Frank Sinatra’s hit My Way and Lucio Dalla’s canzone Piazza Grande were released only three years apart. Everyone knows Sinatra’s piece, but few outside Italy will have heard of Piazza Grande. Fewer still are perhaps aware that Sinatra’s enduring hit was set to the music of a French song. The lyrics, however, are original and account for the song’s undying appeal. They also bring the song closer to Dalla’s Piazza Grande, to which it serves as a paradigmatic counterpart. I’d like to explain why.
My Way is the creed of the self-made man, the catechism of the industrial-age hero, whose belief in his own power of self-determination and free-will is able to unlock the resources allowing him to rise above contingency and become master of his own destiny. This is the New Man of the capitalist order, the Hercules of renewed works and hours, a model of triumph, pride and self-proclamation whose adventum into the 20th-century forum is celebrated as much as envied. My Way is the dream of the man at the end of history, who may have regrets and remembered setbacks, but whose energy and will have the power to create worlds ex nihilo, starting with his own, to provide a new blueprint for the future of humanity. In this steel-age Confessions, there may be concessions, buts, howevers and neverthelesses, but the bottom line is, as the chorus keeps reminding us, that ‘I did it my way’. It is a triumph and a celebration.
Lucio Dalla’s Piazza Grande approaches the same material with different eyes, a different mind and, what’s more important, a different heart. As the song remains unfamiliar for most of us, it’s worth saying a few words about its general tenor. The title refers to the main square, the beating heart of any Italian town, which the singer has made his home, surrounded by stray cats and strangers, whose loves, hopes, fears and defeats he shares and is utterly privy to.
Dormo sull’erba e ho molti amici intorno a me,
gli innamorati in Piazza Grande,
dei loro guai, dei loro amori tutto so,
sbagliati e no.
I sleep on the grass and I have a lot of friends around me;
the lovers in Piazza Grande,
I know everything about their troubles and loves, wrong or not.
The poet recounts his precarious condition in sweet cadences, his desire for love and prayer, fellowship and dreams. Accepting the piazza as his home, he tentatively traces a universe of longing, an existential state of poverty contented nonetheless with the crumbs under the table, the beauty and truth hiding in the grass, under the benches in the piazza.
Yet, just like Sinatra’s My Way, Dalla’s song celebrates the deployment of the individual free will, the sense of responsibility, source of the starving, homeless poet’s actions. Just like the hero of My Way, the vagabond on the bench risks a ‘a modo mio’ (my way), which becomes as much part of the chorus as ‘I did it my way’ is for Sinatra’s Gatsby:
A modo mio
Avrei bisogno di carezze anch’io
A modo mio
Avrei bisogno di sognare anch’io.
My way I, too, would need affection
My way I, too, would need to dream.
Dalla is never closer to Sinatra than when he proclaims:
Ma la mia vita non la cambierò mai mai
A modo mio
Quel che sono l’ho voluto io.
But I’ll never change my life,
What I am is what I wanted.
What I am is what I wanted. I did it my way.
The languages match, the psychologies are similar, but there is an impassable ocean between Sinatra’s triumphalist hero (‘I faced it all and I stood tall’) and Dalla’s downhearted derelict. The former is checking the balance and is finding himself in credit. The latter welcomes his wretched Geworfenheit (being-thrown-into-the-world), cherishing the small pleasures, overlooking the cosmic injustices, and taking possession of the best spot on earth, under the open sky, ‘amid the cats who have no owner, like me’ (tra i gatti che non han padrone come me attorno a me).