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Nagy (Hungary)

Gergely Nagy is one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet. A novelist, a musician and a journalist, he lives and works in Budapest. He has published three books to date: a collection of short stories, Adjatok egy pontot (Give me a point, 2001); his first novel, Basszus! (LOUD! – 2003); and a second, ANGST – The Handbook of the Urban Guerilla (2007).  See and for more details.

Gergely works for HVG Online, the online version of Hungary’s top weekly newspaper, as a contributing editor. He also plays the bass guitar and has been a member of the cult band KimNowak since it was formed in 1993. KimNowak released six albums in ten years and did a number of nationwide tours in Hungary.

Gergely’s first band, formed when he was 14, was named after the secret police – A Cég (‘The Firm’) being the nickname of that organisation. Gergely’s years in A Cég – which pre-dated the political changes of 1989-90 – informed his first novel. He is currently playing with a new electro act called Eat Me. See


The following extract from ANGST depicts his home city post-Communism. Beneath this extract, readers can also find three short extracts from LOUD! – which reflect Gergely’s passion for the Clash & Fender guitars!

The Handbook Of The Urban Guerilla

(…) What’s a person like me supposed to do? How can he explain what’s happening to him? How should he describe this city: its new forms of existence that crop up on each corner, then disappear; its restaurants engaged in biological warfare; its apparently female entities living with implants; its steel concrete; its contaminated waters; its spruced-up former grandeur; its dead, buried beneath it; its slowly drizzling, brownish rain; its emotions; its bodies brushing against each other; its celebrities whose hysterical dramas are discussed daily in the tabloids; its vaudeville theatres, where the folk on stage and the audience are supposedly naked; its bars; its mouldering neighborhoods; its shrill music; its sky for which rival companies compete; its green river on which even the ice is green when it freezes in winter; its cafés where adolescents drink murky, watery fluid from paper cups, tapping keyboards wearily, hanging on the net via stolen nicks, roaming in and out of government databases just for fun.
Time and place? The swarming and self-devouring city does not provide clear footholds for us to establish our actual time and place. It resembles a woman who is too busy to glance at herself in the bathroom mirror or even in the chrome surface of the office elevator in order to observe herself for a single moment. I need to record the scene, this place I live, somehow, so I can begin talking about it. Incidentally, this is the way I usually work. I place a picture, a newspaper clipping, a snapshot, a cartoon, or the reproduction of a painting in front of me. Something that brings to life the subject of discussion each time I look at it. The picture I see now: buildings and a bit of sky above the rooftops, the blue-grey sky of dawn. Dew glistening on antennas, the white trail of a plane and another, more faint, intersecting it, sketching an enigma in the mass of grey air particles. The shadow of a police helicopter on a wall, a neon sign someone forgot to turn off, a giant, luminous blue word fragment, a man-sized S and O. Maybe SONY, maybe S.O.S. A few vaguely lit windows, drawn blinds, rusty, spitting air-conditioners, the blind-map blotches of crumbling plaster, striped umbrellas above a few balconies, a flock of birds settling on rooftops and wires. The nearly tangible pollution in the air filters the light, the pale rays of the sun penetrating it. A photograph doesn’t offer much support. Or perhaps quite the opposite: it is full of secrets to tell. Is it still easier to talk? But can this city be told at all?
I’ll start underground. I am captivated, and always was, since childhood, by the rush of the subway between two stations. The view broken into strips, if you can call it a view, just blurred lanes, grey, black, long smears which are the tunnel itself, its cables and pipes. The number of main lines is six, though we grew up in the dichotomy of the red and blue lines. Which one shall we take: the blueline or the redline, which one is valid, the red or the blue passport? You had your favourites: the red line was older, the blue was more exciting, more modern, and went all the way out to distant White Road, which I always imagined as an industrial planet covered with snow-white dust. The blue line had multi-level stair systems at Nagyvárad Square, which for some reason reminded me, even years later, of Paris and the Defense metro stations, London and Canary Wharf. New colours joined in: the orange, green, and black lines. And of course there’s the little yellow line, famous for being the first underground on the continent. I was informed of this fact by my father at a corner of the City Park, an event I always remember each time I pass that corner. Small and venerable,  so often smashed up by football hooligans, with those alluring, dignified signs, the first letters done up with a modest curlicue – the flavours of Paris again, these inscriptions in close relation to Paris and New York, Boulevard Saint Michel, Broadway-Lafayette, everywhere that curlicue initial – and the dark green of the railings, the cream-coloured tiles.
The black line. Severe. This is the most recent subway line. I never even used it the first six months, as it is rather out of my way. The blackness is dominant in the stations too. It’s not quite black, but more of a graphite-grey. I love it. The colour of an elegant Volvo, the colour of the thermo-protection ceramic plates of space stations. The structure of our city’s metro stations has remained the same, tried and true. Platforms on either side, columns in the middle, a long escalator leading to the surface. And the draught, always, forever. You experience the power, the city’s pull in this draught. It grabs you, yanks you in, carries you along the tunnel to the surface, and thrusts you past the glass doors into the underpass, pushes you into the crowd, like a thumb into putty. The graphite colour of this line covers the columns and the walls of the platforms: the armour of a galactic warrior. Here on the platforms, the practice of displaying pages from the daily papers has remained, exhibits behind large, illuminated glass panes, the headings, the pictures, and titles enlarged to giant proportions. I stand and stare. I see the pages of all the political newspapers here: there aren’t that many. Advertisements, posters, and scantily clad girls. It is prohibited to show women in degrading situations in adverts. One might say that appearing either in a bathing suit, almost or completely naked in the company of a product, is undoubtedly degrading. A flat screen, continually streaming information, the arrival of the next train, its possible lateness – just hanging in the air as a threat, usually it’s on time – tips on football and horse-race betting, the weather, accident prevention warnings in several languages. I whisk my head up on the tram, blond Slavic girls, Russians, it turns out, sitting opposite me in expensive outfits: sequins on their Pumas, holding miniature cell phones, a Pokémon with flashing eyes, conversing in a non-existent blend of languages, a unique mix of Russian and English, functioning according to some incomprehensible logic, using the words of both languages within a single phrase. Ridiculous Russian sentence structure, English words, swearing, again, in Russian, then another fragment in English, with a London accent. It’s dizzying, like being in Clockwork Orange. Blame the transportation artery system for spreading this language epidemic wreaking havoc in the city. Grafted, and gene-manipulated, understanding and misunderstanding, layers of language sediment played into each other. Is it possible to live your whole life here without speaking the language of the majority? I don’t know, but perhaps it is. The neighbourhoods in this city, the ethnically determined areas are palpable, but still, somehow this topic is modest, you can’t go and say that the section between Kis Salétrom Street and Leonardo da Vinci Street is an exclusively Roma neighbourhood, because there are Chinese living among them, though it’s mostly just their stores and their fast food joints representing them, while they themselves continually move further off; there were some Cubans too, especially on Magdolna Street, the mulatto descendants of descendants of former textile mill workers who stayed on and stayed put. Perhaps the dilapidated condition of the buildings reminded them of Havana. Likewise, I can’t say that a certain part of the second district is a Russian neighbourhood, but there is a definite residential demand for the cable company to expand its number of Russian TV channels, and there are Russian supermarkets and elite high schools with astronomical tuition fees where every other kid is Russian. But Japanese stores have moved into the neighbourhood, the shelves filled with mysterious packages containing some sort of food base, along with Japanese business clubs featuring karaoke and hostesses modelled on Anime-figures. Up until recently, the city’s only Japanese store operated out of a garage on Törökvész Road. Today a shopping centre called Oriental City stands in its place with its discount china stores, where you can get a complete tea set for small change, and if you just happened to move to this city from the Far East, you can acquire every single household item within ten minutes: a feeling of home for the price of peanuts. You might call it an anthem of glory. How amazing it is that here, in this city, all nations are at home! It could be. And in a way, it is. I had to live to see the resurrection of Budapest. But I was not completely happy. Not even if all I ever wished was to see the conclusion of the World Wars and the end of 1956. To watch the wounds, the traces of machine gun fire on the walls, these teeth-marks left by occupying dentures, as they healed. The façades of the monarchy shine once again, but still I was unable to cast off the feeling of sadness. Suddenly the name of the city is a label in lifestyle magazines, on billboards, in first-rate display cases: The traditions and history of the Magyar people are still vitally important, as is the ubiquitous mobile phone. Budapest is already proving increasingly popular as a business destination… it won’t be long untithe l leisure travellers follow. Everything I grew up in, the places where I gathered my knowledge about the city, have become null and void. The fact that we are not on the map is no longer true. My city has become a very important place on the map, a brand name, the target of special offers: spend a weekend full of experience in the Gateway to the East! The crown jewel of the Danube! Trendy bars and a health trip in the ambience of the Monarchy! If Wien isn’t exciting enough, and Praha isn’t eastern enough, then your destination is Budapest! The arrival of capital was quiet, swift, and effective, like the work of an assassin. Suddenly its presence became visible everywhere: its smell, the scent of money, could be detected even through the exhaust fumes. Budapest became irrevocably sexy. It did not become clean and cultured like Vienna, did not become immaculate and did not cleanse itself of history like Ljubljana, did not become gemütlich like downtown Bratislava, or imperial and laden with gold like Moscow, sensual and odd like Belgrade, surreal like Bucharest, dollhouse-y and bathed in legend like Prague. But the city definitely made it big, taking its triumphant place at the top of the charts, attractively, in counterpoint, like a beauty-queen in the sizzling laser beam of attention. Money appeared and tended wounds, healed the lepers and the blind, quenched everyone’s thirst from a single chalice, fed all with a single morsel of bread. Façades and interiors, blocks and streets changed, or rather, were rightfully restored, the first and then the second World Wars came to an end, while 1956 and the former regime successfully disappeared from the architectural environment, as if never they existed at all. It was covered by modern street pavements, where dirt cannot reach. Money concealed the injuries. It attempted to make everyone forget a large and painful part of the past, even if the wounds soaked through the gauze and the clotting blood turned the disinfectant powder red. It was all very nice like this. Nobody wanted to remember. Nobody had to. Remembering makes life impossible. Amnesia is the best tool for survival. And those who once felt at home in the gentle collapse of Budapest, in its former, lovely passage into ruin, did not yet have to forget everything completely. The dust, the grime, the suffocating smell of cooking oil in the Nyugati underpass remained. The flaking walls of Teréz District. The tattered billboards, the subway platforms sticky with garish advertisements, the Martian architecture of Moscow Square stayed on. None of these contradict success. They do not contradict money. Success and money could not care less about these things. And Her Excellencies, the twin sisters Trendy and Sexy, embrace it all unconditionally. Charm, that indefinable material, the fluid trickling through the city’s veins, penetrated these too, just as it has done to the grubby streets of the seventh and eighth districts, where money seeped in more slowly, getting lost in the labyrinth of streets and squares, among the leftover mush and haze of dirty clothes. Catastrophe tourism in Tűzoltó Street. Socio-tours in the Hős Street projects. The city didn’t get itself worked up: sooner or later the wretched housing blocks will disappear, condos will rise in place of one-room hovels, fashionable studio apartments will replace the tenements of working-class neighborhoods.
I am not entirely happy, though I should be enthusiastic about the manifold and sophisticated service industries of my city. The Swabian laundries. The Chinese dry-cleaning salons. The home-delivery restaurants. The catalogue stores. The gay bars, where a Greek hunk sheathed in gold dust carries bouquets of flowers to the tables. The luxury jitney taxis and chauffer services. The escorts and night guides who lead clients through erotic Budapest. Cittá aperta? Perhaps it is the architecture that evokes the possibilities: the city welcomes its subcultures, tolerates everything and everyone. At least it pretends to, and does so convincingly. It accepts its millionaire swindlers and work-ethic champions, the community of civil servants and the weary proprietors of small, iron-shuttered stores. Its women shaped into athlete-types and men with billiard-ball heads, transformed on the operating tables into potential killers. Its Roma rappers in gold chains and basketball sweat pants. Its Ukrainian black market traders in nauseatingly shiny patent-leather loafers. German sex-tourists are embraced just as openly as civilians, clean and impeccable, no longer buying clothes off the racks of discount stores. The city considers its past a closed case and has no idea about its future. But who cares, if it is able to dive and dissolve into the present. Into tonight.
I never thought I’d live in a city like this. It didn’t seem like it might come into being. I don’t even know how things got this way. They just happened. I remember it as withdrawn, as hopelessly pining after its own former greatness and splendour, as a city proudly disintegrating. It was an elderly lady of royal descent, her face now a heap of wrinkles, her teeth gone, with only her noble profile and regal gaze left as a reminder. A collapsing city licking its wounds, in the meantime not caring about its own population. Back then, it had been years since I’d been out on the street. The street wasn’t life, just terrain for shifting your position: the unavoidable path between two points. I simply did not feel the need to go, to be out there, just for kicks, to walk around, stare at the people and places, that’s how much things didn’t change, for weeks, months, years. That which is obvious is somehow compromising, and that goes for what happens on the street. Any person with a sense of values would steer clear. You just don’t go out, don’t legitimize this whole thing by appearing in public. So I didn’t, unless I had to – for school or to run various errands – except at night, at an hour which guaranteed invisibility or a chance to disappear, when I could conduct my private engagements under the cover of darkness. Apartments and kitchens were the places to meet; all activities were cinched into these locations, even those that should have properly taken place in cafés and restaurants. Then sometimes a place did rear its head. It materialized, it opened quietly, or was already there and began to function against its intended purpose, making it liveable. The wanderers discovered it, the address spread by word-of-mouth, suddenly everyone appeared, because it was the only place that had that kind of music, that drink and that conversation, things that were halfway tolerable. Otherwise, there remained the kitchens and rooms, rooms and kitchens, stereos and VCRs, records and wine bottles carried around in plastic bags. Balconies, cigarettes smoked to the filter, even beyond, exploited, like the weekdays. The number and diversity of places to hang out in this city now is still startling and perplexing. The retro bistros, the cult-discos, the cafés operating in the foyers of video rental places, the video stores operating in the back rooms of cafés, used CD and DVD stands, pubs, theme restaurants subjected to outrageous decor: Spiderman, the cult of Viennese confections, the atmosphere of Trieste harbor or Victorian England. A world of citations. The clubs, concert venues, the jazz cafés and beer parlours serving every single brand of beer on the planet. (…)

From ANGST – The Handbook of the Urban Guerilla (Ulpius Haz, Budapest 2007)

Translation by Noemi Ildiko Nagy

Gergely in Hong Kong, 2008

music and lyrics

EXTRACT 1  – (Intro)
The first bass guitarist I ever came across was Paul Simonon of the Clash. Select a role model and paste his image on a card. Explain your choice. No, that’s not how it happened. Initially, I was flummoxed by guitars. The difference between the lead guitar and the rhythm guitar? I suspected it lay in the function, not in the instruments themselves. The bass guitar, on the other hand, looks different — with its four strings, the long neck. Recognizably different, it is. In the same way, the bass guitarist differs from the rest of the band. There are the front men — the singer and lead guitarist. And then there are the back-up guys: the drummer, a keyboard player, maybe – and the bass player who hovers off to the side, towards the back, closer to the drummer than the singer. A bit of an outsider, he is. His speakers and amplifier bigger than everyone else’s. You need a big speaker because lower sounds, it seems, need a larger surface area — to resonate off of. A bass guitarist can outblast the entire band, he could blow them off the stage, but doesn’t want to. The bass guitarist is a humble man. It’s not that he stands out, but you’d miss him if he wasn’t there. That said, there are bands that don’t have a bass guitar…but you’d never find a band without a drummer. That would just be wrong. Rock music’s about the drum, not the guitar. Maybe a bass guitarist can only do what he does. That’s pretty much what Paul Simonon was like; no good for anything else. On the early tracks, he couldn’t get his part right. His sound, licks, and look, though, were to become emblematic. He’d the perfect build for a bass guitarist — his instrument hung low, over his thighs, his feet planted apart, his head down. In both his posture and mannerisms, he was the evolution of the double bass player from the traditional rock ‘n’ roll trio. Paul was perfect in the role. But that’s not all. There’s his picture on the best album cover in the history of mankind, London Calling (1979): shot in the act of smashing his guitar. Many musicians had broken many guitars in any number of ways before him, and many have done so since — but no one did it like Paul Simonon. This is nothing less than the perfect way to smash a guitar. And more than just to smash a guitar. To smash everything! The record industry, pop music, the electrics. To destroy the machine, with the rage of a Luddite. To smash the fuckers. The existing order. That said, I couldn’t bring myself to condone what he did entirely. A Fender Precision bass guitar (i.e. the one in the picture, being smashed off the stage in New York’s Palladium) is very expensive. You couldn’t even get one where I come from. My bass guitar cost 1500 forints; was a Jolana. Made in Czechoslovakia. I’d have been a fool to think I’d ever get anything better. In saying that, I’d just as much reason to smash it as my colleague, up in London. For that reason, it would’ve been more appropriate, I reckon, if, rather than smashing it to pieces, Paul had sent his guitar off to Eastern Europe. To the young rock musicians fighting to break their Soviet chains. He could’ve sent it to me. To Gergö, in Budapest. Concert over, backstage at the Brixton Academy, all sweaty and exhausted, a can of Coke in his hand, he could’ve called to one of his roadies and said, “Hey, can you take this guitar and send it to that guy in Budapest.”
“Bucharest?” asks the roadie.
“No, they’re two different cities. Entirely different. Recognizably different,” says Paul.
“Okay – ”
“Wait a second,” Paul calls after him. He holds out a torn concert ticket. “Stick this in the case with the guitar.” He jots down a few lines: Hi! Paul, from the Clash here. This guitar is for you. Please don’t smash it to bits. Just plug it into an amplifier. I’m not going to send you an amplifier, you’ll have to find one yourself. When you do, turn up the volume and just strum. Let it vibrate. It’ll be great. You’ll see. You just need to get a band together. The roadie places the instrument in an elegant guitar-case, with brass reinforcements on the corners, sticks a FRAGILE sticker on, and sends it off, air mail. Paul leans back in his chair, clutching a snow-white towel, reflects for a moment about passing on the torch.
No, that isn’t what happened. The only time anyone tried to sell me a Fender was in 1984, in the same block of flats where the old couple had the tropical fish store — which is how two childhood passions came together (for a while, anyhow: whereas I stuck with the guitar, one after the other, the fish in my aquarium died.) The fraud was quickly exposed: it was a fake! A real Fender has a number of identifying features: a serial number on the head, a letter for its decade (“S” for the seventies… “E” for the eighties), and then, either below the pickguard, or where the body and neck meet, there’s the Quality Control man’s seal & the date of manufacture. My guitar said: “Jones, 78. January, 1”; which had me thinking Leo Fender was really hard on his workforce – New Year’s Day or not, they weren’t allowed to relax, to nurse their hangovers! Of course, he might no longer have been the boss by then. This was around the time he sold the factory and the brand-name to start up Music Man. He was leaving no room for doubt. You can tell from the name. Music. Man. No way could you misinterpret that. Music Man was to become the best bass guitar anywhere. I have a Music Man amplifier — with electron tubes. It’s a sturdy, nuclear-bomb-resistant companion for my solitary travels. I bought it from the same guy I eventually got my guitar from. He was black market, I guess. A very goodhearted guy; so doomed.
“We’re renovating,” he explained as he showed me round his flat. It was a public housing block. Torn wallpaper was hanging from the walls. The place was completely empty – except for Granny, sitting on a chair, bang in the middle of the room. Sad. For about a year and a half, I was a regular visitor. During that time, one of the rooms was to fill gradually – with musical instruments. The flat was always being renovated, and the granny was always in her chair. I started worrying that Customs would find me and ask where I’d got all my gear. I could’ve got it anywhere. Old Fenders have been known to turn up in attics. In the remotest of villages, even. There was a time when they’d no value at all – whereas, now, it’s hard to find one. Back then, they just lay around, waiting to be found. Legend had it that, in 1985, a black Fender was doing the rounds, but that anyone who bought it soon mysteriously died. I don’t know where mine came from. It’s not black. It could be from Germany. That’s where we get most things. Anything they don’t want in Germany any more ends up here. Before the Fender, I’d a guitar called Melody – an Italian brand, assembled in Romania. Its neck was slightly but continuously warped. I also had a Yamaha, the result of a deal — people said — between Triál, our state toys & instruments company, and the Japanese – who wanted agricultural products. Made of ash and heavy as hell, it was. But its sound was relatively good – and Gazsi, the most talented bass guitarist in Budapest, put in an active pickup. Gazsi trained for playing the way rock-climbers do for climbing. He’d special finger-strengthening exercises. These days, he’s a Hare Krishna and plays in a Krishna hardcore band. The lyrics of every track are exactly the same. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare. He’d like to meet the guy who wrote the words.

EXTRACT 2 – (Thing)
It was called “Marlboro”, but it wasn’t a cigarette. The cigarettes were called Bond Streets; which was what the keyboard player smoked. He’s two years older than us. And still plays keyboards for us. Back then, he drank beer, already had a girlfriend. He’d bring Bond Streets to rehearsals and we’d all share one. We even wrote a track called “American Cigarette.” The Marlboro gear I got through a singer, who went by the name of Donut. Shortly before we met her, she’d a part in the movie that made her nationally famous: Love to The First Blood. It was the bass guitarist in her band, DoppinG, who sold me his equipment — Marlboro gear. An amplifier head and a speaker. I should stop to explain the term head. I wasn’t familiar with the term, though it’s quite logical: anything at the top is the head. That said, the speaker, which is below the head, isn’t called the body. Nothing is called the body — except the body of the guitar, which is called the body. According to the Communist Youth Organization’s weekly magazine, a guitar’s a weapon with the body of a woman. That’s what they claimed back then, though it never caught on, maybe because it seemed to refer to East German rock music, i.e. the Communist part – where they’d the nude beaches, or more specifically: to Dean Reed, the only American to flee there. There were other confusing terms, words with obscure meanings, such as output level, monitor box, cluster cable, intelligent lamp, bass box — but even ones that seemed self-evident, like frontline and backline, needed clarification. We’ll come back to that. For the moment, the bass guitarist was waiting tables and found it — and he’d the full support of his family on this — more tenable than playing. To mask his disappointment, he assumed a world-weary air. He’d given up on the idea, simply, of being in a band and playing the bass. He no longer gave a damn about Donut, about nationwide fame. Was he a loser? I don’t know. All I cared about was the fact I’d  have an amplifier, at last. It must have even had some original parts. I mean original parts of some description. Because – leaving aside the cigarette – the brand-name Marlboro was in no way known. The device did resemble an amplifier, though, and in its own way, the black plastic cover was elegant. The musician’s cigarettes had left small, yellow-brownish nicks on it, giving me a real, totally genuine concert feeling. This was the nonchalant gesture of a bass guitarist — putting his cigarette down on the amplifier while he played away. The thing was impressively large, came up to my waist. Bass sounds, as I say, require a very large surface area to resonate off of. All in all, I felt my problems were solved. My amplifier problems, that is, which started with an old Videoton radio – which was replaced by a robust, make-shift metal …thing, made by the brother of a drummer called Vásárhelyi. That problem was resolved – temporarily, at least – when a Vermona Combo was purchased (the band all chipped in), but was to re-emerge — just, needless to say, as our needs expanded to include volume, tuning, and a higher degree of professionalism, which meant each member of the band had to have his own channel — and so the problem became pressing once more. Vásárhelyi’s older brother, by the way, was also a bass player, and knew even more than I did. The tram was the only way we had to transport the metal box. There was no other way. The first time I took a cab was when I’d the double bass with me, and the driver thought he could fit it in his Lada. He claimed he often chauffeured the Young Gypsies’ Orchestra. Vásárhelyi’s brother lives far far away, where the norms of urban logistics collapse, where railways get messed up, and no-one really in his right mind would choose to live. We walked our city streets hungrily, our senses heightened, scanning the shop windows of the few stores where there was at least some hope of finding a secondhand amplifier. There were those who were eager to profit from our hunger: the Komor-types, the merchants. Komor bought and sold whatever there was demand for. The quality items, he hid, of course, at the bottom of his pile. He was small fry, a miserable cheapskate. He drove a Wartburg, and a Wartburg isn’t the kind of car you’d do your mother over for. – Is it? No. Not unless you’re a Komor-type.
You need an amplifier. You have to have one because the sound needs to be amplified, the signal needs to resonate and carry through the circuit. They won’t be able to hear you otherwise – and so you won’t split eardrums, won’t be able to nuke the world. And you mustn’t not be able to. If you’ve got electricity, you’ve got everything. If you’ve got electricity, you’ve got rock ‘n’ roll. Our eyes dry up in the basements where we rehearse, get sore; we pound the pavements, beat and broke, face whatever we have to. Punk won’t be conquering Hungary — not in the foreseeable future, anyway. Videoton sets people’s hearts pounding: Videoton, not the radio, but the football team, when they play Real Madrid at home. Komor knew what we were after, was ready for us. He put his bait in the window. The boxes were there when we arrived: all black, their knobs gleaming. But we refused to give him our money — our mothers’ money, our fathers’ money — mothers’, more than fathers’.
If you’ve got a guitar, drums & an amplifier, nothing can stop you from playing a concert. We’d a drum too. A Dubán. The other brand available was the Finkey. Rock music’s about the drum, not the guitar. I’m convinced the name Dubán has some kind of meaning. Finkey might not. A more perfect name for a small drum manufacturer, I cannot think of. Maybe it’s a stage name, and the original name was, say, Zamecsnik or Greifenstein. Dubán, on the other hand, sounds forth with a gentle, soft drum, sounds forth from the grubby 8th district where his store was. Some said Dubán was a crook, that his drums were made of low-quality plywood. I don’t know, I couldn’t then, and I will not now, take a stance on this. Plywood isn’t my specialism, and neither are drums. If the drummer’d ever let me play his, I’d have been in trouble. I can’t beat them properly. It’s not a question of strength so much as: technique and strength, combined. To me, drums seem hopelessly complicated, with all those independent hand and foot movements. A rhythmic sport. Gymnastics. Noisemaking. Rainmaking.
The drummer’s in full control. To the naked eye, it would seem he’s only got drumsticks in his hands. He’s got the entire band in his hands, in fact. I mean it. The entire band. You can only be as good as your drummer. “I am not your drummer,” Charlie Watts said to Mick Jagger. “You are my singer,” and he punched him in the face. So, you don’t have a drummer, your drummer has you. That goes for the Rolling Stones, even, and all the more so for us or you. A good band with a mediocre drummer will sound mediocre (cf. Talking Heads), while a mediocre band with a good drummer will sound quite good. Drum machines sucked in the eighties. Now, it’s not an issue, even. They lack character. The machines sneaked in. And we legitimize this evolution. And don’t care if it keeps evolving.

EXTRACT 3 – (Give me a chance)
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! What’s the rush, anyway? There are so many things to speak of. Csepei’s book Introduction to the Guitar is a piece of shit. Muszty-Dobai’s  Guitar Lessons aren’t worth mentioning, even. Every such book is a compendium of mis-instruction, merely. No self-respecting guitarist plays the way the manuals teach. All such books are misleading. The videos are even worse. Only the heavy metal crowd watch them because these kinds of videos are made by the heavy metal crowd for the heavy metal crowd. Another possibility, for many, is to learn classical guitar, which is not misleading, but different. Music theory is useful, even if no-one uses scores anymore. We use tabs instead, the harmonies marked with nothing but letters. The double bass was a natural choice for me, somehow. But I never really wanted to practise, I’d rather play bass guitar than practise for the double, doing finger exercises, running scales or reading scores. The bass guitar is more revelatory than anything I know, moreso even than the woman sunbathing naked on the balcony across the street.  She’s a mother but she’s still in good shape, perfect shape, I’d say, not that I ever cared, really, to guess how old she might be and what shape she’d be in if she wasn’t in the shape I saw her in. She even makes her baby sunbathe. Her fashionably sheared poodle, too. She must have known she could be seen, despite the stone banister, because there are holes all along it. Loop-holes, you could say. No, okay – let’s call them peep-holes. The bass guitar’s more interesting.
Many years later, this same woman signed my payroll slip at the accounting department of the public service TV station. We knew everything about each other. There are many women, and more than enough naked women, too, but there is only one instrument. Women yield. Instruments just won’t. You have to break sweat to learn how to play them. I knew nothing. Dots were points of reference on the neck, double dots marked the octaves. Not that finding a woman’s dots isn’t exciting, by the way. But when it came to the dots on an instrument, or rather the sounds it would make when I played, even the great Kodály would’ve given up on me – though, famously, he never gave up on anyone. I’m not sure what he would’ve made of me with regard to women. Anyway, the fact is: I was almost hopelessly untrained. Even Paul Simonon didn’t get off to a worse start. Sid Vicious didn’t either. Paul, at least, learned something from Sid. He didn’t learn to play because Sid excelled at image-making, not music. Disheveled, spiky hair, phlegmatic expression, lock & chain round his neck, black leather trousers & a red T-shirt, panther-skin boots (which were to turn up again, on Keith Richards’ feet, on the 1981 Stones tour) and his guitar, hanging low on the thighs. I might have got off to a worse start than Paul. I caught up with him fast, however -however immodest that may sound.
Concert over, backstage at 100 Club on Oxford Street, the great Kodály turns to Sid Vicious, bass guitarist of the Sex Pistols, and says: “This music of yours and the fact you reject all the conventions of music history — is that an expression of youth revolt against the senselessness of life?”
“Aaah…yeah, well, I don’t know,” Sid says, a can of Heineken in his hand.
“Do you, my son, try to compensate with volume for your musical illiteracy?”
“Yeah, well, maybe,” Sid says, his eyelids heavy, as he takes a sip of beer.
“Tell me, my son, do you know solfége? Have you heard of my method? The Kodály System?”
“Aw…system sucks.”
We decide we’ll do something for the band every day. Even if it’s just a small thing. We’ll go to an instrument store and look around. To a cultural centre to organize a concert. Try to find a place to rehearse. We’ll go to the Pop-eggs Emerging Artists Bureau to see Hevesi, the agent, or to Bem rakpart Cultural Centre, on the banks of the Danube, to see Aranka. Or we’ll go somewhere else. Or we won’t go anywhere — will just listen to music & discuss it. We’ll learn to play a few songs. Or just fool around. Design our LP cover. Set the date for its release.
We don’t care about anything. Not even the fact the political situation means releasing records is banned. Just release them. Such a damn simple thing — a bunch of people play music and it gets recorded and there are microphones, and other people mess around with the tracks a little to fix the sound and harmonies, and so on, and then they start the record press in the city of Dorog, and the records get put into record sleeves, together with a user’s manual: this record can be played with a stereo as well as a mono pick-up device. Some records do get released. That’s what makes the situation so confusing. We don’t even attempt to comprehend. It’s absolutely clear, at the same time, what we won’t do. Whatever they want us to do, we won’t. We just won’t. Of course, there’s hardly anyone who might want something from us. Not yet, but maybe later there will be. Then everybody will be wanting things – and we’ll have to be very careful. We write a song called “Death Dreams” which captures our politics. We write a song called “Rock ‘n’ roll Star” that expresses our views about stardom. We write a whole bunch of bad songs, too, though we don’t yet know they’re bad. We decide to drop “Oh, How Happy You Are” because although, six months earlier, it reflected our views accurately, it now seems over-simplified. Someone whose opinion we don’t give a shit about said the lyrics were good, so we drop it even more. People used to like it when we played it live, but still… Which reminds me: we’ve had some concerts already. We don’t know how many. Three, four, five? We’ve already had our debut. Yes, we’ve been there. Are now veteran stage men. We’re not counting the concert we gave at Ilonka’s flat. That wasn’t a real one; wasn’t Wembley Stadium. Nor was it the Vasas Club, where we played with Kyrie Leison and the Floating Islands. That one counts. We’d been hanging around since four in the afternoon and were totally exhausted by the time we got on stage, at nine. We’d school the next day, too. (It was our front man who determined you should never turn up at a venue when the organizers tell you to. I still haven’t figured that one out.) We were half-conscious when we played, and our classmates were there, the girls too. Then, there was the distinctly concert-like concert at the Ujlaki. The Ujlaki wasn’t built to last forever. Maybe the MacDonalds that’s been built there now won’t last forever either. Not that I’ve any idea what they’ll put in its place.
I couldn’t understand why, despite my vast experience, my legs were shaking like that. They were shaking so much I was worried the audience might think I was trying to move like Chuck Berry, or Angus Young. I was sure I’d fall to the ground at some point — and not out of ecstasy, either. I stood my ground to the end, though. A heavy metal band was on before us, and for some mysterious reason they were wearing brightly-coloured dresses and playing brightly-coloured guitars, and their girlfriends all had brightly-coloured hair. They imitated pictures they’d probably seen of the Scorpions – in the West German Bravo – and sang “Andi, you are so good (good good good)”. They were horrible. We weren’t. We were fucking great. Even though the Blues Gmk, on after the heavy metal kids, had a virtuoso guitarist. It wasn’t our handling of the instruments that made us great — we knew that didn’t count back then. What counted was the way we acted, the impression we made. Our attitude. The instruments, we’d learn how to play later. We convinced everyone we were great. (We did it! We did it!, we told each other happily, simultaneously coming up with all kinds of theories as to why we sucked.)
It’s all in the essence. It’s not about the songs themselves — no one, not us, or our public, could’ve explained what they meant. It’s all about the way four guys who get up there together do so. The way the drummer’s head, the bass guitarist, the lead guitarist and the singer all fit together. Not like in a photo. But like in real life. Because the stage is life. While you are there, it is your life — an hour and a half of your life and you have to live it for all the people watching to live it too. Something has to happen up there. Brightly-coloured clothes isn’t what it takes (that’s where the heavy metal guys fucked up). Virtuoso playing isn’t what it takes (that’s where the blues guys fucked up). All that tawdry ornament isn’t what it takes. What it takes is: four heads, four bombs that go off right there and then. Detonation. It can be silent, but it has to happen. And it must be inescapable. Nothing happens before the moment things detonate. It’s all born from the falling debris. A lot of people will hate you for it, and you’ll often find yourself hating it all too. The boos, the laughter, the fans and your enemies. Analyzing every last detail of your performance. Comparing yourselves to other bands, more significant than you. Concluding that you don’t begin to compare to them. It will make you feel you’re not significant; that what other bands are doing, saying, performing, representing, right at this moment, is much more significant, more interesting, than what you’re doing, saying, performing, representing. It might as well be true. Or rather, it’s completely true, in a way. That said, your band has to have four heads, four explosive, dangerous heads.

All three excerpts from Basszus! (Palatinus Publishing, Budapest 2003)

Translated from the Hungarian by Zsolt Kozma + Minna Proctor (USA)
Revised by Donal McLaughlin (UK)

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