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Saved by the Birreria chiar di luna – and marking my territory in Milan

September 11, 2010

This is Italy, so I had to eat a pizza last night for dinner. But it was so good that I felt after the meal that I should just return to my hotel. No point tramping the sidewalks in this musically dead city for an open mic or jam. I had so many problems last year I knew it was a futile task. Wrong!

Once again I said to myself, “Don’t quit. Go for your goal, keep moving straight toward the target, that is all that really counts.” Anyway, a colleague from a French news agency had said to me that he could not believe there was nothing here in Milan, particularly since jazz was so popular and … etc. I said, yes, but there’s certainly no music at this time of year in any case.

But as we talked, I recalled that the one mistake I made last year was to visit the area surrounding the famous Blue Note jazz club on the Sunday when most things were closed for the day. This is located on the Via Pietro Borsieri, and there are a number of cafes and restaurants around there, and even a music shop. So I thought, right, check out the iPhone gps map and see how far a walk that is from my hotel near the central station. Oh, only 1.5 kilometers. Well, that will be a great way to digest the pizza!

So with my guitar on my back and my pizza in my stomach, I set about the walk. It took only 20 minutes or so, and when I arrived, I found the Blue Note open, but some act hired for the evening, no way anyone else could get up and play. That’s like stopping off at the Village Vanguard and asking to play some folk, rock or pop between jazz sets by some great musicians.

I made a quick look around the neighborhood and immediately plunged into a sense of complete futility. Nothing. Dead. What a city. I had visions of Istanbul flash through my mind as I walked past bars and felt dirty looks on me for my guitar…where in Istanbul it seems whenever they saw me with the guitar on my back I was invited inside to play.

So I was about to return to the hotel and say I’d given it a try, when I noticed another end to the same street as the Blue Note that there appeared to be a bar or two. As I passed one of these I was stunned to hear for the first time on this trip some live music. This was a bar called Birreria chiar di luna, and I opened the door to find two women singing behind microphones and a man manning a console. The man gestured to me to indicate that I could come up and sing if I wanted. He obviously saw the guitar on my back, and I thought this an amazing sign.

But I realized very, very quickly that I had just stepped into a karaoke. Oh dear. I had found another karaoke in Milan last year too – wondering why karaokes are acceptable here but open mics are not – but at last year’s joint, there was no way I felt the least invitation to play.

So in the Birreria chiar di luna I signalled the guy that I was interested, then I went and ordered a beer at the bar.

The Birreria chiar di luna was full of young people and what looked like families of locals. A few people played pool on a pool table near the front of the bar, there was a higher level on which the karaoke took place, overlooking the whole, and there were guitars hanging from the walls. And that was a good sign – a great one, in fact. It was clearly a music friendly joint.

On the other hand, as I sat through song after song in Italian – every song since I arrived was sung in Italian – I wondered how welcome I would really be. Did the man really mean I could play and sing with my guitar? What would be his reaction when he discovered I was not Italian and could not sing in Italian?

I gave it about 45 minutes of listening to the others sing before I went to the man to ask if I could play and sing with my guitar. After all, while I had shied away from karaoke bars all last year on my world musical travels, this year in Cologne I had sung at one and it had been a great success and a pleasure for the listeners to have a break from the usual karaoke formula.

But when I asked the man at the Birreria chiar di luna in English, and found he did not speak English, it was clear that he began to panic a little. And that is understandable. A guy shows up with a guitar and wants to take over with songs in an environment where everyone else sings to a recorded soundtrack. Who does this guy think he is? Something special? And, in fact, can he sing as well as a lot of the great singers doing the karaoke? Or does he have some ill-conceived idea of his own talent and is he going to make a mess out of the evening?

I understand.

I told him that I could do a John Lennon song. He made signs to ask if I could plug in the guitar. I said yes.

He sent me off and said he’d call me. So two songs later, he called me up.

I went up, handed him the guitar cable, he plugged it in. Then he called me over to look at his karaoke board and he had the name of John Lennon. I thought, what’s that? He wants to put the lyrics up for people?

I told him it would be “Jealous Guy.” But he could not find the song, it was not, in fact, part of the catalog. So I quickly said, “Cat Stevens.” “Father and Son.”

He found it. He said to go to the mic and he started the music… He told me to play my guitar. So there I was in a karaoke with my guitar and the music started, and guess what? I sing the song with my capo on the second fret, because the way Cat Stevens sings it is too low for my voice. So the karaoke soundtrack was too low for my voice…and for my guitar. So I found myself… doing a karaoke, and not doing it very well as I strained my voice to reach the low notes. And I stood there with my guitar held dumbly around my body, as I did the karaoke…. It felt very ridiculous.

But it was clearly not quite as ridiculous as I thought, as I received some applause, even in the middle of the song. Clearly the audience and the MC understood the predicament, and once that song ended, the MC invited me to play “Jealous Guy” all by myself, with my guitar. So there we go, I had my chance, I played the song, played as if in an open mic, pissed on my territory and marked my spot in Milan. And this time I did not have to turn to the anarchists to do it – but it was a pretty anarchical karaoke, thanks in part to me….

Still, it was a fine feeling to find a musical friendly bar in Milan, finally….

And here is a little video of one of the singers, just to give a sense of the scene:

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