“Let’s go to Bagdad Café,” said Kečer.
“I don’t feel like going,” I replied.
“C’mon, we’ll head over to Džadžo later,” he added. That sounded OK to me. We took off.
I didn’t like Bagdad Café, until it turned into the New Age Teahouse, which became my favorite hangout later on. But Džadžo and 21 at the Trades Center were perfect venues for me—grungy, authentic, and alternative, minus the tea and intellectualism, and minus the philosophers and mystics, everything that was abhorrent to my heavy metal and punk rock mind at the time. But a person changes over time and may even mature, as long as he’s not chewed up and spat out by the daily grind and turned into something that no longer resembles himself, but rather everyone else—in one huge pot of ajvar.
Former Yugoslavia was mired in upheaval, in contrast to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which had managed to peacefully separate. The world didn’t care one bit about the war in Yugoslavia, because to them we weren’t part of Europe, but rather an outpost. We were “Balkanites,” a bit of dirt on their shoes that should be wiped from their consciousness. But why would they care when there were at least a dozen other civil wars going on in the world, which they also weren’t concerned about. Guatemala, Angola, Afghanistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Algiers, Tajikistan, Burundi . . . to name a few.
Recipe for Hate by Bad Religion sounded like the perfect name for an album for that time, but I didn’t like it. It felt to me as though hardcore punk was dead. But it was resurrected in a different way by the songs of the post-punk bands such as Fugazi or by the grunge sound of Mudhoney, who I listened to until it almost drove my family and my neighbors crazy.
“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston was wailing from the TV and I turned it off in disgust. I liked a different kind of howling—loud punk screaming and the rattling sound of the cassettes, which was sometimes even louder than the music itself. Nirvana’s follow-up album to Nevermind wasn’t like that and their performance on MTV Unplugged disappointed me. It seemed as though grunge rock was in crisis. Nevertheless, alternative music did not stop after Nirvana’s popularity declined. Primus’s My Name is Mud introduced a new sound and a new awareness in my life. So did Disciplina Kičme and other unusual bands, which I discovered on my weekly pilgrimage—walking all the way from Debar Maalo to the new railway station, where the cassette shop, Pop Top, was located.
Despite the objections of my music buddy, Vlad, music could be both heavy and fun at the same time, which I liked as a concept. “Buka u modi” was blaring from my stereo. I was in 10th grade and it seemed as if the opportunities before me were unlimited.
Trotoar, the local magazine dedicated to the alternative scene, appeared at the right moment, just as Ace of Base’s All That She Wants or Snow’s Informer were assaulting our ears daily. We could finally learn more about our idols at a time when we didn’t have the internet and things weren’t just a mouse click away. We had to order books from overseas and go to the university library to copy out texts by hand or photocopy them, but we didn’t mind because we were hungry to know more.
Heavy metal was evolving. After the death of Metallica, there weren’t many bands left that would blow us away—with the exception of Sepultura, who continued singing about socially relevant topics on their album Territory, something that was quite uncommon for metal bands. Meanwhile, in former Yugoslavia fierce territorial battles were being fought. In the old days people used to ask, “Who are you? Where are you from?” with an interest and desire to get along with you. Now the standard reply was just, “I’m a nonentity.”
The guitar on U2’s “Numb” roared, catching the world unprepared. Music became a thumping heartbeat, a machine propeller, a car engine . . . I listened to it and thought about “my” Einstürzende Neubauten, who’d been making music like that for years . . . It seemed that pop-rock music was evolving and catching up with rap, which was always experimenting. Insane in the Brain by the timeless Cypress Hill and Bacdafucup by the short-lived Onyx breathed new life into the scene, while Body Count blended metal with rap in a completely new way that I liked. Headbanging to rap was a challenging concept. My heavy metal friends teased me for doing it, but hey, that’s a completely different story.
This is a story in which tennis star, Monica Seles, was attacked with a knife, after which her career would never be the same, while her attacker received a minimal sentence. But that was just another one of the many injustices of 1993 that the world turned a blind eye to. Another reason for people to keep their heads down and withdraw into themselves.
“Sober” by Tool was playing on MTV. I wondered to myself, “Are we all just puppets trapped in the containers we put ourselves in?” It seemed as if the whole country was stuck in a world of its own. Spurned by others, we fought hard to survive, but the fight wore us down. And as if that wasn’t enough, the period of economic transition then just finished us off. People right and left were losing jobs. And songs such as “Human Behavior” by Björk and the album Into the Labyrinth by Dead Can Dance seemed like soundtracks that perfectly matched this kind of atmosphere. We had entered the labyrinth of transition from which there has been no escape.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Another world of sound was slowly but surely entering my life. While hardcore punk forever remained on the sidelines, garage rock broke out of the underground and directly entered the minds of millions of young people around the world, changing the music scene forever. Taking a cue from Nirvana, we wore plaid shirts and short T-shirts over long-sleeved ones, while Pearl Jam, with their more melodic sound, epitomized the American reality of the 90s.
“Do you know that you look like the lead singer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers?” my classmates teased me. I was crazy about their album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Alternative funk rock with shades of rap was a revelation to me.
The eclectic 90s had begun. “Give It Away” was rocking from my cassette player. I copied down the lyrics, even though I didn’t really understand them and nor did I read too deeply into the words that preached altruism and selflessness. To me they signified rebellion and a “don’t-give-a-damn” attitude. The times were mean and nasty. The war and the siege of my birthplace began.
May 9, 1992. Victory Day, commemorating the end of World War II and the defeat of fascism. We had to write about the same topic for an assignment in primary school and I couldn’t restrain myself. Risking a good grade, I wrote about fascism and my sense of loss, about the death of Yugoslavia built on the skeletons of those who’d fought against fascism, which in former Yugoslavia had become even more pronounced than it had been in 1942. I wrote about my friends and the fear of never seeing them again. I got an A for my assignment, even though I digressed from the topic a bit, but what else could I do when the times were going awry?
Timur was attacked. He’d been getting harassed for some time by the nouveau riche kids—real turncoat nationalist bastards—who burned the teachers’ grade books and scrawled graffiti over the school and yet who somehow excelled as students. Classes had ended for the day, and just outside the schoolyard—a mob had gathered. They followed Timur, teasing him. He bore it stoically, but then they began shoving and hitting him. He tried to defend himself but he couldn’t stay on his feet. He fell to the ground and the others jumped him. At that moment, I forgot that they were all two heads taller than me and twice as heavy as my 80-odd pounds—including the denim jacket covered with heavy metal patches I was wearing—and I threw myself into the fray, swinging wildly at everyone around me.
Timur got up and, not realizing that I was next to him, began to run off. A few of the others gave chase but he was a lot faster and they never caught up to him. Someone shouted “You effin’ Serb!” which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Some of them came back and turned on me. “This guy was sticking up for him!” they shouted, and in that moment time stood still. Moving toward me was a force of nature in the shape of a crowd thirsting for blood.
“Don’t lay a finger on him!” someone next to me said. They froze on the spot, put their tails between their legs, and left. I turned around to face a metalhead who looked dangerous and evil. He gave me a wink. To this day I don’t know who he was—maybe my heavy metal guardian angel—but I’m grateful to him because he saved me from a lynching. I’d always known it, but that day I received indisputable confirmation—music connects us regardless of ethnic, religious or regional differences.
Timur never forgave himself for leaving me alone, despite the fact that at the time and amid all the confusion he didn’t realize it was me in there, trying to defend him. Since then he’s been trying to make up for it and has always been there when I needed him—to this very day. But then, I reckon it’s because I helped him when everyone else abandoned him, and because we were different from all the others—prejudged and misunderstood. Maybe that’s why we were inseparable in good times and in bad. And the bad times were yet to come.
The next day Bobby and his brother came to school with me and hung around the schoolyard in case they needed to defend us. Both of them were big and burly, unshaven, long-haired guys. The Principal called us to her office.
“Who are those criminals hanging around the schoolyard?” she yelled at us. We were taken aback.
“M-my sister’s boyfriend,” I stammered.
“Tell them to leave at once!” she thundered.
“But yesterday Timur was beaten up, and we—“
“I’m not interested. I don’t know anything about that. And you two will be punished . . .”
Of course she knew. Of course she was interested. But not in justice. She was interested in the parents of those kids who were beating us up, in their support, their money, and their power. We were worthless insects who, squashed or otherwise, made no difference to anyone. We were punished, while the bullies got off scot-free. That was the beginning of a new era.
I was checking out the cassettes at Bagi Shop, the music store in the Mavrovka mall, when all of a sudden a thunderous sound from the speakers shook me to the core. I was electrified. I asked the owner what he was playing and before I knew what was happening, Rage Against the Machine entered my life like a tornado, lifting me up high and slamming me back down again. I felt as though I were riding a wild horse that I couldn’t control. The times were making us all feel that way.
It was the end of the school year and we were getting ready for the holidays. The physics teacher hadn’t arrived yet. The bell rang. Timur and I were arm wrestling. Even though I was leading 13-3, I still wanted to keep going. “If you bend your body, you’ll use the deltoid muscle,” we’d talked about our arm-wrestling techniques many times before, and we knew the Latin names of all the large muscles, because we lifted weights every day after school. Timur pumped up quickly and he didn’t plan on stopping. In the years to come, he became a dangerous guy who defied the bullies, the bared pistols, and the security gorillas outside the nightclubs. In the end, those who used to beat him up would run a mile as soon as they saw him.
As we were arm wrestling, I twisted my arm around awkwardly, so when Timur pressed his fist with all his might, my arm had nowhere to go and a bone snapped—just like in the movies. I lost consciousness but then came to, and saw my arm dangling. I grabbed hold of it and ran outside. And thus, the saga of my humerus fracture began.
Waiting several hours with a broken arm at the City hospital, and then being saddled with a poorly fitted plaster cast. Removal of the crappy cast with a pair of old-fashioned pliers, because the hospital’s drill wasn’t working. Broken bones that hadn’t healed properly. Vain attempt at separating them. An operation and a metal rod inserted in my arm.
Then, a damaged nerve, slow recovery, and atrophied muscles after the removal of the cast. The whole summer holidays spent at a rehabilitation center in Kozle. Every day. Massaging muscles. Hot paraffin wax therapy for a stiff elbow. Nerve stimulation, physical therapy exercises. Infrared heat lamp. All in vain. The top neurosurgeons in Macedonia advised me to travel to Slovenia for an operation.
“Listen, son, if you want to get better, you’ll have to work at it,” said a middle-aged man who attended the physiotherapy sessions with me.
“But the nerve isn’t responding. It’s dead.”
“Take a look at my arm,” he said, and raised it. “Can you see that? It moves.”
“Listen to what I’m telling you. I know all about it. My case is the same as yours—radialis nerve injury,” he smiled. “Just keep exercising and don’t stop. You can rely on either a machine hoist to lift your arm or on yourself to lift it.”
“But I can’t lift it, not even half an inch!”
“Lift it with your brain! Lift it in your mind. And put a splint on your arm before going to bed at night and sleep with it on.”
“Killing In The Name” by Rage Against the Machine was roaring through the speakers. The walls were shaking. They’re being killed in the name of who?! Suffering, death, misery, hunger, and disease . . . Are my friends OK? . . . Are they alive? . . . And my dad? Do I really care about him? . . . Has he been able to escape? I wondered to myself. But the only sound that came out from deep within me was a wild and primordial cry: “Aaaaaa!” as I tried with all my strength and mind power to lift my arm.
The sweat was running down my forehead, but I just kept repeating, “The power of the mind! The power of the mind!” I needed all the pent up anger and frustration, the noise and rage of all those fighting against the machine—grunge rockers, gangsta rappers, and metalheads—so I could defeat the metal rod in my arm; fourteen stainless steel screws that went through my bone and pinched the nerves that had previously been removed from the muscle tissue and held in the assistant’s rubber-gloved hands during surgery to bind the bones. And then finally it happened—my arm moved—a fraction of an inch.
The distance between zero and a fraction of an inch is greater than the distance between one inch and a yard. Then everything sped up. And preparations for the entrance exam for high school went smoothly. But the intricate movements of the fingers that allow one to hold a pen and write were still far from my abilities. “Everything’s in the mind,” I remembered. I learned to write with my left hand and that’s how I got into “Josip Broz Tito Senior High School.”
Had comrade Tito known what was happening to the land that he’d built, he’d be grateful that he wasn’t alive. Or maybe not?
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Teen spirit ruled our lives and I lived for the weekends when we’d have jam sessions with our friends from junior high. Kečer introduced me to hardcore punk and bands with weird names that were borderline funny, and with that necessary dose of the rejection of society’s norms that perfectly matched my own rebellious spirit.
A chewed-up cassette was spitting out a refrain from “My God Rides a Skateboard” by German band Spermbirds. This was followed by the screaming vocals of “Americans are Cool—Fuck You!” a song that protested against the spread of American-style democracy all over the world. The Americans themselves didn’t give a damn about any of it.
The Gulf War was taking place at the time. The adults watched the unfolding events on TV as if they were part of an evening thriller, completely removed from the lives of the Iraqi people—who, by the way, weren’t dying at the hands of the dictator from whom the Americans wanted to liberate them, but from American bombs. But in reality something quite different was taking place, both globally and locally. Unrest began to stir in Yugoslavia. All of a sudden, the present turned from being precarious to completely uncertain, and no one was even contemplating the future.
“Why shouldn’t I wear this T-shirt?” I protested.
“Because it’s wrong,” said my mother.
“According to who?”
“Not to mention it’s dangerous.”
Our argument went on. In the end, I decided not to wear the Bad Religion T-shirt with a crossed-out cross printed on it. I’d borrowed it from Kečer for Easter “celebrations” at the main Cathedral. I decided against wearing it, not out of fear, but so my mom would quit worrying. But what did I know about religion? To me it was a sign of conformism and an inability for people to think for themselves. Besides which, religion could in no way be reconciled with science, the thing I really venerated.
“Big Bang” by Bad Religion was playing in the background. I was thinking about the origin of the world, the universe, and our place within it. Everything seemed perfectly fine to me, but at the same time completely meaningless. Science, with its laws and principles, provided some comfort, bringing order to the chaos we’d found ourselves in.
Religion found a place in my life, but only years later, when I realized that atheism is just another form of fanaticism. At the same time, I wasn’t interested in “isms”—neither religious nor political. Unlike me, our country was overrun by chauvinism; one wrong word, one bad look or even just having the wrong surname was enough to get you beaten up.
Snuff’s song “I Think We’re Alone Now”—a cover of Tiffany’s song from the happier and slightly more serious 80s—was a track that was often played on Maximumrocknroll, an alternative music program on Macedonian Radio 2. Standing by in readiness, I pressed “record” on the cassette player. Soon our small country would be alone too—but also sovereign and independent. And then our struggles would be just ours.
I played a few chords on the guitar and Fatty seemed to like them. Kečer tapped the cymbal suspended from the light fitting because, as in true DIY punk rock style, there was no stand. Then he tapped the single snare drum and the familiar hardcore “bupp-u-dupp-u-dupp” beat filled my bedroom. Fatty was recording us on an old cassette player. He plucked his acoustic guitar as if it were a bass, while we kept playing madly. We had no focus, no guiding message or vision, and our songs were made up on the spot. And in the spirit of parody and social consciousness that characterized the punk movement, we were called Social Imbecility. Like true punks, we had no idea how to play, but we loved it—more than anything else.
As a kid, I’d hated guitar lessons at the Sarajevo Music Academy. But later, as a teenager, I was glad that I’d learned to play an instrument. Soon, though, all I had left was my classical guitar. I had to return the electric guitar I’d borrowed—just when Kečer bought himself a great big drum kit, and just when a bass player joined our rehearsals. Those two kept on playing, and later formed the band Superhicks. They’re probably the only band in Macedonia today that dares to engage in any intelligent social criticism, while those who are the actual object of their critique bop along to their songs.
The thing that Kečer didn’t like was my soft spot for heavy metal. But what could I do when Metallica released their last good album that year, and the sound was heavy—heavy and slow—too slow for hardcore punks. In the end, the only thing that I have left from my punk period is a demo cassette tape of our songs with a homemade cover and the “SK-HC” (Skopje Hardcore) graffiti tag on my garage wall.
However, many years later, when I began to write seriously, that ideal of the perfect hardcore punk song came back to life in my writing—something fast, furious, short, as short as possible, that says everything and leaves nothing unsaid. I’m still chasing that ideal.
We were in the front rows at a concert being held outside the former Central Committee of the League of Communists of Macedonia, now the government building. Bobby lifted me onto his shoulders and I was right there—a few meters away from Goran Tanevski from the band Mizar. The sounds of “Svjat Dreams” floated over the sea of people around me and we were united by his heavy, serious voice and the heavy drums that echoed in our ears and that reverberated through our bodies, proud of “Macedonia, our motherland.”
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Toto Cutugno won the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Insieme, while we were farther away than ever from being “together.”
I was living in Skopje. Summer break had ended and I was preparing to return to Sarajevo. Although it was strange my dad hadn’t called me all summer, not even for my birthday, I decided not to think about it. I had work to do—I had to pack my clothes and, yes, my skateboard too. I couldn’t forget that. I didn’t have many other things.
I sat there in readiness to hit the road, and waited for my mom to get home from work. She was stunned when she saw me. She didn’t understand what was going on. I told her that I would be going to Sarajevo for a while to see my friends, but that I would return at the first opportunity.
“Where will you stay?” she asked me, as if in shock.
“Well, at home,” I replied, confused.
“But, you live here now . . .”
Most of the words we hear in life are meaningless and forgettable, but some words change your life forever. “I live here now” became my mantra in the coming years and I did everything I could for it to truly be the case.
I gave up my language, my customs, and the person I used to be. My natural sociability turned into a desire for solitude. My dislike of books into a love of books. My slack study habits into obsessive studiousness. I turned from being one person into another. I don’t know if that was a good thing or not, but what I do know is that it was necessary.
After several months spent in self-imposed “isolation,” I began to go out again. There was a Goth club in Debar Maalo called “Doors,” a mystical and magical place. Candles burned inside and it smelled of incense. There for the first time I got to know the Macedonian alternative music scene, which wasn’t well known in Yugoslavia. Apart from the famous rock group Leb i Sol, we didn’t know anyone else. Macedonia was generally fairly marginal within Yugoslavia, and as the years passed this began to piss me off.
My life turned into a struggle for the rights of the disadvantaged, the victims, the silent and unobtrusive ones, the condemned ones, the abandoned ones, the forgotten ones, the neglected ones. I wanted Macedonia to be recognized and respected, but that wasn’t often the case. Me and my new homeland were pretty much snubbed by everyone, and all we could do was to work on ourselves—obsessively, and with great sacrifice and devotion. And if others recognized us for this, then good for them.
One night, my sister and her boyfriend, Bobby, decided to take me to the movies to drag me out of my self-imposed isolation and away from my negative thoughts. The film was called Green Card. It was playing at the small theater on the first floor of the Mcedonian Cultural Center. The lights dimmed and the movie started. Comfortably seated, with popcorn and drinks in hand, we were suddenly startled by the sound of loud drumming. On the screen, a boy in the subway was pounding away on a plastic bucket with this incredible drumming skill. The film continued and, even though it was supposed to be a romantic comedy, it exposed many social truths about America. Maybe it just wanted to erase white people’s guilt of racial and social tension in America. Nevertheless, it was a great example of the films of the 90s, a time when the entertainment industry still cared about its audience and not just their money.
In seventh grade, they placed me in what was called the “Serbian class” because my knowledge of Macedonian wasn’t good enough. I came from Sarajevo, a city that fostered a spirit of unity. I didn’t even know which of my friends was a Serb, Croat, Muslim or Austro-Hungarian. So I found it especially strange that a class made up of people of all sorts of nationalities—just like a mini-Yugoslavia—was put under the label of only one of those nations. There were nine of us in total. And it was hell!
t my new school in Skopje, I felt a sense of fear and dread in every class. You could be given a test at any moment, on any day of the week. And to my amazement, everyone knew the answers to everything. In the first SC, CS or Serbo-Croatian class (and every other variant title), the teacher introduced herself and immediately proceeded to test my knowledge.
The teacher was an elderly woman with pink lipstick smudged above and below her lips. She was an old-school Soviet-style teacher, but without a rod in her hand. She interrogated me thoroughly, while I remained close-mouthed and silent. Exasperated, the desperate woman began to sweat and to squawk, with steam coming out of her ears and nose.
My throat clenched and I looked down at my seat. I covered my face with my hair, which even back then was long, as tears dripped from my eyes. Drip, drip, slowly and quietly . . .
People say “still waters run deep.” Those tears etched grooves in my brain, which suddenly at that moment snapped to life. I became infuriated, wanting to break, smash, destroy, burn—not the teacher or the school, but me, myself.
The fact that my father had made his own life easier by getting others to help me study and worry about my grades so that he wouldn’t have to do it himself was rather shameless on his part. But what about my own sense of shame? From that moment on, I decided that things had to change. And so in seventh grade I began to study: “A, B, C, D . . .”
Round the clock, without going out, without sleeping, without playing—I studied until my head hurt. And suddenly I realized that I could do it, that I knew how to, that I was worth it . . . and that’s the most important realization a young mind can ever come to. You don’t need others to believe in you, as long as you have faith in yourself.
At school I had a friend who looked a little like Vanilla Ice—tall and blond, with a pompadour hairstyle. Physically we were total opposites, but we soon became best friends. We sat together in class and were rarely apart, even outside school—either he was at my place or I was at his. Sometimes he got teased because he was tall and awkward, and that would make me blind with rage. His name was Timur and he was my best friend. And more than that, most probably he was a substitute for all the friends from Sarajevo that I’d lost and that I would never see again. He was my own personal superhero.
At the time, “Ice Ice Baby” was a popular hit that was driving people mad—some with joy, others with despair. I remember that several of us from my neighborhood were together at my place, and when “Ice Ice Baby” started playing, we just went wild. Timur was doing his famous arm-flapping dance. That is, he would open and close his denim jacket with his hands while throwing his head back and forth like a bird.
Timur was a boy who dreamed of building lasers, airplanes, spaceships, and who wrote science-fiction stories. He used to buy Galaxy, a magazine dedicated to science and technology. I started collecting new and old editions of the magazine too. I can honestly say that I learned all the basics of science from those magazines, because the content of them was expert and objective. Even today when there’s excitement or furor over some kind of natural phenomenon, and everyone goes half-mad with fear, an old logical and scientific article from Galaxy comes to mind, and I just smile to myself.
We talked about astronomy and the universe. We knew which of the planets had rings and satellites and how many they were, what the maximum and minimum temperatures were, whether or not it rained sulfuric acid or there was any evidence for the existence of water on them. We knew everything about the universe. However, we knew nothing about girls.
But who needs girls when you’ve devoted yourself to science . . . and with some good music playing in the background, of course. But music was also changing. MTV Unplugged was born, and I bought my first record—The Razors Edge by AC/DC. The song “Thunderstruck” and the sound of the records themselves hit me like a real thunderbolt. I was addicted.
I didn’t have the money to buy records, but I desperately wanted them. My mom gave me money to buy my lunch from “7” the fast-food place because she thought that would make it easier for me to fit in. But I kept the money instead. Going hungry each day was a small price to pay to buy a new record each week.
“Where did you get so many new records from?” Mom asked me, and that put an end to me “buying” my lunch. That’s how the legend of my lunchbox pies began, for which I became famous in both junior high and middle school.
Some of us lived for music and progressive ideas. Smiki was one of them. He was the future founder of the band SAF and he wore Doc Martens and listened to noise metal in seventh grade. A rumor circulated about him that one time, when he was in hospital with a broken bone, out of boredom he read the Bible from cover to cover in just two days. And on occasions, he would recite verse in English from a Shakespeare play.
But Smiki was one in a million. And our country wasn’t interested in progressive children, but in really retrograde ideas. People began talking openly about ethnic conflict. To us kids, the idea of a nation being torn apart was unthinkable (because for us Yugoslavia was one single nation). We were a single united entity. But the older people, who recalled a different Yugoslav past, knew otherwise. And they were proven to be right.
We rode the wave of carefree youth while we could. But not for long.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Yugoslavia finally won the Eurovision! But why? If you believe the conspiracy theories, the fact that Yugoslavia won the Eurovision—a politically and ideologically motivated event—just before its collapse, at a time when the country was in a shambles economically, socially, politically and interethnically, there’s some hidden meaning . . .
Even so, the winning song “Rock Me Baby” was not as popular as the following year’s entry, “Let’s Go Crazy” by Tajči. But it was enough to secure our victory and for national joy to erupt in the midst of difficult times.
I wasn’t interested in the Eurovision. Though, like everyone, I still watched it. But there was always something about the gaudy colors and lights and the shallow song lyrics that stuck in my mind like a mantra that turned me off. In contrast, “Epic” by Faith No More appealed to me from the first time I heard it.
Who can forget that scene in the music video with the all-seeing eye in the middle of the hand shooting out blood? What was that for? Nobody knows. But the eye is there, and it sees and knows more than us. Faith No More would eventually come to be known as pioneers of rap-metal. By temporarily uniting these two genres, it made me feel less self-conscious of the fact that sometimes I really liked rap.
The unforgettable riff ripped through my ears and I stared at the scenes of a dying fish and an exploding piano with wide-eyed amazement. At the same time, the words rang inside my head: “What is it? It’s it. What is it . . .?” The question remained unanswered as random music videos came on the screen with the famous logo in the corner.
MTV was still a channel that played just music videos, and the most shocking program it showed was Headbangers Ball. Everything that was loud, controversial or outrageous to older people was shown on that show. But then in the 90s, when eccentricity became mainstream, the show lost its edge, and the alternative scene entered everyday life. However, we still weren’t ready for that.
We started going to discos. I didn’t know what to do there besides just sit in a corner and watch. I didn’t like the music they played. It was some sort of funk-rap. The vision of the future at that time was robots moving to a breakdance beat. Our group of friends became obsessed with dancing to prearranged steps and it all just looked fake to me.
I was sitting with arms folded next to Jasmina—my first crush as far as I can recall—and drinking Coke, when the thought hit me that I had to do something. I leaned back and stretched, and, as if by accident, put my hand on her arm. A surprise awaited me. My hand brushed against someone else’s hand. I turned around and saw that Skip was trying to do the same thing as me. We locked eyes for a moment and quickly pulled our hands away. Jasmina ended up without a date, and the disco went wild to the robotic rap of Grandmaster Flash.
The realization that I had a crush on the same girl as my friend, who I considered the leader of our group, the key decision maker, the one who was always in the right, really messed with my head. After that, I tried to keep away from her, tried hard not to stare at her black eyes, which was difficult because I was constantly out on the street—the first one out, the last one in.
There was something poetic about the fact that she was the last person I saw from our group of friends as I was getting into my dad’s car with my skateboard.
“You’ll have to go live with your mom for a while,” said my dad, after coming to blows with my grandfather, who then stormed off to the War Veterans’ Club. “Until I find us a new place to live. I’ll pack your clothes, you pack a couple of your favorite things, I don’t know, a toy or something . . .”
It was all so confusing. I loved my grandfather, but I had to obey my dad. I took the first thing I laid my eyes on in my room—my skateboard. “I’ll be back here soon enough, anyway,” I thought to myself, not knowing that what I was holding in my hand was a one-way ticket. Because after my departure the war would begin, my father would flee to another country and start a new family before we would ever saw each other again.
Jasmina was outside, playing tennis. She turned around and waved at me. After that her face, along with the image of my city, disappeared forever in the rear window of the car. Fade out. The end.
The 90s were in sight, a new decade was upon us. However, it held no hope for a better future. Black clouds gathered over our heads, a prelude to leaden rain, explosive thunderstorms, and children’s screams deep in the night. I was saved from the storm, but some of my friends weren’t so lucky.
That decade was the most exciting in my life, but at the same time the loneliest. The feeling of guilt that I had left behind my friends would not let go of me. All the music in the world couldn’t change that.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Nineteen eighty-eight was a year of heavy metal. I’m not talking about the quality of the local drinking water, which probably no one in Yugoslavia monitored at that time. We trusted everything we consumed and everything we took in through our five senses, there was no doubt it was good—as long as it was ours. But, okay, I admit there were those who didn’t believe quite so blindly in Yugoslavia. And with good reason too—the times were heavy, and getting heavier, just like the music.
At the time when heavy metal entered my life, wearing patches was popular. I didn’t know the names of half the bands, but their logos—skeletons, skulls, guns, guitars—seemed to me sufficient reason for them to find their way onto my denim jacket. However, I did know Iron Maiden and I liked them. Their epic themes, rousing rhythms, and soaring vocals speak perfectly to young souls who are insecure and looking for their place in the world. Those patches often brought me trouble.
“Hand over your money!” The members of the gang known as “Korea” that operated in the area around the World War II memorial and the Sarajka Shopping Center ambushed Hare and me. I gave the impression of being a tough guy, which I actually wasn’t, and that’s probably what provoked them. But maybe they attacked me because they didn’t take kindly to the idea of my having satanic heavy metal logos and standing near the war memorial. It insulted their almost Oriental sense of propriety. But unfortunately, they didn’t reveal their political leanings—pro-communist or pro-American—as they were busy kicking my teeth in. Jokes aside, they beat me up for money, and when that’s up for grabs, all sense of propriety becomes secondary.
There were many times I wanted to believe I was a street kid, because in one sense I think I really was. After the death of my grandmother, my grandfather withdrew into himself and I lost my most loyal companion. He spent most of his time at the War Veterans’ Club, a sacred place for those who’d served in World War II, where they played bowls and cards. My grandfather would almost inevitably lose these games. Much later, I found out they could see his cards in his photochromic lenses, the type that darkened automatically beneath the bare bulbs in the club’s smoke-filled rooms.
Who knows, maybe that was just something my father made up out of envy, because everyone knew my grandfather to be a “human calculator”—he could multiply large numbers quickly without batting an eye, and he could spot a mistake in rows of digits without the aid of a computer. But above all, like a magician, he always managed to find four-leaf clovers, which he would then give to me. All he needed to do was look in a clover meadow and he’d find one!
However, after he ended up alone, he was only a shadow of his former self. This new grandfather got angry at me for no reason, threw ashtrays at me, but he also knew how to protect me from the wrath of my father, who was disappointed at being twice divorced, and whose children were scattered God only knows where.
He smoked three packs a day, while for me it was like smoking one pack a month—taking into account the passive smoke I inhaled. But every now and then, I would light one up as well, if only to try and capture its luring effect. One day I was sitting alone, in front of me a cigarette and a lighter, beside me an empty glass. I lit up and took a drag. The taste, which I couldn’t define, but which I’d later compare to burning metal and rubber, made my mouth fill with saliva. It just began to secrete like crazy. That’s what the glass was for. I spat and puffed. It was disgusting, but I had to go through with it. It was a necessary part of growing up alone.
I grew up on the street with all of its rules. Although, I wasn’t a lout, I never have been. My gentle exterior prevented me from becoming one; besides, I was fiercely loyal to my friends and to the group. I’d never betray them, not for anything in the world. I’d give them everything I owned—and sometimes I did. Every leather soccer ball my father brought back for me after attending medical seminars in Europe, I unselfishly shared with the other members of our group, every tennis racket, every tennis ball—and I always ended up with nothing. All of them got lost in the bushes on the slopes of our street in hilly Sarajevo. And sometimes the shiny, colorful leather soccer balls quickly ended up just becoming plaid patchwork. But that’s how we all lived—not recognizing private ownership and dedicated to the common good. And if anyone violated that unwritten rule—well, tough luck to them.
The group went silent and the dancing stopped immediately. We were celebrating Vedo’s birthday at his place, and everything was going great. The capitalist Coca-Cola went perfectly with the socialist pretzels that we mixed in our glasses, producing an exciting, frothy chemical reaction. We were listening to music, and then as a counterpoint to the seriousness and epic greatness of my favorite song, “Seventh Son”—“Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa came on the cassette player, a plain, simple, infectious, playful, sexual song . . . everything that heavy metal wasn’t was in that song, which I thought sounded totally wicked, and so I was ashamed of myself. But that wasn’t the reason for the shock. The silence came after one of our friends looked under the bed to retrieve a pretzel, and dragged out a brand spanking new tennis racket, unused tennis balls, uninflated soccer balls, and God knows what else! The spirit of sharing had been betrayed. I never looked at Vedo the same way again, and from that moment on I was quite reserved toward him.
But the group as a whole didn’t change. It always found ways to move forward, to forget, to restore its energy through games, through coming up with new rules and new ways of playing. Vedo decided to share some of his tennis balls with us. We welcomed his initiative by gathering a few potato sacks and tying them together into a tennis net. The game continued.
It seemed that the group as a whole always lived according to the spirit of another popular song at the time, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” while at the same time the world was slowly preparing for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of socialism. Yugoslavia was trying to maintain its own self-governing socialism, and failing miserably. “Be Worry, Don’t Happy,” as Rambo Amadeus would say many years later. Everything became more pressing.
The economic reforms of 1988 as a last-ditch effort for recovery of the virtually collapsed Yugoslav economy did not succeed. Even then signs began to appear that the nationalist and socio-economic uncertainties in Yugoslavia would lead to a state of emergency, but we were completely unaware of it.
To us kids, Yugoslavia was indestructible and more powerful than ever before. As for the economy . . . we knew how to deal with that as well.
Yasser was celebrating his birthday with a circus theme and, in the spirit of the new socio-capitalist times, he invited us to take part by performing some sort of an act. As the most jovial and the most inventive member of the gang, Hare immediately accepted. He put on a clown act in which he stumbled about, performed a pantomime, rode a bike hands free while falling over multiple times. We rolled around in hysterics.
“And now,” Yasser announced theatrically, with a look of pure satisfaction on his face at the success of his self-organized circus (which at the time Yugoslavia itself actually was), “I invite you to take part in a competition!” We were all flabbergasted. The word “competition” echoed in our heads like a promise in the form of a sweet delicious lollipop, a shiny new toy, or the soccer and tennis balls we dreamed about. Instead, Yasser explained that we had to buy a ticket to win. We cried foul.
On every ticket,” Yasser continued without hesitation, “there’s a number. And each number corresponds to a toy.” Hope returned to us. Wary, but tempted by the chance of winning something nice, we gave him the money. The first few tickets had no winners, but we’d come to learn that all games of chance were like that—you win some, you lose some.
And in fact, Hare won a shoddy toy truck that badly needed a new coat of paint; Fatty was delighted by the half-used notebook with Smurfs on the cover; and I won a toy Red Indian with one of his arms broken off. Several of the others won similar prizes, but then again, it was better than nothing—which is what a lot of them ended up with. The group wasn’t happy. Serious arguments erupted over who got what, and whether Yasser had cheated us. He defended his entrepreneurial spirit, and told us that such was our luck.
Then his mother appeared, a strict but fair-minded woman of whom Yasser was deathly afraid, like fire. When she found out what he’d done, she gathered up all our old, shoddy toys, and brought out a box with newer and much nicer toys. She marked them with numbers and made tickets where there were no losers, bar one—her own son, who for the whole time sat with arms folded and a frown on his face, while the group thanked their lucky stars.
Yasser was ahead of his time. He was the embodiment of what many years later would become commonplace in all the former-Yugoslav republics—brute capitalism, a transition without end in which all are left to fend for themselves and survive as best they know, lying, cheating, doing whatever necessary.
The state no longer protected us, and it didn’t actively discourage those who wanted to do harm, it didn’t put a damper on their dirty dealings, and it didn’t give the losers a second chance.
I fared better than my friends—I survived the breakup of my home and, with the death of Yugoslavia, I got a mother. But, overnight, people became orphans abandoned to the winds of time.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
That winter the temperature dropped below -20 degrees Celsius, but it didn’t prevent my father from taking us skiing to Mount Jahorina.
The song “Where the Streets Have No Name” playing on the old cassette player of our green, 1982 Lada Riva sounded as if it was coming from afar. The rhythmic sound of the guitar mixed with the hum of the car going up the mountain road as the snow-covered evergreen trees sped past us. My father deliberately jerked the steering wheel left and right, causing the car to skid and spin toward the shoulders of the road covered with huge deposits of snow, while we nearly split our sides laughing. I was happy.
The next song that came on was “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” by Simple Minds, but forgetting was something inevitable and life went on. It was 2001 and once again, for the first time in ten years, I was in my old homeland. My aunt was waiting for me at the bus station. She was still quite plump and she didn’t stop talking, apart from when she took a deep drag of her “Filter 57” cigarette that was always dangling from the corner of her mouth. The green packaging and the small red dragon on the box of cigarettes—which as a kid I used to think was a little frog—irresistibly reminded me of a swamp surrounded by a cloud of smoke in which my aunt was always enveloped.
Had I known that that would be the last time I ever saw her, maybe I would’ve told her how much she meant to me. Even when she sewed up the holes in my deliberately torn jeans with brightly colored patches, after which I never wore them again. Yes, maybe I would’ve told her that I loved her even when she urged me to hang out with the “nerds,” who I found unbelievably boring and who I fled like the plague.
In 1987, the kids in my street were the faithful type more so than nerds. “Do you wanna make a bit of trouble?” asked one of those people who today no longer exist, who was killed by a Serb mortar shell fired out of sheer Balkan spite on the first day of the liberation of Sarajevo. We called him—aptly—Troublemaker. He was the embodiment of street life that was hard, but fair, governed by unwritten laws and rules that every kid followed.
“Now,” cried Hare, and with all our might we tossed lumps of dirt mixed with berries that released a red dye onto the white-haired man’s balcony. It was our revenge for the broken sled just because we made too much racket for him out the front of his apartment. Nobody wrote the natural laws of street life, but all the kids respected them in order to maintain the peaceful equilibrium between the residents.
In 2001 my streets had no name. They had different names that to me were unfamiliar. The people around me were unfamiliar too, apart from my girlfriend who held onto my hand firmly. “Why are your hands so cold?” she asked me, but she already knew the answer to that. From the moment she came on this uncertain journey with me, she knew that my heart was clenched so tight that it no longer pumped heat into my body.
“I dreamed of those streets every night for years, but they were more real in my dreams than in reality,” I said to her later on, after we had already left and my city that was not mine and my streets that had no name were far behind us. Maybe it’s better to leave them back there.
Before, we genuinely believed that we were moving forward. But, we also knew how to laugh at our own expense. In the ’80s, we compared the one-time success of our “Brotherhood and Unity” project with the then reality. Fitting perfectly with that comparison was the Yugoslav TV series, A Better Life.
My grandfather didn’t want to watch it because it insulted Yugoslavia for which he had taken bullets, lost relatives, and languished in prison on Goli Otok. And perhaps out of similar spite he preferred to watch the American TV series Dynasty that, however remote it was from the lives of ordinary Yugoslavs, still offered some sort of appeal—probably suggestive of what in the coming decades would become our dream too, the Pan-American dream.
But apart from the dizzying effect of the opening credits of Dynasty, we kids got nothing out of those TV series. We were interested in wild, untamed, and endless play; we were boisterous, energetic, and we needed an outlet.
When Guns N’ Roses entered our lives something resonated within us. The times were about to erupt. People didn’t know what the future held, but they still believed in the preservation of the old ways. My cousin was part of the in-between generation.
“Turn that racket off!” he came flying into his room once when I was visiting him, and turned off the tape at the best part of “Welcome to the Jungle,” just as the snarling menace of the song enters your world and fills the space with soaring guitars, smoke and fire, guns and roses . . .
“Listen to something better,” he said to me, putting on another cassette. And as the room filled with the sound of Idoli, a New Wave band from Belgrade who I found totally boring and too commercial, I went into another room, and there I continued to dream of my idols. I took out a pen from the backpack that I took with me on weekends whenever I stayed over at my aunt’s place, and started to draw the band’s skull and crossbones logo on my skin.
My appetite for destruction was overwhelming.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015