Volare: Italian Americans in Popular Music

I was listening to Dean Martin last night, and I got to thinking about putting together some sort of superlative list of Italian-American figures in American popular music. Below are my current Sweet Sixteen. Who would you add in order to fill out a proper field of sixty-four?

Joe Satriani 

Jon Bon Jovi

Gwen Stefani

Steven Tyler

Frank Zappa 

Tony Bennett

Jim Croce

Louis Prima


Dean Martin

Lady Gaga

Frankie Valli

Frank Sinatra

Mario Lanza

Henry Mancini 

Bruce Springsteen

The best Bruce Springsteen songs – NME

As far as these lists go, this is a pretty tight one.  I’d leave off “Hungry Heart,” which is, to date, his only number one single.

It’s hard to say which Bruce Springsteen songs are the best because, frankly, they’re (mostly) all works of genius. Springsteen writes songs that plough deep into the American spirit and show the fragility, heart and heroism of the working man. Not to mention the fact that quite a few of them are total dancefloor bangers. […]

Source: The best Bruce Springsteen songs – NME

That’s Why He’s The Boss

I swear it’s not about being a cliche or being read like some rust belt book, young American men and their patron, prophet, saint. I swear it’s not that we inherit quiet desperation, that we’re destined by our chemistry toward being hung up, that it happens less with age and with what we’re calling care of self. I swear it’s none of those things. I swear Bruce Springsteen has me figured out.

Rock and Roll Word Association

We start with Mumford and Sons:

Mumford and Sons: Fleet Foxes

Oasis: Blues Traveler (don’t say Blur. Don’t ever say Blur.)

Coldplay: Yellow

Beatles: Beach Boys

Kinks: Stones

Who: Led Zeppelin

Foo Fighters: System of a Down

Tom Petty:  Hearbreakers

Bruce Springsteen: E-Street

John Mellencamp: Pink Houses

Pink: Areosmith

Dream On: Dream Until Your Dream Comes True

Joe Perry riffing: Conan O’Brien

Morrissey: Kevin Max

James: Oasis

REM: Third Day

The Police: U2

R2D2: Not The Droids You’re Looking For

Is Jon Bon Jovi the Key to the Supercommittee Tax Compromise? (This Is Not the FarmAid You’re Looking For)

James Coburn in Charade2
If only.

Maybe so.

As The Hill notes today:

A leading Senate conservative is taking aim at tax breaks that he says amount to welfare for millionaires, a line of critique that usually comes from liberal Democrats.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released a report detailing special tax breaks for wealthy income earners that could give members of the supercommittee common ground for raising tax revenues.

And just who are these welfare millionaires? Oil executives and bankers, every last one of them, right? Well, not exactly. From The Daily Caller:

Wealthy celebrities including Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Quincy Jones and Ted Turner have received federal subsidies, according to “Subsidies of the Rich and Famous,” a new report from the office of Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified several individuals receiving farm payments “whose professions had nothing to do with farming or agricultur[e],” says the report. These individuals include real-estate developer Maurice Wilder, a “part-owner of a professional sports franchise [who] received total of more than $200,000 in farm program payments in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006.”

The report also says millionaires Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen and Ted Turner have collected farm subsidies.

“These individuals include Scottie Pippen and Ted Turner, respectively. Millionaires also receive state tax breaks on farm land. For example, Jon Bon Jovi paid property taxes of only $100 last year on his extensive real estate holdings in New Jersey that he uses to raise bees. At the same time, Bruce Springsteen received farm subsidies because he leases his property to an organic farmer,” the report explains.

Oh, super-rich artists.  I respect and admire your endeavors in sustainable agriculture, horticulture, apiculture and so on.  We need better ways forward with regard to farming practices and safe food supplies.  But subsidies for millionaire gentlemen farmers?  We, the working poor and middle class, paying for Bon Jovi’s bees? If there’s an Occupy New Jersey, maybe they can move it on over to JBJ’s Bees of Glory Apiary Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Let’s keep railing at Wall Street and Congress, but let’s also rail at people who identify with the working poor and middle class on one level, have made zillions of dollars doing so, and whose agribusiness is being paid for by those same working people.  Talk about double and triple taxation.  We buy their music, go to their shows, and help fund their farms with our taxes?  And the they is people like Bon Jovi or, even more incongruously, Bruce Springsteen?  How can this be?  Bruce, listen to Nebraska again and get back to us.

Jon Bon Jovi on stage live at Dublin May 2006.

Disclaimer:  I don’t own so much as a Bon Jovi single.  But I’ve seen them in concert (and they were awesome, so there).   Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorite artists of all time.  Brucie, baby, I expect you to fix this.  Let’s get you on up to Capitol Hill for some hearings where you’ll say things like, “yeah, man, I don’t need that subsidy stuff.  Save that for the real working farmers.  Shit.”

Thanks, Boss.

Saying Goodbye to America’s Showplace

Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night
you know they blew up his house, too.
-Bruce Springsteen

I hate seeing things I loved as a kid get torn down or paved over.  Green space in Lehigh and Montgomery Counties, PA, for example.  The cornfields behind my old neighborhood mowed down for overvalued McMansions that block the fireworks from three cities on the 4th of July.  More recently, Veteran’s Stadium.  Now, finally, the Spectrum.

America's Showplace

You might not know this, but the Spectrum invented the concept of arena as rock show apogee.  Without it, Bruce Springsteen would, quite literally, not have been possible.  Opened in 1967, the Spectrum was the first of its kind, “America’s Showplace.”  The Sixers and Flyers won championships there.  I saw Dr. J play there, and Charles Barkley.  I held a Hulk Rules sign and swore the Red and Yellow pointed right at me from the ring in post-win celebration.  I saw Shawn Michaels roll Marty Janetty over while the seeds of their inevitable feud were being sewn.

Bruce Springsteen and hundreds (thousands?) of others got their first big-venue gigs at the Spectrum, due in part to Philadelphia’s legendary support of rock radio and working-class talent.  Sure, there were old-time concert halls and places like Madison Square Garden, but the Spectrum was the first indoor sports facility to have been specifically built with popular music shows also in mind. It was the first premier arena of the rock era.  As such, it was the place to be seen and heard, and like Esther Smith would say, it was right here in my own back yard.

Last night, they finished tearing the last old concrete guts and bones from this historic place.  On October 20, 2009, I was lucky enough to be on hand for Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band’s last-ever Spectrum show.  In case you don’t know, Bruce is a Philly favorite, an adopted son from just across the river, and he and Billy Joel had their own banners in the rafters of the Spectrum for their record-setting streaks of consecutive sellout shows (still counting.  The banners have been in the CoreState/First Union/Wachovia/Wells-Fargo Center for years, but Bruce’s was moved back for his last stand at the Showplace.)

The 10/20 show was historic by default: the last rock arena, the last rock star, the last time in Philly.  The last time in the place where modern concert-going and giving started, the last time in the place where The Boss cut his teeth.  Sitting in the Spectrum, you’re right down the street from all other kinds of American history.  Throw in the themes of the Born In The USA album, which was played in its entirety, and you’ve got yourself a certain kind of seminar.  In the context of the financial crisis, the wars, the Revolution, the loss of dear things, the loss of dear people, the loss of whole places, it was powerful to feel so obviously American and so absolutely not ironic.  When the band opened with “The Price You Pay,” which they hadn’t been played live since 1981, the tone was set:  recognition, celebration, sincerity, thanks.  “Wrecking Ball,” a paean to the lost shrines of our youth, was exuberant even in its decidedly antifatalist fatalism:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the clock down
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered through the wind
And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Yeah just to come again

Bring on your wrecking ball
Bring on your wrecking ball
Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got
Bring on your wrecking ball
Bring on your wrecking ball (bring on your wrecking ball)
Bring on your wrecking ball (bring on your wrecking ball)
Take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got, bring on your wrecking ball

The view form our seats.

That this set would be a once-in-a-lifetime rock and roll moment was never really a question, but there are all kinds of emotional intangibles going on in settings like this.  It wasn’t just Bruce’s last show at the Spectrum.  It wasn’t just the last time the Spectrum would welcome Bruce or any of us home.  It wasn’t just Clarence Clemmons’ last time ever in Philly as part of E-Street (be healthy, Big Man), and it wasn’t just the ghosts of 42 years piled to the ceiling.  It was all of these things, but also the kind of joy that comes from impossible defiance and being in the company of thousands of strangers celebrating something immediately collective. That E-Street, the tightest band to ever grace the Earth, and Bruce, the greatest figure not named Elvis, were the evening’s spiritual directors meant the farewell ritual would be orchestrated perfectly.  That these fans are passionate and savvy, that these songs are about them, meant something else entirely.  This was rock and roll church in a very sacred sense. Afterward I texted one word and one word only: transcendent.  There were even random acts of kindness. When Joe Torre and Donnie Baseball casually assumed regular-guy seats in the middle of the Phillies/Dodgers NLDS, Philly fans actually greeted them with warm applause and good-hearted jibes.  Call that appreciation for a respected baseball man (Philadelphia knows its baseball and its baseball manners. Remember when we booed Brett Meyers for walking Griffey when Griffey was sitting at #599?), call it Brotherly Love.  I call it everyone being in on what the night was all about.  Grown men cried.  Children laughed. Bruce slow-danced with his 90-year old mom.  Quite simply, it was perfect.

Below are two videos from the night of the show.  The first is a short clip of “The Price You Pay” taken on my camera phone.  The second (not by me) is “Higher and Higher.” Given the angle of the later shot, it’s quite possible that two of the smiling, transfigured faces behind Bruce belong to me and my #1 Bromance respectively.  Yep, I got to go to the best rock show ever with my best friend, and he’s also the one who orchestrated the logistics and made the whole thing happen.  Seeing the concert of a lifetime with my life-long partner-in-crime, concert-going, and Meg Ryan movies was really the only way to do it.  What?  We also go see all the Apatow movies.  Hmmm? You don’t remember how cute Meg Ryan was in 90s?  So what if I cried when she died in City of Angels?  You were right, Johnny Rzeznik, the world won’t understand.  To Jonny my BFF, thanks again, brother. You’re the Nils Lofgren to my Steven Van Zandt.  The Nic to my Cage.  The Conan to my Andy Richter.  The David Spade to my Chris Farley.  The Ramon to my Vic.

There are lots of videos from 10/20 all over the web, but these two are significant to me:

Goodnight, friend.  America just lost of piece of itself. Thanks for the memories.

Your Life in Radio Singles

Nick Hornby signing books at Central Library, ...
You were the first Goonie.

The discussion on the “A Few More Things Your Kids Won’t Do, Generation X” post inspired me to follow up on a project I started a few years ago.  Everyone gets those Nick Hornby-inspired Facebook memes (“15 Albums That Changed Your Life”), and as much as we identify with certain collections of songs our favorite artists put out at pivotal (I am “What’s The Story (Morning Glory?)” in case you were wondering), I think an inventory of radio singles is a much better sampling.  First of all, there are more of them, and radio singles are more accessible sooner than the esoterica of record stores.  (Speaking of which, I’m pretty sure we stilled called them record stores well after they stopped selling vinyl records…but that’s a whole other esoteric discussion.)  So, your life in radio singles.  What would it look like?

Some rules:

  • They have to be singles that you remember the release of, either on the radio or on television.
  • They must evoke a person, time, place or way of being whenever you hear them.
  • You must list them chronologically, or as Rob from High Fidelity has it, autobiographical.

I’ll start.

An Innocent Man (song)
Oh yes I am.

1. “An Innocent Man” by Billy Joel, 1983.

2. “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel, 1983.

3. “Gloria” by Laura Branigan, 1983.

4. “The Longest Time” by Billy Joel, 1984.

*1, 2, and 4: I listened to this album all the time in the basement with my dad in the house we lived in when I was born.  We had a silver analog stereo, and I remember wondering where the songs and singers went when they faded out.  We watched cartoons, practiced spelling, reading, and boxing and listened to Billy Joel. I danced and jumped to the doo-wop grooves of this album and made the record to skip.  This would directly lead to the need for digital audio in the Cocca household.  3: I remember seeing this performed on one of those awesome pop shows.

5. “Take On Me” by A-ha, 1984. One of the first music videos I ever saw. It was a cartoon. And it was perfect.

Born in the USA
I went with this instead of the "Born in the USA" cover. Sorry, ladies.

6. “Born In The USA” by Bruce Springsteen, 1984. My dad had this one too. I remember singing the chorus as loud as I could in my room.

7. “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr., 1984.  If you were a kid in the 80s with any access to a radio, you loved this song. I had a Ghostbusters mirror from a fair in my room. It fell off the wall and broke, probably because I was dancing too enthusiastically to “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr.

Speaking of.  8.”Dancing On the Ceiling” by Lionel Richie, 1986. Dancing. On. The. Ceiling! I remember this in conjunction with being at my cousins’ house and seeing  the Latter Day Saints commercial where the little boy takes a groceries to his lonely neighbor.

9. “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon, 1986. Another one I remember because of the video. And the trombone.

10. “True Blue” by Madonna, 1986. Walking around my grandma’s development and singing it to show my older cousins that I knew a Madonna song.

11. “Luka” by Suzanne Vega, 1987. The 80’s could be effing scary.

12. “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” by the Beastie Boys, 1987.  I was licensed to spill.

13. “Superstitious” by Europe, 1988. Because I decided I should start watching MTV and have a favorite hairband. I was 8.

14. “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys, 1988. Cocktail and Uncle Jesse were everywhere that year. Elementary school music class “bring your favorite tape to school day” was no exception. What a cool song. Hard to believe Mike everlovin’ Love wrote it without Brian.

15. “Make Me Lose Control” by Eric Carmen, 1988. My sister was 3 and LOVED this song.

Rock the House (album)
Too literal? Too fresh!

16. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, 1988. The first rap song I can really remember.

17. “Nightmare On My Street” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, 1988. My cousin and I were at our grandparents’ house and called the station to request this one. We got through and got on air and listened to it on our Pop’s radio in his den. I dedicated it “to everybody.” I think it was Halloween.

18. “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, 1989. I was in fourth grade. She was so hot. And the video was awesome.

19. “Batdance” by Prince, 1989. From the Batman soundtrack. My cousin insisted that Prince said the f-word in it. Dancers were dressed like half Jokers/half Batmen. Started watching Vh1 around this time.

20. “Cherish” by Madonna, 1989. Reminded me of The Association. Thought she was pretty. Wanted to live underwater.

21. “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx, 1989. Do I listen to pop music because I’m miserable, or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?


22. “Runnin’ Down A Dream” by Tom Petty, 1989. Cartoon video. Awesome song.  Discovered it (and Tom Petty) while looking for something to watch.

23. “Free Fallin'” by Tom Petty, 1989. Two kids singing this on the escalator at the mall. She loves Jesus? And America? I am 9 and so do I.

24. “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak, 1989. This is when I started to realize there was something inexplicably beautiful about being heartsick. Could longing be better than having? Wait, what? Nevermind.  Baseball cards!

25. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Billy Joel, 1989.

26. “Another Day In Paradise” by Phil Collins, 1989.

25. “I Wish It Would Rain Down” by Phil Collins, 1989.

27. “Leningrad” by Billy Joel, 1989.

28. “The Downeaster Alexa” by Billy Joel, 1990.

29. “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor, 1990.

I'm totally bald, guys.

*25-29: I memorized “We Didn’t Start The Fire” for a poetry recital and explicated “Another Day In Paradise” for an English project. These tracks and these albums crystallized some early ideas about social justice, history, politics, longing, work…

30. “Black Velvet” by Allanah Myles, 1990. In addition to Jesus, I must now also come to terms with Elvis. Staying up late on Friday nights watching Vh1 and the Family Channel with my mom.

31. “One More Try” by Timmy T, 1990. I wonder what kinds of things people do to screw relationships up. Driving to my grandparents’ house past the municipal golf course and hearing it on the radio.

32. “No Myth” by Michael Penn, 1990. I had trouble sleeping as a kid. I used to listen to the local adult contemporary station every night and I really loved all these 1989/1990 songs. And black jeans.

33: “I’ve Been Thinking About You” by Londonbeat, 1990. See above. Sha-pop-pop. I’d often hear “No Myth” and “I’ve Been Thinking About You” back-to-back on ninety-six-one. And “King of Wishful Thinking” and so many other classics. “Wicked Game” was like a bonus.

34. “It Must Have Been Love” by Roxette, 1990. I remember hearing this in the car for the first time.

35. “Hazard” by Richard Marx, 1991. Mystical. This is one of the great narrative videos of the early 90s. I buy Rush Street.

36. “Baby, Baby” by Amy Grant, 1991. And everything else from Heart In Motion.

37. “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” by Bryan Adams, 1991. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Soundtrack. Video plays at the end of the VHS tape. This is the single greatest “couples” song ever played at any elementary school skating party. I am in 6th grade and am smitten. See #21.

38. “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. One of these arty grown up bands they’re playing on Vh1 when I’m 11. More of this, please. I hear it walking past the Tilt-A-Whirl at Dorney Park.

He found you at Kmart. I taped you on a Kenwood.

39. “Motownphilly” by Boyz II Men, 1991. I don’t think anything needs to be said about this song. I borrowed the album from my cousin and dubbed it. They came to the Allentown Fair that year with Hammer and TLC. I was not allowed to go.

40. “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” by Boyz II Men, 1991. See above. These guys were the real deal.

41. “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men, 1992. See above. Still waiting for theuppityupalexvanderpoolera.

42. “Just Another Day” by John Secada, 1992. Remember Adult Contemporary?  Do you miss it as much as I do?

43. “Jesus Is Still Alright” by DC Talk, 1992. Samples the Doobie Brothers, Madonna, and Snap! The video on that Christian station out of Bethlehem makes me want to grow a goatee. Nathan Key turns me on to Free At Last.

44. “The One” by Elton John, 1992. And we’re back to see #21 above.

Redaction: I forgot “Into The Great Wide Open” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1991. The early 90’s music video aesthetic is something I miss. Petty was dressing like a hippie pirate at this point and I first heard this song on SNL. When you’re a kid, and you’ve sort of grown up on a certain album by a certain artist, and then you start getting a little older and that artist releases something new, it’s sort of like John on Patmos. This is a great track with a great narrative video on a great album from a great artist. When I was 11, this is what I was listening to instead of Nirvana.

Part 2 forthcoming next month.


Nick Hornby image via Wikipedia. Billy Joel image via Wikipedia, fair use. Bruce Springsteen image by werejellyfish via Flickr. JJ/FP, Phil Collins, and Boyz II Men images via Wikipedia, fair use.