Fabrizio De André
By Marianna Orsi, University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The first-generation, rebel, critic, introverted, educated, anarchic, lover of nature and the sea, regular visitor of the infamous neighborhoods of Genoa as well as of the countryside of Sardinia, and for many the Italian singer-songwriter par excellence.
Fabrizio Cristiano De André was born on February 18, 1940, the son of Giuseppe, a professor and director of various schools, and Luisa Amerio.
Due to the war, the family seeks refuge in a farmhouse in the countryside of Asti. Fabrizio grows up there and begins to develop a great love for the countryside, animals, and the environment.
In 1942, his uncle, Francesco Amerio, is deported to a concentration camp in Mannheim and will return, profoundly scarred psychologically, at the end of the war.
Fabrizio begins to show interest in music and to show intolerance for the rules. In 1944, Professor Giuseppe De André is forced to leave Genoa and to live in hiding due to an arrest warrant for having refused to report the Jewish students at his school.
After the war, the De André family returns to Genoa. Fabrizio begins elementary school, but early on demonstrates an intolerance for discipline as he spends a great deal of time in the streets causing trouble and instigating fights. In 1948, he meets Paolo Villaggio, the son of family friends, and a future author who will become his inseparable partner in adventures.
De André’s parents, passionate about classical music, decide to have him study the violin for which he immediately shows great talent. Soon thereafter, he becomes interested in the guitar through teaching himself, and thanks to the great Colombian teacher Alex Giraldo, in the South American classics.
In 1955, Fabrizio joins a country-western music group, The Crazy Cowboys & The Sheriff One. During this time, he also becomes interested in French music and musicians, such as Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, and Leo Ferré. He is especially fascinated by George Brassens, the human comedy described in his songs, his interest in unsettling episodes, and by the weaknesses and contradictions of the human soul. He also becomes interested in jazz, and at the young age of sixteen joins the music group of the pianist Mario De Sanctis, which was also frequented by another already famous singer-songwriter, Luigi Tenco.
In 1959, he graduates from a classical high school, becomes interested in politics, and joins the Italian Anarchist Federation. He begins to think highly of the destitute anarchists that help those who are poorer than them, and he feels great solidarity with those who live on the outskirts of society, such as prostitutes, gay people, thieves, alcoholics, and with the world of the carruggi, the alleys of Genoa.
In 1960, he begins to write songs, and the first is La ballata di Michè, written with Clelia Petracchi. He performs in theaters with his friend Paolo Villaggio and with Luigi Tenco, both Genoese like him.
In 1961, he enrolls in university to study law, attended also by Villaggio who received good grades.
Between ‘60 and ‘61, the first albums Nuvole Barocche/E fu la notte and La ballata di Miché/La ballata dell’eroe are released.
In 1962, he marries Enrica Rignon, known as Puny, and soon thereafter their son Cristiano is born.
The first performances start; however, in order to maintain his family, De André works in the schools his father once directed, studies law intensely to obtain his law degree, and gives private lessons.
In 1964, La guerra di Piero is released, which is inspired by Brassens and his uncle Francesco’s story. The piece does not gain much recognition at first, but then blows up in 1968 and becomes the symbolic song of the youth protest. Also, he records his version of Joan Baez’s Geordie in 1966 with Maureen Rix.
In 1967 Tenco commits suicide in Sanremo during the music festival. It is a terrible shock for Fabrizio, and in the two following nights he writes Preghiera di Gennaio in memory of his friend.
The summons to appear in court begin as well as the accusations of obscenity and blasphemy in some of his songs.
In 1968, Mina records La canzone di Marinella legitimizing De André as a singer-songwriter (as does Gino Paoli in his song Il cielo in una stanza). In addition, the protest movement crowns him as its representative causing the secret services to spy on him for a few years.
In 1973, he begins a productive collaboration with Francesco De Gregori, and he dedicates himself to translating the lyrics of world-famous artists, such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. In the meantime, his marriage with Puny (Enrica) is not going well, and in 1974 Fabrizio meets the singer Dori Ghezzi whom he will marry in 1989.
Between 1974 and 1975, he conquers his shyness while performing and embarks on his first tournée. The shows are often introduced by the Genoese comedian Beppe Grillo. Fabrizio performs both in popular clubs, scandalizing the Left, who at the Feste de L’Unità (annual national events organized by the Italian Communist Party) or at those of the Lotta Continua (an extreme-left movement) often also improvises free shows for those who cannot afford to pay for a ticket, arousing the animosity of the music-industry executives.
In the meantime, Fabrizio has achieved his dream of having his own agricultural business. He purchased an estate in Sardinia and dedicates himself to restoring the house and the farm. In 1977, the daughter of Fabrizio and Dori, Luisa Vittoria, called Luvi, is born.
In August of 1979, De André and Ghezzi are kidnapped in their estate in Sardinia by two criminals and remain under the control of their captors until December. They spend the majority of the time tied to a tree and wear the same clothes of the day they were taken hostage. After the ransom is paid, the two are freed. They decline to be a civil party against their kidnappers in court. Their love for Sardinia is not undermined.
In 1981, the album Fabrizio De André is released, famous like L’indiano, for the image of a Native American on the cover. Fabrizio sees similarities between the Native Americans and the Sardinians, considering both of them exploited and enslaved peoples who were expelled from their homelands by careless colonizers. The album contains the songs Hotel Supramonte, dedicated to the kidnapping, and Fiume Sand Creek, inspired by the massacres of the Cheyenne and the Arapho by the army of the United States in 1864.
De André receives numerous awards and recognitions, including one from Club Tenco. He is offered the opportunity to be the opener for Bob Dylan’s concert at San Siro in Milan, but after a long reflection, he declines.
In 1996, Anime salve is released, dedicated to the themes of liberty, solitude, marginalization, and to various figures considered to be “different,” such as transgender people and the Rom. The final song, Smisurata preghiera, is a sort of spiritual testament that is inspired by the saga Maqroll Il Gabbiere by Álvaro Mutis with whom De André becomes friends. The Spanish version of the lyrics is inserted in the soundtrack of the film Llona llega con la lluvia by Sergio Cabrera, which is based on Mutis’s novel.
In 1996, the novel Un destino ridicolo, written with Alessandro Gennari, is also published. In August of 1998, De André is diagnosed with a tumor in his lungs and passes away on January 11, 1999.
Francesco Ciabattoni, La citazione è sintomo d’amore. Cantautori e memoria letteraria, Rome, Carocci, 2016.
Luigi Viva, Non per un Dio ma nemmeno per gioco. Vita di Fabrizio de André, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2008.