Ivan Della Mea

Remembering Ivan Della Mea   (Lucca 1940 – Milan 2009)

(by Alessandro Carrera, University of Houston)

I often wondered whether the songs of Ivan Della Mea, who died on June 14, 2009 at the San Paolo Hospital in Milan at the age of sixty-nine, could survive the waning of the political faith that brought them to life in the first place. Although never a household name, Ivan Della Mea was one of the most rigorous artists of Italian songwriting, and often one of the most lyrical, but his songs have an inextricable relationship with the years and the milieu in which they were born. How will posterity understand the lost “aura” of the Milanese workers’ neighborhoods, the poetry of leftist politics lived out as a religion as well as the madness that could crush you at any moment despite your stubborn certainty in the rationality of history? And what about the endless discussions made of politics and wine, scopa card games and the Communist party line that held together three generations of Milanese workers? Where are they now?

The career of Ivan Della Mea, singer-songwriter, proofreader, journalist, translator and then author of detective novels for the Gialli Mondadori series, screenwriter for a Marxist spaghetti-western (Tepepa aka Blood and Guns, 1969, starring Orson Welles), folk music researcher and then director of the Ernesto De Martino Institute in Sesto Fiorentino (“for the critical knowledge and alternative presence of the people and working-class world”) was Milanese but it could as well have been American for its adventurousness. Born in Lucca in 1940 as Luigi Della Mea, brother of Socialist journalist and writer Luciano Della Mea (author of one of the most prescient novels on the “crisis of the left”, I senzastoria, 1975), Ivan Della Mea was a rare example of the self-made intellectual, with a dry look and sharp words, plenty of sentiment and no sentimentality.

After moving to Milan as a boy, he grew up in a unique 1960s cultural mix of progressive bourgeoisie and working-class cultural aristocracy (yes, there was such a thing). In those years, my family attended top class performances at La Scala and Teatro Lirico with discount tickets bought through after-work associations (Dopolavoro) and the Unions. My uncle Livio was union delegate at the famed Piccolo Teatro meetings with managing director Paolo Grassi and artistic director Giorgio Strehler. Another uncle of mine, a warehouse worker, would buy records at L’Unità festivals (L’Unità, the Communist Party’s newspaper founded by Antonio Gramsci, held regular fundraising events where both food and culture were offered at a good price; working-class people who would not feel comfortable in a downtown, upscale bookstore would buy books and records at the local Festa dell’Unità). Uncle Emilio had recordings of Verdi, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky (several of them on the Melodjia label, straight from the Soviet Union), as well as Enzo Jannacci’s early songs and Ballate della violenza, Ivan Della Mea’s first EP (1962), which you could not find in a regular record store.

I learned Ivan’s “El me gatt” (“My Cat”) by heart back then in uncle Emilio’s cast-iron, shared-balcony flat (casa di ringhiera). The story of a neighborhood “teddy boy” (that’s how punks and hoodlums were called back then) who with a club breaks the legs of an ugly old woman who killed his cat and then goes quietly to jail convinced that he did the right thing was an archetype of violence and innocence, as raw as a Cesare Pavese early story and without an ounce of populist aestheticism. It was even more striking than Ivan’s overtly political songs such as “Ballata dell’Ardizzone,” written for a student killed by a police jeep in an anti-war rally during the Cuban crisis – a remarkable example of narrative economy in its own right.

Ivan wrote mostly in Milanese, which is a tough language. It does not allow for tenderness unless it is tempered by restraint and irony. Few understand it outside of Lombardy; it has never been a national-popular dialect. And Ivan’s voice, low, direct and powerful as it was, good for a factory assembly, had a conspicuous lisp (he pronounced “s” as “szh”). There is no reason not to mention it; Ivan must be admired for what he was able to do with it, turning a disadvantage into a force. At first, he tried to pass his songs to other singers who were sympathetic to the left, but to no avail. Those songs were his to sing, and too bad for bel canto. The brutality of the voice combined with the brutality of the lyrics created intractable artifacts. In “Cara moglie” (“My Dear Wife,” 1965), Ivan’s most famous song (it helps that the text is in Italian), when Ivan sings of the factory’s “pig boss” (“porco padrone”) and of him cursing the scabs that break the strike (“li ho maledetti senza pietà”) with words that seem to come straight from a 19th century opera libretto, one understands what class hatred really was (which was not only aimed by the workers toward their bosses, but in the opposite direction as well).

There is no reason to feel nostalgic over the harsh passions of those years. Later, Ivan refined his gaze, which remained ideological but much less Manichean. His bluntness, however, was the same as the young Dylan’s who in “Masters of War” sings “And I hope that you die / and your death will come soon” – lines which the many covers of the song usually eschew.
In 1978, I reviewed Ivan’s album, La piccola ragione di allegria (“A Small Reason for Joy”) in Quotidiano dei lavoratori (“The Workers’ Daily”), a short-lived, severely underfunded newspaper of the fringe left (but not too fringe). I pointed out that Ivan’s songs were now torn by the same contradiction of the official left, which called for radical change in the streets while at the same time accepting compromises in the palace of power (a strategy that radical-turned-mainstream Marxist philosopher Mario Tronti would politely call “autonomy of the political”). Ivan, with his usual frankness, replied in L’Unità that it bothered him to be indebted to me for my review. But I never thought he owed me anything. The last time I saw him, at the end of the ‘90s, he told me of the novel he had just finished writing (“A very hot, indeed torrid giallo”) and of a trip to Recanati, Giacomo Leopardi’s hometown in the Marche region, where he marveled at the autograph of L’infinito, apparently written in a single draft with only a couple of changes. “I mean,” he said, “WTF happened to him? How freakin’ high was he to write such stuff without even blinking? I work so hard at writing…” If uncle Emilio who played “El me gatt” in his shared-balcony flat had ever told me about Leopardi, he would have done it in the same way.

Translated songs: