Extracts from the book, 'The Anarchist & The Devil Do Cabaret,' by Norman Nawrocki
'I saw myself, held myself, hand to hand
Headless, I, too, walked in this strange new land'
Normally, I'd hide my diary under my bed, hoping no one would dare look. Here, now, I ask you to take a peek. Flip the pages. Read what happens when my bandmates and I decide to inject a bit of imported, Canadian anarcho rock 'n roll into the outstretched arms of Europe.
Live, as 'Rhythm Activism,' we perform high grade political cabaret guaranteed to shake, rattle and question. How? We take the best of traditional European cabaret, combine it with the worst of American TV, throw in cutting-edge and traditional music full of surprises, add some slapstick, costumes and masks and underpin everything with a serious social message. We also get people dancing - from Berlin to New York.
On paper, it's hard to reproduce the energy and stench of four guys playing music as if every show was the last, as if every word, finger or hand movement mattered as much as a heartbeat or a breath. On stage, the real world shrinks and stops. Headaches disappear. Greasy, pre-show, queasy stomach food never happened. If it's not part of the set-list, forget it. That spurt of blood? Keep it in the act. The drooping microphone, the smoking amp, the de-tuned string, the wet, clammy socks, the cables: the damn malfunctioning, cheap, fucking, on sale cables - this world matters. The all-important performance qualities of plastic, rubber, metal, wood, vocal cords, muscle and bone - this is important. A false note hurts.Three hundred pairs of ears might not notice, but yours do. Mess up, and bandmates can be unforgiving. Give more than the night before and maybe no one notices. Because on stage, for the one or two hours of this night, the truth of your vibrating G-string, the delivery, the substance of what we're trying to say, and any gut or heart-driven emotion, counts. Nothing else exists. At least, this is what we convince ourselves to believe.
But the music, the theatre, the urge to perform is only part of this sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious story of one particular European tour as seen through my bloodshot eyes. The rest - the moments in between - have little to do with the world of music, stagecraft and band van lore.
The rest are "urban fairy tales." They talk about Europe's new, multi-racial underclass: the working poor, immigrants, the marginalized young and old who live in the shadows. For them our music, our showmanship, our stab at
helping promote "resistance culture" doesn't matter. Europe loves visiting artists and treats us well. But when has Europe ever been kind to refugees, to the Roma, to migrant workers, to ever-trusting Slavs, to women who work the streets and panhandlers who keep the sidewalks free of cigarette butts and apple cores? In a world of globalized fantasy, these people represent the new scarred face of Europe: uncertain and insecure, filled with growing disenchantment. They reflect an Europe in transition, marked by political and racial tension as East and West, the old and the new, vie for the future while remembering the past.
This book was written between soundchecks, loading and unloading band equipment, and sipping beers. I spent time with dozens of street kids, prostitutes, beggars and the homeless who I met on park benches, in bus depot cafes, and in stinking alleyways behind the clubs we played. Over shared food and drink I listened. These conversations morphed into true stories and tall tales - the reality of people who usually are never listened to. Though I may never see these people again, they could be my neighbours or yours, the woman laid off last week or the guy getting old on that bus stop bench. They could be in the audience on our next tour or on the front page of a newspaper clamouring for Jobs, Food, Peace and Justice.
For this book, I've changed the names and characterizations of band members.
Between the journal entries are letters from an uncle to my father. I thought these letters had disappeared, but they surfaced in time to include here. You see, this was no ordinary band tour. My ailing father asked me to track down news about his brother who he hadn't heard from for years. I said I'd try.
As a band, our music lives on in videos, on CDs and the Web. Occasionally, we'll learn about how our music inspires listeners, turns them into fans and helps reinforce or give birth to their visions of a new, more just and free world. I'd like to think that these stories will also breathe life into different visions, even for just a moment - that moment when truth and fiction, reality and dream blur, when the dreams of strangers, like the dreams of my bandmates, my friends, and you, dear readers, are released, take root and grow. Join me and the Devil and let this cabaret begin. **
I did not write for so long because I hear so many voices in my head. Who do I believe? All my life I thought I did the right thing. What my heart told me to do. What our dear Mother and you told me to do. Now I am 77 years old and I have questions, doubts. Is it too late to ask, was I wrong?
A man's conscience can be his best and his worst friend at the same time. I have committed many acts that were once unthinkable, but later, seemed unavoidable and necessary. Should I suffer for that? Does choosing the lesser of two evils make me party to that evil? Sometimes I am afraid to speak to other people because they will lock me up. But I am not crazy.
Did you know I waited for your son in LeHavre for two weeks. He never came. Why? Did he not believe me? I could not find a boat for England, so I sailed to Italy. Here, I am safe and no one bothers me. Who will bother a grey beard?
Everything I own I carry on my back. I sleep under the stars, on the beach, in a park or an empty building. I talk to birds and wild rabbits. They understand me. I understand them. Birds know sadness. Rabbits know love. Butterflies rest on my shoulders. They tire, too. Have you ever heard a butterfly sing? I sing on street corners and people drop money and food into my hat. The Italians are a compassionate, generous people. They share their sausage and their bread. I stay away from hospitals and doctors. They almost killed me last time. They filled me with so many drugs, I forgot my own name. They scare me.
In an earlier life, I think I was a cowboy who could hear buffalo coming from far away. In this one, I am a gypsy with bad legs. A crow with one good eye. A drunk black moth. If I could fly, I would visit you.
When will your son come to Europe again? Does he still play music in a band? Is his ear as good as yours? Have you heard, brother Murek is now a judge in Poland? Keep writing to the toy store in Tabor, Czechoslovakia. My friend, the puppetmaker, lives there. He knows where to find me.
AN ANARCHIST ROCK 'N ROLL STORY
This is an anarchist, rock 'n roll story.
I lie on a stinking, sperm-stained, foam mattress in the back of an overpacked van meant to haul sheep. The make-believe bed was rescued from a sidewalk garbage pile "because it fits and it's cheap." It's now jammed in sideways on top of two amplifier cases. Hit a bump in the road and watch it cough up dust. I bend my knees and rearrange my bones diagonally. I'm a human pretzel trying not to breathe too deeply.
Beside me is a two-metre high pile of music hardware, drums, guitars and personal luggage packed precariously. It threatens imminent collapse and taunts my reflexes. My ever-alert arm and leg are on standby to stave off the dangerous shifts at every surprise braking. Brake - thrust. Brake - thrust. Our driver likes to brake.
To my left a thin plywood wall separates me from my semi-comatose bandmates up front occupying uncomfortable seats. They're hip-bone close and smile a lot. For a break, they squeeze into my baggage retreat by climbing through a too small kleenex box cutout in the divider. Enter at your own risk, head first or feet first, but don't ever get your hairy ass stuck in the hole. Especially if we round a curve. And watch out for sleeping bodies or an open jar of mustard. This hole is booby-trapped.
Above my head, soap-defying, sweat-encrusted laundry, soaked from four weeks of nightly performances hangs swaying from the bungee clothesline like so many tired skins refusing to dry. There's always a designated time to eat, sleep, play and piss, but never enough to allow anything wet to dry. Cigarette smoke from the front wraps itself around the arms of already smoked suits. It mixes with the dust and stench from the mattress and hijacks any breathable air in my windowless compartment.
I'm running a fever now three days old. Every bone protests. My head's on fire. Everyone else is uniformly zombified from fatigue. The am radio blares oom-pa-pa polka puke music. It's no longer entertaining. My bandmates alternate between laughs at already worn jokes and fights to open, close, open then close the two windows. The driver has a hangover and a sleep-deprived temper. He politely asks people to shut up or fuck off.
I daydream about freedom, sunshine, fresh air and lovers with normal happy/sad/happy lives. The van ignores all desires and zooms faster along the autobahn. It races madly against the clock towards another soundcheck, another show. It lurches angrily left, then sharp right in a failed attempt to pass. The move topples a suitcased snare drum which snaps a strung out bungee cord. I'm smothered with six cold, soggy shirts from last night's show. No one hears my screams.
* * *
* ON THIS CORNER
On this corner, under a street lamp outside a pastry shop, stands an erect old man. He wears a long black overcoat. A matted beard, thick as steel wool, tumbles over his red scarf. His eyes hide behind a pair of dark glasses. They dart, but do not see. His left hand holds out a crumpled black fedora. His right grips the knob of a cane. Unless you watched the twitch of the lower lip that rustled his beard, unless you noticed the barely perceptible spasm in his right hand, you wouldn't know he was alive. This blind beggar stands perfectly still.
On the opposite corner, another panhandler works noisily. She's 16, a runaway, hair dyed bright green. Silver rings pierce her nose and lips. A poised-to-strike, tattooed python coils itself on her shaven head. A white pet rat, pink nose sniffing, peers out of the breast pocket of her army fatigues. She paces back and forth in high laced boots that need new soles. She's hungry and getting more frustrated by the minute.
A tour group of well-dressed Americans break around her like a school of exotic fish. No one heeds her pleas for "spare change?" They pretend she's not there. But she won't disappear. Unlike an old blind man, she's harder to ignore."Fuckin' tourists," she curses in English, loudly, as the Americans pass.
It's dusk, and cooling fast. A stray dog trots by the blind man. The dog sniffs his shoes and lifts a leg to pee. The old man whacks the dog with his cane. The dog yelps and runs.
Further up the street, a drunken bicyclist sings loudly out of key as he wobbles precariously towards the corner. His girlfriend, angry at him for having had an affair, has kicked him out of her house. He loses his balance and falls in slow motion, crashing his bicycle into the lamp post in front of the blind man. He can't be bothered to get up.
"Fuck it," he moans. "Love hurts."
He's entangled in the bicycle, but not injured. He rolls onto his back, arms reaching skyward, pleading, and continues his song.
"Oh, love me, love me, love me, love me again and some more/Won't you please love me, love me, love me like you did before."
A man in the apartment two floors above the pastry shop hears the
jilted crooner but can't sympathize. He's a young neo-Nazi, a white power advocate, questioning "why bother?" He's having second thoughts about his entire life, a sinking feeling that nothing makes sense anymore. But he needs to think it through. He's finished six bottles of beer trying to figure it out, but the noise from below doesn't help.
He leans out his open window and yells at the drunk, "Will you fucking shut up!"
He doesn't. The neo-Nazi, naked except for glasses and a cowboy hat, heaves an empty beer bottle at the drunk. It misses and smashes into a starburst of glassy fireworks around him. The heartbroken lover keeps singing. A startled tourist honks. The punk from across the street screams up at the window,"You're a fuckin' lousy shot, cowboy! Go back to bed and screw your horse!"
The window slams shut. A matronly shopper, arms full of parcels, thinks she's under attack and yells "Help! Police!" and starts running.
The blind man hears everything, laughs and can't stop. His head bobs up and down. He taps his cane on the sidewalk.
"God bless you, Jana," he shouts to the punk across the street. "Come to my place for supper tonight. I have food for you and your rat."
"No! Come to my place!" shouts the drunken cyclist trying to stand up. "I'll feed you, young lady, and your rat. And you, too, old man!"
It's a quiet Monday night in Tabor. The stray dog wanders back to this corner. He sniffs the lamp post and pisses. *