Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thin White Rope in Italy - Part One

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, April 08, 2007)

Thin White Rope's first trip to Europe caught us all by surprise. We were in the midst of an American tour for "Moonhead" when I got the call from our record label. An Italian booking agent, Paulo, had called and wanted the band to come to Italy for a week's worth of dates. He said that he would pay for our flights, our hotels and all meals. All we had to do was come over there. We thought he was crazy. We were having problems getting people in our own country to come out and see the band live. Why did he think that people in another country would care?

But I did some checking and found out he was a legitimate agent and after some discussion, we decided that if he was insane enough to bring us over there, we were insane enough to take him up on it. Paulo didn't speak much English, so I dealt with his partner, Mario. They wanted me to book the flights and gave me the dates they had set up. Even though I had never been to Europe, except for two visits to London, I was determined to act as the band's tour manager over there. So in the spring of 1987, we all boarded a United Airlines flight to Rome not knowing what we would face once we got there.

Most of us were too excited to sleep. Guy was terrified of flying and had taken some sort of calming agent, so he was out for a good portion of the flight. 10 hours of drinking, smoking and generally bouncing off the walls later we landed at the Aeroporto in Rome. The first thing we noticed is the number of security and police guys walking around with Uzis. That had quite a calming effect on us. At that time, we Americans weren't used to the realities of dealing with terrorism. But getting through customs with all our luggage and guitars turned out to be relatively easy and before we knew it, we were all standing outside being hailed by a cute little Italian guy named Paulo, although not the same Paulo who was responsible for bringing us there. This Paulo also didn't speak much English, but he loaded us into a large van and quickly headed towards Rome and a meeting with the head Paulo.

It was about this time that we all started realizing just how tired we were. But we were all too excited and refused to close our eyes, even for a moment. And it was wonderful. Paulo drove us all around downtown. We passed the Coliseum, the Forum, the Spanish Steps and many other buildings, statues and fountains. Realizing that these things weren't just hundreds of years old, like historical sites we saw in America, but thousands of years old, was a source of awe and wonder for us all. And the fact that we were in a loss-of-sleep dream state made it all the more awe-inspiring. Paulo finally dropped us off in the front of an office and we all made our way upstairs to meet the head Paulo and Mario. They filled us in on what we could expect during our week long stay and then let us know that we had about three hours before we all had to pile into a van again and head towards our first couple of dates, one of which was in an east coast sea town called Bari.

Paulo's office was right next door to Vatican City, so we all rushed over there and took a quick tour of the building. It was beautiful and huge. We didn't have time to take in the whole thing, but fortunately in later years we were able to take in the full experience, including walking to the top of the dome, a long and exhausting climb that I did at least three times during the next several Italian tours. Then we walked across the street and sat down to our first ever Italian meal. We all had pasta, but it wasn't very good and was very expensive. By the time we finished that, it was time to go back to Paulo's office. We mentioned the meal to him and he warned us that it was a tourist place. If we wanted great food at a great price, we needed to avoid the places that catered to tourists. This was a lesson we never forgot during future tours anywhere. In fact, it's a lesson I've never forgotten anywhere I've gone in the world.

Paulo the boss piled us all back into the van with Paulo the driver and told us he would see us later that week at the festival we were playing in Reggio Emilia. And we were off. It was dark out and we were very tired, but again, I found it impossible to sleep. (I've always had problems sleeping in a moving vehicle of any kind.) It was good that I stayed awake, as I was able to watch Paulo as he drove and I began to understand the ways, means and road signs of driving in Europe. This came in very handy once I stopped hiring drivers and started driving and handling the band's Eurotours myself. This decision came about because of a character we had driving for us by the name of Pino. Pino was a frustration and a treat and one of these days I'll dedicate an entire column to him and his various exploits with us. Believe me, the story of Pino is well worth the wait.

Several hours later, we arrived in Bari and Paulo drove us to a hotel, where we all shuffled in and finally got a good night's sleep. But first we had to kill all the mosquitoes. It was a warm, balmy night and the windows to all the rooms had been left open. The rooms were swarmed with mosquitoes. Before I could get that good night's sleep, I had to grab a shoe and a chair and make my way around the room smashing as many of the little pests as I could. Even after that, we still woke up the next morning with itchy lumps all over our faces and hands.

Both John and I woke up early the next morning and decided to try to find some breakfast. We were close to the ocean and found some great looking little restaurants, but at that time we didn't understand that Italians rarely eat breakfast. They usually enjoy coffee and a roll and that's about it. John had a bad craving for bacon and eggs but everywhere he asked for it, people just stared back at him in horror, some trying to explain how unhealthy it was to eat such a thing so early in the morning. (Italians have lots of food rules and I'll get to those someday in a future blog post.) He finally was forced to give up and after a couple of cups of the best espresso I'd ever tasted and some great Italian pastries, we made our way down to the bay and watched fishermen dragging in nets and bags of squid, octopus and other seafood. It was here that I first saw a fisherman actually bite an octopus between the eyes to stun it into submission, a sight that was enough to send me reeling back to the hotel room in terror.

By the time we got back to the hotel, the rest of the band were up and ready to go. A very interesting man met us there. It turned out that he was the mayor of the city. He was also the head of the Fascist party and a big, screaming queen. And he was hilarious. He was happy that we were in town and wanted to show us around. So we followed him as he pointed out various historical sites and interesting places until we came to a church. We were told that this was the Basilica of Saint Nicholas. That's right. The bones of Santa Claus were buried there.

Saint Nicholas was originally from Turkey, but in the late 1000's his body was abducted and taken to Bari, where he has since remained, although the Turks aren't too happy about it. There was a little trough that came out of his crypt at ground level. We were told that Nicholas' bones secrete a milky white substance and once a year the Pope comes down to Bari, where he spoons the substance out and into a vat of holy water. This is sold for a lot of money as a medicinal cure-all. But we were "important" visitors and we were all given a small bottle of the stuff for free. We dubbed it "Santa Juice". I still have the bottle sitting right here next to my computer. There is an etching of Saint Nicholas on one side of it and if you shake the bottle, you can see little pieces of Santa Claus floating around in it. It's one of my prize possessions from those touring days.

We left the Basilica and headed towards lunch. While walking there, we passed a place called "something of the Golden Arches". I asked if the bones of Ronald McDonald were buried there and the Fascist, queen mayor seemed to think that was the funniest thing he had ever heard.

Lunch turned out to be a small restaurant where we were all served seafood, most of it the same stuff that John and I had watched the fishermen pull out of the ocean that morning. And it was some of the best seafood I had ever eaten. I had pasta with clams and the clams were very tiny and in the shell and were so sweet I couldn't stop eating them. This was the beginning of my love of all things seafood.

But then it was off to Altamura. This was a small town east of Bari and it was to be the site of our first ever show in Italy. We wouldn't be playing Bari until the next evening. I don't remember much about that Bari date. But the Altamura show is etched in my mind.

We arrived in Altamura to find a stage set up in front of a large, ancient church. We were doing a free show that evening and were told that the whole town would be coming out to see us. And they weren't kidding. By the time of the show, whole families were there: moms, dads, kids, and grandparents. There were gaggles of nuns all over the place. I got the feeling that this town didn't see much action and were starved for whatever entertainment they could get. But there were also lots of kids there and the kids wanted to talk to us. And they knew the songs! This caught us by surprise. We still didn't really understand why we were in Italy, but we began to see that perhaps we were there because people wanted us there.

The show was great. The kids went crazy at the front of the stage and the parents and nuns swayed and rocked out further back. But then it came time for the encore and Joe had to pee something fierce. He didn't have time to make it to a restroom so he just jumped off the stage and urinated on the side of the church behind us. Whoops. Of course, this didn't go over too well with the various nuns and some of the parents there to watch the show. He wasn't in full sight, but it was obvious what he had done. This was the first of many times that I had to talk and apologize to the locals because of something someone in the band did. And it was the first time I actually managed to smooth everything over and leave with everyone smiling and enjoying themselves. I think most of the time it came down to "those crazy Americans", which in retrospect is really quite pathetic. But if it got us out of sticky situations, then I was willing to take full advantage of it. It made for a pretty memorable first show in Italy though.

As I said, I don't remember much about the Bari show. I remember that it was also outside and also very good. And also don't remember where two of the other shows we did during this first tour were. Somewhere in my garage I have a journal and it lists all the European and American dates the band did while I worked with them. But I have no idea where it is at this time and I have to apologize to you. One of these days I'll find it and then I can fill in the holes I'm going to have to leave in some of these stories.

But I do remember one other date we did on this tour and that was a one-day festival in Reggio Emilia sponsored by the local Communist Party. This is a town just outside of Parma, between Milan and Bologna. We arrived to find that we were playing somewhere in the middle of a bunch of bands. Also on the bill were X, Billy Bragg, 10000 Maniacs and many more international and local bands. And this was the first show where we saw that we were actually quite popular in Italy.

When we arrived I grabbed a beer and settled into one of the lounge chairs provided backstage. I saw a big bus pull up. The door opened and out walked John Doe of X. I haven't talked to John in years now, but at this time I knew him quite well. He walked by barely noticing me lounging there with my sunglasses, a beer and a shit-eating grin on my face. He got about ten feet by me when it all sunk in and he turned and asked, "What the hell are you doing here?" For whatever reasons, that's a favorite memory of mine.

The festival itself was packed with several thousand enthusiastic Italians and we made a point of walking around and talking to those who could understand us. It was here at this festival that we first met Daniela, who would later become our booking agent in Italy and I met a young guy name Flavio who I still stay in touch with infrequently. I've watched him grow up, get married and become a proud father.

We went on just before 10000 Maniacs. I was actually looking forward to meeting Natalie Merchant, the singer for the band, but I needn't have bothered. She was rude, crude and only interested in making out with Billy Bragg. I've since learned that she has the reputation of being a bit of a bitch. I found out firsthand.

Guy hit the stage wearing a mask of the Pope, complete with silly Pope hat. He announced from the stage that this was the "Hang Your Pope From A Rope" tour. We had come up with that a few days earlier during a silly tour moment. We got to talking about "soap-on-a-rope" somehow and that morphed into "pope-on-a-rope" and it stuck. The crowd went wild. We had about 40 minutes to do our set and the crowd was going nuts through the whole thing. When we finished, we were told that there wasn't time to do an encore. The crowd wasn't having any of it though. They tore down the restraining fence and kept screaming for Thin White Rope. We stood on the stage staring, as we had never seen any reaction towards us like that. In America it was hard to get the audience to stop drinking long enough to even notice the band was playing. As long as the audience could see us, they would keep screaming and the stage crew asked us to leave immediately. But the crowd kept screaming for us well into 10000 Maniacs' set. I have to say that after my meeting with Ms. Merchant earlier, I was secretly pleased with the crowd reaction. After their set, she came off and loudly announced that she thought Italians were the rudest people in the world. I disagreed. I thought they were close to the greatest.

And that's what I remember about our first European/Italian tour. Oh, and the food and wine was wonderful everywhere we went. I had never had real Italian food. It was always the heavy, overly sauced and cheesed American versions of pastas and pizza. I fell in love with the land, people and food. It's still one of my favorite places in the whole world and I always looked forward to returning.

We returned to Italy a number of times over the next decade. (And we eventually branched out into other European countries as well.) There's a whole lot more Italian stories to tell. There's the already mentioned Pino; there's our visit to the Tower Of Pisa at 3 AM in the morning; there's drunken tales with folk singer John Renbourne and Steve Mack of That Petrol Emotion; there's the haunted hotel in Bassano Del Grappa; there's the beginning of the "pig" tour of Europe and why it was called that. And there's so much more. I'll get to them all over the next few months.

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