At the Swiss-Italian border, at the end of the tunnel, we were stopped by stern Italian frontier police, with guns. We were ordered out of the van, lined up, inspected. Bob was our self-appointed Italian speaker, did know a few words, but he obviously wasn’t up to this situation. We were instructed, in gesture language, to open up the back of the van. It wasn’t a pleasant sight, even to us: a wall to wall, floor to ceiling amassment of suitcases, bags of unwashed laundry, rotting food remnants; and behind all that, of course, several hundred pounds’ worth of musical equipment, possibly being illegally imported.
The border guards, grim-faced, ordered us to unload the van. We looked around at each other, shrugged and started to haul out the debris. The Italian police let us get on with this for a few minutes, then, unable to stifle their laughter, broke out into huge grins. OK, va bene, avanti!, put it all back and get on out of here! Benvenuti all’Italia!
I thought then that I was going to like this country.
Down the Aosta valley, from that terminal borderpoint hilarity, the icefield and the orange fairground ride of the tunnel, through fog which thickens as we descend, which as you jerk awake snaps your eyes to the windscreen, the filmscreen on which you project the hallucinations or realities of thirty eight hours of no sleep (or was that sleep just now? did I see that in or out of my head?), unsought visuals to the relentless soundtrack of the Transit’s machinery, metal and plastic and hydraulics, inanimate awareness grooving with itself in an unending insane organ and percussion jam, the undertow of smells, exhaust leakage, burnt oil, entrapped farts, your own body and breath, down we coast into Italy, whatever that may be …
Via Alfonso Lamarmora, Milano, named after one of Garibaldi’s sidekicks, is bleak. It must be mid-evening, about eight. Dim orange streetlights, shuttered four-storey tenement buildings from the nineteenth century, a few black portico tunnels leading into who knows what dank courtyards behind, cobblestones containing embedded tramlines. It’s not quite raining. Bob brakes to a halt.
‘I think that’s it.’
Number 17. A flat-fronted blind-eyed slab of a building. This is meant to be ‘Pensione Key’, our home for the next eight weeks. Hearts sink. (I think of the hobbits’ arrival at the Prancing Pony.)
‘OK, let’s just pull over and we can– ’
Just then a tram hisses towards us like a fully lit-up ocean liner on speed. Bob manages to lift Bessie up onto the kerb – who knows what would’ve happened otherwise, no way that tram was stopping. ‘I’ll turn down here, shall I’ he suggests, doing so, into the side road which, mercifully, doesn’t seem to have any tramlines. We’re parked.
There’s a moment’s stunned inertness, then Roger slides open the nearside door, drops tentative ballet-dancer’s legs down the doorwell to Italian soil, or rather tarmac. ‘Christ, it’s fucking freezing’ he states, squinting in like a hopped up rabbit pulling a funny face. We’re all craning towards the doorway now, wideawake, except John, who’s just stopped quietly snoring and now swears in a muffled kind of way, ‘I’m staying here’ it sounds like.
But he has to move for me to get out, so I lean on him, reach up and gently tap his face and whisper ‘come on John, wake up, it’s time to go to bed’.
The front door is huge, twelve feet high, but we notice that there’s a kind of sub-door set into it, small enough for a human to creep through. Also that there’s a column of buttons, one of them labelled ‘Key’. Bob presses it. A voice comes out of a tinny speaker grill: ‘Si?’ ‘Um, siamo il gruppo inglese …’ A buzzer sounds, and the door clicks open. There’s an old-fashioned lift, with those sliding iron grills, which we take to the second floor. The door to the right of the lobby is open. A middle-aged lady is waiting there. She’s completely unfazed by our appearance, but she doesn’t smile – seems a little bit strict. ‘Allora, siete arrivati. Vi faccio veder le camere, e poi, avrete fame, ci sono due trattorie, ma quello sul’angolo e chiuso stasera, percio – ’ She stops. ‘I’m sorry. You are English.’ A smile now. ‘I forget sometimes. I am Polish, actually. My name is really Kay, but these Italians can’t pronounce that properly so I have to call myself Key, K E Y, for them. I show you your rooms – you have four. Follow me.’
Quick decisions have to be made, just like the inhabitation of Hutchings Walk. Graham and I exchange a glance and get to the front of the queue. The first door on the right is ours. It looks fine. Having experienced digs in Blackpool, I’d been expecting something squalid, hoping or wishing for something adequate: this looks luxurious. Two single beds, bedside tables with lamps, stone floor with mats, and a huge wardrobe (which will figure in many of my future dreams and imaginings). This was my first experience of the Italian attitude towards habitation – the exterior is irrelevant, you live in the inside of the house. Grim facades can hide marble hallways and delicate antiques. This isn’t quite in that class, but it’ll do.
Next day, after we’d been allowed to sleep for twelve hours and wash ourselves (Pensione Key had a sumptuous bathroom, with hot water on demand and a deep, wide tub; the soles of my smelly feet were, I noticed, black) we were collected and introduced to our new life. We loaded ourselves into Bessie and followed someone in a car through the centre of Milan, a hardly noticed course which would become, over the coming weeks, a beaten track, a footpath I could follow with my eyes, brain, or sense of balance shut down. The Piper Club was part of some kind of municipal complex, the Palazzo del’Arte, off the Piazza Castello, on the borders of the Parco Sempione, its status never precisely clear. I’d guess now that this chunk of the Art Palace was leased out by the Commune, the local council, to raise a bit of cash. Certainly, it was controlled by one man, Leo Wachter, my third nightmare manager.
Try as I may, I have no accurate visual memory of the interior of the Piper Club, Milan. That’s a great memory! The best places I ever played were empty by daylight, dusty and tawdry at the best, filthy and hazardous at the worst, just spaces waiting to be filled. I think of the Disque, Eel Pie, Swanage drill hall, even the Cromwellian. None of that matters. In fact, if anyone even notices it, it’s failed, because this is not a restaurant. You don’t go there to admire the décor or sample the canapés – you go to fill the space with noise and people. And this space was waiting to be filled.
The stage was the biggest and best we’d ever had. Wide, so we could spread out, not too deep, so the sound wouldn’t get lost in caverns behind us (how many times had we suffered from that acoustic nightmare), just the right height that the girls and boys couldn’t quite reach up and grab us, but thought it worth a try. Enough room to set up our brand-new Marshall stacks, crank them up to eleven, experiment with sound results … We set up and played a couple of numbers. It felt good.
The first night at the Piper, the first time we played live to a heaving audience, in our shiny new coats and shirts, I got back that feeling of suddenly realising the power you control when you’re up there, knowing that whatever you do, however mad or incompetent, will jerk their behaviour just where and how you want. Play James Brown’s ‘I Go Crazy’ and they’ll sway side to side. Play ‘Shout’ and they’ll jump up and down. Play ‘Loving You Too Long’, they’ll smooch and snog.
We only had to do an hour, one set, at nine. Over a few nights, we discovered a few bars, the Mexico is one I remember, and a restaurant in Piazza Cordusio, just a short hop from the Piper on the way home, the Rosengarten, which seemed happy to stay open as long as a customer survived and could order another drink, a Forst beer in a stecca, a boot-shaped glass which you had to drink the right way round or else the beer would go down your shirt rather than your neck – try it sometime, if you are, or want to be, German. It being February, only the indoor part was accessible, it’d be a while before we uncovered the outside canopied courtyard, tables and chairs under vines or clematis rampaging over some kind of wood pergola in the late night summer heat …
During the day, you could spend the afternoon drifting around the city centre, accidentally coming across the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the Duomo, the seedy intriguing Brera district just down behind the Rosengarten, useful shops near the Pensione Key, and dark blind alleys off the via Dante. I stumbled over La Scala (closed for refurbishment). And Messagerie Musicale, where you could get every kind of guitar strings, plectrums and rare expensive US import albums. By about week five, I was just starting to feel this city.
Some time towards the end of this eight week Piper gig, we were called in to Leo’s office. To nobody’s surprise, we were offered an open-ended extension. Leo would buy out our contract and employ us as a salaried item in his growing Larry Parnes-style stable of English and Italian acts. He would also finance a two-week holiday back in the UK, by air! There were all sorts of other components to the offer. It couldn’t be refused. In fact it wasn’t even discussed. Mine would have been the only dissenting voice, if I’d thought about it for a few minutes; but I didn’t do that, at least not properly. If I had, the band would have carried on without me, and probably gone the same way it eventually did, and I would have ended up somewhere else unknown. Instead I floated on the current, again.