(Milan, 1957 – )
By Luca Bertoloni (University of Pavia)
Among Milanese singer-songwriters, Enrico Ruggeri is seldom remembered and even excluded from several canons of Italian songwriting (such as that of Paolo Talanca). The reason for such neglect may perhaps lie in his social and artistic path, which was rather atypical for a traditional singer-songwriter, especially in the period in which Ruggeri made his debut in the musical world, i.e., the late 1970s, while he was still active in the world of education (first in high school and later in Law School as a student, then in middle school as a teacher of literature). In those years a specific model of the quintessential songwriter had been codified in Italy, from which individuals would be excluded if they did not meet certain characteristics, especially in terms of politics. The model was that of singer-songwriter as, above all, a lyricist, and his lyrics had to show his activism, both political and social: it is no coincidence that in 1976 and 1977, Edoardo Bennato (in songs such as “Cantautore” and “Sono solo canzonette”) tried to publicly free the entire genre from what had by then become not only a stereotype, but a restriction that influenced the actions of musicians who were entering the national music scene.
That was also the case with Rouge (as the Milanese singer-songwriter calls himself), who made his mark in the late 1970s as a punk musician, and only later as a lyricist. “Contessa,” his first song to gain public success and for which he also penned the lyrics, was shortlisted at the 1980 Sanremo Festival, though the success was not his alone but belonged to his group, Decibel. Decibel experimented in an innovative genre within the Italian music scene: punk. Their song lyrics did not attract public interest; the public was attracted instead by the music itself. Still, in those opening verses addressed to a woman who sentimentally disappointed the narrator, one can already observe all the traits that will mark the strong, countercultural and provocative character of much of the production of the Milanese singer-songwriter.
Non puoi più pretendere
di avere tutti quanti attorno a te.
Non puoi più trattare i tuoi amanti
come fossero bignè.
Vuoi solo le cose che non hai,
parli delle cose che non sai,
cerchi di giocare ma non puoi,
pensi solamente ai fatti tuoi.
(You can no longer expect
to have everyone around you.
You can no longer treat your lovers
as if they were cream puffs.
You only want the things you don’t have,
you talk about the things you don’t know,
you try to play but you can’t,
you only think about your own business.)
In 1981 Ruggeri left Decibel, seeking both production and artistic autonomy that would lead him to experiment with new styles and sounds. He gained success as a soloist in 1983 thanks to “Polvere,” the launch single for a self-titled album that placed in the charts at Festivalbar and was distinguished by a powerful, anti-commercial rock. In its lyrics and structure, the single presented a synthesis of cinematic and song-writing language: in fact, the song opens with an actual film frame (“Piano americano / e sfioro il tavolo con una mano” [“Waist shot / and I brush the table with my hand”]), which is followed by a series of zoom ins and zoom outs that seem to alternate like images in the mind of the narrating ego
Polvere, gran confusione
un grigio salone
in quale direzione
io caccerò la
polvere dai miei pensieri
(Dust, great confusion
a big, gray hall,
in which direction
will I blow the
dust from my thoughts)
The turmoil of the images is rendered not only by the words but also by the pressing rhythm of the bass, guitars and electronic sounds, among which Ruggeri’s almost croaking voice moves forcefully.
These poetic-musical traits will be even more evident in “Il mare d’inverno” (1983), a song whose music and lyrics Ruggeri cowrote with Luigi Schiavone, his trusted guitarist and his artistic partner since his exit from Decibel. Produced by Ivano Fossati, who believed greatly in Enrico’s talents, the song was recorded in the voice of Loredana Bertè and was an immediate and huge success. The lyrics, expressing the best of Ruggeri’s authorial gifts, offer a (once again cinematic) eulogy of loneliness (more existential than human), combined with Berté’s gritty interpretation that adds existential rage. In the lyrics, Ruggeri employs a style that can be described as symbolist, thanks to which he imbues everything he sees with emblematic and symbolic meaning, his gaze filtering like a camera the landscapes, objects, and the world around him. These, in turn, are colored by the narrator’s state of mind. The second stanza offers a fitting example:
Il mare d’inverno
è un concetto che il pensiero non considera
È poco moderno,
è qualcosa che nessuno mai desidera.
manifesti già sbiaditi di pubblicità,
macchine tracciano solchi su strade,
dove la pioggia d’estate non cade,
che non riesco nemmeno
a parlare con me.
(The sea in the winter
is a concept that the mind does not consider
it is unmodern,
it is something no one ever desires.
cars leaving wet marks on the road,
where the summer rain does not fall,
speak with myself)
The three stanzas have the same structure: an opening with an image of the sea; a central section dedicated to a series of objective correlatives that accompany the seascape during the winter season (usually material and urban elements, which refer to human presence); and a coda in which the narrator takes the floor, expressing the singer’s state of loneliness. The link between these elements that make up the three parts of the stanzas, which seemingly have no connection (i.e., the sea, aspects of the urban landscape, and the narrator), all come together in the words of the refrain:
qui non viene mai nessuno a trascinarmi via
non ti posso guardare così
questo vento agita anche me.
no one ever comes here to drag me away […]
I can’t look at you like this
this wind agitates me too)
With its natural force, the wind seems to unite the narrator’s state of loneliness with that of the urban landscape devastated by winter, lacking the emotional energy that is present in summer. Nevertheless, the narrator never seems bewildered, but only “agitated,” as if he found in that desolate landscape the fulfillment of his state of mind and a suitable interlocutor to understand his state of existential loneliness. The limited use of articles and the use of juxtaposed syntax reinforce the evocative effect of the entire piece, in which the narrator is continuously reflected, as if in a hall of mirrors, within the sea and the urban landscape.
This new style consecrates Ruggeri first and foremost as an author, though not yet as a songwriter. Trying to convince the public of his songwriting skills, and trying at all costs to earn a spot in the record market, in 1984 he completely changed his sound, drawing inspiration from the Milanese tradition (Gaber, Jannacci) and the existentialism of the Genoese school of singer-songwriters (such as Luigi Tenco), experimenting in jazz songs with a suspended atmosphere, such as “Rien ne va plus.” At the same time he continued his work as a pop lyricist, writing one of his biggest hits, “Quello che le donne non dicono” (1987) for singer Fiorella Mannoia, who was achieving great popularity as a performer and took part multiple times in the Sanremo Festival. Ruggeri’s participation in the 1987 Festival was a big hit as well, thanks to the song “Si può dare di più,” which he performed with Gianni Morandi and Umberto Tozzi. In these years Ruggeri honed his increasingly symbolist and existentialist writing style, as can be seen in the lyrics of “Il portiere di notte” (1986), which features—once again—loneliness as its protagonist. This feeling is newly embodied in the figure of the night porter of a hotel who, after meeting different people every night, falls in love with a prostitute and fantasizes about eloping with her. Appropriating a theme that already appeared in the Italian translation of a French song by Gino Paoli, Ruggeri writes expressive and intimate lyrics that sound like an interior monologue by the concierge, and at the same time are quite cinematic in nature, like one long subjective shot. This phenomenon can be seen from the very first stanza:
e non tornano più;
non danno neanche il tempo di chiamarli.
E non lasciano niente,
non scrivono dietro il mittente
e nelle stanze trovo solo luci spente.
(They leave and never come back
they don’t even give me the time to call them.
And they leave nothing behind, they don’t jot down a return address
and all I find in the rooms are the lights turned off.)
Thus the viewer tells of all the people who “disappear” before his eyes, emphasizing his perennial condition of inner loneliness.
The 1990s mark a musical turning point in Ruggeri’s production, with a return to the rock music of his early years, reverting to the sounds that had made a name for him in the music scene of the late 1980s: this turning point is marked first by Peter Pan (1991), his most successful album, and then by “Mistero,” a song presented at the 1993 Sanremo Festival, and perhaps his greatest single hit success. His return to rock, which took a progressive path, includes hits such as “Gimondi e il Cannibale” (2000), one of many Italian songs dedicated to cycling. In it, Ruggeri expounds the impressions of Italian cycling star Felice Gimondi as he tries to chase down “The Cannibal,” Eddy Merckx:
Scivolano case tra persone fuori a guardare
ci sarà riparo al vento lungo questo pavè
ci sarà la polvere che nel respiro mi sale
(Houses slip between people watching outside
there will be shelter from the wind along these cobblestones
there will be dust that rises in my breath)
Notable once again is a cinematic style which, rather than narrating, evokes what the Italian cyclist sees in the first person, always as a reflection of himself. Other songs, such as “Primavera a Sarajevo” (2002) and “Nessuno tocchi Caino” (2003), stage a touching inner monologue (performed in a duet with Andrea Mirò) against the death penalty.
As the 2000s continued, Ruggeri’s singer-songwriter inspiration seemed to wane, as he preferred to devote himself to covers and to experiment, with moderate public success, first as a writer, publishing his first novel in 2011 (which followed some collections of poems dating back to previous decades), then as a television and radio host. These new experiences would allow for new artistic growth over time: in 2013 he released one of his best works, Frankenstein, a concept album inspired by Mary Shelly’s masterpiece and focusing once again on the theme of loneliness, the true leitmotif of his entire songbook. In the single entitled “Diverso dagli altri,” one can observe a summation of the many different solitudes sung by the singer-songwriter, in which he himself is reflected: a free-thinking author, difficult to place socially as well as politically, who has always moved around without ever explicitly recognizing himself as part of any particular group, and without ever being officially recognized as an equal with his colleagues (thus, living a “borderline life”).
Io vivo la mia vita di confine,
sono l’anello mancante,
sono fuori dalle vostre consuetudini
e non mi cambierete mai.
Io porto la corona con le spine
ma sono un verme strisciante,
voi non vedete più similitudini
e non mi guarderete mai.
(I live my borderline life,
I am the missing link,
I am outside your customs
And you will never change me.
I wear the crown of thorns
But I am a creeping worm,
you no longer see similarities
and will never look at me.)
After participating again in the Sanremo Festival, in 2018 he rejoined Decibel, first on the Festival’s stage with the song “Lettera dal Duca,” dedicated to David Bowie, and then with the release of “L’anticristo,” whose lyrics were once again written by Ruggeri. The pop-rock sounds are linked to a verbal style in which Rouge once again addresses the theme of loneliness through a series of objectifications: an excellent example is “Baby Jane,” a portrait—now in the third person, rather than the first—of a very young girl who spends her days on social media, described from the perspective of adults who do not seem to understand her world. Indeed, Baby Jane is, once again, an outsider who feels lonely, trapped between an adult world that doesn’t understand her, and a teenage world that sees her as a role model, despite the fact that she has nothing to teach.
Prende il mondo così come va
e non si interroga,
conosce tutte le pubblicità,
manda messaggi, non telefona.
Scrive mille frasi che ha copiato dal web
e le dimentica
e le sue amiche le somigliano
con i commenti sulla pagina.
(She takes the world as it comes
and does not question herself
knows all the ads,
she texts, does not call.
She writes a thousand sentences that she copied from the web
and forgets them
and her friends look like her
in their posts on her profile.)
With his latest album, La rivoluzione, released in 2022, Ruggeri confirms his role as a free spirit, and tries to make himself once and for all the voice and soul of his generation (“Abbiamo viaggiato, abbiamo combattuto / abbiamo mangiato la polvere guardando le stelle” [“We traveled, we fought / we ate dust looking at the stars”], from “Magna Charta”), for those who have experienced marginalization similar to his own because they did not fit in with any social group: the album cover is in fact a photograph of Rouge’s class from his years at classical high school, and the songs are almost always sung in the plural. Symbolic of the whole album, the song “Non sparate sul cantante” is pervaded by a subversive spirit of revenge, echoing the ongoing debate about singer-songwriters in the 1970s in songs by Edoardo Bennato or Roberto Vecchioni (Ruggeri prefers, not surprisingly, the more neutral term “singer”), while also underscoring his unique character as a singer-songwriter, a sign not only of his symbolic existentialism, but above all of the strength of his rebellion against the social injustices of the world:
Un uomo dovrebbe esser così grande
da capire quanto è piccolo:
usare bene le parole,
lame infuocate nel sole;
cavalcare frasi fino all’imbrunire,
fino all’alba, dove un viaggio può arrivare;
fermarsi, solo per non scappare
prima di andare via.
(A man should be so big
to understand how small he is:
use words well,
flaming blades in the sun;
ride sentences until dusk,
till dawn, where a journey may come;
stopping, just so as not to run
The song’s narrator is in fact a symbol of all the struggles sung by Ruggeri over the course of his career, struggles that are described with cinematic imagery, evoking in particular the duels of western films, as if, while listening to the song, one were immersed in a sequence from a Sergio Leone movie. Ruggeri borrows from the musical as well as the visual atmospheres of such settings, both in his lyrics and, even more so, in the video clip launched on his YouTube channel. The Milanese singer-songwriter takes the floor, once again, in the “place of the last challenge” (“luogo dell’ultima sfida,” from “Non sparate sul cantante”), defending the freedom of his own genre, and emphasizing how, in this contemporary moment of disorientation, ordinary people, who desperately and convincingly shout “don’t shoot the singer,” need free spirits who express themselves in music, words and performance. In short: they need singer-songwriters.
- – Accademia degli Scrausi, Versi Rock: la lingua della canzone italiana negli anni ’80 e ’90, Milano: Rizzoli, 1996.
- – Bertoloni, Luca, “Possibilità intermediali della forma-canzone tra cinema, scrittura, performance e new media”, in Cinergie. Il cinema e le altre arti», n. 18, 2020, pp. 117-129.
- – Casamassima, Pino, Enrico Ruggeri: gli occhi del musicista, Genova: De Ferrari, 2003.
- – Ruggeri, Enrico, La vie en rouge: Enrico Ruggeri si racconta a Massimo Cotto. La mia vita, le mie canzoni, Milano: Sperling & Kupfer, 2001.
- – Talanca, Paolo, Il canone dei cantautori italiani. La letteratura della canzone d’autore e le scuole dell’età, Lanciano: Carabba, 2017.