Brotherhood and Unity: On Catholics, Metal, and TYTUS from Trieste

25 May 2019 (Palestra LUPo, Catania), Jettasangu Fest Vol. 7

Monochromatic clothes with crosses skulls death cemeteries blood bones and disturbing slogans written across their chests and backs, long hair, ripped sleeves, chains, all black to black. I keep thinking: the rebels that stay are poor catholic boys shouting at their baptism priest. And how they have learned to insult him! How they’ve learned to growl in Scandinavian keys, strum their guitars to Anglophone syntax and cold-weather beats, but at the end all the screams are thrown into the face of their God Almighty who can’t take a nap without hearing a Catholic’s plead… There’s no better tool for blasphemy in the hand of these Sicilian boys than their older sibling’s electric guitar and a few Led Zeppelin records, one chord followed by ten Ave Marias at Sunday mass. How sweetly their fingers glide along the cords of self-determination. But on Sunday, yes, on Sunday, they all line up carefully—rows of neatly strung together hierarchies of aunts, uncles, grandparents, husbands, wives, daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, cousins, godfathers, fiancées—yes, they all line up carefully to kiss the holy hand and repent. For repent, they will. Too many church bells resound in their sleep. And I’m tired of all these crosses and Madonnas in empty tourist-filled cathedrals, I’m singing to a Tina Turner tune, “what’s God got to do, got to do with it?” Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do…

This is why I am always alone in these places. Or better, I only manage to write when I come alone to these places (CSO Auro, Palestra Lupo, BarnAut). The presence of a Male Companion discomforts me, it kills the word in me, it sucks in the room’s and the waiter’s attention; His needs, His worries, His remorse become the rug that ties it all together—ornamental but painful when swept from under one’s feet; the Male Companion commits logocide; a master in the art of subtle wanting, he wants so shrewdly that at the end you are convinced it was your idea to give in the first place. At least I haven’t gotten pregnant yet. This is why I am always alone in these places. It is a choice, and my pen and notepad work like garlic and silver in a room full of drunken metallari. An intentional isolation so that the word can burgeon in me. And I’m alone while folks tend to their cats, their husbands, their beards, and their plants, but my night is only about to start while yours is coming to an end, and I got love in my tummy and a tiny little pain, and a ten-ton catastrophe and a million-dollar mane, and I’m pushing my wheel of love down Plebiscito street, I look at them now, they’re all at my feet. The Male Companion has gone to stare at the buddha, but the room is still full of his fellow word assassins. They’ve taken over now, they’ve got the floor now with their guitars and tattooed shoulders all covered with the holy cross and its perversions, they’re singing now, singing or praying, I can’t tell the difference any longer; “necessity is the mother of prayer,” Goethe once wrote, freely translated here, “and those who want to learn how to pray, they better go to Italy. There a stranger will certainly find necessity.” Down on your knees, of course.

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Stasera custodisco gli sguardi.

And I take a look around. I’m quite obviously not from here. But everyone else is: the same faces in the crowd, week after week, show after show, the same boots, sneakers, sleeveless shirts, dark hair, and big brown eyes. As usual, too much testosterone in the air. One girl sticks out, her endless legs bundled up in a leopard skirt, the boys want to spread them apart. “She ain’t here for the music,” someone comments while passing by, “all dolled up, perfumed, and clean, she ain’t here for the music.” The gig starts late when folks are already exhausted, lukewarm the beer. Clusters of friends from way-back-when-we-were-together-in-high-school cluster around the bar and around each other, couples, triplets, cliques being the acceptable units of socialization. Lonely wolves remain, well, lonely (silver-and-garlic-silver-and-garlic). The social fabric is tightly woven, not even a needle comes through. But “there’s a crack in everything,” the famous L. Cohen line goes, “that’s how the light gets in.” I guess the fact that I’m writing these words, kissing their men, drinking their Moretti, teaching their kids, means that somewhere somehow a thread has come loose. Someone without a sin has thrown a stone and caused the window glass to crack, just enough to let in some foreign breeze. Was it you, God? You’re quite a good shot, aren’t ya? Window crack or not, on this three-legged island, I feel like a giant in a dollhouse, carrollesque, my right foot in the fireplace, my left arm in the kitchen closet, stiff neck and a head stuck between the painted ceiling and the baroque chandelier, sometimes I suffocate, but at least they feed me well (“eat me,” “drink me,” “swallow me”), at least, once I figure out how to measure up and operate within human proportions, I can walk down to the beach and collect weird looking sea-creatures, maybe open up a bar and write and spend the end of my days here, as the promiscuously lone incarnation of the Americana. But right now, there’s a hardcore metal show happening right at my hip that’s blocked open the bedroom door. Let’s try to see through the baroque crystal prisms that blur my vision and tickle my ear, let’s look and see and hear what’s going on.

The Ossuary, the first band from Bari, has a woman on the bass (yay!), but the sound is failing them, blurry, blurry, I cannot hear their flow behind the distortions of the mixing console. I move on to the next Moretti. Then comes the band from Trieste on their “Sicilian Tendencies” tourI haven’t really done my homework so I wonder: What is their accent? What their tune? How much Saba flows through their veins, how much of my fatherland alive? Axl Rose from Trieste (Ilija Riffmeister – Voice & Guitar, Italian-Slovenian) is shaking his shoulders vigorously in preparation for the performance, his baseball cap hanging from the side of his bellbottom jeans, and just as I start asking myself these questions the bassist (Markey Moon – Bass & Backing Vocals, Trieste) shouts:

“Noi siamo TYTUS, di Trieste, Jugoslavia!”

(We’re TYTUS, from Trieste, Yugoslavia!)

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TYTUS performing @ Jettasangu Fest Vol. 7 ▼ The Ossuary ‡ Tytus ‡ Sinoath, 25 May 2019 (Palestra LUPo, Catania)

(iPhone quality)

So THIS is why I came here tonight. I want to shout back: “Comrade!” But I forget, Tito is dead. I smile instead and ask to meet them the next day, hear what they’ve got to say. Rhyming accidentally by the way. Allora, the second band is from Trieste, Jugoslavia. Trst, that is. I smile at their provocation and stage presence, no trace of God yet. They’re also quite obviously not from here, geographically, historically, politically. A generation above me, their sound revives the crowd, confident, melodic, riding the wave of traditional harmonies, playful, but not unreflective. AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Rolling Stones, but darker, my friend Graham says “sounds like some early Opeth songs.” But “we have no idols,” Mark SimonHell (guitar, from Treviso) makes sure to tell me the next day, with a pair of eyes to get lost in, sit down, have a glass of Wild Turkey, and think of naked shoulders while listening to Nick Cave’s murder ballads. These guys play to have fun, “ci piace suonare, non siamo degli hipster.” Their comment makes me think of one-man shows in Chicago, bored beards and anorexic bangs, facial expressions that say “I’d rather be at home watching Netflix than play here for you.” Actually, “I’d rather pick up after my dog than put on a show for you.” There’s no band on the stage and an audience in the pit while TYTUS are playing, it’s all very old school, swathing, enticing, it just feels good to move one’s head to a concentrated beat, to a “rock’n’roll veloce, cattivo, con presenza scenica.” Ilija’s voice and stage presence, the way he and Mark dialogue through glances and chords in perfect synchrony are a remainder of the times when music and performance mattered. Ah, yes, Pekinška Patka, Teška Industrija, Divlje Jagode, this is pure energy flow, but not without a message.

TYTUS are your neighborhood’s eco-friendly metal band, it turns out. Just check out the lyrics and read what seem to be typical genre keywords and metal iconography through an ecological, critical perspective: apocalypse, dawn, rain, night, disobedience, desperation, drought, hope, verge, etc. Environmental disasters, lack of political awareness, a critique of capitalism and the social system, is heavy metal the right genre to express such critiques? “Any genre is,” they respond succinctly. Ilija, Markey, and Frank Bardy (drums, Slovenian mother) all work full-time for the Trieste refugee centro di accoglienza, Mark makes guitars. So you are political, as the name of your band and last night’s provocation suggests? They laugh and Markey explains “yes, at first we thought of Tito, you know, saying that we’re from Trieste, Yugoslavia, is a provocation, it asks our audience to think a bit, to do some research, to not take things as they are. Someone in the audience in Palermo got offended when I said it on stage, and they left. As they should’ve, I don’t want unreflective people in my audience.” “But then,” Mark continues, “we also found this character from Masters of the Universe…” And here I was, thinking you’re deeply political… “Yesss, we are,” Mark comes back in with those eyes, “but we’re also just a bunch of silly dudes,” they all laugh out and I join in. Then I google “TYTUS Masters of the Universe” and find out that “Tytus was a heroic giant warlord with long blonde hair, who aided He-Ro in Preternia. His weapon of choice is an unusual hollowed-out ‘capture hammer,’ which he uses to grab his enemies…” An entire series of toy figures was released following the success of the show, and Tytus was one of the “rare Italian-only-released giant figures.” Right. It all makes sense now, and it reminds me of the fact that I’m a woman in a short checkered skirt sitting alone at a table with four metalhead musicians and one metalhead organizer, asking them about their music and observing them while they respond eagerly and with enthusiasm to the pen and the pad, silver-and-garlic, garlic-and-silver, silver-and-garlic, garlic-and-silver, I keep thinking to myself.

Do you consider yourselves Catholic?

– no

– no

– absolutely not

– atheist

Santo (the only Sicilian at the table, Tifone Crew representative, who’s silently witnessing the conversation), how about you? 

– “same.”

“We’re anticlerical,” Mark continues and you can tell they’re from an older generation—we Millennials, well, we’ve gone back to venerating institutions again… “A 25-year-old guy who goes to the university and mixes it up with religion—this, for instance, should absolutely not happen. The university should be a place free of religious influences. Maybe it has to do with the South—is it the sun that makes everyone go nuts? Look at South America, at Sicily, the religious fundamentalism, soccer. Kids are being taught two things: soccer and religion; but then they listen to Reggaeton that talks about women and money, and then on Sunday they go to church.” Aha! See opening paragraph.

And Svevo? Saba?

“Heavy metal wasn’t born on our soil. It has its own demands, and we respect them, we like them.”

It’s a borrowed genre, and TYTUS reproduce it alongside borderlines, it’s a game, it’s fun, it’s playful, it’s a genre dominated by Male Companions, but it is also a forum, an occasion to make music and speak about contemporary themes as well. Ilija has Slovenian origins. “15 years ago,” says Markey, “a band like ours would’ve been impossible.” Why? “The Slovenian community in Trieste is quite isolated, there’s a lot of segregation going on. 15 years ago we might have not met in this constellation, it would have been unthinkable to have a Slovenian singer, not because guys like Ilija would not have wanted it, but simply because they come from a very closed off community, closed off as a political consequence and not because of racism or xenophobia.” This explains Ilija’s accent that sounds unfamiliar to me. He says this is how it sounds when Slovenian native speakers speak Italian. The curse word for a Slav in Trieste is “Sčavo” (like “Yugo” in Germany), derived from “schiavo,” “slave,” which then led to the Italian greeting… “ciao!” Funny how at the basis of the most innocent light-hearted expressions there always lies a slave somewhere, be s/he black Balkan or just bothersome… Ciao, “greetings, slave!”

In Trieste, they don’t learn Slovenian in school although the connection between the two countries is strong. “Northern Italians speak German and French, but Trieste people don’t speak Slovenian,” Markey says. “My three-year-old daughter goes to a bilingual kindergarten, not because I have Slovenian origins, but because I’d like her to become sensitized to and learn something about the linguistic area, culture, and the country that is right there at our border. There is a lot of unfounded fear, ignorance, when it comes to our Slovenian neighbor. Older generations refuse to say ‘I’m going to Slovenia’ when they go there on vacation, but say instead ‘I’m going to the other side.'” The Other Side. This is what remains of Yugoslavia. Still “an Other” even if only as a phantom other. Yugoslavia, Europe’s phantom limb. It still hurts, it still itches, crusty, but not healed, TYTUS remind me of this open wound, of something that was there not so long ago and then it just disappeared. It disappeared politically, geographically, but Pekinška Patka, Divlje Jagode, and then… Krist Novoselić. I sense a nostalgia in TYTUS’s and Ilija’s words… a nostalgia for that “brotherhood and unity,” bratstvo i jedinstvo, that I have tattooed on my shoulder blade (yes yes sisterhood and all, I know). Brotherhood and unity, “si lavorava meno, si lavorava tutti,” Ilija says, everyone worked less, everyone had a job. “But then you had the German come down to vacation in Yugoslavia in his Mercedes Benz and folks here were driving Zastava, Yugo…” Yugoslavia disappeared politically, geographically, erased from the world map, but many things stayed… such as my uncle’s Yugo, still up and runnin’ y’all.

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For instance, Krist Novoselić, ladies and gentlemen, the bassist and founding member of Nirvana, Krist Novoselić, ladies and gentlemen, the Christ of grunge, is the son of Yugoslav immigrants to the US. During the unforgettable iconic Nirvana concert in Muggia [province of Trieste] (16 November 1991), just before Nirvana released Nevermind and gained worldwide fame, Krist, provokingly, like Markey, came up front to introduce the band and said in Serbo-Croatian:

“Dobro veče, mi smo Bijelo Dugme.”

(Good evening, we’re Bijelo Dugme.)

Ever heard of Goran Bregović? He was the guitarist of Bijelo Dugme, the all-times most popular rock band in Yugoslavia, from Sarajevo.

For instance, the first country to put out a compilation of Punk music immediately after the Sex Pistols in the 70s/80s was Yugoslavia. Listen to “Novi Punk Val.” But there was a difference in the Yugoslav punk message as compared to British punk: while the latter wanted anarchy, spoke up against “the system” in abstract terms, the former had communism on their shoulders. And they did not speak up against communism per se, but against the type of communism that was practiced. Yugoslav punk wanted a better, different communism, but communism nevertheless.

For instance, TYTUS introduce themselves as coming from a phantom country.

Then we talk about Turbonegro from Norway, Zeal&Ardor from Switzerland, Nuclear Assault from NYC who still make the same kind of music but are not so good anymore, about Judas Priest and Rob Halford’s iconic look that swept across the gay community, Uzeda from Catania and Fugazi, Laibach, about how Frank wants to meet David Grohl, about how some priest burned a manuscript right before his eyes, about how some girl came in to Mark’s store and asked whether they sell t-shirts from the “Ramones brand,” about how punk and metal are a fashion now and the ones who actually care for the music and the message are even fewer, more difficult to recognize among the vast crowds of tattooed, skull-shaved, long-haired, pierced fashion-followers, “the stylists have to invent something new, so now it’s the punk scene’s turn.” “È tutto finito,” Frank concludes apocalyptically, it’s all over now baby blue. Where to go when in Trieste? L’Osteria di Roby, il Grande Buffo, Osmiza. And then Ilija, his generous vocal cords so full of enthusiasm, nostalgia, clarity:

“I’d like to make one thing clear, though, that this one thing comes out clear about our band: our multiculturality, our fraternity without borders, this is who we are and what we stand for.”

Who would have thought that so much will come out from a night at Palestra Lupo? Who would have expected such conversations from a simple provocation (“We’re TYTUS from Trieste, Yugoslavia!”)? Who would expect anything to move here, in this lavastone city? But TYTUS make me hopeful for a night, for a few hours. It is so much about the music, but also so much about a feeling, about an attitude, about a way of living life, viewing the world, and making music. It’s all so playful but dead serious. Just the way I like it. Thanks, Tifone Crew.

Back to Palestra Lupo, May 25th2019. The last band from Catania is too perfect to be interesting, it’s your typical American heavy metal gig, so why are they from Catania and not, say, from Philly? What’s there that should entice me and make me want more? Not much. The leopard skirt with a girl draws all the attention, and I’m always alone in these places, what am I looking for? What on earth am I looking for among these long manes and monochromatically dressed poor catholic boys? There’s only one person of color in this place, and he’s taking out the trash, one leopard skirt with a girl, men in black, and an ex-yugo chick with a pen and a notepad, looking at you, looking at you. looking. at. you.

I’m tired, it’s 3am, my right foot’s still up the chimney, but at least I feel the breeze now, at least there are still some ghosts haunting this tricolored trilegged dollhouse: eloquent, talkative ghosts, they knock on these doors, they see my hand sticking out from the bathroom’s window and they caress it softly softly, they shake my hand, firmly, recognition flowing through the tip of my fingers, “brotherhood and unity” and a metal band from Trieste is what it takes to dispel the thick fog of catholic guilt and salvinianism that lingers above this town heavier than Etna’s hot ash and gravel, who would’ve thought, who would’ve thought, who would’ve thought.

Yours,

u principinu

(Catania, 26 May 2019)

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