(by Debora Bellinzani, University of Wisconsin, Madison)
Giorgio Gaber (Giorgio Gaberscik, Milan 1939–Montemagno di Camaiore 2003) garnered a vast audience for over forty years, with music and lyrics that have profoundly marked the politics, culture and also the musical tastes of Italian society. In the first part of his career, between 1959 and 1969, Gaber wrote and performed romantic songs that reflected the tastes of that period, obtaining great success through television performances. In this initial period Gaber developed an intense and important collaboration with Maria Monti, his companion who was both actress and singer-songwriter. Their performance at Sanremo in 1961 was rife with dark humor: the song they performed, which alternates lyrics from “his” and “her” perspectives, is “Benzina e cerini” (“Fuel and Matches”), written by Maria Monti, Giorgio Gaber, Enzo Jannacci, and Umberto Simonetta (Tomatis 195-196). The lyrics are an ironic take on her pyromania as she hopes to set him on fire:
Il mio destino è di morire bruciato
la mia ragazza deve proprio averlo giurato
ha inventato un nuovo gioco
mi cosparge di benzina e mi dà fuoco
e io brucio brucio d’amore.
(My destiny is to die in flames
my girlfriend really must have sworn to do it
she invented a new game
She douses me with fuel and sets me on fire
And I burn, I burn with love.)
And in her nearly identical and symmetrical version:
Il mio ragazzo chi lo sa perché è preoccupato
ho inventato un nuovo gioco
lo cospargo di benzina e gli do fuoco
e lui brucia, brucia d’amore.
(Who knows why my boyfriend is worried
I invented a new game
I douse him with fuel and set him on fire
And he burns, he burns with love.)
Gaber and Monti would continue their collaboration for some years (for example with the theatrical Il Giorgio e la Maria, 1961) before breaking off their artistic agreement and their personal relationship.
Far lengthier instead was his collaboration with Enzo Jannacci, a brilliant songwriter, pianist, actor and stand-up comedian with whom Gaber created the so-called Song Theater: performances consisting of song sets interspersed with recited monologues. This new genre, which Gaber performed onstage from 1970 to 2000, was born from a deep desire for direct interaction with the public, far beyond what the television screen could provide. For thirty years, over hundreds of evenings, Gaber, along with Jannacci and Dario Fo, presented a critical account of Italy’s transformations (from terrorism to neo-fascism, consumer society, the fall of communism, and the Berlusconi period) with a witty and subtle outlook, offering his own point of view through continuous interaction with the audience, accepting their applause as well as their harsh objections. The generous sharing of his own artistry in front of a live audience was limited by the deterioration of his health; for this reason his final works, instead of theatrical performances, are two studio-produced albums.
Despite the constraints which the television setting requires, Gaber’s originality and irony already had found an audience in the Sixties: following a typically romantic song like “Non arrossire” (“Don’t Blush”; 1961), in which the narrator asks his lover to let loose her emotions, is a hit like “Torpedo blu” (“Blue Torpedo”; 1968) in which the lover plays second fiddle to the protagonist’s pride in his newly purchased sports car, with which he presents himself beneath her window, blasting the horn to get her attention. In addition to the romantic genre, even pop music enters Gaber’s repertoire with an ironic twist, for example, with yet another proud driver and another vehicle in “La Balilla” (1963), a song in Milanese dialect. Here the expensive car, parading as the symbol of social climbing, unleashes the envy of relatives and neighbors who completely destroy it, consuming it piece by piece in a succession of comic scenes.
Gaber’s comedy is present not only in his lyrics, written from 1970 onward in collaboration with Sandro Luporini, but also in the performance of his songs. There is an intensity, sometimes humorous and sometimes dramatic, which can be grasped when listening carefully to the tone of his voice, his diction, by scanning the words and the pauses between them. There was also an intent which could be seen by anyone attending his live shows, and which we still can see today in the few available filmed versions of his shows. Gaber’s facial expressions, gestures, body movements, and his theatrical talent in general have made his songs in turn ironic, comic, dramatic or provocative, in unceasing dialog with his audience. A video that allows us to appreciate Gaber’s performance is “Al bar Casablanca” (“At the Casablanca Café”; Dialogo tra un impegnato e un non so, 1972): the politically engaged intellectual here is criticized for his tendency toward unending discussions at the café, and the song exudes an irresistibly blasé air in its performance. Assuming this character, understood as representing a category of individuals, Gaber sings from a “we” perspective while describing his appearance and attitude:
Blue jeans scoloriti
la barba sporcata
da un po’ di gelato
(Faded blue jeans
my beard dirty
from a little ice cream
We talk, we talk
of the proletariat.)
In the same way, we can observe his ability to reproduce in a meaningful way the gestures of everyday life in “Lo shampoo” (Far finta di essere sani [Pretending to be Healthy], 1973), a song that turns the daily ritual of washing one’s hair into a comic act, using it as the starting point for a critique of consumer society that offers a plethora of essentially identical products. Without the aid of sounds or props, Gaber sings about and mimics things we all have experienced but about which we’ve never stopped to think:
Scende l’acqua scroscia l’acqua
calda fredda calda
Shampoo rosso e giallo
quale marca mi va meglio
(Water falls, water pours down
hot cold hot
Red and yellow shampoo
which brand should I choose
Again, in “Quello che perde i pezzi” (“The One Who Loses Pieces”), part of the same show, gestures and expressions make a comic masterpiece of a man’s shock at the unexpected dismemberment of his own body, a symbol of being overwhelmed by modernity.
Perdo i pezzi ma non è per colpa mia
se una cosa non la usi non funziona
ma che vuoto se un ginocchio ti va via
che tristezza se un’ascella ti abbandona.
Che rimpianto per quel femore stupendo
ero lì che lo cercavo mogio mogio
poi dal treno ho perso un braccio
salutando mi dispiace che ci avevo l’orologio.
(I’m losing pieces but it’s not my fault
if it’s something you don’t use it doesn’t matter
but what a loss if your knee disappears
what sadness if your armpit abandons you.
What remorse for that stupendous femur
there I was limping around looking for it
then from the train I lost an arm
saying goodbye, I’m sorry I was wearing my watch on it.)
Criticism of the loss of naturalism and the rise of consumer society are two elements of Gaber’s reflection and are recurring themes in his production.
A theme constantly present in his work from 1970 onwards is the description of reality through a critical approach adopted with the conviction that it would contribute to societal change. The song “Suona chitarra” (“Play, My Guitar”; MR G, 1970), along with the show to which it belongs, marks a noticeable departure from Gaber’s early music: it is both a criticism of pop music and an opening to the possibility that musical production can make an impact on reality and can be a “sincere song” rather than a tool of distraction that never makes us think:
al buio alla paura al dubbio alla censura
agli scandali alla fame all’uomo come un cane
schiacciato e calpestato.
(about the dark about fear about doubts about censure
about scandals about hunger about men treated like dogs
crushed and trampled.)
In the years between 1970 and 1978, Gaber’s artistic work aligns with the protest Workers’ Movement and students who gather in Italy’s town squares, demanding rights and a different way of life; in the same years that desire for change is met with violence. In 1974, the year in which bombs kill civilians during a rally in Brescia and passengers on the train “Italicus,” Gaber’s show Anche per oggi non si vola (“Even for Today We Still Don’t Fly”) catalyzes the fears and hopes of the audience with whom Gaber finds great harmony. Gaber’s audience fills the theaters to hear songs that tell the story of contemporaneity such as “La peste” (“The Plague”), which conflates the existence of a subversive right wing with the spread of deadly disease and bacteria with an instrument of violence typical of the fascist regime, the baton:
un bacillo a bastoncino
che ti entra nel cervello
un batterio negativo
un bacillo a manganello.
(a stick-shaped bacillus
that enters your brain
a negative bacterium
a bacillus like a cudgel.)
Audience members find themselves sharing not only in the retelling of a frightening and chaotic reality, but also in the lyrics’ proactive intention, inviting them not to yield to the blackmail of that violence. Such is the case in “C’è solo la strada” (“There Is Only the Road”), a song that became famous for its invitation not to shut ourselves inside our house but to resist openly and collectively, because:
il giudizio universale
non passa per le case
le case dove noi ci nascondiamo
bisogna ritornare nella strada
nella strada per conoscere chi siamo.
does not pass through the houses
the houses where we hide ourselves
we need to return to the street
to the street in order to know who we are.)
In 1978, however, when the story of reality becomes critical toward the Workers’ Movement, Gaber is subjected to harsh rebukes during his performances, to which he nevertheless refuses to surrender. In songs such as “Quando è moda è moda” (“When It’s Fashionable It’s Fashionable”; Polli di Allevamento, 1978) or “Io se fossi Dio” (“If I Were God”; Anni affollati, 1981), Gaber recounts the loss of the driving force of that movement and its failure to create a different society and, while hurt by his audience criticism, he continues to offer the public his own thoughts. The interaction with his audience is so vital for his music and his kind of performance that he continues to tell them of his disenchantment until 2001, with his final theatrical show entitled “La mia generazione ha perso” (“My Generation Has Lost”).
Another recurring theme in Gaber’s musical production is the discrepancy between thought and behavior which characterizes humanity in the contemporary era. Among his most famous songs, “Un’idea” (“An Idea”; Dialogo tra un impegnato e un non so, 1972) describes in one of its examples the substantial difference between declaring oneself an anti-racist and actually putting that declaration into practice, summarizing the lack of harmony between thought and action in an image capable of bringing both together at once:
finché resta un’idea
è soltanto un’astrazione
se potessi mangiare un’idea
avrei fatto la mia rivoluzione.
so long as it remains an idea
is only an abstraction
if I could eat an idea
I would have had my revolution.)
Even the man who finds satisfaction by buying a motorcycle in “Far finta di essere sani” (“Pretending To Be Sane”; in the show of the same title, 1973) and the one who reads Hegel in order to seem intellectual in “Il comportamento” (“Behavior”; Libertà obbligatoria, 1976) are figures that, by surrendering to the customs and dictates of a society that distorts their very nature, lose the harmony between thought and behavior. Love cannot escape this type of reflection and Gaber transforms his approach from sentimental to analytical, with registers that vary from ruthless to sweet and constructive. Among the many songs that speak directly or indirectly of love, “Quando sarò capace di amare” (“When I am Capable of Loving”; E pensare che c’era il pensiero, 1994) furthers the discourse on the need to regain the naturalness of life and to reunite human beings through love. Gaber speaks of himself in the first person and in the masculine, and yet his simple words could be spoken by both men and women who, like his rediscovered audience in the Eighties, share these same needs. In fact, while referring to subjects of his love, Gaber sings:
quando sarò capace d’amare
[…] potrò guardare dentro al suo cuore
e avvicinarmi al suo mistero
non come quando io ragiono
ma come quando respiro.
(when I am capable of loving
[…] I’ll be able to look into their heart
and get closer to their mystery
not like when I think
but when I breath.)
The motif that best characterizes Gaber compared to other songwriters who have chosen to address social movements and the events of the Seventies and Eighties is the elaboration of the relationship between what is “personal” and what is “political,” one of the topics of discussion of that period. Traces of that discussion can be found in Francesco Guccini’s “Eskimo,” where he locates subjective ingenuity within the framework of political struggles, and in Gianfranco Manfredi’s “Ma chi ha detto che non c’è” (“Who said it doesn’t exist”) where, through a list of actions, objects and feelings, the songwriter associates intimate elements with collective aspirations. In many of Gaber’s songs one hears the need to find synthesis in a constructive sense, which unites the personal with the political as well as thoughts with action; commenting on this aspect, his coauthor Sandro Luporini stated that Gaber believed that the individual act should be broadened into a collective vision, which in turn would lead to a direct impact on reality. The song that treats this theory most explicitly is “Chiedo scusa se parlo di Maria” (“I Apologize For Speaking About Mary”; Far finta di essere sani, 1973), due to its forceful presentation of the difficulty of understanding the relationship between the “personal” and the “political,” which are in fact inseparable:
Se sapessi parlare di Maria
se sapessi davvero capire la sua esistenza
avrei capito esattamente la realtà
la paura la tensione la violenza.
Avrei capito il capitale e la borghesia
ma la mia rabbia è che non so parlare di Maria.
(If I knew how to speak about Mary
if I really knew how to understand her existence
I would have understood exactly the reality
the fear the tension the violence.
I would have understood capitalism and the bourgeoisie
but I’m angry that I don’t know how to speak about Mary.)
Mary, who is an individual, but who is also
Maria la rivoluzione
Maria il Vietnam la Cambogia
Maria la realtà.
Mary the revolution
Mary Vietnam Cambodia
Maintaining the will to make an impact on reality is therefore a key element in Gaber’s entire musical production, as well as the reason for distancing himself from the social movements when they lost their meaningful intent. For Gaber, the search for a space in which to change reality is unceasing and continues from “La libertà” (“Freedom”; Dialogo tra un impegnato e un non so, 1972) up to his final album. In “La libertà,” one of the best known and least understood songs of his repertoire, Gaber expresses what Luporini has defined as “a space of incidence” when he sings:
non è star sopra un albero
non è neanche avere un’opinione
la libertà non è uno spazio libero
libertà è partecipazione.
is not being above the trees
nor is it having an opinion
freedom is not an open space
freedom is participation.)
With the term “participation” he means to indicate a collective space in which to think and act so that change becomes possible. This space of possibilities is so significant for Gaber that he continues, up to the last track of his final album, to offer it up for the listener’s reflection. It is a space simultaneously utopian and well defined; in “Se ci fosse un uomo” (“If There Were a Man”; Io non mi sento italiano, 2003), with that characteristic critical spirit that never excludes a sense of hope, Gaber describes it as:
…uno spazio vuoto
che va ancora popolato.
Popolato da corpi e da anime gioiose
che sanno entrare di slancio
nel cuore delle cose.
Popolato di fervore
e di gente innamorata
ma che crede all’amore / come una cosa concreta.
[…] Popolato da chi crede
ma combatte con forza
qualsiasi forma di egoismo.
Popolato da chi odia il potere
e i suoi eccessi / ma che apprezza
un potere esercitato su se stessi.
Popolato da chi ignora
il passato e il futuro
e che inizia la sua storia
dal punto zero.
(…An empty space
yet to be populated.
populated by bodies and joyful souls
who know how to burst
into the heart of things.
Populated with fervour
and people in love
but who believe in love
as a concrete thing.
[…] Populated by those who believe
but who fight fiercely
against any form of selfishness.
Populated by those who hate power
and its excesses
but who appreciate
power exerted on themselves.
Populated by those who ignore
the past and the future
and who begin their history
from the zero point.
From 1980 Gaber began addressing Italy’s declining interest in ideologies. In “Non è più il momento” (“Now Is No Longer the Time”; Pressione bassa, 1980) he rejects threadbare ideologies:
Non è più il momento di fare lunghe discussioni […] per inutili teorie […]
non è più il momento di generose aggregazioni
di noiosissime riunioni né di analisti né di fantasia
non è più il momento di aver fiducia nei contatti
di ritentare la comune e di dare del tu a tutti.
(Now is no longer the time for long debates […] for useless theories […]
now is no longer the time for large political gatherings
for boring meetings or for analysis or for fantasy
now is no longer the time to trust in human relations
to try and rebuild the Paris Commune and call everyone by their first name.)
Giorgio Gaber’s songs, his stage presence and his personality, have embodied and shaped the history of Italian song, cabaret and television in the second half of the twentieth century. His death leaves a void and an impression, and not only among Italian artists, as evidenced in a tribute by Patti Smith, who translated and performed “Io come persona” (“I, As a Person”) for Rai in 2013.
Fondazione Giorgio Gaber (http://www.giorgiogaber.it/)
Ciabattoni, Francesco. “Italy’s Cantautori against the Backdrop of Riflusso” in La memoria delle canzoni popular music e identità italiana, a cura di Alessandro Carrera, Pasturana (AL), Punto a capo, 2016, pp. 140-168.
Luporini, Sandro. G. Vi racconto Gaber, Milano, Mondadori, 2013.
Tomatis, Jacopo. “’Viva Maddalena’. Sulla mascolinità dei primi cantautori italiani” in Ciao maschio Politiche di rappresentazione del corpo maschile nel Novecento a cura di: Giacomo Albert, Giulia Carluccio, Giulia Muggeo, Antonio Pizzo anno di pubblicazione: 2019, pp. 185-198.