Would Nigel Farage enjoy this week’s Friday Song? It would seem, on the face of it, unlikely. The great Italian songwriter Paolo Conte is sophisticated, arty, earthy and shamelessly foreign. He doesn’t even speak English, for heaven’s sake. He was once a lawyer – a gleam of hope for Nigel there – but gave it all up for jazz in the Sixties (he was born in 1937).
And yet I find it impossible to imagine anyone not liking Conte. Within moments of those opening chords of his best known song ‘Via Con Me’, that lilting swing, the rasping, good-humoured voice, even old Nige would begin to loosen up and drift away from his grim blazer-and-loafers, meat-and-two-veg fantasy-land into a dream of smoky bars, dangerous women and irresistible music.
It is an embarrassment that Conte is not better known in Britain, but perhaps not that surprising. Like Georges Brassens, whose uncompromisingly rough stage persona he shares, Conte has made no attempt to ingratiate himself with American or British audiences by recording his songs in our language.
As Phil Johnson put it in a 1999 profile for the Independent,
‘Paolo Conte’s appeal… remains resolutely Euro rather than Anglo, if only because we have no equivalent artists to compare him to. Try to imagine a British performer who writes witty, playful and poetic lyrics set to allusive music that calls equally upon American hot jazz, Parisian cabaret-chanson, and the accordion-driven burlesques of a Fellini score by Nino Rota, and you’ll see what I mean.’
Not that that our cultures are entirely ignored in the songs. There is one called ‘Jeeves’, another ‘Hemingway’. There’s ‘Blue Tango’, ‘Dancing’, ‘Boogie’ and ‘Sparring Partner’. The lyrics of the chorus of ‘Via con me’ are in English:
Good luck, my baby
I dream of you, du du du du, chi boom chi boom boom…
For Paolo Conte, the voice is more than an instrument. It’s the sound of the words, following the music, that matters. So the sudden appearance of chipped potatoes in a romantic song somehow fits perfectly.
Yet, to judge from the translations into English of his lyrics – some valiant, most lame – I sense that, if I could speak Italian, I’d love their wonderful, surreal wit and strangeness. Take this from the opening of a great song called ‘Sparring Partner‘:
‘A macaque without history,She says about him,As he lacks memoryAt the bottom of his dark glovesBut his gaze is a facadeGive it time and you will see him,Entering the jungleNo, don’t ever meet him.’