Sarah’s Tuscany: Florence

For the next two weeks, I will continue to publish a suite of stories I wrote about a trip to Tuscany in 1997. It began as an experiment in writing in the second person, just to see if I could sustain it through one story…then two, then more. You decide if I was successful.

By Sarah White

Do not most people who are worth knowing care about music?
And, for them, is it not as necessary as food or sleep? And why?

I think it must be because music carves memories deeper. It gives a signature to a moment in time: a love affair or its end, a dance craze, a road trip, a decade. Who can answer the question, “What is the music you like?” The only honest answer is: “the best.”

The previous summer–during the planning stages of our trip–Scott was communicating with an Italian rock band via the Internet and had made a friend in Florence. He brought over the latest album from P.F.M. (always P.F.M., never Premiata Forneria Marconi).

A quick listen left you with mixed impressions: agile stylists, some licks reminiscent of everyone from Gentle Giant to Jethro Tull, XTC to Peter Gabriel. The vocals featured a light tenor, and backing the voice was a lush instrumentation. You heard synthesized Moog noodlings, the retro sound of a Farfisa organ, soaring violins and flutes, sibilant cymbal-brushes. Not exactly ordinary listening, but interesting, full of layers, complex.

And what a beautiful language Italian is for singing! Try this, the first line from the record: “M’innamorai di un canto”–Even spoken, it seems a song.

Thus, it is with an open mind and open expectations that you find yourself under the replica of David in front of the Uffizi Gallery. Scott is to wear his baseball cap for identification. Never mind about all those rapist Internet weirdoes in America. How can it be dangerous to confront a music fan in the heart of the Renaissance?

florence

A disheveled little man approaches you. Introductions all around–Gianni, Jim, Scott, Sarah.

“I’m sorry, I’m not well. I’m getting over a cold. It’s very windy today. I’m sorry for the weather.”

He is pulling his little scarf tighter around his neck, wrapping his open coat against the wind. How friendly his English sounds! What a relief to hear it! He puts you in mind of an otter, or a mink, with his short brown fur about his face, his brown coat, his sparkling eyes.
Your generation has defined itself by its own music. Ever since your first Close-n-Play turntable chomped down on Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, music has been the banner you’ve rallied under. Now you admit Gianni to your friendship as quickly as in those Close-n-Play dance party days.

“Would you like to go to the museums? Shop for jewelry? I know some people on the Ponto Vecchio. Just tell me what you would like to do.”

He’s eager to be the perfect host, but you are not interested in museums today. Another time you were marched through the Uffizi, three hours for three hundred masterpieces. You know the futility of a half-day in Paradise.

“I’d like to visit a record store,” Scott volunteers.

And so you’re off through the winding streets, two by two–Scott and Gianni picking up their conversation where the last e-mails left off, you and Jim in tow like the tail of a kite.

First stop: modern music. Second: a used CD store. Third: older still, a musical instrument shop. Bongos call out for beatniks. An accordion wants to play its village music one more time. An old signed photograph stares from a wall. Sheets of dust lie over the sheet music, spooky and friendly at the same time.

You must know someone to get into the back room. Gianni does, and, once inside the collection, it is amazing. You are in a room full of vintage American vinyl, 45s and LPs, psychedelic era and 50s rock ‘n’ roll, Sinatra and Surrealistic Pillow, Yardbirds and Yes, Leonard Cohen and Laura Nyro–all in archival plastic sleeves. Gianni explains this is the collection of an expatriate, recently come on the market. Scott finds something missing from his collection and buys it; for the rest of the trip he will be babying that 13″ cardboard sleeve.

Out on the street again, Gianni and Scott pause in their band-related babble. Are you hungry? Tired? Of course, there’s a cafe nearby. Gianni leads you down streets lined with artisans’ shops. They are grouped by trade, the music street, the printers’ row. No street is straight but the line of shadow is, where the late afternoon sun breaks over the westerly buildings and comes to rest on the facing walls. You hurry along in the cold below that warm stripe of light.

Gianni stops at the entrance to a cafe where the cold street is replaced by steam and bright lights. Terazzo floors bounce back cheerful sounds, oak walls absorb them. Your focus sails about the room, circles back to the table. Gianni and Scott are slowing in their talk.

You squeeze a question into the pause. “Why is P.F.M. so popular? What is it that’s different about them?”

Your question is fuel on Gianni’s fire. Imagine modern music without rock ‘n’ roll. No rock-a-billy, no British Invasion, no acid rock. When you lay in your teenage bedroom, your radio reaching out for waves of sound, you found a mix that was mixing it up. But imagine–at the same time, over the ocean and up the boot–little Gianni reaching out with his radio. He didn’t find Elvis, The Beatles, the Grateful Dead. He found the state-run radio station playing romantic ballad singers, and finally–as the 1960s became the 1970s– he found one of a few strange groups breaking the rules. P.F.M.

“Until then there was only one theme for popular songs–love. Only one style–big band,” Gianni explains.

From the start, P.F.M. played music of a different type–electrified as King Crimson, psychedelic as Yes. Their subject matter strayed as widely as their sound. The mainstream music world ignored them. But a lot of little Giannis had found the band’s banner and battle cry.

P.F.M. became immensely popular even though the radio rarely aired their songs.

Live concerts created P.F.M. as a phenomenon. The shows were paid for by the Socialists. To make allies of the youth, they gave bands like P.F.M. opportunities to perform.

“But even that was a problem,” Gianni tells you, leaning back and lighting up another branch of the story.

Socialist principles dictated that concerts should be free. Riots ensued if a promoter tried to charge even a small amount for a ticket. Popular as they were, P.F.M. had no way to make a living. Follow the money: After spending the 1970s touring, they left for England and, eventually, California. The group disbanded in 1982. Without them, popular music in Italy sank into Disco and never emerged.

Gianni and his brethren kept hoping for a reunion. This year–1997–it has finally come to pass.

P.F.M. releases its first album in fifteen years. And a concert tour!

Gianni arrives abruptly at the end of his story. Outside, the street has gotten dark. The old men are bundling up to go home. Stylish young ragazzi are just gathering for the evening. Vespas are buzzing in the street, like the wasps they’re named for.

Gianni stands up.

“Come to my house, you must. I have P.F.M. videos to show you, rare stuff,” he says. “Come meet my family.”

And so again you are hurrying through the winding windy streets, sprinting past buildings out of guidebooks, their profiles glimpsed like acquaintances hurrying by.

Across the Arno is Gianni’s apartment. His wife, his toddler, his mother-in-law, and his new baby are sharing it with his obsession. It is a strange warren of hallways connecting little rooms, of big wooden cupboards dominating small high-ceiling spaces.

After introductions, he takes you up to his den. Music magazines are stacked everywhere. Shallow shelves hold cassette tapes in ranks that line wall after wall, their labels neatly typed. A bathroom opens off the hall–unusable, because of fifteen guitar cases layered into it in ranks. They fill the bathtub at the end, spill over onto the floor. “I bought one of them from Franco, P.F.M.’s base player,” Gianni says reverently.

A little stairway brings you back down to the living room. The women and children have cleared out during the tour. Gianni rummages through his videos of P.F.M. performances. Now he’s whipping videotapes into the player: this interview, that historic performance, a reunion tour. Every other moment he leaps up to show Scott something else–a rare album cover, a vintage magazine.

In each video clip, you hear identical opening chords. The same roar of applause swells as each audience recognizes the tune. The recurring refrain comes around in its four-four time–

 “Noi siamo di noi.”

The audience sings along. Is this the 1974 San Remo performance? The 1978 tour? The 1991 reunion? It doesn’t matter: “Noi siamo di noi.” You might translate it “United We stand.” It’s an anthem. You could march to it.

“Why always the same song?” you ask Gianni.

“It’s the only one that’s under three minutes,” he answers, and you laugh at the harsh realities of the sound bite.

Then you begin to consider at length . . . How is it that Italian men can forever remain boys like this? Surely the wife is going to say, “Gianni, now that the second baby has come, you must sell your guitars and collections! We need the room, we need the money!” There is something here you can never hope to understand. Much as you love Italy, it would take a sex change operation for you to be able to live here.

 

After the music you leave the Italian wife and children, you four, and all go for a little passeggiata up to the Piazza Michelangelo, to admire the city by night. And afterward, to a modest tavern for simple dinners served in an old, barrel-vaulted crypt.

Finally the boys let P.F.M. rest and you talk about other things. Your jobs. Your lives.

Music has made a bridge for you–new friends who will never meet again. You’ve stitched a narrative into each others’ lives.

With dinner finished, Gianni points you back across the Arno. Somehow your car is discovered just a few blocks away. The drive back to the Chianti hills is easy, with few other cars about in the star-studded night. Soon you are back at the villa and the fire that ends each day.

And ringing in your ears, that anthem:

“Noi siamo di noi.”

And you miss … for a moment … your home, your music, and the friends of your youth.

(c) 1997 Sarah White. Tune in next week for the next installment…the enchanted forest of the Camaldoli!

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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