I live in Testaccio which is one of Rome’s most ironic neighborhoods. On one hand, it represents old Rome, staid Rome, where the city always housed the working class. It remains a quiet, laid-back place where old ladies gossip under the expansive chestnut and pine trees of pretty Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice. It’s so tranquil and void of traffic you can walk down the middle of the narrow streets at rush hour. Italian isn’t spoken here. It’s the curt Roman dialect, Romanesco.
On the other hand, five minutes from my apartment a ring road named Via Monte Testaccio is lined with some of the most teeming nightclubs in Rome. Clubs like L’Alibi, Akab and Radio Londra rock from 11 p.m. to dawn. I’m often awakened at 4 a.m. by youths in cars screaming up my street, Lungotevere Testaccio, on their way home.
I have never been to a club on Via Monte Testaccio.
It’s not just that I’m 58 and some of the patrons could be my grandchildren. It’s that disco sucks. It always has. It always will. Nightclubs — the PC term for disco — are the same from Barstow to Berlin. You pay major coin to listen to taped music while pounding watered-down, overpriced drinks and scream over music that could drown out a North Korean air raid. You dance just for the hopeless prayer that the woman you’re dancing with will actually talk to you. Inevitably, the conversation is just long enough to realize the only thing you two have in common is an alphabet.
Fortunately, Rome is a restaurant town. It is not a bar town. Romans are into food, wine and deep conversation. They are not into drinking. They are not into loud music. It’s my kind of town. I have traveled 6,000 miles to find my comfort zone. However, there is one nightclub that did lure me from my aperitivos and my trattorias and my rooftop terrace with the majestic view of the Tiber River.
The Piper is a Rome icon. It’s to Rome what Studio 54 was to New York. It was THE place in the ‘60s and ‘70s to see, be seen and strut. You didn’t need fashion magazines to see what was hot. You just went to the Piper.
It was with this cultural backdrop that my good buddy, Alessandro, hogtied me and dragged me to a goddamn discoteque one recent Friday night. I figured I’ve walked through the dust of the Roman Forum, covered every inch of the Vatican and even hiked past Etruscan gravesites. I should see another landmark of Roman history.
The Piper is a long way from Testaccio, in more ways than one. It’s located on Via Tagliamento in the northern neighborhood of Trieste and just east of Villa Borghese, Rome’s most famous park. Trieste borders Parioli, Rome’s most exclusive neighborhood. The only thing working class around here are the Filipina maids cleaning the salons in the Parioli mansions.
Unlike Studio 54, which closed in 1991, the Piper is still around. It’s an unassuming place from outside. The name is lit up in red above a single door leading down two flights of stairs to a sprawling room the size of a small opera house. I took a long time walking down the stairs, not because my intense loathing for clubs made me feel as if I was descending into the Inferno of Italy’s greatest writer, Dante Alighieri. It’s just that I couldn’t stop looking at the pictures in the stairwell. There was Jimi Hendrix with his afro and microphone in hand. Tina Turner, when she was the appropriate age for her micro miniskirts, was dancing on stage. The Italian pop singer, Patty Pravo, whose iconic “La Bambola” (The Doll) helped me learn Italian in language school so many years ago, looked hotter than any of her American contemporaries. The Piper really is an institution. Unfortunately, it caved into 21st century marketing strategy and is now just another disco for Roman youth who think Jimi Hendrix is Germany’s goalkeeper. This night, however, was different.
Granted, the ‘70s was arguably the worst decade of music in my lifetime. It gave us K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Devo and the goddamn, god-awful, overrated Eagles, whose moronic “Hotel California” made driving off cliffs a suitable alternative to merely turning down the sound. The ‘70s gave us disco, for Christ’s sake. Is it no coincidence that the rise in disco in America coincided with the rise in gun violence? May The Village People some day get gang raped in a YMCA shower.
Still, the ‘70s tops 21st century head-banging house music where one sound blends into another and it has all the rhythm and creativity of a heart monitor. It was a good excuse to peel back another layer of Roman culture with my good friends, Alessandro and Robert. The 15-euro entry fee was good for one drink. Considering the drinks were 10 euros each I figured this was one of the better bargains in Rome. Oddly, the Piper does not serve wine. A bar in Italy that does not serve wine. It doesn’t serve beer, either. The young bartender told me, “This is a nightclub. You only serve spirits in nightclubs.”
Having once paid $23 in New York for a gin and tonic with the alcohol equivalent of a Perrier, I ordered “vodka con ghiaccio” (vodka on the rocks). I didn’t have to wait long. As the crowd slowly filed in, I counted only five people holding drinks. The 10-euro price tag keeps Romans sober but so does, well, being Roman. They are teetotalers. No one gets drunk in Rome but the very young and even they don’t get violent enough to require bouncers at many clubs around the city. It’s remarkably mature, remarkably evolved.
So was the crowd. It was mostly late 30s, 40s and 50s, every woman prettier than the next. It reminded me of a long time ago, to the foundation of Rome. During the height of the Roman Empire as emperors and generals conquered lands from England to Persia, they took back to Rome the most beautiful of every culture. Here in the Piper, 2,000 years later, are the descendents of that foreign policy.
Then add to that the fine Italian footwear. Knee-high leather boots, red stilettos, black leather pants with patches. The Piper’s rep for making fashion statements from the ‘60s and ‘70s has not changed. However, the Piper has suffered some image problems. Started in 1965 by record producer Alberigo Crocetta with car dealer Giancarlo Bornigia and meat importer Alessandro Diotallevi, the Piper closed due to excessive debts in 2010. Reopened in 2011, it became a target of violence. An 18-year-old woman was knifed and a brawl attracted a squadron of cars and fallout from the neighborhood.
Under new management, they have cleaned up their act and specialty nights such as Seventies Night are part of the menu. At 11 p.m. out came band members who may have been in some of those pictures in the stairwell. It was a beautiful saucy blonde female singer and four male musicians in their 50s playing keyboard, guitar and the saxophone. This wasn’t Hendrix but it wasn’t house music, either, and their rendition of some old ‘70s hits was passable. But they weren’t on stage long. Exit left and enter the disco music. The disco ball above began to spin and so seemed the room as we heard snippets from such drivel as “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Stayin’ Alive” and that stand alone classic the Grammys obviously forgot, “Shake Your Booty.”
I didn’t dance. I talked to no one. I stood at the bar with my friends and drank vodka in near silence as if I was back in the Holiday Inn lounge in Columbia, Mo., in 1991. I was mildly amused when the music was replaced by a floor show including a woman in a bodysuit dancing around the stage on 8-foot stilts. The Piper never really filled up. It looked like a nightclub trying too hard to cling to its past or maybe just passing the time before the kids came out the next night and returned the Piper to what it has become in 2014: just another club with bad music in a world full of them.