November 12, 2017

The Boy from Gluck Street

A song I’ve loved since I was a young boy, “Il ragazzo della via Gluck” (“The Boy from Gluck Street”) is not just a song, it’s a piece of pop music and cultural history. It was originally written and recorded by Italian pop music legend Adriano Celentano in 1966—the lyrics are by Luciano Beretta and Miki Del Prete—and soon became a world hit, translated and recorded in 18 languages by numerous artists, including American pop singer Verdelle Smith (“Tar and Cement”), French singer and songwriter Françoise Hardy (“La maison où j’ai grandi”) and Swedish singer Anna-Lena Löfgren (“Lyckliga gatan”), who also covered a German version of the song (“Immer am Sontag”).

Adriano Celentano’s vocation as a counter artist was evident since the very beginning of his artistic career. Italy’s best-loved singer and songwriter, and one of the greatest selling non-English language recording artists of all time, he characteristically performs his songs with a Brechtian detachment to the text and is the creator of a broken, syncopated language that he alternates with a crooner style. His whole career, not only as a singer & songwriter but also as an actor, director, producer, as well as a host of TV programs, bears witness to his intellectual integrity and his deep commitment to promoting values and principles such as fairness, friendship, kindness, and love for one another. All this, however, without indulging in sentimentalism or presenting a Manichean worldview, but always with strength and simplicity—and with a grain of folly: who could ever forget his legendary television monologues with his “lunatic” and Buster Keatonesque ecstatic pauses?

Prominent film directors such as Ermanno Olmi, Federico Fellini—who asked him to play himself in La dolce vita—and Pier Paolo Pasolini were fascinated by his free-thinking attitude and independent spirit, and saw in him a poetic and at the same time a down-to-earth representative of traditional values and aspirations in the face of a tumultuous period of huge social and economic change. Needless to say, as a result of the rapid modernization and industrialization of the country, a huge urban sprawl—which dramatically changed the face of Italy’s cities and towns—took place in the 1950s and the 1960s. Definitely against the tide and somewhat prophetically at the time, Adriano spoke out against the “cement tsunami” and the consequent loss of identity and traditional ways of life. The autobiographical “Il ragazzo della via Gluck” became his manifesto against “unsustainable development.”

The following is a literal translation from the original, which is quite different from the above mentioned “Tar and Cement” (by American songwriters Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance):

The Boy from Gluck Street

This is the story of one of us,
who was also born by chance in Gluck Street,
in a house outside the city,
quiet people, who worked.
Where there was grass there is now
a city, and that house
amid the green now,
where may it be?

This kid from Gluck Street,
enjoyed playing with me,
but one day he said,
“I’m going to the city,”
and he said while weeping,
I asked him, “Friend,
aren’t you glad?
You’re finally going to live in the city.
There you will find
the things that you didn’t have here,
you can wash at home without going
down in the yard! ”
“My dear friend,” he said,
“I was born here,
and in this street
now I’m leaving my heart.
But how can’t you understand,
it’s lucky for you who remain
barefoot to play in the fields,
while there downtown
I’ll breathe concrete.

But there will come a day
when I’ll come back
here and I will hear the friendly train
whistling like this – ua-ua ”
The years go by, but eight are long
But that kid has come a long way
But doesn’t forget his first home
Now with the money he can buy it
He comes back and doesn’t find
the friends he had
Only houses upon houses,
tar and concrete.
Where there was grass
there is now a city
And that house amid
the green now
where may it be?
I don’t know, I don’t know, why
they go on building houses
And don’t let the grass, don’t let the grass,
And don’t
let the grass, don’t let the grass,
And no, if we go on like this
I wonder how we will do,
who knows, who knows how we
will do.

All in all, besides being (by far) my favorite Italian singer, I’ve always had the utmost respect for Adriano Celentano as a person, and I’m pleased to pay tribute to him with this post. To conclude, this, in my opinion, is his core message in a nutshell, in his own words (and in his typically imaginative style):

What we are losing is the utopian dimension of life. Sometimes I say things that seem impossible to achieve, and yet there are many things that seemed impossible at one time but they are very real today. My concern is that if we lose our belief in utopia the world will get worse and worse. Today we live longer than in the past, the quality of life has improved, we have medicine that saves lives, but still the world is headed for disaster, because we have abandoned our past to climb higher and higher. But if you climb a very tall ladder and then cannot climb down again, you cannot save beautiful things. The lack of Beauty is a problem. The key to the future is Beauty. There are not only skyscrapers, we are a part of nature. There are helicopters, but there are no meadows. [Rockpolitik, (in Italian, translation mine) edited by M. Ciotta, Bompiani, 2006]

As is more than evident from the above quoted passage, Celentano’s “utopianism” is one of its own kind, and his utopia is a back-to-the-future one rather than a traditional one. After all, unlike most of his fellow Italian artists, he has never been sympathetic to leftists, nor has he never hidden his deep Christian faith and beliefs. In other words, he is a true contrarian—and I thank him for that!

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