(by Paolo Di Motoli, Università di Padova)
“Lyrics and musical arrangements by Sergio Caputo.” We read these words on the cover of every album (vinyl or CD) of our multi-faceted author. The great success he achieved in 1983 with “Un sabato italiano” (“An Italian Saturday”), later surpassed by “Mambo italiano” (1984), “No Smoking” (1985), and “Effetti personali” (featuring Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet), have transformed Sergio into a sort of musical icon of the decade. The Roman artist, however, is much more of a vintage icon because, beyond the innovations he introduced to Italian pop music by infusing it with jazz, swing, and boogie woogie, he has become recognizable by his refined texts filled with erudite references (“gli esistenzialisti mi snobbavano perché / mi hanno visto ridere / abbracciato a te”; “L’orchestrina si diverte / a massacrare / uno standard della dolce Bessy Smith”: the existentialists snubbed me because / they saw me laughing / while embracing you; The orchestra has fun / massacring / one of sweet Bessy Smith’s standard hits) and plays on words. Caputo is a musician, an author of lyrics, a writer and a painter. It seems that his skill with the guitar has only increased over time and made him an influential musician in the United States where he lived for more than ten years, with his instrumental album That Kind of Thing, which won the award for the most downloaded independent album of 2005. Caputo’s early lyrics bring to mind a world of artists and late night viveurs, evoking a life lived, imagined or desired by the jet set: “se la gente di qui ci avvilisce così e ci tratta da ragazzini è perché alla Tv non guarda i film su New York City” (“if the people here vilify us and treat us like children, it’s because they don’t watch movies about New York City on the TV”). But like Fred Buscaglione, who wrote about American-style nights and swingers in 1950s Turin, Sergio Caputo evokes taxi rides and clubs where you can dance “cheek to cheek” à la Fred Astaire in Roman venues of the 1980s, which had little to do with those fantasy locales in his lyrics. In his performances he recruits excellent jazz instrumentalists who perhaps during the day teach music in secondary schools but in the evening reproduce the sounds of the Big Band era. The recognizability of his lyrics is such that, in listening to “Susanna” sung by Adriano Celentano with the group Vof De Kunst, right from the title it is no struggle to recognize Sergio’s “touch” in the lyrics he wrote in 1987. Caputo’s playful streak shines through not only in the vertiginous verses of some of his songs (“Metamorfosi autoprescriversi dei farmaci per incrementare la crescita della peluria sullo stomaco / Puoi difenderti sbattermi nel limbo degli archetipi / farti due risate sui miei limiti / mettermi le corna terapeutiche”: “self-prescribed metamorphosis of drugs to increase hair growth on the stomach / You can defend yourself by flinging me into the limbo of archetypes / have yourself a laugh about my limitations / run around on me therapeutically”), but it is also displayed on the covers of his albums. In No Smoking from 1985 we see Sergio, smoking in a tuxedo (“smoking jacket”), with a provocative double entendre on smoking and the garment itself. Particularly dreamy and Fellini-esque (just like Sergio’s Rome and “the equilibrists balancing on the edge of the weekend”) is the cover of Sogno erotico sbagliato from 1990. This album is influenced musically by the American country and rock genres, and it displays the negative image from a glossy calendar of a classic pin-up sitting on a beautiful car. The woman, however, bears more resemblance to Gozzano’s “Signorina Felicita,” and the car is now a bleak rusty junker, while in the background we spy what appears to be a taxidermied Leopard. This is a dream, portrayed with care in a photograph much like a Fellini drawing.
Sergio’s “turning point” album, after he had participated in two editions of the Sanremo music festival, is Lontano che vai (1989), full of metal sounds and more “realistic” lyrics, with a tribute to rock in the well-produced “Il bimbo ha quarant’anni” (“la vita sa di tappo e lui c’ha il palato troppo fine! Dice il papà”: “life knows all about that and he has too fine a palate! says his dad”). The album track sung at Sanremo entitled “Rifarsi una vita” seems to anticipate the author’s decision to leave Italy and go to live in the United States.
Sergio Caputo, after his return to Europe, has not lost his creative impetus, and listening to the recent “Pop Jazz and Love” and the explosive “Non fidarti di me,” a song from the homonymous album of 2017 and the product of a collaboration with Francesco Baccini, another successful author with a highly ironic streak, it seems that the lyrics’ ironic playfulness and, at the same time, their bitter reflection on the past, make for a powerful mixture (“non fidarti di me non so neanche che giorno è domani!”: “don’t trust me; I don’t even know what day it is tomorrow!”).
The songs from the album “Un sabato Italiano” were reissued (2013) and recorded with the quintet with which Sergio performs live, delivering a less artificial sound (without the earlier synths) but with the same familiar stories of “Fellini’s Rome.” These stories are recounted in a more analytical manner in Caputo’s second book (Sabato italiano memories), published on the thirtieth anniversary of the famous “fetido cortile che ricomincia a miagolare” (“foul courtyard that begins to meow once again”), which narrates the song’s background and its deepest source of inspiration.