Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A New Yorker’s Guide to the Record Stores of Bologna

(Note: This was an unfinished piece which I started a year ago, haphazardly combining travel writing, music criticism, and psychedelic reminiscences. Realizing that I would never be able to put it into readable shape, I gave it a once over just so I could put it out simply for the benefit of American fans of Italian Prog Rock who will be traveling abroad and people who did a lot of drugs at Allman Brothers concerts. Caveat emptor and you're welcome. ) 

As a rabid record collector traveling abroad, I had high expectations of what I could find in Bologna, Italy. After all, there is a vibrant arts scene and, for an ancient city, a surprisingly youthful energy, due in no small part to student population from the University of Bologna. That institution being the oldest functioning university in the world, one might say that it is the original college town.

Bologna has other stuff too.
Obviously, I wasn’t planning the entire trip to the city around record shopping (at least, that’s what I told my girlfriend), and I certainly ventured to absorb some of the local flavor, get a feel for the architecture and culture of antiquity. Doing so, I do have to say that there was something that felt odd about the city. It some ways it felt like a city that had let itself go. In spite of the lovely architecture, Bologna has a feeling of disrepair. In many places, the crumbling walkways are haphazardly patched with blotches of cement, and the city has long since stopped trying to remove the crudely executed graffiti from its ancient buildings.

My girlfriend, Federica, who was born and raised in a village a few hours away, told me that the city was nicer when she was younger and that the graffiti wasn’t as omnipresent. She expressed sadness and frustration at the current state of the city, while arguing that if young people were going to deface the oldest and most venerated structures with graffiti , they should at least be good at it. (Living in New York we are accustomed to skilled and aesthetically ambitious vandals.)

Also, in places there were an alarming number of pigeons. I don’t know why.

In any event, leaving the train station, we took an inexplicably roundabout route to our first destination.  

La Piazzola di Bologna
Piazza dell Otto Agosto
40126 Bologna BO

This vast outdoor market has been a staple of the city for over half a millennium, popping up on weekends since the mid-thirteenth century. My girlfriend assured me that there we would find everything under the sun with hundreds of kiosks with books, records, and other unique memorabilia. However, most of what we found were cheap kitchen gadgets and ugly clothing. In the adjacent Montagnola Park, there were a few tables with some used CDs, but nothing rare or interesting. The only music memorabilia I came across were some mass-produced t-shirts, wallets, and the kind of chintzy mirrors with printed pictures and band logos like we used to win as prizes at carnival games back in the 80s. I wondered if there were better finds in the summertime or, in fact, at any time that wasn’t the end of December, but it wasn’t that there was a lack of venders, juts a lack of anything that I would ever want.  “It used to be better ten years ago,” my girlfriend repeated, somewhat crestfallen.

Disco D'Oro
Via Galliera, 23
40121 Bologna BO

This was a respectable spot. The main room of the store was dedicated to new vinyl and with copious amounts of it. Reissues, new albums, limited edition box sets. The walls were completely lined with CDs, while under an archway a rack of T-shirts hung just overhead. Painted on the archway were the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (translated into Italian, of course) reading: “Senza musica la vita serrabe un errore.(English: “Without music, life would be a mistake”) A thought came to my mind that it was the kind of place that one saw a lot more of before the Napster/Spotify revolution happened. I later found out that because of the significantly greater cost of Wi-Fi in Italy, music streaming had yet to catch on there in a big way, and thus CDs are not perceived to be as passé there as they are stateside.

There was a back room dedicated to used vinyl, but I don’t remember it being terribly well organized or curated. I may have seen a good title or two, but nothing I felt compelled to buy and lug back to America.
All said, it was the kind of record store that I would have loved back in 90s. Looking online, I discovered that the place has been there since 1976, so evidently it has been an asset to Italian music lovers for decades, and I hope it remains so for decades to come.

Back To Beauty Vinili e Vintage
Via deMonari, 1e
40121 Bologna BO
Reality does not do this picture justice.
 A hop, skip and a jump away, though not the easiest place to find, Back to Beauty is located in one of those narrow side streets that is the size of an American back alley. No new vinyl, which was fine for me; I didn’t embark on this quest to get things easily found at any number of places in my home city, or on (gasp) Amazon. Back To Beauty Vinili e Vintage, in contrast to our last stop, had a small but incredibly well selected section of classic records. However, most of these were by American and British acts, and on this trip I was mostly looking for original albums by Italian progressive rock bands such as Premiata Forneria Marconi, Area, and Arti & Mestieri. While there were a few records by Le Orme, they were less celebrated releases, and I got the feeling that the records were pretty overpriced anyway. Also, it should be noted that the Google image for the shop is quite misleading. Taking advantage of mirrors and angles, the photo of the shop found online makes the space look much bigger than it is. In actual fact, Back to Beauty is less a record store than a bizarre nostalgia outlet. There are many odd trinkets and beauty supplies, which should not have been surprising given the name of the shop, but still seemed incredibly incongruous. The used vinyl section was actually only a few square feet in a room full of strange knick-knacks. It felt like a place that was trying to sell a hip lifestyle far above the products that it actually retailed.

What’s All This About Italian Prog Rock, You Ask?
Okay, so I’ve been a prog rock geek since college. There’s something about being eighteen years old, studying theatre, and discovering the joys of marijuana and psychedelics that makes a young man indulge in feeding his inner-pretentious-pseudo-intellectual-peacock-child. Of course, at first, I was pretty rudimentary. I got started with the basics. Freshman and sophomore years, I was into what I called “the big three” : ELP (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), Genesis, and Yes. Jethro Tull was right up there, too, and I did obtain King Crimson’s first album at that time, but it would take another ten years before I explored their catalog in earnest.

The one thing that these bands had in common was the fact that they were all English. Despite the fact that even then I knew that one of hallmarks of prog rock was a connection to classical, i.e. European, tradition, I still approached the genre as purely an Anglophile. By the end of my college experience, in spite of working in a music store for a semester, my horizons had not broadened significantly beyond the British bands to which I had been exposed freshman year. Sure, I knew that there were a number of mainland European progressive bands, and if drilled, I could probably have named one or two German and Dutch bands, but I didn’t have any recordings by them and could probably not have even named a song or album.

But even as such, I knew that Italy was a haven for prog rock. It made sense. This was the country that had produced Puccini and Paganini, composers and musicians who were unapologetic with their ornate sensibilities and displays of virtuosity. It stood to reason that prog rock, even that made by Englishmen,  would make an impact there before it became popular in the rest of Europe or America. In the beginning, even the English didn’t get it. Mike Rutherford of Genesis ruminated on the fact that their music went over huge in Italy at a time when it was greeted with indifferent confusion in their own country: “In those days no one really liked us apart from the Italians. So the more time we spent there, the better. The more we were cheered up.”

It wasn’t until I started seeing Federica, and meeting her friends, that I actually got a foothold in with Italian prog. One night I got to talking to Federica’s friend, Sebastiano, about music, and he told me that I had to check out the bands Premiata Forneria Marconi, and Area.

Not easy to find in the USA
In the days before I grudgingly obtained a Spotify account, Premiata Forneria Marconi proved to be the easiest to explore and obtain. Through my usual channels, I had found unreleased in-studio radio broadcasts from the mid 70s and was dazzled by their dynamics, weaving of styles, and musical dexterity. Also, having been discovered by Greg Lake during an Italian tour and subsequently signed to ELPs record label, Manticore, the band became the biggest export of the Italian prog rock genre, recording a handful of English language albums which brought them more international success than most of their fellow countrymen. Checking out my usual shops in New York and Boston, it wasn’t infrequent to find copies of these albums which were calculated to succeed in the larger world markets. However, stateside, the earlier Italian albums proved to be either elusive or prohibitively expensive.

And this is why, prior to our day-trip to Bologna, I had done a little online research of a few little spots to check out.

Back to the Subject at Hand…
So far, at this point, the Bolognese vinyl pilgrimage was a bust. Don’t get me wrong. We were enjoying the day, grabbing lunch at a little trattoria, wandered the streets taking pictures, dropping in for wine and negronis at little bars on side streets whenever the mood hit us.

There was, however, one more place I wanted to find, and it wasn’t so much that I wanted to save the best for last, but mainly because it was the most remote of any of my planned stops, and I knew that dragging my girlfriend two miles outside the center of the city on foot would take some convincing and even a bit of lying (“Baby, we’re almost there, I swear!”).

Via Filippo Beroaldo, 26/B
40127 Bologna BO

After hoofing it for over a half an hour through residential areas and more graffiti covered buildings, we arrived at Discobolandia. It was, to use the words of Nick Horsnby from his book High Fidelity, “for the serious record collector… carefully placed to attract the bare minimum of window-shoppers ; there’s no reason to come here at all, unless you live here…”

When I entered the shop, it immediately felt different from the other places. It wasn’t catering primarily to European DJs, it wasn’t there to sell repressings of old records, even though it did have its share of new 180 gram vinyl. Mostly, it was a shop for people who liked old rock records. Those places feel different. They smell different. Maybe it was a little brighter and tidier than many of the stores in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but underneath the fresh layers of paint on the walls and bins which sported a South Beach flavored complimentary color scheme of orange and coral green, offset by black and white linoleum tiled floors, I could feel that this was the kind of grungy record store that I was looking for: By record freaks, for record freaks. In fact, it would have felt like any of my NYC haunts if it were not for the effervescent and refreshing enthusiasm of the proprietor, Emmanuele.

Don’t get me wrong. I have had some great conversations with record store clerks and owners in my adopted home city, and have made some great friends that way, but here there tends to be a greater sense of competition. You have to prove your meddle. You’ve got to hold your own in conversation, get their references, know their obscure bands, and stump them with a few of your own, all the while maintaining a distant cool.

Emmanuale, on the other hand, just wanted to turn me onto stuff. True, it could be that he may have been trying to sell me more records, but he seemed so genuine about it.

As I had walked into the shop, the song “Willin’” playing on the stereo. That old Little Feat song has been covered so many times, by so many artists, that it has basically become a standard. Still, this version made my ears perk up. To be honest, I am very picky when it comes to recording covers. I find that all too often people will try to stay too close to the original, or obliterate the spirit of the song by ignoring its original intention. And at first, I thought this version was too close to the spirit of the original, but the voice grabbed me. It sounded familiar, but new. The arrangement was crisper, cleaner than the original, though it still had a loose, down home feel. But this was more soulful. It was that voice, beautiful, wise, and sorrowful.

Scott Sharrard, days before.
Had I heard this album?, Emmanuele asked (with my girlfriend acting as an interpreter) as he held up a copy of Gregg Allman’s posthumously released final studio album, Southern Blood. I was embarrassed to say I hadn’t. As a hardcore Peachhead, I wasn’t about to have my first listen to the album be on Spotify or something like that, but in saving money for this trip, I wasn’t able to drop 50 bucks on the album. And even though it must have been available stateside first, Emmanuele heard it before me. (I assure you, that has since been rectified.)

That, of course, got me talking about how I had seen Gregg’s guitarist and musical director on that album, Scott Sharrard, in New York just days prior. I showed Emmanuele pictures I took at the show, but further conversation was difficult.

The Allman Brothers Band and Unreliable Memories of March 20th, 2001
If we spoke the same language, and I wasn’t relying on Federica to translate, I would have carried on with stories of my springtime ritual of seeing the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theatre back home. I’d talk about the time I met my best friend at the legendary Bottom Line music club downtown and dropped a bunch of acid before we proceeded to walk the seventy blocks north to the theatre.

I might have mentioned how we were definitely tripping balls by the time we passed by the random pet store somewhere near the United Nations (to this day, I don’t remember how or why we ended up on the east side) and how we challenged each other to see how far we could walk into the arcade of tiny, animated, arfing, chirping, meowing animals on display without completely losing our composure (for the record, I made it further back than my friend did).

How, in a dive bar near the venue, I made the mistake of looking in the mirror in the bathroom, and was greeted with a vision of my face warping, stretching, pulling, drooping, pulsing. I knew then that the rest of the night would be a delicate balance of maintaining composure and puncturing other dimensions.

How getting into the theatre felt like infiltration. To cover up my dilated pupils, I wanted to keep my sunglasses on, but my friend told me that was a bad idea, and that I would blow our cover. He was probably right, but it pained me. I felt like I was stripping away my coolness.  I don’t often feel cool.

How the walls of the ornate theatre moved and swirled. How the ceiling melted, dripped, and cascaded down to the orchestra seats. How we peaked at the end of the first set when the band segued from their ethereal, but fiery rendition of “Dreams” into the minor key opening passage of “Revival.” How my brain felt like it was in a vice, folding into itself, crushed under pressure, approaching the point of snapping , like when you cross your eyes and you intuitively feel like there’s a threshold, where if you go too far, your eyes will stay like that forever. And so I rocked back and forth, clutching at the arm rests, grinding my teeth, as the band accompanied the brooding guitar duet with images of violence and war projected on the screens above them, illustrating the horrors that man inflicts upon man, while a knot of sorrow, anger, and despair congealed in my chest, everything hitting me too intensely, until… until…

Until  the music shifted, and the guitars burst into a jaunty, harmonic decrescendo leading the band into a joyous major key groove.  The images of war were replaced by the smiling visage of Duane, the Allmans’ brilliant fallen leader, projected huge above the stage. Below, onstage, his baby brother Gregg sang in a growling, knowing voice, “people can you feel it? Love is everywhere.”

The ball of dark emotion shot out of my chest like a bolt of lightning. My soul felt cleansed.

These are things that are difficult to express through an interpreter.

Indexing and Classifications
In spite of the nature of my quest, my first stop at Discobolandia were the jazz and fusion sections, searching for a copy of Venusian Summer by Lenny White, but to no avail. I was somewhat surprised to have found that Discobolandia had separate sections for jazz and fusion, and that the records were as appropriately designated as could be hoped given the blurry line between. Though the sections were modest, there contained some interesting treasures. I found a lovely copy of an album by the Miroslav Vitouš Group, featuring John Surman, Kenny Kirkland, and Jon Christiansen. I was particularly excited by this find, having had obtained years earlier an unreleased live recording of this particular lineup that was positively brilliant. I had high expectations of their studio album.

It’s probably the same vanity that makes me pick up an obscure punk record to go along with the Hall and Oates record I found to show the hipster at the counter that I have informed and eclectic taste that makes me hit the jazz section first. I’m aware of my foibles. Still, Europeans always viewed jazz as a true art form, an attitude that American listeners only adopted later, and I knew that there was potential gems to be found.
Obviously I hit the prog section next. And there was a proper prog section, which I always respect even if I don’t know if it is for the shopkeepers to count the enthusiasts or to identify the undesirables. 

The day's haul.
To my disappointment, there were far fewer albums by Italian prog bands than there were Italian pressings of English bands. Not surprisingly, I suppose, there were copious amounts of interesting Italian pressings of Genesis and King Crimson records which I would have loved to have purchased if I had a pay grade that complimented my fetishism and the room in my apartment to store copies of albums I already had just because the covers were slightly different.

There were a couple of good finds: Performance, the live album by PFM, recorded in 1980 as the band was becoming a bit more poppy (but still, even the worst PFM records have dazzling musicianship), Collage, the second album by Le Orme, a bit before they hit their stride, but still a solid outing, and lastly an Italian pressing of the King Crimson live album, Earthbound. It was enough to justify the trip to me, if not to my girlfriend.

Their classifications of American music (outside of jazz) were a whole other thing. They had a definite love of American music, but there was a definite conflation when it came to genres. Their “blues” section had Muddy Waters in the same bin with Stephen Stills and John Mellencamp. It was tough not to laugh, until I stopped and thought that I probably would have been at a loss to explain the concept of heartland rock to Europeans who may not have a solid grasp of the geography of the North American continent. I imagine the conversation going a little something like this:

A Short Play Based on a Hypothetical Conversation with an Italian about American Popular Music Genres

ITALIAN DUDE: John Mellencamp is not blues?

ME: No, John Mellencamp is what we call “heartland rock.”

ITALIAN DUDE: And that is…

ME: So heartland rock is music of the heart of America, the center of it. States where agriculture is the main thing. It is the music of earthy, working class people. Rural, farmers, small towns, you know…

ITALIAN DUDE: So John Mellencamp is heartland rock.

ME: Yeah, John Mellencamp… Bob Segar.

ITALIAN DUDE: Bob Segar was a farmer?

ME: No, dude, he’s a musician.

ITALIAN DUDE: No shit, but his fans…

ME: He was more from Detroit. Car industry, factory workers.


ME: No farms. Still blue collar, though.

ITALIAN DUDE: Blue collar?

ME: Nevermind. Working class.

ITALIAN DUDE: Okay. And you said it’s called the heartland because it’s in the center of the country.

ME: Yeah.

ITALIAN DUDE: Isn’t Bruce Springsteen considered heartland rock?

ME: Oh absolutely. For many he epitomizes the genre.

ITALIAN DUDE: Where is he from again?

ME: Just check the name of his first album. Asbury Park, New Jersey.

ITALIAN DUDE: And Asbury Park is in the heartland?

ME: Jersey shore.

ITALIAN DUDE: Jersey shore? Like that MTV show?

ME: You saw that over there?


ME: Sorry about that.

ITALIAN DUDE: You should be.

ME: Please don’t judge America based on that.

ITALIAN DUDE: As long as you don’t judge Italy from the Italian-Americans on that show.

ME: Deal.

ITALIAN DUDE:  But anyway, Asbury Park is like that?

ME: I guess. Beach side town. Amusement parks.

ITALIAN DUDE: So the heartland is on the beach?

ME: Well, not technically…

ITALIAN DUDE: So where is the Jersey Shore exactly?

ME: About an hour or so south of New York City.

ITALIAN DUDE: So the heartland is the center of the country, a rural place which is also a coastal locale within commuting distance from the country’s largest metropolis.

ME: Uh, I don’t know? Sort of? It sounds weird when you say it.

ITALIAN DUDE: But it’s the music of working class people.

ME: Right. Right. Yes, Exactly. People who do dirty jobs for far too little money.

ITALIAN DUDE: People who do dirty jobs for far too little money. So heartland rock in the music of slaves.

ME: No. That’s the blues.

And that was before we got into folk rock.

To be fair, I would wager that Americans would do far worse trying to define the subtleties of Italian genres. I’m certainly glad that I’ve never been asked.

Last Minute Impulse Buying
My glance through the classic rock sections (organized by decade) was pretty cursory. I could have stayed for another hour, but I was beginning to feel acutely aware of my girlfriend’s restlessness, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty. After all, I had dragged her two miles out of the center of town to a place that I knew she could hardly care less about.

This album is the fuckin' shit.
Emmanuele tried to sell me on a couple more things before I left, reissues of records by The Trip and Alphataurus, two Italian bands who never really got any exposure outside of their native country. Again, I wasn’t about to buy reissues, particularly of bands that I had never heard. This turned out to be a mistake, as original copies of albums by these bands are so exceptionally rare and prohibitive expensive  that they are probably only owned by rich douchebags who don’t even enjoy them. In the case of Alphataurus, when I finally had their reissued vinyl shipped from overseas, I ended up paying twice what I would have paid if I had just bought it in Bologna.

The soundtracks section was located by the register, a last minute impulse buy being Tony Banks’ soundtrack to the movie The Wicked Lady. Not recommended. Leaving only about ninety Euros lighter, I think I showed great restraint. Also, the walk back to the center of Bologna felt much shorter than when heading into the outskirts. We were able to find a nice little bar where we had a few negronis and I reviewed my purchases, telling Federica numerous pointless little facts about each one while she pretended to be interested.

How we almost got arrested at the train station, got on the wrong train twice and our roundabout route home left us stuck in a couple of quaint Italian villages, freezing our asses off in the middle of the night is really another story for another time.

Basically, though, if you find yourself in Bologna on a record buying pilgrimage, skip everything and go straight to Discobolandia.

And tell Emanuelle that Roger says “ciao.”