by Roger Freeman

Chapter 4

The royalties were rolling in from the Pigbag single so we called into Thomas Cook’s to turn the whole lot into gigantic booklets of traveller’s cheques, next stop was the off-licence to mix up a bottle of vodka and orange for the journey and then onto Victoria train station with old luggage but super new instrument cases. For once, the timing of the imbibing was strictly adhered to as the length of a train journey from London to Turin was anyone’s guess, arriving on the south coast had only used up the recommended doses of the V&O. This turned out to be a wise move as darkness descended for the channel-crossing and all of the journey through what should have been glorious French landscapes. But then the big reveal. The last thing we remembered from the night before was pressure on the ears due to a very long tunnel and now, in full Technicolor, was presented the Italian Alps, yellow sunshine and blue sky that I had genuinely never seen the likes of before. We seemed to be in a carriage with larger windows to cash in on the full panoramic effect and for once, Roger and Chris were speechless. Trying an introductory Italian breakfast pastry was followed by the Brit’s favourite pastime when in Italy, drinking cappuccinos way too long into the day. It was down out of the Alps to arrive at Torino Porta Susa station and an incredulous Paola, Francesca and friends who immediately rewound our film back out of Turin and up the mountains to Pragelato for New Year’s Eve 1982. More sensory overload with wood smoke smell in the crisp air plus laughs all round at the sight of me still wearing English donkey jacket and tennis shoes thousands of feet up in the snow, something would have to be done about that. In fact, Paola did the impossible, not only stopping us drinking, but getting the genuine pastas and salads onto our menu and switch on extra clear-headed minds to appreciate the surroundings even more. As Chris was already very continental, he not only hired a pair of skis but rented a small room in an old part of the village, taking in all the new information around us meant the one thing we did forget to do was get the musical instruments out. Italian driving seemed to differ when it came to what colour the traffic lights happened to be and I was now speedily ensconced in a Turin student bolthole off the main Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. It was great back-to-basics with hole-in-the-ground toilet, small bedroom window opening down onto a courtyard and a quick step right into the centre of the gigantic Baroque city. The opposite to U.K. city centres, everyone lives above the colonnaded shops in beautiful never-ending older apartments with slatted shutters to each window. To the north west, on the horizon, an incredible cut-out backdrop curtain of the Alps in a line, there was so much great stuff to take in it was overwhelming in a good mood way. There were the Italians themselves, the variety of food (and coffees), the intense sunshine and that architecture which probably was not as old as it looked. The sound of the city was different as well with a very distinct crackle of car tyres rolling over large flagstones in the road plus the squealing of orange trams going around corners. An early attempt on a tram sent me flying at the back as it pulled away, with fellow passengers not batting an eyelid as a tourist found out the hard way, again.

The bank on the main thoroughfare turned a traveller’s cheque into a lot of lira banknotes, some of which went on yet another cappuccino and a copy of La Stampa newspaper – the English picking up other languages does not have a great record so why ruin the tradition, as weeks went by squinting at papers, phrase books and dictionaries. My past caught up with me when I saw the New Musical Express in the main Porta Nuova train station newsagents. Paying extra for a late, overseas paper, I spotted in the ‘what’s on section’ a small paragraph for The Raincoats live at The Venue, London with guest Roger Freeman, a runner I never knew I did. A street plan helped spread wider through the colonnades containing second-hand bookstalls and more cafés for coffees, eventually reaching the wide River Po and green hills beyond. Over the bridge and weir was the circular Church of the Gran Madre di Dio and out front I started to picture Minis being chased by motorcycle police, a later trip to the old Lingotto Fiat factory test-track on the roof had me explaining to the Torinese all about The Italian Job filmed in Turin but they hadn’t a clue what I was talking about, too young I expect. 

Spring 1983 was around the corner and the music biz, along with the trombone and bass clarinet, had drifted out of view, a trip up to Pragelato before the snow melted found Chris at the top of his skiing game. The musical instruments only came out their cases when Italians did their version of Drinksville which drove the so-called musicians to watch the flickering Alpine television signal even more. Distracted by all that Italy had to offer, going anywhere near our tunes and rhythms had not crossed our minds, instead, the spectaculars offered up on RAI TV were only surpassed by the wild local folk music on the après-ski bar jukebox. But the snow did start to melt and it was decision-time for Chris who plumped for springtime in Birmingham to tackle those pencils and paintbrushes, one more salute of “But is it ART?” and he was off. Back down in Turin, I added meals in restaurants to pinballs in cafés in an extension of my general mooching about with the high (or low) point coming on the discovery of an Atari Asteroids video game. This was located in the common room at Paola’s polytechnic architecture department which, unlike a 1970s Wolverhampton rectangle, had the stunning Castello del Valentino as its base down by the river. Paola did ‘the frown’ and maneuvered my thoughts around to trombone-playing by mentioning that a friend of the family would like a cassette copy of the Pigbag album slowly warping at the bottom of my suitcase. Turin artist Nene took the vinyl into a Via Roma shop who promptly zipped off a recording while I said good luck in listening to it anyway. A few days later I got a message saying Nene was heading down to the coast and would I like use of her apartment which could not have been more central if you drew two lines over a map of the city, I do not think anyone quite believed it as we rose up in the elevator to the top floor at Via Vittorio Alfieri. The Number 6 building today is totally unrecognisable but back in ’83 it was the archetypal Hollywood idea of an artist’s garret in the roof. The way I remember it, sloping studio windows let the light stream in but this could be a trick of time. It certainly was full of paintings, sculptures and artbooks on every wall, surface and shelf with a kitchen looking over the rooftops at the back. It really was like being a character in a film now as first, I studied all the visual material everywhere, followed by flipping through every book while also descending to local shops and then back up in the stairwell lift. All this creativity done by others made me think: well, what else is there to do? I decided I had been psychologically disturbed by the world of employment in Britain and now here was the biggest back-up being handed to me on a brass plate, that’s right – get the trombone out. The trouble was, even though I had not seen anyone else in the building, only the briefed concierge at the door, I could hear people around, so practicing would have to be elsewhere. I might as well start at the top, I thought, as during previous walks I had heard a sophisticated racket coming out the windows of the Giuseppe Verdi Music Conservatory. Well, why not? This time, Paola gave me the ‘you’re nuts’ look and, realising my language-skills were laughable, wrote out an explanatory, introductory letter to be presented with a grin. A distinguished professor in a sharp suit peered down at the piece of paper and then up at the sight of holey tennis shoes and jeans topped by a labourer’s jacket bought in Birmingham seven years ago. Even though I held a trombone case as a mark of respect, I was ushered out with a reply in perfect English to the effect: “we could not possibly accommodate you and your… no, no, sorry, goodbye”.        

Nene hears of this and hands out more plates with the address of a derelict first floor apartment down the end of nearby Via XX Settembre. There were no locks on doors as it was completely gutted with pieces of plaster on bare floorboards except there, in the right spot, one old table for the use of. More gifts from Italians included a cassette recorder to help with the improvement of trombone technique plus paper and pens to retain those compositions I was supposedly going to come up with. It was like walking to work with a trombone / briefcase each morning until clock-off time midday and a coffee across the street in a wood-panelled bar full of smoke, shafts of sunlight and older domino players. Employment involved capturing any ditties onto tape, quickly followed by jotting down the slide positions as a reminder for next time, not exactly notes on a stave but with my tunes, you wouldn’t want to go there. Restaurants were out as I learnt to cook, although my idea of fried pasta from the night before with banana slices was greeted with shock horror until they tried it and then they all wanted some. While walking past the shop on the next street down I saw the smallest pack of Weetabix in their window and thought that would make a breakfast from the past. The assistant then proceeded to gift-wrap it with top quality paper and tie it up with all the respect an exotic foodstuff from abroad deserved. To add to this was the Parmalat milk in a thick carton folded on top and a whole range of tea bags on strings to dangle. The cooker in the kitchen was of the portable variety hooked up to a gas cylinder underneath, providing an instant nostalgia-link to caravans in Wales with the sound it made. 

If there was no going out in the evenings, the kitchen was the place to be as dusk and sunsets were on view out the window and city lights went on all the way down the roofs and up a tower block in the distance. A quick dash to the bedroom to stand on a chair would let me open a skylight for the vista to the south. More Italian presents and a radio this time, if left to my own devices I would develop the Wolverhampton listening habit and tune for all sorts of European stations although David Bowies’ latest ‘Let’s Dance’ was everywhere. Jump five years ahead and David creates the band Tin Machine which my future weird head decides knows why. After the weekday clock-off coffee, highlights on the walk back along Via XX Settembre included dodging the rattling trams and calling into what looked like grand-entranced stately homes to pay either the electric or water. Chris Lee had taught me all about the ins and outs of cleaning brass instruments with warm soapy water and minutes of fun was had pouring saucepans down the bell to watch froth shoot out ‘tother end. That left the afternoons to wander the city and reach further out to the edges, especially towards those hills across the river. Heading in that direction again, I walked straight into the entrance of the English language bookshop Libreria Internazionale Luxemburg and the very first thing I see on the shelf to the left is every single Jack Kerouac paperback published and in chronological order too. Chris Hamlin attending Allen Ginsberg’s seminar years ago and handing over Jack’s ‘On the Road’ now lead me to buy all his subsequent books each time I passed and headed towards the river. To get to where I was going took in the then empty Villa della Regina before pacing up winding curves to a bench in the sun for another page-turner. Turin fans of the The Pop Group spinoff Rip Rig + Panic wanted to go and see them live in Milan so five of us crammed into a tiny original Fiat 500 to weave our way along the autostrada north east. This soon attracted the attention of a police patrol on the lookout for all things suspicious in the time of the Brigate Rosse and our car was pulled over with a demand to empty out and show all identification cards. Being from GB, I did not have one. OK, no problem, passport please but being from GB, I hadn’t brought it out with me. Patience wearing thin, then it was explained by the others that, judging purely by my appearance, it was obvious this was a case of crazy Inglese. In what should have been an insult, the police immediately agreed and there was no mention of the attempt to squeeze back into the undersized vehicle. The idea was to arrive at the club in the afternoon while the band were setting up and then get us all on the guestlist, as I walked in and saw Bruce Smith building his drumkit, he looked up and said “Hey, it’s that cat from Pigbag”. Greetings and negotiations took place all round so it was all set for the free evening’s entertainment. But there is always a but and the door staff thought it impossible us all swanning in without paying, therefore grandiose rowing broke out on all sides as I slipped in while everyone was distracted. I actually missed the performance because after chatting with the band backstage, singer Neneh Cherry handed over a bundle because it was time to go on – I was left holding the baby, and not for the last time. 

Our 78 rpm Anglo-Italian introduction in Exmouth Market involving food, wine and music had become legend in Turin and now, as something of a postscript, Paola saw an advert for Sun Ra appearing at the Ciak theatre, also in Milan. As he was responsible for the brass-themed disruption of her carefully planned 1983, it was time to pay him a visit. A train ride got us to theatre seats by the aisle with a great view and it was the live double album brought to life but with added visuals. Egyptian astronauts took us to that place called space and they ended by stepping down from the stage to march right up the aisle and pass us on their way into the Milan streets. As audience members were left to ponder what just happened, Paola asked the theatre for a Sun Ra poster which eventually ended attached to a London kitchen wall. Suddenly, a whole lot of signs happened all at once, my trombone soloing in the crumbling apartment had drifted into that avant-garde again and my abstract noise-making was interrupted by a slow pushing open of the door. There stood a bewildered family that, all along, had been upstairs and probably listening to my polite tunes deteriorate to the point that they didn’t like the modern stuff. I frantically broke into Italo-Inglese to apologise and explain I was a harmless nut from London, as Birmingham might have confused the issue. I collected together my mobile office, wished them a blissfully quiet future and retired across the street for one more cappuccino. It wasn’t quite the shock of receiving a Third and not going to the Royal College because there was no structure in place for what I was supposed to do next, maybe blurting out London at that point was another ‘subconscious wachermacallit’ and that I ought to seriously think that over. Back at Via Alfieri, the gas cylinder for the cooker then ran out along with Paola’s patience over my inability to speak Italian yet. The omens were not good and after a big discussion there was a feeling that all those cassettes and pieces of paper should be put to some use. London was the place to go for the music biz and so belongings were sat on into bags after dinners had been eaten at restaurants and it was time to head up north.