It all started with the Beatles, as far as I remember. I mean, not with the Beatles, just, you know, with the music they played. Yes, yes, if I turn around and look back, that’s definitely who I would blame. I first began actively listening to music around the age of 9. It was really bad music at the start, the kind of stuff that would rightfully compromise my future career if it was ever made public that that’s what I was into. Then came the Beatles: four men, four bowl cuts, and a collection of melodies so sweet you’d lick your ears if only your tongue was long enough. I wasn’t yet around when the Beatles became who they ended up becoming, but that didn’t stop them from entering my life with their songs made of walruses, strawberries, submarines and subliminal messages secretly played backwards for my and Charles Manson’s unconscious minds to absorb, with all the issues that followed. I was 11 or 12, when, one day, my dad had come back from work early, and I had asked him to drive me to the shop where I would invest my meager savings into what became the foundation of my musical culture. “One” is likely to have been the first album I bought worth listening to. Before that, it was all just noise.
It was a time, year 2000, that seems so far removed from the present. A time when music stores still had a reason to be in business and internet connections were so slow it took you half a day to download a single song, which usually turned out to not even be the song you were looking for, but a very loud German video production where some overweight naked lady was finding delight in being urinated upon. A time where laptops were still uncommon to own and you, an innocent kid on a quest to expand his musical horizons, would unsuspectingly open questionable porn on the window-sized screen of the computer kept in the living room for family use while your mother would be watching TV behind you. A time where, to avoid punishment, you would have to explain that you were not, in fact, a mentally disturbed child with an early-emerging Bavarian kink of some sort, but actually an amateur criminal of the interwebs, a valorous pirate sailing through the darkest corners of the net to obtain protected art illegally for personal consumption. A time, year 2000, when you could envision the rest of your life only go downhill. It didn’t.
Computers, back then, were sadly not ready for proper piracy. Mine, at least, wasn’t. The very limited CD collection I owned would have had to suffice until technology caught up with my desire for copyright infringement. The Internet, though, was a truly amazing place. A land fertile for free information to spread unchanneled, not yet contaminated with addictive social media, fear of missing out on cryptocurrencies or socially accepted dating applications. Speed was lacking, but, on the other hand, no one was watching. Navigating the rough virtual seas of the web could lead anywhere, but you had not to be afraid as long as you remembered to delete your browsing history after each session. Online surprises were infinite. I, for example, could not download music, not as much as I wanted at least, but I could read stories about music, discover where bands came from, who influenced them, what instruments the played, how they played them and what was happening in their lives. On the Internet, I could be finding inspiration and a moment after, unexpectedly, see my idols crumble under the weight of their lies. I had been using my first computer for just a few weeks when I had to confront the reality that the Beatles as I knew them were nothing else than a hoax, a pre-Photoshop image alteration for mere marketing purposes. Paul McCartney was dead – secretly dead – and had been so for a long long time.
Paul McCartney, turns out, had died in 1967. Or 1969. One of the two, according to my sources. My after-school investigations had pretty consistent proof: first of all, Paul was the only member of the band not wearing shoes on the cover of Abbey Road. He was also pointing down with his finger – down towards hell, I assumed – and following in a procession-like walk an angelic looking John Lennon. And what about the plate of that car in the background? It says 28IF. Yes, McCartney would have been exactly 28 if he were still alive at the time of release of the album. Sargent Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Club Band also provided some impressive clues. The scene looked like a funeral, that was just undeniable. But why was there a bass guitar made out of flowers lying in the foreground, on the burial site? And why is McCartney not holding an instrument like everyone else? And why is there a priest hovering his open hand on top of Paul’s head? And what is Aleister Crowley the satanist, doing there? It all just smelled like dead Paul to me. Do we need to even talk about Yesterday and Today? Paul McCartney – or should I say William Campbell, the winner of a lookalike contest that substituted McCartney after his death in a lethal car accident? – is literally sitting inside a coffin. Well, you could argue that it’s just a box or a suitcase. Whatever, it’s a coffin. I couldn’t trust the Beatles anymore. The signs of betrayal were just too abundant. What else could they be hiding? What other truths would I uncover thanks to my 56K connection?
I continued to listen to a lot of music in the following years, but I became weary of idolizing artists that might not even have existed. Music went back to being just music, even if some side effects were still visible. From sixties rock I got into punk and with punk came a mo-hawk and with a mo-hawk came the chains and with the chains came my first attempt at crowd surfing which failed pretty spectacularly since I almost broke a leg in a mushroom of dust. I figured too late that to crowd surf you first need a crowd and Italian garage punk wasn’t a sound pleasing enough to attract any paying spectators. After that I got into ska, and got a Vespa and started riding to meetings where mods and skinheads (the good kind, not the neo-nazi kind) camped in pubs with gardens for days in a row dancing to Madness. Then it was the era of reggae, and obviously I grew dread-locks and developed a mild faith in Jah and Haile Selassie as every decent Rastafari would do after enough contact with good old Peter Tosh. I listened, in the different stages of my adolescence, to pretty much anything played with instruments. From blues to brutal metal, from grunge to grind core, from post-rock to plain acoustic. Growing up my lack of idols developed into a “if they can do it, I can do it” attitude. Those people chewing on live bats, headbanging and choking in their own vomit were only human after all. What was stopping me from yelling anarchy and getting groupies? With my first job, around 17 or 18, I bought a guitar and started taking lessons.
My teacher was a retired man with long, partly black, partly gray hair named Antonio. His background was classical, and he would say stuff like “Vivaldi is for men, Rolling Stones is for boys”. Nevertheless, just like in the Sixties, when he would play concerts with a rock band to pay for his studies at the conservatory, market demand had pushed him to set up a studio in his apartment’s guest room to train future guitarists. His wife had left him, not sure if before or after the traffic of wannabe Ozzy Osbornes began, and he dedicated his days almost completely to music. It was inspiring and sad at the same time. Antonio could play more or less any Jimi Hendrix song impeccably and on demand. He couldn’t sing any of them though. He didn’t speak English, but neither did I, so I wouldn’t have noticed that those sounds he screamed on top of the amplified vibrations of his Gibson were not the actual lyrics, if he hadn’t told me about his belief that not even Jimi Hendrix knew the lyrics of Jimi Hendrix’s songs, so it didn’t really matter what one sang. According to Antonio’s theory, the entire English language, within the context of rock music, was just a bunch of sounds no one really listened to or cared about, not even those who wrote the songs in the first place. “It just sounds good, that’s why it’s so popular” he would say, “Music is an abstract art. Don’t worry about meaning of words, poetry and stuff. Do you think the people high on acid at those festival listened to the lyrics? They didn’t. Neither should you”. I liked his approach.
It didn’t take long to discover that my musical talent was non existent. Both me and Antonio knew it. Three or so months had gone past and I had less then ten songs in my repertoire. Not one of them was worth playing at a party and I couldn’t even smash my guitar against my amplifier because: 1) I had no amplifier; 2) I didn’t have money for a second guitar. My journey toward the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame was fading into nothingness and the lessons were turning more and more often into conversations unrelated to chords and scale progressions. I discovered that Antonio’s idea that the English dictionary could be substituted in its entirety with random utterances was only one of his many theories on art and life. After I had spent a week learning Blackbird, I decided I would ask my master his opinion about Paul McCartney’s death. I was sure he would have something to say about it, and he did: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! You are saying that a musical genius at the peak of his career dies and is substituted with a second musical genius that looks exactly like him and no one notices? Have you ever heard Paul McCartney playing? Do you know anything about music?”. A bit rough, but he did have a point. The mystery I had carried with me for seven years was perhaps not that mysterious.
“You see,” Antonio was telling me “there’s a reason why people believe in this kind of bullshit”. People being me, of course. “We are getting stupider.” We also being me. “I have believed, for many years now, that we are regressing for natural reasons. I’ve done my research, talked to people. It’s all pretty clear. I’m not sure why they hide it from us. Actually it’s obvious why they hide, same reasons why they hide everything else.” The dead Paul conspiracy I had just lost was about to be substituted with a newer and better one. “You know how the World revolves around itself, right?” Right. “And you know how it also rotates around the sun, right?” Right. “Well, there’s a third rotation going on. Much slower and imperceptible, but definitely happening. The Earth doesn’t just revolve around a vertical axis. There is also a horizontal axis. So while our planet it’s turning eastward, it’s also, at the same time, turning southward. Slowly, very slowly. This inclination has an influence, somehow, on the development of populations”, “Ok… but somehow how?”, “I don’t know how, I’m a musician, not a scientist! They know! Think about it: it started in Africa. Egyptians were the peak of civilization. Then, who was next? Persians? Then the Greeks. Then the Romans, a bit further north. Then? The British, the Dutch, those guys up there. Then America. And now? Scandinavian countries. Everything works there, people are happy. It’s because the Earth is inclined in their favor. Civilization is moving north. We have been left behind. Next will be the Russians, they’ll take over the North Pole I tell you.” It made sense. I stopped playing guitar.
I ended up meeting Paul McCartney some ten years later. Well, not meet meet, I just saw him from some distance. I was working in a restaurant in central London and he came in to eat, just like normal humans do on a Saturday afternoon. By then, I saw myself as a rightfully skeptic adult not too prone for deception. Still, I couldn’t stop myself from observing his every move with a thought in the back of my mind: was it really him or was it the lookalike? He didn’t appear like a Beatles member very much, but he was wearing shoes and seemed pretty lively for a presumed deceased person. He walked past the entrance and was escorted to his table by the host. He looked at the menu. He ordered food. He ate the food. Drank some water. Was that a Paul McCartney kind of behavior in a restaurant situation? Or was it an actor enjoying his lunch as Paul McCartney would, cautious not to make a misstep but also relieved for having pulled this off for so many years? Were other customers turning heads to get a glimpse of good old Paul or were they turning heads to get a glimpse of what they thought was good old Paul but was in fact William Campbell, master of deception, performing his routine as smoothly as ever? I wanted to ask.
Look at me.
Is that you?
Is that you?
Is this real life?