On tour in Serbia
The howling police sirens of Hungarian border city Szeged fade into the distance along with the helicopters and interminable border controls and glittering razor wire thrown up to block the foot-march of Syrian civil war refugees. The night air bristles with cold electricity. The highway is deserted.
At the wheel, Nex gently explains that the Peugeot is pre-CD vintage and the cassette player is broken. We listen to randomly tuned local radio stations, mass-produced autotuned muzak broadcast in fragments between blasts of white noise static. Only two hours to Belgrade, Nex says, you want to take a break?
Cigarette smoke drifts in the still air of a petrol station cafe. Mica and I woke up in Vienna early this morning, shook off the fatigue of last night’s show and hit the road for the Balkans, leaving our rental car locked up in a Szeged hotel car park with all our money hidden beneath the vehicle floor. The European Union finishes at the Hungarian–Serbian border, we had been warned; once you cross that line, rental cars have been known to disappear at high speed into the twilight chop shops of Kosovo and Albania.
We’ve been on the road driving and playing every night for three weeks. I rub the exhaustion from my eyes. The vast northern plain of Serbia broods beneath a thick carpet of cloud, 360 degrees of smudged horizon. Occasional power stations puncture the skyline of flat space.
The traffic intensifies as we approach the Serbian capital, merging with the heavy stream of machines clogging the city expressway. A broken-down truck brings the flow to a dead stop. The aged and battered vehicles around us blow out black exhaust, the air thick with petro-smog.
Aleks, our promoter and a legend of the Serbian music scene, invites us into the apartment where his mother is cooking a spicy casserole of smoked pork and cabbage; heavy, powerfully salted food washed down with local red wine and chemical-tasting water. The six o’clock news plays on the television – smooth-shaven politicians charming the studio audience. They describe neighbouring Kosovo as a terrorist state. At the same time, seeking to ingratiate themselves into the EU, they say they recognise Kosovo as a partner in the Balkan peace process.
Serbia has been left out in the cold since the failed genocidal wars of the ’90s. Just before our arrival, war criminal Ratko Mladić was sentenced in The Hague for atrocities committed in Bosnia 25 years ago.
I played across the post-Soviet satellite states nearly 30 years ago, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, counting myself lucky if the club’s electricity was stable enough to get through an entire concert. But there was a sense of idealism in the air, a feeling that the world was transitioning.
Tonight, as we start up the music in Belgrade’s KC Grad club, I remember those long ago and far-off times. Inside the KC Grad, at least, the audience shares excitement, energy, exhilaration and expectation. The lights, the sound, the pulse, the ambience of our electronically abstracted John Lee Hooker blues take over. The blues speaks to everybody. It’s a visceral thing – the trance beat, the minor major third, the torment. No translation necessary.
When it’s over I find a moment alone to stare out the backstage windows across the shadowy docks and the glittering void of the Sava River, allowing my thoughts to dive and tumble through the haze of exhaustion that coats my mind like film.
When the adrenaline is all gone and the road fatigue begins twisting reality out of shape, the world feels very distant and out of focus. I miss my so-very-faraway loved ones with a keen, clear pang of pain. At the same time, I don’t miss them, don’t want them here. Heavy rain falls as the windows mist over and the chatter of the crowd echoes up the stairs. Invisible minutes pass as I change out of one filthy shirt into another, wipe the sweat and dirt from my face.
I wake up slightly hungover to the screech of what sounds like cars driving directly through the apartment walls. Throwing on warm clothes, I stumble into the tumult of Belgrade – people staring out through the windows of overcrowded, smoke-belching buses, old folk barely strong enough to stand upright selling straw, buttons and dried fruit on decaying concrete footpaths, Romani kids watching hawk-eyed.
The high street is full of five-star fashion boutiques aimed at the global elite. Empty of customers, they are showcases for an eerie sense of unreality. Giant coal-scented housing blocks snake through the city cluster on its fringes like light-security jails.
The rain is still falling as we load the Peugeot and shudder across the potholed muddy roads leading out of the city, headed for Kladovo, an isolated town four or five hours away where the Balkan mountains meet the Danube.
The mountains are high and rugged and the road twists and turns along the course of the river through unlit tunnels, Nex dodging the oncoming high-speed semitrailers with practised skill. Small boulders stud the roadside, rocks big enough to punch a hole in the fuel tank or cripple the drive shaft. Giant nets have been deployed but the stones keep rolling down regardless, the way the past keeps intruding into the present, like Hooker’s delta blues, still sung long after the author has gone.
The aspiring mayor of Kladovo visits our show in a small community centre with his entourage. He speaks of “our traditions” in accented English practised on the international visitors attracted here during the balmy months of summer when the good times roll. I’m called upon to pose together for selfies in support of his imminent election. He’s a government man, but holds the purse strings for events in the zone, and so good vibes in the name of art must flow.
Later, I fall asleep in my room in a grim Soviet hotel so overheated I’ve opened the windows to the zero-degree air. A ’70s Slavic movie flickers on the television screen – a factory worker’s secret affair slowly driving his wife to suicide in a dimly lit proletarian screen world.
Waking in the frozen morning light with the curtains billowing in a glacial wind, I see the huge volume of the Danube River flowing through the mountain valley, Romania on the far side, giant shipyards clustered around a dam downstream. The town is small but the surrounds are on an epic scale, a portrait of an ancient Romanian king carved out of the side of a mountain implacably facing off Serbia across the river.
The mystic aura clinging to this wild countryside dissipates the closer we drive towards Novi Sad. Clouds hang low and grey, rain falls and the usual breakdowns bring traffic to a standstill, our windscreen wipers beating in time with the robotic pop music nagging from the car radio.
Hours pass until we re-emerge onto the northern plain with its high-tension electricity cables and towers sparkling like Christmas lights in the November freeze. Novi Sad is an ancient town of one-way streets, frustrating to navigate. We circle through the downtown until Nex defies the traffic signs and video cameras to pull up outside the local culture centre where we will perform tonight.
We’re late and within an hour or so the venue is crowded. I feel the shock of raw electricity from this audience, a hunger. The EU feels a million miles from here and yet the border is less than a hundred kilometres away, and there is movement in the shadows. The Russian military, I’m told, is covertly moving into Bosnia, selling their guns and helicopters and advisory personnel to Serb separatists dreaming of a united resurgent Serb “empire” rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the 14th century.
If politics is best measured by the depth of its failures, the collapse of the Yugoslavian federation 25 years ago was a seismic event that has now gone inter-generational. And its fruit is the new face of fascism “lite”, the most popular poison on offer at the bar at the end of time where we stand tonight, poised to go onstage to summon up the old blues of oppression and the long-ago.
The blues are still here. They are us.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 31, 2018 as "Blues Danube". Subscribe here.