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