written November 2018
On 26 July 2015, 1000 musicians gathered in Cesena, Italy to perform one song for a band they all loved, The Foo Fighters. The performance can be found on YouTube under the title “Learn to Fly – Foo Fighters Rockin’1000 Official Video”. The speech at the end of this story starts at the 4:03 mark in the video. This video captured my imagination from the first time I saw it. So many people having a great time doing one thing. I wrote this to try and capture the sense of wonder of being involved. The details written here are all fictitious as I don’t have a clue what actually happened that day other than what is in the video.
The car sputtered as I pulled back onto the highway from the gas station. Another reminder that I probably shouldn’t have made this drive. It was a crazy idea and I questioned again why I doing it. I glanced over at my guitar next to me in the front seat and smiled. Crazy. 1000 people…nonsense. But I did know why. Remembering the hours listening to their music after we fought, listening after she left, and all the listening when I didn’t know what else to do. They were a part of me and the possibility of being part of sending a message to them? Couldn’t pass that up no matter the state of my car.
Philippe snorted in the back seat and sat up. “Sommes nous ici?“ he asked? I glanced in the rear view mirror, “Sorry?” “Are we here?” he repeated. “Soon.” “Bien,” he uttered quietly and looked out the window..
The ten hour trip to Ludres to pick him up had been mostly uneventful. Mostly. I shuddered remembering the first gas station. Hearing the angry voices as I walked through the door was as much a jolt as the smell of old fried food. It quickly became clear that it was a couple fighting but they were back in the store and out of sight. The unfamiliar language didn’t keep the memories from flooding back in. The yelling, the tears, the begging, all of it. Forgetting about the gas, I turned and fled.
Eventually I had arrived in Ludres. I had never met Philippe or driven that stretch of highway but the stop was easy to find and the massive black beard matched his picture.
He stood there with his gear on the ground and bag holding his bass slung over his shoulder. It was weird picking up a stranger but I couldn’t afford the trip on my own. We had packed everything in the trunk but he insisted on holding the bass. He was cradling it in his arms as he sat back there, slowly waking up. We hadn’t talked much in the car as we didn’t have a common language. This was all about the music.
There weren’t many lights out here at night. Not many cars either. While he seemed like a nice guy, and we were both doing this thing, I still didn’t feel comfortable letting a stranger drive my car. I was fine, the night had always been my time. We crested the last hill and I could see Cesena in the morning light. The smells of the farms and forests came in through the window, adding to sense of a new day.
The last exit came up and I slowed down, the engine sounding relieved. After stopping, I rummaged out the wrinkled directions and figured out the final stretch. The place we were going didn’t really have an address and I couldn’t afford to use data in a foreign country. I memorized the last 3 turns and started back up.
“Learn To Fly!” came from the back seat, the voice more awake and excited. Philipe’s English was limited but this came out without a bit of accent. Just like when he sang the song. I pressed the button on the CD radio and the first drumshot blasted through the speakers. This wasn’t a song to listen to quietly.
1000 people. Coming to a field in Cesena, Italy. To play one song. Crazy. I smiled to myself and the intro played on. 15 seconds in, the vocals started and, as always, Philipe’s clear voice was right there. No trace of an accent. When you listen to a song hundreds, maybe thousands of times, it becomes part of who you are. Little things like an accent don’t stand a chance. Then, like the dozens of times we had listened on the drive already, I fell into the song.
We made the last turn and saw a huge field in front of us, a tower of scaffolding rising over on one side. We figured out where to park, grabbed our gear and headed over to the gathering mass of people.
A guy walked by in a hurry and handed each of us a piece of paper. English on one side, Italian on the other. I started trying to explain it to Philippe, but he had seen two other bass players and took off after them.
I walked past the drum area…I’d never seen so many drum kits. Ever. The sounds from the setups and warmups was loud. Saw the guitar area and headed in. So many people. There didn’t really seem to be assigned places so I wandered until I found an opening. At least I think it was an opening. There was an extension cord with an open outlet for my amp so I squeezed in and started setting up. The smell of cigarettes and pot came and went, something familiar in an unfamiliar scene.
A short, slightly balding guy was on one side, tuning up, sunglasses hiding his eyes and age. A kid was on the other side, looking barely old enough to drive. He glanced up briefly, gave me an uncertain nod and then quickly looked back down as he worked with his gear. Looking around, there seemed to be even more guitarists than drummers. Hundreds. All shapes, sizes, speaking all kinds of languages, standing shoulder to shoulder. The guitars were as varied as the people. I pulled out my Gibson and Sunglasses said “Bella chitarra!”, giving me the thumbs up. I nodded thanks and looked down at his, a simple but elegant wood grain Strat knockoff. I smiled, pointed, and gave him the thumbs up.
A voice boomed from the tower, cutting through the warm-up sounds. A tall, long hair guy who looked like he came from a Led Zeppelin cover band started speaking, switching between Italian and English.The Director. He welcomed us and told us what was going to happen.
The timing lights started, the top green on one and then the yellow for beats. Eyes on the director. The song started on four, and conducting with his entire body, he made it clear when to start. Hundreds of drummers hit their snares on four, making a sound I had never heard. And everyone else came in on the one.
Goosebumps. Everywhere. My brain tried to keep up with all the new sounds. That many drums followed by the sound of hundreds of basses and hundreds of guitars hitting the opening riff we all knew so well. Fortunately, my fingers knew what to do. I had played the song so many times, I didn’t even have to think about it. I fell in again, like with the band back home. The mix in my head was wrong because I could only hear the amps around me and some of the drums, but it didn’t matter. The website had said to play it straight from the album so there were no special arrangements to worry about.
The first time through ended. After a beat or two of silence, the buzzing of everyone’s emotions rose around me. I glanced at my neighbors. The kid had a huge smile on his face and the deer in the headlights look was gone. Sunglasses was smiling too. That made three of us.
The next time through was easier at the beginning because I knew what to expect. The cameras were more active this time. The long arm from above and dozens of people walking around with small video cameras.
Director Guy told us that this time was for real. The band (can you call 1000 people a band?) quieted. The lights hadn’t stopped so we were ready when he gave us the big four. And the song started again. Maybe because we knew that this was real or we had played it a few times, but the energy was higher this time. I could hear the singers more this time and I joined in. Didn’t have a mic but I didn’t care.
The song flew by. After the last cymbal crash, there was a brief pause, then the sound of huge cheering came from the crowd surrounding us. I had never played before this many people and it was crazy to think that the band was bigger than the crowd.
Director Guy called everyone over the middle. There was a low stage that had a band on it. Didn’t know who they were or why. It felt like the end of a soccer game that we had played and won. Everyone was laughing, high fiving, hugging as we gathered. A scraggly guy in a black t-shirt grabbed a mic and started talking. His voice was hesitant, clearly not used to speaking in front of crowds. I realized he was the guy organizing it but I didn’t remember his name. English was his second language but it quickly became clear why he was speaking in it.
“I guess that this video is gonna be seen by a huge amount of people all over the world. But to be true, it’s being conceived, to be addressed just to 5 people. Chris, Pat, Nate, Taylor and Dave Grohl. The Foo Fighters! You know, Italy is a country where dreams cannot easily come true. But it is a land of passion and creativity. So what we did here is just a huge miracle. I have been working on this fucking project for more than one year, waking up every morning thinking about how to make it real. And this is what we got. 1000 people. 1000 rockers that came from all over the nations at their own expenses. And they just did it for one song. Your song. So our call is to ask you, the Foo Fighters, to come and play for us. Come and play here, to give a concert for us here in Cesena. So what I am asking right now to all the people around me is to make some noise for the Foo Fighters.”
Loud cheering noise exploded around me, drowning out my own voice. I saw a girl across the crowd that looked familiar. It wasn’t her, but the usual stab in the heart from the memory of her wasn’t there anymore. Maybe being part of something bigger than me had made me bigger than my past.
Crazy…but worth it.