Monday, December 29, 2008

My Other Car is a Rolls from IKEA

It appears that the economic downturn has affected even the very rich, who are now buying their wheels by bulk (but still pay extra for a plastic bag to carry it home in).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Second Cities

Once there was a dusty, grey city in the middle of a flat countryside, where almost anything went: prostitution was tacitly legal, white slavery was common practice, bunkos angled for your gambling money, tax-dodging was a local pastime, and corruption from organized crime reached the highest levels of municipal government. A hit could be put out on a rival for a pocketful of change, delivered by thugs who congregated around popular nightspots. Sound familiar? Welcome to Chicago before the turn of the twentieth century.

Of course this could also be modern-day Budapest. There are more general similarities between the two cities as well: both lie in the center of vast swaths of agricultural regions, both are waning industrial hubs, and both have experienced, at one point in their history, influxes of German and Polish immigration. There is a working-class feeling common to Chicago and Budapest, despite growing prosperity. More importantly, both cities wallow in their underdog status, and compensate with inflated local pride and grandiose architecture. In hearing how the daredevil Hungarian construction workers defied safety regulations in erecting the Megyeri Bridge, I couldn’t help but think of the perils of creating, not to mention riding, the first Ferris wheel, invented for Chicago as a landmark for the 1893 World’s Fair, or the completion of the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building on LaSalle.

Even at the most visceral level, upon arriving in Budapest for the first time, I felt it shared a kinship with my hometown. There was a gracious decay to the buildings’ facades, particularly in District VII and VIII, that harmonized with my memories of Wrigleyville and Uptown in the 1980s. It was gratifying to learn that a particular section of District VIII was referred to as Chicago, for its shady reputation and criminal element. And, lucky me, for the first several years in Budapest I lived on the outskirts of ‘Chicago’, observing the sleazier aspects of Rákóczi tér, and discovering, late one boozy night, a local speakeasy.

If you want to talk about vice in the USA, forget Vegas. Turn-of-the-century Chicago had entire blocks, neighborhoods, filled with nothing but bars and brothels, where girls from the countryside and from Europe were baited with well-paying jobs by the gangs of strongmen Johnny Torrio, Harry Cusick, and later, Al Capone. Even locals were not safe from the gangs that operated with impunity, due to large police and political payoffs: it was known that men sometimes sold their dates into prostitution from dance halls, or for girls to be kidnapped off the street and held captive. As we all know, institutionalized human trafficking has by no means disappeared; post-soviet trafficking must be one of the least policed abominations of recent times.

Other tactics modern vice seem to have been invented in Chicago, and perfected in Budapest. Chicago’s Mickey Finn was a saloon owner who was famous for baiting tourists and unsuspecting men with seemingly available girls, who would then drug their drink with knock-out powder. The men would wake up, sometimes totally naked, in an alleyway in the back, with no memory of what proceeded. Budapest's Váci utca, is home to any number of konzum lányok (drink girls) plying this trade, with scant notice from the law. And it is not just tourists who are targeted. Tales abound of expats having been slipped a Mickey Finn at such crime-neutral places as Cha-Cha-Cha, Sark Presszó, and A38 to name but a few. As for gambling: I love that card games designed to swindle unsuspecting Chicago gamblers were called ‘bunko’ games. For those that don’t know, bunko in Hungarian is a meat-head, or thug. I am not sure if there is an etymological connection, but there is definitely a shared spirit.

Everybody, naturally, sees associations where they choose to. I have heard Budapest referred to as the Bangkok, or even the Tokyo of the West. There are those who call it the Paris of Central Europe. Nairobi of the EU, anybody? Perhaps it is a touch of homesickness that causes me to see Chicago everywhere, even in the decrepit corners and seedier streets. That is fine: Chicago, and all its vice, daring, and pride, is an inextricable part of my personal history, and I bring it with me wherever I travel.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Starvation: A Food Review

The best way to put it is that I needed a secular kind of Lent; a purging of toxins as well as an atonement for overindulgence. And when you write for a food website, and don’t object to the occasional 5 a.m. nightcap, Budapest is an easy place to overindulge. So, based on approximately no one's good advice or any worthwhile guidelines, I decided to go on a fast, an exercise that blurs the line between self-discipline and self-torture.

Day 1

Fasting should be all about not eating, but once you are deprived of food, it becomes all about what you are not eating. Morning is difficult, not because I need a lot of food when waking, but because my morning habits are fairly well-ingrained: coffee, food, writing, shower, writing, and chasing money for the rest of the day. But the simple act of removing food from the equation throws the whole ritual off balance. There can be no writing while fasting, and morning becomes nothing more than the after-math of sleep.

Words, however, over the course of the day, take on sublimated meaning. Brioche becomes a one-word poem, evoking something at once forbidden and essential. Saying Hungarian food words is particularly tantalizing: füstölt gomolya, körte, zsemle: scalloping out each syllable as though they might materialize from my mouth, and sate my hunger.

The city is a carnival of food smells: hot yeasty air from the bakery on Tatra, Subway Sandwiches (which you can smell from halfway down the block); and the carnal olfactory incitement of gyros meat roasting on the spit. The soap in the window of Lush makes my mouth water. Every fruit is a precious artifact: an object of desire. On the street, I split people into two classes: those who are eating, and those who are not. One thing is for sure; the world is a very unfair and cruel place without food. I would forgive anybody a crime who experienced this feeling after being overtaken by the smell of roasting meat. Hunger turns you outlaw.

The evening is spent thinking about food. You never realize just how omnipresent it is until you are deprived of it. Distraction through entertainment should provide some relief, but while characters in Victor Pelevin’s novel Clay Machine Gun feast on Soba noodles, I silently urge them on, to eat more and more, hoping their gorging on food turns into a pivotal plot point (but this being Pelevin, plot points are illusory as the noodles I was imagining). Rented films are not much help either: in Finding Forrester, canned tomato soup had never looked so good; and, of course, Diner is on TCM. Though exhausted, sleep comes slowly.

Day 2

Dreams exclusively concern food. Oddly, it is lencse fözelék that recurs during the night. Only later does the significance of the lentil occur to me. I enjoy meal after meal of it before I wake, instantly knowing I will have none on this day.

With nothing to chew over but thoughts, I acknowledge there is a sort of masochistic pleasure at work here. With that in mind, I wander over to Westend City Center and sit myself down in the middle of the food court for lunch rush. The sensory overload of the vivid colors, smells and sights, create a kind of synaesthesia, whereby the colors are full of flavor: it isn’t the food that looks edible, it is the colors. Even the orange food trays appear tasty. Smells, too, are painfully sharp in my nose. What a preposterous amount and variety of food we consume. But while food has gained meaning for me, it seems to have lost it for everybody else. It is like porn: an instrument of selfishness. People eat and eat, discarding piles of what they cannot eat, and leave. I watch for a while, then suddenly, something clicks, and the whole scene revolts me: who are all these people, with all their meals? The thought of food is disgusting. Appetite is a weakness. Eating is gluttony. I cannot watch any longer, and home I go.

The night brings nothing but loneliness and depression. As somebody who spends a lot of time by myself, loneliness is actually a fairly rare state for me. Sure, I have plenty of friends I could call: but they are all eaters. Hunger makes you isolate – hunger makes you profoundly alone.

After a fitful sleep, where my muscles ache, where I dream lucidly of food, I wake, shower, and am the first in line at the nearest étkezdé. I order lencse fözelék, and from the first spoonful, savor it patiently, gratefully, then return to the society of the living.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, or: Teenage Lobotomy II: It Came From Within!

This is a continuation of post The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, which can be found below.

Of course I was just funnin’ ya with that Ramones video, because there has been no force more powerful in the appropriation and reselling of youth culture than MTV. Thanks to its far-reaching, Vans-shod tentacles, kids here can see exactly how their counter-parts in the West are dressing; and H & M, plus any number of fly-by-night mall boutiques, fall all over themselves to cater to those dictates. It is a nifty closed-circuit for sellers: MTV brands the look, the labels that sell the look advertise on MTV. It is win/win for all involved, and has globalized fashion trends (to wit: these people have a lot of Hungarian wiggers to answer for – I hope they sleep well at night). Couple the perpetually replenishing cool-factor of rock (and all its sub-genres) with the visual stimulus of MTV and, as that Vampire Weekend song goes, the kids don’t stand a chance. And countrymen, let’s not fool ourselves that post-bloc youth are aping our style because it is ‘American’, it is because MTV is American.

To call kids who comb the images on MTV for fashion cues ‘fashion victims’ would not be too far off target. But youth everywhere are a marketer’s dream. They come to the game with open minds, and deep identity insecurities. Basically, kids would buy the dirt from under their own fingernails if you could figure out a way to sell it to them. Which is why – in Hungary, at least – hallways and even classrooms of schools are prime advertising space for youth-oriented products, a nefarious little practice that has raised objections in about zero quarters. It is not just the usual suspects like Coke getting in on the action. Because ‘cool’ marketers know, when something takes here, it takes big: Green Day, for example, the only thing that both my second graders and high-schoolers could agree upon. (Green Day themselves were only too happy to benefit from their unlikely success in Eastern Europe – nice fifty dollars a pop ‘punk’ show, boys).

But the youth market sought by MTV and kids who have appropriated hipness are not the same thing. MTV is cool, or at least what passes for cool. Hipness is harder to nail down, and should be harder to market and, thus, to market to. Take Tisza trainers, for example. For those that don’t know, Tisza is the former state-owned brand of athletic training shoe that was sold under socialism. These days, under the guidance of a young entrepreneur, they are hundred-dollar a pair, high-design sneakers that are so omnipresent on the first generation of youth not to know socialism, that they are almost a cliché. They are not only a great product, Tiszas are cool – but they are not genuinely hip. Should kids start collecting vintage Tiszas, that would be hip. Hipness is all about indirect consumerism: building an identity from consumer artifacts of the past (whether it is your nostalgia you are indulging in, or somebody else’s does not seem relevant). For example: cowboy shirts (plenty of those here, these days), Star Wars figures, Members Only-style windbreakers, cartoon-character lunch boxes, or, say Def Leppard tee shirts. Star Wars figures are nobody’s idea of cool, but if presented in the correct ironic framing, they are very hip.

In the tipping point (an overused buzz word these days, but applicable here) of hip in Budapest, something interesting happened: Csendes Art Bar. Few locals and fewer expats know about Csendes, but it represents the first real home-grown expression of Hungarian hipsterism that I have encountered. What trips me up about Csendes is that it looks like no place in Williamsburg, Silver Lake, or Wicker Park, but you could set it down in any of those locales and it would not be out of place. It is only imitative in its aesthetic, not in its actual style. It is totally Hungarian, but hip to the gills. For starters, there is virtually nothing in Csendes that is new. It is a shrine to ironic comment on childhood. Virtually every decoration (or installation) uses a cartoon character, scavenged doll, or old movie poster, not to mention, a vintage Tisza trainer bag; plus they did something I have never seen a bar or café in Budapest do before – they kept the name and a portion of the old sign of the business preceded it – the Csendes Étterem – and incorporated it into the design. Needless to say, it is also pretty great place to have a beer on a Saturday night.

In the States, way back when, hipsterism began as an organic set of values (of the beat generation), then changed into a lifestyle, then finally evolved into a fashion pose that could be appropriated by media and corporate interests, and sold back to the youth market by the likes of Urban Outfitters, Capital Records, and eBay; whereas the Hungarian hipsterism has worked in the opposite direction, from a mediated style sold to the youth market over the airwaves, to something more organic, and authentic feeling, that is at least attempting to defy being sold to. They do tend to do things in reverse here. Optimistically, there will also be a set of values that will bind this community together other than coveting new/vintage KISS tee-shits, but perhaps that is hoping for too much.

This embrace of consumerism, without buying anything ‘new’ that is the hallmark of hipsterism, must be a conundrum for marketers who had it so easy with Hungarian youth ten, even five, years ago. But they didn’t clock all those credits in Ivy League psych-departments for nothing. One way to get their dollar, at least in Budapest, is to create new ‘vintage-looking’ clothing. There is plenty of that, in used clothing shops and department stores alike. Another way is to brand something as cool so persuasively that you can sell the mere logo, like they do with the Vespa bags. This all leaves me nowhere in terms of my own black bag. What the hell, I might as well chuck it all and buy that black Ramones official diaper-carrier bag – my own checkered soul was sold long ago: some hipster kid is probably cutting it up into Kockás Fülű Nyúl sock puppets by now.

-Matt Ellis is a free-lance editor for Word Pill, a service for writers of fiction and non-fiction.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pretty Ugly America

This is a little off message for Mókus, but I was recently accused of looking down on Hungarians and asked why, oh why, don't I just pack up and go home if I find so much to fault. Well, this is what is waiting for me there. Besides, unless you can't infer from the thought, time, and interest-level that goes into my blog: I love this city.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, or: Teenage Lobotomy

Anybody who knows me knows I carry a black book bag, basically, at all times I’m clothed, and sometimes when I’m not. They tend to last a year or two before the strap or zippers break, or holes wear through the bottom. Budapest, it is no secret, is about the worst place to be if you need something both specific and basic, such as knee socks, contact lens fluid, or, perhaps, a black shoulder bag. No problem: I know the drill. Hit every Iguana, Alter-Ego, or alt-rock haberdashery until something turns up. Only this time, nothing is turning up. Sure, there are plenty of black bags, but the trend (and there is no bucking trends, not in this city) is for shoulder bags with Converse, Vespa, or Nightmare before Christmas logos. I am making due without until I am next in Vienna.

It must be a great time to be a marketer: getting the cool kids to act as walking billboards for your products, and having them pay for the privilege. Of course, there is more to this whole scenario than just bags and logos. And not all of it is bad. Budapest has experienced, in the past few years, an amping up of youth culture and its youth-culture cool-factor. In other words, Budapest got hip. I had always taken comfort (albeit small) in the existence of Prague and Berlin, both cities magnetically drawing all the American hipsters off course before they could reach our humble town. Budapest has no heat, no buzz, and even less cool. And that is fine with me, and just about everybody I know. But what I didn’t anticipate is that hipster culture would spread like a virus, ignoring all boundaries of border and nationality. Hungarian kids got hip all by themselves. Well, not exactly. There was a ton of help from those who profit from their consumer choices. Local youth are sitting ducks for this kind of ‘cool’ branding, and have swallowed it whole. Their lives simply haven’t been the media blitzkrieg of that of the average American teen. Thus, they either haven’t developed the necessary defenses or haven’t been taught to see through the manipulation. And they tend to move in larger herds, whereas American teens have far more sub-sets of counter-culture to chose from. Hungarian – and youth of all over the post-Soviet era – are far more susceptible to 'cool-branding' than their American counter-parts, if for no other reason than we invented it. Or maybe they just don’t care. For whatever reason, it seems that the entire sub-22-year-old population is hip.

It is no great revelation that marketers love nothing more than a solid counter-culture with its own organically grown aesthetic: the more authentic and rigid the better. It is a brilliant trick, appropriating a sub-culture’s aesthetic, and then selling it back to them. I should learn how to do that. Take, for instance, punk rock. Ever heard of the Vans Warped Tour? When I was a teenager, Vans would have fit exactly nowhere into the equation of punk-plus-tour. Then came the almost overnight uptake of punk by American youth via the (major label, lest we forget) likes of Nirvana and their ilk. Whether kids like me, who helped create this sub-culture (by buying indie-label records, going to shows, reading Maximum Rock and Roll) were buying was irrelevant. Nirvana created a ‘mass sub-culture’, and one that demanded to be out-fitted. Too obvious? Forget Nirvana, let’s look at the Ramones: perhaps the coolest band of all time, and one of the primary forces in actually inventing punk. But that was then, this is now. The Ramones are no longer a band – they have cashed in on all that cool-band cache and have become a brand: and not in the way KISS is a brand: they have become a clothing and accessories brand. Ramones tee? check. Ramones belt buckle? check. Ramones scented candle: smells just like teen spirit! ok, check! Only, ask a hipster Hungarian kid which their favorite Ramones song is, and you will see just how hollow a trend it is. "A Ramones album? You mean, they make music too?" Can I get an ‘I wanna be sedated’? At least the kids know Nirvana was a band, not a fashion label.

But let’s imagine you are totally out of it, or just too young to remember when grunge ruled the radio waves and runways. How about Disney? Yes, even they are going for the hipster's pocketbook with a darker, edgier branding. Now that the kids who have grown out of their Little Mermaid backpacks have grown up, it is time to comment on the passing of that childhood phase with, what else, but more Disney gear. What hipster wouldn’t want a hip-hop-inspired graffiti Mickey Mouse baseball cap? I am this close to wanting one myself.

Hey: bad news for idealistic former punks, great news for the average young Hungarian hipster. Buying quirky things, creating your identity around some ironic pastiches of childhood is fun! You get all these funky anime dolls to collect, you can pierce yourself anywhere you choose, look cool in the eyes of your friends, and more importantly, your parents just don’t get it. And, let’s face it: buying things is fun, period. It might not be authentic individualism, but at least they think it is, at least they are trying, and that is nice to see. It is far more appealing than the drab beige or brown uniform of the Hungarian male circa 2000. Plus, all this has fueled a boom in vintage clothing shops, which has made clothing shopping in Budapest much more affordable and interesting. From a purely selfish angle, this hipster marketing triumph is good for the likes of me, as it increases my own choice as a local consumer. I, too, wear Tisza trainers, and have a Def Leppard tee-shirt, without ever having owned a Def Leppard album. But American and Hungarian hipsterism is different, and in a vital way. How so? Return next week for Part II of The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, or: Hey! Ho! Let’s Go (shopping!).

But, for now, a Ramones video, which I highly recommend not skipping. It will do you a power of good, and, for the time being at least, it is free.

-Matt Ellis is a free-lance editor for Word Pill, a service for writers of fiction and non-fiction.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Picking Up Something Spicy and Illicit at Rákóczi Tér (Csarnok)

The Gustave Eiffel-designed market halls, with their iron girder lattice-work, look like huge hangers for old-time zeppelins. But this being the Eight District, the flight is mostly chemically induced, and the only contraptions of bodily transport are the home-built half wheelchair/half bikes favored by a local stripe of paraplegic. With the gentrification and, now, total gutting of Rákóczi Tér, the neighborhood that is the former welcome mat of the red-light district, has almost become upstanding. But there are still oddities to be found in my favorite csarnok, if you just scratch the surface a little. Here are a few:

5. Tiny pickled melons. Looking like aborted watermelons, I have never seen their like outside of Hungary. At once sweet and sour, and occasionally fermented along with hot peppers, the tiny dinnye can be found at any of the row of pickle stands.

4. Zsaru, Krimi, and Pandúr magazines. Want to know what strip of Pest gigolos and rent boys cruise, how many break-ins there were in Borsod County, or just see some grizzly pictures of dead bodies? The newsstand has the best and bloodiest crime magazines, written in easy to read, low-brow Hungarian, and an excellent source of new and shocking vocabulary.

3. Horse sausage. I don’t know the history of eating horse in Hungary and Austria, but I suspect it coincided with a wartime famine. The spicy links look innocuous enough, and unless you know the word for horse in Hungarian (ló), could be easily mistaken for standard pork sausage. A decadent, nay, downright taboo-busting snack, especially when coupled with number one on our list.

2. Chinese porn. But I just bought it for the…characters. Along with soy-bean drinks, fermented eggs, dried greater-lizard fish barbeques sauce, and frozen crabs, the Chinese market at the Rákóczi Tér csarnok is one of the city’s best, and might just be the only local purveyor of Chinese pornographic magazines and soft-core movies.

1. Moonshine. Cheap házi pálinka is to the Eighth District what oil is to Texas. Only don’t light a match too close to the codgers and nénis whose tables run down the center of the building. The hootch is not on display with other only slightly more legal goods: home-made hot pepper sauce, odd-looking onions that could only be home-grown, and already-baked squash. Their fruit brandy is made in backyard stills, sold in mineral-water bottles kept hidden from view. Last I checked it was but a thousand forints for .25 liters. Drink up: now who says Rákóczi Tér is getting respectable?

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Gloomy Someday: Kristof Hajos of The Unbending Trees on Their First Album, International Recognition, and the National Pastime of Melancholy

Ah, the Hungarian pop scene, a target so big you could drive a tour bus through it. With bands like the Moog, who basically represent the outsourcing of western indie pop, and MC Speak becoming a Jonathan Safran Foer character come to life, it is like a bad joke that somebody keeps retelling, hoping it will eventually get a laugh, if but for no other reason than out of mercy.

True, you get the occasional Balkan-infused bright spot, but mostly it is a grim world for new-music lovers. It shouldn’t have been surprising—yet it was—when The Unbending Trees’ first video, "You Are A Lover", shot in a stark and minimalist black and white, capturing all the melancholy of a Budapest that looked trapped in time, started making regular appearances on MTV. Even more gratifying, The Unbending Trees actually turned out be one of Hungary’s own, though backed by an international record label. Having been spotted by Ben Watt of Everything But the Girl on myspace, and subsequently signed to his label Strange Feeling Records, The Unbending Trees are aimed at an international market. But it turns out Hungarians also liked what they saw, and the elegiac, affecting song rose to number 5 on the local video charts before the album, Chemically Happy (Is The New Sad) was released this earlier this month.

I sat down with The Unbending Trees frontman Kristof Hajos at his favorite Ráday street café Mode (since closed) to find out what he was thinking by putting out melodic, carefully arraigned and written music, and thus confounding all my nasty preconceptions about Hungarian pop, and discovered he had more than one story to tell.

Mókus: In terms of “You Are A Lover”, it made me a little angry that some foreign band came to Budapest and captured the feeling of the city so well, then I discovered it was Hungarian, which was pleasing.

Hajos: It was a funny thing because Ben (Watt) didn’t want a video, because of it not being cost effective, and then I thought that there is a young guy who I used to work with on some web pages, and I asked him to help make the video. I was just coming up with ideas of what to do, and I was just sitting on the underground, the földallati, and I was thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if there was just some couple who would snog next to me like hell. And I told him this idea and we were thinking like, to do this in the BKV might not be such a good idea, so why don’t, we just do it in a car? So I asked my colleague who sits next to me ‘do you feel like snogging in a video?’ So they came but they split up after the video, but it was a lucky combination because the video cost zero forints and the welcome has been really warm.

Mókus: The famous Hungarian song "Gloomy Sunday" came up on my youtube search of you.

Hajos: We covered that version live, and it comes up on all these sites for some reason. But it is also going to be on the UK edition of the album.

Mókus: Why not on the Hungarian release?

Hajos: That would be too cheap, too obvious, but for England it seems like a good thing to do. We also used to do "A Whiter shade of Pale".

Mókus: I read that Hungarians were rated the third saddest population in Europe.

Hajos: I think our music is not going to help. But when we signed with Ben, I did not think the album would be published here because it is so against the mainstream here in Hungary, but the welcome has been a lot warmer, I would have never dreamed to be played on MTV like we are.

Mókus: Well, it is fresh.

Hajos: But Hungarians don’t care about what’s fresh, they care about what the trend is. But we are not Kylie (Minogue).

Mókus: Then what is your logical predecessor?

Hajos: I don’t know–I don’t really listen to music like that. The music itself is written the two other guys, Peter Hary and Havasi, the renown pianist, I only write the lyrics and sometimes the melodies. But the melodies sort of come from the music anyway. So what they say is we are sort of like Nick Drake or Tim Buckley or all these people who have died prematurely. We were also compared to Antony and the Johnsons, but he has a much higher voice. It might be just because he plays piano, I don’t know.

Mókus: Is there anything specifically Hungarian about your music?

Hajos: I don’t know. The Kodaly way of music education is in our blood, so maybe.

Mókus: Do you mind talking about what the album title refers to?

Hajos: That is fine to talk about. The album is called Chemically Happy (Is the New Sad). I had a nervous breakdown in 1997, and they started treating me with different kinds of drugs, tranquilizers, and antidepressants. It was useful at the time because I could finish university and quit smoking, but I developed something of an addiction, which was very depressing. It was like, before age 30, every day wondering if you forgot to take your pill in the morning.

Mókus: Is going off the medication perhaps not worth the psychic sacrifice?

Hajos: Not really. For the first couple of years, but afterwards, I had to be really careful. It was just too much chemistry, but not the right chemistry. I have come off tranquilizers completely, and struggling to come off anti-depressants, but it is difficult, because it is not a physical, but mental addiction.

Mókus: Do you feel the medication altered your personality?

Hajos: Well, it took away my moods. That is what that line is about, chemically happy is the new sad. Not really happy, not really sad, just in the middle. But that is also an experience.

Mókus: Do you think Hungarians are resigned to being sad as part of their national identity?

Hajos: Yeah, well I definitely think Hungarians are not the happiest people. I lived in Slovenia for a year, and it is an amazing change. You cross the border, and people start smiling, well maybe it is not so black and white, but wherever you go, people are so much more optimistic. Even if you go to London. There is not much to be happy about in London either. But I don’t foresee moving out there. I am quite happy with my job right now. So unless it is really necessary, I don’t think I will move. Maybe if the band becomes that successful over there, but that is not very likely. Seriously, that would probably fuck me up again mentally. I like walking in the streets like everyone else. It is perfectly lovely playing in small clubs, having a bunch of people that appreciate your music.

: I also like the new video to "Overture", was there a story behind it?

Hajos: "Overture" is a duet with the every-so-lovely Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl). It is funny when you get to sing a duet with your once idol. When she agreed to do it, that was one of the most amazing times of my life. The song is about trying to open the other. I find we are getting more and more closed and trying to hide our real selves from others.

Mókus: What are Strange Feeling’s expectations of the album?

Hajos: We just had a little chat with him (Ben Watt) about that, now that the album has actually been in the stores for two weeks. I don’t think he is interested in sales. He just wants to get us out there, in the first place. If we sell a couple of thousand copies, it’s fine. Of course playing music is very enjoyable and I don’t want to worry about it. I do find releasing an album very tiring both physically and I don’t want to end up in an asylum.

Mókus: I sent the video to a friend of mine in New York. He said he loved it, but detected a sort of underlying hysteria.

Hajos: Underlying hysteria? I don’t think it is underlying at all? I think it is quite obvious.

The complete interview with Kristof Hajos will be included in the upcoming music-themed print issue of Pilvax Magazine.

Photo of The Unbending Trees by Balint Radoczy, used by permission.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter, or: Budapest’s Real Underground Culture

The underpasses that lay under Budapest’s main boulevard intersections, and spill out from the main train stations, are the toxin-collecting lymph nodes of the city. Or, more generously, autonomous break-away zones of punks, prostitutes, and free-ranging men not adverse to a tipple. They are the malls of the downtrodden, each one offering its own particular brand of service and its own individual grimy culture, or, sub-culture, if you will. If you are lucky you can find a few of the city’s more colorful street artists performing, some descent grub, or get a good buzz on, all underground. But which has the most dynamic range of services and entertainments? We rated select city underpasses based on the street-food available, the entertainment value, the cleanliness, and the avoidablitiy, (meaning, how easy it is to bypass aboveground), to determine a winner. Which one came out on top? Read on.

Spoiler: it’s Nyugati Underpass.

Blaha Lujza: Resembling a social club for retired circus carnies, or casting call for Sid and Nancy Go to Budapest, Blaha has turned into a run-off ditch for miscreants, homeless, and worse, missionaries. We send our missionaries to Africa, Africa sends theirs to Blaha. It also serves as the main canteen for the Krishna soup kitchen, a gathering place for refugees, and a supporting wall to more than a few drunks. Punks claimed the center pillars for a while, and Roma have ad hoc vegetable stands, selling whatever is in season. That the Scientologists haven’t set up an outpost from their nearby headquarters seems short-sighted. After all, if you believe in aliens, Blaha would be a good place to start looking for them.

Eats: 2/5 There is but one bakery, and a decent looking gelato stand inside, though the Krishna soup line that forms outside it is open to all.
Entertainment: 2/5 Plenty of missionaries and nationalist organizations set up camp here, but few of the classic Hungarian street musicians deign to play this seedy venue.
Cleanliness: 2/5 That it is cleaned nightly does not matter. It just feels dirty down there, even with no dirt in sight.
Avoidablilty: 3/5 nearby crosswalks at three of four streets of the intersection make it easily avoidable.

Keleti: The extensive Keleti underpass recently underwent a huge renovation, leaving it with significantly fewer kiosks. An international and commuter travel hub, Keleti has always attracted its share of loiterers. Former home of Budapest’s speed chess players, Keleti suffers for their loss. That said, if you are willing to dine with the hoi polloi, food possibilities abound, as do book stalls.

Eats: 3/5 Very good, with the Baross Étterem in Keleti and several Hungarian büfés, a stand to get sausages and beer, as well as a Pizza Hut outlet. Gone with the renovation, however, are the excellent potato lángos and fried chicken stand.
Entertaiment: 1/5 Surprisingly under-utilized by buskers, considering all the tourist traffic. No pubs or gaming.
Cleanliness: 4/5 Doesn’t feel that bad, probably due to the really dim lighting.
Avoidablility: 1/5 Want to cross Rákóczi by the station? It is a must, though Keleti station itself is accessible without going underground. If you want a local train ticket, however, it’s down you go.

Boráros Tér
: Also with an open air courtyard, it serves as a connection point for commuters coming in from the burbs, or crossing over into Buda. One of the more palatable underpasses, mostly because there is so little to offend. Homeless gravitate towards the matronly babushka sculpture/drinking fountain, and her bronze patina bosom and oblong wine casks.

Eats: 4/5 Burgers, gyros, bakeries, pizza, plus lángos and sweet kürtos kalács – there is a lot of fast food here, some of it not terrible.
Entertainment: 2/5 Not even Zámbó Jimmy could entertain the grim commuters that speed through Boráros. Have yet to see anybody try. There is a pub, though.
Cleanliness: 3/5 Nothing too stinky going on, though the darker the corner, the more likely it doubles a minimalist pisseur.
Avoidability: 2/5 almost unavoidable if you need to pass this way.

Déli: Buda has so few underpasses, but Déli pu. makes the most for its Buda residents. Déli is the gentlmen’s underpass. With a jewelers and a bank, it is the Switzerland of underpasses. An open air courtyard offers a few creature comforts, including seats and a curious geometrical sculpture. There is much to love here, including varied cuisine, and lots of shops.

Eats: 3/5 A sit-down restaurant, a Chinese büfé, pizza, and traditional Hungarian can all be found on the environs, plus a late-night green grocers, and a really good bakery and donut stand in the corridor that runs under Alkotás.
Entertainment: 2/5 Most of the best street entertainers can be found in Buda, but not at Déli. They favor the outdoor venue of Moszkva Tér. There are a few pubs, however, and a gaming room.
Cleanliness: 4/5 Pretty good considering the foot traffic.
Avoidability: 4/5 Doesn’t connect major thoroughfares, therefore easy to avoid.

Nyugati: The crumb de la crumb of underpasses, it is a scary, strange, fascinating world unto itself. The catacombs that run towards the train station are filled with kiosks selling knock-off designer wear, perfumes, and a few book stalls. And, for the record, they don’t take kindly to having their picture taken.
Eats: 5/5 Fank me? Fank you! They have it all here, from Subway and Burger King franchises, to American hotdogs, gyros, an all-night green grocers, and a really good donut stand. Venture further in to find Hungarian büfés and pizza by the slice.
Entertainment: 5/5 The venue of choice for Korean missionary choruses and the dudes who play on half-filled glasses, some of the most interesting street performers can be found here, just keep your hand on your wallet. The speed chess players have taken up residence towards the Westend mall entrance, and take on all comers. Also, a casino, and a really cool American-diner looking bar, plus a pub that sells Ft 70 wine spritzers. The wayward Roma girls and attendant managers have made it the new Rákóczi Tér.
Cleanliness: 3/5 Food smells tend to overpower the stink.
Avoidablity: 1/5 There are days when I shudder knowing I will have to pass this intersection, and I have seen friends take their lives into their own hands by trying to frogger their way across the street rather than brave the journey under Nyugati. But like a black hole, you are ultimately powerless against its pull. Might as well make the most of it, and have a fank on the run.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fall Out Baj: the Trouble with Ákos, Emo, and One Drowned Kitten

Hungarian singing star Ákos turned 40 this year. The world at large failed to notice.

Ákos, who made his mark before the days of the pre-fab, TV-packaged Megasztár, is one of the few home-grown stadium draws in Hungary. To the casual observer, he comes off as a typical self-aggrandizing, bloated crooner, whose videos are filled with weepy, candle-holding, Hungarian flag-waving youth, designed to reinforce exactly what Ákos means, or should mean, to his fan base. Ákos is also an outspoken advocate of nationalism and center-right politics within Hungary. But it wasn’t always blatant nationalistic pandering for Ákos. Before his solo career, he played in a much-loved, but much less listened-to synth-pop band, called Bonanza Banzai. Highly derivative of Depeche Mode, the Hungarian Depeche Mode Fan Club still regularly play Bonanza Banzai videos at their parties. So, how did this spandex-wearing, died hair aficionado of glam pop (and all the "People are People" values it represents) turn so deeply conservative?

The answer is that Ákos (as a persona) always was conservative, much like so many members of what constitutes your average ‘alternative’ community here in Budapest. You are more likely to see a Hungarian flag pin on a typical Hungarian punk than an anarchy symbol, as likely to see a swastika as a pentagram decorating a goth. Many counter-culture movements, which tend to be so socially progressive in the States, share a union with right wing nationalism in Hungary. And, by all appearances, it is a very comfortable marriage indeed. One the same bill, I saw Egészséges Fejbőr (Healthy Head Skin, or Healthy Scalp, a loud and profoundly racist hate-core band) and a rockabilly band Sonic Cats play together, the audience seamlessly transitioning from do-woping to "Blues Suede Shoes", to heiling Hitler along to lyrics of songs like "Fekete Majmok" ("Black Monkeys"). What is surprising about an EFB concert, is just how easy it is to fit in: they don't play to just skinheads, their audience is, by all appearances, a cross-section of (white, non-Jewish, obviously) Hungarian society. People bring their kids.

The most conspicuous manifestation the right/left union in Hungary was the recent (alleged) coupling of a far-right anti-Semitic blogger and the Hungarian chapter of the Animal Liberation Front, who paired to execute and document an action against entities involved in a theatrical performance at a Jewish run and patronized club, Sirály, that involved dumping a bucket of pig shit on the objectionable person's head. That an artist who drown a kitten on film was targeted by ALF, doesn’t really bear much comment; the art itself was banal, heartless, and just dumb, and ALF typically take such radical action against abusers of animals. What was shocking was the partnership of Hungary’s most vocal right-wingers and an organization with an ultra-progressive cause.

Why does such a thick cord of nationalism tie together so many counter-cultural factions here? The lameness of Hungarian rock is partially to blame (I am coming to realize that Hungarian rock is going to be the whipping boy of this particular blog). The majority of both successful and up-and-coming Hungarian rock bands give their audience little more than pale imitations of foreign bands, and have so piteously little to offer by way of non-manufactured rebelliousness, originality, or social agenda. Just look to Hungarian emo for a truly toothless, mall-ready, and vapid music scene. It is hard to see local emo as more than foreign fashion and identity filtered through semi-talented opportunists. Conversely, a band like EFB, in addition to longevity (their hate is a slow-burning one, they have been around for almost 25 years now), they offer passion, community, and social agenda. And believe what you want about youth apathy—they do want the structure of social agenda, a scene to aspire to (where acceptance is not signified by mall purchases and expensive hair-cuts), a cue about how to cope in such a quickly changing society—and I would venture to say that the world of the Hungarian teen is vastly more complicated than mine was when I was growing up.

Or perhaps its attractiveness lies in the fact that nationalism is one of the last causes which resists being bought and sold, or turned into a transient fashion, despite the best efforts of Ákos’s sellers (MTV, VIVA). Nationalism holds little hope of attracting corporate sponsorship. It is one of the few authentic grass-roots movements around, and Hungarian identity is a cause worth fighting for in these borderless days of the EU.

But god, don’t I just want to stop every flag-waving Hungarian punk and point out the disconnect there; that they are walking oxymorons. Don't I just want to take them by their shoulders, shake them really hard and demand to know how they could have possibly taken "God Save the Queen" literally. And as much as I also just want to write the whole thing off, I can’t. These are the kids I have taught, laughed with, cared for, who I don’t want to disavow because of a scribbled swastika or Justice for Hungary tee-shirt.

I don’t know, maybe Ákos is more relevant than I give him credit for, and at 40, is still a true representation of Hungarian counter-culture. That is a scary thought.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Top Five Budapest Cafés for Writing

Since the tacky renovation of my favorite writing café, Angelica Kávéház, on the Buda side, I have made it my business to scout some other attractive places to sit for a few hours with a notebook and pen, or laptop. It is not easy. A good café for writing is one where you can find solitude while still being amidst a crowd (which is not entirely unlike a writer’s function in society). There should be noise present, but not invasively so. And, for me, there needs to be an unnamable sort of moldering in the air, the knowledge that writers before you have fearlessly taken up their task in the space you are sitting in, and others will come after. Every good café has a ghost or two.

New Starbucks clones, as well as old Viennese-style coffee houses, abound in Budapest. Some are opulent beyond belief (the New York Café), some are local-minded and packed with students (Praga café) but only a few are truly ideal writing spaces. It is worth pointing out that, at the turn of the last century, the city’s cafes were hotbeds of intellectual activity, and social clubs for the those involved in the golden age of writing in Budapest, when the famed Nyugat literary review published the work of Hungary’s most daring, innovative, as well as revolutionary (in the real sense of the world) writing–the writers known as the nyugatos. Those days are gone, but the writers who lived and wrote over a hundred years ago (Móricz, Babits, and Ady, to name but a few) are paid homage in one way or another at cafes across the city, which are quick to put on display any paraphernalia connecting them to this unique literary scene.

As for me-I write, live, and commit acts of minor revolutionary import, on the Pest side, and the list reflects that:

5. Café Eckermann: the only truly new space on my list, though its former incarnation on Andrássy was a regular spot of local artist and writers, including Esterházy Péter. Not many revolutions were started from that place, but more than a few drinking binges were. The new space on Ráday is one of the only cafés that can still actually lay claim to hosting a literary community: editors of the German literary review Harom Holló (Three Ravens) meet here regularly, and their review is available for purchase. Eckermann also offers great vegetarian and home-cooked food, as noted in my review on chew.

4. Puskin Kávéház: Nothing grand or spectacular here, but the Puskin has always been a wonderful spot to people watch, and be left alone (in a good way) by the wait-staff for hours. Its space is functional, but all the components come together well, and the coffee is very fairly priced. Frequently doubling as a gallery, up-and-coming Hungarian artists and photographers are chosen by a curator who knows what they are doing. This is a great fall-back café that stays open later than most others. Puskin, it should go without saying, is named for one of Russia’s greatest writers.

3. Uránia Café in the Uránia National Cinema: they invented the cliché ‘painstakingly restored’ with the Uránia Café in mind. The details on the vaulting and ceiling are worth a trip alone. There are surprisingly few tables in the large space, and they are set far enough apart that conversations of surrounding patrons diminish to nothing more than a pleasant babble. Plus, there is a choice table, but only one, on the balcony overlooking Rákóczi, for those who really want to be alone to work.

2. Művész Café: I have been going to Művész off an on since arriving in Budapest so many years ago. There is a faded, refined feel to the place; it is homey and well patronized by expats, though it also attracts its share of tourists. That they closed for renovations was cause for worry, but they reopened with no real modernizations; it still looks old, just a bit more polished. Művész is a Budapest classic, and good for writers who don’t mind overhearing the next table’s chatter, and can allow for interruptions from friends, as it is quite popular. Prices reflect the Andrássy location.

1. August Cukrászdá: Just when I thought I knew every good café or pub to go to in Budapest, friends over at the food/music blog Dumneazu turned me on to this classic café. Old and elegant without being ostentatious or stuffy, professional and deferential service, a few dark, shadowed nooks, and fantastic pastries, cakes, and coffee, it has everything a writer could want. August is a quiet, atmospheric, and intimate space, hidden in a courtyard off Rákóczi. It attracts mostly locals, as the tourist traffic is no doubt lured away by the near-by Café Central, which reeks of literary history, but is a bit too up-scale for my taste. August is great for those who like solitude and quiet within a public space, and like to write in long hand (I have yet to see a laptop there); which means, ideal for me.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sign Language

There is something romantic, and totally Budapest, about the old store signs around the city, be they hand painted, neon, or graphic. They are artifacts of by-gone times, and are disappearing all too rapidly in this climate that only seems to value the new. Like the architecture, the old signs in Budapest have an elegance that ages well. They just look nicer when a bit faded.

There is a certain word lettering, that I have not yet been able to identify, that has a Bauhaus feel: blocky and modern, yet timeless, that is typical of the style of sign that brands the store as uniquely Hungarian. This flower-store sign is a perfect example:

I have been documenting as many old style signs as I can while they are relatively plentiful. Following are some of my favorites, mostly from central Budapest.

A timepiece seller:

A wine cellar:

A furrier:

A bookstore:

A women's hair-dresser:

Ham-radio hobby shop:

A beer hall:

A movie theater:

And, finally, the defunct baggage check at Keleti, the eastern train station of Budapest:

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Cover Me

If one were to sum up the Budapest live-music scene from the point of view of a touring band, it could only be, "highly skipable". The list of bands that have bypassed Budapest in favor of more receptive markets is too long to contemplate, and includes some of our favorites: the Pixies, the White Stripes, the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, and Arcade Fire. It is particularly irksome that most of these bands take their shows directly from Vienna to Belgrade without stopping off in Budapest, which, last we checked, was on the way. Even worse, indie bands like Hawk and Hacksaw are actually coming to live in Budapest to absorb what they can of the recently hipster-approved Balkan sound, then hightailing it back to the US without even playing a token gig for the local audience.

Far be it for Mókus Pokus to speculate as to why this is the case. There was that instance where ticket buyers to a Liza Minelli show were treated to the last-minute substitution of Bonnie Tyler who, if reports are correct, thought she was head-lining all along. Liza, apparently, didn't even know about the concert. This might be the most obvious manifestation of the kind of short-term chicanery that plagues most service-oriented business in this town - but, again - who can say? The result is that the only way we will get a whiff of bands like The Hold Steady and Okkervil River is if there is a strong wind blowing in from Vienna.

Ideally, the dearth in touring bands would create an atmosphere where Hungarians would fill the void with hearty, non-GM, home-grown rock. But, sadly, Hungarian bands are to rock what the Yugo was to automotive transport. There is just not to lot to keep one's interest, beyond the two seconds it takes to figure out who they are ripping off.

The upside is that there is a lively tribute-band culture in Budapest. And we are not just talking about the phenomenon of the Depeche Mode Fan Club (which deserves a post all its own), but ranges the pop spectrum from tributes to Led Zeppelin, the White Stripes, to KISS.

Within the legal-theft realm of the tribute band, Hungarian musicians thrive. One of our favorites is Kiss Forever (in pic at top: fake band, real groupies!) who, as we remember, did a scorching salsa version of Detroit Rock City. (On a digressive side note: we will never forget when the 'Gene Simmons' of Kiss Forever looked us dead in the eye after a gig and, without a trace of irony, said, "We don't like playing in Germany. Germans don't get pyrotechnics.") Never doubt the sincerity of these projects: they are pure expressions of fan-dom and, for the most part, technically adroit covers. What is surprising is that there is a market to support their sometimes prosaic enthusiasms. KISS was designed to self-replicate - but Toto? And why are tribute bands so attractive to play in? We put that question to local expat musician Kris Wackerman, founder of the White Stripes Project. He gave his answer in an eight-point plan:

(1) I am a beginner-level drummer with no formal training, and the White Stripes' songs have basic, but interesting drum beats, perfect for me to play and to grow as a drummer at the same time. The beats are so bare that they leave room for improvement and touches that I can add as I get better.

(2) I met Gabi, the lead guitarist, about a year and a half ago and we became fast friends. Until I met her, I didn't know that chicks could even play the guitar. We formed a two person band named "Horny Tea", but we could not really agree on what type of cover songs to play. Most of the songs had "heart" in the title, or were by Jack Johnson. I finally convinced her to learn Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, which blew me away when she played it. I knew then that a White Stripes cover band with the roles reversed - a male drummer and female lead - could be very popular. But, I could not get Gabi to learn a complete song from start to finish, gave up on the idea, and we broke up the band.

(3) My obsession with the White Stripes continued, and the idea of a tribute band began to burn a hole in my brain. I figured the only way I could pull it off would be to get a third person to sing and to help me get Gabi focused. I posted an ad on Caboodle, got a lot of ridiculous responses, and then, when I was about to give up, Lisa Steele started emailing me. We met, we practiced, the band took off, and we suddenly had played six gigs within the first three or four months.

(4) The White Stripes are not very well known in Hungary.

(5) Writing original music is difficult and potentially soul crushing. I honestly can't imagine being in a band that plays only original tunes. Great bands, the greatest bands, started out playing covers of popular songs. Pink Floyd used to play R & B covers and discovered their sound by changing the songs, by playing an extended 11 minute solo of Johnny B. Goode or something. I figured, I love the White Stripes sound, why not learn it, and then start to modify, see if we can't grow into something of our own. The original plan was to learn 20 White Stripes songs perfectly, start modifying the songs a bit, start covering other songs in the White Stripes style, and then start writing original music of our own. This is easier said than done. After nine months, we are just now at the point of starting to truly modify the songs.

(6) I wanted to show Hungarians that you do not need a bass player or an electronic keyboard to be a rock band.

(7) I wanted to show people that chicks can also rock out with their cocks out.

(8) I wanted to be a band leader. I was in a horrible, horrible cover band called Aggressive Washing Machine, playing covers of the Beatles, the Doors, the Cars, and some classic Hungarian Rock songs The band was so dysfunctional and disorganized that I knew I could do it better.

*video of White Stripes Project shot by Nathan Kay

It would be nice to say that we don't need the original bands to come to Budapest: who needs Jeff Poraco when we have the Jeff Poraco Experience! This would be rationalizing more than we are comfortable with. But until Liz Phair or Vampire Weekend decide we are worth their swing-by time, I am pretty sure there is some scrappy kid from Miskolc who is going to pick up a guitar and say, "It's time for a show. Here I am, rock you like a hurricane!".

Below, we have compiled a long, but by no means comprehensive, list of Hungarian tribute bands:

The Queen Is Dead (The Smiths)
Pornography (the Cure)
The Queen Unplugged Project (Queen)
SlipChaos (Slip Knot)
Jimmy Hendrix Experience (Jimmy Hendrix)
Back In Black and AC/DH (AC/DC)
Station (U2)
White Stripes Project (White Stripes)
Blackbird (The Beatles)
The Lennon Memorial Band (John Lennon)
Cry Free (Deep Purple)
Szepultura (Sepultura)
Alchollica (Metallica)
Zep Session (Led Zeppelin)
Synkronized (Jamiroquai)
Piknik Park (Linkin Park)
Stoned (The Rolling Stones)
Dust N' Bones, Hollywood Rose (Guns N' Roses)
Nem Csak Berry (Chuck Berry)
Cosmik Debris (Frank Zappa)
Jeff Porcaro Emlékyenekar (Jeff Poraco, of Toto)
Iron Majdnem (Iron Maidon)

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Public Bunny Sightings (1)

The elusive Public Bunny is best spotted at night, and seems to favor District VII.

For some reason, they are very attracted to thickets of graffiti,

and phone booths (who are you trying to call, Bunny?)

Public Bunnies tend to speak a sort of dzjibberish only others of their sort can understand.

In translation, "Cake makes this whole mess almost bearable."

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Latest Fret of Collective Nouns Arrive

Collective noun designations recently approved of and released by the English/Hungarian Transliteration and Pajtásság Society.

1. A scold of néni(s)
2. A tiff of skinheads
3. A floss of poppy seeds
4. A bloat of lángos
5. A squabble of ticket collectors
6. A stumble of thongs
7. A jabber of waiters
8. A nettle of panhandlers
9. A scruple of tourists
10. A rubato of rioters
11. A blunt of riot police

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hungarian Cheese Plate (1)

On August 20th, singing sensation Zséda, gave a free concert in Erzsébet park. Like most 'singing sensations', Zséda' gets by on palatable, predictable songs and an alluring stage presence. In other words, it's hard not to like her, even when she is earnestly mangling the lyrics to Imagine. Zséda is but one of the front-runners vying for the audience left behind when 'the king' exited stage left after an alleged self-inflicted shot to head with a beretta. Zámbó Jimmy - Hungary's answer to Liberace (also of Eastern European descent) remains irreplaceable, over eight years after his death. How many other artists have had their albums hold all top ten spots on the charts? Guinness agrees, it is a world record. In a country where 5,000 records sold garners gold status, Jimmy's albums have all gone platinum by western standards - in a country with but ten million potential customers. Per-capita, it makes Thriller look like the Spin Doctors' second album.

Jimmy's life has been well-chronicled in the Hungarian media, and has even garnered a native-English-written wiki entry, but here are a few facts about Jimmy you might not know:

1. He was mistakenly deemed one of the ugliest women in the world by a mean-spirited site dedicated to spot-lighting unattractive people.

2. His coffin is shaped like an upright grand piano and was chiseled from over a ton of Italian marble.

3. He was a proud resident of industrial Csepel Island.

4. There is a Zámbó Jimmy Pub deep in District VIII, where his mother sometimes works the door.

5. Jimmy did time on cruise ships and in Las Vegas honing his act, before returning to Hungary.

It can't be denied that Jimmy has a powerful, if not beautiful singing voice, but that cannot alone account for the sheer mania for his music within the borders of Hungary, particularly amongst working-class and country people. To attribute it to schmaltz would be underestimating mass taste, nor can it be chalked up to his lyrics - which are by-and-large forgettable love songs. Jimmy just had something more concrete than charisma; he was a character (not unlike one of Jim Henson's more successful creations), and possessed a demigod-like belief in his own entitlement to fame. Only from this plasma of misguided self confidence, and an exuberant love of entertaining people, can something as ultimately bizarre and compelling as Jimmy emerge.

Indeed, there are many new faces trying to take the mantle from Jimmy, including his own brother Árpi, who had a short-lived career lip-syncing to Jimmy songs. The likes of him, Zséda, and a few other up-and-coming Hungarian pop stars can try, but there can only be one king. And like the song goes, the king is gone but he is not forgotten.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.