Hybrid Moments: Italian Americans in Post-1960s Rock Scenes

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Italian and Italian-American cultures cannot help but consider the similarity of the Italian gestures for and against the malocchio or evil eye (as well as that signifying cuckoldry) to the universal hand gesture that has come to symbolize metal music and that, in turn, has become the ubiquitous gesture of the rock-based concert partier[1]. It comes as no surprise that Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath and other bands — who is credited with popularizing the “metal horns” or the “devil horns,” as the gesture is now referred to — stated in a video interview that he learned from his immigrant grandmother the sign to ward off the “maloik,” his Italian-American pronunciation of malocchio.


I’m of Italian extraction and my grandmother, my grandfather, on both sides— my mother’s and father’s side— came to America from Italy, and they had superstitions, and I would always see my grandmother when I was a little kid, you know, walking down the street, and she would see someone and go [makes the gesture with fingers pointing up]. “Whoa! What’s that?”—and eventually learned that it was called the maloik, and the maloik was [makes the same gesture] someone was giving us the evil eye, so she’s giving protection against the evil eye. Or [makes gesture toward the interviewer], you can give someone the evil eye, too. So, [did I] invent it? No. But perfect it and make it important? Yes, because I did it so much[2].


The overt connection between popular Italian-American Catholicism and metal — recall that Ronald James Padavona took the Italian word for “God” as his stage name — offers an interesting vantage point for considering the varied and nuanced iterations of Italian American in a host of musical forms and their associated subcultures.

This essay deals with a wide range of alternative and independent music types that are not necessarily related to each other but that are nevertheless useful for exploring white ethnic identity in post-1960s rock scenes. What these musical forms — including metal, punk, experimental, singer-songwriter — do have in common is that they are genres not typically associated with Italian Americans (or, for that matter, with any particular ethnicity). Italian-American contributions to and associations with New Orleans jazz, the American song book, doo wop, 1960s rock, disco, dance, and rap have been documented[3]. But the roles of Italian Americans in post-1960s alternative or independent music scenes are less known. Certainly, these terms are problematic. The definitions of “alternative” and “independent” are fuzzy — in fact, we are only muddying their definitions more by discussing a wide range of genres as part of this article — and the designations are employed largely for marketing purposes. But the categories are helpful for framing a discussion of genres that have not been considered in relation to Italian-American identity[4].

Ethnic identity — that is, white ethnic identity — has not been the defining feature, per se, of alternative, independent, and underground musicians’ creativity. Various musical styles and their subcultures, especially punk, are cherished, in part, because of their nonethnic affiliations, a breaking away and erasing of familial and local references considered provincial, restrictive, oppressive[5]. Yet some have argued that an ethnic component does exist for a form such as punk. Steven Lee Beeber, author of The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, states: “The shpilkes, the nervous energy of punk, is Jewish. Punk reflects the whole Jewish history of oppression and uncertainty, flight and wandering, belonging and not belonging, always being divided, being in and out, good and bad, part and apart”[6]. A counterargument was expressed by Chris Stein of Blondie, who stated at the conference Loud Fast Jews held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on June 11, 2009, “I’d be hard pressed to think ethnicity has something to do with my music”[7]. Our inquiry follows similar musings, but rather than claim that punk, metal, or any other genre can be traced back or distilled to an Italian-American essence, our interest is in the relationship between musicians’ italianità[8] or Italianness, and their music, as well as in the broader cultural scenes in which this expressivity is enacted.

We and others could not help but notice the profusion of Italian surnames in various types of alternative, independent, and underground music. David Marchese’s 2008 posting, Italian Rockers? Fuhgeddaboutit! for the SPIN magazine blog listed the likes of Frank Zappa, producer Steve Albini, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, Ween’s Dean Ween (aka Michael Melchiondo, Jr.), and other Italian-American musicians of various stripes[9]. We suggest that artists performing in a variety of musical styles, from Ronnie James Dio to Vinnie Stigma of Agnostic Front, from Natalie Merchant to Ani Di Franco, from Joe Jack Talcum to Ted Leo, from Johnny Thunders to John Frusciante, represent an Italian-American presence — sometimes veiled, sometimes overt — in the U.S. music scene[10]. These Italian-American artists’ italianità is articulated through surname retention, lyrics, cultivated persona, and/or performance style. They may be likened to the novelists Don DeLillo and Gilbert Sorrentino that literary scholar Fred Gardephé writes about, in that,


[w]hile [they] rarely choose to deal with distinctly Italian American subjects, and thus are more easily read through the more mainstream American aspects of their Italian American culture, ethnicity and cultural difference underscore all of their work. These authors may have avoided or suppressed dominant ethnic traits in their attempts to transcend ethnicity, but their work contains signs of Italianità that can be connected to an underlying philosophy which is informed by their ethnicity[11].


In keeping with this line of reasoning, we take a cue from the song “Hybrid Moments” by The Misfits—the Lodi, New Jersey, band with members Glenn Anzalone and the brothers Jerry and Doyle Caiafa. We are interested in exploring those “hybrid moments” that reveal the looks hiding behind the scars (to borrow an image from the song) in which an Italianness glimmers from within independent musics.

Such hybrid moments emerge in a variety of ways. Lyrics are one means of expression, as with the 10,000 Maniacs song My Sister Rose, co-written by Natalie Merchant, whose paternal grandfather emigrated from Sicily:


Big plans are being made for my sister’s wedding day.

We’ll have a ball at the Sons of Roma Hall.

Family, friends come one and all[12].


Vinnie Stigma (aka Vincent Capuccio) of Agnostic Front references his italianità in his on- and his off-stage persona. At Agnostic Front’s first concert at La Fabbrika, a squat in Bologna, Italy, in 1990, Stigma came on stage “skinhead from head to toe, waving an Italian flag”. As DeeMo, a founding member of the rap group Isola Posse All Stars, recalls, the left-leaning audience was confused by the flag waving because of the tricolore’s associations with racist and neo-Nazi punks in Italy. They soon realized that the display was one of pride in Stigma’s Italian background. DeeMo says, “It took a few fast chords from his guitar for all this to vanish into hardcore mayhem”[13]. In an interview conducted by Italian-American fans, Vinnie Stigma notes his approval of one interviewer’s “Italians do it better” T-shirt and, when asked for his opinion on then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, remarks, “I don’t know what kind of f**kin’ Italian he is! He ain’t my kind of an Italian!”[14].

Other times, attention to a musician’s ethnic background is due to ascription. For example, a press release titled, “So who’s Vic Ruggiero?” publicizing the singer-songwriter’s 2007 Netherlands tour, opens with the phrase, “A 34-year Italian New Yorker (what else could you be with such a family name?)”[15]. Or consider the online review of a Bouncing Souls concert that described lead singer Greg Attonito as the “Frank Sinatra of the punk scene,” because of his “calm and effortless” belting out of songs[16]. The comparison is noteworthy both for the reviewer’s categorization of Attonito as a stylistic heir to Sinatra, which foregrounds the punk singer’s Italianness, and for the questions it raises about the potential influence of the attitudes and personas of Rat Pack/Las Vegas showmen like Sinatra, Louis Prima, and Dean Martin on alternative-music performers.

These references informed Hybrid Moments: Independent Music in Italian America, the symposium that we organized for Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute (New York, NY), which took place November 5, 2010. One of the purposes of this type of event is to engender scholarship where none or little exists, and thus the symposium consisted primarily of roundtable discussions with artists and other professionals in the music world[17]. They related their experiences of being both Italian American and a non-mainstream musician, which revealed itself to be a rich area for examination. The symposium was designed to explore questions like: To what extent do these musicians identify as or are ascribed as Italian American? In what ways, if any, does an Italian-American identity work with or against one’s musical or subculture affiliations[18]?

The panel discussion “East Coast Metal,” with manager Howie Abrams, music-industry lawyer Nicholas Sciorra, and guitarist Rob Caggiano (formerly of Anthrax), looked at how Italian-American musicians in bands like Anthrax, Dry Kill Logic, and Stormtroopers of Death created an alternative to California’s metal scene in the New York City outer boroughs and suburbs, including Westchester and the Bronx. Participants cited the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, rock club L’Amour as a nucleus of activity. In the panel “Anima e Hardcore,” Gerry LaFemina, Carl Porcaro (of Killing Time), and Vinnie Stigma recalled the New York Hardcore scene centered on venues including CBGB (not far from Stigma’s Little Italy home on Mott Street). Kaves (aka Michael McLeer, of Lordz), Martin Perna (of Antibalas), and Vic Ruggiero (of The Slackers) mused on the Italian-American presence or lack thereof in the indie scene in the panel “Italianità in a Minor Key”[19]. The three musicians represented the genres rock-rap, Afrobeat, and ska respectively to examine the process by which ethnic identity is submerged, erased, and revealed.

Among the themes the artists discussed were the ways they struggled with their Italian-American identity and expectations of normative ethnic behaviors. LaFemina in his closing remarks Punk as Anti-Guido spoke about clashing ethnic and musical subcultural identities in 1980s New York City:


Punk rock then – the whole Lower East Side scene – became the place where I rejected much of the Italian-American conventions of my “home”. But having spoken to some friends who grew up Jewish, or Irish, or Turk, they all say the same thing: punk was a personal response to the very familial and subcultural presences of their upbringing.


Known as Gerry Expletive to his musical “family” — “last names were connections to what we were giving up” — LaFemina stated punk was a way to “defy the nuns, the guidos, the metalheads, and my dysfunctional family”[20].

Ruggiero discussed his movement toward punk and ska as setting him “apart from the things I didn’t want to be associated with” — the criminal behavior of some Italian-American peers — “and the things my father was trying to push me into,” from wearing gold chains to playing sports. His pursuit of music and art enabled a discovery of alternative ways of understanding and expressing italianità:


I found the Beats … and … Gregory Corso … really expresses being Italian in a way that I feel a kinship with, and so this is what I was like. I’m always thinking about that. I tried to lose my accent a few times, when I was young and it’s just to no avail.  …. It’s impossible for me, so I figured I’m gonna just be who I am, but I’m gonna always try to make my impression of the world and what, where I fit in to that, reflect a little bit of what I think, you know, Italian could mean[21].


A few of the symposium participants stated that the event itself prompted them to reflect on and articulate their thoughts about these questions for the first time; others had been musing on some of these ideas and found the symposium offered a venue for dialoguing.

If we have learned anything from the ongoing scrutiny of the Italian-American “experience” it is that this experience is anything but singular. Italian-American histories and cultures are diverse, multifaceted, and ever open to new interpretations and revisions. Provocative and sometimes disconcerting readings of Italian-American experiences offer opportunities to recognize and represent diverse expressions of italianità[22]. Our foray into the subject of post-1960s rock scenes adds to the dynamic colloquy about Italian Americans’ creative and intellectual engagement with identity.

[1]           This article is a revised and expanded version of our previously published article Talkin’ Hybrid Moments at Joseph Sciorra’s (aka Joey Skee) blog Occhio Contro Occhio, 18 November 2010, http://www.i-italy.org/bloggers/16085/talkin-hybrid-moments, as well as Rosangela Briscese’s article “Punk as Anti-Guido:” Reflections from the Hybrid Moments Symposium, “il Bollettino” (the newsletter of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute), 4, 1 (Winter 2011), p. 9, http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/calandra/whatsnew/Bollettinov4i1.pdf.


[2]           Ronnie James Dio Interview – Devil Horns Origin, Uploaded 19 May 2010, Accessed 8 May 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxQpGu-ZgtY.


[3]           See Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Stars of David and Sons of Sicily: Constellations. Beyond the Canon in Early New Orleans Jazz, “Jazz Perspectives”, 3,2 (2009), pp. 123-152; Mark Rotella, Amore: The Story of Italian American Song, New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010; Joseph Sciorra, Who Put the Wop in Doo-Wop?: Some Thoughts on Italian Americans and Early Rock and Roll, “Voices in Italian Americana”, 13,1 (2002), pp. 16-22; Ed Ward, Italo-American Rock, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller, New York, Random House/Rolling Stone Press Book, 1980, pp. 132–134; Donald Tricarico, Youth Culture, Ethnic Choice, and the Identity Politics of Guido, “Voices in Italian Americana”, 18,1 (2007), pp. 34-86; Anthony Julian Tamburri, The Madonna Complex: The Justification of a Prayer, “Semiotic Spectrum” (University of Toronto Semiotic Circle), 17 (April 1992), pp. 1-2, and Rock Videos as Social Narratives: Madonna’s Like a Prayer and Justify My Love Bending Rules, in Italian/American Short Films & Videos: A Semiotic Reading, West Lafayette, Purdue University Press, 2002, pp. 55-75; Joseph Sciorra, The Mediascape of Hip Wop: Alterity and Authenticity in Italian American Rap, in Global Media, Culture, and Identity, edited by Rohit Chopra and Radhika Gajjala, New York, Routledge, 2011, 33-51.


[4]           See Holly Kruse, Subcultural Identity in Alternative Music Culture, “Popular Music”, 12, 1 (1993), pp. 33-41; Richard King, How indie labels changed the world, “The Guardian,” 22 March 2012, Accessed 20 May 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/mar/22/indie-record-labels-changed-world.


[5]           See William Ryan Force, Consumption Styles and the Fluid Complexity of Punk Authenticity, “Symbolic Interaction,” 32, 4 (2009), pp. 289-309.


[6]           Ralph Blumenthal, Punk, and Jewish: Rockers Explore Identity, “New York Times”, 13 June 2009, p. A17.


[7]           Ibid.


[8]           We are using italianità as it is currently used among scholars of Italian American studies in discussing Italian-American identity, and not with any of its Fascist-era connotations.


[9]           See David Marchese, Italian Rockers? Fuhgeddaboutit!, “The Spin Blog”, 4 August 2008, accessed May 8, 2009, http://new.ca.music.yahoo.com/blogs/spin/2939/italian-rockers-fuhgeddaboutit. And then there are the “wannabe Italians”—non-Italian musicians whose stage names or personas read as Italian American, such as Fugazi, the Ramones, the Rezillos, and Ross the Boss Funicello. Whether intentional or not, these naming choices reference Italianness, and open up yet another avenue of investigation, including, what might it mean for a musician to be perceived as Italian American? Are particular notions of Italianness compatible with certain musics or performance personas?


[10]          A depiction of Italian-American punks in film can be seen in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999), in which the characters Richie and Ruby, Bronx residents, form a band that performs at CBGB.


[11]          Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, Durham, Duke University Press, 1996, 154-155.


[12]          10,000 Maniacs, My Sister Rose, written by Jerome Augustyniak and Natalie Merchant, from the album In My Tribe, Elektra/Wea, 1987. On an interesting sidenote, Merchant collaborated with Italian singer-songwriter Carmen Consoli on the 1998 Ophelia video.


[13]          Facebook message from DeeMo to Joseph Sciorra, 15 May 2013.


[14]          Frank Fornsaglio, Mike Siciliano, and John Siciliano, Stigma Does It Better! An Interview with Vinnie Stigma, undated, Accessed 8 May 2013 http://www.angelfire.com/wv/musiceyeball/vsint.html.


[15]          Vic Ruggiero, at Maloe Melo, Saturday 11th of August, 22h00. Press release, Amsterdam, 2007.


[16]          The Bouncing Souls @ Knitting Factory, NYC (5th of 6). “Brooklyn Vegan”. 7 June 2009, Accessed 8 May 8, 2013, http://www.brooklynvegan.com/archives/2006/06/the_bouncing_so.html.


[17]          We also invited a number of artists who either did not respond or were unable or uninterested in participating, such as Ani Di Franco, Natalie Merchant, Marissa Paternoster of the Screaming Females, Ted Leo, Jack Terricloth of World/Inferno Friendship Society, Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, Greg Attonito, Cliff Rigano of Storm Troopers of Death, and the brothers Bob and Jerry Casale of DEVO. As part of the Hybrid Moments symposium, ethnomusicologist Goffredo Plastino (Newcastle University) provided a connection between Italian and Italian-American musicians with his presentation via Skype The Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar: Zappa plays Zappa and De Andrè plays De Andrè.


[18]          In conjunction with the symposium, on November 4 we screened the film Average Community, directed by Fred Zara, which tells the story of Prisoners of War, the punk band Zara, his brothers, and friends, formed in Trenton, New Jersey in the 1980s. While not explicitly dealing with issues of ethnicity, the film opens “up a discussion on the production of the recent Italian-American artist, for whom an Italian-American identity may not be continually felt or regularly expressed but is still somehow present”: Steven J. Belluscio, review of Confessions of an Italian American and Average Community, “Italian American Review”, 2,1 (2012), pp. 56-57. We also presented an exhibition of photographs by Lilian Caruana, Punks and Skinheads of the East Village, 1984-1987 from October 27, 2010 to January 7, 2011. According to Caruana’s artist’s statement: “The central theme of my photography focuses on individuals who are outside the mainstream of larger society. [….] This theme comes out of my own experience as an immigrant, trying to negotiate my identity as an Italian American.” See the exhibition catalog online at http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/calandra/sites/calandra.i-italy.org/files/files/Punks%20and%20Skinheads%20Calandra%20Exhibition%202010%281%29.pdf.


[19]          We thank filmmaker and author Antonino D’Ambrosio who as moderator led a lively and engaging discussion.


[20]          See also Ronnie James Dio Interview – Devil Horns Origin, cit., in which he states that metal culture is unique because it becomes a “great big family of people.” For more on Italian-American guido as subculture, see Tricarico, Youth Culture, Ethnic Choice, and the Identity Politics of Guido, cit., and Letizia Airos and Ottorino Cappelli, editors, Guido: Italian/American Youth and Identity Politics, New York, Bordighera Press, 2011.


[21]          See the clip Hybrid Moments: Vic Ruggiero/The Slackers, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-bW7d8zjnQ.


[22]          For more of our thoughts on this topic, see our article Italianità Alternativa, “il Bollettino”, 3, 1 (Winter 2010), p. 8, http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/calandra/whatsnew/Bollettinov3i1.pdf, and at Joseph Sciorra’s (aka Joey Skee) blog Occhio Contro Occhio, 25 January 2010, http://www.i-italy.org/bloggers/12714/italianit-alternativa.