The song I composed one potentially bullet-riddled night in Italy

‘On the Way to St. Peter’s.’ | Rome, 2008 | TheStoryIsTheThing.substack.com

By Douglas John Imbrogno | december 19.2022

I have written exactly one song outside the border of the continental United States and it is one of my favorites. I came upon the tune’s original version recently while reorganizing my photos and videos on a new computer. Titled at the time, “I Won’t Be Famous,” the music-video-slideshow version you will hear below was birthed during a two-week trip to Italy in June 2008, a journey I took with my son, Lucas, and his cousin, Neil. It was a ‘Way-to-go!’ high school graduation present for the young men, whose grand prize was to witness Santana perform in the remarkable extant Roman coliseum in Verona. But there were many other grand prizes along the way — this was Italy, after all — as we made stops in Milan, Venice and finally, Rome. As the boys tried to pick up Italian babes while post-midnight clubbing in Rome, I came back to our 5th floor apartment near the Termini train station and penned a draft of the song below with my sapphire-blue Washburn Rover traveling guitar.

The tune tackles themes that have only grown more acute as I age: one’s relationship to the desire to be seen and “known”; what it’s like to get seriously lost in your life; what it’s like to try to ‘find’ yourself again; and what we may leave behind in the end faced with ‘more time behind / than time ahead …‘ As in those boys, now turned to men: ‘… In their eyes, you leave a trace …

I recorded the tune on my laptop once home in America with help from Garageband, multitracking voices and instruments. I then matched the music to portraits of our peregrinations around Italia, often using the boys as willing props. This song has since been re-titled and reworked as “The Mountains of Instead” (the title derives from the poem “Autumn Song” by W.H. Auden). The tune is featured in a killer version on the CD “You Can’t Be Lost,” by The BrotherSisters, my last band, with bandmates Albert Frank Perrone and Marylin McKeown adding harmony vocals and instrumentation, ace-engineered and produced by maestro Bob Webb. That version is much different from this one. But this is where the song germinated, late one night in The Eternal City.


“I Won’t Be Famous.” | CLICK TO VIEW VIDEO


I was distracted from this my task that night by a few significant concerns. Mainly, that the bullet-riddled bodies of my son and nephew might at that very moment be floating face down in the ancient Tiber River that weaves through Rome. I had left the boys on the Piazza Navona about 10 p.m., a party-central hub with multiple spokes into Rome’s nightlife. I wished some time alone at the apartment on one of our last nights in Rome. The boys wished to go clubbing.

So, it was that you may visualize me standing on the streets of Rome in shorts and slippers, as midnight passed. And then … 1 a.m. And 2 and 3 a.m. And, then, 4 a.m. I dialed constantly to them via a pre-cellphone walkie-talkie rented for the trip (this was 2008, after all). All I got for my trouble was a recorded message in an amiable English woman’s accent: ‘Sorry, this line cannot go through …’. My fret-level rising, you may visualize a Freaked Out Dad and Uncle peering frantically down the hill towards the Piazza Navona, imagination running riot. Had they been assassinated after attempting to pick up a Mafia’s don’s gorgeous teenage twin daughters, after which he dumped them in the Tiber for the fishes?


The boys goofing — this was in a castle-museum in Milan. | Italy, 2008.

As dawn colored the sky cherry-red atop Rome, the boys came ambling up the hill. Grinning from ear to ear. “Hey, Dad! Sorry, the phones wouldn’t work inside the clubs. And then we forgot to call after we left!” said Lucas. “We had a great time!” chimed in Neil. “Man, are Italian cocktails expensive!!!”

I grounded them from Italy for five years after that …


“I Won’t Be Famous” — since, retitled “The Mountains of Instead”

Photo by eberhard 🖐 grossgasteiger on Unsplash

NOTE: The following lyric sheet reflect some wording changes I made to how I perform this song nowadays and not as heard in the 2008 version above. ~ Douglas


By douglas imbrogno | copyright 2008-2023

Clear, unscaleable, ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead,
From whose cold cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.

~ W.H. Auden, from “Autumn Song”


I won’t be famous — I won’t be known.
But I have tales to tell — of places I have known.
And we must harvest all those seeds …. we have sown.

I have been greedy — I have been lost …
In the Valley of Darkness, where all roads criss-cross.
Where the stone stops rolling — swallowed by the moss.

CHORUS:
More time behind — than time a-head.
You cannot scale — the Mountains of Instead.
Sons and daughters — take your place …
In their eyes — you leave a trace.

I have been crazy — one of the mad.
I have been cruel and — I have been had.
I built a castle — it looked so grand!
The ocean turned it — back into sand.

I’ve lived in Paris — dreamed in Rome.
Told lies, told truths — in unread poems.
It comes to nothing — in the end.
Except for if you — have been a friend.

CHORUS:
More time behind — than time a-head.
You cannot scale the Mountains of Instead.
Sons and daughters — take your place …
In their eyes — you leave a trace.

Have we been brave? I’m not so sure.
Wise men advise you — ‘Go seek the cure!’
I sat an hour — before the dawn …
The world swirling and twirling,
Tumbling and stumbling …
Slipping and tripping along
— ‘til it’s gone.

I’ve been so good! And been so bad …
I’ve been a saint! And been a cad.
Some people love me — I love them back!
‘Cause one day, this movie — will fade to black.
Some people love me — I love them back!
‘Cause one day, this movie — will fade to black …

One day this movie — will fade to black.
One day this movie — will fade to black.
One day this movie — will fade to black.


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