Francesco Guccini is one of the most admired of the Italian cantautori of the 1970s, part of a generation that changed the face and principles of Italian popular music. Among peers such as Fabrizio de André, Francesco De Gregori, Lucio Dalla, or Paolo Conte, Guccini stands out for his fiercely uncompromising stance, which has translated into a career of remarkable aesthetic and ideological coherence. A poetic, if rather fatalistic, observer of life with a keen eye for the locale of the Italian provinces, Guccini's songs are tales of existential anguish over the passing of time and the regret over missed opportunities, lost causes, and friends. In the context of Italian culture, however, Guccini's persona is arguably as significant as his music. He has come to represent a lone, incorruptible moral force even to younger audiences and colleagues who do not necessarily or readily identify with the cantautori genre.
Born on June 14, 1940 -- four days after Italy entered World War Two -- Guccini spent the war years at his grandparents' house on the Apennines, and moved back to his native town of Modena in 1945. From that moment on, Guccini's life and work was indissolubly associated with the central region of Emilia Romagna, and particularly with his adopted hometown of Bologna, the city where his family relocated in 1961. The towns, landscape, language, and local characters of the Emilia Romagna region would feature extensively in Guccini's songs. It took a while for the young Francesco to find his calling, as he spent his twenties alternating between teaching jobs and university exams in the field of Literature, local journalism, a stint in the army, and an ongoing interest in music that had started in his teens. After teaching himself to strum the guitar and play the harmonica, he formed his first band, the Hurricanes (later rechristened the Snakes) at 17, and immediately began to write songs. During the '60s he performed solo or collaborated with a number of local acts (I Marinos, I Gatti, Equipe 84), and slowly but steadily built a reputation as a songwriter, heavily influenced by the protest folksingers of the time. The early Bob Dylan was the obvious referent, but equally important to Guccini's development were the Italian traditional songs from the workers' and anarchists' movements. In 1967, one of his own compositions, the controversial "Dio è Morto," was recorded by I Nomadi (who would jumpstart their career by singing Guccini's songs, not unlike the Byrds with Dylan's). The song caused quite a stir, as it was banned by the Italian Broadcasting Network RAI but praised by the Vatican. It also brought Guccini some much-needed attention and landed him a recording contract with EMI. He would stay with the company for his entire career, the longest association EMI has had with an Italian artist in history. Guccini's first album, Folk Beat No. 1, was released in 1967 and it went largely unnoticed, even if it contained some of what would eventually become Guccini's most famous songs, such as "Auschwitz" and "In Morte di S.F." (better known as "Canzone per una Amica"). In retrospect, Guccini's debut album offered a blueprint for his entire career, introducing his endearing, thick-accented drawl, and showing off his amazing talents as a writer equally comfortable in the registers of historical analysis, political or social satire, and personal introspection. Due Anni Dopo, a second, equally strong collection, followed in early 1970. In that same year he visited the United States, a long-cherished dream that soon turned sour. As many Italians of his generation did, Guccini nurtured a profound admiration for American culture (he taught English literature at Dickinson College in Bologna for 20 years), and he was shocked to realize how deeply Puritanical and unintellectual American society could be, worlds away from the liberality and modernity he had imagined from its music and literature. Upon his return, his songs started to turn away from American protest folk music, becoming more literate and long-winded -- not to mention even more taciturn and pessimistic. Key to these changes was the introduction of arranger and keyboard player Vince Tempera, bassist Ares Tavolazzi, and drummer Ellade Bandini for Guccini's third album, L'Isola non Trovata, released in late 1970. These musicians, among Italy's foremost session players, would become Guccini's studio and tour band for virtually his entire career and substantially influence his moving away from the traditional format of three-minute verse/chorus folk songs to six-or-more-minutes-long narrative pieces set to an understated jazzy background, with piano taking over the acoustic guitar as the dominant voice. 1972 saw the release of Radici, Guccini's breakthrough album that all but secured his entrance in the pantheon of Italy's most beloved cantautori. The album also included his signature song "La Locomotiva," based on the real story of an anarchist who stole a train engine in 1893, and drove it at full speed into Bologna's main station, crashing it. The song went on to became a symbol of the Italian left, and forever cast in stone Guccini's reputation as a "political" songwriter -- a judgment that even a cursory examination of Guccini's work would expose at best as highly restrictive, if not misleading.
Guccini's first four albums are all seminal masterpieces of Italian folk-rock and constitute essential listening for anyone interested in modern Italian culture. They also featured the bulk of Guccini's greatest songs, with classics such as "Vedi Cara," "L'Isola non Trovata," "Un Altro Giorno è Andato," "Il Vecchio ed il Bambino," or "Incontro" (plus the songs already mentioned above), all to become staples of his superb live repertoire. Guccini's subsequent albums were overall more consistent than brilliant, but for all of their customary seriousness of design and execution, tended to include fewer memorable songs -- roughly one classic per album. The one notable exception was 1976's Via Paolo Fabbri 43, that added the legendary rant "L'Avvelenata," as well as the moving "Canzoni Quasi d'Amore" and "Il Pensionato" to the canon of Guccini's finest. The tango-influenced Signora Bovary from 1987 was an elegant return to form, continued in 1990 with the much praised Quello Che Non.... While Guccini's records were no longer considered as indispensable as they had been in the '80s, they were still typically well-received, in both commercial and critical terms. However, it was his ever-popular concerts and live albums, such as the excellent Fra la Via Emilia e il West(perhaps the best introduction to the artist), that truly kept him alive in the public imagination. His studio albums from the '90s and 2000s were few and virtually interchangeable, and denoted an intensification of Guccini's erudite prose, which gained him considerable literary recognition and awards. In 1989 he published his first novel, the best-seller Croniche Epifaniche, and has since divided his time between literature and music, writing several novels and short stories (including a series of popular crime thrillers with Loriano Macchiavelli) as well as a dictionary of the Pavana region dialect. In addition, in the first decade of the 21st century, the 60-year old Guccini took to appearing in films -- ostensibly just for the fun of it -- most notably in fellow singer and friend Luciano Ligabue's directorial debut Radiofreccia, and in two of Leonardo Pieraccioni's blockbusters. ~ Mariano Prunes, Rovi