We left Zagreb two days ago. The train brought us over battle-scarred farmlands and shuddered to a halt at the creepy and desolate station at Knin. Knin was one of the key cities during the Balkan wars of the 90’s. Everyone there has felt the effects. There have been a lot of improvements, but the tension is still palpable. People we met in Zagreb told us that Knin would be strange. We shrugged it off at the time, but as soon as we got off the train, we felt it.
Yug, the owner of the A3 Club picked us up at the station. He was a friendly, energetic sort of guy. Yug brought us to the club and when we entered the club a group of teenage girls cheered. It was a good sign, but I couldn’t help but feel that we were going to disappoint them. The A3 looked a bit like an army tent from the outside, but it was large and warm inside. It was populated by a couple of groups of girls in their teens and twenties, a few musician-looking boys and a lot of guys in their 30s who looked like they could rip our heads off with very little effort. The girls were smiling and giggly and the guys were drunk, loud and surly. This could go either way, I thought.
We ate pizza with the soundman and his Canadian girlfriend. The soundman was a microtonal musician and we had a long conversation about Harry Partch. His girlfriend helped translate some of the more subtle conversation points. Then I wandered around trying to be invisible. I was nervous. It was a nice place, but the vibes were strange. I couldn’t make sense of it. Knin was a very small town, pop 11,000 or so, and everyone came to the A3 to hang out. I could feel eyes on me. We were the first American musicians to play at the club, and the room was conflicted.
I played first. During my usual opener, “St. James Infirmary”, there was a lot of talking. I tried to kick it into high gear, but the PA seemed to have lost some of the bass that it seemed to have had during soundcheck. The sound was tinny and there was a lot of feedback.. I tried to incorporate the screeching feedback into the song, but it was difficult. There was a shocking roar of applause at the end of the tune, but the loud talk continued into the set. As things went on, I started to realize that the girls and musician types were really into my stuff, but the thuggish older dudes in the back did not seem as enthused. I started noticing that there were a few derogatory sounding comments coming from the group of men in the back after each song. I finished up and packed everything quickly.
Micah fared slightly worse. Most of the girls had left by the time he played, save for a small group at the front, who hung on his every note and word. Micah played a fairly quiet set and the men got louder. I heard a few jeers in English that confirmed my suspicions. I watched his set sitting on the floor under a counter and people kept bumping into my legs. When any of the burlier types walked into me they looked down threateningly. My paranoia raged out of control. Things were starting look potentially ugly. Micah finished and the men in the back insisted that Micah drink with them, which he obliged. I stayed near the stage trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone. I watched a couple of pretty young girls dance wildly while Nirvana, The Pixies and other music from my long lost youth poured out of the speakers. It was oddly comforting to watch them. Nostalgia whirled through my brain and I got lost in it.
While I was milling about, a short beefy guy in blue (European) football jacket came up to me and bummed a cigarette. I offered him a Drum and he told me to roll it for him. He lit the cigarette and it began…“Your music…” he said, “is…how you say…very, very boring…very boring and very bad.” I told him that I appreciated his honesty and that he was not alone in his opinion, but that I did not care. I am firm in my convictions. My music is for me. Anyone wants to come along for the ride is more than welcome. “This is only my opinion, of course.” he said. “I know.” I said. I had hoped that this was the end of the conversation, but he would not let up. He went on a half hour long tirade about how bad my music was and how I wasn‘t fooling anyone. He also said that all American rock and roll bands were shit and that the only good rock bands came from Germany. I wanted to argue that the Americans invented rock n‘ roll, but I was clearly talking to a wall. I didn’t bother defending myself or my much maligned homeland. It was all too much and I was in no mood. I could laugh off a few comments, but he kept bludgeoning me and I started to feel pretty low. Maybe he was right. Maybe I am a fraud. But there are MUCH bigger frauds who are far more successful than I will ever be. At least I have some character and style. I eventually came to the conclusion that the guy was an idiot, but I still felt lousy. I can only take so much criticism, even if it’s coming from someone with whom I clearly do not share a worldview. After a while, he mercifully left and I went to look for Micah.
Micah was at the bar surrounded by the men from the back tables. He looked a bit uncomfortable, but he appeared to be having a good time. They called me over to join them and I did. They actually turned out to be pretty cool guys. A few of them were Serbs and a few were Croatian, and one was a Muslim, they appeared to be a pretty tight group. They good naturedly ribbed each other. “LOUSY SERBIAN BASTARD!” “FUCK YOU, CROATIAN DOG!” they shouted at each other, “THE ONE THING WE HAVE IN COMMON IS THAT WE HATE THE FUCKING MUSLIMS!”. The Muslim shouted something back and they all laughed uproariously. The Serb slapped the Croat in the back of the head while he was sipping his beer and the Croat slammed him into the wall. This pantomime was all for our benefit. They were fucking with us. I didn’t detect any real malice, though. They seemed to like us. They wanted to hang out despite their suspicions about us. We talked politics and the war for a while. Ten or fifteen years ago they would have been shooting at each other. Things were on the mend, but the tensions were not quite dead. The war had clearly fucked with these people. “You do not understand and you cannot understand what we have been through.” the Croatian guy said glaring intently into my eyes. He was right. We’ve barely had a taste and we couldn’t take it. 9/11 went down and the entire nation curled into fetal position and cried for mommy. It was two buildings and a few thousand dead, scarcely a scratch, compared to what went down in the Balkans. Imagine having half your country reduced to rubble over and over again for years. It really isn’t fathomable.
While all this was happening, Micah got cornered by the guy in the blue football jacket. He didn’t bother him about his music, but he talked some shitty pro-Bush politics and Micah couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Yug told me that we could leave to go to the apartment where were staying anytime we wanted. NOW seemed like a good idea to me. I was exhausted. I went to rescue Micah just as the guy was accusing him of being a hippie. “I am a hippie.” Micah told him and we left, feeling drained and feeling like pussies.
When I closed my eyes to go to sleep, a rush of images hit me in a spiraling tornado. It was like I was staring directly into the ancestral memory of all human history. The images were unfamiliar and they ran like rapid fire. I used to experience this sort of thing a lot when I was a child. Every time the lights went out, I hallucinated feverishly. This went on until I was 9 or 10 years old, then it was gone. It kicks in every so often when I’m sick. I’m not sure what triggered this round. Knin is a haunted city. I like to think that I was tuning into some ghostly radio transmission. Message received…can I get a translator?