OLGIATE COMASCO, COMO, ITALY, 2 APRIL 2005
Eagerly anticipating our Italian trip, we flew off from Stansted Airport early on Saturday morning. I say 'eagerly anticipating' because all of our previous trips have been joyous, if not entirely sober, experiences.
The Italian crowds are wonderful and we have a faithful and loyal audience there. The shows are often in breath-taking surroundings, castles, medieval courtyards, gothic and renaissance churches etc. We were met at Bergamo Airport by our regular driver in Italy, Gigi. He works for our Italian agent, a lovely man also called Gigi. (At least they're not all called Dave, which seems to be the case everywhere else.) Gigi drove us to our hotel near Como where we were able to unwind for a couple of hours before sound-check.
When we arrived for the sound-check, I got out of the bus to be greated by a young, bearded fan. He was playing a guitar and singing in what I immediately recognised as English. (I'm not easily fooled). As we got closer to him I realised that the song he was playing was, 'Father's Name Is Dad', the first Fire single. It turned out that Jack was a great and knowledgeable fan of Strawbs, and all connected works.
The show was held in a medieval villa, which in this case was not authentic but a Victorian re-creation. It was lovely though, and created a perfect surroundings for our music. The auditorium was packed full, people having to stand at the sides, you couldn't have asked for a more perfect start to a tour.
We started at 9.15 with a programme of one hour and fifteen minutes. The crowd were great, and we were playing freely and in good form we thought. When we came to "The Antiques Suite", Dave did an introduction about the death of his doctor which was the inspiration for the songs. Whilst I was singing the last set of verses, 'Hey, it's been a long time...' etc, I noticed that the lights dimmed and returned to normal in an instant.
We finished the piece and the crowd began one of those reactions that you only get in Italy. It begins with enthusiastic applause, fades as normal, but then swells back up to full applause again, sometimes three or four times it can happen, absolutely stunning. I was saying 'thank you' and looking at the crowd and then at Dave when, out of the corner of my eye I realised that someone was standing beside me. It was a lady dignitary who had been in the front row for the show.
'I know that this song means a lot to you' she said, looking mainly at Dave, ' but now it will mean something more to us all. While you were performing that piece the Pope has died'. She turned to the crowd to announced the news, and then turned back to us and asked if we would allow the people five minutes of quiet to themselves. We left the stage quietly and immediately.
Although we had been aware of his condition and imminent death, I don't think that Dave, Chas, or myself could have envisaged such a dramatic, and in our case, timely set of circumstances. For us to be performing such a poignant piece at the very moment of his death seemed to us almost unbelievable. We were then told that our concert had been allowed to continue that evening because of the spiritual nature of a lot of the material we play. Most, if not all, concerts had not been allowed to go ahead that night because of the imminence of the death.
We gave the audience, and ourselves, ten minutes break. The decision was taken for us to return to the stage and play two more songs, "Glimpse of Heaven" and "Lay Down", both of which we felt appropriate. Also Dave was extremely emotional and, quite understandably, didn't feel that he could sing anything inappropriate. We returned to the stage and did as we planned, two songs and no encore.
We felt that the crowd would have liked us to do an encore, in fact they applauded and stayed in their seats for a good five minutes after the show, but we were in a difficult situation, in Italy and the Pope having died, it doesn't happen to us very often.
All shows were cancelled on the Sunday because of the three day mourning which came into being. That meant that we couldn't play Bergamo on that day. Monday was a day off when we were supposed to drive down to Pisa and prepare for the Tuesday show there. This was to be held in a church and was part of the Pisa Guitar Festival. However, we learnt on Monday morning that there was to be no dispensation and that no concerts were to go ahead. The only disagreeable thing about the whole affair was, on Tuesday morning we learnt that the Queen concert had gone ahead in Rome, of all places. It appears, according to Italian press, that the reason they were allowed to play was because their songs cannot be described as spiritual. It's a funny old world innit?
PS reports of Dave having applied for the vacancy are mostly exaggerated.
I will always remember Saturday April 2 for two reasons: the Strawbs concert in Olgiate Comasco and the death of the Pope. Which came as no surprise, we were expecting it . He had been going in and out of the hospital since February, and between Thursday and Friday, news spread around that he could have died any moment. Saturday afternoon early, me and my friend Giulio, who also organized the concert, were playing guitar in the park around the town library and wondering wether the possible death of John Paul II could have stopped the concert. We were uncertain and in a quite bad mood... even because Gigi, the tour manager, had phoned saying there could have been problems with the plane... (that turned out to be a joke afterwards).
Anyway, we set the stage. The Strawbs arrived in time and made the soundcheck. We really wanted to do the concert, as there is a strong religious feeling in the Strawbs' music, which would have been a celebration, not an insult.
People started to arrive, many people indeed, the small medieval room was soon packed, people standing in lines in the side corridors; somebody was talking about the Pope, others were more focused on the concert, which began right on time. In my own opinion the soft and heartfelt music of the Strawbs was a perfect soundtrack to the common feeling of fear and sorrow, that seemed to grip many people in the room... it eased the pain but without being vulgar, not too sad and not too gay.
"The Antique suite" was the seventh song in the program. Dave Cousins explained shortly what this song is about... his doctor friend who died of cancer and his regret for not having been able to see him in his last days. I translated it for Giulio who was sitting next to me. And during that song it happened. As the band finished playing it, we were told that the Pope had died at 21.37 pm. The concert stopped for 5 minutes, the Strawbs went back in their dressing room, and we remained in the dark, in silence, as if we were waiting for the encores. Then some people started to fade slowly to the exit, maybe thinking that the concert was over, maybe not wanting to hear nothing more, after what had happened... I felt quite confused myself... and now? What is the right thing to do in this situation? Is there a right thing to do? I don't know... in certain occasions anything you may do seems wrong...
The Strawbs came back on stage. Dave said that the event touched 'em deeply, because the Pope was very loved even in England. They decided to play two more songs... "A Glimpse Of Heaven" and "Lay Down". All the audience listened to in religious silence. You could see that Cousins, Lambert and Cronk were playing it with more strength and a participation than before. Dave Cousins seemed on the edge of tears, to my surprise... I believed him a protestant... later he told me he's a Catholic actually, which explained many things. Then they left again and finally the lights turned on. That was the right thing to do. A short but intense concert. And the few things I know about the Pope make me think that he would appreciate that... he loved music more than silence.
Later on we found ourself in a bar, drinking a few beers before going to bed, talking with the band and the crew. Dave Cousins and I talked for a while about the Pope and his importance, seeing it from different point of views: an English Catholic and an Italian Buddhist... what a strange pair. He also told me a few stories about his relationships with the Pope, but I won't repeat them here... he'll do it himself if he wants to, but I understood how deeply he was touched, and how his sorrow was sincere. The only thing I want to say here, is that this was not a normal concert, like many I have seen in my life. It was a special moment that I will always remember. The death of John Paul II didn't stop the concert, but made it special... it became some kind of religious rite. I am 28, this is the first time I have seen a Pope die. It's like people telling you exactly where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, they still remember it, in spite of the years... like the fall of the Twin Towers... I still remember what I was doing that day. And I believe that even in my dying day I will remember that I was with the Strawbs the day the Pope died. And every time John Paul II will pop in my thoughts, something tells me that there will be a thought even for Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert (who also taught me how to play "Father's name was dad", thanks again Dave) and Chas Cronk. Each time I'll see a picture of the Pope, I'll remember the Strawbs. And every time I'll hear a Strawbs' record I'll think about the Pope... not bad for a Buddhist ....
And I want to share this special experience with the Strawbs fan who may read this post, so here's to you all...