By Chris Newman (George Mason University)
Though largely unknown to American audiences, Vasco Rossi is a world-class rock star. This isn’t mere hyperbole: in 2017 Vasco (he needs no last name even if he has one) broke the world record by selling 225,173 tickets to a single show in his home region of Modena. He was 65 at the time, but this wasn’t a farewell concert. He still sells out stadiums with ease. He still has the kind of fans who tattoo their bodies with his lyrics and post them to social media. It’s risky to draw analogies between artists, but when trying to convey to Americans some suggestion of Vasco’s stature and style, I usually say he’s like Italy’s Springsteen and Lou Reed rolled into one, combining the former’s lyrical passion with the latter’s half-spoken delivery of outré provocations. If Springsteen is the “Boss,” Vasco is the “Komandante.” He writes the kind of songs that work either as orgiastic rock and roll sacrament or orchestral ballet accompaniment. (Though if we take him at his word, he doesn’t really write them; they just birth themselves like flowers). He has so many beloved tracks in his discography (which includes roughly 15 studio albums and as many again live or compilation releases) that his set lists on each tour tend to include several medley/mash-ups that let fans get the joy of singing along to at least a verse or chorus of some of the ones he doesn’t have time to perform in full that day.
Vasco the God of Rock & Roll Rebellion
Of the many talented Italian singer-songwriters featured on this site, Vasco is the one who most exemplifies the modern mythic archetype of the rock star. Not because he is the first or only Italian performer to work in a rock vernacular—Adriano Celentano, to name just one example, played an important role as early interpreter of Elvis’s vibe for Italian audiences. But it was Vasco who, starting at the tail end of the 1970s, took the rage and the lust and the disillusionment and the forbidden blasphemous anti-social thoughts you aren’t supposed to express in public, punctuated them with electric guitar, and turned them into the kind of music that you can’t really sing without shouting. It was Vasco who flaunted an unapologetic taste for excess, who didn’t shy away from singing straightforwardly about substance abuse and the emotions from which it is an escape. When Vasco’s fans go to see him, they aren’t merely going to hear music but to participate in the collective expression of a world view. One that sees and gives voice to all the reasons for being defiantly, cynically self-destructive, but that never tips into nihilism. Because try as it might, it can’t shake the deep yearning for life to actually live up to its promise. Vasco plumbs the depths on both sides of that tension, which is why in that Modena show he could shout from the stage “L’amore sopra la paura!” (“Love over fear”) without it sounding like a maudlin platitude.
It was Vasco who gave Italian pop culture its answer to The Who’s “My Generation,” and it’s a superior one. Where Pete Townshend raised an exuberant middle finger, Vasco provides a full-blown manifesto. Instead of merely complaining that “people try to put us down,” he spells out each article in the litany of complaints and fears and condescension levelled at his generation and defiantly adopts them as badges of honor:
Siamo solo noi
che andiamo a letto la mattina presto
e ci svegliamo con il mal di testa
siamo solo noi
che non abbiamo vita regolare
che non ci sappiamo limitare
siamo solo noi
che non abbiamo più rispetto per niente
neanche per la mente
siamo solo noi
quelli che poi muoiono presto
quelli che però è lo stesso
(We’re the only ones
who stay up till the morning breaks
and wake up with a head that aches
we’re the only ones
the ones who don’t have normal lives
the ones who can’t control our drives
we’re the only ones
the ones who feel nothing but disdain
including for our brains
we’re the only ones
the ones whose lives are surely brief
but who don’t cost you any grief)
Just as all Who fans know what the elongated fricative in “Why don’t you all ffffff…..ade away” really stands for, in live performances it is not unusual to hear Vasco and his fans spontaneously supply the additional essential lyric (now standard but not present on the original recording): “Poi fatti i cazzi tuoi!” (“Go mind your own fucking business!”)
Vasco first made his mark on the national consciousness in true rock & roll fashion: by spectacularly bombing two years in a row at the straitlaced Sanremo Music Festival. In 1982 he came in last with the song “Vado al Massimo” (“I go to the max”), a reggae-inflected paean to excess. The message was explicit: I’m not here to pander to your norms, I’m here to violate them just to see what happens. The next year he came back with a notoriously intoxicated performance of “Vita spericolata” (“Reckless Life”). He again lost the judges, but won his audience. The song became his concert-closing signature tune (one of them), expressing the thematic tension at the core of his music. The first-person singular verses are all brash desire, yet sung with a contemplative melancholy that belies the extravagance of the demands.
Voglio una vita spericolata
voglio una vita come quelle dei film
voglio una vita esagerata
voglio una vita come Steve McQueen
voglio una vita che non è mai tardi
di quelle che non dormi mai
voglio una vita, la voglio piena di guai
(I want a life that’s totally reckless
I want the kind of life you see onscreen
I want a life that’s out of proportion
I want a life that’s just like Steve McQueen
I want a life that’s never past curfew
the kind where no-one ever sleeps
I want a life that always feels I’m in too deep)
What he wants is what we all want: escape. Escape from banality, predictability, constraint. But it’s not just escape. Perhaps more importantly, it’s validation. The feeling that if everybody (including myself) is thrilling to my exploits, then my life must be worthwhile. Which is itself a kind of escape. But Vasco isn’t naive enough to assume the life he’s demanding would actually be fulfilling, and he isn’t self-deceptive enough to let those doubts slide unconfronted. No sooner has he expressed the desire than he starts to question it.
E poi ci troveremo come le star
a bere del whisky al Roxy bar
oppure non c’incontreremo mai
ognuno a rincorrere i suoi guai
ognuno col suo viaggio, ognuno diverso
e ognuno in fondo perso
dentro i fatti suoi
(And then we’ll get together just like stars
to toss back a whiskey at Roxy Bar
or maybe we won’t ever meet again
we’ll all be busy chasing our own pain
each wandering a journey of our very own
and in the end we’re lost
in things we feel alone)
Say we all lived that performatively thrilling life. Where does it get us? Is there space in it for friendship, for connection? Do we really all get together afterward over drinks to contentedly bask in our mutual stardom? Or do we lose touch entirely, each isolated and lost in his own self-involved narrative and his own petty issues? Is the reckless life really an answer, or just a momentary distraction that won’t cure the discontent causing us to crave it? The song doesn’t pretend to provide any answers. The singer is haunted by his qualms, but still wants what he wants. The song is even more relevant today, when social media makes it easy for everyone to project the superficial imagery of a glamorous existence. Look at me, I’m living the dream. If you give me enough likes I might even believe it for a while. Vasco was the first to point this out, when at the Modena show he updated “dentro i fatti suoi” to “dentro il suo Facebook.”
This tension suffuses all of Vasco’s music, and provides the key to his enduring appeal. On the one hand, he indulges to the hilt the quintessential rock & roll impulses of the profligate, the rebel, and the blasphemer. He makes unabashed humor out of his “smashed liver” lifestyle (“Fegato Spappolato”), trumpets his taste for “strong sensations” (“Sensazioni forti”), and cheekily suggests there’s not much difference between a life of drug abuse and one spent buying into the pabulum of commercial advertising slogans. (“Bollicine”) (Imagine a hybrid of Clapton’s “Cocaine” and Tom Waits’s “Step Right Up”). He dismisses those who acquiesce in a senseless world through faith in some vague hereafter, lionizing instead the ones who dig in their heels and say “No…io non ci sono…io non mi muovo” (“No… I don’t buy it… I’m not budging”) (“C’è chi dice no”). His discontent with religion takes him so far as to put God on the defendant’s bench, demanding explanation and payment for a life whose purpose he doesn’t understand, while acidly assigning the deity’s defense to “voi buoni cristiani” (“you good Christians”) (“Portatemi Dio“). It’s all gloriously intransigent iconoclasm, but what saves it from becoming rote is that at every point Vasco is equally ready to subvert his own rebellious pose.
You can see this early on in the classic and controversial screed, “Colpa d’Alfredo.” Here Vasco gives voice to the livid resentment of a young working class man when the object of his affections stands him up in favor of a rich foreigner. He blames his friend Alfredo for distracting him at a crucial moment, he blames the foreign player for using his flashy car to bounce from girl to girl without really being able to speak to any of them, and he blames the girl for being a callous gold digger who fails to recognize his superior level of commitment. While the song has phrases that could be read as racist (the foreigner is African), xenophobic, or misogynistic, that would be to miss the point. (And as I show below, Vasco’s about as far from misogyny as one can get). This song isn’t a rallying cry for bigotry; it’s a portrait of someone who is clearly indulging in delusive blame-shifting for his own disappointment. He’s not really going to kill Alfredo. He wasn’t really going to take the girl to America. He’s not really sure he loved her enough to marry her. And most of all, despite his insistent affirmations to the contrary, he’s not really convinced that if it hadn’t been for his rival she’d have said yes to him. It’s all bravado, shielding him from confronting his own failure. To be sure, the song dramatizes the sort of self-serving resentment that could, if cultivated, lead one down some dark political alleys. But Vasco’s not festering in that emotional cul-de-sac. He’s recognizing it as real and venting it.
Vasco the Seeker of Meaning
Vasco remains worth listening to because he doesn’t shy away from asking himself the hard questions that only an unflinchingly honest iconoclast would think to ask: once you liberate yourself from all the beliefs that you found so chafing and constraining as a child, are you also liberating yourself from the very things that made life feel worth living? If we’re so free now, what exactly are we free from?
Liberi liberi siamo noi
però liberi da che cosa
chissà cos’è, chissà cos’è.
Finché eravamo giovani
era tutta un’altra cosa
chissà perché, chissà perché.
Forse eravamo stupidi
però adesso siamo cosa
che cosa che, che cosa se
quella voglia, la voglia di vivere
quella voglia che c’era allora
chissà dov’è, chissà dov’è.
(We are free, we are free, yes we’re free
but now what are we all so free from?
I just don’t know, I just don’t know.
Back in the days when we were young
It’s like everything felt so different
why was that so? Why was that so?
Maybe we all were just stupid then
but now what exactly are we?
what do we know, what can we show?
That desire, desire to be alive
that desire that used to be there
where did it go? Where did it go?)
And here’s another, even starker one: Are you really certain it was life that failed you with false promises of truth and beauty, or did you maybe betray life by giving up too easily? It’s fear of having to pass the latter verdict on yourself that consigns you to keep living, keep hoping, keep fighting against all odds, wearing the brave smile that masks the desire to just blow everything off and shut down.
anche se sei morto dentro
e devi essere sempre contento
è come un comandamento
vivere o sopravvivere
senza perdersi d’animo mai.
E combattere e lottare contro tutto contro.
Oggi non ho tempo
oggi voglio stare spento
(Be alive, be alive
even if you’re dead inside,
be alive, be alive
and always show the world your happy side.
be alive, be alive
it’s an order that you must abide.
be alive, or just at least survive
without ever giving up the faith
and keep on fighting even though the world is all against you
my time’s filled today
I just want to lie still today)
When Vasco and his fans sing this together in a stadium, they’re essentially at church. Not a Catholic one, to be sure. But they’re doing what church is supposed to be for: sharing a communal cathartic confrontation of the knot at the center of human existence. Life hurts. But somehow the beauty of singing about how it hurts echoes the promise of beauty that won’t let us just give it up.
Vasco the Votary of the Universal Feminine
Like most rock (or pop music, or art in general) Vasco’s is largely about relations between men and women. The very first track on his 1978 debut album is a ruthless dissection of a relationship gone irretrievably bad (“La Nostra Relazione”). But while the relationships Vasco portrays are frequently combative, the songs aren’t usually that bleak. Indeed, some of his best are downright humorous, as when he desperately tries to tailor his animal passions to elusive feminist sensibilities (“Io non so più cosa fare”), or affectionately mocks his girlfriend’s manipulative wiles (“Va bé (Se proprio te lo devo dire)”). Of course, Vasco also has the full rock panoply of brazen come-ons (“Dimentichiamoci questa città”), tawdry fixations (“Mi piaci perché”), assertions of dominance (“Ti prendo e ti porto via”), and celebrations of candid lust (“Rewind”)—the kind in which female fans regard themselves not as mere objects but full participants, enthusiastically obliging the plea to “fammi vedere.”
But mostly he’s struggling with the problem at the core of all relationships: the problem of honesty. His songs have the conversational tone of someone just trying to keep things real. In “Va bene, va bene così,” he tries to talk a lover into taking conscious responsibility for her role in the relationship, even if it means admitting she doesn’t care about him. Being honestly used would be preferable to endless prevarication. Dishonesty is a disease, a terminal one. Always potentially present and tough to rule out as a diagnosis. It may be that the best way to treat the symptoms is simply to reduce one’s consumption of the substance feeding both the disease and the hypochondria: talk. (“Senza parole”)
Ultimately though, Vasco’s most compelling lyrics about women aren’t so much about his relationships with them as his observations of them. He doesn’t see women solely as sexual partners or adversaries; he’s fascinated by them as manifestations of humanity, the “other half of the sky.” He sees women as people engaged in the same struggle he is: to shed the lies and expectations that obscure who we really are and want to be. And he’s keenly aware that those expectations can mangle women even more than they do men. His debut album featured two songs voicing parallel cries for female autonomy; in one he’s trying to wake a girl up, in the other defending her right to sleep.
“…E poi mi parli di una vita insieme” is a lesser-known track, but it has a transcendent passage in which Vasco suddenly explodes in frustration at the girl who’s pressuring him to marry her. Not because he doesn’t care for her, or because he’s against marriage necessarily, but because he understands that this girl has no idea of why she should want that or even that any other role is conceivable for her.
Io vorrei che tu
che tu avessi qualcosa da dire
che parlassi, di più
che provassi una volta a reagire
ribellandoti a quell’eterno incanto
per vederti lottare
contro chi ti vuole
così innocente e banale donna
donna sempre uguale
donna per non capire donna
donna per uscire
donna da sposare
(How I wish that you
that you had an idea to express
that your words weren’t so few
that for once you would not acquiesce
standing up against that old eternal enchantment
just to see you fight back against
those who want to keep you
innocent and so tame a woman
woman always the same
woman not to think straight a woman
woman to date
woman to marry)
No sooner has he blamed her for her passivity than he apologizes. He knows it’s not her fault. It’s the world that wants her that way.
On the other hand, we have Jenny. Poor Jenny. We’re not sure exactly what happened to her. All we know is that she seems to have lost her will to participate in life: “Jenny è stanca. Jenny vuole dormire” (“Jenny’s tired. Jenny wants to sleep”). Seems a simple enough request. Maybe she needs time to process something, to be given space and undemanding love for a while. But we can’t have that. Can’t have her here just sleeping. It ruins people’s morale, you see. If she’s not going to participate, she needs to be sent away somewhere. They’ll cure her. Someday. At least if she’s far away we can tell ourselves she’s doing well and not be disquieted by seeing her. Or reproached by the question of what happened to her. Easier to just label her as crazy: Jenny è pazza. Again at the heart of the song is an incandescent moment in which Vasco rails against the people making this call:
Io che l’ho vista piangere
di gioia e ridere
che più di lei la vita
credo mai nessuno amò
io non vi credo
voi non potete
(I who’ve seen her crying
tears of joy and seen her laugh
for no-one ever I think
cherished living more than she
I don’t believe you
just keep your hands off her
You cannot do this)
So here in Vasco’s earliest material we find him railing against two norms he sees strangling girls he cares about. Or perhaps it’s really just one: don’t make us uncomfortable by ruffling the domestic order you’re supposed to cultivate and adorn. Not by being awake enough to question it, and not by being tired enough to fail your duty of making others feel good.
Small wonder then, that Vasco’s most iconic song (featured on his second album) is a tender portrait of the most purely beautiful thing he can imagine: a girl in the last moment before the world tries to twist her into its idea of a woman. A girl who has no debilitating self-consciousness, no inkling that she’s supposed to dress for attention or devalue her mind or dissemble her dreams. The image is precious in part because of its evident precarity. Right now she’s alone in her room with all the world outside, but any second the world will come knocking. Blink, and your fresh-faced Albachiara has already become Silvia; trying on makeup and critically appraising her body in the mirror. Then she’s Susanna, going dancing in her colorful getup and suggestive smile. Vasco’s third album begins with a call-back to Albachiara, but segues into a song in which he tries to get a more grown up version of her to put aside those studies she still loves to pay more attention to him. (“Non l’hai mica capito.”) With luck, she’ll manage to keep the world outside of her, and become Giulia. Brava Giulia, who chooses the life she wants, and has the healing laugh of one who doesn’t turn her errors into self-recriminations. Seeing her, Vasco is transfixed with awestruck admiration; his first thought not that he wants her but that he wants to live like her. He humbly offers himself, not as a protector from a world she’s already conquered, but as a would-be companion with no pretenses to superiority.
But Giulia’s a rare breed, and most girls don’t elude the world’s snares so completely. Take Gabri, the teen giving an older man a gift he knows he doesn’t deserve. She might construe that as power, and get caught up in the game of using it to toy with men in her own turn. (“Brava”). She might even wind up as Albachiara’s polar opposite, the insufferable club queen who now lives only to be the center of attention, even if it means ignoring what people say behind her back. (“La strega”). But those are just feminine versions of the vita spericolata. They won’t actually feed her fragile soul, or save her from the feeling that life is moving on and taking her ever farther away from the simple things that used to satisfy it. (“Anima fragile”). Which may be what leads her into a relationship like this one. Or this one. Eventually though, all of this turbulence will fall away. Eventually she’ll find herself beyond the shelf life of what society valorizes in women. Eventually she’ll become Sally. Eventually we all do.
If “Albachiara” is Vasco’s most famous song, “Sally” is his masterpiece. It’s through this heart-rending portrait of an older woman that Vasco the reckless rockstar finally glimpses the answer he once sought to browbeat out of God. Sally has left behind all the turbulent sensual and emotional pleasures that distract us from the problem of existence. Those distractions have a price, and Sally has paid it in full. She is in the afterlife of the vita spericolata. Now she walks down the street alone and sees life for what it is. A fleeting shiver. A tightrope suspended over folly. She thinks of nothing, and is indifferent to the people she passes. This could be a picture of unbearable desolation, of inconsolable regret for irretrievable joy. But Sally has realized something. Her indifference is not dull burn-out. Her steps are light. The patter of rain around her is like the sound of Siddhartha’s river: a sensation of quietly blissful being that requires no explanation or justification. Sally has a moment of satori. The pain and guilt fall away, and life is just what it was supposed to be. The girl at the beginning was right. There was nothing to be ashamed of. Non se ne doveva vergognare.