Sometimes inspiration can come through commiseration.
A few years ago I found myself in the unique situation of sitting next to a man I found so similar to myself that it was frightening. There were obvious differences. The first – and perhaps most noticeable – was the fact that he was 82 years old. But what is age?
His name was Joe Tramontana. He was a former singer and writer. He was American-Italian. He had a crass sense of humor. Me, me, and me, I thought. But underneath his gregarious sense of humor and charismatic stage presence, I saw a quiet vulnerability that I related to. I suspected there had been a lot of angst in his life. I felt some pain.
And then after a couple of drinks, I found my suspicions to be true.
We talked for hours that first night about work, family, and women. Boy, did he have a lot to say about women.
“Oh, the girls that you can find if you sing the right songs!” he laughed. “Let me tell you…”
But soon, the topic of love dominated our discourse. At intervals between sharing our exploits of loves won and loves lost, we would get called onto stage to sing a few tunes. Somewhat expectedly, the night went from swing tunes (“Ain’t that a kick in the head!”) and Italian standards (“La lariula, pesce fritte baccala!”) to ballads. The tone of the songs matched the tone of our tales.
He asked me if I had ever been in love. I answered truthfully. One time, for real. Then maybe a time or two after, but I wasn’t sure.
“Love after the first one can be wonderful,” he said. “But it’ll never be the first one again.” Another round of drinks – Crown Royal for me, club soda for Joe T.
I told him the ways in which I had lost my first love – the immaturity, the impulsiveness, the petty jealousies. His story wasn’t all that different. We laughed at how similarly we had chased away people that still meant so much to us, though each had been absent from our lives for many, many years.
Then he got up and said, “I got a song you’ll like.”
He sang “Dio, Come Ti Amo” by Jack Jones.
“Dio, come ti amo,”
I still can hear her say.
“Oh, God, how much I love you…”
Yet I walked away.
He had command of everyone’s attention at the Red Fox. I sipped my Crown and tried not to cry in public.
When he finished, he told me that this song always reminded him of his first love. I found it both tragic and beautiful to hear such an admission from someone who had experienced so much life, had such perspective.
“You can’t regret it, but you can admit when you did something stupid.”
A year or two passed and I would see Joe from time to time at the Red Fox. His health was worsening (cancer), but his presence never faded. The Tuesday nights when he came to sing were always treasures.
One night, to show my appreciation for Joe and all he had shared with me, I took the stage and said, “This one’s for you, Joe.” Everyone at the bar knew him, of course. I sang the Italian version of “Dio, Come Ti Amo.” It had taken me a few weeks to perfect, but I was so proud of the fact that I had memorized the original, powerful dirge. I sang it with passion, with lost love on my brain, and when I finished I looked to him. I wanted so badly for him to know how much he had meant to me as a role model, for him to be moved by my song. Others turned to see his reaction, as well.
He nodded slowly before speaking.
“What in the hell are you singing it in Italian for? Nobody can understand a goddamn word you sang!”
Everyone around the bar, including me, broke into laughter. I threw my hands up in mock defeat. Only Joe would be able to take a moment where I bared my soul, trivialize it in front of an entire room of listeners, and somehow make me feel even closer to him. He told me he wanted to “show me how it was done,” so he sang the English version. I’d be lying if I said he didn’t blow me away.
About a year ago, I got an e-mail from my good friend Paul that Joe T. had passed away. The last time I saw him, we had traded jabs about who sang “Return to Me” better. He told me to keep on singing those songs so they didn’t go away.
That night, I went to the Red Fox and sang “Dio, Come Ti Amo” in his honor. The first verse, I sang in English. Wherever he was, I wanted him to understand “all the goddamn words.” Then, because I knew Joe well enough to know he’d want a laugh, I switched to the mother tongue. Paul, playing the piano, knew exactly why. It was hard to hold back the tears, but I knew Joe was smiling somewhere.
He still inspires me when I sing, when I write, and when I love. You never know when you’re going to be sitting next to an 82 year-old mirror. I’m glad that I had the good sense to open the door to my mind that night.
(As a bonus, here's a video of me singing the Italian version at Bistro 60. Joe, I hope this pisses you off just a little!)
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