I arrived in Belgrade, Serbia without a plan. My original plan was to hook up with the guys from UPS! (Stand Against the System), a local Serbian band that I signed to Punk Outlaw Records sight unseen because of their kick ass CD (Evolution of the Transition) that sounded a bit like a mix between NOFX and Pennywise with a decided Serbian twist. My goal was to finally meet the guys from UPS! in person, maybe interview them for Punktology, shoot a music video and get introduced other punks on the scene in Serbia.
All those plans fell by the wayside, when the drummer Darko (the only band member I’ve actually corresponded with), emailed me a couple weeks before I was to arrive and said the band had suddenly broken up… over reasons
I still don’t fully comprehend. It was weird, mysterious and curiously timed email.
But I had no intention of skipping out on one of the most infamous Eastern European countries in recent history. If Serbia could put out a band like UPS!, there was bound to be a punk legacy. Indeed…
In the latter part of the last century, Serbia had become known for many things, few of them very good, most recently a brutal war (complete with war criminals, NATO embargos and air strikes), world record inflation and of course, that old stand-by, government corruption. If you’ve been reading this blog with any consistency, you know by now, this is a typical recipe for punk history and fertile territory for our documentary “Punktology… the Global Power of Punk” .
Arriving in Belgrade after a rather hot and clammy 8 hour or so train ride from Budapest, I was hungry (I hadn’t brought food and they didn’t sell it on the train), thirsty (I was afraid to drink too much water because then I’d have to pea, and there was no one to watch my stuff) and tired (it was 11PM Belgrade time) and had only the vaguest idea where my apartment was located. Street signs felt impossible to read, Serbian is NOT a Latin language and I was certainly out of my rudimentary language speaking element here.
Luckily, a good Samaritan named Vladymer, who was passing out flyers for a hostel at the train station, also spoke good English and not only showed me to my apartment but gave me an impromptu tour of Belgrade (there is where the government official was assassinated in 2006, etc., etc.). After what seemed like an eternity and we finally located my apartment, I thankfully tipped him and said good night.
After a good night’s sleep I was ready to go and…. do what exactly? I had reached out to a few Serbian bands that Russian intern Tim had put together for me, but most of them lived in Novi Sad (couple of hours north by train) and other parts of Serbia. I just was not up for any more train travel.
So I decided to chill and let the stories come to me… after it was clear that wouldn’t work either, well you know the saying “if the mountain will not come to Muhammad then…”.
After a couple of days, I began reaching out to people who were in other subcultures. Once such lovely lady, Helena is into all types of underground subcultures, listening to everything from Goth, Industrial Metal and early Punk. Helena is a graphic designer and model by trade.
I had a couple of Punk Outlaw tanks with me and one fit her just perfect, so Helena graciously agreed to model them for me so I could at least get some pics of Belgrade and prove I was actually there. She also, in typical Serbian show of hospitality, showed me around the city and invited me to a concert that while not punk, could be interesting.
Then Casian, a Romanian punk promoter who was referred to me by Ati of Silvershine from Budapest, further came to the rescue and things began to look up even more. He referred me to “Concrete Worms”, a punk/hardcore band in Belgrade that has been on the scene since the 1994. See how it works? Referral to referral to referral, punk rock style.
If you can imagine the lowest form of life, no not that low, not Black Cat Entertainment (ha, ha, ha, ha!) … a worm. Yet a worm that was stranded on the concrete after a rainstorm, unable to burrow down into the soft, black earth. We’ve all seen them wiggling around on the concrete, just before they die in the sun and are dried like a twig… maybe at times you even felt like one? I know I have. Well that is the genesis for the name “Concrete Worms” which could possibly make the top 10 of my favorite punk band names of all time.
The current line-up is made up of Dragan (Guitar) and Ilija (Drums) and a fearless female Dragana (Bass/Vocals but unable to make the interview) completed the crew. Dragan (a fellow Social Distortion fan) and Ilija gave me a quick sit down interview in Belgrade’s City Center.
They cited punk bands from the 70s and early garage bands from the 60’s as influences. Dragan actually makes the guitars that he plays in the band, talk about D.I.Y.?!
Ilija summed up his feelings about punk when he said he could not imagine his life without punk music (which he added a bit sarcastically had ruined his life) and would be listening when he made it to the Sanotarium (old folk’s home).
The guys were hugely entertaining and I hope to have a little segment on them up when I get back to the states so I won’t ruin it by yacking about it here, you’ll have to wait (but check their music video below).
But we did discuss briefly a subject that was weighing heavily on MY mind, about the Yugoslavian war in the mid and late 1990s that carved up the country and the role the U.S. played in leading NATO airstrikes that bombed the very city we were now sitting in. I asked if there were any hard feelings towards Americans and they assured me (after first joking that after the interview they were going to beat me up), that there were none.
In fact they said outside of extremists that in general, there were no longer hard feelings, especially among the young people in the different countries from the former Yugoslavia. As an example they indicated how they had toured recently in neighboring countries Slovenia and Croatia to appreciative and friendly crowds.
You don’t have to be a punk to understand the f’d up politics of war and how the people who are most responsible are usually the ones that suffer the least. “Why do they always send the poor?”… (name that lyric from an Armenian-American band and you get bonus Punk Outlaw points!).
My mind wandered a bit during this part of the interview. I thought of the Serbian people who, and this is no cliché, had been so very kind to me. When I had asked for directions, they would stop what they were doing and actually get on a bus and take me personally to my destination…I’ve seen hospitable people in my time but that my friends that is insane hospitable!
I had seen families with the cutest of kids playing in the fountain to beat the heat. I, a visiting American, walking down the street, full camera in tow and in plain sight at 3 or 4 in the morning had never felt unsafe.
This was a place where people loved their families, where they were overly kind to travelers (the guys from Concrete Worms insisted on buying ME a beer… I argued vehemently but could not get them to change their mind) and regardless of the politics and overall mission of the NATO troops in the war, I couldn’t see how these people deserved the terror that rained down on them for months at a time.
We compared notes on what I had heard about the “NATO intervention” and what they had been told about the “air invasion” on their city. As expected, there were two sides. The difference was these guys were informed, having lived through it and I, was ashamedly quite ignorant, having the luxury of being focused on something (myself and my career) entirely different in 1998.
How disrespectful to not only bomb a nation but not know anything about the nation your country had played a part in bombing? (I heard many people mix up Serbia with Siberia).
Yet, a scant 14 years later, none of that seemed to matter. We were all sharing a beer, talking about our favorite subject, punk music. And if punk music can bring together former enemies like Slovenians, Croats and Serbs…. as proven in Concrete Worm’s case maybe it could, just a little at least, really change the world… or at the very least help gloss over the ignorance of this formerly myopic American traveler?
As I said, Helena had invited me to a sort of Goth/Electronica/Industrial/Metal show in Belgrade (I’m sure there is a more appropriate word for it guys, but this is my unofficial description) that evening so I said my goodbyes to the guys form Concrete Worms and hit the show with Helena and her friend Dorotej to see what an underground show in Belgrade was like.
It was set in a large venue in an outdoor courtyard setting that was actually a venue owned by a local university that put in different types of shows, including a punk show every now and then. The crowd was as you might expect, dressed in black and there were a couple of Marilyn Manson army types in the crowd.
It was 2:30 AM, and the show was just getting started but I’d had a big day and was heading to Romania the next day, so I said my goodbye to Helena and my other new Serbian friends and took off “early”. But not before taking in the scene, trying to make a mental picture of a city in a country where the people had been so nice to me. Whether I deserved it or not? Well that of course is another question, but I was grateful nonetheless.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In my original post I had indicated Concrete Worms had traveled to Albania & Croatia. It should have been Slovenia and Croatia. The guys wrote to me and I have corrected the error. They said that unfortunately, there is still some tension between Albania and Serbia. I sincerely apologize for the error. This illustrates my ignorance on the region which I referred to in the article. I was hesitant bringing up this history for this very reason but I wanted to write about what I feel and be true to my feelings on the matter. Though I stand corrected, I feel to not mention the issue would have been intellectually dishonest.