(Bologna 1950 – Bologna 2018)
By Carlo Pestelli, Independent Scholar
Trade: instructor of literature in a high school in Bologna; profession: songwriter. Or maybe the other way around? Is Lolli’s profession that of a school teacher, a bourgeois sort of job, with its daily toil, grading homework, catching a bus every morning to Casalecchio di Reno, report cards, grade reviews, parent-teacher meetings … and musician by trade, as well as by vocation: records, sound rehearsals, concerts, late dinners, nights with little sleep. I do not know. In a famous essay by Joseph Brodsky, Watermark, the author distinguishes himself as a writer, by trade, as opposed to his petulant academic role, which is his profession.
Claudio Lolli was one of the leading singer-songwriters in 1970s Italy, on both the creative level—thanks to the significant formal novelty in his lyrics—and the personal level—for the artisanal, alternative way in which he managed his fluctuating success. He grew up with the music of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and his favorite Jacques Brel, but also the group Cantacronache with members Fausto Amodei and Sergio Liberovici, as well as Fabrizio De Andrè, Piero Ciampi—whom Lolli particularly appreciated—and Francesco Guccini. Thanks to the latter, Lolli could informally partake in jam sessions in Bologna’s historic music clubs, such as the Osteria delle Dame. This was the beginning of the Seventies, and it is at the Osteria that Lolli made an impression on EMI record managers who immediately contracted him.
“How much love gets wasted on buses among people who might love each other?” these are the opening lyrics of Claudio Lolli’s last, heartfelt Il grande freddo (The Big Chill, 2017), the crowning achievement of an intense music career that has always been outside the box. The record earned him the 2017 Tenco award as best album. There is certainly something artistic in being able to reconcile biographical events and artistic results, and Lolli did so from start to finish, partly because of his will, and partly against it. In this sense, the titles of the first three discs—Un uomo in crisi (A Man in a Crisis, 1973), Canzoni di rabbia (Songs of Anger 1975), Apettando Godot (Waiting for Godot, 1982), and the final Il grande freddo—are sufficient to identify his poetics and a common thread in a coherent universe: he is passionate, angry, and, most of all, sincere. The songs of solitary and collective anger (Canzoni di rabbia), a manifesto of the tumultuous Seventies, are composed in one go by a man in crisis who, before surrendering to the definitive disillusionment of “the big chill,” to the inability to reconcile a vanished generational dream, sadly waits for Godot. The literary reference borrowed from a cantor of utopia such as Samuel Beckett who lived amphibiously between two languages and certainly did not write with the pretense or concern to make himself understood at all costs. The gap that divides Lolli from his slightly older predecessors, such as Paolo Pietrangeli or fellow citizens such as Pierangelo Bertoli and Francesco Guccini, lies precisely in their explicit message and overt communication: Claudio Lolli was shyer and even though he adhered to the Bolognese Movimento del Settantasette and to the hypercreative and irreverent climate of that period, adopted a more intimate lyricism with fewer references to historical events.
Lolli’s music was often aired on independent radio stations, such as Bologna’s Radio Alice, which played a big role in his success with the general public. Peppino Impastato, the anti-mafia activist, admired Claudio Lolli, and the Palermitans who tuned in to Impastato’s show Onda pazza on Radio Aut could enjoy Lolli’s songs. Among his other admirers were famous cartoonists of the period, including the young Andrea Pazienza, who designed the cover of Lolli’s Antipatici antipodi (Unpleasant Antipodes, 1983), and, in general, college students following the Seventies protest movements in all of Italy. In 1977, at a concert in Turin with Edoardo Bennato, Claudio Lolli received an unconditional critical tribute, which overshadowed Bennato: the Neapolitan singer-songwriter instead was raked over the coals and accused of following mainstream clichés. But Lolli was also other things: a family man (a loving father of two children) and a good friend. He carried out for decades a human and professional relationship with a select few copains d’abord such as the poet Gianni D’ Elia and guitarist Paolo Capodacqua. To these, one should add fellow songwriters Giampiero Alloisio and Lucio Dalla, who greatly admired him, and some young artists who were inspired by Lolli and collaborated with him beginning in the second half of the 1990s: Mirco Menna, Carlo Pestelli, Enrico Capuano and the band Il Parto delle Nuvole Pesanti, who in 2003 helped produce a new arrangement of the 1972 hit album Ho visto anche degli zingari felici (I Even Saw Some Happy Gypsies, 1976).
The start of Lolli’s career is lively and prolific: five albums in six years (1972-1977). According to many, these are the best and most representative works of his entire repertoire. Certainly, if we listen to those songs today, they seem still current and valid. The debut album, published by EMI, features such musicians as Ares Tavolazzi and Ellade Bandini, but above all it contains some songs such as “Bourgeoisie”, “Michel” and “Metropolitan Anguish” that immediately became iconic symbols of those years and permanently populated the setlist of Lolli’s live performances. Un uomo in crisi, released in 1973, presents lyrics of increasingly introspective quality, which lucidly analyze social problems. Among the musicians who played on the record is American guitarist Stefan Grossman. Lolli’s most famous album, Ho visto anche degli zingari felici (1976), contains songs that describe the terrorist attack on the train Italicus (“Agosto”) and the reaction of the Italian left, starting from the funeral described in “Piazza bella piazza” (“City Square, Beautiful City Square”) and explicitly referring to high-ranking politicians such as the President of the Republic Giovanni Leone (“I would have done without Leone”). Lolli forced on the music label EMI a political price of 3,500 lire (approximately $4) for each copy the album, embracing a position very in line with the times, but for which he would pay dearly in the long run: already the following year, 1977, he published the next Disoccupate le strade dai sogni (Clear the Streets from Dreams), an important record, quite “Lollian,” which seemed prophesize a “normalized surrender,” the waning of the ideals of 1968 which took place in the late ’70s. Those years, later labeled a “anni del riflusso” (time of the ebbing tide), heralding in the aphasic eighties, when the private, hedonistic and post-political dimension overtook active participation and the collective spirit that had animated the previous decades.
The 1980 bombing at the Bologna train station concludes a grim and violent season that began with the Milanese explosion of Piazza Fontana at the end of 1969: Lolli’s poetics and key songs are enclosed in that temporal parable, and it is no coincidence that in recent years, perhaps to reinforce his ties with the generation of 1970s protesters, Lolli often sang “La ballata del Pinelli” (“The Ballad of Pinelli”), the only song written by someone else which he included in his otherwise rigorously autographic repertory. Here I am inscribing Lolli’s important musical production within chronological boundaries in an attempt to present it in an orderly fashion. Despite an exceptional record like Extranei (1980), he started the new decade on the wrong foot: a music producer invited Lolli to sing in Sardinia, in a vacation resort quite unsuitable for the live guitar and singer-songwriter’s voice. In response, the pragmatic Claudio returned to Bologna, dusted off his degree in literature, and started teaching in a high school. During the 1980s, while still composing songs, producing records, and holding sporadic concerts, Lolli also published collections of short stories: L’inseguitore Peter H. (The Tracker Peter H.,1984), Giochi crudeli (Cruel Games,1990) and Nei sogni degli altri (In the Dreams of Others,1995). The second half of the Nineties was marked by numerous concerts, plus a few new albums, among which Intermittenze del cuore (Intermittences of the Heart,1997) and Viaggio in Italia (Voyage in Italy,1998), stand out. Later, and again in his capacity as a fiction writer, he released one more significant work in the form of epistles: Lettere Matrimoniali (Marriage Letters,2013), in which the author lays bare his autobiographical impulses in a heartfelt stream of consciousness with his imaginary partner/recipient, Marina.
Claudio Lolli’s last few years were silent and rather less hectic: the singer-songwriter would finally get the satisfaction of playing his song “Primo maggio di festa” (“May First Labor Day,” originally published in his 1976 Ho visto anche degli zingari felici) at the ritual concert on May 1st, live on Italian public TV, organized by the national workers’ unions in Piazza San Giovanni, in Rome. Later that year, during one of his concerts, Lolli fell on the stairs backstage and began a difficult rehabilitation process. He went through a long health crisis and eventually died of cancer on August 17, 2018, in his own city of Bologna. Some friends observed that it was very much like Claudio to die on Friday the 17th (considered a day of bad luck, much like Friday the 13th in many cultures), in the hottest month of a city with a sweltering summer like Bologna. He was 68 years old. Friends and numerous followers are expecting a foundation named after him, which is in the process of being established.
 “Piazza bella piazza” is an Italian nursery rhyme, which Lolli reused in his song.