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Ciao, Giancarlo - Love, Life and Death in Italy

By Turk Pipkin, originally ran in Austin Chronicle, May, 1998


Though I had not seen my friend GianCarlo Cesaroni for almost ten years, I awoke one morning this past January from a powerful dream in which I could clearly see his furowed face, but could not hear a single note of his gruff, staccato voice. For a long time I lay in bed thinking of the fine times we’d spent together, all the while trying to work up the nerve to phone his home in Rome or his nightclub, the Folkstudio, to which he had devoted the past forty years of his life.

   The next day I received a phone call from Italy, not from GianCarlo, but from a new friend who had been asking me to write a screenplay based on his desperate misadventures with the Swiss legal system and the Italian Mafia. His story was gripping and had all the makings of a good movie, but we’d been unable to work out the business details and parted company with my suggesting that his saga might be best served as the basis of a novel. Now he was calling to offer the book to me - the first step to be chapters and an outline that I would write in Milan. Was I interested?

I thought of GianCarlo and my sudden, desperate desire to thank him in person for all that he had done for me. Yes, I was interested.

   I first met GianCarlo Cesaroni while living in Rome in 1977. His tiny club was just blocks from my apartment on the Gianiculum Hill overlooking Trastevere - the city’s neighborhood of artists, students and general unrest. Within that week I put on the first of what would eventually be more than a hundred performances at the Folkstudio. The tiny room was filled to capacity for the advertised jazz group to follow, and something about the space, the people and my weird amalgam of theater and circus created a magic that neither GianCarlo nor myself had any intention of letting slip away.

Almost once a year for the next ten or twelve years, GianCarlo brought me back to Italy by booking my one man show in theaters and clubs around the country. He'd guarantee my travel and fees and take no commission other than my agreement to play a week at the Folkstudio where we always split the door.

   There has never been a club quite like the Folkstudio. Nearly impossible to find on a dead-end street and lacking heat or air conditioning, the general state of repair included exposed electrical connections, a light and sound system which the performer had to operate from the stage, and treacherous holes in the floor that did their best to eat the audience alive. The lobby bar had just four bottles of booze - no beer, wine or ice. If you wanted a drink, you drank it straight, like a true proletariat. When one of the bottles ran dry, the "Boss" would send someone to the corner bar to buy a replacement.

   By profession a chemist, GianCarlo had served as an interpreter for the Allied Forces in the last years of WW II. A long-time fan of jazz and blues, he opened the Folkstudio in the late 50s as a showcase for Italian and International jazz and folk music. Every night before I went on stage I used to marvel at the fading posters of both Gato Barbieri and an adolescent folksinger named Robert Zimmerman (who played the club to strong acclaim before returning to America and changing his name to Bob Dylan).

   Twenty years later, the club’s luster was gone but GianCarlo’s passion for great music and theater that challenged the mind had not dimmed. He was a dedicated communist, which anyone familiar with Italian politics will know had little to do with either the Soviets or Marx, and everything to do with the ideals of equality and opportunity for the common man. Luckily for me, the Italian Communist Party was a great believer in the arts, which made my show welcome in beautiful community theaters and opera houses in small cities all over the country.

   Still wearing the cracked and faded leather bomber’s jacket he’d been issued by Uncle Sam in the war, GianCarlo always met my plane at the Rome airport where we’d ritually consume the first of countless cappuccinos to come. He had one laughing eyebrow that stretched from ear to funny ear, and a beard so thick that he shaved right up to his eye sockets, twice a day. Between his day job at the lab and his passion for the club, he was always tired.

   My tours always began in his rattletrap Citroen sedan, we’d race from the airport to the city, first dropping my props and costumes at the club, then checking me into the no-frills Hotel Genio near Rome's teeming Piazza Navona. Suffering from the fifteen hour trip and seven hours of jet lag, I’d have just enough time to shower and get back to the club for a performance that very evening before an invited crowd of GianCarlo’s friends and the Italian press upon whom we so desperately depended for the success of the tour.

   I rarely had a night off in Rome, but during the days we often went to the harness races. GianCarlo was a big fan of the trotters and knew many of the drivers who I always suspected winked their tips at him when I wasn’t looking. Never telling me his numbers or the amounts he bet, he almost always walked away with a fat roll of lire. I, of course, always lost, and not that graciously since one peek at his betting slip might have made my week. Somehow I knew this would never happen. GianCarlo did not wish to be responsible for any failures that I might suffer in life.

   Once he hooked me up with a promoter in northern Italy who insisted that I perform two to three shows a day, twice what he'd contracted with GianCarlo. After nearly working me into an early grave, this scumbag proceeded to pocket all the extra cash which was a sizable roll. "Oh Fucking Damn!" - his favorite English curse – was all GianCarlo said when I told him of the troubles. Two months after I returned to Texas, GianCarlo sent me the money. How he got it from the guy I did not know.

   We were not strangers to trouble. Italy was in political turmoil, and love and revolution (along with the frequent aroma of tear gas) were in the air. In 1979, I was on the train from Bologna to Pisa where GianCarlo had booked me to play in the Pisa Opera House, an awe-inspiring historic venue that resembles but is older than Milan's famed La Scala. But while changing trains in Florence, the entire city fell into a sudden panic. Shopkeepers shuttered their windows and people scurried frightened through the streets. Aldo Moro, the President of Italy, had been kidnapped by the Red Brigades.

   Somehow my train departed on time, but halfway to Pisa, it stopped in the middle of nowhere and we looked out the windows to see the engineers running away across a muddy field. By some miracle I managed to arrive in Pisa an hour later, only to discover that the theater, like everything else, was closed. The only thing open, it seemed, was rioting in the streets.

   At the rock-n-roll radio station which was to have sponsored my show, I was escorted into the control room for an interview about art and politics, only to be interrupted a half dozen times by "traffic reports" of demonstrations, police actions and general chaos. Every few minutes someone would run into the adjoining hallway and take a rubber tube off the wall, only to return shortly carrying bottles of siphoned gasoline as they dutifully replaced the hose on its hook.

   These revolutionaries were nothing if not tidy.

   Outwardly calm and inwardly freaking out, I phoned GianCarlo in Rome and he instructed me to tell the listeners to quit throwing bombs long enough to come to my show which he'd already switched to a nearby student dorm. Two hours later, illuminated like a jail break by dozens of cheap desk lamps, my show took place on the landing of a massive 17th Century stairwell. The steps and cavernous hallway below were jammed with college kids cum revolutionaries and, whatever I did that night, it worked. The tour, unfortunately, was a loss.

   Paranoia was rampant. So little was known of the Red Brigades that everyone was suspect, even GianCarlo. Especially GianCarlo. Kidnappers, murderers, communists – what was the difference? The newspapers lumped them together as one.

The difference, as it turned out, was that the Italian communists had put their faith in art. The Red Brigades in death. Twenty-eight days after he was kidnapped, Aldo Moro was found shot to death in the trunk of a car. Twenty years later and the day before writing this story, as research for the new novel I toured La Stampa prison in Switzerland where Moro's murderer is incarcerated. Did I wish to speak with the man? What would GianCarlo have answered, I wondered, already knowing the answer as I told the prison director, "No."

   Even with occasional troubles, my relationship with GianCarlo grew stronger over the years. We continued to push our luck at the track where the weather was always cold. Between races we’d retreat to the bar for more cappuccinos and whiskey, telling stories and making plans for taking the country by storm with my latest show which, in truth, was not much different from my show of the year before.

   Spaulding Gray I was not, though there were times in Verona and Venice, Bolzano and Bologna, and especially in the Folkstudio, when inexplicably magical moments occurred in which the minds of the audience and performer seemed to meet at some unforeseen destination at exactly the same moment.

   “What I like about your work,” GianCarlo once told me, “Is that you are always thinking.”

It was the finest compliment of my life.

A few years later, after a difficult opening night when my body and mind had worked in opposition to each other, I thought back to his words. Suddenly I realized that the thinking had not diminished, but the subject had switched from the immediacy of the clown - a world of tears and laughter - to a world of ideas defined by words and their conjured images.

   My life as a writer had finally overtaken my life as a performer. Later that week I told GianCarlo that this would be my last one-man show, a fitting end since he had also just announced that the Folkstudio would close forever on New Year's Eve - just ten days away. After almost thirty years, his landlord was evicting the revolution in favor of a pizzeria. The artistic dreams of the communists had been supplanted by an audience that wanted to wear designer clothes and shout at each other over Italian dance music.

GianCarlo hardly seemed concerned.

   For a number of years he’d been taking European music groups to tour in Africa (he was also one of the first promoters to bring King Sunny Adé and other African musical greats to the Western World). His dream was to sell his house and leave Italy forever, moving to Mozambique where, due to a lack of fuel for vehicles, his tours often proceeded from town to town on foot, the band playing as they walked, with GianCarlo as the pied piper’s promoter, inviting people out of the their houses and huts for a heartfelt exchange of universal spirituality.

   He believed the he could make the world a better place - one song, one artist at a time. Mozambique would do as well as Rome, perhaps better. But the Italian press saw things differently. After years of  neglecting his counter-cultural offerings, the media suddenly found a cause celebre in the imminent demise of the Folkstudio.

   Due to all of the attention, my final week at the club was standing room only, a satisfying end to a long, sweet ride. After my last show, GianCarlo drove my wife and I to the train station, the three of us and the show props barely fitting in the last of his aging Citroens. GianCarlo gave me a hug and paid me too much money, then my wife and I boarded a first class sleeper for Christmas in Venice, the incomparable Circus Knie in Zurich, and New Year’s Eve in Paris.

   No trip could have been lovelier and, like so many of the wonderful things that happened in this decade of my life, it was made possible by GianCarlo. For in believing in me, he had taught me to believe in myself, a gift which can be gratefully appreciated, but never repaid.

I would never see GianCarlo again.

   The public outcry surrounding the imminent closing of the club prompted the city council of Rome to deny the zoning change for what was suddenly recognized as one of the great cultural treasures of Rome. By official decree, the club would remain open until public funds could be allocated to build a new FolkStudio, bigger and better, and no doubt without holes in the floor.

   GianCarlo and I spoke several times on the phone as he tried to persuade me to return for “another triumphant tour for the two-meter Texan," quoting an old Italian review which likened my height to the enjoyment of my show. But my heart was no longer in it, and somehow I sensed that his was not either.

   “They will never let me leave for Mozambique,” he lamented. “Never.”

T   en years after last seeing him, I landed in Milan to begin work on the novel. My disappointment at being transported by a professional driver in a spacious Mercedes instead of a dear friend in an aging Citroen was palpable.

I had reserved a long weekend for a surprise visit to Rome and the fabulous Folkstudio. But after my dream, I still had not worked up the nerve to call. Checking into my hotel in Milan, I finally dialed the club in Rome.

   “C’e GianCarlo?” I asked the girl who answered the phone.

   There was a long silence during which everything became clear.

In a minute a young man came on the phone, a voice I dimly recognized from my last tour, and he asked who was calling. I told him my name, and even over the phone I could hear the tears well up from deep inside him.

  “I am sorry to say...” he said with great effort. “That GianCarlo is dead.”

   We were both silent for a time. I was not crying, not yet.

   “When?" I asked.

   “On January the third, this year.”

   My thoughts flew back to the night of January the third, the night of my dream.

“GianCarlo is dead,” he continued. “And with him I am afraid the FolkStudio is also dead. We have been sorting through boxes and found many things about you - photos, clippings, many letters from you to GianCarlo. We are very sad.”

   That was just three hours ago. I am drunk now, but not drunk enough. And my heart is broken with the regret of not having said good-bye, and thank you.

Good-bye, GianCarlo. And thank you.

   In all of our lives, there are many GianCarlos. To see this simple truth, you must only open your eyes. Has it been too long since your spoke with someone you love, since you told them things that should not go unsaid? Take my advice. Call them.

   One measure that we take to relieve the guilt and self-pity of grieving for a lost loved one is the sharing of our feelings with others who cared. I, of course, have now missed GianCarlo's memorial by several weeks. I know that I should continue to Rome nonetheless, but somehow all I really want to do is go back home to Austin to be surrounded tightly by my family, to be comforted and reminded that no matter how I feel this night - that I am not alone – that life goes on.

   The clear, but often un-stated truth of mourning is that with the death of each dear friend, another piece of your treasured youth slips away to be forgotten like the equally-treasured memories of all but a handful of the billions of people who have ever lived on this miraculous and mysterious planet. It is a never-ending cycle of birth, joy, learning, love, loss and sorrow - all without purpose except for one simple goal - the celebration, the exaltation of life.

   I do not know if GianCarlo taught me this, but I do know that he wanted me to see it, to write it down, to shout it out.

   Laugh while you can. Consider greatness. Love without fear. Sing from the depth of your heart. Risk everything. It is our only hope. Soon, we are wormwood.

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