Monday, March 7, 2011

Living the Dolce Vita

As an American teenager, living in Europe, that magical year between high school and college and adulthood that was supposed to follow, it was a great year. I would never trade that experience for anything. I got to travel around a bit, discover Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. But the main thing I did while living in Italy? Played in a rock band.

An American teenager living in Milano and a lead singer in a rock band? Well remember the part in my earlier post about checking out the chicks in Italy? When you are a lead singer in a rock band, they check you out. It was fun (I do not want to say how much fun; my wife may be reading this…). The band was called BTN as in Better Than Nothing. They needed a singer and I auditioned. We practiced a few songs feeling things out, trying to figure out if we all jived together or not and it went pretty well, until we played Dog Eat Dog by Ted Nugent, aka "The Nuge". We totally rocked as I knew all the lyrics by heart. I was in.

We played some strange and fun gigs. Some paid, some didn’t, some paid well. I remember playing at American military bases. We would play high school dances or the NCO club and what I recall was that they paid a lot, fed us, put us up for the night and got us into the base PX (Note. My Mom would send a shopping list with me with items like M&M’s, Raisin Bran, peanut butter and other things that we could not get in Europe). But the one that stands out in my mind the most was when we were on TV.

Now Italian TV was not like TV in the States (as we called America). For one thing, it was in Italian. And the second thing was that frequently it made no sense. There were a lot of independent channels and they made even less sense. I worked hard on my Italian and towards the end of my stay was fairly conversant in the language. But sometimes I could not figure out what was going on. Like watching the serious interview show and there was that moment when the host would drop his voice to a whisper and ask the fallen local magistrate why he stole all the Lira from the poor children’s funds, when suddenly Beepo the clown would come flying out and bounce a beach ball off the hosts head, pull a tiny monkey that played tiny cymbals from inside the sack tied around her waist and told the audience that she had been a very bad clown while squirting the camera from the purple flower in her lapel. I did not understand it at all, but the studio audience collectively wet their pants, they were laughing so hard.

One of the guys in the band had a connection (wink wink) with a friend of a friend of a friend that was opening a bar / art gallery. This bar owner had paid for one of the local channels to do a TV Show covering the first four weeks of partying (Oh I think there may have been a new artist launch each week, but the focus was on the owner and her friends partying very hard). And BTN was hired as the house band. It paid stupid money, and there was good reason for this, as we would find out.

One of the bonus’ of having me in the band was I had access to a car (as did one other member of our 5-man outfit). So we piled all our gear into every available centimeter of the 127 and (as I recall) an Alfa Romeo Alfetta and went across town to the bar, err…Art Gallery. We dutifully arrived mid-afternoon to set up our gear and do sound check. Parking right in front of the place, we got out of our cars and locked the doors. We were going to go for a quick look inside to get the lay of the land. Now in Milano (or anywhere in Italy for that matter) you always locked the door to your car and never left anything in sight as it would be boosted in seconds. There were no high-end radios in Italian cars, they would not make it two seconds before someone would come by and feel the need to liberate whatever you had. It was like a sport, although a sport that involved a lot of broken glass and tears.

We looked suspiciously around the street we were on and felt that maybe it was best to have someone stand guard outside to protect the valuable contents of our automobiles. As we tried to decide who would stay, we heard a soft chuckle come from the main entrance to the club. Turning we saw the large and dark figure of main door man / bouncer who had arrived early to let us in. He had the look of someone who had just got off the train from Naples or Sicily maybe….not someone to be trifled with.

“Why are you guys locking the doors to your cars?” he asked.

“Well, we don’t want our stuff stolen…” our lead guitarist answered.

Taking a drag on his cigarette he chuckled again. “Take a look around; what kind of neighborhood do you think we are in?” Motioning for us to look beyond the arc of his lit cigarette.

Looking around, the street seemed a bit ominous. People passing by averted their eyes, the stores were all spotlessly clean, there was no garbage on the street (Milano was terrible about garbage in the street and this place was pristine). And the vendors had that look…like they did not care one way or the other if you came in, bought or turned away. They were….protected. He answered his own question for us.

“This my friends is a protected neighborhood…” he said while using the nail of this thumb to pull down the skin below his eye.

“Ahh… a protected neighborhood.” Replied one of my band mates. Then turning to me put his hand beside his mouth so only I could see it and mouthed “Mafia”.

“And who do you think owns this place?” he asked.

We all collectively turned to the band mate who had set this gig up for us who suddenly found great interest in his shoe laces, preferring not look us in the eyes. He had neglected to tell us that the club belonged to the local Mafia Don’s mistress or girlfriend (one of many no doubt).

“Your cars are completely safe here. Nobody will even look or God forbid touch them. On this street, right now, they do not exist. Leave them unlocked, open even, your equipment is completely safe here.” Then finishing his thought, he turned back inside and said to himself…”and God help them if they do…”

We unloaded our gear, set it up, did sound check and preformed four shows over the next four weeks. They were crazy parties with lots of blue lighting, beautiful people gyrating to the groove we laid down or crowding around the bar…err..sorry…art gallery. And there was this one hot gal that wore next to nothing but danced holding a large bamboo bird cage with no bird inside (yeah I thought that was strange too). At the end of our show, our cars were still out front, untouched…and unlocked. A few weeks later the whole bizarre event was brought to the small screen in what could only be described as crazy Italian TV editing, with the camera zooming in and out, in and out, in and out….it gave me a headache watching it on TV. I did not even finish watching the first episode. But man did that gig pay well.

Until next time.

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