Paolo Conte

Paolo ConteConte is an Italian painter, lawyer, musician, singer, song-writer. He was born in Asti in the province of Piemonte in 1937.

Musically, he has been likened to the Belgian singer/song-writer Jacques Brel, but I think the resemblance is tenuous at best. PC is much more surreal and elusive than Brel.

One of his most puzzling songs is called Hemingway. This is has a haunting tune, carried mainly by a saxophone. It starts with a spoken introduction which goes:

Oltre le dolcezze di Harry’s Bar
E le tenerezze di Zanzibar
C’era questa strada
Oltre le illusioni di Timbuctù
E le gambe lunghe di Babalù
C’era questa strada
Questa strada zitta
Che vola via
Come una farfalla
O una nostalgia
Nostalgia al gusto di curaçao
Forse un giorno
Meglio mi spiegherò
Beyond the sweetnesses of Harry’s Bar
and the tendernesses of Zanzibar
There was this road
Beyond the illusions of Timbuctu
and the long legs of Babalu
There was this road
This silent road
That flies away
Like a butterfly
Or a nostalgia
Nostalgia tasting of curaçao
Maybe one day
I will explain myself better

There then follows the spoke phrase: Alors, Monsieur Hemingway, ça vaʔ, which in turn is followed by the weirdest section, consisting of PC speaking incomprehensibly with a kazoo in his mouth. Then the “song” ends with: Alors, Monsieur Hemingway, ça va mieux?. If anyone can tell me what that is all about, they will gain my profoundest gratitude.

My favourite Paolo Conte song is called Sparring Partner. Here are the lyrics to this. By the way, the translations are mine, and are pretty rough and ready.

È un macaco senza storia
Dice lei di lui
Che ɡli manca la memoria
In fondo ai guanti bui
Ma il suo sguardo è una veranda
E tempo al tempo lo vedrai
Che si addentra nella giungla
No, non incontrarlo mai.
He’s an ape without a history
She says of him
That he has lost his memory
In the depths of the dark gloves
But his look is a veranda
And from time to time you will see
That it goes out into the jungle
No, never go to meet it
Ho guardato in fondo al giuoco
Tutto qui…ma sai?
Son’ un vecchio sparring partner
E non ho visto mai
Una calma più tigrata
Più segreta di così
Prendi il primo pullman via
Tutto il resto è già poesia
I know the game well
Only here…but you know?
I’m an old sparring partner
And I have never seen
A calmness more tigerish
More secret than this
Take the first coach away
All the rest is just words
Avrà più di quarant’ anni
E certi applausi ormai
Son’ dovuti per amore
No, non incontrarlo mai
Stava lì nel suo sorriso
A guardar passare i tram
Vecchia pista da elefanti
Stesa sopra al macadam
It seems he’s more than forty
And some applause
Is owed because of love
No, don’t go to meet him
He was standing there smiling his smile
Watching the trams pass by
Old elephant track
Spread out across the tarmacadam

A mystifying, haunting song with equally haunting backing music. I would love to know the significance of the line shown in bold.

12 thoughts on “Paolo Conte

  1. Hmmm … shaving and trimming his facial hair may turn JM into a look-alike of PC. Sorry for the naughty thought!

  2. I’d suggest ‘Take the first coach, and away you go’, tho’ it’d be problematic for the line length.

  3. Petr,

    Hehehehehehe. I think my nose would have to grow a bit too, though. Actually, I think PC should grow his beard and have a nose job. Then he would look a bit like me 😉

  4. Ellis,

    Yes, but I still don’t see what taking a coach has to with the rest of the stanza. I considered the possibility that “pullman” also has a meaning other than “coach” in Italian — something like the name of a punch in boxing, but as I know next to nothing about boxing vocabulary even in English, I shall have to do some research on that.

    Any help anyone?

  5. To me it makes sense (of a sort), especially when ‘via’ is combined with ‘tutto qui’ and ‘tutto il resto è già poesia’:

    I know the game well,
    That’s all – but then,
    I’m an old sparring partner,
    And I’ve never seen
    Calmness more variable
    Or secret than this.
    Time to take the coach and go
    Everything else’s already become poetry.

    ‘Tigrata’ baffles me. It would normally be ‘striped’, so I presume here it means something like ‘variable’ – surely ‘tigerish’ is rather ‘tigresco’. PC does like odd uses of colour adjectives, tho’, so your guess is as good as mine.

    Which said, I’ve heard that Conte is producing less work precisely because he finds it so easy to write lines like this.

    On a related note, I recently read an interview with him in which he says that the achievement he’s most proud of is having a crossword he wrote accepted by Settimana Enigmistica. Big crossword fan.

  6. the ‘tigerishness’ could just be seen as adjectivally enhancing the secrecy of the calm, a kind of sphinx-like guard on the secrets of why a relationship has disintegrated. and hence:

    Take the first coach/bus away
    everything else is already poetry

    There is nothing left to say, there is nothing left to fix. So it is better to leave and consign the relationship, in its remembered form, to poetry. To embellishments and yearnings towards a re-imagined history, fragments of memories, recomposed in the poetry of separation.

    That is my take on it, it’s always been my favourite line of that song.

  7. I just stumbled upon something that might explain a lot. The word ‘segreta’ does not mean ‘secret’ in Italian, allthough even I thought it did for a long time. It means ‘dungeon’. This man, that cannot remember his past, maybe does not want to remember his past. He is in jail. He is just staring at the ceiling (verandalike gaze), the bars of his jail striping his clothes (which allready may be striped, as prisoners used to wear striped clothes in old times). So after you find out he is a prisoner, you are told to get out of there with the first bus you can get (pullman = bus). The rest of his story is allready written, it’s poetry. ‘

    That would be the reason why we would never meet him again. What do you think?

  8. Sophie,

    It is true that segreta as a noun means ‘dungeon’, but the syntax means that in the song it must be a feminine singular adjective agreeing with the noun calma. It is also modified by the adverb più. One cannot have something ‘more dungeon’.

  9. One of my all-time favourite songs is Sparring Partner, so much so that we had it as our wedding dance song!

  10. About ‘tigrata’,
    I think Claudio ( italian like me?) nailed its deep meaning pretty well, even if it has to be said a ‘calma più tigrata’ does sound quite a odd, obscure and metaphoric sentence to a mother language one, too.
    I that context, the metaphorical images it can suggest are:
    – something in ‘chiaroscuro’, striped in lights and shades
    – something feline, and enigmatic, like a calm, striped cat looking at you like a sphinx, or a tiger sitting peacefully in the middle of a mysterious jungle (he’s able to go deep in the jungle – the chaos of emotions, relationships etc?)
    just my 2 cents about one of my fav songs ever 🙂

  11. I am italian, and I’ve known this song for some time, but today for the first time I am looking into the actual text. Of all the interpretations here, I like Davide’s the most.
    I think “segreta” really means secret (it’s an adjective), mysterious. “Tigrata”, as Davide suggests, portrays something that you see but do not perceive, that disguises itself.
    This song is about a man, an old starring partner, who used to fight and now is done fighting, somehow beyond that. This fighting is a metaphor for something more existential, I think. He is obscure and impenetrable to others (first and last stanzas), to the point that he seems dumb (“È un macaco senza storia”, “stava lì nel suo sorriso” -> “he was staying there, absorbed in his own smile”). He looks astonished and stupefied by things of apparent no values to others (watching trams pass by), but what he actually sees is much more than that:
    “Ma il suo sguardo è una veranda

    Che si addentra nella giungla”
    His eyes are in fact a balcony that overlooks his old jungle (he looks to the apparently innocuous macadam, but what he actually sees is the old track for elephants spread all over it).

    So, what does he have to say about himself? (second stanza)

    “Ho guardato in fondo al giuoco
    Tutto qui…ma sai?”
    “I have looked through the game (perhaps the game stands for his own life?)
    and you know what? It’s not really worth discussing…”

    At least, he doesn’t want to discuss it. He knows that the quiet is only apparent.
    (“E non ho visto mai
    Una calma più tigrata
    Più segreta di così”)

    And so he cuts short:
    “Prendi il primo pullman via
    Tutto il resto è già poesia”
    Which means:
    “Take the first bus already,
    Everything else is written poetry.”

    “Via” is an interjection/intensifier, like “suvvia”. It means “let it go”.
    I read it as “Leave me alone already and forget about this. If you want to know more, there’s poetry already written. Poetry is obscure as well, so it’s really up to you to figure it out on your own”

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