable, brazen, business minded, and kind sister’s in all of Southern Europe, Frederica and Daria Pantani. Neither of them speak near a word of English, so my distinctions and understanding of the two are purely based on observation. Daria runs La Skaletta, she seems the one driven and tough. I thought she was the bees knees. (For Italians who don’t know that phrase it means “of the highest quality.”) Frederica works behind the bar and seems the most sociable and willing to engage in humor, and maybe likes to get in trouble occasionally. I can see it in her smile. La Skaletta is the northern Italian hub for punks to hang out, drink copious amounts of alcohol, play foosball, and hear punk rock, both live and recorded music, from around the world.
Here is where I got to observe the protector and mostly silent partner of the Manges, the Italian Fonsi, the priest of all things Ramones, the La Skaletta one man security team (out of personal duty and not for payment), Manuel. Out of the three childhood friends to form the Manges he is the one that speaks the least english, and the one I least understand, the one that with just a look can make me feel despised, respected, loved, and inconsequential. He reminds me of my brother, the one that my mom says, “He feels so deeply, he doesn’t feel at all.” When Manuel is not keeping impeccable time on the drums, purposely playing the basics, riding that high hat like and engine pumping it’s pistons, you can see him standing back leaning against a wall or standing erect with his arms crossed, watching every movement being made within sight. This man is driven by my favorite word, integrity, and it both elevates him to hero status, and places him beyond the touchable. He is the one I know the least.
Months ago the Manges flew out to Chicago to commit, like the dedicated men they are, to play at a fiasco, abandoned by many, an anniversary of Screeching Weasel, that I was not even invited to, and yet ironically was the only member to attend. They stayed at my house and I gave away items from my past. I hoarded for many years the memories imbedded in objects, yet occasionally give them away to people I know will put them somewhere safe. (They are almost all gone now.) That night I gave Manuel a very very very rare velvet coated copy of Screeching Weasel’s cover of the Ramones first record. This gift, until now, was my silent appreciation of Manuel’s existence.
I spent numerous nights with this group of people and met many faces that are not connected to names. I was introduced to Georgio, who always reminds me, in mannerisms, physicality, and voice, of an Italian Gerard Depardieu. His shoulders are more broad than my own. He has the Italian gesture of crunching the lower lip and chin up into the nose while shrugging and signaling in multi directions with random fingers down to a science. He is a bear of a man, impassioned by music but not playing himself. He let me stay at his father’s cabin surrounded by kiwi, logs, and inapproachable dreams, as I attempted to finish my book about the band. Living was too important to suck myself into a world of written words. That book remained undone for quite awhile after I got home.
Georgio and Mass took me to Milan, to romance a girl, to show me the rich city of models, money, and antiquity. When we were walking down a side road off the main square, I saw Mass ogle, through a store window, an old fashioned hand held camera. I don’t know much about cameras but it looked marvelous, with things that made other things pop out when you touched buttons, and a large magnified piece of glass that showed you images upside down. Why do I now know these odd details of this item? Well when Mass was in a record store I wandered back to this wonder of technology to find out if I could get it for my friend. I told the salesmen I spoke no Italian, but he spoke the universal language known as “potential sale.” I pointed to the camera I wanted to look at. I had no idea what to check out about it, but he turned it this way and that speaking gibberish at me. I said things like, “yes” and “uhuh.” Eventually he looked at me, and I said, “Price?” This english word he understood. He grabbed his calculator and showed me a price in Italian dollars. (At the time they didn’t have the euro yet, so the amount looked something like a million dollars.) I then questioned, “American?” He pressed a couple buttons on the calculator and showed it to me. 1300 Dollars. You must know, readers of this blog, that that amount was way beyond what I expected, but I was caught in the momentum, and really there was no price I could put on making Mass happy, there was only a price that was beyond my credit card, and this price fit into the amount our governments working together with big banks would allow me to think I had. I said “Yes, I’ll take it.” The salesman knew what this meant too, and quickly finished the transaction just as Mass walked in. Mass asked me what I was doing. He asked me to return it. I said, “Happy Birthday, Mass.” And I made him take it. That was the most expensive gift I have ever bought. And I never regret it. This sounds trite, but I often say things free of irony that others feel the need to coat in an armor of verbal protection, but I say, “There is no price you can put on friendship.”
A few days later we were visiting friends in the opposite direction, Pisa. And yes, in the center of this city, there is a tower that leans, known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was September. I know the month, not because I have a brain that remembers details, but because it is a date most people have electrocuted and permanently burned into the wiring of their brains. I was backing down a side street looking at the leaning tower getting smaller and smaller. I love playing with perspective. Mass and a few others darted into a pizza parlor. I heard things in Italian that made me think of expressions like, “Fuck!” “Oh Know!” “God help us.” But they were Italian, and I have no idea if they were anything like this. I began to walk over the threshold of this pizza parlor. This is no literary poetics at work, no elaborations. I was literally half in the door half out the door, when I looked in and saw all these folks, with eyes watering and in shock staring up at a television screen in the corner of the room. While half in and half out I looked up at the screen and saw a flaming building, a building that looked American, with my other eye I was still looking at a leaning building that was wholly Italian. There was a tower leaning in one of my eyes, and a tower burning in the other. They were watching a live telecast of an American news program. I tried to connect images with words, but their Italian dubbing was so loud over the original English that I could only understand that America had been attacked by images; instant replays of two planes crashing into the Twin Towers.
Everyone has their story of where they were on September 11th. I did not experience the unity that occurred in the states. I experienced what I believe was a more complex picture of American events.
A day earlier Mass told me that I should take a train trip down to Sicily to visit a couple musician friends named Marco and Stefano. Mass had never been to Sicily, but he was sending me there. (Later, on another trip, I would talk Georgio and Mass into driving to Sicily. I had no idea that most Italians had never been to Sicily. This is when I learned that Italians were not Sicilians, and that Sicilians were not Italians, yet their passion for every day life and community is about equal.) This American event stopped not only the progression of time in the states but in Europe too. There was no train leaving for Sicily from La Spezia the next day. Instead I was invited to a meeting that took place in Mass’ castle town Sarzana. I was told later similar gatherings took place all over Italy. The instinct, or at least the underground societies instinct, was to immediately meet in their squares. All civilians met with other civilians to experience this world event together. I felt honored and horrified to be at one of these meetings sponsored by the punks of Northern Italy. When I arrived into Europe on this trip, I could feel the hatred for our newest president. In places like Ireland, France, England, Germany, Belgium, people demanded an explanation as to why I would allow George Bush into office. I am not political, but I would tell them that the only time I had voted was to vote not for a party but against Bush. It is dangerous to assume the responsibility of your country but it is also irresponsible not to accept partial blame. I am of the theater, I know actors, I know when someone is being fed lines. I don’t know anything about politics, I don’t trust the concept, but what I do know is when I am watching a bad actor, and that is what Bush was for me, a terrible actor. And I told my European associates as much.
So on the night of September 11 2001, alienated from my home country in the midst of paralyzing turmoil I sat and observed a heated discussion amongst a room crowded with emotional Italian punks, crying, yelling, postulating.
One bearded man in his late twenties, who looked like Cat Stevens, turned to me and said, “You are American?”
I nodded yes, even though it sounded more like an accusation than a question.
“You fucking deserve this! You know that? You Americans fucking deserve this! But We don’t want to see this pain. This is nothing compared to atrocities that YOU have been apart of. We don’t like this pain! You have torn us all in two. No one should have to die for this... Stupidity!”
Like I said there was crying, there was yelling, there was postulating, and except for those few hostile words it was all in Italian. Yet at the end of the night I received many hugs and wishes of well. No one there wanted me dead, or anybody dead, they just wanted to share their feelings, confusions, and strong opinions amongst their community.
Many things happened the following days, drinking, watching Americans on television speak Italian, watching Italians speak Italian, calling home to make sure none of my friends had family in the towers. It was like everyone else in the Western Hemisphere, a day that each of us can talk endlessly about, but when placed amongst the atrocities of the world, ranks about at an equally contented level of hatred and horridness.
About a week later I was allowed to leave the area and take a train to Palermo. This is too long to get into, but there has been long financial and political debates about building any easier way to have a train go from Italy to Sicily. I imagine it is still the same but when I was traveling the train stops at the edge of italy, is disconnected from the tracks, put on a boat, carried to the shore of Sicily and then continues on it’s way to Palermo. This process takes no less than 12 hours. Here are some things before I get to Sicily: The Manges gave me a band concert shirt that has a gun prominently placed on the chest of the wearer. I shared a two bunk room with a college kid from Iraq. We were on that train for 12 hours hardly speaking a word, until we were placed on a boat. He crawled out of his bunk and saw me sitting on the lower bunk. He looked for a long stone faced time at the gun on my shirt. Then he said, “America likes guns. Bang Bang.” I don’t know if this was a statement from his own brain, or a reference to an American movie, Stripes, where Russian’s say “Chicago, Bang Bang.” It made me very uncomfortable. I’d like to say we broke through this moment and chatted about how really we are all the same in the end. But we didn’t. We went back into our bunks and remained silent until we were in Sicily.
We are now in Sicily. And I will leave this for another blog. Stefano, Marco, and Kylie Minogue will have to continue to wait. What you must know is that years later I bought a van, a black van, the only vehicle I have every owned, for a Manges US Tour. The Manges and I toured the Western States. Hopefully we will hear about this later. What is important to know now is that Andrea’s guitar was slowly cracking. You see, when traveling with a guitar on a plane, you must loosen the strings. The pressure change can cause unloosened strings to contract and bend the neck of the guitar. By the end of the tour Andrea’s guitar was destroyed. Moments before they left to head back to Italy, I ran into the basement of my house and pulled out my two guitars. I passed up the Westone, because that was my lifeblood, my tangible connection to years of my history. But I wanted him to have something special, so I gave him my back-up guitar; a telecaster. I could tell he was blown away by the offer. I wanted him to have a guitar to use when he got back home. I showed him that the setlist for the Anthem For A New Tomorrow tour (A Screeching Weasel Record) was still taped to the front of the guitar. Ben had the idea of us taping these to the fronts of our guitars so that we didn’t have to make nightly playlists that we put on the floor of the stages, to rely on looking at the ground to know what song we had to play next. Like the Ramones he wanted us to play non stop. The fact is we all had the list memorized after two shows. I never looked at the playlist. But I kept it there. Andrea left his broken guitar with me, and he took my, later to discover, broken guitar with him. He supposedly tried to get it fixed, spent too much money on it, and finally retired it to become a nonfunctioning collectors item. Sometime later I apologized to him for giving him a broken guitar for a broken guitar, but this was yet another moment I realized that items I own have more importance to others than they do for myself.
And that is that. My last item is for sale. Someone please give it a home for the price of my mortgage. I will not part with it for anything less.
"Obviously, these were the jokes we made to keep ourselves sane and comfortable. We were actually writing what we considered to be art... We weren't just writing shit for a swimming pool."
End of Part III
Posted by The Fool Machine Collective at 3:12 AM