(Crotone 1950 – Rome, 1981)
(by Mary Migliozzi, Villanova University)
A biting sense of irony reigns in the songs that characterize Rino Gaetano’s short but distinctive career. His catchy and playful melodies delivered lyrics that took direct aim at politicians (sometimes by name), public figures, established norms, and lyrical conventions.
Salvatore Antonio “Rino” Gaetano was born in Crotone and moved to Rome with his family while still a child. After the 1973 release of his first single, “I Love You Marianna” under a pseudonym, he recorded the album Ingresso Libero in 1974. Neither the single nor the first album brought him particular notoriety, but songs on Ingresso Libero were marked by the irony and pointed critique that would also characterize his later work.
“Ad esempio a me piace il sud,” from Ingresso Libero (Free Entrance, 1974), mixes an apparently nostalgic tone with verses that underline the economic condition of the south in direct and cutting terms. His first verse, on the surface pastoral and naturalistic, already infuses something harsher into its description:
Ad esempio a me piace la strada
col verde bruciato, magari sul tardi
macchie più scure senza rugiada
coi fichi d’India e le spine dei cardi.
(For example, I like the road
with the burnt green, perhaps in the evening
darker spots without dew
with prickly pears and the stems of cardoons.)
The tune is slow and easy to hum, and the words that stand out may call to mind a country idyll, but upon closer inspection this idyll is dry and parched and its flora thorny and hostile. In later verses, economic realities add harshness to the would-be pastoral, as Gaetano sings of “l’acqua che in quella terra costa più del pane” (“water that in that land costs more than bread”) and wine “che ancora è un lusso per lui che lo fa” (“which is still a luxury for him who makes it”). This would be far from the last time Gaetano would interrupt an easy melody with a dissonant lyric.
A year after Ingresso Libero, Gaetano released the song that would bring him his first significant success, “Ma il cielo è sempre più blu.” The repeating chords of the piano accompaniment could not be simpler, nor could the chorus, which simply repeats the title’s assertion that “The sky just keeps getting bluer,” but the lyrics to the verses give the lie to the song’s sunny surface. The verses use a repeating sentence structure to make quick and sudden contrasts that emphasize social inequalities repeatedly and to varying degrees over the course of the song’s eight minutes. In just a few representative verses, Gaetano sings of: “Chi gli manca la casa, chi vive da solo” (“Those who have no home, those who live alone”), “Chi sogna i milioni, chi gioca d’azzardo, / Chi parte per Beirut e ha in tasca un miliardo” (“Those who dream of millions, those who play games of chance, Those who leave for Beirut with a billion in their pocket,”), and “Chi grida ‘al ladro!’, chi ha l’antifurto” (“Those who shout ‘stop, thief!’, those who have a burglar alarm”).
Gaetano followed the success of “Ma il cielo è sempre più blu” with new albums: Mio fratello è figlio unico (1976) and Aida (1977). These works display a greater maturity in both musical style and lyrics while still maintaining Gaetano’s signature clash between hummable melodies and jarring texts. The title song on Aida takes the listener through Italy’s fascist history and beyond in a ballad with a chorus that seems on first listen a mere ode to a love interest: “Aida, come sei bella” (“Aida, how beautiful you are”). The song “Spendi spandi effendi” positively drips with sarcasm in its depiction of cars and oil as both status markers and commodities. The softer “Sei ottavi,” recorded as a duet with Marina Arcangeli, pushes boundaries with thinly veiled descriptions of female sexuality.
In 1978 Gaetano prepared to perform at the Festival of Sanremo what would become one of his most provocative and best-known songs, “Nuntereggae più,” from a new album bearing the same name. In the song, Gaetano rhythmically names politicians, celebrities, political parties, and more before swiftly condemning each with the dialect phrase of the title, meaning, roughly, “I can’t stand you anymore.” However, the song proved too controversial for the Festival’s organizers, and he ultimately swapped it for the much lighter “Gianna” from the same album. Gaetano played “Gianna” on a ukulele wearing a tuxedo, top hat, and sneakers, and the song won third place along with lasting fame.
In the following years, Gaetano carried out successful tours and recorded what would be his final albums, Resta vile maschio, dove vai? (1979), the risqué title track a collaboration with Mogol, and E io ci sto (1980). Tracks on these albums showcase an evolving instrumentation to accompany ever-trenchant lyrics, and invite the listener to wonder how Gaetano’s work may have further developed had it not been put to a sudden and violent end. Rino Gaetano died in a car accident in Rome in 1981 at the age of thirty. A lyric from the song “Ti ti ti ti” perhaps encapsulates the contrasts for which his work is remembered:
A te che ascolti il mio disco forse sorridendo
giuro che la stessa rabbia sto vivendo
siamo sulla stessa barca io e te.
(To you who listen to my album, perhaps smiling,
I swear that I am living the same rage.
We’re in the same boat, you and I.)
The chorus dissolves into the rhythmic nonsense of the song’s title as the listener is left to contemplate the “rage” that coexists with the catchy melodies