Media outlets across the globe focused on one story: presidential impeachment. Chatter seldom swayed from Clinton and his woes, between Janet Reno announcing a 90-day inquiry into whether Bill breached election campaign spending laws or Kenneth Star publicly releasing a 445-page document citing 11 potential reasons for impeachment. And then there were the cigars and blowjobs. Oh, the blowjobs.
It was a tough time for Bill. The eyes of the world were upon him, unrelenting at times, until one day, one nation turned their eyes away. It was Italy. It was September 9, 1998. It was the day Lucio Battisti died.
Many people will tell you they remember exactly where they were the day John Lennon was shot, just as I can tell you exactly where I was the day I found out Battisti died.
I was sitting on the plush brown velour couches my parents had handed down to our Kingston student ghetto home. Our rotary dial phone —also brown— which even in 1998 was a throw back, began to ring. It was my father calling from Italy. He knew that with no cable TV or Corriere della Sera, the news of Italy's favourite singer dying would not reach me. It was September 9, five days after Google was launched and years before regular Internet browsing was the standard in information sharing.
"Lucio Battisti died," my father had told me and I began to weep. I wept for a man that I had never met, that I had never seen in concert and now, never will. I was not alone. An entire nation came to a halt to weep for him. In the 1960s and 70s, he was the voice of a generation of Italians. He was their most influential singer/songwriter and even in the decades that followed, with his less commercially successful albums, still remained an emblem of musical culture in Italy.
Yet outside his native country, little was known of him. The New York Times reported his death thirteen days after his passing, noting that he was sometimes compared to Bob Dylan and had "the voice of someone who has just gotten out of bed and hasn't had his coffee yet."
It was a voice I had heard my entire life.
In a bedroom that was entirely all too large, in a house that no longer stands, my mother — a Canadian born Italian living a married life tucked away in a small, rural, Italian town — would listen to Battisti cassettes during the days of her first pregnancy. Battisti sang her into labour, and to this day, I am certain I was born with the song "Ancora Tu" buzzing in my head.
Music, with all its various iterations, has been a part of culture even before cultural relevance was established — dating as far back as 35,000 years ago. We live and breathe music. Every life has its soundtrack. We are born with music; we grow with music; we die with music. It is in the background when we cook, clean, shop, sleep, wake, work, fight and fornicate.
And music is intensely personal. It triggers memories and emotions. A song is like a secret that someone shares with you. It feels special; it feels private — but unlike a secret, we long to share it, yet it seems like a betrayal when someone else reveals it, as did Phoenix with Lucio Battisti.
The nod comes from Phoenix's latest single, "Ti Amo.” It is a catchy song — a solid drum beat, driving bass and a sweet falsetto chorus. I love the song and when I heard the line, "I was playing classics by the Buzzcocks, Battiato and Lucio," I lost my mind.
I had to know if this hipster French band just name dropped two of Italy's greatest singers, so I grabbed my computer and googled the lyrics. They had. Battiato and Lucio.
"Fuck," I muttered to myself. "Forty years I've been listening to Lucio and Battiato and Thomas Mars just casually name drops them?"
They know my secret! Who told them? Immediately, I assumed it was Mars' super cool filmmaker wife, Sofia Coppola, after all, she is Italian. For a brief moment, I thought Sofia and I had profound commonality — I AM COOL!
But it wasn't Sofia; it was bandmates and brothers Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz's Italian father that let them in on my secret. So, the cat is out of the bag: Battisti is incredible.
It's a song I've been singing for decades, with my sister on backing vocals, but now that Thomas Mars and his troupe have sung the same tune, with their voice further reaching, people might actually hear it.
Sure, Jen and I are no strangers to Italian music, particularly where Lucio Battisti and Franco Battiato are concerned. It was startling to hear a nod to our nearly obscure childhood heroes in mainstream music, but ultimately satisfying. Finally, finally, dues are being paid.
I have so many questions about this Phoenix-Battisti/Battiato love affair. How did a band from Versailles, France, a close neighbour to Italy, only just discover these two giants? And why does this quartet sing in English instead of their native French? But more importantly, why does English language music register globally, while wonderful foreign language music stay within the confines of its borders?
Some may argue that the language of a song isn’t important, but only its arrangement. Its tempo and sound are what register with listeners, but I find that hard to agree with considering the amount of English language music I hear on every station in Italy and the complete lack of foreign language music on Canadian and American stations.
I’ve never heard Battisti played in Toronto beyond 100.7 CHIN FM.
It could be simply that English language culture, specifically American culture, was founded predominantly by immigrants. They infused their old world traditions with a new wave culture marked by hope and optimism.
Perhaps I’ll never truly understand why, specifically, Italian music other than opera and the song “Volare”, which isn’t even its actual name, never took off beyond Italy. I could reference singers like Andrea Bocelli, with his semi-operatic classics, or even Adriano Celentano, who crept into English radio play with a song mocking the sound of the English language. "Prisencolinensinaincuisol" is gibberish at its best, so good making it into the first episode of season three of Fargo. But what about Mina, Fabrizio De Andre, i Nomadi, Paolo Conte and Francesco De Gregori? I could put together an amazing playlist, if you'd let me.
I’ve been pushing Italian music for years on anyone who might listen and have achieved some success — from my friends Jamie, Mike and Duarte marvelling at the intensity of the song “Anna” to an old boyfriend continually playing a riff from the song “Confusione” on his guitar. Jen and I would even catch our former housemates quietly singing along to staples from Battisti’s impressive catalogue.
It can’t be said that all Italian music fails to make waves across the pond, after all, I’ve seen several Italian performers take the stage in Toronto, including Franco Battiato — and at the Phoenix, of all places.