There’s an episode in the life in Bob Dylan which I’ve never seen mentioned in any of the books I’ve read about and by him and can’t find on any of the reams of websites dedicated to his work. Dylan’s work and life is the subject of all sorts of rumours, some generated by himself, and so it makes sense to be sceptical. Nonetheless, three people I’ve met independently of each other here in Italy have told me the same story, and the basic ‘facts’ are as follows.
A few years ago a youngish (for Italy…) culture minister by the name of Dario Franceschini decided that his country needed a more global and modern image. He was sick of hearing the same old cliches about pizza, opera and the mafia, and particularly resented what was for him one of Italy’s most embarrassing symbols: its national anthem (‘Il Canto degli Italiani‘ – the song of the Italians). For all that most such songs are bellicose hymns, this one really, as they say in Italy, è il colmo – it takes the biscuit. Not only had its unofficial title (‘Fratelli d’Italia’ – brothers and sisters of Italy) recently been stolen for the name of yet another new party of the euphemistically-named ‘centre-right’. It was also aggressive, hostile, and, in the age of Isis et al, outright terroristic: ‘We are ready to die’, it bellowed, before going on to belittle Italy’s EU neighbours the Austrians and finally claim Italy as an inherently Christian nation, revealing to the world the ‘ways of the lord’.
It’s ironic, then, that the person who he thought might be willing to take on a task on such a scale was himself someone who had voiced similarly evangelical sentiments in the past: Bob Dylan. It was a tiro lungo – a long shot. But Franceschini had, from way back in his university days, been a good friend of the singer Francesco de Gregori, who had recently been in New York recording his album of Dylan songs and who had actually met the man himself at a party. It turned out that Dylan was not only a fan of Italian music, but was also quite knowledgeable about the country’s history. He didn’t speak much of the language, but wasn’t it about time, thought Franceschini, that Italy fully embraced globalisation, becoming the first non-English-speaking country in the world to have a national anthem sung in the international language?
To his astonishment and delight, the feelers he put out to Dylan’s management team via his friend Francesco were well received. Dylan was interested in the idea, although he wasn’t sure whether he wanted his involvement to become public knowledge. As it happened he had a concert scheduled in Italy just a couple of months later, in Turin. How would it be, enquired Franceschini timorously, if the great man were to come to Rome for a few days following the concert, just to see how things went?
So it was that Dylan spent the first few days of July 2015 in the heat of the early Roman summer. The two men got on enormously well, and as Culture Minister Franceschini was able to show his guest some parts of the city and its immense cultural heritage that few get to see. They bonded over a shared love of Caravaggio and of 13th century Italian poetry. That part of the trip went enormously well.
However, not everything ran smoothly. Dylan’s well-known habit of getting to know cities undercover, at street level, away from the world of five-star hotels and luxury dining establishments, didn’t stand him in very good stead in the Italian capital. Within a few days of arriving he was starting to complain bitterly about the atrocious state of the public transport network, the staggering amount of litter in the streets, the constant problems with mobile connectivity, the manifold challenges presented by the deceptively tricky task of locating a working ATM machine, the endless queues and mind-numbing bureaucracy involved in something as simple as posting a package back home, and the general rundownness of the place. Thankfully, though, his negative experiences didn’t stop his creative juices from flowing – the degradation and daily frustrations seemed to stimulate his imagination. Sadly, however, the song he came up with after the five days were up was judged unsuitable by all concerned. Franceschini gave a solemn oath that he would never share details of the project with anyone, Dylan flew back to California, and the song that he wrote has never been played or heard in public. Until now.
(Incidentally, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who’ve suggested replacing the photo of Dylan with Pisapia with one of Dylan and Franceschini. As far as I know the two have never met, so it would involve getting in touch via representatives of both men and trying to engineer an encounter. I only wrote this for a cheap laugh and I don’t believe it’s worth all that work. I’m not Tony Hawks.)