Friday, July 30, 2010

The Second Rule For Hitchhiking in Bulgaria

There is only one major rule surrounding hitchkiking in Bulgaria, one which was relayed to me in sincerity and angst - "If gypsy stops, you don't get in. Even if they smiling at you, please, don't get in." I nodded my already sloping brow, trying to realise I may have to take heed to this strange, bearded Bulgarian stoners muddled advice.
Racism aside, it is a fair enough rule. Especially considering how I value most of my teeth, toes and fingernails. Okay, so most of the teeth are deadweight, and the toes and fingers could use a clean, but what do they care? They're gypsies, and by my imagination, they have bolt cutters. Anyway, the basic rules are set, and we were ready to take the fifty-one bus down to the sixty-four-highway, where the odds were eighty to four that we would find a ride and be able to make it to Irakly, on the Black Sea coast, anywhere before four thirteen in the morning of Thursday, ten weeks and six days from today (due to the six thousand, twenty two hours spent tied to a car radiator and choking on a gag in a gypsy basement).
So, thumbs outstretched, myself and my feline companion, Carla, we took to the desolate highway with our scrap packs and tent in tow.
We started our testing ordeal without knowing more than vague snippets of Bulgarian language, snips which didn't include "please don't kill or rape us".
And as it were, we began out in the scorching sunlight, thirty plus celsius, like unholy Jesus' marching through the desert. It made us remember the story of Peter Falconio and the Sturt Highway, though we brushed them aside like flies from a birthday cake.

The further we hobbled, the more we knew: We were hobbling along down the WRONG HIGHWAY. Just an oblong stretch of gravel obviously not a correct way for hapless trawlers as ourselves, wrong as a donkey's shlong to anyone with a tenth of a brain cell left. We were heading into a no-man's industrial graveyard, not towards the untouched kilometres of white sand on Black Sea where we were searching for.
A truck driver waved us over to him in feverish trepidation, as cars began to bank up behind. There was no obvious shoulder for a truck of its size to pull over.
I ran across. In broken english, he screamed at me,
"NO! This highway, it go to hell. You not want this highway."
Highway to hell? He must mean back to Wollongong! That's a long fuckin' way, and we'd already been scorched by that place vowing never to return years ago. Time to find a different route.
So after much discussion and ridiculous map turnage, we climbed an embankment, Goliath's back bone, and tumbled up on to the savage grey runway. This time, the right coastal road.
Thankfully, there was a decent shoulder here to flag the cars over. Though, a wily hitcher had beat us to the punch. A one-eyed gypsy, (it seemed he was either one-eyed or simply his right eye was gnarled and the skin was folding over the rest of his face like a pocket for his nose) clutching a walking stick and a plastic bag, held his thumb out in the same direction as us. Striking up conversation was not possible, as his glazed working eyeball penetrated the clothing of my female companion with a depraved and empty lear... We had previously been alerted that if we really wanted to get the quickest ride possible, Carla should be wearing the shortest skirt in her possession. As it happened, I ended up wearing the skirt (mentally, at least)and she a fine white jacket with a pack of cigerettes lining the breast pocket.
"Puff, puff?" Old one-eye motioned at his mouth with his ring and index finger, both yellowed and charred. Ah! Our hapless pervert was not a demented rapist after all, he simply wanted a cigerette. Slightly offended at not being gawked upon, she handed him three of her disgusting Romanian mixtures of arsenic and saw dust and sparked him a light.
He guffawed with thanks as we slowly, slyly, ambled ourselves as far away from him as possible so he didn't effect our further chances of getting a lift.
A fine idea this was, and our movement paid off in merits within minutes. An off-duty taxi rolled to a halt, and we poked our heads in through the window to question our potential murderer.
"We - ahh-- We go to Irakly. You know this place?" Speaking in broken english always makes you feel like you're recovering from a stroke.
"Yes, I head past there. Only, sixty, seventy kilometres. You come with me."
Success- and an english speaker to boot, and not even a hinting glint of conning gypsy from shiny silver teeth. (I truly am sorry to all the gypsies, I mean no offence, I love the way your sparkling teeth shimmer in the Bulgarian sunlight as you pickpocket my precious wallet, I really do).
We jumped into his beat-up wagon of yellow and black, and spooned off back on to the tremulous serpent of a highway, south toward the beach.
One of my tent-poles, immediately as I entered, scraped across his dashboard marking the clean stereo with a horrible sideways gash. Idiot. Terrible fucking idiot. I gulped and cursed myself mutely, as he smiled and laughed it off.
"What do I care? Only my new stereo anyway."
I gulped again. Bulgarians have a funny sense of humour...
A humour which would become not only disturbing, but confusing also. A nauseating mixture of gloom and hilarity, like mixing orange juice with milk. Some of the jokes he pushed upon us, his passengers, slaves to his sundries as we rode on toward our destination, were incomprehensible in their meaninglessness.
"Two Bulgarian brothers. One, he dig well. One, he drive tractor."
Yes, so... punchline?
"This is the joke. Want to hear another?"
I'd rather eat rat-sack, I think though I answer politely, "Sure, why not?"
"Two birds are flying. One bird flies faster than the other. That is the joke."
And he kept going, mindless riddle followed by grinding twiddle. Don't get me wrong, I was beyond grateful he stopped for us. I would bow in a million praises to thank him for his benevolance and offer him my sister's virginity in payment for his illuminating kindness (thank the world I have no sister) but I still, uncontrollably, began to grow irritated at the irrationality of it. Just the slightest. though I broke out in wheezy laughter at the bizarrity of his sentences. He couldn't be for real.
So he starts up again, "One more. Where you from?"
"So this is a joke about toilet. You, do you mind joke about toilet?"
He sounded like an obscene Soviet comedian asking Carla in his thick Bulgary accent.
"Of course not! They're the best ones."
"Okay! So... When you're in Australia, what hand do you use to wipe your behind with, after you're finished using toilet?"
"Ahhh, let's see... the right hand I guess."
"WELL, in Bulgaria, we not use hands! We use toilet paper!"
Ah, ha ha. Be careful with that joke fella, it's an antique, I wouldn't want to see you break it.
An hour or so after pouring down the muddy highway, in sweat and in uproar, he dropped us off at the dirt-end of the beach road we were setting up to trek along to find our infamous black sea. He waved us off in Bulgary hospital style, like a colourful doctor of the damned. So with a wink and a grimace, and chortled, "Maybe one day I see you in Australia!" and cracked his horn, which sounded like a hog on heat, and careened off back down to wherever except the travel agency to purchase a plane ticket to Australia. That would not be happening.
As we strode on down the narrow, crawling passage, the blue tinge of the water already gaping open through the shrubbery on the horizon, a vision of wonder for weary travellers; bumblebees cavorting and singing and slender storks nesting in hollow stumps, the cachanations of crows and the endless drone of the insects in the brown fields, and our sweat, and our backpacks and our longing for swim, amid all this as we strode and sang and played harmonica, and we realised, oh how it dawned, we had learnet a new rule about hitchhiking in Bulgaria.
! A rule which we must spread to the masses, however few of them may listen,
"Man, Bulgarian humour is terrible isn't it? Next time, I think it is better to ride with gypsies. It should be a rule- listen to no more opinions on Bulgarian hitchhiking" We agreed and I thought of the huge crack I had made in the poor driver's car stereo, and gulped and began to ponder possibilities for the way home tomorrow.
"There must be an ulterior passage" I mumbled as images of a foul, fish-stenched and booze-drenched Romanian bus driver picking us up for the way back fondled its way in to the frontal lobes of my mind. I quivered and shook my head in acceptance of tomorrow's destiny. Boat building was never my forte anyhow.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bob Dylan Live From The Abyss of Memory

Seperate the head from the body and what do you get?
Tell me! Have you discovered it yet?
There is no answer!

For these answerless queries,
They’ve cancelled the bets,
Have you got any theories?

Enlighten the severed brain stem!

As the head floats off to space,
Help to ponder this paradigm of an unfinished race;

Because a bodiless head,

Without the constraints of weight,

Surely carries a truckload of grace.

And a lone weaving body, headless,
Should in all measures create less of a mess,
And vice-versa,
A head without a harness,
Should be free to think and digress

But! Once again we have plunged into it.
The wheel and sponge of it,
Always rolling,
Always slurping,
Spooning us along,
Situations of sleepy, sideways

Pushing, craving throngs,

And so...The head,
Amputated from its body,
Flutters aloof

To keep on singing its seperate song...

...Which brings me to the next chapter of our fine saga:

BOB DYLAN IN SOFIA, BULGARIA at the National Palace of Culture

(as recounted through train blurry sleep deprived hallucinations)

"Ahhh am a ma-an of constant sorrow, I've had trubbble all through my days...."
Bob's piercing alligator moan dribbled through the speakers as we rode into
Bucharest on the night-train. To my left, the girl of the Frangipanis and the Tulips slumbered in a peaceful, melancholic haze while I, Pontius Pilate with my legs dangling gangly up through the window, hummed like a malfunctioning radiator to the music of Robert Z.

The sleeper train aids the meandering thought process; it gives leg room for the legions of forgotten memories and troops of triumphant ego black holes to bubble up and find time to ruminate on the surface.
And so it was; together with Bobby, and my relaxing hobby of chewing sunflower seeds, the tulip girl to the side with giant great ZZZ symbols leaping from her forehead, together with all this jumble and malarkey, the trip was told and my thoughts were free to wander.

"Robby Zimmerman," I pondered, spitting seeds into my shoes, "How the fuck did he manage to stay alive, the old gutter bird..."
The train whistled through side-alleys and strange towns, with no names at the stations, where indescript passengers strode off to find their fate and families in God-knows-where near to the baltic border of Bulgary and Romania.
Anyway... How did Bob Dylan stay alive through all those years? Did we really just witness him, this ancient relic of clandestine times? This monsterous marrionette, still plucking away in his own grotesque tune to the same creaking songs?
Was it real? Onstage, under the red lights blinking like buoys out at sea, old Bob wandering around like a dementia patient, in Sofia, Bulgaria, three days prior? Was it?
Perhaps it wasn't! Perhaps those sounds, those rickety, rackety zimmering zaps, were coming from some escaped loony of the Bulgarian nut house. Somehow the loony, (Bob Robber) figured a way in to the National Palace of Culture, disguised himself as a decrepit curmudgeon cowboy, and sung a few of the hit Dylan songs he knew through the radio, in a drawling hullabullo. Easy to imitate, I can't see why he couldn't have. Many famous musicians have their identities stolen in precisely this way (for example, when a tone deaf, schizophrenic, peodophile replaced Sting onstage in the fearfully remembered 1999 tour of Oslo... no wait, heavens... that was the real guy...).

Although! Chance aside- on this evening, it could have been, just as the world makes its twenty fifth squillion (approx) rotation of the sun, on this exact drifting evening, that the real Bob Dylan stepped on stage to wow the crowds who never thought the wind would blow that old geezer into Sofia, Bulgaria anytime soon, and for their eyes only.

It was the first time Bob and his entourage had flung their so-dubbed Never Ending Tour in to the sunny shores of Sofia. The first time the Bulgary mass of Dylan fans (approx 6) were able to catch a glimpse of the wounded war hero himself, battling it out with the microphone for an hour in the death-ring that was The National Palace of Culture.

National Palace Of Culture, Sofia, Bulgaria.

"Hmmm, I never heard this track before..." A grating Dylan track jars my ear drums. The sky keeps changing colour outside the train window. It has fallen from a thick green into an omnipresent grey, the all encompassing grey of the lowlands. And I realise...the music player has switched off, no batteries. The sound I thought was Bob Dylan was actually Frangipani, beginning to snore amid her snoozing. Oh well, easy mistake. Where were we, chew chew, sunflower seed, spit...Bobby, coming on to stage...

He stood there, looming as if he were a shadow who managed to become a man. Donning his trademark ivory cowboy hat, with a face as long as a highway, Zimmerman stridled up to the mic stand to greet his audience in a fond murmur.
"eohfehjkn...he he...zzeeeee plasss, de de de" he stuttered in baby talk. Without further ado, he launched into his song Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat, one of the better numbers from his 1969 album, Blonde on Blonde.

We immediately noticed something. There was one spectacular difference between those old recordings and the way this almost septuagenarian (69 years old- the scruffy revolutionary of the nineteen sixties is now a crusty evolutionary entering the drop-end of his sixties) sounded nowadays; his voice was shot into oblivion. Singing like Tom Waits scrubbing a toilet bowl, the whiskey gutted vibrations made us chuckle with an incredulous fever back in the ninety-ninth row where we were positioned in the
Palace of Culture.

Listen to him go! He rattled on, the old steam train, and was cracking out foggy dance moves (the ‘Where are My Spectacles Boogie,’ the ‘You’re Old Enough To Be My Daughter Or My Wife, Tango’ and the ‘Giddy-Up Cowgirl, Pappas Got A Brand New Hip’ jibbering fandango got the audience jumping like fleas at a dog fight).

Bob rarely speaks at performances. People say this is because he is rude, or perhaps because he is actually dead and strung up like a puppet on strings- a corpse forced to dance by Sony to make up for all the unsold shitty Wallflowers records his son made. Whatever the case, we didn’t need to hear him speak. No sir, he did fine just wobbling his jawbones out there to make our bunch and the Bulgarians happy beyond our weirdest fantasies.

He spat, gargled and chewed his way through ‘Things Have Changed,’ (one of his better nineties releases, off the album Time Out Of Mind) but it still came across as bad-arse as the Mississippi school kids who used to pick on him back in the old jew-lynchin’ days. Yes, he sounded mad. It made you think of his childhood, the days he never talks about in public, but everyone suspects they existed. Bad Arse Bob, getting his revenge on the little hokie anti-semites by slugging it out through the wires.

Bad-arse or bad singer, all this aside, there doesn’t seem to be a ‘going through the motions’ ethic with Bob. He really wants to affect the crowd, if only because he hates them so much.
And he was right on the mark. Despite his aging, alcos voice, Just Like A Woman can still cut through the foundations of gender, the foundations of love badly burnt, right to the core.
“With her fog, her amphetamines and her pearls...She fakes, just like a woman...Yes she does! And she aches... just like a woman...” Bob wheezed on and we were hooked in. You can sell emotion in contemporary times with a catchy hook and a sexy look, but back on Bob-time and the world seems real and not plastic or bought over the counter with condoms and a sparkly ribbon and a barcode. Real, love tearing hurt.
I look over at the tulip girl, and she smiled back over.

Then, casting a disgruntled look at the audience, Big Bobby D-fect mumbled some incomprehensible bunk, and, with a wry wink, hopped into A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, sending us into an uproar.
Songs with fifty thousand verses! Where was this these days? Beat poetry fuelled by society in chaos, the anger at boundaries of genre and a head full of drugs and ideas.
Ahhh Bobby. Standing up there, his silk shirts, his cough and his cowboy hat; there is a man who has weathered many a storm, highly publicised as they may be, to keep himself away from the prying eye of the media. And how did he do it? One of my favourite Dylan media quotes is when he said, “Why would you want to be happy? Everyone can be happy.”
He just wanted to be different in everything he said, the little bastard, different and difficult. That is why watching his early interviews and his later documentaries; you can really sense a gifted PR student coming through the glazed old vessel. Dylan gave birth to the modernity of PR- the clever management of stars and sellebrities to mould them an image. I would say Bob likes to say he coined that idea.

Even as the cheeky larrikin everyone remembers with his curly hair and battered smile from the black and white footage, standing onstage and playing his blasted harmonica all over America, even then, as we do now in Sofia Bulgaria, Bob really makes you think about things you yourself have been through, with him, around him, his words curling through your mind like a tumbleweed.
As Allen Ginsberg stated in the Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, Bob Dylan’s fame can be attributed to “Maybe it was like Jung’s theory- Bob Dylan somehow managed to climb inside society’s collective unconscious...and once he was in there, no one could get him out.”
Now I don’t know if this is the quote exactly, but watching him up there, butchering his own song (Highway Sixty-One) though raising the whole audience, including myself and my two teammates, you can tell for sure this guy has some kind of magical influence. Holy or not, or just the good drugs he seems to have been indebted with, it is something, kind of, woe to say it, spiritual.

This is the guy who sung on the steps of the Whitehouse moments before Martin Luther King Jr would orate a speech from the same podium. This is the same man, who in 2010 sang The Times They Are A-Changin’ in
Washington, USA for the first black president- this strange and stoned man, with an eerie countenance who probably couldn’t walk down the street in any continent without getting hounded; this is the man who stood before us tonight. Butchering Highway 61 with his apparent emphysema.

And then he was gone. A creepy bow and an introduction for his band, and he was whisked off stage and back into whatever iron lung or cryogenic tank was waiting for him.

Or did he? Encore, he appears!

Stumbling back out on to the small cardboard square the Bulgarians are calling a stage, (which was lit up by a giant video of a red eyeball), the familiar plunks of the keyboard sounded the beginning of Like A Rolling Stone.
The weary champion on the night, Bob, strode on back, clapping his hands together and picking up his gold shining guitar.

We helped him out, my friends and I, perhaps a little too wildly for the patrons in the rows in front of us. Never mind, they smiled onwards, and we kept screaming an’ a-shouting an’ a-hollerin’ out the lyrics which Bob himself had probably forgotten during an acid binge three decades ago.

One more track left for the night. A jazzy rendition of Blowin’ In The Wind. The much touted ‘hymn of folk music’, a celebration of early hippies and their free loving ideals, a recurrent catch cry for equal rights movements, a sweet, gentle poem sung by an innocent little kid.
While I watched him up there, his Napoleon rags of age shining through now, I had to fall back in the chair, and I could see, I could see with my eyes, as he rambled on up there, so vividly, the young 20-something kid of the black and white television clips singing the same damned song with its rhetorical limericks about “how many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?” and I wondered to myself, on the verge of meltdown,
“How many indeed? Too fuckin’ many Bobby, too many by half... look at you, angular, though hunched now, decrepit, alive, how many until people call you a man, a real, whatever it should be, man, a vision of your fathers eye, and look at me, look at us all, who will ever know, are we men or are we just sitting and watching our heads depart from our bodies in sick bliss, perpetual, day in, day out waiting for somebody to turn off the lamps, waiting for the sweet goodnight complement of, ‘you made it, man, glad you could be here, glad you found the room’, just searching, constantly forging our ways through smoke and fire and hazy winters to find whatever space there is left for us, for the individual, amid the ever-growing populous of a globalised world, where, where, where, how many roads...”
And how many seas must the white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand... the answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Blowin’ up your arse Bobby, play one more!
The tears subsided; the old crooner left the building and was whisked away before Bulgarian bandits had time to steal the hubcaps off his Cadillac.
Sitting in his car he probably stares out into the dark mountains which surround the inner city of Sofia, looks back, in wise contemplation, into the review mirror at the fading image of the monolithic Stalinist era National Palace Of Culture and says to his driver, in his grinding gutter charm we love him for,
“Christ, Benny, what was I doing coming to this place? It’s fuckin’ weird, too weird... did you see those people? I’m gunna be on the phone to fuckin’ Jenson by the mornin’... ahh let’s just get the hell outta here... You got a light up there, B-B-Benny?” and the car whisks off into the crippled eve.

B-boom, b-boom, b-boom, b-boom,

The endless thumping of the railway rafters were suddenly coming to a slow,

B-boooom, B-boooooooom, B-booooooooooooooom,

We were pulling into
Bucharest. Jagging me out of my strange fantasising, I shook gently the shoulder of the Tulip Girl, and told her of our standing.
The train whistled, signalling our arrival and the early sun signalled the inauguration of a new day- a new country where we, as travellers, had no idea of the language, the currency, nothing. We pulled on our bulky backpacks, our priceless though meagre possessions and hurried together out of the rusty train carriage. The platform was already crowded at six in the morning, and I could see the hovering gypsies waiting to try their luck at scavenging our money. I sighed, and tried to lug the bags on to the other shoulder as Tulip navigated on the map. I hadn’t slept, due to my cloudy night-daydreams... and there was but one line which made any sense to me, out of all the english language writings in the universe, and it was Bob, articulating his wheezy heart out,
“My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet, I have no one to meet, and the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreamin'..."
And with that, Tulip girl leading the way, into the jingle-jangle morning I went following.